Why So Serious?

The very title of Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Movies We Can See tips us to the best and worst qualities of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s writing. Rosenbaum writes about serious subjects, and for better or for worse he writes about them seriously. When you read Orwell’s or Agee’s journalism, you can feel how, in every wording and punctuation choice, they made it an ongoing effort to write within what they considered to be the limits of their abilities. But writing over his head is something that Rosenbaum never worries about because his strengths rest almost entirely in his content; you don’t go to him for the snark, and nobody comes away from his prose thinking “Man, this shit really sings.” Writing is a job of work to him, and he’s uninterested in duplicating Kael’s ability to replicate in words an actor’s physical gesture, or Hoberman’s dashing historical deductions, or Farber’s ability to stand the language on its head; he’s got all the language, plain though it might be, that he needs to express his ideas. This refusal to spruce himself stylistically mirrors his Amish refusal to groom his physical image, and perhaps make himself, if not more telegenic, then just a little less weird, a little more presentable to the masses.

Here, by the way, is what a film critic is supposed to look like:

There just aren’t a whole lot of zingers in your typical Jonathan Rosenbaum essay, and this, as much as his refusal to shill for the studios, has put a cap on his fan-base over the years. And since nobody likes being told that they’ve been bamboozled, when Rosenbaum commits all of these crimes and then throws a black-chopper buzzword like “conspire” into the title of his book, it’s like he’s begging to be jeered at. [See the comments for this post for an important clarification of this point.]

I believe Rosenbaum is aware of all this, and that early on he consciously decided to take the plunge and put down what he thinks, in exactly the language it comes to him in, and let the chips fall where they may. I understand the decision (if indeed he made it), for leavening his style to increase his readership would put him on the same path as the eminently readable, consummately empty Anthony Lane. But film criticism that wants to improve the climate for making good movies is suffering from the same pinch that our political progressives have been suffering from for years: the need for an American idiom which doesn’t sound like cant, and whose logic will appeal to “regular people” (however you define them) and make them want better movies, too. So built-in is our resistance to earnestness that even the baldest description of the situation gets people like Rosenbaum labeled a Chicken Little, often by folks who in a slightly different setting might happily agree with his analysis.

Personally, I’m happy to have a Jonathan Rosenbaum around and saying the things he does; even when he says them in a counterproductive way, it’s better than having nobody say them at all. Since the videotapes of Robert Redford, Harvey Weinstein and Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. sharing a steam-bath and agreeing to suppress foreign and experimental films are apparently never going to see the light of day, much of the evidence for Rosenbaum’s case is necessarily anecdotal. But there are an awful lot of anecdotes to recount, to the point that the bottom-line truth of his argument seems irrefutable. What makes less sense to me are the people, many of them committed cinephiles, who respond to these arguments by freaking the fuck out about them with a faux sophistication masking itself as either cynicism (“It’s only a movie!”) or condescension (“Of course, the studios are jacking us around! Grow up!”). These denials sound just like the push-back of a Fox News anchor when a liberal gets too mouthy on his program—their only intention is to shut the conversation down, ASAP. Since many of the people who don’t want to engage with Rosenbaum’s argument (or its corollaries) are themselves liberals who in the past have been poked by conservatives with the same rhetorical stick, it’s—well, entertaining, I guess is one word for it—when they act like Bill O’Reilly and fight for a status quo which they know to be pathetic.

I’ve got some ideas why people respond to criticism of mainstream entertainment with such vehemence, but that’ll have to wait for my upcoming post entitled I Want My MAYPO! Last night I came across the chapter in Movie Wars dealing with the American Film Institute and its initial list (from 1998) of the “100 Best American Movies”, and it reminded me of just how many people, far from thinking about Rosenbaum’s position and pondering the evidence in favor of it, instinctively side with the suits and their lame-ass product the same way struggling members of the middle-class inexplicably identify with Wall Street investment bankers. It also reminded me of this thread from Salon’s Table Talk message board, just after the AFI list was announced. It preceded Rosenbaum’s book by a couple of years at least, but covers most of his major objections to the exercise, and it’s still a good, lively read, notable for two things in particular. One is that rarest of rarities, the Internet poster who having vociferously aligned himself with one position, does a little research, decides he was wrong, and then not only reverses himself, but does it so all can see. Remarkable.

But I was even more fascinated by the contributions of the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen. The fact that he was a newcomer to Table Talk’s film discussions didn’t keep Rosen from trying to turn the thread into one of his seminars, with Herr Doktor tossing out “stimulating” thinking points for his captive students to mull over. As you can see, his presumption was actually exceeded by the bubbleheaded defenses he mounted on behalf of the AFI’s little PR gimmick. With his rhetorical questions handed down from Parnassus and shameless goalpost shuffling, he was like the anti-Jonathan Rosenbaum, and to this day I wonder what the miserable wienie hoped to accomplish. If he wasn’t a ringer for the AFI, he sure did a great impression of one; for the record, his game hits rock-bottom here.

2 Responses to “Why So Serious?”

  1. Jonathan Rosenbaum Says:

    Just for the record: The subtitle of the original hardcover edition of MOVIE WARS–HOW HOLLYWOOD AND THE MEDIA CONSPIRE TO LIMIT WHAT FILMS WE CAN SEE–wasn’t either coined or selected by me. And when I asked the publisher to eliminate the words “CONSPIRE TO” from the paperback edition, they agreed. So I’ve never been an advocate of conspiracy theories, and, in the case of this book’s arguments, I don’t even think they’re necessary.

  2. Tom Block Says:

    Thanks for making that clear–even if the book’s actual tenor offset it, that “conspire” really jumps off the cover.

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