Jonathan Rosenbaum, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (A Capella Books, 2000)
I am enough of a film geek to have a favorite critic, and that is Jonathan Rosenbaum. About five years ago I discovered a website called They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, which keeps a list of the top thousand movies ever made, based on heuristics applied to a large number of surveys of film critics (the only thing I know for sure is that more recent surveys count more). The idea of a list of a thousand movies intrigued me, and I started searching out these lists and compiling them into a big spreadsheet. As of now, I have eleven of them. Many are compilations put together by many critics, as TSPDT's list is. But I heartily agree with Roger Ebert's manifesto against IMDB's Top 250, which posits the alternative sentiment that such a list compiled by a particular person allows for the jagged edges and anomalies that are elided by compilation lists. So I'm already predisposed to lists of this type put together by single critics. Of those, I have four so far, from Scaruffi, Thomson, Yamann, and Rosenbaum. As I've gone through the lists over the years and watched a number of the 3,811 films to be found there, I've discovered that Rosenbaum's list is by far the closest to my tastes; I've discovered a huge number of wonderful films I might never have seen before had I not discovered that list. (A representative sampling of films on Rosenbaum's list that don't appear on any of the others I now adore: The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, The Mysterious Object at Noon, Passionless Moments, The Tracker, A Great Day in Harlem, and Deep Cover, and to mention two I already loved before Rosenbaum alone called them out, Hammett and Martin.) And I still have so much to discover on that list. Some of it because my god, who has time to watch a thousand films in five years if one is not a professional reviewer?, and because despite some of the things I talk about below, the thesis of Rosenbaum's delightful, if somewhat dated, polemic Movie Wars still holds true: despite the fact that it's so much easier to find world cinema these days than it was in 2000, there's still so much that's simply nowhere to be found.
Rosenbaum's thesis, as the subtitle tell you, is that the American studio system, which (understandably) treats films as a business first and foremost, is inherently inimical to anything and anyone who treats films in any other way. As in, say, simply loving them because they're films, as Rosenbaum does. Towards the end of the book, he says something like "I don't care what you do with the big mainstream releases as long as you allow me and my friends to go off in the corner and do our own thing, and we can't as of now." (I apologize for my horrid paraphrasing; I've gone back through the book, which I couldn't highlight because I got it from the library, and I can't find the exact quote. I'm convinced it's somewhere in Chapter 9...) And he's absolutely right. It wasn't long at all after this book was released that the minor scandal was uncovered of studios who were planning remakes of Asian horror films buying the American distribution rights to those films and refusing to release them on Region 1 DVDs until those same American remakes were released. Surprise: Rosenbaum covers that exact scenario in this book, with Harvey Weinstein as the criminal. (Rosenbaum harbors a special hatred, it seems, for Weinstein's black heart. For different reasons than I do--or than I did, before reading this--but all the same. [My beef with Harvey is his insistence that all Miramax features clock in as close to ninety minutes as possible, which much of the rest of the Hollywood machine has copied, thus destroying the possibility of us finding an American version of Bela Tarr, at least anywhere in Hollywood. Could Costner have even managed to make Dances with Wolves, as awful as it is, only ten years after he actually did? The magic 8-ball says not likely.])
And while this book is well worth reading for the sake of reading it, because Rosenbaum is an excellent writer indeed, and one is liable to come up with any number of film recommendations one doesn't already have unless one has hunted down his thousand-films list, the astute film buff will likely start thinking "that's no longer true." early on, and that feeling will never let up. The reason: the internet. Rosenbaum mentions at least twice the near-impossibility of finding a VCR in America in the eighties that could play PAL/SECAM videos. When I went looking for an all-region DVD player in the early 2000s, while they were "unofficial" and you had to use software hacks to unlock region-freedom, I found one within hours, for about twenty bucks, and suddenly my library of Region 2 British TV comedy and Regions 2/3 Asian horror were suddenly viewable. As a side note, despite most if not all of those discs now being available natively, I still have my region 2 and 3 discs. I hold a grudge for a long, long time, and Disney's not getting a cent out of me to replace any of those with Region 1 DVDs. Why should I?
