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Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can See
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on July 28, 2004
Rosenbaum's book is simply a great introductory read into the failures of how the American audience, and the distributors of cinema in the States are leading to a 'possible' decline in quality of film being seen in the United States. Rosenbuam points to America as being the leader and champion of exported culture (regardless if this a good thing or not is not the point), and the cause of a dumbing down of cinema all over the world, as great works get pushed to the side seemingly never meant to be appreciated.

One of the best things that comes across in the book is Rosenbaum's passion. Simply put he waxes poeticaly talking back to the days of his past and finding films on his own, be it an odd trek to see John Carpenters 'The Thing', or about his education with film in his years in Paris, or his insight about how the festival of Cannes has chaned, to his reaction of a critic during the first hour of a seven hour film masterpiece (the name right now escapes me and I don't have the book with me to quote the name it starts with an 'S'). The other side is filled with not so much venom as 'concern' if I could say with the concept of how America is not getting the film education and greatness it deserves.

He highlights this in several ways, such as his dicussions about Miramax (He points out that if Miramax gets a film chances of you seeing it are even LESS than if they didn't, and if you do chances are it's going to be chopped/altered in someway), the myth of independent film (he points out that Sundance and Telluride is just a cover and is in no way an independent showcase), and how most film critics are more in-debt to their papers and editors who call the shots (he highlights that with one critic as his popularity grew his word count and column got less real-estate space).

It's an absolutlely FASCINATING look at cinema and the state that it is heading in. This is a MUST have film book if you are passionate about film.

Some criticism's of the book though come from some of Rosenbaums overly-long wordy sentences, and his use of examples with films that can be for the most part with many first time readers, unknown. When he starts using films that he has seen for his arguments chances are you are not going to guess where he is coming from due to the fact you haven't seen the films yourself. But he certainly does point you in some interesting directions. However, with the films he does point out that you may know you get exactly where he is coming from.

Secondly, even though the book is merely only 4 years old, it is a little dated. Rosenbaum likes to bring up the obscurity of director Ozu (one of my personal favs) as a problem, however there has lately been a renaisance of his work and he is already starting to become quite a well known name (Criterion DVD releases are already proving that, and a recent tribute festival that I saw that came through DC).

Even with all that said, the book is a fascinating insight into the realm of how cinema is marketed and distributed to the mass American public. Rosenbaum throws in examples of dumbed down culture, coroporate marketing, distributor strangleholding and numerous other things that will keep you intrigued about the workings of the film process.

