Taxi Driver races with un Train

Essential Cinema
August 20, 2004

Jonathan Rosenbaum, the longtime film critic of The Chicago Reader , concludes his deliberately opinionated book on the cinema with a chronological list of films, a canon of "the 1,000 best films of all time", including a "top 100" of films that he claims "one can never tire of...

that can simply be watched and re-watched". This can be a worthwhile exercise, but in this case I lost interest in his list on seeing his very first choice, L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare de la Ciotat . This brief clip, made by Louis Lumière, shows a train roaring towards the camera; it thrilled and jolted a Paris audience when it was first shown in 1895. While there is no doubt that L'Arrivee d'un Train is a cinematic landmark, what does it mean to include such a film alongside classic feature films? And can one trust the judgement of a film critic who makes such a decision?

Essential Cinema consists of Rosenbaum's thoughts on "the best films", followed by a discussion of films he judges to be masterpieces that present difficulties to canonisers, then a section of "disputable contenders" that do not quite make the cut, followed by a section on canonised directors, and finally that list of his personal best 1,000 films.

Fair enough, but there the book's structure seems to fizzle out and Essential Cinema becomes a curious and complicated read. Throughout the text, Rosenbaum, rather than discussing why the chosen films are his favourites, instead offers mainly a condensed description of the screenplay, stopping occasionally to comment on matters of cinematographic style, while periodically throwing in an odd mix of anecdotes taken from his three or four decades as a critic and film festival-goer. While some of the films he describes in detail are by no means obscure- for example, Rear Window and Jour de Fête - many are not well known. Rosenbaum should be applauded for continuing the dying American critical tradition of bringing non-American movies to the attention of American film-goers. However, his selection requires a high level of cinematic expertise to appreciate.

Which begs the question of who the book's reader is intended to be. Film-goers already familiar with Rosenbaum's choice of classics are likely to feel somewhat patronised by his descriptions of these and would surely prefer to have his detailed, argued personal response to the films. If, on the other hand, he is aiming the book at the novice film-goer he sets the basic requirements too high; such readers will find themselves skipping from chapter to chapter searching for a "best film" they know.

The effect is surprisingly to make the sections on the classics and on Rosenbaum's favourite directors, which should have been his forte, the weakest sections. Parts of the director section read like misty-eyed love letters that have accidentally got into the final draft.

The section on "disputable contenders" is much better and more judicious and really does invite the reader to contemplate what makes a film a classic - or not. Before reading it, I would have included Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver among my ten best films, but after reading Rosenbaum's analysis of the film as a "disputable contender" I am no longer sure. Maybe this goes to show that film criticism is more effective and enjoyable when it stimulates readers to think rather than browbeating them with strong opinion.

In places, the writing is absorbing and witty, and the book is always well informed. But in the end it seems to be written to show off its author's opinions, rather than to inform and change minds about what makes a film essential viewing.

Toby Sprigings is a film and media critic.

Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons

Author - Jonathan Rosenbaum
Publisher - Johns Hopkins University Press
Pages - 445
Price - £24.00
ISBN - 0 8018 7840 3

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