- Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, and: Fields of Vision: Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology, and Photography
Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Placing Movies is, Rosenbaum says, “intended as a companion and sequel” to his autobiographical Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, which has been reprinted to coincide with the publication of Placing Movies. Moving Places is an account of Rosenbaum’s childhood in northwestern Alabama, where his family owned a theater chain—it is the history of films he saw then, and an analysis of what his subjective experiences could tell him about movies and movie-going in general. Placing Movies adopts a similar autobiographical style. Moving Places taught Rosenbaum not to repress, but to define and account for, subjectivity in critical writing, to contextualize the act of film criticism in the critic’s life. Placing Movies enacts this. Rather than simply anthologizing his best reviews and commentary, the essays map his professional career; and, conversely, the professional and sometimes very personal details of Rosenbaum’s life (learning to drive, romantic mishaps) serve to define and account for the subjectivity behind the reviews.
Rosenbaum, currently the main reviewer for The Chicago Reader, has been a longtime contributor to Film Comment, Film Quarterly, Sight and Sound, Soho News, and other newspapers and journals, as well as author of a monograph on Greed, coauthor of Midnight Movies with J. Hoberman, and editor of Peter Bogdanovich’s book-length interview with Orson Welles. Despite this, Rosenbaum remains relatively unknown. In the course of Placing Movies, Rosenbaum returns again and again to the problematic institutionalization and reification of film studies and criticism. He takes on academic film studies (theory vs. knowledge), New York film criticism (Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris), and the star aura attached to film critics in the United States (never naming but surely referring to the fat and skinny of Chicago film reviewing, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert). At times, Rosenbaum’s complaints sound like the sour grapes of an underdog, someone much less well-known than these “star” critics and without the job security of academic scholars or the financial rewards of the thumbs-up reviewers. But Rosenbaum’s critique of institutionalized film culture proceeds less from wounded pride than from a love of film. His book is directed at those who may want to practice film criticism and many of his complaints are, as it were, for future critics.
It’s a curious project in a way, an autobiography of a critic you may never have heard of. Yet what’s fascinating about the book is the way it constructs a portrait of the critic—and not merely as backdrop to the reviews. Rosenbaum’s self-effacing style is really engaging, so that at times I found myself skimming over the reviews to get to the autobiographical material, feeling occasionally envious of the life and strangely charmed by the man. Ultimately the reviews and autobiography merge to convey a generous and quirky aesthetic position and critical subjectivity. As a reviewer, Rosenbaum rarely denigrates films or filmmakers (or hasn’t included essays that do here). He tends to function as a champion for certain filmmakers—Jacques Tati, Jean-Luc Godard, Orson Welles, Jacques Rivette, and Jean-Marie Straub and Daniéle Huillet appear repeatedly—and certain films— Céline et Julie Vont en [End Page 172] Bateau, Anathan. His tastes are, it seems to me, deeply French, and curiously perverse—he favors Hitchcock’s Family Plot over Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, for instance, and, while critical opinion is changing, Rosenbaum must be the only American critic to have championed Jerry Lewis’s Hardly Working.
The potentially too-clever mirroring in the two autobiographical titles— Moving Places and Placing Movies —accurately conveys the subjectivity in Rosenbaum’s work. First, as a description of the critic’s life, moving from job...