Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 31, September 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Koehler

 

*Passeurs*:

Jonathan Rosenbaum and the New Global Film Criticism

 

 

Jonathan Rosenbaum

_Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons_

Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004

ISBN 0-8018-7840-3 hb

xxi + 445 pp.

 

_Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia_

Edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin

London: British Film Institute, 2003

ISBN 0851709834 hb; 0851709842 pb

224 pp.

 

Jonathan Rosenbaum

_Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See_

London: Wallflower Press, 2002

ISBN 1-903364-23-X pb

192 pp.

 

Books appear one by one, but they can play a devious trick on the reader. An author's book may appear to be their sum statement, but the span of time -- filled with the arrival of the author's other books -- may reveal something else entirely: that the subsequent books actually continue and extend the first book's notions; perhaps layer them, even evolve them. There was perhaps no way of knowing at the time of the first printing of Deleuze's _Difference et Repetition_ that it would begin a chain that would extend to the two-volume _Cinema_, just as the reader wouldn't have realized that Cavell's _The World Viewed_ and _Pursuits of Happiness_ would begin a lifelong project in an Emersonian framing of classical Hollywood cinema.

 

This trick on the reader's eye is why the original appearance of Jonathan Rosenbaum's _Movie Wars_ in the US in 2000 seemed to be such a startling break from much of Rosenbaum's previous work between covers. Although his first book, the swimmingly personal and lovely autobiographical adventure, _Moving Places: A Life at the Movies_, played with literary form, Rosenbaum's best-known volumes -- _Movies as Politics_ and _Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism_ -- were less experimental but thoroughgoing compilations of his film criticism from the 1970s and 1980s. Far less known, and unjustly so, are his 1983 _Film: The Front Line_, his 1977 work on Jacques Rivette, _Rivette: Texts and Interviews_, and his collaborations with fellow critics J. Hoberman (_Midnight Movies_), Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa (_Abbas Kiarostami_), and Bill Krohn (_Another Kind of Independence: Joe Dante and the Roger Corman School of 1970_). Both of the compilation volumes contained passing critiques and commentary on various problems with American film culture, but hardly warned of the direct polemic that is _Movie Wars_. Nor, for that matter, did _Movie Wars_ suggest a grand continuity that marks the books that have appeared after it: _Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia_ (co-edited with film critic Adrian Martin) and _Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons_, which, like _Movies as Politics_ and _Placing Movies_, is a compilation book of criticism -- primarily of his superb reviews as chief critic for The Chicago Reader -- but also something far more extensive than this implies. [1]

 

Placed in isolation, _Movie Wars_ could be simply viewed as a screed, a broadside, a call to arms. It marks the most complete attack by any American film critic to date on the combined institutions of the Hollywood film industry, academic film studies, and the media, and their various methods of preventing US audiences from seeing the wider universe of cinema beyond the commercially sanctioned. Rosenbaum explicitly frames his argument as a Hegelian antithesis to the thesis that the cause for the decline in American film culture lies with the audience. As a critic too often incorrectly labeled an elistist in American film circles, particularly by those conditioned by the neo-populism of Pauline Kael, Rosenbaum deliberately confounds these all-too-comforting assumptions by turning an argument on its head. By newspaper editors ignoring coverage of foreign-language films from non-European countries; by distributors neglecting to release (and in the case of Miramax, intentionally withholding from the marketplace) and/or support films which challenge accepted aesthetic paradigms; by academics refusing to consider the complexities and implications of transnational contemporary cinema in favor of the most popularly-embraced titles and long-established classical Hollywood chestnuts; by these ways and many others, the actual elitism resides with those who deny the public a larger sampling of what is being made in the bigger world of film. This elitism is precisely located, Rosenbaum argues, in the unfounded assumption that audiences aren't interested in films beyond the most familiar and most advertised, resulting in a perfectly contrived feedback loop in which a film is made for an assumed audience, the assumed audience is marketed to as a precise niche, and that niche is delivered at the box office. Nothing gets Rosenbaum's dander up more than this self-enclosed, self-satisfied system of reinforcement, which he passionately argues bears little resemblance to reality.

