Thursday, July 5, 2007

Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Jonathan Rosenbaum's 2004 book Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons stands not only as the finest work in the writer's increasingly impressive oeuvre, but as arguably the most important work of film criticism written this decade. Rosenbaum's work begins with a discussion of the concept of canonization, a concept that has largely fallen into disrepute and with which the academic world (both in film and literature) refuses to have anything to do. The danger with such a dismissive attitude towards canonization, Rosenbaum argues, is that it leaves the task up to those who deliberately misrepresent the importance of specific films in order to further their own particular interests. The canonical lists that currently dominate the American film landscape are either poorly-considered rankings like the American Film Institute's list of the 100 "Greatest American Films", rankings that regurgitate a static canon of questionable contenders while serving the interest of the studios that own the represented films, or lists of box office receipts that equate financial success with quality. Either way, such lists are myopic in the extreme. But with academia unwilling to offer an alternative, they are the only canons that prevail. In response, Rosenbaum offers his own list of 1000 films that, although he is quick to qualify as no more than a list of "personal favorites", is nonetheless an attempt at a more intelligent, world-cinema savvy and idiosyncratic canon that is unafraid to be prescriptive rather than passively descriptive. The critic, Rosenbaum argues, must take an active role in shaping the canon, since simply reproducing the self-serving choices of the industry canonizers clearly serves little useful purpose.

Despite his passionate defense of canonization and the inclusion of his own list of important films, the idea of the film canon ultimately finds its primary function for Rosenbaum as an organizing strategy to anthologize a selection of his previously published criticism, most of which was written in the ten year period between 1992 and 2001 for the Chicago Reader. This follows a similar strategy to that taken in two previous collections of his work, 1995's Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism and 1997's Movies as Politics which organize a selection of previously published reviews around different aspects of the critical apparatus and various conceptions of the political nature of film respectively. Here, Rosenbaum organizes his writings into five categories that each represent different aspects of the process of canonization, but unlike Andrew Sarris' qualitative categories in his own classic work of film canonization The American Cinema, Rosenbaum's categories deal with specific issues surrounding the functioning of the process, such as Special Problems, a section treating films that present unique practical complications in their consideration for the granting of canonical status. Ultimately, however, when the reader becomes enmeshed in Rosenbaum's reviews, the categories are quickly forgotten. It is not, in the final analysis, any exploration of the nature of the film canon that gives the book its value. No, what makes the book so important is simply that it represents the world's best writer on film at the peak of his art. In an era when American film criticism is splintered into the mainstream review and the dense academic article, the middle ground of accessible but insightful film writing is continually disappearing and Rosenbaum's work represents the most impressive exposition of this middle ground whose continuance is essential in order to maintain an acceptable level of critical film discourse in this country.

What is most impressive about Rosenbaum's writing is his adeptness at handling discussion of all the varied aspects of film. Equally comfortable in aesthetic discussion as he is delineating the social or moral problems posed by a specific work, Rosenbaum is able to effortlessly call on a vast historical knowledge to reinforce his points, but is equally at ease engaging in a casual address to the reader. Not afraid to insert himself into his reviews, Rosenbaum is also the most honest of film critics. If every critic necessarily brings his own biases to his writing, Rosenbaum argues, it is better for the critic to foreground these biases by taking a candid approach and, rather than pretending to speak objectively, inform the reader of his unique background which has shaped his attitudes towards film. Active in criticism since the 1960s, Rosenbaum had refined his critical approach by the 1990s, resulting in a perfect mix of academic and popular writing that is not afraid to bring in comparison to literary masters like Faulkner, but is always written in clear, straightforward prose that, even when used in the service of complex arguments, is as easy to follow as the most simplistic of mainstream capsule reviews. His discussions of individual films bring in a wide variety of historical and extra-textual perspectives and are always filled with perceptive analysis. Although well versed in theory, Rosenbaum never allows these analyses to spill over into academic buzzspeak. This refinement of his approach, which filtered out some of the academic indulgences that tended towards overrepresentation in his past writings, marks Essential Cinema as his finest work, a collection of the best of his mature criticism.

Among the best pieces in the book is a discussion of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver which considers the contributions of the work's four "auteurs" in shaping the morally problematic film. Interestingly, Rosenbaum includes composer Bernard Hermann among these auteurs (along with Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader, and star Robert DeNiro), a figure not normally considered an important factor in the film's creation but who, Rosenbaum shows, was as influential as the other four in shaping audience reaction to the work. Rosenbaum's discussion of the film's score is one of the best analyses of film music in recent memory, canny in its understanding of the different threads of Hermann's work and the different effects they have on the viewer's understanding of the film. Rosenbaum's skilled analyses of four aspects of the cinematic art, composing, directing, acting, and screenwriting and his understanding of how these (often contradictory forces) contribute to the shaping of the final work, create a unique and unusually perceptive reading of an important, but problematic film. Rosenbaum shows how Paul Schrader's original script, which portrays the Travis Bickle character (DeNiro) as a highly questionable protagonist is glossed over by the romantic score, the arty direction, and the charismatic star performance which transforms a racist, misogynistic serial killer into a hero. The film's ending which portrays Bickle in this heroic light may be intended as ironic, but the contributions of Hermann and DeNiro tend to obscure this ironic intention, an irony lost on many viewers who tend to view the charismatic Bickle with admiration. Although Schrader may be the least willing of the four "auteurs" to let Bickle off the hook, he too contributes to this whitewashing of the character by putting all the racist sentiments (that Bickle obviously feels) in the mouths of supporting characters. Rosenbaum's perceptive analysis is one of the best pieces ever written on the film and illustrates both the work's problematic moral program and accounts for the lasting appeal of the Travis Bickle character, an appeal most evident in the continuing popularity of his famous and much imitated "you talkin' to me" speech.

Many of Rosenbaum's other pieces deliberately spotlight such lesser-known but important cinematic figures as Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang, and Joris Ivens. Long a proponent of an inclusive view of world cinema, Rosenbaum's writings represent an important antidote to the increasingly myopic cinematic view of American criticism. An early champion of Taiwanese and Iranian film, Rosenbaum's repeated efforts to promote these national cinemas have gone a long way towards making cinephiles aware of two of the world's most creative film centers. Not afraid to take what he calls the "media-industrial complex" to task, Rosenbaum has in the past (most notably in his book Movie Wars) exposed the institutions (the major studios, film distributors, mainstream newspapers and magazines) that have prevented the works of these filmmakers from achieving wider recognition in America. In this work, he largely refrains from the sort of invective (rightfully) directed at these institutions, but serves a similarly admirable purpose by promoting these lesser known works (many of which are unavailable on video in the US) and including them in his canon. Needless to say, any reader will make his own share of discoveries by reading Rosenbaum's work; both the author's vast knowledge of all forms of cinema and his enthusiasm for many lesser known films means that even a knowledgeable reader will encounter much that is foreign to his cinematic worldview. This process of discovery is one of the true pleasures of cinephilia, a pleasure in which Rosenbaum delights and imparts to the reader on every page of his remarkable book.

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