The introduction to
Film Culture in Transition
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
It’s a strange paradox that about half of my friends and colleagues think that we’re currently approaching the end of cinema as an art form and the end of film criticism as a serious activity, while the other half believe that we’re enjoying some form of exciting resurgence and renaissance in both areas. How can one account for this discrepancy? One clue is that many of the naysayers tend to be people around my own age (sixty-six) or older, whereas many of the optimistic ones are a good deal younger, most of them under thirty.
I tend to feel closer to the younger cinephiles on this issue, but I can sympathize with certain aspects of the other perspective as well. And both positions are entwined with attitudes about other technological and social changes that are far too complex and varied to be simply endorsed or condemned, especially insofar as we’re still in the process of trying to figure out their full implications. Our terminology is developing at a far slower rate than our society, producing time lags that wind up confusing everyone.
Both of these positions as well as my proximity to each can be neatly illustrated with a brilliant, hilarious three-and-a-half-minute short, At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema of the World, by David Cronenberg—who was born about two weeks after me and who stars in the title role, in a grizzled one-take close-up, preparing to shoot himself inside a men’s room in the world’s last cinema while two airheaded TV newscasters, male and female, offer a continuous and inanely cheerful offscreen commentary about him. This film was made for the sixtieth edition of the Cannes film festival, in 2007, along with thirty-two other shorts of the same length by other famous directors, issued on a French DVD with English subtitles, Chacun son cinéma, that I was able to order fairly cheaply (it currently sells on French Amazon for about ten euros, plus postage) on the final day of the festival so that I could watch it in Chicago on a multiregional player just a few days later. So in a way I qualify both as Cronenberg’s Last Jew and as one of those dopey newscasters, equally untroubled by the loss of the last cinema because I can view this particular sketch feature at home.
Clearly the degree to which technology affects virtually every aspect of our culture—from the fax machine during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 to the mobile phone during the postelection protests in Iran twenty years later—has been equally applicable to film history, inside and outside the movie theaters. And my life and career have both been largely shaped by these changes, as a good many pieces in this collection show.
It’s hard for me to specify too precisely when my first encounter with cinema was, because from circa 1915 to 1960, film exhibition qualified as my family’s business. My paternal grandfather, Louis Rosenbaum, opened his first movie theater, the Princess, in Douglas, Wyoming, around the same time that D. W. Griffith was shooting The Birth of a Nation in southern California. (The Princess’s first program included A Fool There Was, with Theda Bara.) Later the same year, my grandfather built another movie theater called the Princess in North Little Rock, Arkansas, where he moved with his wife and four-year-old son, and four years after that he moved with them still again to Florence, Alabama, where he built his third, largest, and final movie theater to be called the Princess—this one also an opera house presenting an average of twenty-five stage shows a year, as well as films. A few of the famous people who appeared there during its first couple of decades (1919–39) were cowboy stars Gene Autry and Lash LaRue, violinist Mischa Elman, composer W. C. Handy (the composer of “St. Louis Blues,” who’d been born in Florence), writer Carl Sandburg, former president William Howard Taft, and jazz musicians Gene Krupa and Fats Waller.
I was born a little after this period, in 1943. By this time, my grandfather had opened at least half a dozen other movie houses in northwestern Alabama and hired his only child, Stanley, to help him manage them. Almost a year before I entered grammar school, the Rosenbaums opened their biggest establishment, the Shoals—the fourth largest in the state, with 1,350 seats, named after nearby Muscle Shoals, with a sign whose flickering neon was designed to mimic the tumbling spillways at Muscle Shoals’ Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River, one of the largest such dams in the world. So already, by the time the Shoals opened, I had been attending movies at the Princess and perhaps other Rosenbaum theaters for at least a year and a half. I can still remember being frightened a little by the supernatural trappings of That Lady in Ermine, the Shoals’ opening attraction.
Once I could enter theaters on my own, my consumption of movies went up considerably. In Florence, the Princess, the Shoals, and the Majestic, all three of which could be found within the same three-block radius, generally showed about a dozen films a week, and I usually got to see at least half of these. Then, after the Majestic closed its doors for good in mid-1951, I generally made it to almost everything that played at the two other theaters, some of them occasionally more than once, for the next eight years—until I left for boarding school in Vermont in the fall of 1959.
