What Has Any of This to Do with Cinema? A Conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum

The light touch of belletrism alternates rhythmically with the closed fist of political commitment across Rosenbaum’s oeuvre.
Thomas Quist

Illustration by Stephanie Monohan.

In 1980, the writer and film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum published Moving Places: A Life at the Movies. His first book, in its novelistic way, theorizes the author’s own relation to the movies that accompanied him throughout his life. Rosenbaum’s childhood in Alabama as the son of movie exhibitors in the 1940s and ’50s is placed alongside his life in the late ’70s as a working film critic (sometimes literally; the book occasionally is formatted with double-columned pages). What served as the go-between, the time-machine, the weft thread of memory was the movies themselves; movies seen became movies forgotten, then later recalled and reencountered. What then surfaces in Rosenbaum’s writing is more than the films themselves, but the context in which he saw them: a summer camp, a town scandal, memories from the family living room—the routine events that color and are colored by the films we see.

In the early ’60s Rosenbaum moved to New York for school, first attending NYU, then finishing at Bard. After a post-graduation stint living in New York, Rosenbaum landed in Paris in June 1968; by then, the slogans of revolt graffitied on the city walls already memorialized the efforts of that May's failed student revolution. It was then that Rosenbaum started writing criticism with more regularity. An early job as the Paris correspondent for Film Comment was followed by a move to London and a regular position at Sight & Sound. While living in Europe, he also worked as Jacques Tati’s assistant for a couple weeks, as an extra on Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), and with François Truffaut on editing and translating André Bazin’s book Orson Welles: A Critical View (1978). In 1977, Rosenbaum moved to California on an offer from Manny Farber to fill in for him teaching at UC San Diego. It was here that he began writing Moving Places.

Ten years later, Rosenbaum got a chance to succeed Dave Kehr as the film critic for the Chicago Reader. (Rosenbaum following Kehr should go down as one of the great predecessor-successor stories of history, like Tim Duncan following David Robinson on the San Antonio Spurs.) Rosenbaum stayed at this job full-time from 1987 until 2008, racking up, during those decades, praise from various writers and filmmakers (including Jean-Luc Godard) for his erudition and critical insight. During the Chicago Reader years—which are about as fine a two-decade run as any critic has had—Rosenbaum wrote a number of books, all of which are leavened by an aesthetic and political attunement to cinema and the world. Consider this assessment, from Movies as Politics (1997), of Playtime’s (1967) philosophical project as having to do “with human, accidental curves breaking the monotony of regimented straight lines”; or his observation, in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia (2010), that Denis Levant in Beau travail (1999) seems “a switch blade ready to spring open”; or his Adornian critique, in Movie Wars (2000), of Hollywood’s control over access, where “instead of a public forum, what we all share is essentially the same multimillion-dollar ad campaigns designed to move the same limited corpus of products.” The light touch of belletrism alternates rhythmically with the closed fist of political commitment across Rosenbaum’s entire oeuvre.

This brings us to this year’s publication of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities: A Jonathan Rosenbaum Reader. The title, in opting for A and not The, is an invitation to the many ways one can be a reader of Rosenbaum’s work. There is no definitive system nor ultimate deduction, but only individually forged pathways through the available sentences, interpretations, and essays that Rosenbaum has offered over these 60 years.

The opening page of Moving Places resonates with this way of thinking, giving both an initiation to Rosenbaum’s sensibilities and a sense of scope for a potential reader. These passages inaugurate a book that deals with class, race, individual memory, and social history, all in and through cinema. And they have given me a way to trace a through line in Rosenbaum’s career: that the art of film criticism (and it is an art) allows one to write about anything—jazz, politics, literature. This sentiment springs forth most from a question that begins the book’s second paragraph, which links the filmless opening lines (on Faulkner and Mississippi and Alabama) to mentions of Dreyer and Welles—Rosenbaum writes, in what could be the secret subtitle to many of his essays, “What has any of this to do with cinema?”

Jonathan Rosenbaum in Four Nights of a Dreamer (Robert Bresson, 1971).


JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: One thing I was hoping you’d ask me about is the cover of my book.  [The front cover has an image from Playtime (1967) underneath one from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), while the back cover contains a picture of Charlie Parker and Colman Hawkins above another image from Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944).]

NOTEBOOK: I do have a question somewhat related to that. The release, in subsequent years, of both Playtime, the Jacques Tati film, and 2001, the Stanley Kubrick film, seem for you to be a watershed moment for cinema, both in your relation to it personally and within the history of the art form. Obviously, their placement on the cover of A Jonathan Rosenbaum Reader seems very important, so I’d be curious to hear you talk about this decision.

