Roger Ebert is a studio lackey, but he's not as ignorant about movies as his late partner Gene Siskel was. The "media-industrial complex" turns most of the nation's film criticism into another form of publicity. The American Film Institute's Top 100 list is a money-grubbing means to sell more videos from the studio vaults. The Danish Dogme 95 movement is a PR scam that plays directly to American film critics' moronic love of hype. Hollywood's market research is designed to make the public appear stupid. Miramax Films buys foreign-language movies in order to bury them. Pauline Kael, during her last years at the New Yorker, initiated an anti-world-cinema campaign that is now standard practice at most mainstream magazines. The Sundance Film Festival is an "industry-run" affair where audience members talk on cell phones during screenings. Cannes, on the other hand, is essential--provided the festival pays your way.
Welcome to the joyous world of Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (A Cappella Books) by Jonathan Rosenbaum, esteemed film critic at the Chicago Reader and author of one of the most unmitigated movie rants since John Simon's last volume of collected pans. One can agree with most or all of what Rosenbaum argues here--in fact, I do--and still find his book to be an oppressive, pedantic bore. What the critic tries to explain over the course of 225 rambling pages is why the mass audience doesn't get exposed to great movies; what he fails to include amid all the finger-pointing is any passionate description of what's at stake.
In previous collections such as Placing Movies and Movies as Politics, Rosenbaum--a vastly knowledgeable and consciously political advocate of world cinema--has leavened his righteous indignation with chapters devoted to the lengthy praise of worthy obscurities. In Movie Wars, the criticism isn't constructive (much less amusing), while even the raves accentuate the negative: A section on Joe Dante's misinterpreted toy story satire Small Soldiers finds Rosenbaum taking inventory of 47 of the film's reviews--none of which, it seems, matched the author's own insights on the movie as published in the Reader.
If Rosenbaum appears pathologically reluctant to herald the perspicacity of other critics, one of the clearer points he makes in Movie Wars is that the ticketbuying masses are likely smarter than they're taken to be, but bear the brunt of blame for dumb-and-dumber cinema under the presumption that sold-out theaters mean that audiences are getting what they want. The reasoning goes that so-called "capitalist film critics" who favor incessant coverage of studio dross have a vested interest in maintaining the public's bad taste so as to justify their own (and that of their corporate employers). Yes--absolutely. But isn't that merely the mainstream part of the equation? How about what's been happening on the fringes to allow public screenings of the critic's beloved works by Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien even despite such tyranny--and even in fly-over country?
Alas, Rosenbaum doesn't much deal with the newly reinvigorated noncorporate circuit of distribution and exhibition that has enabled the esoteric likes of Flowers of Shanghai, Time Regained, and Beau travail to enjoy extended exposure in smaller cities (Minneapolis included)--perhaps because to do so would be to share credit with an entire community of cineastes whose own struggles against the "media-industrial complex" have yielded positive results. Near the end of a particularly gassy chapter titled "Some Vagaries of Distribution and Exhibition," the author's relentless doomsaying has him following suit with those mainstream--er, capitalist--film critics who distinguish corporate-owned art-house chains as an "alternative" to shopping-mall multiplexes and avoid discussion of the rest. Rosenbaum hastily accuses Miramax (an increasingly familiar target of his tirades) of forcing indie theaters to "play ball" by screening its lesser product in trade for hits. But in fact, alternative venues such as Minneapolis's Oak Street Cinema, Parkway Theater, and U Film Society--which, like other theaters around the country, have fortified ties with smaller distributors such as New Yorker Films, Winstar Cinema, and Kino International, among others--haven't needed to rely on mini-major fare for years.
Whether related to film or not, conspiracy theories are more credible when they stem from a reporter's research rather than a critic's speculations. Which is to say that, while the author is right that the mainstream media does "conspire" to prevent Adam Sandler fans from knowing about Kiarostami, he's wrong that the Iranian director is failing to find an audience. Rosenbaum is fond of (re)telling the story of Miramax's spiteful refusal to circulate its sole Kiarostami acquisition, Through the Olive Trees; but actually, the movie has managed to screen anyway, since, as one Madison curator told me recently, the film is readily available through a specialty outfit (known in the industry as a "nontheatrical distributor") that gets its print through the evil Miramax.
In its convenient neglect of a thriving subculture in favor of self-congratulatory rabble-rousing, Movie Wars has more in common with those dire "death of cinema" screeds from a few years ago than its author would likely care to admit. At one point, Rosenbaum suggests "we'd be much better off if we had no film critics at all," although his mainstream-bashing mission seems more like a ploy to get the likes of David Denby and David Thomson to write as rigorously about Hou Hsiao-hsien as he does. Hmmm. Something tells me the movie warrior would rather fight this battle alone.