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Reading Jonathan Rosenbaum’s reviews on a weekly basis in The Chicago Reader, one senses a split between his formalist side and his penchant for polemics. While these two perspectives could be complementary, they more often seem to be vying with each other for ultimate say. Apart from academics like David Bordwell and Gilberto Perez, almost no one shares Rosenbaum’s skill for rigorous yet accessible formalist analysis. On the other hand, while his heart and head are clearly in the right place, I’m less certain about the value of his soapbox thumping. He tends to repeat the same complaints about the xenophobia and isolationism of the mainstream American media week after week, with New Yorker critic David Denby (“who can be counted on most regularly to express American doublethink with the least amount of self-consciousness”), the New York Times‘ past and present film staff (especially the now-departed Janet Maslin) and the Disney-owned distributor Miramax serving as an Unholy Trinity. These targets are worthy ones, especially since few American critics share Rosenbaum’s willingness to point fingers explicitly. Village Voice critic J. Hoberman recently mocked Denby’s review of The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, 1999) without mentioning its author’s name. However, the effectiveness of Rosenbaum’s tactics is questionable. Even if one agrees with him (as I do most of the time), his tirades are recycled often enough to become wearisome, and his belligerent tone and arty taste probably ensure that the unconverted are more likely to write him off as an elitist snob than pay attention to him.

As Movie Wars‘ subtitle suggests, Rosenbaum the polemicist prevails here. Unlike his previous collection Movies As Politics, it reworks some of his Chicago Reader essays into a larger argument, yet its major points and targets will be familiar to anyone who’s followed Rosenbaum’s recent writing. Up with Stanley Kubrick, Joe Dante, Kiarostami, Orson Welles and film festivals! Down with the Unholy Trinity, Steven Spielberg, the American Film Institute, Dogma 95 and professors who show their students films on video! And, most intriguingly, up and down with Paul Verhoeven!

Given more room to argue than he has in the Chicago Reader (although the paper gives him a great deal of space and leeway), Rosenbaum improves on several of his pet arguments by adding more facts. For instance, he uses the introduction of weekly Top 10 box-office grosses into newspapers and TV news in the ’80s to show how the media covertly promote ideological agendas, opining that they could just as easily do the same in favor of other agendas, such as getting Americans to take foreign films seriously. After quoting Ernest Borneman’s 1947 essay “The Public Opinion Myth,” he demonstrates its continual relevance by citing the example of a test-marketing group whose former employees exposed its doctoring of results to suit studio wishes.

For someone who’s long been irritated by the generational condescension implicit in the “death of cinema” proclamations of Denby, Susan Sontag, David Thomson and others, Rosenbaum’s examination of the autobiographical roots of their disenchantment – as well as that of Jean-Luc Godard, who may have unwittingly set the stage for this line of discourse – is welcome, as is his examination of how such declarations play into the promotion of Hollywood films like L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997) and The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998), allowing them be welcomed in some corners – such as Thomson’s column for Esquire – as the rebirth of cinema. He isn’t free of his own brand of nostalgia – for ’60s radicalism, in particular – but he’s honest enough to acknowledge the way it’s shaped his perceptions. Pointing out that now-canonized films like Shoot The Piano Player (Francois Truffaut, 1961), High And Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963) and The Shame (Ingmar Bergman, 1968) were “flops with limited support from mainstream critics,” he takes British critic Gilbert Adair to task for a blanket statement about the decline of all art forms in our era, pointing out that it took decades for three of the four filmmakers Adair cites among the 20th century’s major artists – Yasujiro Ozu, Carl Dreyer and Jean Vigo – to get their worth acknowledged all over the world and their work released in good film prints and video copies.

Rosenbaum’s central contention that Americans’ resistance to subtitled films is the product of a lack of exposure may well be true. Certainly, Life Is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1998) showed that foreign-language films can be mass-marketed successfully, despite conventional “wisdom.” But on Movie Wars‘ very second page, Rosenbaum points to this film as an example of the dumbing down of contemporary cinema and, later on, contradicts this with a statement that reveals an inclination to value the foreignness of foreign films for their own sake: “seeing a subtitled feel-good Holocaust movie may be better than not seeing any subtitled movies at all.” I’m not so sure.

