Of Jonathan Rosenbaum, Jean-Luc Godard says, "I think there is a very good film critic in the United States today, a successor of James Agee, and that is Jonathan Rosenbaum. He's one of the best. We don't have writers like him in France today." I shared this quote in my current editorial in the magazine—but it's a fascinating comment that bears repeating.
Another Rosenbaum fan, the Arkansas-born screenwriter Graham Gordy, said this to me when he learned that Rosenbaum was visiting the 2009 Arkansas Literary Festival in April: "That man is the single best critic in America, and probably across the globe. I've read everything he's written, and am utterly thrilled that he's going to be there."
I have not read everything Mr. Rosenbaum has written. But beginning with Movie Wars (2002), which is a thrilling introduction into expanding one's perception of cinema—the trick is to think not just of U.S. cinema but of world cinema—and the new paperback revised edition of his Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (which also behaves as a thrilling introduction to thinking about world cinema), Mr. Rosenbaum has actively influenced the way I choose—and think about—movies to watch. Simply put, he makes convincing arguments for the value of foreign film directors and films that you've never heard of. He is so persuasive that he will have you scribbling down a seemingly endless list of movies that you just must see. Fortunately, the specter of so many untouched-by-you artistic gems dotting the world outside your door can make you feel young. Can brighten the pace of the blood rushing through your veins. For some of us, Jonathan Rosenbaum renders Netflix more exciting than prom night.
Mr. Rosenbaum grew up in a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright in Florence, Alabama, and in and around movie houses owned by his grandfather, a circumstance he writes about in his first book, Moving Places (1980).
After twenty-one years as the Chicago Reader's film critic, he retired from that post in 2008.
His valuable website, JonathanRosenbaum.com, not only features all of his writing from the Chicago Reader, but it is a cyber museum of astonishing movie stills.
Some of the questions below I already peddled to Mr. Rosenbaum at this year's Arkansas Literary Festival. But here they are for those of you who couldn't be there.
THE OA: Did growing up in a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright have any impact on your visual sense?
JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: Definitely. I associate my love of both CinemaScope and the films of Yasujiro Ozu with a sense imparted by the house that a horizontal line is both dynamic and restful. I also associate some of the dovetailing rhythms and continuities of Orson Welles and Alain Resnais, which I also love, with the flowing, often subtle transitions between certain rooms in the house.
THE OA: You've worked as a movie critic in Paris, London, New York, and, for the longest spell, Chicago. Which locale was the most rewarding for your work?
JR: For seeing movies, Paris first and New York second. For getting work done, Chicago. (Why? Because sports are the cultural backbone of Chicago, and I have zero interest in sports.)
THE OA: Have you ever experienced periods in your life when you felt you were watching too many movies? Can watching too many movies warp a person?
JR: Yes to both questions.
THE OA: One idea that you mention a few times is how "great films invent their own rules." Could you give us some examples of what you mean by this?
JR: Jacques Tati's Playtime teaches us new ways of looking comically at several things at once, in comic relation to one another, in which our own unstable attention becomes part of the point of the gags. The last three films of Carl Dreyer—Day of Wrath, Ordet, and Gertrud—are challenges to both belief and disbelief at the same time. Ivan the Terrible completely breaks down the usual distinctions we make between high art and low art.
THE OA: Based on the responses you've gotten, what was the most controversial piece you've ever written?
JR: Probably the dissenting piece I wrote about Ingmar Bergman shortly after he died—commissioned by the New York Times as an Op-Ed piece, and lamentably titled (by them) "Scenes from an Overrated Career."
THE OA: Is there a movie that you are routinely criticized for calling a masterpiece?
JR: Yes: Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence—although a few others (including James Naremore, my favorite academic film critic) agree with me. And I've been routinely criticized for calling Jerry Lewis a master filmmaker.
THE OA: What annoys you most about some of your fellow movie critics?
JR: The desire not to be challenged.