ROSENBAUM: It certainly was a watershed moment, and one of the book’s pieces is devoted to some of its implications, those two masterpieces appearing around the same time. But I’m also thinking of these two specific images, [the selection of] which, to me, is equally important. What I saw as the challenge of the jacket was that it somehow represent the fact that it was a collection of film criticism, literary criticism, and jazz criticism. And what I came up with may not be clear to some people, but I’m sort of proud of it because I think the idea of two images on the front jacket and two on the back is the idea of rhyming images. And the whole idea of rhyming is itself literary, so indirectly it represents literature, and Charlie Parker reacting to Coleman Hawkins clearly represents jazz. I wanted it to be interactive—in a way, what’s on the back cover is more important because I wanted the compositions to rhyme with each other, but I also wanted the reader or spectator to look at these and make their own sense out of it. I’m not trying to impose any particular reading, because there are lots of ways you can read it. Is Coleman Hawkins or Ivan the dream or the responsibility? There are lots of options. So that was really what I wanted, something the viewer could play with creatively.

NOTEBOOK: You also have the Godard quote on the back cover. In your eulogy for Godard [also included in the book] you have this line he said to you about his praise of you: “I hope that it helps you more than it hurts you, considering whom it’s coming from.”

ROSENBAUM: Yeah.

NOTEBOOK: What I find more interesting is that you write elsewhere that his approval allowed you to stop chasing Susan Sontag’s approval. There’s something here about you seeking a sort of parental validation. I’d like to hear you talk about this and if they serve as an intellectual lineage or even parentage for you, Godard and Sontag?

ROSENBAUM: Good question. I don’t know exactly if it’s just parental or it’s more somebody I look up to. I think at a certain point I started to try to live without father figures. I’m almost 81, so when you’re 81 you don’t usually think of father figures anymore. [Laughs.] All I can say is that if you read it that way, it is not totally false, but it’s not the way I’ve thought of it.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (Hat & Beard Press, 2024).

NOTEBOOK: Your previous books of collected criticism—Placing Movies, Movies as Politics, Essential Cinema, and Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia—are usually organized more by subject matter. But this new book is organized chronologically. In the introduction you say that you hope that this structure “allows readers to trace the persistence and/or development of certain ideas and preoccupations over the book’s span.” Did this reveal anything to you about your work and preoccupations as you put it together?

ROSENBAUM: Yes. I was interested in how much there was a certain persistence in my efforts to compare film, literature, and music in various ways. I didn’t know to what extent that would recur, and there’s more of it than I would’ve guessed.

NOTEBOOK: Have any other readers picked up on anything like this?

ROSENBAUM: Not really, but this is the first interview I’ve had about the book. All I can say is that I am interested in learning what ideas it produces in the readers, which will be reflected in your questions. I don’t think there is any secret hidden rationale. I’m trying to keep it all up front. [Laughs.]

NOTEBOOK: To that exact point, one such occurrence is that your review of Robert Frank’s One Hour [1990], from 2003 for a book on Frank, is immediately followed by a Chicago Reader review from the same year on Seijun Suzuki’s Pistol Opera [2001]. You find the masterful quality of both films is linked to them being intractable or unwilling to offer quick explanations. Is this quality of retaining an enigma or concealing part of itself something you place a lot of value on for film?

ROSENBAUM: Yes, because I think an awful lot of people think of criticism as the solving of mysteries. When in fact the perpetuation of mysteries and even the expansion of mysteries is something I like very much, too. It’s a creative model versus a consumption model. I’m inviting the reader to make something out of all this. It is also connected to the idea that comes up more than once in the book that Godard said he wants to be considered an airplane, not an airport. So, in a way all of those different ideas tie together in that. 

Pistol Opera (Seijun Suzuki, 2001).

NOTEBOOK: Do you feel that the filmmakers you hold dear enact that intractability or produce enigmas in their work? There are plenty of names I could associate with you in that way, but I’d be curious how you see it.

ROSENBAUM: To a certain extent. The funny thing is I’ve just been contracted to write another book, a short book, which I am going to be doing this year. It’s for a series being edited by Genevieve Yue in New York and Erika Balsom in London. The book is going to be called Uncanny Camera Movements, and that’s such a peculiar subject. It’s not going to be anything like a history, because nobody can think up all of them so it’s completely subjective, but the editors are encouraging writers in this series to be playful and experimental. So, it’s going to be both a literary project and a film project. The most obvious uncanny camera movement [is] from Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past [1947]. A door blows open during a rainstorm at night, and the camera suddenly goes outside, for no discernible reason.

