Sunday, December 26, 2010

Jonathan Rosenbaum's Blog

Jonathan Rosenbaum's blog has become the cinema website I visit most religiously. In just over two years, what a great model of a critic's archive this site is turning out to be! Especially given that Rosenbaum is arguably the most highly respected English-language film critic in global film culture, this is a great boon to film lovers.

The site is updated many times weekly with essays and reviews from a prolific, globetrotting lifetime of reading, thinking and writing about films -- but not only about films. Rosenbaum once said in an interview: "Film is an integral part of life and the world, not an alternative to life and the world." This statement -- which signals his twin commitments to aesthetics and politics -- conveys crucially the sensibility that animates his writing.

One of this week's posts is a 1998 essay that provocatively and productively pairs Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan with Joe Dante's Small Soldiers. The essay begins with Rosenbaum's capsule reviews of the two films, which make the arguments of the essay in condensed form. Here is an excerpt from each capsule:

Small Soldiers. Director Joe Dante (Gremlins, Innerspace, Explorers, Matinee) is a national treasure, and his lack of recognition by the general public may actually make it easier for him to function subversively. His unpretentious fantasy romps have more to say about the American psyche, pop culture, and the ideology of violence than anything dreamed up by Steven Spielberg or George Lucas [...] His films are about not just culture and violence but also everyday cultural violence, something we all have to cope with.

Saving Private Ryan. Steven Spielberg’s 1998 exercise in Oscar-mongering is a compilation of effects and impressions from all the war movies he’s ever seen, decked out with precise instructions about what to think in Robert Rodat’s script and how to feel in John Williams’s hokey music. There’s something here for everybody — war is hell (Sam Fuller), war is father figures (Oliver Stone), war is absurd (David Lean, Stanley Kubrick), war is necessary (John Ford), war is surreal (Francis Coppola), war is exciting (Robert Aldrich), war is upsetting (all of the preceding and Lewis Milestone), war is uplifting (ditto) — and nothing that suggests an independent vision ...

* * *

There is one design singularity that I should point out: The website consists of not one but two main pages that are updated regularly. In addition to the home page I linked to at the start of this post (this home page is called "Featured Texts" and contains mostly essay-length reviews), there is another page called "Notes" that houses lectures, essays and notes. Both pages are essential reading.

Let me link to some additional Rosenbaum-related reading material:

-- His collected writings at Chicago Reader; at Moving Image Source; and at DVD Beaver.

-- A recent Cineaste piece called "DVDs: A New Form of Collective Cinephilia."

-- His "Essential Cinema" list of 1000 films.

-- A collection of his annual top 10 lists from 1974-2006.

-- His latest book, "Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia" (from University of Chicago Press), which is one of the best cinema reads of the year.

* * *

Let me also share a few recent links:

-- David Hudson collects reports and reflections on the terrible news from Teheran: Jafar Panahi has been jailed for 6 years and banned from making films for 20. Also: Rafi Pitts' open letter to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

-- At Caboose, great news of the upcoming "Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television," a transcript of fourteen one-hour talks delivered by Jean-Luc Godard at Concordia University in Montreal in 1978 and translated into English for the first time. Also available at this page are two sample PDFs from the talks, on Alphaville and À bout de souffle.

-- In the new issue of Cineaste, Richard Porton has a large piece on the Toronto International Film Festival that refers to the post and discussion we had here at the blog a few months back.

-- Two year-end polls of best films: Village Voice poll; and Sight & Sound.

-- Many interesting posts at Zach Campbell's place, on subjects ranging from "snobbery" and comic acting to Minnelli's Some Came Running and Godard's Film Socialisme.

-- Recent blog discoveries: Sudhir Mahadevan's Ambrotypes and Ferrotypes; Drew McIntosh's The Blue Vial; and Jaime Christley's Unexamined Essentials.

-- At Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's: lots of capsule reviews originally written for Cine-File, plus a nice defense of Tony Scott.

-- Insightful commentary by Jean-Pierre Gorin on his ten favorite Criterion films.

-- Catherine Grant announces the new issue of Screening the Past.

-- David Hudson collects obituaries and tributes to Blake Edwards and Jean Rollin.

-- J. Hoberman on Norman Rockwell in Artforum.


Blogger Arthur S. said...

The first article by Mr. Rosenbaum I read was his alternative to the AFI list of 100 best American films and what struck me was how seriously and passionately he took what for most people would be another list to dust off or shrug away. That's what makes him so unique among writers on film, he never takes anything for granted.

His list also made a nice to-see list as well.

