Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum is deeply vexed by what he sees as the cultural bankruptcy of the American movie business. A voracious film enthusiast, he appears to have seen nearly everything committed to celluloid, and some of his favorite features have for decades been virtually inaccessible to American viewers — the early silent oeuvre of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu; Louis Feuillade’s 1915-16 10-episode serial “Les Vampires” (finally released on video in 1998); the work of filmmakers Haron Farocki and Manoel de Oliveira, appearing occasionally on the festival circuit but scarcely ever in the U.S.
Conventional wisdom may hold that these films wouldn’t appeal to American filmgoers under any circumstances, that the public is so numb to art that strange and challenging — and subtitled — fare can’t crack the market.
But Rosenbaum disagrees. In his view, the studios, distributors, exhibitors and film critics are to blame for dumbing down the entertainment landscape. Together, they’ve acted in concert as cultural commissars, keeping some of the best of international cinema out of theaters.
Studios, he writes, are slaves to market testing, treating audiences as if they don’t “have voices, only automatic reflexes and wallets.” Critics, he charges, have abandoned their responsibility to the public, serving largely as mouthpieces for Hollywood. And Rosenbaum sticks it to those responsible. He accuses DreamWorks and Miramax of burying movies; he lambastes critics like David Denby, Janet Maslin and David Thompson for being interested solely in “commerce and fashion, not in art.”
But nothing has Rosenbaum more exorcised than the AFI’s much trumpeted 1998 list of the 100 greatest American movies — a “short-sighted hit parade of recent box office champs and forgettable Oscar winners larded with a few familiar classics.” A joint venture of the AFI, Blockbuster, CBS, TNT and the homevideo divisions of several studios, the list reflects, in his words, “the increasing lack of any viable distinction between corporate greed and what used to be public works.”
Compelling as these ideas may be, Rosenbaum is a clumsy polemicist who rarely argues a point without injecting an ad hominem attack, an airy autobiographical anecdote, a sneering generalization or a pedantic aside. Studio execs, he writes, are “narrow-minded simpletons who want to cover their own asses”; Sundance, which he’s never attended, is allegedly the only festival where audience members speak on their cell phones in screenings; distribution decisions by Miramax express “the sort of arbitrary exercise of power I associate with Stalinist Russia.”
Rosenbaum’s bile, which oozes across such pages, ill-serves a treatise that attempts to paint the entire movie business in broad, conspiratorial terms. Those whose eyes glaze over at references to “the media-industrial complex” may not be Rosenbaum’s target audience, but his venomous contempt for the powers that govern most of mainstream Hollywood isn’t likely to win any converts in those quarters.