 

This goes beyond mere argumentation -- Hegelian or otherwise. As a critic and instructor who has programmed for organized public screenings, I have been able to see firsthand the folly of pre-determining an audience's intelligence or taste. Against what many critics, academics, or marketers might expect, an audience's favorite works in film series or festivals will not necessarily be a box-office hit at all, but non-English narrative or non-fiction films. [2] Particularly from the European perspective, it may be difficult to fully appreciate the degrees to which the American public has been codified and categorized by corporate marketing models which apply to everything from the selling of dental floss to movies. A recent report detailed the virtually scientific manner in which American exhibitors can now calculate the size and location of new megaplex theaters. [3] More notoriously, weekend box-office estimates of a film about to open can be safely tallied based on a calculus factoring into play such elements as niche marketing, advertising reach, and the star's previous box-office performance vis-a-vis the film's genre. Thus there's very much a system in place to craft, predict, and de-limit the audience for a given film -- a system supported with the willing cooperation of a compliant press corps (combining mainstream critics in daily newspapers, on television, and in the fan-boy webzines), studios driven by marketing departments rather than the gut instincts of studio heads, and the potential counterforce in academia which unwittingly reinforces the system in place. This may not be quite the same thing as a conspiracy, even though the subtitle of _Movie Wars_ ('How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See', selected by the publisher against Rosenbaum's wishes) suggests as much. Such a notion in the subtitle, which on the face of it can't be proved, is actually nowhere argued in the book, and in any case fails to mention the wing of academia which comes in for some withering criticism -- criticism worth noting here in this forum, where film-philosophical academics and non-academics come together to discuss and write on the web.

 

It must be stressed that _Movie Wars_ didn't exist in isolation when it appeared in 2000, and it certainly doesn't now. It is, in fact, the first in a three-volume flow that argues for an entirely different kind of film criticism than has been conventionally accepted by either academics or the mainstream press. For the central argument in _Movie Wars_ -- that the delivery, communication, and pedagogical gatekeepers who pre-select the movies shown to audiences are extremely limited in their grasp of cinema as it exists in its broadest global setting -- is inextricably linked with the central concern of _Movie Mutations_: the emergence of a new cinema and a new criticism that crosses borders, nationalist limits, and languages, as well as creating a new model of a cooperating community of film critics in conversation with one another, rather than in contentious opposition. Nor can _Movie Wars_ now be separated from _Essential Cinema_, which in many ways rounds the circle begun in 2000: the despair expressed in the earlier book about film studies' collective rejection of the building of canons (and the dangers this has created) is now accompanied by an even more potent response, in the form of Rosenbaum's own, endlessly fascinating canon of his 1000 favorite films, listed in chronological order from 1895 to 2003.

 

And yet, the project formed by these books is even more complex, for its founding father isn't actually Rosenbaum, but the late, great critic Serge Daney. This is not merely because _Movie Mutations_ is dedicated to Daney (along with critic Raymond Durgnat, who died just before publication), but because Daney's globe-trotting spirit and interest in critical communities informs this 'trilogy's' overall span. _Movie Mutations_ is forested with dialogues, a form fostered by Daney in many forums, including the French film journal he co-founded, _Trafic_, which agreed to publish the first round of letters between Rosenbaum, Martin, Kent Jones, Nicole Brenez, Alex Horwath, and Raymond Bellour that launched the 'Mutations' project. One of the dialogues, between Martin and the brilliant theorist-academic James Naremore, pursues a critique of the deep-seated problems in film studies programs, but enmeshed in this is Martin's observation of Daney's vision of 'the ideal model of a critic as a *passeur*, one who crosses different worlds and tries to build connecting bridges between them' (129). The aforementioned group was initially invited to exchange letters about what drives the cinephilia of the post-'60s generation (the answer, it turns out, is partly the cinema of the body, as well as that of Monte Hellman, John Cassavetes, Abel Ferrara, Philippe Garrel, and the Jean Eustache of _La Maman et la putain_ (1973) -- an essential film for all '70s babies of cinephilia, and accompanied by *eminence grise* Bellour delivering his critical, sometimes skeptical response). Finding common ground, they landed upon the affectionate term of 'Mutants' to identify themselves, but also to locate their interest in how the movies are mutating -- formally, materially, culturally, linguistically, and politically. But it seems to me even more crucially that these are also, after Daney, *passeurs *, travelers across the broad space in which world cinema currently operates, critics who do more than write criticism. Rosenbaum, in his generous final letter which ends the book and wraps up the second exchange of letters (and bringing into the Mutant fold Canadian critic and publisher of _CinemaScope_ magazine, Mark Peranson, and Argentine critic Quintin), notes that several in the group -- including Jones, Brenez, and Horwath -- are now both critics and programmers at major institutions, including the Vienna Film Museum, the Lincoln Center, and the Cinematheque Francaise. Quintin is the mastermind behind the hugely successful Buenos Aires Film Festival, still the only major film festival organized and programmed by critics, while Peranson is a key programmer for the increasingly adventurous Vancouver Film Festival, now an essential destination for cinephiles of Asian work.