December 27, 2010 5:07 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I read and wrote about Rosenbaum's newest collection a short while back. What is striking at this time of year of "Ten Best" lists is how many critics still cling to the old paradigm of how and when a said film was released. Even Rosenbaum's book was somewhat out of date as it did not account for how streaming video and VOD is now preceding, or replacing, theatrical releases of some films.

By the way, my word verification word is "mingle". (?)

December 27, 2010 11:17 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, just this past week, I hooked up my Blu-ray player to the Internet and started streaming Netflix titles to my TV. I noticed some not-insignificant variability in quality between films, but nevertheless (and with technology improvements surely up ahead), I know that this is going to significantly alter the way many of us watch films.

Now, the specific ways in which this alters how cinephiles watch films is a discussion that might be a ripe one to have. For example, the incredible ease with which one can decide to switch away from watching one film to another might result in a slightly 'weaker' commitment to watching a particular film all the way through. It seems like the 'terms of viewing' which changed when we moved from all-theatrical viewing to DVDs, are now in for a further shift. I'm interested in this whole topic--the way specific possibilities and conditions of viewing end up affecting or resulting in the particular viewing experiences we have...

December 27, 2010 3:39 PM  
Blogger girish said...

And in other news, I'm a little confused by this piece in the New York Times on how Hollywood is moing away from "middlebrow movies" (examples cited include SEX AND THE CITY 2, THE TOURIST, THE A-TEAM and KILLERS) to "highbrow movies" (examples cited include THE SOCIAL NETWORK and INCEPTION). How do these latter two films qualify as "highbrow" for NYT, I wonder? The piece defines highbrow as "original" (in the narrow sense of being not a sequel or a blockbuster genre film), which seems to badly misconstrue the term.

December 27, 2010 4:10 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oops, meant MOVING away from "middlebrow movies"...

December 27, 2010 4:23 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Regarding a commitment to watching films, this article is somewhat related.

I haven't read the NY Times article, but it appears that brows are getting lower.

December 28, 2010 11:26 AM  
Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

One of my most favorite critics. The thing about JR's writings is that a paragraph that seems normal becomes so insightful if one reads it after a few months. May be it's just me. And his most personal reviews (CRUMB for instance) reveal what an adventurous life he's had!

There's something that I'd like to see many current film critics pick up from him: SOmetimes it's not just about the writing, it's about the discovery. the joy of pre-internet era - hunting down of films, opposed to just grabbing them off net - which is always palpable in his writings.

This is a terrific tribute here, Girish. I love the blog. I was disappointed that the CHICAGO READER didn't have all the articles by him, but the blog is a treasure. I'd like it to have a better design though (less redundancy, better indexing etc.)


December 28, 2010 11:55 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for that link, Peter. I hadn't seen it.

Srikanth, those are great points you make. I have to confess that one of the things that prevented me from appreciating Jonathan's writing fully right away was in fact the way in which he sometimes foregrounded the details of his own personal experiences in his reviews. I wasn't sure why he was doing that, and what function it was supposed to serve in the context of the critical work the piece was doing. Only later did I come to realize that (for me) these personal details were serving a phenomenological function: they grounded his writing in the contingencies of his life, his personal history, his taste, his political dispositions, his mood of the moment, and so on. I suddenly realized the responsibility of this critical stance. Not to say that every critic needs to employ this approach, but I think he has made it an integral and valuable part of his critical style. It helps me better understand his critical perspectives even when my assessment of a film or filmmaker happens to diverge from his.

I also find his writing uncommonly substantive: without fail, it makes me think, it spurs ideas (both when I agree with his position and when I feel otherwise). Sometimes I idly think that one could run a blog that would do nothing but piggyback off his by taking up, expanding, reflecting upon, or critiquing the ideas, films or filmmakers he engages in his posts each week.

December 28, 2010 1:07 PM  
Blogger YUSEF SAYED said...

Jonathan Rosenbaum's blog was the first film site that I visited, as my interest in film and film writing became fervent. This was a result of obtaining some of Jonathan's books and devouring them. From there, I not only grew interested in certain films but also a plethora of books and other websites. So, for better or for worse, the idea for my own blog must have arisen in large part from the civility of online film culture which I found from following the threads from Jonathan's site.

I am grateful for the wealth of writing that the site contains. More importantly, the quality is terrific.

However, I must agree with the previous comment, which picks on the design of the site. The apparent lack of attention to selecting and formatting the images carefully, as well as those adverts for teeth whitening do let it down.

Still, the writing is always a delight to read and always spurs me on to improve in my own writing. Still, the first bookmark in my web browser.

