Critical Conditions
A conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum
by Josh Timmermann

In addition to being film critic for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum is the author of such books as Moving Places, Placing Movies, Movies as Politics, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can See, an insightful study of Jim Jarmusch's underrappreciated masterpiece Dead Man, Midnight Movies (co-written with J. Hoberman), and, most recently, a cross-cultural analysis of the Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, co-authored by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa. Rosenbaum is that rarest of things among American film critics today: a genuine iconoclast who cares passionately about films. He doesn't shy away from the provocative polemics inherent in addressing the political implications in films from Hollywood to Iran, or from criticizing the complacency of some of his colleagues.

He was kind enough to participate in an interview by email.

Josh Timmermann: I recently read and very much enjoyed the book you co-wrote with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa on Kiarostami. I've been curious to ask you, How do you think Kiarostami's films would be received if they were released to wider audiences in the United States and highly promoted by a studio such as Miramax, who usually enjoys a good deal of success in seeking Oscar and mainstream attention for foreign and smaller films (albeit usually more conventionally accessible ones)? I remember reading in your Movie Wars book about Miramax getting stuck with and essentially dumping Through the Olive Trees. How do you think the movie-going public would've reacted to the film had the studio released it with the same level of care of, say, Il Postino or Life Is Beautiful?

Through the Olive Trees
Jonathan Rosenbaum: I think it's unreasonable to expect that any Kiarostami film could have the mass appeal of Il Postino or Life Is Beautiful. But it's also unreasonable to assume that no one in the mass public could like a Kiarostami film. Why does it have to be either/or, boom or bust? People deserve to have choices, and there are many people all over America who would love Kiarostami's films if they knew about them and had better access to them. Clearly the Weinstein brothers aren't among these people. But I can't understand why they won't sell the rights to Through the Olive Trees to a smaller distributor that would care about it--at least care enough to bring it out on video and/or DVD.

JT: On the subject of Movie Wars, do you think the underwhelming box-office performance of most foreign-language films, other than a handful heavily promoted for Academy Awards, has more to do with general xenophobia or simply a sort of laziness that blindly tends to associate foreign films with being intellectually intimidating or "artsy"?

JR: People go to see what they hear about and are trained to go looking for what they're accustomed to; these situations are created and sustained by the media. Xenophobia, mental laziness, and lack of curiosity, on the other hand, aren't created by the media but are certainly sustained by their influence. I include advertising as part of media--surely the most important part--and I don't believe reviewing offers much of an alternative to it; most often it's an adjunct.

JT: How significant of a role do you think Hollywood movie studios and the media play in furthering the division between critics like yourself, who frequently champion more obscure films, and critics like Robert Ebert who agreeably rave about whatever films happen to be most forcefully thrust in their direction without seemingly seeing the need to pay much attention to films that truly need critical attention to get the word out to larger audiences? I remember Michael Medved complaining last year about the growing divide between critics and audiences (rather ridiculously, he singled out Far From Heaven as an example of critics praising gay-oriented films that alienate everyday [presumably straight] moviegoers), but there seems to be almost as wide a gap between. say, the reviewers writing for the Village Voice and most critics writing for large daily papers.

JR: Roger's a friend of mine, even though we often disagree about films. I feel far more alienated from someone like Anthony Lane who doesn't care about movies at all.

JT: How different do you think the critical and mainstream climate in regards to viewing films is now as opposed to in decades past, specifically when you were starting out as a critic? What elements do you feel are most accountable for the differences between now and then?

JR: The much larger role played by advertising today is the principal difference between now and the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Otherwise I don't think the climate is as different as most people claim.

JT: I really appreciated your "Doses of Reality" piece. How much do you think the critical consensus regarding films like Gigli and Masked & Anonymous gets in the way of reviewers being able to recognize the virtue of realism in moments such as those you've pointed out as being redeeming or worthwhile? It reminds me of a quote from your 1999 year-end wrap-up. You wrote, "Perhaps because I'm drawn to cinema that can theoretically change the world--and me--I can't see much purpose in commemorating movies whose prime aim seems to be to make me forget the world outside the theater." I would then assume that you find more merit in films that might be quite flawed but also offer a degree of realism and commentary, implicit or otherwise, on today's world than in movies that are basically pure fluff but work rather flawlessly as such. Also, I was curious after reading your article: Are you a Dylan fan?

JR: Only a moderate fan at best. I've probably bought two Dylan albums in my life. As for the earlier part of your question, I think you've answered it yourself. More generally, I think people tend to find in movies whatever they go looking for, whether this is the world they live in or an escape from that world. Most of us go looking for both.

JT: I was delighted to read your defense of Down with Love, a film I enjoyed and admired for many of the same reasons that you did. Why do you think this film was so negatively received by many critics?

JR: I tried to answer that question in my review. Publicists and reviewers are generally only equipped to describe new stuff in relation to old stuff, which obliged them to say Down With Love was a pastiche of Rock Hudson and Doris Day movies--end of story. And as a rehash of something old and familiar, Down With Love fails, at least in my opinion. But for me that's where the interest starts--not where it ends.

JT: Speaking of Down with Love, there seems to be a current trend emerging in movies such as that and Far From Heaven that attempt, with varying degrees of success, to employ the cinematic language of an outmoded genre of the past in order to say interesting things about the present. Armond White criticized Far From Heaven as being too "academic" and accussed Todd Haynes of being a "pseud who refuses to risk the embarrassment of emotion except by putting it in quotes." What are your thoughts on this practice?

JR: It depends on what you do with it. I liked Far From Heaven when I saw it but I can't say it's held up so well in my memory. I prefer Safe. As for Down with Love, I'm not convinced that the filmmakers were necessarily conscious that they were making a commentary on the present--though if they were, more power to them.

