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“To Understand Movies You Have to Understand the World”: An Interview with Film Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum

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“To Understand Movies You Have to Understand the World”: An Interview with Film Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum

“There were plenty of advantages to living in Paris in the early 1970s, especially if one was a movie buff with time on one’s hands.” So begins film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay for the Criterion Collection edition of Orson Welles’s playful masterpiece of trickery, F for Fake. This highly autobiographical insert accomplishes two things: First, it neatly leads into a compelling anecdote about how Rosenbaum wrote Welles a letter (the maestro had an easily accessible editing studio nearby), leading to an illuminating lunch where Welles shared insights, stories, and delightfully revealing lies. Second, it creates an impression of Rosenbaum as a man who has spent a fair share of time outside the United States, attempting to see and understand the world through his travels.

This taste for exploration has led him to an interest in such varied and fascinating directors as Hungary’s Béla Tarr, East Asia’s Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, Greece’s Theo Angelopoulos, and Africa’s Ousmane Sembène and Souleymane Cissé. He has also retained a healthy skepticism for the posturing jingoism of certain Hollywood movies and a curiosity about non-mainstream American cinema. Rosenbaum’s prose frequently doubles back on itself and examines what it means to be American. When writing about a filmmaker like Jim Jarmusch, he cites that through his “international reputation and multicultural brand of filmmaking, he’s considered more a citizen of the world than an ordinary American director.” Rosenbaum cites the quote from Henri Michauxpreceding Dead Man as an echo towards the “outsider views on America” and that the “robust, charismatic” Native American character Nobody (Gary Farmer) is “the main character playing the ’foreign’ role in Dead Man—a fact touching on the scandal that Native Americans are treated in this country as if they were foreigners.”

Rosenbaum utilizes a global perspective and this allows him to do as a critic what Jarmusch has done as a filmmaker. In interviews for Dead Man, Jarmusch claimed he would seek out the picture-perfect landscapes you might find on postcards, then turn the camera in the other direction to see a few shrubs and rocks, as that is equally a view of America. Rosenbaum was able to make insightful comparison between Joe Dante’s ironic Small Soldiers in counterpoint to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, trusting Dante’s skepticism over Spielberg’s flag waving: “[Small Soldiers is a] trenchant satire masquerading as a summer kids’ movie that’s rude enough to suggest that the emotions and fancies underlying the make-believe war games boys like to play are not so different from the sentiments and fabrications underlying real wars, including our escapades in places such as Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.”

As a critic for the Chicago Reader, Rosenbaum continues to write long-form pieces during a time when most professional critics are increasingly marginalized (and even he isn’t afforded as much space as he once was). He’s not sour about the state of affairs, even looking to the Internet as a source of inspiration, and he has published several books that resonate with his personal, philosophical touch. Moving Places is, in fact, a biographical map (“Imagination believes before knowing constructs,” it begins) that links his emerging consciousness with his love of cinema. I was curious to see if Rosenbaum still approached his work with that level of enthusiasm and found he was open to discussing both his life and his art in equal measure.

When Joseph McBride invited you to contribute to The Book of Movie Lists, you opted for the 10 Best Jazz Films. Was jazz an influence on your approach to writing?

I’ve been a jazz buff since my teens, and I played the clarinet and piano as an amateur jazz musician back in the 50s and 60s. I still have a tape of playing “So What” on piano at Bard College where Chevy Chase is playing drums, and I also occasionally accompanied Blythe Danner as a jazz singer. Jazz still influences the way I look at things. The idea of improvisation and so on has probably had some effect on my writing. I’ve often been concerned about the fact that jazz has very rarely been well served in film. The film I would say is my favorite depiction of jazz is not terribly well known, although I think it may be out on DVD by the end of this year. It’s a short film by Charles Burnett called When it Rains, which uses jazz in an integral way in its plot. Jazz is part of the whole feeling of it, including the way shots are timed. I once had a meeting in Chicago for about three hours with the jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, who used to play with John Coltrane, in connection with a documentary film project about him that I was involved with on different levels. That project never happened, but I actually sent him a copy of When it Rains as an indication of something I felt had an essential jazz feeling. For what it’s worth, Manny Farber actually used to play jazz himself as a teenager. He was heavy into people like Lester Young.

How did you get your start in film criticism?

When I finished graduate school with a degree in English and American Lit, I was hired to edit a collection of film criticism. Particular writers got me interested, and I did more research into film, since it helps to know something about the subject. This is true of jazz and film. One of my first fluid conversations I had in French was with a French film buff at the New York jazz club Village Vanguard. We could communicate because we knew the same people. Most of the French I could most readily understand was in film magazines, since I knew the references, and that became my road into many other things. If we’re to discuss a philosophy of film writing, part of it is that in order to understand movies you have to understand the world.

You moved from New York to Paris in 1969.

I started my career very much as a critic when I was in Europe, writing for Film Comment and Sight and Sound and The Village Voice. When I was writing for the The Village Voice, this was mainly from Europe. When I reviewed Gravity’s Rainbow for the Voice, I was living in Paris. I would get reviewing film jobs from them when I would come back to New York on holidays, and Andrew Sarris would sometimes give me assignments. I covered the Cannes Film Festival for two years when I lived in Paris. I also did some other book reviews when I was living in London.

