Interview: Jonathan Rosenbaum, Retired Chicago Reader Film Critic

  

I had a wonderful opportunity in November of 2018 to meet one of the most widely celebrated living film critics. Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote for decades as a film critic at the Chicago Reader and developed a voice as a forceful defender of the art form and humanity in general. In that, he’s also somewhat controversial. He’s taken numerous stances against popular films and movements within Hollywood that have put him at a distance with some of his contemporaries. Regardless, he’s always an interesting film critic to read, even when I have massive disagreements with his conclusions or thought processes. 

As a young film critic myself, I find reading his work to be immensely useful. I’m of the opinion that the job of the film critic (if one can consider something as frivolous as film criticism a legitimate line of work in this day and age) is to help explain people’s opinions to them and expand people’s understanding of the art. If I have one consistently enjoyable experience as an appreciator of the art form, it’s being able to expose people to films that aren’t regularly viewed by the public and to watch their eyes light up as they have an experience they never expected to have. 

This is why my interview with Mr. Rosenbaum back in 2018 proved to be such a blessing. He’s one of the leading experts in the United States on the subject of the life and works of Orson Welles and getting to pick his brain on the subject for forty-five minutes was a delightful experience. I had the opportunity to attend a subsequent lecture he hosted at the Gene Siskel Center in April of 2019 where he introduced Orson Welles’ film The Other Side of the Wind and read his essay on the film from his book Portraits and Polemics. Shy of one persistently obtuse heckler in the room, it was a lovely lecture.

Mr. Rosenbaum’s body of work is persistently enlightening and challenging. I always feel like I walk away from his reviews learning something and carrying a deeper understanding of the art. Alas, that doesn’t seem to be the attitude most film fans want to take away from their films. The “film critic” in this day and age is either written off as a pretentious fool, a cynical political activist, or a moral degenerate who defends degenerate art. Most people don’t even bother to engage with the ideas the film critic puts forward, instead preferring to fall back on their preconceived notions and dismissing challenging arguments outright. Most people seem to want a film critic to be a consumer reporter who shares all of their preconceptions and priorities instead of an independent thinker and artist in their own right. 

The irony of this is the fact there are thousands of young people online right now (myself included) that are trying to make careers out of being film reviewers on YouTube and various online blogs. The “film critic” in its current form has never been more democratized or shunned. The loudest voices in the current discourse are frequently the least interesting and most volatile, while nuanced voices struggle to find a place in a world where newspaper jobs and consistent work are harder to find than ever. 

With recent debates of late taking a very hostile stance towards the cultural notion of “the film critic,” I decided to reach out to Mr. Rosenbaum again to ask him a handful of questions I hadn’t had the opportunity to address with him before. Most importantly, I wanted to hear his thoughts on the nature of film criticism and what he thought the nature of the job was. I also wanted to follow up on a conversation we’d had about his friendship with Orson Welles’ former mistress Oja Kodar and his plans to meet up with her and possibly screen her late lover’s film for her. 

We corresponded via email the week of Sept. 9, and he was kind enough to answer all of my questions.

The Interview

First and foremost, how have you been? How have things been since our interview in 2018? 

Not having a steady job now, I no longer tend to think clearly in terms of years, so I can’t offhand remember what I was doing in 2018. I deeply regret the earlier closing of Bela Tarr’s FilmFactory in Sarajevo–a school for filmmakers where I taught for four separate two-week sessions between 2013 and 2016, with students from all over the world, which I dearly miss. But otherwise, I’ve been pretty busy in terms of both writing assignments and teaching. Last night, I taught my first online class at the School of the Art Institute—a bumpy start due to some technical glitches and adjusting to this new experience, but I’m sure this will improve over time.

Otherwise, I’ve recently written pieces about John Gianvito, writer Tonino Guerra, Kira Muratova, Kelly Reichardt, Pedro Costa, and Yasuzo Masumura, as well as my two columns—“Global Discoveries on DVD” for CinemaScope and “En Movimiento” for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine. I’m also pleased I no longer have to spend most of my viewing time watching movies I don’t want to see, which occupied much (possibly most) of my moviegoing during my two decades of reviewing for the Chicago Reader. Nowadays, I mainly watch old Hollywood stuff, with significant exceptions for both work and viewing preferences. Like many others, I experience some loneliness due to the pandemic and my current inability to travel, but I still usually get at least a thousand visits paid daily to my web site and a lot of feedback on social media.

It’s impossible to feel optimistic as long as Trump remains in office, but I feel usefully occupied. Right now, I’m watching online Paul Cronin’s fascinating and eye-opening A Time to Stir, a 15-hour documentary about the Columbia University student uprising of April 1968 I discovered thanks to Godfrey Cheshire (who also led me to A Bread Factory, another big discovery).                                                                                                               

Did you ever have a chance to meet with Oja Kodar following the release of The Other Side of the Wind? 

Yes, I met with her twice in Zagreb early this year, when I could still travel. I luckily visited her for a weekend at the Villa Welles in Primosten in July 2018.

Did Oja have a chance to have The Other Side of the Wind screened for her? What did she think? 

Oja saw the same rough cut on video that I did, and had several things to say about it, some of which were heeded, but she hasn’t seen the final film. I don’t know if she ever will. Her whole experience with the film over so many years has been so traumatic I’m sure she finds it all emotionally difficult to handle. She did ask me to describe it to her in detail.

I am obviously familiar with your work, but let’s assume the reader looking at this review doesn’t know who you are. Could you please describe your career and approach to film criticism? 