Were Miramax to spend $20 million advertising the films of Hong Kong schlock-meister Wong Jing, the audience that embraced Scary Movie (Keenan Ivory Wayans, 2000) and American Pie (Paul Weitz, 1999) might respond. Were they to do the same with Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999) or L’Humanite (Bruno Dumont, 1999), I don’t doubt that they’d lose their shirts. Rosenbaum doesn’t exactly argue that they should do so, yet he shies away from the crucial issue of which subtitled films a more adventurous media could help. A film culture in which lowbrow French comedies, Indian musicals and Hong Kong action movies would share multiplex space with their Hollywood counterparts would certainly be more cosmopolitan than our present one, but many of his favorite directors would likely remain just as marginalized within it. After all, working in English hasn’t earned Atom Egoyan, Hal Hartley or Todd Haynes a free ride to a large American audience.

Movie Wars devotes so much attention to Miramax’s many crimes against the cinema that it avoids any discussion about the modest yet significant achievements of less philistine distributors, as well as much real grappling with the monetary and copyright issues that complicate the distribution process. The American releases of Underground (Emir Kusturica, 1995) and Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf (Léos Carax, 1991), among others, were delayed because the films lost so much money in Europe that their producers initially charged an unreasonable sum for the American rights, not because of apathy on the part of distributors. Rosenbaum points to the unexpected commercial success of The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) as a sign of hope that American audiences will go see alternatives to Hollywood when they have access to them. Despite the film’s commercial success, helped along by mass advertising, the people’s expectations for a great horror movie were not met when they saw a film that looked very different to the standard Hollywood horror film – full of handheld camera and video, improvised dialogue, extremely dark images, reliance on off screen space, and absence of onscreen violence, monsters or special effects. Attributing the consequential backlash against the film to the assumption that its success was yet another sign of advertising’s triumph, Rosenbaum argues that it was a genuine populist triumph.

However, I wonder whether the backlash may also point out what can happen when relatively challenging films are mass-marketed, especially when a certain amount of deception enters the picture. That is, the greater exposure and marketing of foreign films Rosenbaum argues for might not be enough in itself to attract wider American audiences to formally challenging work, especially where such marketing hinges on deceptive advertising. These schemes often result in a backlash against the film because it doesn’t live up to the expectations produced by such marketing. Another Rosenbaum favorite, Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999), provides a good example. Advertising Eyes Wide Shut as softcore porn and The Blair Witch Project as one of the scariest horror films ever made undoubtedly drew a wider audience than a more accurate campaign would have. Had Artisan Entertainment, the American distributor of The Blair Witch Project, made clear that it consists mostly of camcorder footage of hiking and arguing, rather than the monsters, special effects and gore of most contemporary horror cinema, the audience attracted to the film might have walked away more satisfied. But could this frankness produce a $140 million gross?

Although Rosenbaum does not support deceptive advertising – for example, he criticized the marketing of Eyes Wide Shut – the question remains: what kind of marketing would be less deceptive and more respectful of the original work? And could it be equally successful? This is an open question (largely because practically all American marketing of foreign-language films is deceptive in one way or another; even very small distributors produce trailers for subtitled films that make it look as though they’re in English), and it’s one that Movie Wars could benefit from addressing more directly.

For a critic who wears his cosmopolitan credentials on his sleeve and questions whether national cinemas even exist at this point, Rosenbaum’s arguments seem blinkered in a number of ways. He refers to his experience living in Paris and London in the ’60s and ’70s and attending film festivals all over the world, yet he makes relatively few references to the everyday practice of contemporary film culture, except in France. Due to the stranglehold of corporate capitalism over the U.S. (which he repeatedly compares to Stalinism) and the country’s present position of political and economic power, American arrogance and xenophobia may be particularly strong, but they don’t exist in isolation.