Great book, ecspecialy if you are a film nut like myself.
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on October 20, 2002
I'm going to be short because others have done him justice already. At last someone has put together a thorough, cogent, and richly illustrated argument explaining why Hollywood studios have been so bad for the movies in recent years.
One of Rosenbaum's main themes is that Hollywood isn't even "giving the people what they want." The hare-brained garbage the big studios regularly produce is the product of a completely self-contained, self-referential industry that is driven by marketing ("push" in business terminology) far more than it is driven by customer demand (i.e., "pull."). One of my favorite examples is Rosenbaum's discussion of the extraordinary success of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, a massive box office success that many, if not most, people thought was just extraordinarily bad. Rosenbaum goes into great detail about how marketing deals ensured the extraordinary financial success and long movie house runs of this almost complete loser.
In a wonderfully ironic support of Rosenbaum's thesis, try typing "movie wars" into [a bookeseller's] search engine. At least when I tried it (10/20/02), the first roughly 50 books the search engine returns are collateral materials for Star Wars, none of whose titles contain the phrase "movie wars." Hollywood marketing strikes again as thoughtful criticism is, as usual, pushed into obscurity.
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on December 19, 2000
"MOVIE WARS: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See," by Jonathan Rosenbaum: Chicago, a capella, 2000. Review by Harvey Karten film_critic@compuserve.com.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, film critic with the Chicago Reader, is on the left politically as one can easily see from his latest book, "Movie Wars." His central position is that while we have a free press in the United States, the capacity to go to virtual or actual book stores and find just about anything we want to read (particularly in the giants like Barnes & Noble and Amazon), we do not enjoy such freedom in choosing our movies. Rosenbaum expresses a belief in the wisdom of ordinary moviegoers who might like to take in screenings of important films but who, thanks to the power of the so-called movie industrial complex, are often unable to do so. In other words, the big studios and the large newspapers, TV and radio stations scheme with one another to push certain movies our way and to discourage our viewing of others they do not wish to market.
Of all the evidence he supplies, what got me (as a film critic) thinking most is Rosenbaum's contention that the media and the big studios in effect bribe supposedly impartial critics to push certain films. Since recognized movie critics, particularly in areas of the country like New York and L.A., are given free access to hundreds of movies each year, some might be tempted to cooperate with the studios and write fluff pieces out of gratitude for the invitations. I like to think that we're invited merely with the hope that we'll spread good news about the films: that negative commentary may not be welcome but that the companies recognize that those of us who praise almost everything will lose credibility with our readers--and then what good will we be when we honesty laud a good movie? However, there is one group that Rosenbaum accuses of succumbing to outright bribery: the critics who are feted by the studios with fancy junkets. According to the author, certain select reviewers are invited to fly to L.A. or New York or even Hawaii and Paris to screen films and review the talent on site. The implication is that if these writers do not knock out what the studios would like the readers to see, they are not invited back. Now, if you were given free air tickets, put up in a first-class hotel for two nights, and given cash for daily expenses while reviewing and
interviewing, would you be tempted to be overly generous? Rosenbaum thinks so. This is one way that the big companies in effect control the output of the writers.
And what about those blurbs that you see in the newspaper ads for the movies? Some of them are not even extracts from long reviews but are supplied by professional blurb writers--with the film companies actually "suggesting" what the blurber should write.
In yet another indictment of the ways that studios
manipulate our freedom to select movies, Rosenbaum suggests that critics are persuaded not to bother reviewing movies whose advertising budgets are marginal. Important films that the public may indeed be tempted to see are not talked up by either the advertisers or the reviewers, and in fact the author was forced on a Chicago show called Chicago Tonight to speak almost exclusively about big studio releases. Rosenbaum also believes that some reviewers do not care for what they're doing and write not from their own hearts but from what they think the readers want to hear. In doing so, they are merely ratifying preconceptions set up by ads and promo campaigns. These critics assume that audiences, unlike sophisticated critics, are not tolerant of films that demand thought and patience, and what's more the critics believe that their editors are of the same view. Again: the independent film, which may move more slowly than the typical biggie, will not be reviewed by most media and will not be advertised by releasing companies.
As for foreign films? Same deal. I've heard said that only one percent of movie goers attend foreign language films at all. Why? Presumably the studios and editors believe there's no way that the ordinary people on the street will want to read the subtitles or would be interested in seeing the output of the non-English-speaking world. Whose fault is that? Rosenbaum is more of a democrat than I. My own view is
that you can advertise the latest from Theodor Angelopoulos or Krzysztof Znussi all you want--you won't find lines outside the theaters.
A short review can barely skim the surface of this author's accusations. He takes on Miramax, for example, for deliberately limiting production of potential competitors by buying up the rights and then shelving the films simply to keep them away from contesting their own releases. "Movie Wars" is to the current film industry as "The Jungle" was to the meatpacking industry--an important work charging big media and studio corporations with censorship to get us to patronize only those movies they want us to see.
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on June 3, 2014
Wonderful book from one of the greatest film critics of all time, Jonathan Rosenbaum. Cinema is not dead. aa aa
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on December 20, 2000
This is hands-down the best film book of the year. Essential.
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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. ****
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on December 9, 2010
This book by Rosenbaum deserves plaudits for its success on many levels but perhaps he succeeds most simply in connecting the film industry (and thus the artistic medium of movies) with an average person's daily life. Despite Hollywood's and Madison Avenue's strenuous efforts to convey the opposite impression, Rosenbaum shows how the movie business is just as rapacious, short-sighted, ad-driven, and philistine as any other industry in America. And he is passionate enough about the beauty and artistic vision that is trampled by the profit-driven studios that he sets out to show us what we are all missing and how we can challenge the status quo. As with any great polemicist, he shows the controlling hands that have invisibly guided out movie tastes and choices for decades.