THE OA: You note the stunning number of filmmakers who got their start as critics in the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma—Assayas, Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Téchiné, et al. Why hasn't the same trend occurred in the USA? Do the French see criticism differently than we do?
JR: I think the French love for both cinema and for intellectual activity has yielded a higher status for film criticism than one would be apt to find in most other places. Also more cine-clubs, more major theatrical rereleases of older films, and often-something that had a crucial influence on my own film education-a better appreciation of American cinema than one can find anywhere else, including the U.S. I'm not sure if this is as true today as it was in the 1950s, when Godard, Moullet, Rivette, Truffaut, and Rohmer were already hip to what Hawks, Hitchcock, Fuller, Mann, Ray, Tashlin, et al, were doing, long before most Americans were. (In some cases—e.g., Fuller, Hawks, and Mann—Manny Farber was an important exception to this rule.)
THE OA: Can you name some movies that you liked at first then changed your opinion of when you saw them again?
JR: Some films that I initially like get stale after a while. I'm in no particular rush to see Stagecoach again.
THE OA: How about the reverse-did you ever think you disliked a movie only to enjoy it the second time around?
JR: I despised Tarkovsky's Stalker the first time I saw it, but then I couldn't shake it loose. The same thing happened to me with Ordet, and I'm sure I could come up with many mainstream examples as well—one of which, Basic Instinct, I recently wrote about (briefly) for Film Comment.
THE OA: A lot of movie lovers and critics can trace their passion back to Pauline Kael...but even though you respect her, you also find her wrong-headed. Would you explain this?
JR: I think she tended to overrate light entertainment and underrate too many forms of intellectual art. Perhaps for the same reason, she was far too preoccupied—at least to my taste—with power (a boring subject for me most of the time, especially when it becomes a writer's major focus-as it does for one of her acolytes, David Denby). Most of all, I think her determination to see films only once and never to change her mind about them was extremely limiting. And finally, as a scholar, she was both unreliable (as in her skewered account of the authorship of the Citizen Kane script) and usually unwilling to correct her errors.
THE OA: I would argue that Kael's first love was acting and that yours is the aesthetics of direction. If this is true, how would this affect you in seeing things differently? (One example: She loved Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking and that seemed to help her admire the movie much more than you did. In Essential Cinema, you have an aside in which you criticize Dead Man Walking without mentioning Penn.)
JR: I think you've answered that question yourself.
THE OA: You mention Harold Bloom's "caveat that art doesn't make people into better citizens," but I'm thinking one reason you like good movies from the Middle East and Communist countries is that they help destroy stereotypes...which in turn makes us better citizens. True?
THE OA: While having the power to blast away at stereotypes, does film also have the power to lull us into dangerous thinking? For example, I find it easy to fall in love with Iranian culture when watching the movies of director Abbas Kiarostami. But then he doesn't show homosexuals or adulterers being stoned to death—or focus on the fact that women aren't allowed to ride bicycles in his country, etc.
JR: Of course film has the power to lull us into dangerous thinking-and three of my own key examples are Star Wars, The Silence of the Lambs, and No Country for Old Men. On the other hand, name me one American filmmaker as talented as Kiarostami who's shown innocent Iraqi civilians being taken to Abu Ghraib and tortured by Americans for fun and/or profit. Or who's shown Americans cheering and voting for a stupid President who permitted and encouraged this torture.
Truthfully, we could cite Brian De Palma as an American filmmaker who was willing to do the first part of this-although whether he taught us anything or enhanced his talent by doing so is also a question worth bringing up. (I wouldn't deny that De Palma at least showed some guts and principles in making Redacted.) And when Abel Ferrara chooses to deal with such American horrors, allegorically or otherwise, this invariably guarantees that his movie won't get released in the U.S.; see Nicole Brenez's powerful recent book about him (in English) for multiple illustrations. So are you proposing that Kiarostami make a film about people being stoned to death, knowing in advance that he couldn't show it in Iran—and probably couldn't show it in the U.S. either, since none of his films has gotten U.S. distribution since Ten, seven years ago?