Outside France (where government policies that encourage spectators, filmmakers and distributors to respect cinema as an art form, as well as a business, have made it the exception that proves the rule), the European box-office charts suggest that the continent’s audiences are no more enamored of foreign-language films than Americans. If Americans mostly go to see Hollywood films, Germans and Italians share the same viewing patterns, apart from seeing a small sampling of their national product. The problem may lie more with multinational corporations’ marketing power than with anything specific to American culture. And Americans have it better than Germans or Italians in one respect: very few foreign-language films are dubbed for American release.

Rosenbaum also avoids examining cinema in relation to other art forms, even though his assessment of the corporate control of film culture could apply equally to the publishing and music industries. In particular, the Sundance/Miramax co-option of “independent film” is a striking parallel to the major-label promotion of “alternative rock,” with Quentin Tarantino playing much the same role Nirvana did. The dust jacket of Movie Wars goes so far as to say that “the average American can usually find a book or record that has not been endorsed by the mainstream media,” which is true only if one lives in a city or college town. Looking for Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen CDs, novels by Dennis Cooper or Lynne Tillman or even the vast majority of rock, hip-hop and dance music released by independent labels in most American small-town malls is as futile as waiting for their multiplex to show Philippe Garrel’s latest film.

Rosenbaum’s take on The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998) compresses a well-thought-out analysis into a paragraph, yet his dismissal of the Dogma 95 manifesto as a publicity stunt strikes me as problematic. As a statement about aesthetics, the manifesto is certainly too contradictory and naïve to deserve serious contradiction. Rosenbaum aptly points out: “if anything, the mistrust of high-tech filmmaking technique reflected in that manifesto is contradicted by the exciting uses made of the Sony PC7 {the video camera used to shoot The Celebration}”. However, as a realpolitik response to the marginalization of European cinema, I’m not sure that it deserves such scorn. Certainly, it’s better for filmmakers to challenge the status quo than adapt to it (or to pretend to do the former while doing the latter), yet the Dogma 95 manifesto may have some merit as a starting point for discussions about film form and a reminder that conventional Hollywood codes aren’t the only valid way of making a film.

Judging from some of the more negative reviews of Dancer In The Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000), von Trier’s incessant self-promotion has started working against him, with a number of critics (including Rosenbaum) holding his interview statements and reports of on-set cruelty towards actresses against the film. Ironically, Movie Wars goes on to examine how Orson Welles’ self-promotion, including his complicity in making himself look like a buffoon in the American media, helped mystify his work. I’m not suggesting that von Trier and Vinterberg are Welles’ equals or that their publicity stunts are above criticism, but that it’s the role of a critic to separate their public personae from their films.

On a much lesser scale, a similar backlash may be taking place against Rosenbaum’s two most sacred cows, Kiarostami and Hou Hsaio-hsien. In the NY Press, Godfrey Cheshire has argued that Hou’s sky-high reputation is largely the product of undeserved hype and pandering to the Western appetite for Orientalist exoticism, while in the same pages, Armond White made much the same charges against Kiarostami. Both filmmakers had to be acclaimed as auteurist “geniuses” in order for their films to get released in the U.S. I think their talent warrants it, but I also wonder if Denby would have been less skeptical of Taste Of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997) and The Wind Will Carry Us if he hadn’t felt pressured to view them as masterpieces. Rosenbaum dismisses publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker for overpowering the voices of individual writers, but even a writer as anti-corporate as him can contribute to a groundswell of praise for Iranian and Taiwanese cinema that eventually results in Times critics Stephen Holden and A.O. Scott gushing over The Wind Will Carry Us and Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000).

Rosenbaum’s chapter on the critical receptions of Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) and Small Soldiers (Joe Dante, 1998), which were released almost simultaneously in the U.S., offers more testimony that he’s not immune to the difficulty of separating a film from the promotion surrounding it. This chapter pieces apart the process by which Small Soldiers‘ satire was de-politicized by most American critics, showing how its references to other films engage them in an ongoing debate about the representation of war, while those of Saving Private Ryan are far lazier. Nevertheless, he has far more to say about the reams of uncritical reviews received by Saving Private Ryan and silly Spielbergian statements like “every war movie, good or bad, is antiwar” than its actual content. Dismissing it as “patriotic warmongering,” his major criticisms are that it’s too violent – therefore making its anti-war intent hypocritical – and views war through the eyes of other films.

