Beyond the Multiplex

In "The Moviegoers," a bleak New Yorker article from
a few years back, the film critic David Denby bemoaned both the current state of
movie culture and the marginal role of serious criticism in shaping popular
taste. According to Denby, the commercialization of the whole enterprise has
brought about a brand of slicked-up, dumbed-down cinema that he and his friends
would never have stood for as younger, engaged moviegoers. "As I listen to people
talk (well, let's say older people)," he wrote, "I get the sense that many
moviegoers who loved the French, Italian, Japanese, British and Eastern European
films of the Sixties and the American films of the Seventies...have simply stopped
going to the movies, or go with limited hopes, with a sickened sense that the
house is sliding down the hill and can never be pulled back to the top again."

While I am too young to remember the era that Denby describes with such
wobbly-voiced longing, I've seen those films and I know what he means. Working as
the film critic for a daily newspaper these last eight years, I have had ample
opportunity to survey the current movie landscape from up close, often feeling,
as I sit alone with my notebook in the dark, a rather numbing sort of despair.

This is not, I should hasten to add, a complaint about my extremely enjoyable
occupation: No matter how much I worry for the Fate of the Art, I can think of
few other paying jobs that provide such an intricate web of pleasures--or that
demand such constant flexibility, precision, and honesty. When I write, I try
always to keep in mind the words of poet and dance critic Edwin Denby (no
relation to David), who said that criticism has two different aspects: "One is
being made drunk for a second by seeing something happen; the other is expressing
lucidly what you saw when you were drunk." Though this morning-after model would
ideally apply to the lucid description of beautiful visions, the same principle
also holds true for the treatment of bad work, so that no matter how rotten
the production in question, the challenge it poses to the critic remains steep
and, at a rhetorical and even moral level, exciting.

The fun, however, begins to dry up when one is faced, week after week, month
after month, with responding to endless miles of the most undistinguished
celluloid. And this prevailing mediocrity is not represented only by big, loud
Hollywood movies; many of the so-called art films I'm asked to evaluate are just
as dubious.

Yet while it's easy (and common) enough to make such sweeping doomsday
proclamations, it is much harder to get to the root of the problem--let alone
detail what might be done to change it.

The particulars vary in discussions of this sort, but when push
comes to shove it's the members of the audience who are invariably blamed for the
emptiness of the movies they are watching. Producers, we are told, are just
"giving the people what they want." If viewers weren't interested in these sorts
of pictures, they'd simply stop buying tickets.

But maybe that's not entirely right. Perhaps the problem comes from the
source, or sources. This rather uncomfortable premise--that a shady network of
studio bosses, distributors, promoters, and, yes, critics is really responsible
for keeping better films out of sight, thus causing the collapse of the culture's
collective cinematic sensibility--forms a major chunk of an important new book by
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit
What Films We Can See
(A Capella Books). In Rosenbaum's view of the inner
workings of what he calls the "media-industrial complex," it's no surprise that
the victim gets blamed:

Given the uncritical promotion of the major studio releases,
one might...posit that the press, in order to justify its own priorities,
maintains a vested interest in viewing the audience as brain-dead. After all, if
it showered most of its free publicity on more thoughtful and interesting movies,
it would run the risk of being branded elitist. How much easier it becomes to
wallow in the slime if you and your editor or producer are persuaded that it's
the audience's natural habitat--that the audience, not the press working in
collaboration with the studios' massive publicity departments, is calling the
shots.

Though it may seem perverse to find cheer in a book that points an
accusing finger at critics more or less like me (hired to offer lively commentary
on whatever the latest "big" releases are), I do. Indeed, it is one of the many
ironies of Rosenbaum's work that he--whom critic Stuart Klawans of The Nation
dubbed the "angry man of American film criticism"--offers a far more optimistic
take on what both the movies and criticism could and should be than an ostensibly
mild-mannered writer like Denby.

The senior critic for the Chicago Reader and the author of more than half
a dozen works of film criticism along with a memoir about growing up Jewish in
Alabama as the son of a family of movie theater owners, Rosenbaum may be angry.
He's angry at the vapidity of certain commercial American pictures, at the
commonly held faith in the abiding wisdom of producers, test-marketers, box-office
returns, and Miramax head Harvey Weinstein--but he hasn't succumbed to
hopelessness. Throughout Movie Wars, Rosenbaum makes a vivid case for the
fact that cinema hasn't kicked the bucket; it has, however, changed
profoundly since the era for which many mourn.

