Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia:
Film Culture in Transition
In the world of journalism, Jonathan Rosenbaum is a top tier critic–by which I don’t mean the kind who write for nationally-circulated dailies, but the kind who write thoughtful pieces for people who truly care about film. He’s also a (relatively young) member of that second-or-third generation of serious film critics, the radicals that gave us the auteur theory and really brought some of the seriousness of literary study to looking at films. Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (hereafter GCHC) is his eighteenth book.
Made up of over fifty essays spanning most of his career, but more generally from the last decade, GCHC is split into four parts: Position Papers; Actors, Actors-Writers-Directors, Filmmakers; Films; and Criticism. To make a high-culture reference that the former English Lit grad student in Rosenbaum would appreciate, this system of classification can seem something like a Borgesian Chinese Encyclopedia, arguably either meaningless, mutually inclusive, or contradictory. What is any criticism but a sort of position paper? What is any film review or filmmaker assessment but some kind of criticism? But this is not a book, but a collection of writing. What we get is not a sustained argument about “film culture in transition,” but thoughtful prose from one of the chief proponents of and participants in film culture.
The first two sections were those I enjoyed the most. While Rosenbaum’s thoughts on individual films are worthy, I was pleased by Rosenbaum’s discourse on film and politics, as well as by his dissections of individual stars and filmmakers. These pieces include thoughts on film marketing and what it means to be “cinema” in the 2000s, a defense of Marilyn Monroe’s intelligence, a very compelling deconstruction of the term “Director’s Cut,” an essay on film in the era of Bush, and a very original take on the wide-reaching influence of marijuana culture on mainstream filmmaking.
A committed and passionate liberal writing at a time when George W. Bush was still our President and anger about Iraq was at its peak, Rosenbaum is particularly enthusiastic about Moveon.org’s traveling show of documentaries (Outfoxed, Uncovered, Unprecedented), popularized without a true theatrical release. He sees this as a future not just for political movements, but for cinema itself. It’s an interesting idea, and one that recalls the traveling picture show that was the primary means of distribution in cinema’s earliest history—a parallel Rosenbaum uncharacteristically and unexpectedly fails to mention.
In his opinions on films, Rosenbaum doesn’t seem to be the intentionally iconoclastic type, but he also makes no excuses for his disagreements with the canon; in fact, he hardly acknowledges a canon, and, in true high-culture critic style, he rather admirably considers his word final. For Rosenbaum, The Godfather is “broadly speaking . . . a generic gangster film with arthouse trimmings,” “the sort of studio sucker-punch” that admired critic Pauline Kael was atypically unable to see through; filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, hero of both the New German Cinema and queer cinema, makes films that are politically conservative because they’re “defeatist,” offering no positive way out for their trapped, isolated characters; and Albert Brooks is vastly superior to Woody Allen (“despite [Allen’s] flair for intellectual name-dropping, fashionable literary themes, and stylishly derivative mise en scene, none of his movies offers as much genuine and original substance as any of Brooks’ in subject, style, feeling, or execution”).
Rosenbaum’s apparent distaste for Allen and distrust of inherently “conservative defeatism” are two of the recurring elements one can trace through the book; others include the regrettable rift between academic and journalistic film criticism, Rosenbaum’s time working with Jacques Tati, his love of Moveon.org, his ideals about the democratic potential of the Internet. When Rosenbaum writes about the changes currently taking place in the ways audiences experience cinema, he is more optimistic than most cinephiles of his generation. The internet and digital technology represent to Rosenbaum something of a renaissance, in a true sense, as they have urged both a resurgence and a restructuring of how people can view “films” (if they can still be called that), what they can view, and how they can organize around their love of films.
But there is just a dash of pretension about some of this writing, something less democratic. And although the book’s jacket copy claims that “For Rosenbaum, there is no high or low cinema,” many of his positions, while entertaining and cogent, certainly require a presumption of “high” and “low” something. In “In Defense of Spoilers,” he forwards a sound argument that there is so much to enjoy in a film, the early revelation of plot elements should not ruin the experience for the audience. Demanding that everyone feel this way, however, suggests that there is a “right” and a “wrong” way for people to enjoy cinema, delegitimizing the pleasure-in-film of people who’d rather not know that Rosebud is a sled.
Apologies to anyone who didn’t want to know that Rosebud is a sled.
In any case, Rosenbaum’s 367-page book of discrete articles is by no means a breezy read, but it is an important contribution to the discussion not just of film, but of all of film culture. The point of the work collected in the book is to celebrate and propagate cinephilia even at the expense of what has been known as “cinema.” The easiest link to trace between all these articles is that they are all in some sense a celebration of being part of the larger community of film-lovers–a community at which Rosenbaum has always found himself at the forefront.
Review by Pat Brown
Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition by Jonathan Rosenbaum
University of Chicago Press, 2010
Paper, 376 pp., $25.00
Posted in Reviews