Legendary Film Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum Talks The Future Of Filmgoing

Jim Tudor, Contributor
Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has been one of the most essential, unmistakable voices on the cinema landscape for several decades. 

He's written for virtually all of the major film publications, including Sight & Sound, Film Comment, and Film Quarterly, as well as The Village Voice before his retirement in 2008 when he was the principal film critic for The Chicago Reader

Among numerous other things, Rosenbaum became known as one of the greatest proponents of seeking out World Cinema, well beyond what we are fed through the entertainment pipeline, "art house" or otherwise. His opinions are always sharp, his pool of knowledge exceptionally deep, and range of experience something of a marvel. He's been lauded by everyone from Roger Ebert to Jean-Luc Godard as one of America's vital film critics. 

Through all of that, though, there's something of a humility and forthrightness to Rosenbaum, as evidenced in much of his autobiographical writing. A champion of individuals starting their own cinema clubs in efforts to foster community and cinematic diversity, Jonathan Rosenbaum is also concerned about the future of film-going in our increasingly corporate and digital age.

In conducting this interview, my hope has been to tap into Mr. Rosenbaum's knowledge base and life experience in an effort to build a humble bridge between the casual but curious movie watcher, and the experienced intellectual cinema culture. As Mr. Rosenbaum points out, much of the info for further film exploration is readily available, if only we venture to seek it. Let us take his advocacy and passion as a challenge to broaden all of our horizons, so that we may better understand one another.

Twitch: Mr. Rosenbaum, thank you so much for your time and for your work. In your career, you moved around a lot, living and working in major cities such as Paris and New York before finally landing in Chicago. Obviously, an advantage to living in those places was a wider and far more diverse selection of films being projected. In this new age of VOD, DVD, Netflix streaming, and torrent sites, how big of a role does geographic location play for today's film buffs?

Jonathan Rosenbaum: Paris and New York offer more exhibition choices, but these only matter if you know what you're looking for. The same thing applies to other forms of viewing, and in those cases geography doesn't matter so much. Sometimes living somewhere remote is even better, at least if you're focused.

I, like most critics, work the weekly new release beat, spending a great deal of time simply covering what's put in front of us by American distributors. I've found that for the most part, even our local art house chain is only going to provide a certain type of film. (For example, no TURIN HORSE, no ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA.) What are your thoughts on this state of things?

They're not bad for those who are motivated and resourceful. And they weren't that much better in the so- called golden age of the 60s and 70s. At least you've heard of The Turin Horse; back then you might not have. If you know to use it, the Internet is an invaluable resource. And where there's a will to find something, there's most often a way to find it, at least if you're persistent and not lazy.

Many of the films you write about are rare or "off the beaten path". Even a critically lauded work like Bela Tarr's SATANTANGO (one of the recent Sight & Sound top 50 of all time) is difficult to locate on DVD in the U.S. Do you have any secrets or suggestions that might help other cinephiles gain access to more obscure but worthwhile films?

Sátántangó is available from Facets Video- or such is my impression. Anybody who wants tosatantangowalk.jpg find a copy on the Internet can surely do so. My friends have done so, and so can you. (Added a moment later:) A multiregional DVD player is essential, and these are cheap and easy to find. I just checked Amazon, and you can get an English DVD of Satantango on Amazon UK for about $33 & postage - not bad for a 7-hour film.

(Author's note: Not bad, indeed. "Sátántangó" was made available from Facets in the U.S. several years ago, but has since apparently gone out of print and now sells for hundreds of dollars. The UK option is a great solution to obtaining this film.)

One suggestion: create your own film culture, including your own cine-clubs, and don't wait for ANY film industry to bring it to you. If you do that, you'll wait forever and in vain.

Are there any mainstream American releases of recent years that you've valued?

Many. Bernie is the first that comes to mind. But check my web site and you'll find others.

Through my organization ZekeFilm, I go to certain lengths to educate about film and host regular movie night discussions. Sometimes, it's very difficult to lure people out for a screening when they could just as easily watch the movie at home. Do you have any thoughts on intentional communal film screenings?

