When I lived in Berkeley, there were at least five revival houses in the Bay Area. I went to a lot of movies — probably an average of two a week by the end. Part of that is because I was a volunteer at the Fine Arts, and usually managed to slip in to see at least one movie during my popcorn-counter shift there. But part of it is that I had a number of friends whose opinions I could rely upon — I knew where their tastes overlapped with mine, and I knew when I could trust them when they told me that I had to, had to, see a movie. Which is good, because most newspaper film critics suck. One who doesn’t, I’m pleased to discover, is Jonathan Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum is the film critic for the Chicago Reader (and a great big thank you to Greg and Chicago denizen Jeremy for tipping me off to him). He’s the author of books about such movies as Dead Man, which is my favorite Jarmusch movie, and Greed, Erich von Stroheim’s lost classic of silent film that fascinates people even today. And Rosenbaum target audience is for folks like me; his review of A.I. is the first published review I’ve read that left me knowing why a fan of Kubrick might like the movie and the first that really seemed predicated on understanding the movie as collaboration between Kubrick and Spielberg. Good stuff!
I’m not so hipped on some of his ideas about movie criticism, although they’re interesting enough that I’ll look for the book. I, like most newspaper-reading Americans, know very little about jazz or opera or ballet. When a news organ assigns someone to cover jazz or opera or ballet, I assume that they try to send someone who does know something, on the theory that nobody who knows nothing will read the finished product (and a know-nothing reviewer will likely infuriate those educated readers). When assigning movie critics, however, Rosenbaum notes that they pick almost at random. Worth noting: one of the New York Times‘ two principal film critics, A.O. Scott, was a book critic prior to his anointment by the Times.
I can understand how maddening this must be to a film snob like Rosenbaum. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for what he describes as Gene Siskel’s approach. Often — usually, to judge by the top-grossing movies of all time — the viewing audience doesn’t want an artistic masterpiece. It wants $8.50 worth of entertainment. In most cases, the reviewer merely needs to distinguish between movies that deliver this and movies that don’t. (Stephen Hunter, now with the Washington Post and formerly a reviewer for the Baltimore Sun was excellent at this, perhaps because he writes potboiler thrillers on the side.) The first and third Indiana Jones movies are not great art, but they are entertainment masterpieces and I don’t for a minute want to denigrate Spielberg’s effort. It’s damn hard to make something that entertaining and fluid, as the littered landscape of bad Indy knockoffs and wannabe blockbuster Hollywood events will indicate.
I recently read Pauline Kael‘s essay on Bonnie and Clyde, and it is smart. I wish more smart people were writing sharp essays about movies. I wish I knew more about the smart people who already are. But while movie criticism is not always art, there is a compliment of sorts to be dredged from the current state of affairs — editors still think that, unlike jazz or opera or ballet or poetry, movies are still a dynamic form of art that the average person — not a buff, not a critic, not someone who can argue about whether Kurosawa’s early or later films were better or who cares about the influence of Charlie Chaplin on Jacques Tati — cares about. At least enough to plunk down $8.50. And another fifty cents for the paper, of course.