Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (Rosenbaum)

As the film critic whose work is most readily accessible to me, thanks to the work he has put into making most of his writings available online, Jonathan Rosenbaum has become a remarkable influence on the way I view cinema. Part of his achievement, and part of what makes him so appealing to me, is in his aim of disentangling film as an art form from film as an industry. As but one of many examples of this polemic that shaped the way I look at film criticism, many of the attitudes that I had once unconsciously formed on the matter of canonicity in cinema, a subject broached in the other book of his I have read, Essential Cinema, were instantaneously debunked upon reading his searing indictment of the American Film Institute's Top 100 Greatest Films list in conjunction with his lengthy and thoughtful reevaluations of many so-called classics that had piqued my curiosity. This skeptical and politically conscious attitude made Ebert's Great Movie essays, pieces that often equate 'greatness' with fame and influence as opposed to thoughtfulness and aesthetics and that were once my model of ideal film writing, all but obsolete.

Of course Rosenbaum's effect on me has been far greater than merely shattering my simplistic perceptions of institutionally fostered concepts of 'greatness' and classicality. In addition to guiding my tastes toward relatively unknown directors, both domestic and abroad, and instilling within me a skeptical predisposition toward the powers that be (whether obvious emblems of corruption such as Hollywood big whigs or less obvious targets such as myth-making biographers and unknowledgeable academics), Rosenbaum has served as a wellspring of all kinds of artistic discourse in addition to a guidepost to other brilliant critics and specialized texts. His often heated and occasionally acerbic writing is offset by his honesty, his lack of conformity and his willingness to share personal and autobiographical information in order to situate his arguments subjectively and place himself on speaking terms, as it were, with the reader. Placing Movies, in covering a larger span of his career and in providing five separate introductory pieces to the different sections of his book, contains more confessions, offhand references to personal struggles, and first-hand accounts of correspondence with critics, directors and other professionals than do the cumulative pieces I have read selectively from his website and the total output of Essential Cinema.

Almost all possible objections are directed toward his selection and categorization of pieces under separate headings, which are structured in a way that turns his introductory pieces into a sequential narrative thread. Because most of the book is a provocation in itself and very little of the writing avoids being combative in some way, a section entitled 'Provocations' seems redundant, and some pieces could have easily been swapped. For instance, a piece on Welles's Othello included in 'Touchstones' is lacking in the way of critical analysis on the film itself and is instead a highly informative investigation into the film's recent restoration. Perhaps, then, the piece could have functioned better as a 'Provocation' (especially considering that it begins with a blunt attack on the tendency of Corporate America to exploit the deceased Welles for its own ends) than as a 'Touchstone.' Some of the denser essays have the quality of over-analysis, and when two or more are placed consecutively with no shorter reviews to act as buffer, one gets bogged down and starts to notice how frequently Rosenbaum repeats certain terminology and lines of argument.

However, these criticisms are minor when viewed in conjunction with the sheer breadth of critical discourse provided. Whereas Essential Cinema is mostly Chicago Reader columns, Placing Movies includes work from all across the span of Rosenbaum's career, not all of it aimed at evaluating films exclusively. Rosenbaum includes much of his writing on other critics, from Manny Farber to Roland Barthes, and one searing piece towards the end of the book takes on an entire disposition of political complacency that Rosenbaum argues has dominated in our view of the history of the cinema, and the Blacklist era in Hollywood in particular. Some of his reviews are expedient and trenchant, for example his Soho News piece on Raiders of the Lost Ark that packs in a plenitude of references, analogies and anecdotes in the brief space it occupies, and others are immense undertakings that take a more serious and research-oriented approach toward their subjects, such as the immense article on Raoul Ruiz that seeks incredibly to synopsize his prolific oeuvre and predominant directorial philosophy, even as Rosenbaum finds himself without access to much of his work. Some Reader pieces I had read before, for instance the analyses of Mélo and The Manchurian Candidate, grew considerably for me, and I believe that the former now most certainly warrants a re-watch.

My favorite piece by far is 'The Death of Hulot,' one of the most personally affecting of the collection that is mostly a lovely account of Rosenbaum's acquaintanceship with Jacques Tati during the early 70s. This intimate portrait is not merely a series of fond recollections; it is also a tragic narrative that helps us find where Tati's life and art intersect, and how his style of direction was in many ways an extension of his everyday persona. In this piece, Rosenbaum offers a kind of critical writing that is formulated not by research or by scrutiny, but by fleeting experience, and as such it appeared to me the most valuable and touching of the many pieces offered here. And yet, due to the prevalence of bias, subjectivity, and autobiography that plays a role in every one of these pieces, the entire book contains this sense of passion and emotion to some extent, and as such it has become an irreplaceable part of my collection.

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