At the start of Dancer in the Dark, Lars Von Trier’s recent art-house success, there is a musical interlude lasting several minutes. Densely orchestrated and emotionally full, this overture resonates with echoes of movie musicals like The Sound of Music. Poised, like the whole film, between pastoral and pastiche, its audacity lies in the fact that it stands alone, unaccompanied by credits. It asks the audience, at the very outset, to attend to the music, as music, and to reflect, perhaps, on how rare, in fact unheard of, overtures have become in movies.
If you saw the film in Europe, you would have been confronted by a black screen during this interlude. If you saw it in the United States, you would have found yourself gazing at an abstract, kaleidoscopic collage of colors and shapes shifting, deliberately but mercurially, in concert with the music. Either way, the overture remains a daring set-piece. But obviously there’s a big difference between a black screen and a colorful mosaic–a difference of texture and meaning. In truth, Von Trier reportedly added the collage to the American release print at the request of the film’s distributor, who apparently assumed American audiences wouldn’t sit still for mere music, and would require some intense visual stimuli as compensatory accompaniment.
This is a minor but striking example of how what Jonathan Rosenbaum calls the “media-industrial complex”–the combined forces of movie production, distribution and criticism–shapes film culture, controlling what audiences do and do not see, sometimes determining how certain films will be seen, even intervening in basic facets of films’ meanings. Movie history is littered with mythic tales of the clash between art and commerce, from Irving Thalberg’s trashing of Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed on. Typically these are legends of corrupt, venal money-men exploiting the long-suffering artist and the gullible masses.
In Movie Wars, Jonathan Rosenbaum tells a different story, one attuned to the current facts of movie life, such as the increasing decentralization or formative multinationalism of the production and consumption of films. It’s still a tale of corruption and venality, with all the heady pleasures of good muck-raking. But the villains are a different breed: No longer the fat-cat philistines of the front office, they are more often the very people we might rely on precisely to preserve, not despoil, film heritage.
Though a self-professed “cult” writer, Rosenbaum is widely acknowledged as one of the most interesting film critics working today. On the cover of Movie Wars, James Naremore names him “the best film critic in the United States,” while Jean-Luc Godard calls him “a successor of James Agee.” For 30 years Rosenbaum has ably performed such indispensable critical services as deflating bloated reputations (like Oliver Stone’s or the Coen Brothers’) and championing misunderstood or neglected work (like Luc Moullet’s and Elaine May’s–or, yes, even Jerry Lewis’).
Beyond these time-honored critical functions, though, Rosenbaum often thinks about movies in registers other critics couldn’t touch. Despite this depth of engagement, he remains relatively little known, perhaps because he has never had a regular position as staff critic on a national magazine. Since 1987, he has been film critic of the Chicago Reader, a position that has given him greater freedom concerning what films he’s covered, or how he’s written about them, than a stint at, say, The New Yorker ever would have. (By the way, you can read Rosenbaum’s regular reviews at the Chicago Reader’s Web site: chireader.com.) Considering the seriousness and the distinctive idiosyncrasies of Rosenbaum’s sensibility, a stint at The New Yorker would be unthinkable. As a critic, he’s so far removed from the monocled dilettantes of the glossy weeklies or the chortling buffoons of the TV review shows, that he may be, as an important figure marginalized by a debased film culture, among the best illustrations of his book’s own thesis. In a healthy film culture, Rosenbaum would be regarded as a national treasure.
It’s doubtful whether Movie Wars will bring Rosenbaum many new readers. The argument is too relentless, the prognoses too grim, to parse with the daily affirmations of popular film criticism. Despite these affirmations, the dire condition of contemporary film culture appears to be common knowledge; from time to time, one will even hear the consumer-service critics–the Joel Siegels or Michael Roepers–bemoaning its sorry state, amid their breathless encomia of that week’s middlebrow masterpieces. But Rosenbaum’s take on this issue, predictably, is not on the order of the usual glibly obligatory hand-wringing, in which the blame gets placed squarely–either hither, on the backs of the brazen, vulgar moguls, or yon, in the burgeoning trailer-parks of the unwashed mob.
In Movie Wars, Rosenbaum turns his attention from the usual issues of production and reception of movies to the anything-but-straight line that straggles between those relatively still points. He examines the numerous vagaries of distribution and exhibition, promotion and criticism, that serve more and more, he claims, to alienate us from film culture. Great movies are being made, he argues–they’re just not being seen, or else they’re talked about stupidly by critics who’ve become hacks for studios’ publicity departments, or they’re misunderstood by audiences unable to see past the constraining contexts, economic or aesthetic, through which films get filtered.
