Burn Hollywood Burn 

The country's best film critic leads a cinematic charge with 'Movie Wars'

The country's best film critic leads a cinematic charge with 'Movie Wars'

Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

(A Cappella Books, 234 pp., $24)

Roughly four years ago, browsing through a local bookstore, I chanced upon Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Placing Movies and tore through the 300-page volume over an unusually hectic weekend. Catching up with his regular Chicago Reader column, I soon began regarding him as America’s finest film critic. When pressed to support this assertion, I inevitably resorted to some vaguely defined argument: his palpable love of film; his ability to convey challenging, often complex ideas in clear, precise prose; his commitment to enhancing and expanding the reader’s film experience. But these qualities, though increasingly rare, are shared in varying degrees by many of our best critics.

It was only recently, after reading Rosenbaum’s introductory remarks to a review of the Chinese arthouse favorite Shower, that I finally understood why I value his criticism over that of, say, the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman, Film Comment’s Kent Jones, or citysearch.com’s Dave Kehr. Fretting over an earlier review of Raul Ruiz’s Time Regained, Rosenbaum wondered what impact his reservations concerning the adaptation’s “necessity” had had on Chicago’s suburban communities. Apparently, many area colleagues were “forbidden” from reviewing the film—an editorial decision that effectively limited readers’ information and options. Rosenbaum’s voiced concerns illustrate a central tenet of his criticism: Film is a living art that requires the active participation and involvement of an empowered, informed audience. In short, he cares about what happens in the suburbs.

A similar preoccupation with our cinematic culture’s health was obviously a driving motivation for Rosenbaum’s latest work, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See. Combining bits and pieces from prior columns and festival overviews with much original material, the book is energized with a sense of urgency and import. And though the title portends a paranoia worthy of Oliver Stone, Rosenbaum’s arguments are well researched and convincingly presented. In many cases, he clarifies and strengthens previously stated positions and ideas.

Movie Wars locates the primary cause for cinephilia’s current dilemma in producers’ and distributors’ unchecked vertical integration and their resultant influence over distribution outlets and information channels. Though one might argue that such consolidation of power is merely a byproduct of capitalism-at-work, the development is nonetheless indicative of the industry’s slow co-optation of the market’s machinery, facilitated by the gradual erosion of antitrust legislation and the media’s misguided infatuation with capital over art. The end result: “No matter how much the capacity to make movies that matter has been impaired, the capacity to advertise, market, and disseminate them has only improved.”

Not surprisingly, the current cinematic terrain is clouded by contradiction and compromised information. Listings of weekly grosses, though often doctored, are presented as de facto barometers of quality. The Sundance Film Festival, widely perceived as the world’s premier independent showcase, has shifted its focus from screening quality unsigned features to selling indie product—in effect, encouraging young filmmakers to trade their artistic autonomy for corporate “security.” Even the towering legacy of Orson Welles is subject to the vicissitudes of marketing-department manipulation. Now that he’s safely buried, his longtime industry nemeses are free to redefine the mercurial director’s image according to the (often contradictory) dictates of ad copy—failed Hollywood director, maverick independent, art-cinema elitist, cloddish buffoon.

Rosenbaum places much of the blame for the industry’s unchecked influence on a fawning, ultimately enabling media. Having long since accepted the received notion that Hollywood is simply meeting public demand, film critics have succumbed to a malaise of ambivalence and misdirected intentions. No longer initiating or even directing the flow of critical discourse, most journalists find themselves trapped in the unenviable role of middleman, pleasing distributors (to maintain “access”) while anticipating audience reaction (to increase circulation).

The inevitable result of such alienation is criticism that effectively functions as an extension of the studios’ marketing efforts. Proclamations of cinema’s demise are quickly followed by mindlessly hyperbolic paeans to Hollywood’s latest savior. Blithely unaware doublethink tests the extremes of reader credulity—e.g. a typical jawdropper from The New Yorker’s David Denby: Saving Private Ryan “blows every other World War II film out of the water.” Such professional concessions reduce the critic to little more than distributor mouthpiece. In her by now infamous 1999 Cannes Film Festival wrap-up, The New York Times’ Janet Maslin quickly dispensed with the festival’s worthy prize winners Rosetta and L’Humanité to focus on Cannes’ “real” story: Miramax president Harvey Weinstein and his colleagues’ appalled reaction to the festival’s perceived snubbing of Hollywood.

Taken as a whole, Rosenbaum’s disconcerting truths sensitize the reader to a cultural landscape seemingly overrun with instances of self-deluded, media-fueled misinformation. In his coverage of the most recent Toronto International Film Festival, Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman argues that though the festival features dozens of foreign films, the “merciless truth” is that only a handful “will achieve any real visibility or impact.” Then, without questioning (or comprehending) his role in the formulation, he mentions only a single foreign-language film—a dismissal, natch—in his ensuing discussion.

Perhaps more chillingly, this critical affliction has insinuated itself into academic and “serious” film discourse as well. In a recent Film Comment, editor Gavin Smith sidesteps the magazine’s apparent commercial motivation for putting a still of Jim Carrey from Me, Myself and Irene on the cover, instead championing the artistic merit of the Farrelly brothers’ oeuvre—implicitly placing them on par with Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. Even Rosenbaum (inadvertently) falls victim to the selective distortions of cultural isolationism (one of the many criticisms he levels against his colleagues): Movie Wars’ dust-jacket bio mentions his contributions to several prestigious American film journals but fails to note his work for France’s Trafic—even though much of one chapter originally appeared in the magazine.

As entertaining as this critical “blood sport” may be, such exercises quickly devolve into destruction for destruction’s sake. In fact, Movie Wars’ most obvious shortcoming is its largely pessimistic stance, a potential limitation Rosenbaum acknowledges in the book’s introduction: “If my purpose in zeroing in on these misunderstandings is polemical...this is simply because they block us all from enjoying the kind of positive experiences at the movies that are still theoretically available.” Fair enough, but after over 200 pages of “negative” examples, the reader is likely to emerge feeling powerless and disconsolate; how can a lone filmgoer possibly resist the firmly entrenched might of the media industrial complex?

The book might have provided greater lift (and hope) if the author had emphasized the efforts of the many “marginal” reviewers (Hoberman, Kehr), distributors (WinStar, Milestone), and independent theaters actively involved in film lovers’ ongoing struggle. Certainly, Rosenbaum has faith in the audience (or, at the very least, an audience). After all, if he had blindly accepted the industry’s (hopefully) chimerical caricature of the viewing public as largely passive and hype-driven, he never would have written Movie Wars in the first place.

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