Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (book review)

The following review of my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), signed by one Nancy Rothstein and entitled “Placing Movies”, appeared in the May-June 1981 issue of Film Comment. In point of fact, this was written by me, with the full knowledge and complicity of editor Richard Corliss, following precedents in the same magazine that had by then already been set by Robin Wood (criticizing his own book on Alfred Hitchcock under the name George O. Kaplan in an article entitled “Lost in the Wood”) and, unless my memory is now deceiving me, by Raymond Durgnat (although I no longer remember any of the specific details in Ray’s case). To be fair, Robin took on his own disguise in order to express some of his own serious misgivings about Hitchcock’s Frenzy. My own motives were somewhat more mercenary, or at least self-promotional; at this point, Moving Places had received very few reviews anywhere, and the publisher, Harper & Row, not only wouldn’t advertise the book but also wouldn’t allow me to do so at my own expense.

I figured that the specific challenge of creating a fictional reviewer (“Nancy Rothstein is working on a book about the Hollywood careers of Eisenstein, Brecht, and Renoir,” read the note in Contributors) made the exercise more interesting than it would have been otherwise. In any case, some of my more attentive readers may notice that a few snippets of Nancy’s prose and ideas were eventually recycled into my own “Looking Back at Moving Places” 13 years later, for the book’s second edition (University of California Press, 1995). I also made a conscious effort to incorporate some of the best unpublished comments that my book had received by then — including those from Paul Schmidt (in his original reader’s report for the publisher, quoted and/or paraphrased in the second paragraph) and Gilbert Adair (in a letter to me about the book, paraphrased in the fifth and penultimate paragraphs) — and I also borrowed a few of the film-related memories of Sandy Flitterman, with whom I was living at the time, and mixed them up with some of my own. For the record, though, by far the most interesting and insightful review this book has ever received has been Adrian Martin’s lengthy consideration of it together with Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, in the December 1995 issue (no. 107) of Cinema Papers (“The Gloves Come Off,” 14-17, 55). –J.R.

Placing Movies

by Nancy Rothstein

Moving Places: A Life at the Movies by Jonathan Rosenbaum, 280 pp., illustrations, index, Harper & Row/Colophon, $5.95 paper, $11.95 hardcover.

The challenging thing about this interesting idiosyncratic memoir is that one really doesn’t know where to place it. As a film critic’s exuberant, show-offy foray into belles lettres, it seems quite consciously a stew of unholy alliances. There’s an application of William Faulkner to Carl Dreyer in the prologue, a transition from J.D. Salinger to Sherwood Anderson (by way of James Dean) in the third chapter, and a mixture of Plato and Fritz Lang in the fifth.

An amalgam of autobiography, cultural history, socio-political critique, and aesthetic manifesto, Moving Places largely proceeds from the premise that when we see a movie, the place in time and space and the moment in our age and consciousness determine, to a great extent, what the film means to us. On the face of it, this is just common sense, although it isn’t an approach that animates much contemporary film criticism (even though Stanley Cavell addresses the subject in The World Viewed, an onthology of film). While reading a book is a private process that catches us up in a flow of imaginary time, “reading” a film is something else again — something much closer to a social act that moves us through imaginary spaces filled with real people and things.

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s own context as a spectator is far from ordinary. As the grandson of a Polish Jew who ran a chain of movie theaters in northern Alabama, his movie conditioning has a number of close familial links which are explored in some detail. In keeping with the technology of the non-fiction novel, he interviews former theater employees, ponders old ads and theater programs, and even explores the melodramatic death of a house manager which may or may not have been film-related. About two dozen photographs — of the theaters, ads,  members of Rosenbaum’s family, another house manager, and the Frank Lloyd Wright house he grew up in — are effectively integrated in the text, giving the reader something to ponder over as well.

One literary subgenre that is suggested in spots is the eclectic detoxification journal, as exemplified by Jean Cocteau’s Opium, William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and the lovesick Viktor Shklovsky’s Zoo or Letters Not About Love.In the course of a reference to Poe, Rosenbaum declares that the writing of his book is “gradually detoxifying and curing” him of movies “by providing some sort of methadone of the mind.” This process seems to run parallel to his numerous references to stopping smoking while writing the book, which brings up another literary subgenre that Moving Places surely belongs to: the book-about-writing-a-book.

By inserting the very process of researching the past into his narrative, Rosenbaum generates the impression that the book itself is “moving,” along with the reader’s mind and eye — a kind of “cinematic” immediacy that possibly owes as much to jazz as it does to the movies. For every discovery made about the past, the present self is altered, and conversely, every change in the present affects the remembered self, so that none of the material comes to us from a position of lofty, privileged recollection. For this reason, Moving Places, unlike most film books, should be read consecutively. (Only the penultimate chapter — a lecture given at the Venice Biennale — can be followed as a self-contained unit.)

