Jonathan Rosenbaum is one of the most recognisable and respected voices in film criticism, renowned for his eloquence, insight and inextinguishable passion for cinema. In his four-plus decades of writing about film, he has amassed a body of work so rich and diverse it acts as a kind of topography of film culture, from more experimental literary works like his 1980 memoir Moving Places, to the vast archive of his film reviews from his many years as head film critic at the Chicago Reader.
Rosenbaum attended the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival as one of eight mentors at the third annual Critics Campus. Assigned as his mentee, I had the fortune of spending a week mining the considerable depths of his film knowledge. Late into the week, I sat down with Rosenbaum to talk about the Jerry Lewis retrospective, the evolution of film criticism and his experiences getting to know filmmakers like Samuel Fuller and Abbas Kiarostami.
So this is your third time in Melbourne?
Yes. I looked up the dates, the first time was 1996 and the second time was in 2002. What was the first Jerry Lewis film you saw?
The first Jerry Lewis film I saw was The Ladies Man, my friend got me to watch it and write about it. How about you?
I started at the very beginning. I think when I was six years old I saw My Friend Irma.
Did you always love Jerry Lewis?
Yeah, from the beginning. And I think back then I had a lot of company. A lot of other people liked Jerry Lewis then, too.
Do you feel the sentiment has shifted against him?
It’s complicated. I think there’s a kind of denial on the part of a lot of Americans, because I think it reminds people of parts of their adolescence or youth that they’d rather forget. But you know, I think it happens with others. If you think of the whole history of the reception of Chaplin in the States, a lot of people who loved him turned against him there, too. And it’s even happened to some extent with Woody Allen. That’s the funny thing about comedy, that it affects people’s private sense of themselves in ways that they can’t even theorise. I mean, I remember running into people who hated Tati.
And I remember going to see Mr. Hulot’s Holiday for the first time in London, and everybody was laughing and I didn’t understand what they were laughing at. I thought, “What’s funny? I don’t get it.” I think there’s a very interesting dynamic with a lot of comic people. I think people have irrational responses that they don’t know how to theorise exactly. And with Jerry Lewis it’s complicated, because he still obviously has a lot of fans. I personally think an awful lot of the aversion for Jerry Lewis comes from Hal Wallis, actually. Basically, making it really clear – in the same way that he treated Elvis, you know – basically that he’s not a cultural figure. He can only appear in stuff for kids that has absolutely no cultural value. Whereas he always had all these other prestige productions that were quite separate.
Have you been to many Jerry Lewis retrospectives? Is this one of the few?
No, very few. I mean, I’ve seen all the films many times, virtually all of them. But no, they’ve usually been in the wrong cities at the wrong times.
Do you see more of them happening now?
It seems like it.
He’s become fashionable again, maybe.
To some extent.
You’ve said you like to consider yourself more as a writer than a critic?
Yes, I would say so. Because I’ve been a writer longer than I’ve been a critic. And one thing that draws me to French criticism is that I think there’s a whole tradition in French writing about film to see cinema as literature by another means. And that’s something I feel very close to as a concept.
Do you feel that your writing changed after leaving the Chicago Reader?
Well, I’d say the most important point of transition was probably Movie Mutations, even though that was done while I was still at the Reader. Because it was interesting, when we started Movie Mutations it was before we had email. And by the time we finished it we finished it via email. But when we started it, the letters actually had to be sent by snail mail. It seems to me that the years in which we were working on that sort of describes the arc of the transition to the internet. And, the main difference is about the fact that I feel like I’m writing for a much more focused target audience than I was when I was at the Reader.
My editors at the Reader were not film buffs, so I had to make whatever I was writing about comprehensible to people who were not film buffs. And they were good editors, so I think in a way it was a very good experience to be obliged to write for people who weren’t film buffs. Because prior to that, most of the writing I’d done would be for places like Sight & Sound and Film Comment, which were largely for film buffs.
I think you’ve played a big role in creating a generation of film buffs – encouraging people to seek out films they wouldn’t otherwise see.
Of course, one thing that’s helped a lot is that there’s more access to films now, particularly if you don’t live in the big cities. So, I’ve been very lucky that way. I think one reason why lists are so important now is precisely because people get faced with too many choices now. I first started out getting interested in, not in films per se, but in film as an art form, when I was a freshman in college in New York. The first issue of Sight & Sound that I ever bought was one that had the international poll of the 10 best lists, and I started trying to systematically look up films that were on the list that I hadn’t seen, and I would underline each film after I saw it.