A little more than a year after that, while I was still away at school, the theaters that were still open were sold—Rosenbaum Theaters having shrunk by then from nine operating theaters to five. My grandfather retired, and my father began teaching American and English literature at Florence State University, known today as the University of North Alabama. And less than a decade after that, in New York, I became a professional film critic—a practice that I then continued for almost eight years in Paris and London before resuming it back in the U.S. (on both coasts, and, since 1987, in Chicago).
In March 2009, I returned to Florence to give the keynote address for a conference on world cinema held at the University of North Alabama. This lecture was given for about two dozen people in the balcony of the Shoals Theater—which twenty-nine years earlier had stopped showing movies for good, closed its doors, and then reopened them only sporadically for a few local stage productions, concerts, and similar events, meanwhile repainting the auditorium’s walls and ceiling and rebuilding and expanding the stage. The conference—a private event, closed to the general public, which continued on the university campus the following day—was timed to overlap with the start of an annual film festival, then in its twelfth year. The latter event was named after and founded by George Lindsay, a TV actor and University of North Alabama alumnus, and was open to the general public; it showed films exclusively on projected DVDs in various nearby shops and cafes. (All the local commercial movie houses in the area today are located in shopping malls several miles away and have no connection of any kind with the film festival.)
The night after I gave my keynote address, the Shoals launched the George Lindsay Film Festival with a tribute to two other journeyman actors who are mainly known for their TV work in the ’60s and ’70s, Rance Howard and Lee Majors, both of whom had recently been cast by a local woman filmmaker (who was interviewing them onstage at the Shoals) to play in a locally produced feature. This time, none of the balcony seats but most of the thousand or so seats downstairs were filled, and the evening began with projected DVD clips from various TV shows and features that the two actors had appeared in, including a few features—such as Howard in Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Majors in Will Penny (1968)—that four decades earlier had shown on the big screen at the Shoals, in 35 mm. Only now the screen, a mere fraction as big, was planted directly behind the two actors and hostess on the stage, who were seated in swivel chairs, and even though the brief excerpts from both of these CinemaScope films were shown in the proper screen ratio, their impact was hardly the same. Perhaps no less depressing (and significant) was the fact that the festival event that was clearly the hottest ticket and that was handled the most professionally and conscientiously was the awards ceremony—clearly patterned after the Oscars, complete with full orchestra, standup routines, digital clips, and acceptance speeches—whereas a digital screening of the paltry prizewinners, held in a room with folding chairs at the festival hotel a couple of days later, was attended by practically no one.
I could mention many other changes that have taken place in Florence over the past half century. Politically speaking, the area was both Democrat and relatively liberal while I was growing up; today it’s so staunchly Republican that I’m told that only about 10 percent of the local white population voted for Barack Obama. While I was growing up, movies played a central role in the life of the entire community, including every age group—a role eventually superseded first by television and then by the Internet, to the point where most movies now are designed to cater to teenagers and younger kids.
But even if the meaning and importance of filmgoing in Florence appear to have shrunk disastrously, I’m not persuaded that the overall changes in film culture everywhere are as bleak as I’m making them sound. Viewed from a different angle, film-viewing choices have expanded considerably, at least for those who care about having such choices, and it’s been especially gratifying to me how many formerly unavailable films written about in this book have become accessible while I’ve been assembling it. (“For a movie lover,” says my contemporary Tag Gallagher, in a recent interview on a German Web site about his excellent film analyses on video, “there’s been no better time to be alive—with all due respect for those who claim that only nitrate is worth watching.”)
