Cinema as Social Practice, Today and Yesterday: Confessions of a Cinephile

Written for the Mexican magazine La Tempestad (No. 85), which published it in Spanish translation in late 2012, before Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa completed her  feature-length film about my family house, A House is Not a Home. It was published online in February 2013. — J.R.

Jonathan Rosenbaum

I’m very fortunate in having had a prolonged and comprehensive exposure to cinema both as mainstream entertainment and as an art form. But my experience has been somewhat atypical insofar as these two forms of exposure have been in different places and at different stages in my life, with relatively little interaction between them.

Born in Alabama in 1943, I grew up as the son and grandson of small-town film exhibitors, giving me a virtually unlimited access to popular cinema for practically all of the 1950s. This was followed by my discovery of film as an art form during much of the 1960s and 1970s, chiefly in New York, Paris, and London, and even though this entailed in certain cases some rediscoveries and reassessments of films I had seen earlier in Alabama, the discontinuities were usually more striking than the continuities because my family, although very much interested and invested in the arts in general (especially music, literature, and architecture), saw cinema almost exclusively in terms of business and light entertainment — which of course was and is the way most people everywhere in the world tend to see it. Most of my career as a film critic, however, could be described as an attempt to reconcile these two disparate spheres of experience in various ways.

This paradox is intensified by my having been fortunate enough to have grown up in a house designed for my parents by Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1930s, a few years before I was born. Today a restored version of this house survives as a museum, owned by the town and visited on a daily basis by tourists, and I recently accompanied a filmmaker friend of mine when she traveled there for a few days to shoot a personal documentary about it. I’ve had fantasies for most of my life about the Stanley Rosenbaum house being used as a film set, and the curious thing about its function as a public spectacle for tourists — even though it contains countless former possessions of my parents, my brothers and myself, such as furniture, books, towels, table settings, and bedspreads — is that, as a film subject, it can’t help but serve as a site for a fiction film. Its relevance and interest are predicated on the fictional premise (acknowledged as such) that my family continues to live there, as they or we did for over 60 years, but haven’t since 1999, so that when we recently set about filming it one night, from the back lawn, with all the interior lights on, it inevitably registered as a haunted house — the setting of a very creepy nightmare. Without the presence of tourists and a tour guide to give the fiction a digestible form, we became even more aware of it as a theatrical setting for fictional narratives, but the narratives on this occasion were ones that we couldn’t begin to fathom.

The difference between living inside a work of art and simply living is a conflict that informs my entire life, and in a way this is simply another version of the conflict between film as an art form and film as a business derived from the notion of film as light entertainment.

Bringing up this sort of personal history seems relevant to any serious discussion I might offer about the present and future of cinema, both as a medium and as an art, for two reasons. (1) Throughout most of my career as a film critic, I have relied repeatedly on autobiography in order to contextualize and objectify my own subjectivity — that is, to explain where my positions and biases come from. (2) All too often, considerations of cinema tend to privilege one function (and/or one nationality or one era) over all others, so that what we mean by “the end of cinema” or even what we mean by “the transformation of cinema” is commonly anchored in one particular version of film history that commonly excludes or minimizes the others.

It seems obvious, for example, that the changeover from analog to digital cinema in terms of shooting, editing, projecting, and viewing films has many artistic as well as social consequences. In my opinion, the consequences of this change on editing have mainly been disastrous because they have made the choices far too easy. Walter Murch, perhaps the most gifted and sophisticated of Hollywood sound editors, has said more than once that the advantages of analog editing were that it allowed one to make accidental discoveries, so that while one was running through a reel of film in search of a particular shot or sequence, one often came across something else, often leading to many happy discoveries. But as soon as one can jump instantly to any image, this possibility no longer exists.

On the other hand, one is faced with the mixed blessing that it is no longer nearly as expensive as it used to be to make a film, theoretically making the practice available to countless more individuals, at the same time that it is much more difficult nowadays to ensure that a film gets seen without the many millions of dollars available to large corporations for advertising and massive exhibition of a few titles.

This leads one to the paradoxical fact that, in a period when the choices of what films one sees appears theoretically to be almost infinite, compared to the times when one was at the mercy of studios and exhibitors — especially if one has a multiregional DVD or Blu-Ray player and is willing to order films from other countries (a fact that inspired me to start contributing a regular column devoted to this practice for the Canadian quarterly magazine Cinema Scope nine years ago) — the choices that are seemingly available to most people are in fact much fewer if they continue to depend on multi-million-dollar ad campaigns for determining what’s important, relevant, and “current”.