Even eleven years after the book was written, as we have transitioned from the VCR age to the DVD age, we find this book to be on-target. For those, like me, who have had their own passions for movies set aflame, he has posted an archive of many of his reviews online. Thus, we can keep the party going even after the book's last page has been turned.
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on January 10, 2004
Rosenbaum's book is an incisive critique of the social and industrial forces that circumscribe the American movie landscape. In his view, the major (and major "independent") studios, film festivals, and the US critical establishment are all part of a terrible process that relegates exciting new films (esp foreign films) to virtual non-existence, while lavishing attention on big budget, heavily-promoted American films of (often) dubious artistry. There is nothing at all surprising about this insight; what makes "Movie Wars" compelling is less the sophistication of his analysis (although his chapter on Orson Welles as "ideological challenge" is eloquent and credible), than the depth of his anger (at lazy critics, at cowardly and/or sinister studio execs, at compliant festival promoters, etc.) and the strength of his commitment to movies as art. Rosenbaum's book is full of outrage--which might partly account for the other Amazon reviewer's wariness about his critical tone--but, truly, the book is anything but cynical. Its polemic is distinctly at the service of promoting a kind of open-mindedness about the cinema and its contemporary achievements and possibilities. It is easy, Rosenbaum suggests, to claim (as many critics do, year after year) that movies are terrible these days, if your only experience of the state of the art is what is playing at the multi-plex. Rosenbaum's excitement about Taiwanese, African, and Iranian directors, his celebration of overlooked or misunderstood American auteurs like Joe Dante and Orson Welles, and his provocative alternate list of the Top 100 films of All Time--a withering riposte to AFI's blandly conservative choices--give the book a kind of moral center (while also offering the reader copious numbers of lesser-known films to look out for). While Rosenbaum's jibes at Miramax seemed to me almost de rigeur (whether or not warranted), there were many other moments in the book when I felt almost exhultant that a critic operating more or less in the mainstream of American film journalism would take such risks with what is usually perceived as "consensus" public opinion--e.g., in the aforementioned assault on AFI. Although his writing never achieves the buoyancy of Pauline Kael's at her best, he has her verve and frequently her insight, and this volume can hold its own with her similar, epochal rants for the New Yorker ("Why are movies so bad? The Numbers," "Are Movies Falling to Pieces," etc.).
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on December 17, 2000
Jonathan Rosenbaum takes cinema for what it is and what it could be. The author is a passionate movie critic, who believes passionately in the power of the "movement-image." He writes weekly reviews in the Chicago Reader. He might be the only critic I know of in the US who actually DEFENDS certain movies. His highly vitriolic discussion of the practices of major movie studios is refreshing and right on target. Rosenbaum's exploration of the socio-economic and cultural reasons why US audiences cannot easily access foreign movies leads him to a larger reflection on the very nature and/or possibility of an "American" cinema in the age of globalization. Rosenbaum vehemently criticizes the current status quo and the US film industry for treating movies as disposable commodities and the audiences as hapless consumers. He also shows how the "entertainment-industrial complex" has taken over the shaping of the public's taste through mainstream media outlets. Rosenbaum argues forcefully against the cliche that so-called art movies - and those who enjoy them - are hopeless elitists. As a matter of fact, in the book he discusses Starship Troopers and Orson Welles' Ambersons with equal interest. He makes the case that movies can tell us crucial things about the world we live in, or in other words that movies - foreign, US, artsy, indie, whatever - matter because of their ethical value. A vital, and extremely minoritarian position nowadays. In summary, a very lively and at times very funny book, which considerably enriches the discussion on cinema. Invaluable in the era of the E! channnel.
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on March 1, 2001
For years now there have been two kinds of movie critics: those who like the movies that win the Academy Award for best picture and those who are actually worth reading. Rosenbaum as a critic clearly falls into the second category and his book is invaluable for the perspective it presents on modern cinema. Hollywood has become increasingly depressing over the past two decades. The autopsies of Pauline Kael in 1980 and Mark Crispin Miller in 1990 have been vindicated in spades. The Academy Awards, instead of honoring the usual middlebrow works such as Amadeus, goes for such lowbrow historical works as Braveheart and Titanic. To the isolated critic, the appearance of such films as Fargo and such companies as Miramax appears as an oasis. The value of Rosenbaum's book is that it shows that this is a mirage.
The problem, says Rosenbaum, is not that there are not good movies being made anymore. The problem is that most of them are foreign movies and both Hollywood and the media take an obtuse and philistine approach towards them. One could simply look to the Village Voice Critics List and one would see such films as Beau Travail, The House of Mirth, Yi Yi, The Wind Will Carry Us, L'Humanite, and Time Regained all in the top 10, but they would be virtually unknown to the rest of continent. Rosenbaum is particularly fond of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and the Portuguese Manuel De Oliviera. But these and many other directors that Rosenbaum mentions do not get the attention they deserve. Miramax concentrates on "feel-good" foreign films, such as Life is Beautiful or Chocolat. Rosenbaum's description of Miramax's version of The Wings of the Dove, as middlebrow soft-core porn that traduces its source, emphasizes the problem. Miramax picks up the distributing rights to more challenging fare, not to show them, but to prevent other companies from seeing them. Rosenbaum is particularly cutting about how Mirimax executives monopolize media discussion at Cannes by putting down other movies and appealing to xenophobic and philistine instincts of American reporters. Critics are often obtuse about films. (Rosenbaum is particularly cutting about the cheap Francophobia of such well respected writers as David Denby and James Wolcott). This unpleasant isolationism is all the more dangerous because the American industry has such an enormous influence on the rest of the world's movies.
Rosenbaum emphasizes the self-serving illusions of Hollywood hacks who say they only make what the public wants. After all, they claim, people won't watch movies with subtitles or in black and white. As Rosenbaum points out, audiences had no trouble watching subtitles in Dances with Wolves, and watching black and white subtitles in Schindler's List. The basic problem is that the movie testing machine is designed in such a way as to give the audience limited choices and to verify the prejudices of studio heads. The book is not perfect. One may feel that if one needed to defend a Hollywood picture you could have a better choice than Small Soldiers. Likewise, one may wonder whether Paul Verhoaven is a brilliant satirist or just deeply cynical. And if you think that Casablanca, or Quientin Tarantino are better than Rosenbaum suggests, you will not find much counter-argument here. But if you have never heard of Robert Bresson, you must read this book.
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