 

It's at such festivals as Buenos Aires and Vancouver, as well as Rotterdam, Vienna, and the dominant all-encompassing festivals in Toronto, Cannes, and Berlin, that a *passeur* cinephilia thrives, and so dramatically contrasts with the restrictive conditions under which both mainstream film reviewers and film studies academics frequently operate. Martin specifically maps this landscape when observing that,

 

'reviewers are, whether they like it or not, relentlessly local and home-bound: what matters to them is what film opens next week in their home city. That's the entirety of the cinema to them at any given moment, which is fatally limiting. The touring, festival critic, on the other hand, often exists in a stateless reverie: most local, even national cinemas . . . are boring or meaningless to them, a mere twentieth-century throwback. They chase the manifestations of a certain borderless cinema.' (122)

 

_Movie Mutations_ explores in several penetrating essays and dialogues a few of the cineastes of this cinema-without-borders: Kiarostami (Rosenbaum, Saeed-Vafa), Tsai Ming-liang (Jones), Jafar Panahi (Rosenbaum), Hou Hsiao-hsien (Fergus Daly), and even further, ventures into a speculative inquiry on how Taiwan and Iran -- the nations represented by these directors -- have managed such powerful cinemas by standing in a kind of opposition to an imperial American model of values (39). [4] In his letter, Peranson even suggests a line of inquiry that could constitute another 'Mutants' book in itself: the interplay between travel and cinephilia, and how the crossing of borders informs and blurs supposed differences between one's own nation-state and the nation-state hosting the festival one is visiting (170). Such border-crossing takes on another manifestation in _Movie Mutations_, which is the exchange of film-critical concerns across countries and languages. One is a wide-ranging exchange (in dialogues and emails) between Rosenbaum and Japanese critic and Hawks scholar Shigehiko Hasumi on what Rosenbaum terms 'the global synchronicity' (61) of Hawks and Yasuzo Masumura, a director like Hawks who made films in all genres with lusty energy, but who, unlike critical darling Hawks, has fallen into complete neglect. Another exchange, between Catherine Benamou and Lucia Saks (whose chapter title, 'Circumatlantic Media Migrations', is suggestive of the entire book's outlook), represents what I believe is an unprecedented discussion linking the challenges of filmmaking and cinephilia in South Africa and Latin America. That these and other dialogues frequently include scholars from the same academic milieu often grilled by Rosenbaum and the Mutants is both an indication that there are many *passeurs* in film studies programs, as well as an example of the book's expressed intent to bridge gaps between academics and critics -- a far more severe problem in the U.S. than many other countries. [5]

 

For all that, the gap remains, and one that continues to vex Rosenbaum in his latest book, _Essential Cinema_. The focus of his critique against the dominant assumptions guiding film studies pedagogy is perhaps sharper in the latest tome, but the concerns immediately loop back to _Movie Wars_, and its host of issues, from the specific (his shocked discovery that the silent film studies program at University of California, Santa Barbara had never taught Louis Feuillade (80)) to the general (the common practice of showing films to students on video, and how it's directly linked to the diminution of the discussion of aesthetics in film studies (89)). [6] Most essential in Rosenbaum's analysis is his concerted assault on the widely accepted view in many film studies programs -- following that of literature and other art-theoretical disciplines -- that canons are not only passe, but to be avoided at all cost. In _Movie Mutations_ Naremore explicitly declares that evaluative analysis is not only impossible to avoid, but essential, and in a wonderfully post-Godardian spin, notes that 'my own aestheticism has always informed my politics, and I don't think film studies can do without it' (127). The introductory pages of _Essential Cinema_ present the most ideal rhetoric yet in English that permits progressive-minded and Left critics a way out of the trap lay by Right critics such Harold Bloom, whose insistence on the value of canon-building has further reinforced the ideology of the anti-canonists. [7] In support of his canon of 1000 films that ends the volume, Rosenbaum positions himself as both a canon-builder and an opponent of Bloom's hidebound approach: Contrary to Bloom, the list is not exclusively Western; is not based purely on aesthetics; rejects Bloom's 'passive' (xiii) delivery of a list of greatness for a canon-building method that encourages debate and an activist, on-going process; and is fundamentally based on the principle that criticism is neither exclusively populist nor elitist, but can be an artful blend of both (xiii-xiv).