Perhaps this is a mea culpa for his own initial praise for Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993), which made his 1993 Top 10 list, although his subsequent comments on it have been far more negative. While Rosenbaum’s been a longtime Dante supporter, Small Soldiers is the only Dante film to grace one of his Top 10 lists, and his appreciation for it seems to stem mostly from his view of it as the anti-Saving Private Ryan. When Rosenbaum takes on the field of academic Cinema Studies, it’s surprising that he takes issue with its tendency to value political analysis over aesthetics, since this same charge could be applied to some of his own reviews.

Movie Wars reaches its nadir in the seventh chapter, “Isolation as a Control System,” centered on one of Rosenbaum’s worst reviews from the Chicago Reader. This piece used the virtual-reality thriller The Thirteenth Floor (Josef Rusnak, 1999) as a launching pad to salute the films rewarded with prizes at Cannes in 1999. There’s just one catch: Rosenbaum lauded them sight unseen, basing his enthusiasm on the controversy triggered by the awards. Here, his contempt for Miramax head honcho Harvey Weinstein reaches epic proportions: “since Harvey’s displeasure invariably bolsters my faith in the future of world cinema, Cannes’ 1999 winners seemed to be a pretty invigorating bunch.” Even as he criticizes Maslin for paying too much attention to Weinstein, he does exactly the same, just from a negative point of view.

The book concludes with an “interview” in which Rosenbaum questions some of his own positions. Few people know their blind spots well enough to criticize themselves explicitly without self-aggrandizement, yet Rosenbaum makes a valiant attempt. In the two best questions, he asks himself about the borderline between “mainstream” and “esoteric” films and compares Weinstein favorably to old-school Hollywood studio heads like Darryl B. Zanuck, Harry Cohn and Irving Thalberg. He even admits admiring Denby’s prose style and talking to Maslin.

However, his choice of targets now seems a bit dated. Elvis Mitchell has replaced Maslin as the New York Times‘ chief film critic, while Miramax is rapidly losing its interest in posing as an “independent”/arthouse company. I don’t expect to see them making many more acquisitions like Through The Olive Trees (Kiarostami, 1994), Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf or the color restoration of Jour De Fete (Jacques Tati, 1948), all of which Rosenbaum rightly lambastes them for dumping. Their interest in building and maintaining an American audience for filmmakers like Pedro Almodóvar, Peter Greenaway and Krzysztof Kieslowksi died with Kieslowski. Instead of devoting so much attention to Miramax, the book could benefit from exploring the strategies of smaller American companies like WinStar (which has done a great deal over the past two years to promote Taiwanese and French cinema in the U.S.), Cowboy Booking and New Yorker Films. Rosenbaum oscillates between pessimism about the ease of audience manipulation through P.R. and optimism about resistance to this process. While some of the latter may be naïve, the state of foreign-film distribution in the U.S. gradually seems to be improving, thanks to the efforts of critics like him and the aforementioned distributors.

Movie Wars has a great deal to say about what Rosenbaum dislikes in American film culture, offering little sense of what he values in it. Denby and Maslin receive pages of bile, some of it bordering on personal insults, while the American critics Rosenbaum respects are reduced to a one-sentence list. His populist stance might be bolstered by an examination of online criticism, which he ignores, apart from one reference to an article (on Maslin!) in Slate.

At his best, Rosenbaum has few peers among American film critics, but Midnight Movies (co-written with Hoberman), Moving Places, Placing Movies and Movies As Politics make a far better case for his worth than Movie Wars. This book works best when it integrates anger and analysis, but its endless attacks on the same handful of figures wear out their welcome after a few chapters. The subjects it addresses are important enough to merit a far more nuanced treatment. Rosenbaum’s contentiousness is central to his persona as a critic, but Movie Wars suggests that it can also be his Achilles’ heel.

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About The Author

Steve Erickson lives in New York. He has written for The Village VoiceTime Out NY, Film QuarterlyCinema Scope, the Chicago Reader and other publications, and also maintains his own web site, Chronicle of a Passion.

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