Conspiracy of comic-book cinema for coarser audiences

Movie Wars

January 17, 2003

US movie critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has declared a jihad against the movie establishment and this is one war that will not be halted by the United Nations Security Council. In his sights are Miramax and its co-chairman, Harvey Weinstein, New York Times critic Janet Maslin, New Yorker critic David Denby, the Sundance Film Festival, the American Film Institute and numerous others.

Is there, as he claims, "a conspiracy to limit our choice of movies"? Rosenbaum is the leading formalist film analyst in the US, where his weekly movie reviews for The Chicago Reader are widely read and respected but, because of a sometimes ranting, whining style and self-indulgent personal attacks, many are happy to dismiss him.

So what is Rosenbaum's gripe? He laments "the declining quality of movie fare and the worsening taste of the public, which is typically asked to shoulder a good part of the blame"; "the preference for loud explosions and frenetic comic-book action over drama and character, escalating violence over tenderness, torrents of profanity over well-crafted dialogue"; and "an overall coarsening of the audience not to mention a decreased literacy which rules out most subtitled movies".

Rosenbaum quotes an essay about the increased anti-intellectualism in cinema by Phillip Lopate, who cites such films as Pulp Fiction, Ed Wood and Natural Born Killers . Rosenbaum adds more recent examples: Something About Mary, Life Is Beautiful and Happiness . He continues: "Given the uncritical promotion of the major studio releases, one might even posit that the press, in order to justify its own priorities, maintains a vested interest in viewing the audience as brain-dead. If the press showered its free publicity on more thoughtful and interesting movies, it would run the risk of being branded elitist."

Rosenbaum spends the rest of the book justifying his beliefs with juicy titbits about the individuals he holds most responsible for the state of cinema. He tells us how Weinstein bought the brilliant Iranian Abbas Kiarostami's film Through the Olive Trees , and then did not bother to release or promote it, how Miramax dumped the only truly independent US film-maker, Jim Jarmusch, when he refused to bow to Weinstein's insistence on cutting his film, how Miramax buys outstanding foreign-language films to keep them from the competition without bothering to release them properly.

Rosenbaum charts the course of Susan Sontag's essay "A century of cinema" as it is rewritten for each different publication it appears in and eventually ends up in the New York Times as "The decay of cinema" omitting all her positive references to non-US film-makers such as Nagisa Oshima, Andrei Tarkovsky, Nanni Moretti and Shohei Imamura. Rosenbaum's chapters on fellow critics and film journalists are fascinating. His analysis of the pressure on critics to reflect what they believe their audience is expecting, rather than to give an honest review, is particularly damning.

My own background as producer for the Hollywood studio system and president of 20th Century Fox and MGM should put me squarely in the enemy camp - but I often found myself in sympathy with Rosenbaum. I have to agree that while the major film distributors are in competition with each other, their collective weight ends up as an unofficial cartel monopolising available cinema screens. They vacuum up the best and most original talent to join the industrial process of film-making. The first thing a smaller independent distributor who handles the so-called "art film" and foreign-language movies wants to do is become a commercial mainstream film distributor, because that is the only way to survive.

Of course, we cannot live on only foreign-language and "serious" entertainment, but we need variety and breadth in cinema and informed and stimulating critics. There is much in this book to object to, but it is thought provoking and provides an alternative way of looking at contemporary cinema.

Sandy Lieberson is a film producer and was formerly president of 20th Century Fox in the UK.

Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit what Films We Can See

Author - Jonathan Rosenbaum
ISBN - 1 903364 60 4
Publisher - Wallflower
Price - £12.99
Pages - 234

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