Ceaselessly prolific, frighteningly well-informed on seemingly every detail of film history, and well ahead of the technological curve, Jonathan Rosenbaum has championed and contextualized many films in his 40 years as a critic. When print film criticism flourished, he could write 1,800 words on Cliffhanger and make them all matter. That review isn’t in his latest collection, Goodbye Cinema Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture In Transition, but like many of the pieces in the book, it’s available at his website, JonathanRosenbaum.com.
Why buy what’s largely freely available? On a basic level, Rosenbaum’s website can be tricky to sift through, and the layout is unappealing. The handsomely curated Goodbye Cinema is a dense collection of Rosenbaum’s most fervent causes, both long-standing (Luc Moullet, considered in two pieces separated by 30 years) and relatively recent (Pedro Costa). The book is divided into four divisions: The opening “Position Papers” (manifestos small and large) sets up his underlying argument about the gains and losses of film culture’s move to the Internet, both for viewing and critical purposes, and his measured optimism can be infectious. Next is a portfolio considering iconic performers and filmmakers, a section of more or less straight criticism, and a closer of criticism on other criticism. Much of this is on his site, but a single reference point for diverse publications (including foreign film catalogues and DVD liner notes) is welcome.
Rosenbaum’s greatest assets are his wealth of knowledge and unshowily honest ability to dissect his own prejudices and biases, which include frequent interjections of wistful Marxism and unabashed liberalism. Some of his best essays are here: “Rediscovering Charlie Chaplin” makes a compelling case for why Chaplin “idolatry” is the only intellectually honest starting point for reckoning with such an immense legacy. Rosenbaum, in essence, demands that viewers mistrust their guts and work harder to understand and appreciate what they’re seeing. He argues this often and well.
Often assuming viewers haven’t seen the film he’s analyzing, he sometimes gets lost in tangled synopses that could be clearer. More problematic are his occasional urges to castigate other, less perceptive writers for their aesthetic sins. His defense of Jacques Tati’s Parade pauses to unproductively castigate how “the career of Woody Allen offers distressing evidence of what it takes to be taken seriously as a film artist in this culture […] not a unique vision of the world or how to deal with it; all it takes is an array of cultural references and the proper amount of gloom and doom to register true artistic intentions.” This doesn’t have much to do with Tati (whose status as a true original was never in question), and impatient readers may wonder what, exactly, “this culture” might refer to, specifically. Rosenbaum sequenced the book himself, and coming right after an essay in praise of Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life that occasionally stops to scold Allen for the additional sin of not being Brooks, the book is occasionally redundant in its sniping.
Though Rosenbaum never spares himself, he also might have thought a little harder about reprinting his online obit for Susan Sontag, which explains to questionable ends how for a long time, he held a grudge against her for dissing his experimental autobiography at a New York Film Festival party in 1980, anecdotalism that adds little except well-remembered, detailed former pettiness. But mostly, that urge to examine, interrogate, contextualize, and explain how he sees films is a gift for readers ready to examine, at length, the films of Rosenbaum’s life. For hardcore cinephiles, it’s an almost always rewarding trade-off that’ll make them ready and eager to view unheard-of gems for the first time, and reevaluate known commodities with fresh eyes.