December 28, 2010 1:22 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Yusef, Srikanth, and others -- If I were in Jonathan's shoes, I'd want to know equally what readers didn't appreciate about the site design as what they did, so I'm sure he'll find the feedback useful if/when he reads it here.

December 28, 2010 1:32 PM  
Anonymous David T. Johnson said...

A nice tribute here for Rosenbaum, Girish. I went back and read some of the Susan Sontag essays after looking at the Hello/Goodbye book, which had an interesting piece on her, and I'm particularly fond of the Ordet essay in that book as well.

December 28, 2010 5:42 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

Thanks to you all. And yes, the negative comments about the site's appearance ARE useful and interesting to me, even though it would be pretty complicated for me to change them at this point because (1) I pretty much run the whole operation, apart from selling and placing the ads, (2) I would need technical advice and assistance to make any sort of changes, and (3) the sort of ads being run should be changing soon anyway to more focused and relevant ones, thanks to a new arrangement that's presently being set up. As for the choice of illustrations (apart from the ads), this is entirely mine, for better and for worse, and I welcome any constructive criticism about this that anyone might offer

December 28, 2010 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Bobby Wise said...


Surely you can find some web-literate college student that you work with or mentor who would be able to give you some design support. There must be any number of people who would love to intern for you.

Simple and functional is better. Honestly, the aesthetics of your site often keep me from fully engaging with your writing. Somehow the website seems too difficult to penetrate. I'm not intelligent enough about web design to know why.

One last thing. I'm glad Girish alerted us to the writings in your "notes" section. I never knew they existed (refer to earlier point about penetration). Just from a brief glimpse now, I enjoy this section much better than the "featured text" section. I think I like your offhand, alternative film musings more than your structured, classical film reviews.

December 28, 2010 8:17 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

Bobby, if I knew how to make the site any simpler to navigate, I would have. I don't quite understand why the four choices at the top of the home page (Featured Text, Notes, Publications and Events, and About This Site) are more complex than moving any of the content in the last three to Featured Text would be. In fact, doing something like that would only make for more confusion, not less. So maybe the issue is one of content, not design.

Another factor that I need to mention is that this site was launched and is sponsored by Creative Loafing, based in Washington, D.C., which publishes the Chicago Reader, and splits the site's ad revenue with me. They give me a lot of autonomy, but I couldn't make any structural changes without their collaboration, and the person who originally helped me set up the site and its design no longer works for them.

December 28, 2010 11:16 PM  
Anonymous Jake said...

Is 2010 seriously going to end without a new edition of ROUGE?


December 29, 2010 1:00 AM  
Anonymous Bobby Wise said...


I think it's an issue of navigation and indexing more than content and design. The home page is way too cluttered and seems like it takes an eternity to scroll all the way to the bottom. If I want to find articles by title or theme I can't do it. Also, your writing is lengthy. I'd rather see a snippet of each article, then have the option to click on it for the full text. And I'd love to see as many of these snippets side-by-side as possible.

Those are my main complaints. I understand that you don't have the access or the ability to affect design changes. Too bad that Creative Loafing aren't too...well, they're loafing! Surely they must know that your site is one of the marquee spots on the internet for film criticism.

By the way, it's a good thing that the original designer no longer works for them!

December 29, 2010 5:49 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, Jonathan, I suspect you're likely to receive a range of opinions here. In contrast to Bobby, I prefer the current format in which I see the essays in their entirety on the home page; I don't mind that it takes me a long time to get to the bottom of each page. (Another way in which I diverge from Bobby is that I like the long pieces at least as much as the short ones, usually more.)

I often open up the home page (either "Featured Texts or "Notes"), and leave it open as a window on my laptop for long periods of time, reading whenever I find 10 or 15 minutes to spare, rather than in a sustained, uninterrupted way from top to bottom of the page--which takes a lot longer.

As an example, I happen to be in India visiting my parents right now, and before I left the States, I opened up both the main pages (since I wasn't sure of Internet access in airports or on planes), left them open as windows on my laptop, and was able to make my way through several essays in their entirety without being online.

Just my two cents here, though. I realize that reader preferences are going to range widely.

December 29, 2010 6:39 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum said...


Once again, your remarks are much appreciated. I suspect that the length of some of the Reader pieces is tied in part to the autobiographical impulse, and this was made possible by the extraordinary freedom I had during most of my years at the Reader regarding space. (In fact, I don't know of any other weekly critic who was ever lucky enough to have had that kind of freedom, although I suspect that Pauline Kael at The New Yorker came closest.)

