Jonathan Rosenbaum

Movies as Politics

University of California Press

CAN FILM CRITICISM be an art, rather than something the Those-Who-Can't-Do set either does respectably or not? Furthermore, can it be truly political? I'd answer yes to both, since I think critical writing is a creative act performed differently by different people for all sorts of interesting reasons--and besides, as a working critic, I'd naturally like to feel that I'm not squandering my life on trivial pursuits.

But this opinion would be harder to argue without Jonathan Rosenbaum, who's been the Chicago Reader's film critic for the last decade, and among the most relevant anywhere since he started reviewing 30 years ago. Appropriately, Rosenbaum has dedicated his second collection of published reviews, Movies as Politics, to cinematic agitator Samuel Fuller--who once told the author that "If Vincent Canby got fired from the Times today, and he went to a bar and started talking about a movie he'd just seen, nobody there would give a fuck what he thought."

Conversely, Rosenbaum would be invaluable if only for his confessional style of prose, his vast knowledge of world cinema and film history, and the casual wit he applies even to reviewing dreck. (On Breakdown: "If you harbor genocidal fantasies you might get a chuckle or two out of this.") But more significant are his critical rules of the game, which stand in direct opposition to the unstated principles of most reviewers, and to the dangerous notions of criticism as publicity and film as disposable entertainment. To wit: He writes about movies after they've opened (allowing him to critique the criticism); he seeks out and reviews films without distributors (thus breaking the vicious circle of advocating only for what's out there); and, most forbidden of all, he reports critically on the work of distributors, publicists, media outlets, and other critics. Throughout his career, Rosenbaum has upset powerful people, gotten himself banned from Warner Bros. press screenings for three years, and compelled one reader to mail him a piece of shit. You might say he has dared to do his job.

As a result, fellow rabble-rousing cineastes have added immeasurably to his clout. (Could any other working critic have earned a book-jacket rave from Jean-Luc Godard--likening him to James Agee and Andre Bazin, no less?) Still, it's clear that Rosenbaum's critical antagonism isn't self-serving: Knowing that to acknowledge one's politics is merely the least popular form of political reviewing, he chooses to publish in the margins, underpaid but free to support the film culture as he sees fit. Pushing the envelope is both the artistic mission and chief commodity of any decent alt-weekly and its staff, but it's a big credit to both the author and the Reader that much of Rosenbaum's challenging Politics originated there. This includes his lengthy praise of such deserving obscurities as Ousmane Sembene's Black Girl and Chris Marker's The Last Bolshevik; his fearless thrashing of Miramax monopolists Harvey and Bob Weinstein; and his largely negative review of Schindler's List ("even Jews who see this film are implicitly transformed by the narrative structure into Gentile viewers," he writes), which nonetheless registers as a rave because of his admission that it made him "blubber helplessly both times I saw it."

Rosenbaum's honest approach extends to his habit of writing autobiographically--attributing his filmic "xenophilia" to the experience of growing up Jewish in 1950s Alabama, and commencing some of his most political reviews with personal stories. His superb essay on Mississippi Burning begins with a description of the fear he felt as an 18-year-old at a summer camp in Tennessee, when he and his peers were violently harassed by a group of rednecks; he goes on to say that his uncle, a Cleveland rabbi, delivered the eulogy for one of the three murdered activists whose story the film purports to tell. Rosenbaum's point isn't just to claim that he can't be impartial about the film, but that no honest critic could be. More frivilously, his brilliant and hilarious Crumb piece recounts a 1968 LSD adventure, during which he was forced to use Crumb's Head Comix as a guide. ("His art saved me from a bad trip," Rosenbaum writes, "no small accomplishment.")

For an academically inclined critic, Rosenbaum is unusually respectful of his duty as a journalist to save the public from bad trips. His capsule blurbs are often defiantly unpretentious ("It isn't very good but I had a pretty good time watching it," he writes of Private Parts), while even his trenchant analysis of Spike Lee's Malcolm X boils down to a consumer guide--albeit a political one. "The cheapest paperback edition [of The Autobiography of Malcolm X] is $5.95--a buck less than what it costs to see Malcolm X in Chicago, and $7 less than [Lee's book] By Any Means Necessary. And the immediate pleasure of reading it will last more than twice the length of the movie."

In that spirit, I'll mention that a paperback copy of Movies as Politics can be had for exactly one-third the cost of a year's subscription to Entertainment Weekly.

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