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Joining the Flow: An Interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum

Rosenbaum 01

By Jeremy Carr.

On the occasion of two recently published collections – Cinematic Encounters: Interviews and Dialogues (2018) and Cinematic Encounters 2: Portraits and Polemics (2019), both from The University of Illinois Press – Jonathan Rosenbaum discusses a career’s worth of experience. Sharing his views with Film International, he reflects on his relationships with filmmakers and other critics, considers the personal nature of his work, his experience in varied academic environments, and speaks to the nature of film criticism itself. A review of the first Cinematic Encounters is forthcoming in issue 17.4 of Film International.

You frequently stress the importance of engaging in a dialogue with other critics. Could you elaborate on why this is so important and discuss any exceptionally productive examples?

RosenbaumThe most obvious examples would be the writers and cinephiles who formed the nuclei of Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, and what Jonas Mekas called the New American Cinema, although there are many other groups one could cite – in Germany and Russia, and more recently in Taiwan and Iran, for instance. A more modest example, even if it may be immodest for me to say so, is the 2003 anthology I coedited with Adrian Martin, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia – which started out as letters between me, Adrian, Nicole Brenez, Kent Jones, Alex Horwath, and Raymond Bellour that appeared in Trafic, then expanded into many other venues, and has had a good many subsequent spinoffs, not least of which is an annual Croatian film festival with the same title that was launched by Tanja Vrvilo about a dozen years ago. The importance of all these engagements and combined energies should be obvious: just think of the impact of the New Wave on Anglo-American taste regarding Hitchcock, Hawks, Fuller, Sirk, Nick Ray, Tashlin, and countless others.

What was the collaborative process like of writing your book on Abbas Kiarostami with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa?

Doing the book (2nd edition, Illinois, 2018) was originally Mehrnaz’s idea, and our method was to write separate essays and then engage in several dialogues, both with each other and with Kiarostami. More recently, we’ve been collaborating on DVD and Blu-Ray audiocommentaries and we’ve collaborated in a very different way on Mehrnaz’s most recent film, A House is Not a Home, which is currently nearing completion. It’s a personal essay about the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Florence, Alabama commissioned by my parents and which I grew up in, so it’s very much about my family as well. Today the house is a museum owned and operated by the city of Florence.

You’ve formed close relationships with several filmmakers. How have these bonds informed your appreciation of their work? Is there one filmmaker who has left the greatest impression on your own work? And what kind of relationships should critics have with filmmakers in general?

Abbas-Kiarostami-001It’s impossible for me to establish any rules or overall principles or conclusions about this, because every relationship is different from all the others, and has separate consequences. I love my friend Peter Gidal, an English experimental filmmaker, but I don’t love his films – which is okay with him. I revere the work of Alain Resnais, who wasn’t a friend, and didn’t like him very much personally when I interviewed him. I loved Sam Fuller even more as a person than I love him as a filmmaker.

Sometimes knowing a filmmaker enhances your appreciation of her or his work; sometimes it interferes with it; it always and invariably adds complications.

I can’t think of any single filmmaker who’s had the greatest impact on my work, but I can cite a few: Bresson, Chaplin, Dovzhenko, Dreyer, Stroheim, Tati, and Welles – and this is a list that could change next week.

You’ve also visited the sets of several prominent filmmakers making some of their best work. Has there been any one especially illuminating instance?

Not really. And I don’t think that Four Nights of a Dreamer, Stavisky…, Duelle, Noroît, or The Thing qualifies as the best work of Bresson, Resnais, Rivette, or Carpenter. Most shoots that I’ve visited are boring much of the time because they’re mostly about technical preparations. The two Rivette shoots were more interesting than the others because of the unexpected things that happen during street shooting (on Duelle) and when on-camera musicians are improvising (on Noroît), but neither of these excitements corresponded much to qualities I found in the finished films.

You’ve never shied away from including autobiographical content into your writing. Does this just come naturally or do you intentionally incorporate it as something vital to your perspective?