One might say that I "discovered" my autobiographical approach while writing my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), whose agenda was specifically and pointedly NOT film criticism (although cultural criticism was certainly part of it). But then when I returned to film criticism after writing that book, I discovered that autobiography had become an important part of my "research" (or investigation) into the nature and sources of my responses. The basic reason behind it is to show where my opinions and biases are coming from--to "objectify" my subjectivity, one might say. And because I do firmly believe that all criticism is (and must be, and should be) subjective, laying out the conditions of that subjectivity becomes a necessary part of that enterprise.

December 29, 2010 12:22 PM  
Blogger YUSEF SAYED said...

Jonathan, currently I am enjoying Dave Hickey's essays in Air Guitar (which I found out about through your review) which tend to take as their starting point an autobiographical episode and use it as the basis for a critical examination of a particular artist or artwork and how Hickey's views have been shaped by his experiences. I really enjoy reading essays which use this approach because of the way in which they illustrate how art and culture plays a huge role in the critic's life. As opposed to just something to write about for a paycheck.

December 29, 2010 1:00 PM  
Anonymous Will S said...

The exact divide between the Features and Notes sections is sometimes unclear to me, but I do enjoy the occasional comments on new releases published in the latter section (see: the recent appreciation of Winter's Bone), and would love to see more of this, retirement notwithstanding.

Also I second Jake's disappointment in the apparent death of Rouge. Particularly strange that it's faded away without comment (as far as I can tell).

December 29, 2010 2:51 PM  
Anonymous Bobby Wise said...

I don't think Rouge is dead. It just likes to go into extreme hibernation, like FIPRESCI's Undercurrent.

December 29, 2010 5:07 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

The main distinction between "Featured Texts" and "Notes," explained in "About This Site," is that the former generally consist of long reviews from the Chicago Reader. Otherwise length doesn't enter into it.

December 29, 2010 8:03 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Jonathan, as a devoted fan of your website (and of you), I have to admit that this is right now the first time I have ever understood the distinction between the 'Featured Texts' and 'Notes' sections on your site, which I have often found interchangeable in their role. I obviously skipped reading the on-site explanation of the principle ! Not that it matters much: as they say, it's all good, and it doubles what is offered for us to read !!

December 29, 2010 11:35 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"Objectify my subjectivity": that makes perfect sense, Jonathan.

December 31, 2010 1:38 AM  
Blogger Adrian Mendizabal said...

I love Jonathan's Blog! One of the best film blog there is available online. I love his Kiarostami write ups and also that of Antonioni's.

December 31, 2010 3:22 AM  
Blogger Adrian Mendizabal said...

And I do hope he'll make a index of his site someday either by alphabetically arranged films or by topic or by director. :D

December 31, 2010 3:27 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

Adrian M.: Believe it or not, this has already been done, at least for the long reviews from the Chicago Reader! Here's a link:
A more comprehensive index would be much, much harder to put together, alas.

December 31, 2010 4:19 AM  
Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

Hi Girish and fellow readers,

Here's wishing you a stellar year ahead with lots of new discoveries and big surprises.


December 31, 2010 11:07 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Srikanth, and wish you a wonderful 2011 as well!

December 31, 2010 11:48 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Even though in 2010 Master Girish has (I have heard) been spending far more time on Facebook than on this blog - and, scandalously, I believe he has even devoted a few moments to his personal life, what heresy !! - I salute this long-classic site, and look forward to many fine and finicky conversations on it into the far future !!

January 01, 2011 1:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ha! You said it, Adrian. I enjoy Facebook (or Crackbook, as a friend of mine calls it!) and the many cinema conversations on it, but I need to figure out a way to integrate or bring some of the ideas or fruits of those conversations to this blog on a daily basis to catalyze new conversations here. That will be one of the challenges for 2011!

As always, Adrian, thanks for your inspiration and may the new year be a wonderful, productive, fulfilling one for you in every way.

P.S. Loved your piece on Carmelo Bene in the latest La Furia Umana!

January 01, 2011 2:19 AM  
Blogger Yusef Sayed said...


I wish you all the best for the new year and hope that that this site continues to thrive.

The topics and conversations have been enjoyable to follow and your skill at highlighting some of the best writing on the internet via your links is much admired.

January 01, 2011 5:18 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

I agree with Girish--and, in fact, think Adrian's piece on Bene is one of his very best.

Happy New Year to everyone!

January 01, 2011 11:55 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Happy New Year, Jonathan, Yusef, and all!

And let me sneak in a link to Jonathan's just-posted new essay, "Watching Kiarostami Films at Home."

January 01, 2011 5:55 PM  
Blogger girish said...