Was it interesting for you to meet European film critics and filmmakers?

Yes. I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, and got to work for both Jacques Tati and Robert Bresson (as an extra on Four Nights of a Dreamer), and watch portions of the shooting of films by Alain Resnais (Stavisky…), Jacques Rivette (Duelle and Noroit), and even Otto Preminger (Rosebud), among others. I have never been very fluent in French—even though I did manage to translate one of André Bazin’s books [Orson Welles: A Critical View] with a lot of effort. So I was handicapped in that way, and remain so. But my oldest French friend is someone who is a critic who has written for publications all over the world: Bernard Eisenschitz, who wrote that great biography of Nicholas Ray [Nicholas Ray: An American Journey] and who speaks and reads a great many languages fluently.

Do you consider yourself to be a child of the 1960s whose views were informed by that time?

Yes, but on the other hand when people ask me today where I live, I am often tempted to say instead of Chicago, I live on the Internet. That has affected who I am and how I function at least as much and maybe more than my grounding in the 1960s. I also see the Internet as a tool that has allowed me to implement some of my 1960s values.

The interface of film criticism seems to be changing because of the Internet. Print outlets seem to be changing or dying out. Publications are getting squeezed.

I generally have much less space nowadays in the Chicago Reader. This is partly a function of their losing money. With the press in general, and especially the alternative press, ad revenues are shrinking and therefore space is shrinking.

Do you think more people read your Chicago Reader reviews on the Internet than in print?

I suspect so, but I don’t actually know. One of the things that is gratifying is I receive lots of feedback, and most of it seems to come from outside Chicago in different parts of the world. I am in communication with various friends in different parts of the world about film. That is something that would not have even been possible in the 1960s. It’s very ironic. I think there is an awful lot of misperception. It’s like when people say, “Americans hate subtitles…except when they don’t!” “Young people read a lot…except when they don’t!” They spend a large portion of their lives reading and writing email, although somehow this doesn’t seem to count as reading or writing, and I don’t know why. I think people tend to be way too confident about what they think they know is happening, whereas most of us tend to be still in the dark about what is happening.

What do you think was the incentive for you to write your autobiographical account of filmgoing, Moving Places?

It was a combination of factors. First of all, I had been living in Europe for almost eight years and I came back to the States. I partly came back because my original interest was in writing fiction and I felt I was losing touch with American language. It was a rediscovery of my roots in a way. Also, I was lucky enough to get an NEA Grant at a time when I really needed it. My part time teaching job didn’t get renewed, so that grant for $5,000 was something to support me, and it was worth a lot more then than it is now. All of those things came together and I started on the book.

Did you feel that book helped you reach certain breakthroughs in your writing or your life?

Both—although initially it had a very negative effect on my career in film criticism, because it wasn’t film criticism and it wasn’t something that could pave the way toward a career in film criticism. I was naïve enough to believe it was a road out of film criticism. I still have a side of me that has an interest in literary writing. My book on Dead Man has a lot of literary aspects to it as well. That book is partially about a subject I often try to address in my writing, which is why things are embraced or rejected for ideological reasons.

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is one of those great American films that was largely rejected or ignored here in the States.

I think that had something to do with its extremely negative treatment of certain aspects of America, including racism, genocide and capitalism, which gives the film an incredible edge. The main discovery I made about the film, which I feel is the most important aspect of it, is that it is the only western that I can think of involving Native Americans and made by a white person who thinks of Native Americans as being members of the audience. Jarmusch even addresses specific things to them. I think that gives it a whole different quality from what you find in any other western.

You’ve covered many American independent and non-mainstream American films. In addition, you have sought out films from Africa, Iran, Taiwan, and Hungary.

To some limited extent, film can be a road into other cultures and other parts of the world, especially considering how isolated America is and how disastrous some of the consequences of those isolations are. You can see that in the newspaper every day. I feel that I am ignorant about the rest of the world, but an obvious way one can at least start to learn is through seeing films from other countries. I think that is an attitude shared by many people that I know. There is always talk about how there is no interest in foreign films, but I don’t think anybody knows what the audience wants. Nobody pays attention to how much interest there is in DVDs. I write about DVDs for a column I do for Cinema Scope and am continually amazed how sophisticated younger people are about filmmaking all over the world. It’s exciting that you don’t have to be in a big city to keep up with this kind of cinema. You can be anywhere.

Theatrical distribution for foreign films is in a bad state, but you would argue we have DVDs, Netflix, and Criterion—

And you have multi-regional DVD players, which makes a big difference. When I wanted to get a tri-standard VCR in Chicago, I had to order it from New York. Jim Jarmusch sent me a catalogue about how to get it from there. But if I want to get a multi-regional DVD player, I can get it at Radio Shack. Not everybody knows this, but a surprising number have acted on it. That immediately gives you access to films from all over the world. The main problem now isn’t about these things being available, but of so many things being available and not knowing how to choose. That’s why I’ve found in my own work. the most popular articles I write often involve lists, such as the alternative list of 100 American Films in Movie Wars and the list of 1,000 films I did in Essential Cinema.