Briefly: I started writing film criticism professionally circa the late 60’s and early 70’s, freelancing (fitfully) in New York and Paris, moved to London to join the staff of two magazines published by the British Film Institute (1974-77), returned to the U.S. via San Diego and spent a full decade of more freelancing on both coasts (mostly Hoboken and Santa Barbara, a difficult scramble) and writing my first book, Moving Places, before becoming the main film critic for the Chicago Reader in 1987 and remaining there for 20 years. I retired in 2008 and, as suggested above, have been enjoying my freelancer’s career ever since.

My overall approach (again, briefly): I believe a film critic should assist in the public discussion of films without presuming to have the first or last word about them. My methodology is often autobiographical, and I try to objectify my subjectivity that way.

I recall from our previous discussion that you grew up in the South in a family that owned a movie theater. How did that affect your love of film? 

My paternal grandfather ran a chain of movie theaters in northwestern Alabama (which fluctuated between five and nine screens in four towns), and my father worked for him. I grew up seeing movies at the two or three venues in Florence. I was obviously a cinephile, but I only became interested in film as an art form after I saw Citizen Kane at a New England boarding school in my teens, shortly before the family business was sold and my father became an English professor. My original ambition was to write fiction.

When and how did you get into the business of film writing? 

When I quit graduate school in the mid-1960’s, shortly before I moved to Paris, I was commissioned by a friend to edit a collection of film criticism that made it twice into galleys but never was published. By the time the dust settled, I was writing film criticism. It wasn’t until I moved to London that I started making a living from doing it.

I could be off base with this assessment, but reading your Wikipedia page, I sense you have a reputation as something of a contrarian among film critics. I think that’s a good thing, although I’m not sure you’d agree with that. I disagree with many of your film reviews, but I always feel like I’m learning something and walking away with a greater understanding of the medium, which I think is the most important thing. Why do you think you find yourself disagreeing with critics about popular films as you have on numerous occasions (Saving Private Ryan, Star Wars, etc.)?

Ideological, ethical, and aesthetic reasons, I suppose. I was more of a contrarian when I was younger, and this was undoubtedly exacerbated and intensified by the ugly competitive atmosphere of New York whenever I lived and worked in that neck of the woods.

You had the opportunity to work on several films with major directors while you lived in France. Could you describe what it was like to work with directors like Tati and Bresson? 

I’ve written articles about both experiences, both available on my web site, so I’d rather not try to regurgitate them here.

Working with Robert Bresson (Director of Diary of a Country Priest, Pickpocket, La’rgent, A Man Escaped

Working with Jacques TatiWorking with Jacques Tati – Part 2 (Director of Playtime, School for Postmen, The Big Day, Traffic)

Having Lunch with Orson Welles (Director of Citizen Kane, Other Side of the Wind and Touch of Evil

One of the most famous projects you’ve had the opportunity to work on is the biography This is Orson Welles which you edited. Could you talk about how you became involved with that and what your role in it was working with Peter Bogdonovich?  

This is Orson Welles wasn’t a biography, but a book-length interview with many biographical details. Oja Kodar, who owned the book’s rights, asked me to edit it, and Peter basically left me alone until the book reached the galley stage, at which point he insisted on deleting about ten or a dozen passages, mostly due to political correctness or not allowing Welles to make nasty comments about a few people, over my objections and those of the book’s editor at HarperCollins. Then, when the book came out in paperback, Peter asked for my name to be removed from the cover, even after asking me to edit his new introduction, but he agreed to put my name on the spine.

You’ve developed a notable side career as a consultant and expert on the life and history of Orson Welles. That’s obviously how we met. What is it about Welles that fascinates you? 

His versatility and unpredictability, as well as his talent for self-criticism.

Do you have any thoughts about the upcoming David Fincher film about Herman Mankiewicz? I get the sense the movie is going to re-litigate some of Pauline Kael’s criticism of Welles and Citizen Kane

No thoughts and little interest, although I’ll see it when it comes out. There’s nothing to re-litigate about Kael’s unscholarly account—who wrote what, when, and where are all spelled out in detail in Carringer’s essay about the screenplay and its separate drafts, meticulously researched and reprinted in James Naremore’s casebook on Citizen Kane, for anyone who wants to know the facts. Most people aren’t really interested in the facts, only in the mythology as promulgated by Kael, Thomson, and their cheering sections, and surely a David Fincher movie is the last place one should go to for resolving scholarly questions that were already definitively resolved and answered many years ago.

The reason I reached out to you for this interview is that you are one of the most prominent film critics alive. Jean-Luc Godard once compared you to James Agee and Andre Bazin, and said, “we don’t have writers like him in France.” I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the nature of the profession. There are thousands of amateur film buffs among my generation with blogs and YouTube channels trying to break out as film writers. What would you describe is the job of a film critic and what does someone need to do a good one? 

I believe I’ve answered that question above.

What do you think are some of the positives and negatives of the democratization of film discussion online? From my standpoint, there’s a lot of anti-intellectualism and pop-psychology that drowns out the discussion of films. Too many young people just focus on recent Hollywood films and have a very narrow perspective on the medium. 

True. I have nothing to add to this, except to note that I think the usual distinctions people make between professional critics and amateur critics strike me as either unwarranted or bogus in many cases, because I don’t think whether or not a critic is paid for her work has any bearing on its quality. The same applies to academic degrees: I know plenty of ignoramuses with Ph.D.s in film or who review films for money, and plenty of good critics and good teachers without these alleged credentials.

What advice would you give to young people who want to build a career as a film critic or who want to produce quality film criticism as a hobby?

To offer a cliché: Keep at it. Try to develop your own taste.

Could you tell our readers where they can find your work if they’d like to read it? 

All the books are available on Amazon, and almost all the rest (and even some of the books) can be found at jonathanrosenbaum.net.

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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