JT: How much do you think the bitter (in some circles) critical reception of Godard's In Praise of Love last year had to do with fresh patriotic wounds stinging from the film's supposed anti-Americanism? I noticed this year at Cannes that Lars von Trier's Dogville was met with similarly disapproving reactions by some American reviewers.

JR: Again, I think you've answered your own question. But I don't think Godard's anti-Americanism in that film is as insightful as it is in many of his earlier films, such as 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Weekend.

JT: Also, how relevant do you think Godard still is today to what's going in world cinema? I don't recall you ever mentioning his JLG/JLG, but, for me, it ranks among his most personal and possibly his best work. There has been an understandable shift in critical focus from Europe to Asia over the course of the past decade, however, which has ultimately left Godard sort of out of the loop, so to speak, other than with a handful of critics who pay him the attention that I believe he still deserves.

JR: I generally prefer Godard's videos to his films in recent years--above all Histoire(s) du Cinema, but many of the others as well. Of the relatively late films, my favorites are Nouvelle Vague and Germany Year 90 Nine Zero.

JT: I was very pleasantly surprised to see 8 Mile mentioned among your top ten films of last year in the Chicago Reader. In that piece, you wrote, "[I'm] less of an enthusiast about Eminem's politics of resentment." Could you elaborate a bit as to what exactly you meant by this? I wonder, How familiar are you with his music aside from 8 Mile?

JR: Not even slightly familiar. But his politics of resentment, from the little I could gather, seemed homophobic and misogynistic. At least I think that's what I was referring to.

JT: How and to what degree do you feel your having grown up in the South in the 1950's has affected your personal approach to film and film criticism? I know that you obviously were in an exceptional situation as far as your ability to see movies in that your family owned a movie theater.

JR: If Moving Places doesn't answer that question, I doubt I could say more in a sentence or two.

JT: How do you think your having lived abroad affected these areas? On that note, how different would you say the critical communities in France and Britain are compared to the United States' New York-centered community? Does living in Chicago and writing for a Chicago paper tend to alienate you at all from the hierarchy of New York critics?

JR: I have many friends among New York film critics, but little interest in all of them as a group. Living abroad affected me profoundly in all sorts of ways. I don't think the critical community in Britain is better than that in the U.S.; for the most part I think it's worse. France is better, but I have to add that Cahiers du Cinema has recently been at an all-time low in energy level. My favorite magazines there now are Trafic and Cinema.

JT: Have you ever written much about literature or music or any other medium, other than in regard to the roles they play in cinema? How would you say the critical approach differs when writing about these other mediums? For instance, though both are excellent, erudite writers, one will obviously find a world of difference when reading J. Hoberman alongside Greil Marcus.

JR: I was an English major in college and wrote my M.A. thesis on Light in August. I've published reviews of Pynchon's last three novels (last four if one includes my college newspaper), and also reviewed a lot other fiction for The Village Voice and (to a much greater extent) Soho News (where I was reviewing fiction almost as much as films during the year and I half or so that I wrote for that NY paper, i.e. late 70s and early 80s). I'd love to write more nonfilm book reviews, but don't have the right connections. As for music, I've published nothing outside of my film reviews. Difference in critical approaches? Sure, I guess. But I don't think my book reviews are radically different from my film reviews.

JT: You've written before about having to recognize one's readership and knowing how to write for it. You've also said how much you enjoy the freedom you're allowed when writing for the Reader, but do you ever still consider writing for a daily in order to reach a larger readership? From what I understand, Dave Kehr had a pretty awful experience with that when writing for the New York Daily News.

JR: I don't have the slightest interest in writing for a daily--or, for that matter, in writing for a much larger readership. I'm more interested in quality than quantity when it comes to readership.

JT: I'm tentative to bring this up, but I was wondering if you saw Jeffrey Wells' piece last year about so-called "nutter" film critics, in which you were singled out along with Armond White, Manohla Dargis, and several other reviewers. What was your reaction to this column? At any rate, I thought it made a decent point about critics like yourself being resented by some for no better reason than that you happen upon and subsequently praise films like Satantango before most others even hear about, much less see them.

JR: I read the Wells piece, and vaguely recall it as offensive and stupid. I also vaguely recall--unless my memory is playing tricks on me--that Wells was once a student of mine when I taught at UC Santa Barbara, and speculated that maybe he was taking revenge for having gotten a bad grade from me. But this is only idle speculation. If his piece had any valid arguments, such as the one you mention, I guess I'd forgotten them. I'd also forgotten the invalid ones until you brought them up.

JT: I'm a big fan of Hou Hsiao-hsien, and I felt that his Millennium Mambo went very underappreciated by many critics (even by those who usually worship Hou's work). I never read any mention of it by you. What did you think of it?

JR: I've seen it at least three times, and didn't like it any better the third time than I did the first. Apart from the beginning and ending, I don't much like it at all, I'm afraid. And I'm not one of the biggest fans of Flowers of Shanghai either, although that seems more defensible to me. Maybe Millennium Mambo is defensible as well, but no defense I've read so far has fully convinced me--not even the one by Fergus Daly that will be appearing this fall in a book I coedited (Movie Mutations), although it's an interesting essay in other respects.

JT: Your Moving Places, a book that has meant a lot to me personally, is currently out of print (though used copies aren't too hard to come by). Do you have any idea when or if it will be reissued?

JR: It's coming out in French in December (from P.O.L., the publisher of Trafic)--I'm reading the page proofs of the translation right now--but there are no plans to reissue it in English at present. Having had two editions, and the second edition having done as well as the first, was pretty fortunate in my opinion, so I'm not too unhappy about there not (yet) being any talk about a third edition. The book hasn't ever exactly sold like hotcakes.

©2003 Josh Timmermann