What's wrong with holding them in people's homes? Comfortable surroundings always help.

How important is an academic presence in film criticism today? Should critics also be formally teaching?

Some do. But some of the least helpful critics also teach. There's no single answer to this.

In your 1981 piece on the film DOOMED LOVE, you wrote, "One set of words about film exists for the people who see them, another for the people who make them, and a third for the academics who study them." To a large degree, this strikes at the heart of division in film culture (at least, circa 1981). What do you currently view as the pitfalls and/or pluses of such partition? Have we today become even more fractured as a viewing populace?

Yes and no - but mainly no, thanks to the Internet. We no longer have an alternative press, but we have something better now-niche markets. But we have to be creative and highly focused explorers of these niches, and sometimes create them ourselves.

You had the experience of knowing and working with one of the most highly regarded film critics of all time, Manny Farber. So much has changed in film criticism since his time... Do you feel that there's currently anyone (or anything) who can fill the void he left, in terms of informing the film-going scene with articulate impressionistic takes on popular cinema (as opposed to the generally accepted like it/didn't like it bottom lines)? Who's film writing do you value?

Adrian Martin is my favorite, but there are many other fine critics around: James Naremore, Nicole Brenez, Dave Kehr, sometimes Kent Jones. Check out lolajournal.com and rouge.com.au for many of the best writers, and don't restrict yourself to Americans.

A bulk of distribution has gone from major studios to film festivals. What's the next logical step? Is there a foreseeable way to eliminate the middleman of distribution and go straight to the viewers?

Start your own cineclub, invite your friends, show and discuss your favorites. It isn't that hard. I've done it in Richmond, Virginia, which is far more off the beaten path than St. Louis. My own weekly series had a loyal following, and people of all ages came.

Where do you see film headed in light of the proliferation of affordable digital equipment? Is it good so many people have the equipment to make movies? Is the market oversaturated?

Yes to both questions. As I've said, you have to know what you're looking for, at least to some degree - but you can discover that through trial and error. And I wouldn't rule out piracy, especially in those cases where you can't see certain things otherwise and it's not about making money but sharing art and enlightenment with your friends.

Perhaps a softball question, but I'm genuinely curious - how does it feel to be lauded as a critic by Jean-Luc Godard?

Good.

Greed book.jpgYou're coming to my home town, St. Louis, MO to introduce a rare screening of Erich von Stroheim silent epic, GREED. (Some people may not know that you literally wrote the book on Greed, for the BFI in 1993.) Could you give readers a quick reason or two why this is an event that is not to be missed?

Not really. It may not be something for everyone in the world. But for me, Stroheim was one of the greatest of all film makers-better than Griffith or Spielberg or Tarantino in my book. If you're curious about him, Greed and Foolish Wives are probably his two greatest works, even though what we have of them is only ruins.

Thank you again for your time in considering these questions, Mr. Rosenbaum. I confess to not having been able to see a great many of the films you've written about over the years, but it's your eloquence, knowledge and authority that keeps me coming back. That, and the hope that I will be able to seek out the gems you unearth. Jonathan Rosenbaum can be found online at JonathanRosenbaum.com, which contains an expansive archive of his Chicago Reader work, and much more. His numerous books include "Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition", "Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism", "Moving Places: A Life at the Movies", and "Greed (BFI Film Classics)".

Special thanks to Paul Hibbard for contributing two of the questions.

This interview was originally published at ZekeFilm.org, which is based in St. Louis, MO.

A 35mm print of Erich von Stroheim's GREED will screen in St. Louis Saturday April 6, 2013 as part of the 2013 Greater St. Louis Humanities Festival, Cinema St. Louis and the Webster U. Film Series. The film will be introduced and discussed by Mr. Rosenbaum. The screening will feature an original score and live musical accompaniment created and performed by the Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra. Click here for more information.
Around the Internet:
  • berliner2

    Check out Adrian Martin in his current role as Guest Professor at Goethe Universität Frankfurt, Germany: http://www.tfm.uni-frankfurt.d...

  • Jon DiBenedetto

    Interesting! Thanks for the link....

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