9780060136574-uk-300Much of this came from writing Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, my first book, in the late 70s – a very confessional and very experimental autobiography about my engagement with movies. It wasn’t film criticism, and being someone who had started out as a fiction writer, I naïvely considered it at the time as both a detox journal (as Naked Lunch was for Burroughs) and as a combined farewell to film criticism and launching of a literary career. But it didn’t work out that way. To make a living I had to teach film courses as an adjunct and review movies. But the experience of writing Moving Places changed my criticism because it taught me that (1) autobiography wasn’t only about myself and (2) being autobiographical was a way of telling readers where my opinions and positions were coming from, and (3) that form of honesty was a good way of assisting others in forming their own opinions. This eventually led me to the conclusion that criticism should be a creative form of intervention in a public discussion rather than an attempt to give either the first word or the last word about anything. It’s about stepping into a river and joining the flow.

You’re as much a film historian as you are a critic or journalist. How significant is that role for you and do you view yourself in any one capacity over another?

They should work hand in hand, as part of the same process. And part of the challenge is always to try to think historically about the present.

How essential is it for you to correct misunderstandings and misperceptions about certain films and filmmakers? I’m thinking of your writing on Orson Welles, for example, and your comments on Carl Dreyer and religion or Stroheim’s indebtedness to “McTeague” with Greed.

In a way, these are all examples of trying to think historically about the present.

You’ve discussed your academic career UC Santa Barbara and at Bela Tarr’s Sarajevo film school, which you go into detail concerning your syllabus and the films selected for the students’ education. How do you regard your academic experience and do you wish you could have done more?

I’m teaching a film criticism workshop at the University of Chicago this fall and very much looking forward to it, and I hugely enjoyed my Welles course at the Art Institute earlier this year. I think I’m a much better teacher now than I was when I was trying to sub for Manny Farber at UC San Diego in 1977 because that was a matter of lecturing, not conversation. Even though Farber remains my favorite American film critic – above all because he was an artist and thought like an artist – conversation wasn’t exactly his forte, despite the fact that some of his best criticism grew out of his dialogues with his wife, Patricia Patterson, and was cosigned by her. Manny admitted that reading other critics often spurred his own writing, but on most occasions he never cited them unless they were stars like Agee or Sontag or Sarris. And taking over his film criticism workshop in 1977, I discovered that practically all his students tried to write like him, with terrible results. What still attracts me to the conversation model is that you shouldn’t have a good idea of what you should say if you don’t know whom you’re talking to. Similarly, it’s pointless to say that a film is good or bad if you don’t clarify good or bad for whom – or for what.

You and Jean-Luc Godard discuss the difference between being a critic and “a regular reviewer,” and how it may be impossible to be a critic once a week. How do you define these two functions and have they changed over the period of your career?

I don’t think they’ve changed. The usual distinction is between consumer advice and longer-range thoughts.

You write that film critics are “ideally mediators and facilitators in a public discourse that exists independently of them rather than solitary voices or ‘experts’ who should have the first or last word.” To what extent do you feel this is the case with today’s proliferation of film writers?

It often depends on the venue(s) and the writer(s).

You occasionally criticize other critics for one reason or another. First, what sort of response have you received from any of those you’ve taken issue with? And second, how imperative is it for you to read the work of other critics, either before or after writing your own piece?

Nothing is imperative. I tend to read other critics – sometimes before (especially for my own brand of consumer advice), sometimes afterwards, sometimes both.

Sometimes the people I criticize respond, sometimes they don’t. Amy Taubin didn’t respond to my remarks about her in the Jost interview, but she did respond to two separate letters I wrote earlier to the Soho News, both before I wrote for that long-defunct weekly myself. The first letter ridiculed her for calling Screen magazine “fortunately extremely difficult to find in New York” (or words to that effect – I quote from memory), to which she responded, absurdly, that of course I would come to the defense of a publication of the BFI because I used to work for them. (Screen was supported by a government grant and the BFI was part of the U.K. government, but that’s the only connection, and in fact the two BFI magazines I wrote for were almost completely antagonistic toward Screen and I made several mainly unsuccessful efforts to bridge the gap between them while I was there.) My second letter was a response to Taubin’s attack on me for programing a retrospective called “Rivette in Context” that also included several films not by Rivette as critical cross-references; Taubin insisted incorrectly that all I meant by this was films that Rivette reviewed, which wasn’t true. She also criticized me for not including anything by Feuillade – for her the only legitimate critical cross-reference – which overlooked Rivette’s disavowal of any influence as well as the fact that the only Feuillade film available in the U.S. at the time was a single episode from Fantômas that wasn’t relevant. All I can remember now of Amy’s response to this was a lot of huffing and puffing.