In any case, why should we make demands of Kiarostami that we wouldn't dream of making of Steven Spielberg? Especially when we know that Spielberg at least theoretically has more freedom to show American atrocities than Kiarostami has to show Iranian atrocities. P.S.: For the record, one of Iran's most talented contemporary filmmakers, Marziyeh Meshkini, devotes a third of her first feature, The Day I Became a Woman (1994), to a large group of women in chadors pedaling bicycles down a highway on Kish Island that runs parallel to the Persian Gulf—the only place in Iran where women can ride bicycles freely.
THE OA: I think I know some of your favorite directors: Abbas Kiarostami. Carl Dreyer. Ozu. Welles. Dovzhenko. To name just a few among many. But who are your favorite actors—especially underrated actors?
JR: Just for starters, Christine Lahti, André Dussollier, and Kim Novak.
THE OA: Among the directors you've focused on is Orson Welles. Please tell us which of his fragments/unfinished films are essential viewing.
JR: Above all, Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind, judging from what I've seen of both. Other important works of his, such as The Fountain of Youth and Filming Othello, are neither fragments nor unfinished, but also can't readily be seen.
THE OA: What lost or missing films would you love to see?
JR: The usual Lost Grails: the rough cuts of Erich von Stroheim's Foolish Wives and Greed, Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady from Shanghai; also Josef von Sternberg's The Case of Lena Smith and Paul Fejos's The Last Moment.
THE OA: Speaking of directors, how close was the auteur theory of moviemaking to the truth?
JR: I find la politique des auteurs to be very useful as long as one's speaking about directing styles and thematic constants, but there's more to cinema than that.
THE OA: Is there anybody you didn't write about in Essential Cinema that we need to know about?
JR: There are zillions of important people not written about in my books. And zillions of important movies not included in my list of 1,000 favorite films in the appendix of Essential Cinema.
THE OA: One movie I saw on your recommendation was a comedy, if that's the right word, by Jacques Tati called Mon Oncle. At first, I was disturbed by how slow-moving it felt. Then I got sucked in. In that slow-moving sense, or what I think you call "meditative narrative rhythms," he reminded of Abbas Kiarostami and some of your other favorites. In comparison, most Hollywood movies zoom past us. What is it about these more ruminative movies that click with you?
JR: I like movies that give me time and space to think, to observe, and to ruminate (as well as to meditate).
THE OA: What's the difference between how you watch movies now, in retirement, and when you were the Chicago Reader's movie critic?
JR: The biggest difference is that now I can usually choose what movies I see.
THE OA TEN: Questions we ask of every interviewee. Wee!
1. What is your earliest memory?
JR: Learning to walk (on my grandparents' front lawn).
2. What would you like to change about yourself?
JR: To overcome at least part of my shyness.
3. What are you still trying to accomplish in your professional career?
JR: To establish myself as a writer apart from my identity as a film reviewer and film critic.
4. What is your hidden talent?
JR: My skill as an editor of other people's prose.
5. What subject causes you to rant?
JR: The unqualified and mainly unexamined tolerance and even support of many Americans for arresting and then torturing many innocent Iraqi citizens.
6. What is the biggest mistake you ever made in your professional life?
JR: When I reviewed Satyajit Ray's Distant Thunder for the Spring 1975 issue of Sight and Sound, I abysmally misdescribed the film's ending—a misreading that partially derived from an earlier review by someone else of the same film that appeared in the same magazine in 1973, in a film festival report. This was compounded in turn by two separate London newspaper reviews—again, written by others—that appeared after my review and committed the same blunder.
7. What is one thing that you used to dislike but that you now like?
JR: Paul Verhoeven's flamboyance.
8. What profoundly underrated book, album, or movie would you like to champion for us?
JR: Thornton Wilder's Depression novel, Heaven's My Destination.
9. What is your favorite line from a song?
JR: "No, they can't take that away from me."
10. What was your favorite childhood toy?
JR: A complete collection of MAD Comics.