But not everyone thinks that way, and part of the confusion arises from the fact that people nowadays don’t always mean the same things when they use terms like “cinema,” “film,” “movie,” “film criticism,” and even “available”—terms whose timeframes, experiences, and practical applications are no longer necessarily compatible. Older viewers typically refer to what can be seen in 35 mm in movie theaters and read about in publications on paper. Younger ones are more likely speaking about the DVDs watched in homes and the blogs or sites accessed on the Internet. Furthermore, when the older group speaks specifically about what films are “available,” they usually mean films showing in theaters—or videos found in rental stores—in their own towns or cities but nowhere else, generally excepting only rentals available by mail subscription though companies such as Netflix (although this has already expanded their potential choices quite a bit). Yet theoretically, this can also mean available for purchase through the mail, either nationally or (if one has a multiregional DVD player) internationally, and/or, among more hardcore and specialized cinephiles, via swapping or copying among friends and acquaintances, or obtainable by download through the Internet, legally or otherwise. In fact, after all the options get added up, even the potential meanings of nationality and territory get altered, along with those involving analog or digital means of communication and formats.
Quite often, of course, a greater number of possibilities means greater chaos—one reason, I suspect, why my most popular efforts as a critic over the past several years have been lists of my 100 favorite American films and my 1,000 favorite films—available, respectively, in my books Movie Wars and Essential Cinema (and on various online sites, easily found via search engines)—which propose personal canons as a practical alternative to a surfeit of possible choices. Much of this book, indeed, can be viewed as supplements to those proposed canons. And part of the potential chaos I’m speaking about, recalling in some ways the Patent Wars of a century ago, involves issues surrounding copyright and territorial rights versus various forms of piracy (or anarchistic appropriation)—some of which I address polemically in this book (e.g., “Film Writing on the Internet,” “Trailer for Histoire(s) du cinéma”).For it surely matters thatvarious films that were once literally or virtually impossible to see are now visible, sometimes by extralegal means (prompted in part by the ignorance or indifference of copyright holders, or in some cases by legal entanglements). One strong example is Rivette’s twelve-hour serial Out 1, once regarded as the most unseeable of all major contemporary films. As of September 2009, it could still be downloaded for free with both English and Italian subtitles from a site called The Pirate Bay, even after this site was temporarily shut down on August 24, 2009, by order of a Swedish district court, and it may also be obtainable online from other sources as well. As the critic Brad Stevens recently wrote in his first “AVI” column for Video Watchdog, striking a cinephiliac chord that is characteristically both despairing and utopian (like Out 1 itself),
It is surely evidence of how widely cinema is still considered a second-rate art that one of its supreme masterpieces has been denied to British and American audiences; if a similar situation existed where literature was concerned, we would only be able to read English translations of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu in the form of clandestinely circulated photocopies. Yet one can hardly resist a wry smile upon discovering that Out 1, a work obsessively focused on conspiracies, has finally achieved widespread distribution thanks to what might described as an Internet “conspiracy.”
And here is another cinephile/critic—Adrian Martin, writing in his column for Filmkrant (“World Wide Angle,” July/August 2009, no. 312), reflecting more on the dystopian side of the new film culture and even resorting to some horror-movie imagery:
Let us be honest. Despite the grumbles we all make or hear that IMDb [Internet Movie Database] is missing some important films, that it has a heavy bias towards the commercial mainstream, that it all looks so Hollywood and capitalistic—it is, by now, the Monster We All Have Sex With. And the scary children born of these couplings are beginning to appear, walking on the earth . . .
Just as every living journalist now sneaks a peek at Wikipedia to verify (at their peril) facts and figures and names and places, everybody in the world of film, at whatever level, uses IMDb as the One Stop Shop for basic information. It has become as essential to us as email or Facebook or the mobile phone. I have even begun to spot serious university “media sociology” studies which forego old-fashioned “vox pop” sampling for a quick flick through the brain-dead “user comments” on Amazon.com or IMDb . . .
These are certainly perturbing and challenging signs of change, and having worked professionally as a journalist for well over three decades, I think that many of the best arguments to be made for saving some portions of this work are allied to whether or not they serve as chronicles of their own period(s). Naturally, I’d like to think that all fifty-four pieces included in this book do that in one way or another, even though they also reveal specific biases along the way. (Readers will note that I’m usually more of an old fogey when it comes to mobile phones than I am about DVDs.) But truthfully, the subtitle of this book, Film Culture in Transition, could have been used during any or all of those thirty-odd years, as well as during either of the two preceding decades of my formative moviegoing. I daresay that for better and for worse, film culture has pretty much remained in transition for all of its existence, and will continue to remain so. That is an integral part of its mystery and magic and its continuing emotional hold on us.