 

Even as skeptics of canons may wish to infer a defensive tone in some of this, they would also do well to consider the implications of the enterprise of creating an open canon that seeks to include frequently neglected films. As Rosenbaum is fond of observing, film studies scholars practice various forms of canon-building all the same: Rather than films, theorists from Barthes to Deleuze are canonized; the very selection of films for a given class suggests the essence of a canon-in-progress; the absence of other films and filmmakers equally suggests an evaluative practice. The cost of the rejection of canons is indeed a surrendering of the field of canon-making to quasi-commercial interests such as the American Film Institute, but it goes beyond that. The curious movie lover, entering a well-stocked general interest bookstore and searching the film bookshelves, is now veritably assaulted with a tsunami of books that, by their nature, present canons. Almost without exception, however, the most commonly stocked of these titles truck in purely commercial films at the neglect of wide ranges of cinema past and present -- thus furthering, and potentially cementing, the very problem addressed by Rosenbaum. [8] It may be that the specialist nature of the majority of film studies scholars prevents such an eclectic project as a canon, and that perhaps only working, reviewing critics who must regularly take in a much wider range of films are equipped for the task. Yet I have long witnessed the depressing reality that even these critics actually see only a portion of the most important works from the non-English-speaking world, and that many would be as unfamiliar as scholars with the major filmmakers analysed in _Movie Mutations_. None of this, though, renders canon-building impossible, since there are many -- some of them among the post-70s generation younger than Brenez, Peranson, and Jones -- of a radical critical temperament willing to challenge the combined assumptions of a corporatized film-industrial complex and conventional film scholarship, a temperament that may bridge theory and practice, criticism and programming, and take the mission of the *passeur* to the next border.

 

Los Angeles

California, USA

 

 

Notes          

 

1. It should be noted that Rosenbaum and Saeed-Vafa's collaboration on the Kiarostami book appeared during the flow of these three unified volumes -- in 2003, after the appearance of _Movie Wars_ but before the publication of _Movie Mutations_.

 

2. In film series I have programmed at the University of California, Los Angeles, for instance, such dramas as Laurent Cantet's French masterwork _Time Out_ and such topical, substantial (and, incidentally, anti-capitalist) documentaries as _The Corporation_ have been especially embraced by audiences.

 

3. 'The Megaplex Equation', by Margaret Webb Pressler, _The Washington Post_ (as reprinted in _The Los Angeles Times_, 27 August 2004). Pressler reports the market analysis of David Brain, chief executive of real estate investment company Entertainment Properties Trust, who appraises that 'a single screen needs 10,000 people within a 15- or 20-minute drive . . . so it would take an accessible market of 160,000 to support a 16-screen theater'.

 

4. More recently, this transnational exchange has widened to include the cinemas of South Korea, Argentina, Turkey, and Morocco, all of which are increasingly represented with films in the more adventurous festivals. This phenomenon has been recognized somewhat officially by the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI), which awarded the brilliant Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's _Distant_ best film of 2003. Tellingly, the spirit of debate and exchange informing _Movie Mutations_ also includes arguments against these cineastes, such as that by films scholars and critics Roksana Bahramitash and Homa Hoodfar against Panahi and his film _The Circle_, which dramatizes the experiences of Iranian women released from prison. To Bahramitash's and Hoodfar's complaint that _The Circle_ is defeatist and projects a sense of shame, Rosenbaum -- one of the rare (along with Godfrey Cheshire) American critics with a broad knowledge and grasp of current and past Iranian cinema -- posits that their responses match those that one may have to any 'complex work of art' (114).

 

5. Even more academic film scholars and *passeurs*, such as Berenice Reynaud, were to be at one point or another involved in the _Movie Mutations_ project, but due to various circumstances weren't included in this volume.

 

6. For another recent and highly developed critique of the severe limitations of film studies' rejection of both auteurism and art as forms of bourgeois thinking, see Gilberto Perez, _The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium_(Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

 

7. Harold Bloom, _The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages_ (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1994).

 

8. The list of these books is far too extensive to begin to list here, but they range from the extremely standard and predictable roster in _The Great Movies_ by Roger Ebert (New York: Broadway Books, 2002) to the similarly conservative and deceptively definitive-sounding _The New York Times Guide to the Best 1000 Movies Ever Made_ (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1999) -- the latter of which rarely corresponds with Rosenbaum's own 1000, which manages to include several films, such as Bela Tarr's masterpiece _Satantango_ and Kira Muratova's _The Asthenic Syndrome_, that remain unavailable for almost any kind of viewing, including DVD. It should be added, however, that at least one regularly accessible 'best-of' canon book is genuinely exploratory and challenging: _1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die_, edited by Steven Jay Schneider (New York/London: Barron's, 2004).

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2004

 

 

Robert Koehler, '*Passeurs*: Jonathan Rosenbaum and the New Global Film Criticism', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 31, September 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n31koehler>.

 

 

 

 

 

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