Notes from the NYU Film Conference, Pt. 2 - Jonathan Rosenbaum

I apologize for the relative brevity of this entry - I guess I wasn't fully functioning until Adrian's afternoon presentation, as you might gather from my notes.  Anyway here's some excerpts from Jonathan's presentation. I might flesh this out more when I review the tape as it uploads. Rosenbaum's presentation was titled "The Future of FIlm Criticism--Film Criticism, The Internet and the Circulation of DVDs"

One highlight was his recounting of a couple of personal experiences with movie publicity materials, which I recalled from an end of year review article he wrote back in 2003 for the Chicago Reader:

21 Grams, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu's hyperbolically grim art movie, has been receiving an inordinate amount of mainstream exposure, apparently because of its cast -- Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro -- and because of its huge advertising budget. In an offscreen speech at the end of the film Penn says, "They say we all lose 21 grams at the exact moment of our death . . . everyone. The weight of a stack of nickels.The weight of a chocolate bar. The weight of a hummingbird." Many critics have pointed out that this pseudopoetic claptrap isn't true. But that didn't prevent Focus Features from sending journalists, on consecutive days, express packages containing a stack of five nickels, a chocolate bar inside a wrapper advertising 21 Grams, and a made-in-China hummingbird. I doubt many critics were persuaded to have a better opinion of this difficult and unpleasant film by this obscenely stupid advertising scheme. The Jesus freak played by Del Toro gave me a few things to ponder, but I was much more spooked by those three packages -- what they must have cost and what they were trying to do to my head.

There doesn't seem to be any limit to what promotions departments will try or any evidence that they care whether they succeed. Dreamworks hawked Peter Ho-sun Chan's 1999 The Love Letter by sending anonymous love letters to critics. Each appeared to be written on an old-fashioned typewriter with a faded ribbon, and I'm ashamed to confess that I was fooled into thinking it was a real letter until I saw the same letter on-screen.

Rosenbaum used these anecdotes to expound on the broader issue of the experience of cinema, challenging the notion that the movie starts and stops in the movie theater. He finds this notion more tenuous than ever especially given that a fewer percentage of people than ever are watching movies in the theater as opposed to DVD, online or other new formats.

Rosenbaum sees this development in film culture not as something to mourn, but to actively embrace in such a way as to develop our society as we would like to see it.  He gives the example of private home group screenings he attended of Roberg Greenwald's movie Uncovered: The Truth about the Iraq War, which were organized by the political activist group to encourage citizens to take action to stop the Iraq War.  At the time some attendees felt that it would be effective to get the film released in movie theaters to reach a broader audience, but Rosenbaum disagreed, seeing the private party venues and ensuing group discussions as being more effective in generating a grassroots activist movement.

Rosenbaum went on to cite a cinema club in Argentina that had a membership of nearly 1,000 cinephiles.  The club has organized small theatrical runs of obscure films by the likes of Pedro Costa or Kira Muratova, projected off DVD.  Given that these directors can't even secure a theatrical run in New York City, Rosenbaum sees these grassroots venues as being a step in the right direction by providing a venue for non-mainstream films and building a solid film community in the process.

Rosenbaum compared this phenomenon with the sort of film community of his childhood, as recollected in his book Moving Places, where his neighbors would all would go to the same movie that played at the local movie house, not caring what it was, and spending time discussing it amongst each other, such that it became interwoven in the fabric of their lives.  As fond as he is of that type of small town cinephila, he acknowledges that that kind of film culture can not exist as he knew it in today's society, but instead of mourning the past he prefers to look for the present opportunities available to promote cinema.  He cites the website which makes alternative, politically minded films available via digital download - the site features a manifesto that argues "The cinema's in crisis... suffocated by anachronistic conventions... aided by agents of commerce." The site dedicates itself to the "propagation of new cinema waves" and in doing so "is not concerned with technological debates... refuses to identfy wth national borders... and strives to return popular culture to people."

Rosenbaum argues that to think more radically about film culture means we can think more radically about global culture. To do this we must think of more creative or radical ways of using film media.  There is already a structure in place - namely, the internet - and a community within that structure, but these have yet to be fully utilized to their full socially progressive potential "We can do more than trade gossip."