Rosenbaum makes it clear that it may, first of all, be necessary to look beyond
Paris or Burbank--to Taiwan or Iran, perhaps--for the new century's great movies.
And the method of looking has also changed; a critic can't just coast along in
the faith that the best of world cinema will automatically be placed in his or
her lap for review. On the subject of distribution and promotion, for instance,
Rosenbaum has several hair-raising stories to tell about the way that the movie
companies themselves--especially a so-called alternative outfit like Miramax (in
fact a division of Disney)--conspire to suppress certain films in their own
stable, determining from the get-go which will succeed and which will fail.
Rosenbaum suggests that Miramax may actually buy particular films just to keep
other distributors from getting hold of them. But mere acquisition doesn't
automatically translate into attention and advertising, or even release. About
half of Miramax's purchases, according to Rosenbaum, are never let out of the
can.

In recent years, the company has mounted major media campaigns to promote such
pictures as the sexed-up British version of The Wings of the Dove, while it
has (in his words) "chosen to dump" Abbas Kiarostami's Through the Olive
Trees,
the color version of Jacques Tati's Jour de fête, and the
restoration of Jacques Demy's film The Young Girls of Rochefort. Readers
will have to trust me when I say that Rosenbaum is right to be horrified by this
particular ordering of cinematic priorities, since I've seen three of the four
films in question and can vouch for the fact that The Wings of the Dove is a
swank, mindless watering-down of a great Henry James novel, while the Kiarostami
and the Tati are genuine masterpieces. But the very fact that viewers don't have
the freedom to judge for themselves is Rosenbaum's point. Someone has already
decided for you. (And the decision is final: In a staggering postscript to the
book, Rosenbaum says that Miramax has actually destroyed the single remaining
American print of the Kiarostami picture, so that it can't even be shown in
retrospectives.)

Meanwhile, publications like The New Yorker have their own financial
health (not the future of the movies) to keep in mind. And they're helped on this
front by a critic like Denby, whose belief that the cinema is moribund, paired
with his responsibilities as a regular critic, often leads him to lavish
hyperbolic praise on a few commercial releases, in order to justify his own
position and put his readers at their ease. But while such critical pillow-fluffing
may endear Denby to his audience, it doesn't do much for the movies. It's also
neurotic: One week, Denby protests the dearth of "major" movies and criticizes
foreign-language films like Pédro Almodóvar's All About My
Mother
and Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us for not being as
entertaining or as profound as the "classics" he remembers from his youth. The
next, he raves about some ephemeral piece of Hollywood fluff (Cast Away,
X-Men
). Then he protests, then he raves, and so on and on, in the process
continuing to serve the studios' and distributors' own cynical needs--in essence
feeding the very monster he claims to want to slay.

Rosenbaum, on the other hand, digs much deeper, making up with his
iconoclastic skepticism, enthusiasm, and curiosity for what he sometimes lacks in
smoothness or stylistic control. (To be fair, the New Yorker critic is not
the devil. Rosenbaum's fixation on Denby often feels defensive and
self-defeating.) The paranoiac tilt of his book's subtitle may also be enough to
disqualify him for many mainstream readers. But what is in fact so heartening
about Rosenbaum's work--and why anyone who cares about film would do well to track
down and follow his writing--is that he doesn't just bash or mope but also
provides the nonspecialist an accessible path into a whole other universe that
exists beyond the multiplex. And even the specialist stands to learn a thing or
two: While my own sort of consumer-oriented reviewing inevitably falls prey to
the various syndromes that Rosenbaum diagnoses, reading him over the years has
also made me much more alert to the promise the movies still hold and to the
critic's responsibility to track down that promise and spread the word.

Throughout his career, Rosenbaum has argued passionately on behalf of various
directors whom Americans have not yet given the attention they deserve. It's not
that he expects films by the likes of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Léos
Carax, Joe Dante, Béla Tarr, Jean Eustache, Jim Jarmusch, or
Râúl Ruiz to catch on big. Small would do. And that's not
unimaginable: A year ago, after all, most people would probably have laughed at
the prospect of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon--a historical,
Mandarin-language, feminist ballet--holding masses of ordinary Americans in its
delicate, foreign spell.

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