Do you find yourself consciously reacting against those lists?
Well, there are almost too many of them now. What’s hard is that I get several requests all the time for different kinds of lists. And sometimes it becomes particularly difficult in films for a given year, because, you know, you start getting asked around October, and it’s supposed to be for all of that year, and that’s one of the problems. But it seems to me that it is useful. One thing that… a discussion that was started on Facebook by Kevin B. Lee was him wondering why lists are so much of a male thing than a female thing, and that’s an interesting question. It seems like women are generally less interested in lists than guys. Do you think that’s true? If so, why do you think that’s true?
I definitely think that’s true. I’ve noticed male critics being quite competitive with what they like, and ranking an auteur’s work…
And how many things they’ve seen, also.
Yeah. Certain things they’ve seen, who’s seen the most. I definitely don’t see as many female critics doing that. I’m not sure if it’s competitiveness, or…
But women can be competitive with each other too. I don’t think it’s only that. It’s about the idea of possession too. Recording things. I mean it even relates to other things like boys collecting baseball cards.
I mean I grew up – my father was a book collector – I grew up in a house full of books. So there was a certain kind of way in which, and now I live in a house full of, or rather an apartment full of books and DVDs and Blu-rays. More than I even have room for. So, there’s some kind of collector’s thing. But in a way I’ve been trying to outgrow that, because I think it becomes a little kind of pointless to have copies of things that you’re not necessarily going to look at or use. And I have to make room for more things, so I have to find ways of getting rid of things, too.
You said your childhood home [the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Rosenbaum House] is now a museum that you returned to recently?
Yes, I don’t go back to it too often, but I went back with my friend Mehrnaz [Saeed-Vafa] to help her shoot this film. It was maybe two or three summers ago, I can’t remember exactly when. It’s very strange, because in order for it to work as a museum there has to be the fiction that there are still people living there. I mean, not that people believe that there are people living there, but you have to pretend, in a sense, that the table in the dining room is set as if it’s for a meal. And we went at night, we got special permission to light the house at night so we could film from outside, and it felt like a haunted house because it was almost like at any moment we would see somebody appear. It was very unnerving. I think it had to do with that strange pretext that it has to work for the museum. And because there were books of mine that I had in junior high school that are still on the shelves.
Did you always live in that house?
For sixteen years of my life, before I went away to school in Vermont.
Was it hard to leave the family cinema behind?
In some ways it was. I didn’t realise how hard it would be. I mean, I wasn’t happy there, so that was why I was glad to leave. But at the same time, the family business got sold while I was away at school. Like only about a year after I left, and part of me in the back of my mind always thought I would wind up working in the family business, so that was kind of hard. I think when I realised that there was no way that I was going to go on living in Alabama was once the theatres got sold. It kind of put the seal on that. But, I mean, there were other reasons. I think politically Alabama had become unbearable to me in other ways. I mean, because I was involved in the civil rights movement, and stuff like that.
Was that part of the reason you moved to Paris?
Well, I think, you know the funny thing is, I inherited money from my grandfather, which made it possible for me once I was… because when I was in graduate school that was largely a matter of draft dodging, just staying out of the draft, and once I’d reached a certain age where I knew I wasn’t going to get drafted, I quit graduate school. That’s why I never got the right degrees to become an academic, and it was part of that fantasy of American expatriates abroad and all of that. And I’d loved the time I’d spent in Paris, going to films and stuff, and it was during that same period that I was getting involved in and starting to write criticism. So it was a good place to be in the sense of being a Paris correspondent for Film Comment, and being able to write about certain things for Sight & Sound during the same period.
One thing that was nice for me, when I was a kid I always had fantasies about a movie being shot in the house. And even ideas for camera movements, going down the hallways. And in fact there was a very brief period when Wenders was shooting The American Friend, because Nicholas Ray was in it, and with the Frank Lloyd Wright connection they’d briefly considered using that house as a location for The American Friend. So there was a couple of phone calls, I knew a guy who was one of the producers on it from Paris, Pierre Cottrell. It didn’t pan out, but it was an exciting idea.
They should’ve done it!
And I did… When I met Nicholas Ray, it was fun talking to him about Frank Lloyd Wright, because he’d studied with him.
