Nostalgic Cinema

Jonathan Rosenbaum – MOVIE WARS

Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can See
Jonathan Rosenbaum
(A Cappella; 2000)

This book is music to my ears. During his time at The Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum was a film critic I read with regularity, in part because he had the gift (one could say, the luxury) of reporting on works which seldom got any notice in other major publications, and even less likelihood of being seen. In this terrific book-length rant, Rosenbaum explores the reasons why we can’t see the latest Taiwanese picture at the local multiplex. An obvious answer would be the bloated Hollywood marketing campaigns squeezing out the little pictures, yet this tactic would only be part of the truth.

Rosenbaum also takes other critics to task for not doing their job, and God bless him, he pops the balloon of Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein. (Despite what we think of Weinstein now, Rosenbaum was among the first to say the emperor had no clothes.) To be fair, he acknowledges that his fellow critics chose not to see smaller pictures at film festivals because they knew that their readers have little chance of seeing them, or that their editors would not print these particular reviews. On the other hand, these admissions allow that the critics to be part of the problem instead of the solution. If all film writers followed this tactic, would Siskel and Ebert have promoted a three-hour documentary named Hoop Dreams, which otherwise could have quickly subsumed into the Video Lost and Found?.

Rosenbaum also charges that Weinstein was not an independent, but another movie mogul, albeit with a different specialty, and brings to light the Miramax exec’s weird “buy it and bury it” behaviour- attaining the US rights to foreign films and then shelving them so no-one else can make money on them. (Among these casualties, Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees.)

Rosenbaum also reprints his own Chicago Reader article featuring his rebuttal to the AFI’s infamous 1998 list of 100 Best American Films, followed by an alphabetical list of alternate titles. Some of the non-commercial titles in his picks (including James Benning’s 11×14, and Barbara Loden’s Wanda) may appear as cultural snobbery or flame-baiting, but that may be the point. One’s lack of familiarity with these films is due in part to the vicious cycle that Rosenbaum explores elsewhere in his book. And if you still think that his tastes are too highbrow, consider his point that the only worthwhile thing the AFI ever did for cinema was to bankroll David Lynch’s Eraserhead. (Well, he’s half right. I’d also laud them for producing Martin Brest’s first feature, Hot Tomorrows.)

Movie Wars also stands as an unplanned epitaph for the 1990s, which for the most part was a very interesting decade for its blurring of cultures high and low, foreign and domestic, mainstream and underground. Let us not falsely romanticize the issue though; foreign and independent films did not have a prayer competing at the box office against the latest Schwarzenegger money machine, but at least there was a chance for people to have seen these titles in a theatre. Alas, at the time this book was published, it seemed that the already marginal markets for those films has dried up. The latest works by Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao Hsien disappeared from the big screen even faster – assuming they showed up in the first place. In an even more arid film culture a few years after its publication, Movie Wars remains very relevant and worthy of revision. Isn’t it ironic, that a book which petitions itself against the big marketing machine, deserves a sequel?