One of Rosenbaum’s most surprising case studies is a sustained treatment of the critical reception of the movie Small Soldiers. According to Rosenbaum, the movie is a trenchant satire of warmongering, exposing the hypocrisy of a culture that fancies itself peace-loving but packages war as its most prized commodity. It was attacked by critics near-unanimously as cheap, exploitative and violent. This treatment was especially striking, as Rosenbaum points out, in contrast to the reverence of critics’ treatment of such a classy piece of gung-ho combat-kitsch as Saving Private Ryan, released around the same time. Even more striking, Rosenbaum shows how the quantifiably more violent Disney movie, Toy Story, repeatedly emerged as the more wholesome in critics’ comparisons of the films–as in Roger Ebert’s TV review, for instance. Could it be that a film without an explicit antiwar message might be more welcome in a society of hawks? Or might audiences just be dazzled by the Disney brand name into overlooking the violence of the latter film? Either way, Rosenbaum persuades us that basic features of these movies were simply misperceived, showing how the “hype” surrounding films has a lot to do with how we see them.
This example shows the range of Rosenbaum’s argument: He is as concerned as any critic–and more than most–with film as an art form, but he also understands its importance as a popular medium. Though his writing never approaches Pauline Kael-like populism, he contends that audiences are routinely, and unfairly, treated as idiots by the players in the movie-game, not because they’re congenitally incapable of sophistication, but because such treatment serves the interests of the industry–which the players themselves have already ordained.
The fate of Orson Welles’s 1942 masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons, is a classic case. After an allegedly disastrous preview screening, the studio cut the film by nearly an hour, and released with little promotion. Though its greatness is fully visible even in this truncated form, it’s no mystery why the movie failed at the box-office. What Rosenbaum shows here, though, is how the construal of the preview as a “disaster” may well have resulted from the predisposition of a studio eager to dump a compulsively boat-rocking artist. Rosenbaum’s examination of the comment cards from the preview reveals that nearly half of them “were positive, some outright raves.” In other words, the very audience at whose purported behest the film was mutilated in actual fact recognized its quality in large numbers. Once again–an outcome determined not by verifiable reality, but by a destructive complex of ulterior motives.
Rosenbaum puts little stock in developments other commentators celebrate, like the rise of independent film production or “art-film” theaters. Miramax, a company usually supposed to have reinvigorated American film in the 1990s, is for Rosenbaum an example of a distributor that acts as studios used to in the old days of Hollywood, and he reveals how this allegedly positive force in fact buys up twice as many films as it releases, just so competitors can’t get them, and then shelves them. Thus, so we can be treated to the glories of Shakespeare in Love, we’re denied who-knows-how-many other works. And Rosenbaum shows that just as the line between “independent” and “studio” filmmaking gets blurred, to the studios’ benefit, so the difference between chain theaters and independently operated movie houses becomes increasingly mystified.
This point should be of special concern to Triangle filmgoers. The relative liveliness of the film scene here is reliant on a few excellent independent theaters, so it’s an ominous sign that one of these, the Studio, recently relocated to Mission Valley, now appears bent on competing with the chains–substituting more pleasantly trivial crowd-pleasers, like Shakespeare in Love or Billy Elliot, for the demanding, unusual works that real filmgoers crave, like The Ceremony, Lawn Dogs or Holy Smoke, all of which, among many others, the Studio bravely brought us in its heyday.
If, as Rosenbaum implies, a viable film culture were given room to flourish, it would still differ appreciably from the types of culture with which Americans have been most familiar. It would have to be internationalist, not isolationist, and more holistic, less culturally stratified, than it is now. In other words, audiences would have to get over their fear of subtitles–a fear Rosenbaum claims that studio executives overstate–and they’d have to check a lot of their cultural biases at the door. “Multinationalism,” for Rosenbaum, is little more than a marketing strategy of global economics–but its undeniable effect, of producing movies far less definably “national” in their identities than movies perhaps once were, has yet to be dealt with in the making, the marketing, and even the watching of movies.
Rosenbaum deconstructs the implicit nationalism of the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movies–including titles like The Third Man, whose national provenance is anything but clear–by proposing a counter-list. On Rosenbaum’s, bona fide classics like Scarface and Greed rub elbows with “cult” items like Eraserhead or Mikey and Nicky or The Nutty Professor (the Jerry Lewis version, if you please), and avant-garde pieces such as Mark Rappaport’s The Scenic Route or Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son.
Exhilarating in its reach, Rosenbaum’s list is less coherent socio-culturally, but ultimately more coherent aesthetically, than AFI’s list. When I asked Rosenbaum, somewhat rhetorically, whether he worried that his freewheeling mix-and-matching of films of such various types might threaten cultural distinctions–between “high” and “low” culture, for instance–that have traditionally preserved aesthetic standards, he replied, “I think those positions may be necessary sometimes for the egos of filmmakers, but for criticism this is a luxury I don’t feel I can afford.” The point, I think, is that we must be able to value what’s great at every level, while remaining cognizant of how widespread cultural presumptions of value will continue to shape our experiences of films, and even our access to them.