You have been writing about film for some time now. Do you feel your philosophy about film has changed or evolved over time?

One thing that has been important to me is in some way to experiment with form in writing, including film criticism. Getting involved with collaborations and exchanges with other writers has also been very fruitful. I have done several books in collaboration with others. Movie Mutations, co-edited by the Australian film critic Adrian Martin, was written by several people from around the world. It’s made up of various exchanges, letters, and so on. Most people’s concept of writing is that it is a very solitary activity, but this was a very social, communal way of working. I also wrote a book with an Iranian woman, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, about Abbas Kiarostami, and collaborated with Jim Hoberman on Midnight Movies. I collaborated with Bill Krohn on a book about Joe Dante [Joe Dante et les Gremlins de Hollywood] that hasn’t been out in English, but has been out in French and Italian.

The title of the book Movie Mutations is very specific. The word “mutations” implies that movies are a malleable, continuing, and moving thing. How did you arrive at that title?

There was quite a bit of discussion about it, because some people see the term “mutations” as being negative, as in the results of nuclear fallout. And more than one editor referred to the book as if it were about the “death of cinema,” when of course it’s nothing of the sort. But the term does imply that things are in a constant state of change or flux. It’s important to recognize those kinds of changes because otherwise one becomes the victim of them, whereas if one knows what is happening one can play a more active role. I was particularly interested in the exchanges I had with a wonderful Japanese film critic named Shigehiko Hasumi. He is very much interested in Howard Hawks and I became very interested in a Japanese filmmaker named Yasuzo Masumura. My intention, although it didn’t work out entirely in that way, was to explore what was American about my interest in Masumura and what was Japanese about Hasumi’s interest in Hawks.

Have you ever radically changed your mind on films?

Oh yes. In fact, some of my favorite films now were films that didn’t bowl me over when I saw them the first time. I hated Ordet at first and the same thing was true of Stalker. I’ve never been able to understand the Pauline Kael tradition where you’re only supposed to see a film once and that reaction should be right for all eternity. To me, that violates the entire notion of what a human personality is. I like to think everything is subject to revision. We change as history changes, and what makes certain older works now look different is the way in which they anticipate contemporary works.

You’ve had some interesting encounters with the work of Orson Welles—specifically your involvement in the re-editing of Touch of Evil. You had a chance to read Welles’s famous memo and helped get it published.

I was lucky enough very early in my years in Paris to have met Welles. I wrote him a letter while he was editing F for Fake there and he invited me to lunch, which was an amazing experience. After his death, I did a tribute to Welles at the Rotterdam Film Festival with Oja Kodar, who was his companion and main collaborator during the last 25 years of his life. I became very interested in publishing a couple of his unrealized screenplays that I had been lucky enough to read, The Big Brass Ring and The Cradle Will Rock, and those eventually came out in limited editions. This led to Oja asking me to edit This is Orson Welles, which was a very big undertaking. The memo was one of the many documents originally cut out of the book by the editor at Harper Collins because of space. Whenever cuts like that were made, I arranged whenever possible to publish them elsewhere. I was eventually able to find a place to publish the memo. It amazes me still that most places I contacted were not even interested in reading it, like the editor of Film Comment. I found that staggering.

Do you have a sense of where Orson Welles was going with his Don Quixote project?

My next book is a collection of my pieces on Orson Welles, which is coming out in spring 2007 and is called Discovering Orson Welles. The last piece is about his Don Quixote and in some ways it’s the most complicated of his unseen works because it is the one he worked on the longest. It went through many different phases. I’ve seen maybe two hours or more of material from the film, but it’s very hard to research because a lot of the original material is held by the editor, who is not letting anyone see it. There have also been lawsuits. So far, all the efforts to reconcile these issues—most recently, by Marco Müller, director of the Venice film festival—have failed. Also, the only commercial version that has come out of Don Quixote is the worst devastation of Welles’ work that exists anywhere. It makes the things done to The Magnificent Ambersons seem trifling in comparison. The stuff that Jesús Franco did is an abomination and turns what would have been one of Welles’ greatest works into what could easily be considered his worst. In fact, it isn’t a work by Welles anymore, but it has been marketed as such just the same. It is the worst, because it’s very boring and has added zooms and other ugly details matted into it, much of the dialogue is dubbed by other people, and a lot of hackwork that Welles did which had nothing to do with Don Quixote—such as excerpts from an Italian TV miniseries called Orson Welles in the Land of Don Quixote, done mainly so he could finance portions of Don Quixote and shoot in Spain—has been inserted as if it were the same project. I hope it will see the light of day in a proper version someday, but don’t have a lot of confidence that it will. There is more immediate hope for being able to see The Other Side of the Wind because there is at least some indication that a contract will be signed. The problem is that if and when these films see the light of day, they will not be received well by critics because they aren’t what people are looking for from Welles. In fact, that was the genius of Welles. He never wanted to give people what they expected from him. They wanted “another Citizen Kane,” whatever that means. One always has to adjust one’s preconceptions and expectations and that’s one of the great challenges of his work.