Samuel Fuller is in that film as well…
Yeah, and I became very close to Samuel Fuller later, actually, because at the end of my academic career before I came to Chicago, I was put in charge of the summer school at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and we had just enough money in the budget to have an artist in residence, the idea of someone who’d come and visit all the classes. And I invited Fuller to come from Paris. So I spent almost three weeks with him every day, and we became very close, from then on for the rest of his life, actually. And he was quite extraordinary, because even though he was a great filmmaker, he was an even more remarkable person in a lot of ways. I’m still in touch with his family. His widow, his daughter and his granddaughter.
You’ve had a few close relationships with filmmakers…
Some. Actually very few that would be as close as it was with him. Because, in the case of somebody like Godard, I can’t say it was ever close, I mean I got to hang out with him once.
Well, with Tati it was a working relationship. I never was at his home, I never met any members of his family. But, yeah, it was certainly very important to me. And I think it was just about the luck of being in the right place at the right time. There were certain filmmakers I revered, who I would’ve liked to have become close to but wasn’t able to, like Resnais, he was a very aloof kind of person. I watched part of the shooting of Stavisky… and did a couple of interviews with him. But he was a kind of person who was like a French person who was excessively polite, and you were always left with the feeling that he would much rather be somewhere else, hanging out with someone else, you know. So it was never very comfortable.
An actress, or something?
Well, I don’t know. He was a very shy person, but also a person who was very choosy about who he hung out with. And Rivette I can’t say I knew well, I don’t know anybody who knew him well, but at the same time I got to spend time with him because my best friend for a while in Paris was his main screenwriter. And I watched portions of the shooting of two of his films. You know, got to hang out with him at different times.
It can be a complicated thing about being friends with filmmakers, particularly if you’re writing about their films. But it depends, I mean I’ve had some rocky times and some times it’s worked out OK. But it’s obviously tricky. Have you ever gotten to know a filmmaker?
Not yet. It’s something I’d like to do.
I do feel I got to know Kiarostami, just from seeing him in a lot of different situations. And he was a person I really liked a lot.
What do you see your role is as a critic?
I think to assist in the public discussion of films, that’s the way I would describe it. A discussion that already exists before I enter into it, and that continues after I leave it. But that’s again tied to the idea of not having the first word or the last word, but to intervene at some point.
So a social act?
Yeah, I think it is a social act. The funny thing is, and I think this is what’s complicated for a lot of people, is that film criticism has always been social. But it’s social now in a different way from what it was in the ’60s, because so much of what it was in the ’60s had to do with seeing films at the same time as other people and in the same place.
It’s become more democratised and globalised…
Somewhat more democratised but also more focused. In terms of people with particular interests. I’m fascinated by the fact that – I talked about this in my session at the library – that more people are interested in difficult films now than they used to be, younger people. And that’s a very interesting change I think. But it also is peculiar for me, because I find that I have more to talk about and have more in common with younger people than I do with people my own age, a lot of the time. There are exceptions, because I’m friends with Thom Andersen, for example, who’s exactly the same age as me. And I was good friends with Gil Perez, who’s also more or less the same age.
I definitely see you as being very optimistic, especially about online criticism.
Well, it’s that, but I think I’m very lucky that I’ve had the experience of teaching at [Bela Tarr’s] film.factory because I think that gives me a very positive sense of things, just because there are very talented, very receptive people there. And the problems that I had as a teacher before were basically trying to fit into certain kinds of mainstream configurations where I don’t belong, actually. And I think one of the things that’s corrupted film criticism a lot is that I really think that film critics who become preoccupied with power become less interesting as a consequence. I think that’s what happened with Pauline Kael, for example, when you’re trying to directly affect other critics. I mean, Manny Farber, who’s very important to me, one of his limitations was that he really couldn’t, he tended to produce, when he would work with writing workshops, people who imitated him precisely. And he’s a terrible person to imitate precisely. It’s always had disastrous effects. Whereas I think that’s always tricky.
I think Pauline Kael struggled with that because she tended to produce, among other critics, duplications of herself, but sometimes she was appalled by people who imitated her when she saw the results. But, I think it’s also tricky because I use first person a lot, and for a lot of people that’s something you shouldn’t do, it becomes solipsistic and narcissistic and all of that. Whereas, there’s also this charge against certain other writing I do as being elitist, which I think is a false argument, because there’s as much elitism that goes on in the people who are preoccupied with power, perhaps even more.
So, I think, and actually I don’t think there’s anything wrong, I mean the New Wave was an elitist group. I think people get confused historically when they talk about the ’60s being such a great time, because in some ways it was but in some ways people were constantly fighting battles, it wasn’t like everyone was running off to see Godard films and liking them in the ’60s.
Thank you so much.
A significant amount of Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s body of work can be found at his website.