JONATHAN ROSENBAUM'S 1000 ESSENTIAL FILMS: PERSONAL PREFACE
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:
(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)
(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)
(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.