I should add that when I was subsequently offered a reviewing job at Soho News, in 1979, the offer was specifically made to me as a way of forcing Amy out – a move that I considered unethical, so I found a way of accepting the job without forcing her out. However, when Amy found a way of forcing me out of the paper two years later, she took it. (The tipping point was her insistence that she could “objectively” review the first feature of her ex-husband.) This was my only steady source of income at the time, so I have to admit that I’ve harbored a grudge against her ever since. But I would add that I regard her today as a very valuable and extremely competent film journalist, and sometimes a good critic as well, at least when her taste isn’t dictated by her possessive turf consciousness – a disease that can sometimes run rampant among New Yorkers.

I was struck in both Cinematic Encounters by your experience with issues like cancelled assignments and unreturned messages, something I think most writers can relate to. How have you dealt with such frustrations, especially later in your career when you’d become more established?

I’m certainly not established with New York editors, apart from those at Artforum and Cineaste. The current editor of Film Comment wasn’t even willing to read my piece about The Other Side of the Wind that concludes volume two, and he hasn’t offered me any assignments since he took the job; if memory serves, the most I’ve been able to wrangle out of him is a couple of online pieces. The usual way I have of dealing with such rejections (and I’ve had quite a few from other New York publications in recent years) is to place the rejected article in a book and/or on my web site, and also to look for overseas publications, which usually turn out to be much friendlier. It probably isn’t coincidental that I write columns for Canadian and Spanish magazines, and am on the masthead of Trafic, a French quarterly.

You praise Chantal Akerman for her refusal to participate in identity politics. Is this something you see happening more today when it comes to new releases, and is that for good or ill?

I find most forms of identity politics understandable yet often disastrous because it’s usually a form of impotence. In the same way, PC language becomes the consolation prize of powerless people, a way of pretending that they have power after all.

You briefly discuss the television career of James L. Brooks. How do you view the increasing popularity and quality of recent TV series, and how does this relate to, impact, or challenge cinema?

The best cinema I’ve seen this year, without any doubt, is the four seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which I recently finished watching on Netflix. Like The Good Fight on CBS, it deals with the world we’re living in, unlike all but a handful of American theatrical features. (One notable exception, mostly marginalized or ignored by the New York tastemakers: Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory.)

One thing I’ve appreciated about your writing is your desire to explore and promote the work of lesser-known filmmakers. Has this been a conscious choice or are you simply drawn to the material no matter who makes it?

Both factors come into play.

Have you ever regretted not speaking with more popular, mainstream filmmakers?

Elaine May

Elaine May

For the most part, the filmmakers I’ve spoken to are the ones I’ve wanted to speak to. I have no desire to interview Steven Spielberg. I’m happy that I twice saw Chaplin in the flesh, but I had no desire to strike up a conversation with him. When I met Howard Hawks at a film festival, I basically found him a puffed-up bore. But I’m truly delighted to have become pals with Janet Leigh, Betsy Blair, and Elaine May.

The interviews in the first Cinematic Encounters volume are notably diverse in terms of each subject’s tone. What filmmakers have you found to be the most convivial or the most distant?

Resnais was the most distant. Fuller, Gidal, Jarmusch, Jost, McBride, Rappaport, Raynal, Ruiz, Snow, Tarr, and Thompson all were or became friends. Most of the others, including Morrissey, were quite convivial.

Is there a film or filmmaker you’ve yet to write that you’d like to explore?

Many. I won’t try to give you a list.

Who/what are the filmmakers/films you most wish people were aware of?

Peter Thompson and Julia Solntseva.

What ultimately makes a film or filmmaker worthwhile?

You tell me.

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.

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