There’s almost as much ironic distance on the author writing the book as there is on Rosenbaum as a child and adolescent filmgoer — although at no point does Rosenbaum’s indefatigible interest in himself ever threaten to slacken. This is arguably one of the triumphs of his longest chapter, “On Moonlight Bay as Time Machine,” which virtually parodies the close analysis of the French structuralists at the same time that it oscillates between at least three separate viewings of that eminently forgettable Doris Day musical, by Rosenbaum at the respective ages of 8, 10, and 34, in Alabama, Maine, and California

At its most graceful and evocative, Rosenbaum’s dreamy prose can induce readers into making their own nostalgic or anti-nostalgic discoveries. (In my case, this would include some unrequited love, in my grammar school days, for a fat mouse named Gus-Gus in the Disney Cinderella, for Peter Finch’s tea plantation in Elephant Walk; a glorious, greedy sense of what being a boy must be like, while watching Prince Valiant with my best friend at a kiddie show run by Harold’s Club in Reno; or the experience of being unreasonably cheered out of the gloom of London and my own doldrums during my first trip abroad, by a piece of fluff called How to Steal a Million. But, like Rosenbaum much of the time, I digress.)

At its least effective, this prose can become clogged. Rosenbaum’s use of a mythical, Aguirre-like figure called the Conquistador to stand for what appears to be narrative-illusionist cinema carries the reader only so far, and then becomes tiresome; even as short linking passages, these sections are at once too coy and too smarmy for their own good. A certain fetishism with place-names, however justifiable it might seem on Proustian principle, becomes needlessly claustrophobic through overuse.

Unlike a Pauline Kael, who loves movies largely for their masculine qualities, Rosenbaum tends to regard the medium as essentially feminine. (Does this account for his furious ambivalence? There are time when he puts one in mind of Quentin Compson, declaiming, “I don’t hate the cinema! I don’t! I don’t hate it!“) Within these parameters, theaters become wombs, watching a film becomes a curious sort of sexual encounter, and a love letter written by Rosenbaum to his mother — “placing” such Fifties touchstones as Dial M for Murder, On the Waterfront and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in terms of his relationship to her at the time — becomes the most affecting part of the book.

In the final chapter, Rosenbaum carries this attitude to its logical conclusion by chronicling his affairs with various films, which are described as if they were people. Not all his candidates are ladies, however. A bit arbitrarily, perhaps, Citizen Kane, Eclipse, and Playtime qualify as he’s, while Sunrise, Last Year at Marienbad, and Celine and Julie Go Boating register as she’s, although the author cleverly sidesteps the challenge of assigning a single sex to any film by Renoir or Dreyer.

But the ultimate Western-style showdown in the book, the supreme ideological and aesthetic confrontation, is between Rosenbaum and his corpulent grandfather. The sensual and emotional voyage traced from Bird of Paradise in spring 1951 to Sweet Bird of Youth in spring 1962 resembles in this respect nothing more than a protracted skirmish with Jewish patriarchy.

It would be easy enough for readers of this magazine to regard this book as a logical development of Rosenbaum’s contributions to Film Comment. (The prologue and first chapter initially appeared in these pages, and there are extracts from some of his overseas columns.) But it would be a mistake, I think, to regard it simply as an extension of his criticism. More aptly, it might be described as an exploration of the private self that public activity — which includes filmgoing and film criticism — usually conceals.

Indeed, Rosenbaum’s “private” self (which includes eight-year-old Jonny) is a good deal closer to the experience of the ordinary spectator than is the polemical defender of Rivette, Moullet, and the Sternberg of Anatahan.To assume otherwise would be to overlook the profoundly political reflection on the social nature of moviegoing that underlines this book as a whole.

This gives Moving Places the effect of a long parenthesis in a critic’s work, and one that can include such non-cinematic, image-making objects of interest as drugs, racism, jazz, and sexual ideology. Yet the unusually personal side of the story — sometimes irritating, sometimes comic — shouldn’t trick the reader into assuming that the author’s self-absorption has to be shared. In a way, the fact that Rosenbaum wrote this book is the least interesting thing about it; as the semiologists would put it, he is simply “a function of the text,” and at times an obtrusive one. (Also on occasion a klutzy one: Barbara Stanwyck gets mistaken for Betty Grable in I Wake Up Screaming, Cannes’s Carlton Hotel is furnished with an unnecessary e, and The Bohemian Girl is described as “grand opera”.)

Declaring at one point that his book is “an attempt at a narrative exposition of myself through movies and of movies through me,” Jonathan Rosenbaum encourages the reader to explore her or his own personal movie narratives and ideologies, and this is finally the point of his project. More concerned with the processes than with the “obscure objects” of our desires, Moving Places places movies in a refreshing new light for all of us.

Film Comment, May-June 1981

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