Don’t look now

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s rude awakening for film buffs.

Jan 3, 2001 at 12:00 am

Two years ago, A Touch of Evil was rereleased — after it had been completely remade. On the night in 1957 before he was sent off to Europe by RKO, Orson Welles penned a desperate memo, more than 50 pages long, to the studio’s head, begging for changes he considered crucial to the film’s artistic integrity. Forty years later, the memo was discovered and a new version of the film was made, following the memo to the letter.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, film critic for the Chicago Reader, has been a Welles scholar for many years and was an integral part in the resurrection. That same dedication to the sanctity of the artist and the art is on full display in this collection of essays and rants.

Even though Rosenbaum is a native flower, he refuses to attend the Sundance or Telluride festivals. Sundance, in his eyes, is an industry-run swindle fronting itself as a paragon of independence. To add insult to injury, self-important jackasses yammer into cell phones during screenings. Telluride has too many groupies.

The south of France is more to Rosenbaum’s taste, but even there, vulgarians rule the roost. When Harvey Weinstein, maverick head of Miramax Productions, arrives, many film critics quake in their boots. But Rosenbaum is not one of them. In fact, Miramax is the bane of his project to get more foreign films onto American screens.

“Because Miramax picks up over twice as many films as it releases — keeping most of its unreleased pictures in perpetual limbo, shaping and recutting its favorites, and marginalizing most of the others so that only a handful of people ever get to see them — there’s statistically less chance of the public ever having access to a movie if Miramax acquires it,” writes Rosenbaum.

In short, Weinstein has schemed and bullied his way into a de facto monopoly over distribution and exhibition of foreign films in America. This allows him to play God on our behalf, often to the detriment of the artists themselves. Yes, we get Life is Beautiful, but what about the films of Manoel de Oliveira?

Rosenbaum has a few devils put aside for his colleagues, many of whom won’t touch a foreign film until the evil Weinstein has touched it himself. David Denby takes a lot of hits. Rosenbaum likes his prose style, but his sensibility is a bit too bourgeois, especially on the topic of whores. Anthony Lake is a jolly joker. The late Gene Siskel never really was serious about film; what do you expect from a guy who started out writing a real estate column? Janet Maslin, thank God, has shuffled off the New York Times art page.

All the queeny bitching is of course backed up with Rosenbaum’s impeccable ability to pump up his own bona fides. One can understand his aggressive attitude. Serious film criticism, devoid of hype and hyperbole, is fast becoming a lost cause in the pitiless world of infotainment. Better to become a well-paid blurbmeister than to count your pennies with cinema eggheads. These dark days, to even consider the cinema as something more than a two-hour breather from life makes you look like a pretentious pantywaist.

In a chapter entitled “Communications Problems and Canons,” Rosenbaum contends that American film culture is splintered into three different sectors — the mainstream, the film industry and academia. Each has its own jargon, its own denizens. A single community with common interests is impossible. The academy, always due for a good whipping, has discredited the study of auteurism thanks to the dubious fad of deconstructing the author. And even though they were equally suspicious of the hype-ridden canonization of so-called great movies in the mainstream, film studies scholars sat back and let it happen. Cue Chapter Six, a brittle discussion of the American Film Institute’s “Top 100.” Rosenbaum loathes many things about the list, not the least of which is the myopia that informs the picks:

“In the final analysis, selecting America’s hundred greatest movies has to be an ongoing act of exploration — which can only happen if we stop to consider what we still don’t know about the subject and try to set up some channels for educating ourselves. The sad news about the AFI’s version is that it proposes we stop looking, go home and proceed to pick more lint out of our navels for the next few decades.”

Just to show who’s boss, Rosenbaum provides his own, alternative list, chock-full of overlooked gems like Johnny Guitar (1954), The Black Cat (1934), The Hustler (1961), Stranger than Paradise (1984) and Andy Warhol’s own take on A Clockwork Orange, Vinyl (1965). But Rosenbaum throws in a few surprises. Unable to stomach Steven Spielberg, he instead focuses on one of his protégés, Joe Dante. In fact, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to the critical nonreception of Small Soldiers. The American oeuvre of Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven is given a thoughtful, even sympathetic reading, including the egregious Showgirls. Who would have guessed that Rosenbaum would have a soft spot for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, if only for the period detail?

Perhaps suspecting that he has made a bit of a dog’s breakfast in his book — journalism mixed with serious criticism — Rosenbaum closes with an interview with himself. Too bad. If only he had the overall courage of conviction obviously on display in many of this book’s fine chapters.

Timothy Dugdale writes about books and visual culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].