At Moving Image Source: "Moments of 2010" by many writers.

January 01, 2011 7:07 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

Girish, a belated thank you for steering people towards the Godard excerpts at caboose. If I may take a moment to mention this, while on the site people may want to have a look at a couple of other recent additions: a free PDF of the legendary and little-seen catalogue for the 1949 Festival du Film Maudit in France, organised by Bazin and Cocteau and which the 19-year-old Godard and Truffaut crashed. We've added a list of films shown at the 1949 and 50 maudit festivals (the only such list anywhere, to my knowledge; corrections and additions welcome). I hope to produce an English translation of the texts in the catalogue some day, by some of the most interesting filmmakers and critics at work at the time, just pre-Cahiers du Cinéma.

Also on the site, also free, is a translation of the 1934 article by "M. Rozenkranz" quoted by Bazin in his "Theatre and Film" essay - what I call the Brechtian Bazin - with further speculation by yours truly as to the identity of "Rozenkranz", who I earlier speculated was Siegfried Kracauer. And, free again, PDF files of the book that is something of a model for caboose's national "Critical Filmographies" series, my own out-of-print "South American Cinema" book.

Finally (thank you everyone for your indulgence), people might want to check back in to the site in a couple of weeks when we unveil a translation, with copious annotations, of a "lost" essay by André Bazin - it was published in 1952, but I have every reason to believe that I was the first person to lay eyes on it since then while preparing the caboose edition of "What is Cinema" a couple of years ago. No trifle, this is a major theoretical statement that will change the landscape of Bazin studies and, I think, film studies in general. It will be available for download worldwide for a very modest sum, as a way of getting our feet wet in electronic publishing.

Thank you and back to discussion of Jonathan Rosenbaum's blog, which I have always found, from a user's point of view, perfectly functional but clunky, just the way I like things. Would we really want it to be as sleek and corporate-looking as the Wal-Mart site? And I think the photographs in the articles look just fine.

My word verification: raterou. If that isn't a French word for something neat, it should be.

January 06, 2011 8:13 AM  
Anonymous caboose said...

The system is telling me didn't like raterou, but I see my post has appeared on the site. But I can't let pass my new word verification when the system got antsy: it gave me . . . "antsy", so I will mention that caboose will do a mailing to its mailing list when the new Bazin essay is up on the site. Perhaps I'll pop back up here then too to let people know.

January 06, 2011 8:18 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Great news--and thanks for posting about it here, caboose!

January 06, 2011 3:26 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

(A bit late, but...) that news about the Introduction à une véritable histoire du cinéma leaves me all the more jealous, since the french version of the book has been out of print since the 1980s. Que fait P.O.L?

January 16, 2011 6:38 AM  
Anonymous caboose said...

Yes, it's odd that the Godard book has sat untouched for so long. Part of the reason is that the original French publisher, Albatros, went out of business soon afterward publishing its edition. My guess is that P.O.L. or anyone else would have to negotiate new permission for a new French edition. And I certainly hope that no one in France is planning some quickie reprint, not for caboose's sake, but for the sake of French readers, because the transcription was atrocious and large chunks were dropped for what must have seemed like good reasons at the time but which today seem bewildering. (Anyone with the French edition can compare the first few pages of chapters 1A and 3A with the English samples on the caboose site and see some of what was left out.) The rest is full of mistakes, sometimes having JLG utter the opposite of what he really said. A real micmac! (Just saw the new 35mm print of Pierrot le fou, you'll pardon me for humming the tunes!)

January 16, 2011 6:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now we have the poll of the best 2010 best films (and some films from the previous years), made by A rather interesting list all the people who voted (not only Weerashekatul and Zang-ke make good films nowadays).

Tomas Sanchez

January 21, 2011 11:08 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Girish: 2011 demands a new post.

January 28, 2011 3:22 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ignatiy, I'm here at home, convalescing from pneumonia, and a blog post is exactly what I need to throw myself into to pull me out of my doldrums!

January 28, 2011 6:02 AM  
Blogger girish said...

P.S. I love your new Tumblr page.

January 28, 2011 6:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much, Girish, for alerting me to Ignatiy's new blog, which I previously somehow managed to miss or overlook. What a treasure chest!...So even while you're on the mend, you should know that you're still performing invaluable services!

January 29, 2011 4:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

You're most welcome, Anonymous!

January 29, 2011 7:28 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

The anonymity was in fact inadvertent--sorry about that.

January 30, 2011 11:37 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, good to hear from you, Jonathan.

I'm working on a new post today, shall try to have it up within the next day or two.

January 30, 2011 11:42 AM  

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