written by Jonathan Rosenbaum
FFC rating: 7/10
by Walter Chaw When it concerns my failure to speak for the popular taste is really the only chance I get to engage in conversation about film criticism anymore. The damnable conundrum of it all is that even when I do speak for the popular taste, I don't do it in a popular way. It's a topic I'm weary of, and as I confront the first serious writer's block of my professional career, this seems as good a time as any to take existential stock in what it is that's become of my chosen vocation. Or, better yet, to let a better critic do it for me. Jonathan Rosenbaum's Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See is all over the place, scattering its ripostes hither and yon over the idea that modern popular criticism is a bankrupt profession in bed with the interests of a few very powerful movie distributors (Miramax's Weinstein brothers in particular) that have become our guardians of "independent" taste.
New introductory material written just prior to the book's original publication in 2000 excepted, the bulk of the material collected herein has found expression previously in articles written for Rosenbaum's current homebase CHICAGO READER, for the French magazine TRAFIC, and as part of his own prior scholarship concerning the auteurship of Orson Welles and Joe Dante. As such, the title is a little bit deceptive and, at the same time, a little bit self-congratulatory (if ultimately pretty true), in that Rosenbaum hasn't so much presented a new case regarding the provincialism of our movie choices as declared that his career is engaged in an active "war" against said provincialism. If it weren't Rosenbaum, it'd be harder to take--in fact, if it were the bitter, entrenched iconoclast Rosenbaum of the last couple of years rather than the Rosenbaum of the mid-Nineties, it'd be harder to take yet.
The new lead-ins for chapters like "Trafficking in Movies (Festival-Hopping in the Nineties)" and his now somewhat industry-famous piece in which he compares Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan unfavourably to Dante's Small Soldiers are attempts to draw in the thesis of the book (encapsulated in its title) into what is essentially an anthology of his rudest, most impolitic essays on his peers and the whorishness of junket culture, as well as the creeping anxiety that perhaps he tragically overestimates the public he protects. But it's that rudeness that quantifies Rosenbaum as one of the best ever at what he does, the stratification of taste essential to any auteur critic for sure, but also to any critic who has it in his heart that what matters is being on the record--and absolutely right--when wisdom dawns ten, fifteen, twenty years down the line. Jonathan Rosenbaum is a nerd in the most specific sense of the word: a true lover of the cinema, a stickler, a misanthrope, a curmudgeon, and, fascinatingly, an archaeologist of time as it unfolds. And he writes for a public that has been made by a misguided publicity engine interested in the gross of a film as somehow equivalent to its worthiness as art and eternity. Rosenbaum speaks of the foolhardiness of making empirical that which is intrinsically not empirical--that is, public opinion. The way we've all been sold that particular bill of goods impacts with the weight of an undeniable discomfort that without knowing it, we've become complicit with the machineries that enable films like Van Helsing to exist.
Rosenbaum's kind of work isn't unusual in academic circles (Professor James Naremore, for instance, consistently writes equally brilliant essays on film), but it is devilishly rare in so-called "mainstream" criticism; much of what is bracing about Movie Wars is the understanding that a lot of the ideas it contains were first presented, for free, to anyone who wanted to pick up his paper or click on said paper's website. That idea of discourse--of a conversation between knowledgeable, passionate antagonists--is what's lost to an unwise public, having been replaced by the coffee-shop exchange of commodity information, prurient gossip, and an unhealthy interest in the financial fortunes of the three or four mega-corporations now controlling the American popular media. Rosenbaum wonders how long Ebert would stay on the air if he couldn't find one film to recommend over the course of four weeks--and he wonders, too, how many "major daily" film critics would keep their jobs if their output were similarly bleak. He talks about the people quoted most often in advertisements for films, about how the Episode I pre-release fervour was fuelled primarily by wonks who hadn't the pleasure of watching the now widely-regarded-as-crap picture (ditto Titanic), and about how saying that Hollywood only gives the public what it wants is flawed at its core simply because the public doesn't have much of a choice. If you sell the only cure for a grand, who's to haggle and what's the leverage?
Miramax's recent treatment of Zhang Yimou's ravishing Hero is case-in-point, and Rosenbaum is at his best when he details the studio and Harvey Weinstein's process of buying foreign product, re-editing it, sitting on it sometimes for years, sometimes forever, and essentially deciding what foreign films, after a few judicious cuts, Americans are capable of enjoying. A 2002 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, Hero is only just finding limited release on American screens because Miramax decided to have Quentin Tarantino "present" the piece to a sea of what it perceives to be moron Yanks. It's unforgivable pre-emptive, ideological pan-and-scan, and the amount of righteousness the Weinsteins are milking for their distribution of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is sickening. As essayed by Rosenbaum, the fact that the Cannes Festival has changed to gratify that Miramax-defined foreign/indie marketplace is a far more tragic thing than anything in Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures: As the world shrinks, the democratization of art accelerates. Everything created equal is a fine ideal when applied to sociology, but as a philosophy for art, it stinks.
An unfocused and angry tome, Movie Wars still delivers enough meat for several meals in Rosenbaum's acid prose. It's personal, it's biased--and it's right, although the conclusions drawn are sometimes strained to fit into the model of the book. More ideal would be a collection without a catch, if one geared to exploring how hard it is to be consistently disappointed with the kind of folks who think they're being patronized when someone uses words they don't understand to express thoughts they would never care to have. At its best, Movie Wars is just that: a stream-of-consciousness about injustice and the death of common sense--that lack of activism that allows wealthy non-artists to decide what it is that we can see and how we can see it. In a real way, a handful of people are making decisions for all of us as to how we see other cultures and in what context--is Hero really just another Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or is it actually something with an entirely different rhythm and ethic? Miramax's marketing department doesn't distinguish--that's patronizing. Pauline Kael never getting hired by a major daily newspaper in the course of her career (ditto Rosenbaum, ditto Manny Farber), presumably because they have ideas that disturb and writing that respects its audience enough to challenge it--that's just deplorable. It's time, if you care about discourse in American letters, to get as riled up as Rosenbaum. It's well past time for the best to be full of this kind of passionate intensity. Originally published: June 24, 2004.