More to the point, file-sharing, as uncouth a topic as it may be, is making things available one can't even find on DVD. In many cases, despite what all those "don't steal movies!" ads found in your local multiplex want you to believe, this is entirely intentional, either because a particular movie has been banned somewhere in the world (official versions of both Grotesque, banned in England in 2009, and A Serbian Film, banned in Australia in 2010 [and again in 2011 after being recut to the Aussie film board's standards, to rub salt into the wound!], were published to the Internet by the studios themselves to get around the censorship) or because it's simply not available for the reasons Rosenbaum delves into in this book. If you're an American, there's at least a chance you've seen the late Edward Yang's Yi Yi, which not only got a surprisingly wide theatrical release here for a subtitled film, but shows up on a fairly regular basis on some of the wider-reaching film channels (IFC and Sundance). And if you're aware of Yang, you've probably googled him once or twice and found that true film buffs around the world, as well as the few American critics who have been lucky enough to see it, consider A Brighter Summer Day to be Yang's best film, or at least one of his best. (Since I'm already talking about my thousand-best compendium, A Brighter Summer Day appears on six of those lists, including Rosenbaum's [in fact, Rosenbaum lists it as one of his hundred favorite films]. Pertinently, four of those lists are either exclusively written by or mainly comprised of foreign critics.) As I write this, I have unofficial word from Criterion that a DVD release of A Brighter Summer Day, presumably a 20th-anniversary edition of some sort, is planned for 2011; it will be the first domestic release of what one can only say is widely-regarded in the film world as a major modern classic. In order to see it between its 1991 debut and now, given that even overseas it's been out of print for a while in a lot of countries, your best shot was a wobbly VHS-AVI transfer that's been traded by net-enabled cinephiles for the past decade or so. That's how I saw it. When the studios tell you "don't download movies!" in the trailers, they're all about not wanting you to download the stuff you can go to your local redbox and rent anyway. That is, after all, what Rosenbaum is saying here: if it's not what the studios consider a marketable resource, they don't care. If they did, we wouldn't have had to wait twenty years for a film critics across the globe consider a masterpiece. (Why was it never released here? It's three and a half hours long. I may not be right to entirely blame Harvey's ninety-minutes-and-out stance, but I'd bet this week's paycheck on that being a big part of it.)
I rush to add that the Internet has not cured all the world's filmic ills, not by a longshot. Of course, there's the difference between film and video, which Rosenbaum talks about extensively here. I know I'll never get to see A Brighter Summer Day in 35mm. (For modern features, though, I do think this is somewhat mitigated by the rise of filming directly on video, viz. Danny Boyle, or to use Rosenbaum's own example, Thomas Vinterberg; whether it's transferred to film later or not, it's still video. I also wonder about the use of DVD projection in cinemas, which is definitely on the rise; may have to email him about that.) To be entirely honest, I never really thought much about the differences between film and video, other than the size of the screen on which they're played and the ways in which the transfer to DVD manages to screw up the sound mix on about 99% of the DVDs I've ever watched--the voice is always far too low and the special effects too loud. (If you want almost cartoonishly exaggerated examples of this, rent Nine Dead Gay Guys and Faust: Love of the Damned, two movies whose sound mix was competent theatrically but was so awful in transfer I knocked stars off my rating.) And then there are the movies that no one ever seems to have thought to put on DVD that no one ever did a VHS-AVI transfer for. Do you know how long I spent looking for a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment (this time thanks to TSPDT's list; Rosenbaum omits it) before it finally showed up on DVD a couple of years ago? You don't want to, you'd think I was an obsessive nut. Well, you probably do anyway, but still.
And, of course, the 'net found me TSPDT, which led me to Rosenbaum's list, which led me to Rosenbaum's book, which I have not spent nearly enough of this review talking about.
I was about to start the next sentence "So I'll go back to talking about Movie Wars", but then I remembered one other piece of the book that's since been validated: Rosenbaum suggests (outright states at least once, if I recall) that the American public's tolerance for subtitles is a whole lot greater than the American studio system suggests. That hypothesis has been very well validated by three Hollywood studio productions since the book was written: Cary Fukunaga's Sin Nombre in 2009 and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto in 2004 and 2006 respectively. All were created within the system, and no one spoke a word of English in any of them. All made their budgets back at the box office (and obviously The Passion did significantly better), which is how Hollywood measures success, no? We should note that Sin Nombre, the top film in Ben Mankiewicz' Best of 2009 list, did so while showing on a maximum of eighty-three screens (both of the Gibson features maxed out at over 2,500). Hey Hollywood, can I have my Takeshi Kitano movies on the big screen now, please?
Okay, so now I'll go back to talking about Movie Wars. Not that there's really much else to say; if you're an American film buff, you want to read this book. Rosenbaum points out a whole lot of things that you may have never thought of, and his righteous indignation at such things as Miramax's buy-and-hoard attitude toward foreign films, as discussed above, is a joy, not to mention the kind of thing one doesn't normally find in film books not written exclusively for the academic market. And if you're one who's interested in what's going on cinema outside our borders--Rosenbaum writes in his self-interview afterword that he wants to believe most American film buffs "want to be citizens of the world"--then not only will you get a number of awesome recommendations for stuff you may not have ever heard of (I'll give you one of Rosenbaum's tips: as of 2000, anyway, he believed Abbas Kiarostami was the best director working in the world at the time, and when you consider the passion of his writing about, for example, Hsiao-Hsien Hou in earlier chapters, that really says something), but you'll learn a good deal about how he thinks we view the rest of the world, and how he thinks the rest of the world views us. "To me, what's surprising is not [the fact that "during the first two months of its run, twenty-one million French viewers have seen Titanic"], but the large number of people there [over eight million] who went to see a strictly non-Hollywood feature [Asterix and Obelix Contre Cesar, which opened the same weekend]." (p. 214) Personally, I think the latter had something to do with the great Gerard Depardieu playing Obelix. And I will note, with grim amusement, that Asterix and Obelix Contre Cesar is to this day not available in America. ****