“The theater in the first half of the nineteenth century played the role that movies played in the first half of the twentieth; it was a kaleidoscopic, democratic institution presenting a widely varying bill of fare to all classes and socioeconomic groups.” This comes from the first chapter, “William Shakespeare in America,” of Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, by Lawrence W. Levine (Cambridge, MA/London, U.K.: Harvard University Press, 1988) — a history professor at the University of California at Berkeley, not a film person at all. But I think he comes much closer to the heart of what’s happened to cinema as an art form and as a social institution since the first half of the twentieth century than any of the countless recent symposia about individual and isolated aspects of these changes, which commonly pretend that the basic choices and therefore the basic issues are identical for cinephiles in Manhattan or Berkeley or Paris or Mexico City. And I think Levine’s statement has particular relevance to my own introduction to cinema as a social institution in the United States, which came during the final decade of the first half of the twentieth century — that is, during the last stages of this “kaleidoscopic, democratic institution”.

It was during this same decade, I should add, that teenagers were first recognized as a separate market within the film industry, representing one of the first stages of a process during which the audience was subdivided according to individual niche markets associated with age, ethnicity, class, and education or culture.

(Admittedly, specialized films and even a few specialized cinemas existed in the U.S. before the 1950s, such as films made by and for blacks, and, more extensively, the growth of independent art cinemas that began in the postwar 1940s, spearheaded by Italian Neorealism, after the Hollywood studios were required by antitrust laws to sell off their own theaters. But during my childhood — even in the segregated American South, where black spectators were required by law to sit in separate sections of theaters if they were allowed to attend them at all, as was the case in approximately half of my family’s theaters — it was still possible to sustain the impression that most films were made for “everyone”.)

An embarrassing confession: I’m one of those typical primitives who often can’t tell whether I’m watching celluloid or digital projection. But I have a long list of other reasons why I prefer, as a critic, to watch most films in either screening rooms or at home than to watch them in commercial theaters, where one typically has to sit through loads of ads and then dodge the distractions of other viewers checking their mobiles after the feature comes on. And I should add that I’ve never watched a film on a mobile phone and never will — for me, the very notion of doing so is predicated on the assumption that films aren’t important — and have watched films on computers and laptops only infrequently, when no other options are available to me. In other words, the analog-versus-digital issue has to be seen as part of a larger constellation and not as an isolated question. In most cases, I consider it far more important whether we watch films alone or with others — and how one feels about the others, and whether this is in homes, storefronts, or auditoriums, in cities or in the sticks.

One way of eluding our entrapment in the bad taste of billionaires, at least in our choices of what films we see, is to form digital cine-clubs, which we never could have done as easily with 35mm or even 16. Having witnessed directly the fruits of this activity in Córdoba, Argentina, a city where Roger Alan Koza and other local critics have been developing the local film culture for years, I’m amazed that this hasn’t become more widespread — or, if it has, that we’ve heard so little about it. Maybe it’s better if it’s kept a secret that belongs to the audience rather than to the billionaires, who would surely spoil all the fun if they knew about it. So few of these tycoons know or even care about what they have that we can never trust them to preserve or perpetuate the art and social value of film as we know it; this is a matter chiefly in our hands, even if the survival of celluloid itself is mainly in theirs.

Tactile differences matter, of course; but the history of cinema consists of little more than disruptive yet paradigmatic business decisions of this kind, which always play havoc with both the art and our grasp of film history. (Whatever happened to Technicolor, for instance, and why was it deemed so expendable?) In the 60s, what one knew about world cinema was inextricably tied to where one lived; half a century later, some of our most sophisticated cinephiles live far away from the supposed cultural capitals, which still tend to filter much of the critical discourse, usually in the name of some specious “professionalism”. (Insisting that you can’t appreciate cinema if you weren’t around during the 60s is not very different from the elitist posturing that insists you have to live in Paris or New York in order to “keep up” — a very 60s position.)

It’s tempting to associate the phasing out of celluloid and its tactile pleasures with the phasing out of democracy that we can see blocking many of our other choices. But one would have to be completely ahistorical to make such a leap, because the phasing out of a democratic — or let’s say semi-democratic — film culture happened over half a century ago, even though many commentators still prefer to ignore it. (Even the exhibition choices in the U.S. that gave us art houses and, much later, midnight movies mostly belong to the distant past, when the antitrust laws were still being enforced—a practice that was suspended when Ronald Reagan became President of the U.S. in the early 1980s.) Many also tend to ignore the wider range of choices made possible by “home” viewing, which is at least potentially more democratic than our celluloid culture ever could have been.

But I firmly believe that we’re all hicks now when it comes to knowing what’s “going on” in the world of cinema. How could it be otherwise, considering all the films we don’t see — including some of those that we’ll value most years from now?  Maybe it takes a year or more for the most interesting Cannes premieres to arrive in Chicago, but what about all the major films that never get to Cannes in the first place? Unless we really believe the specious claims, publicity stunts (like the Oscars), and voodoo science of publicists and media hacks, our lack of knowledge about such matters — including, I should add, the taste of the audience — remains staggering. Beside such ignorance, detecting or clarifying the difference between analog and digital is only one task among many.


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