JONATHAN ROSENBAUM'S 1000 ESSENTIAL FILMS: PERSONAL PREFACE

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Upon Jonathan Rosenbaum's admission to the National Society of Film Critics in the early '90s, Pauline Kael said to him flatly, "The only good reason I can think of adding you to our group is because no one has criticized me as consistently as you have." Upon which Rosenbaum replied, "That's because there's no one who's read you as consistently as I have." (Later Kael approached him again and reassured him that there were probably other good reasons for having him join the NSFC).

I bring this up because I have read Jonathan Rosenbaum consistently for the last 5 years, and he is probably the single most influential critic on my thinking about movies during that period. He presented to me a fresh point of view, a hard, discerning and tenacious approach to watching and evaluating movies, and a genuine, voracious enthusiasm for the cinema.

I first encountered him when I was in China, surfing the internet (when I should have been absorbing more of the world around me) and following up on the latest American movies by going to Roger Ebert's website. I happened to find a list of what he considered to be the 20
best movie sites on the web. One of them was a link to another
Chicago critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum. I started reading Rosenbaum's reviews and was startled by what I read. One was on Fargo, a film I
idolized in college -- he wrote:

"the Coens combine their usual derisive amusement toward their
characters with a certain affection and condescending appreciation
for some of the local yokels (in particular a pregnant police chief
played by Frances McDormand), their well-honed antihumanist vision
remains as bleak as ever. A slimy car dealer (William H. Macy) sunk
in debt hires two thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap
his wife so they can split the ransom from her wealthy father (Harve
Presnell); the scheme leads to a good many pointless deaths that we
aren't expected to care too deeply about. Given the Coens' taste for
hoaxes, their claim that some version of the story actually happened
may or may not be specious, but ultimately it doesn't matter. What
mainly registers is the quiet desperation and simple pleasures of
ordinary midwestern lives, the fatuous ways that people cover up
their emotional and intellectual gaps, and the alternating
pointlessness and cuteness of human existence."

This was antithetical to everything I had thought and read about this
movie, and yet in a warped way it made a lot of sense. And so I read
more of his reviews -- many of which were on movies I'd never heard
of, and even the ones he'd reviewed, half the time I had no idea what
he was talking about -- he'd go into digressions about other movies
I'd never heard of, or political or social preoccupations he wanted
to vent out. Much of this was baffling but some of it was
provocative, and all of it was unlike any kind of film writing I'd
encountered before -- obstruse but not quite academic, often landing
on an emphatic point that made me take notice.

Three of Rosenbaum's essays that particularly affected me at this
time were on BREAKING THE WAVES, THE THIN RED LINE, and the AFI's 100 greatest movies list. They are all linked as follows:

http://www.chireader.com/movies/archives/1296/12066.html

(The last three paragraphs were really the cha-ching moments for me --
because it made me conceive of a filmmaker who is rigorous enough to
challenge their own assumptions and beliefs about life, whose films
are an unyielding process of interrogation, discovery and re-
discovery of life... this must have resonated with my state of re-
discovering who I was and what I felt while living in a foreign
country... this, an idea that has really come to dominate my
aesthetic inclinations over time)

http://www.chireader.com/movies/archives/1999/0199/01159.html

(I really like how he compares Malick's filmmaking with the
techniques of silent cinema, so radically different from the
conventions of today... in fact this offered me a key to unlocking
the dusty old treasure chest of silent cinema which I've explored
with much satisfaction and inspiration ever since)

http://www.chireader.com/movies/100best.html

(reading this article was a major event in making me aware of what
forces may be at work in shaping my film tastes)

Over the next five years Rosenbaum would become the most influential
writer for me in developing my critical faculties and cinematic
disposition.

Over the last couple of years I have come to disagree with Rosenbaum more and more (his reviews of FAR FROM HEAVEN, MYSTIC RIVER, THE FOG OF WAR I find much to contend with) but even in these disagreements I find a formidable opinion that challenges me to make my own opinion better and stronger. I think the next five years may bring even more disagreements, and even more insights to spring from them.

 

 


Contact: kevin@alsolikelife.com
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