In any case, I think I still have the same beliefs from one piece to the next, and that’s reflected in this selection. I wanted to make [the collection] as all-inclusive as possible, considering the fact that the pieces haven’t appeared in any of my other books. At the same time, I’m sorry I don’t have a piece on Guy Maddin, but you can’t have everything. 

NOTEBOOK: What’s great about this book is how it includes a lot of your jazz criticism and some book reviews. It includes your review of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and ends with a new essay on André Hodeir. The book shows that jazz writing is still important to you; what about book criticism? It seems as though you haven’t had the opportunity to do this as much throughout your career; is that something you wish you could’ve done more of?

ROSENBAUM: I would’ve liked to have done it more often for the Chicago Reader, but they didn’t want me to. They had me pigeonholed. They also didn’t want me to be an editor, though I’ve done editing and enjoy editing other people’s works. I’ve edited Truffaut. I was sort of supervising his excellent essay on Welles…and he responded very well to my suggestions. Originally, he was much more negative about The Lady from Shanghai [1947], but I convinced him it was better than he thought it was, so he wrote something more favorable. 

Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961).

NOTEBOOK: You valorize films that achieve the quality of jazz—like Playtime or Altman’s California Split [1974]—or films that become novelistic—some André Téchiné films or Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives [1922]. How do these other art forms inform your aesthetic and political values of cinema?

ROSENBAUM: Different art forms at different times. It’s hard to be that specific. Someone, I can’t remember who, compared Last Year at Marienbad [1961] to a work of sculpture; it becomes different according to which angle you watch it from. I’ve also connected some [aspects of] jazz performance to dance at various points in the book. It seems to me that film partakes of all these other art forms without becoming identical to any of them, and that sort of fascinates me. Of course, since film is not the same thing as the other art forms, the differences are probably as significant as the similarities. For example, in my next book on uncanny camera movements, it will be important to distinguish between the camera movements in Sátántangó [1994] and the long sentences in the novel it’s based on, one sentence per chapter, because the film starts from a strategy of equivalence but then deviates from that concept by including more than one shot in each section. So, I’m going to be interested in exploring what the differences are as well as the similarities. 

NOTEBOOK: It so often seems you’re defending jazz from cinema.

ROSENBAUM: Yes, that’s right. Jazz has become a servant in the same way that Black people are treated as servants. If anything gets minimized it’s the jazz, so you’ll hear a few bars of something and a group shown in close-up, then for the rest of the scene it’ll be in the background so you can’t really pay attention to it. Most often in cinema it’s intended as atmosphere and not shown for its expressive qualities. 

NOTEBOOK: The end of the book is fascinating; it obviously centers the most recent works of yours. It finishes with an account of Kira Muratova that you undertook not long after her death, then it includes eulogies for Godard, Jean-Marie Straub, and Michael Snow; a strong but careful praise of Radu Jude; and finally an essay on André Hodeir’s musical work. Are there any connections between these pieces for you?

ROSENBAUM: Sure. I even talk briefly about Godard in my obituary for Straub. It’s funny, all three were commissioned pieces for different publications, so they weren’t aware of the connections, but because I wrote them close to each other I became aware of the ways they were connected as exemplary figures.

NOTEBOOK: Is there a relation between these three eulogies followed by praise of an emergent filmmaker like Radu Jude?

ROSENBAUM: Sure, many other critics have compared his work to Godard’s, and he is similar to Godard in the sense of how much he produces, both long and short works, and how many ideas are embedded in the work. There’s even a way in which you could say there’s an aspect of a global newspaper in Radu Jude that was also present in Godard’s work, at least in the early ’60s, and [Abbas] Kiarostami’s in the latter part of his career.

I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (Radu Jude, 2018).

NOTEBOOK: The two important preoccupations I see spanning across your work is, one, a fight for the recognition of a global cinema, something you share with Serge Daney, and, two, an ambition to illuminate underappreciated and undervalued films and filmmakers, something that Luc Moullet’s writing also takes up. To what extent do you feel these commitments have been successful or not?

ROSENBAUM: I think part of the way in which it’s been successful is what I try to outline in my introduction, which is that I’ve accepted, belatedly, playing the role of a niche-market writer rather than someone who is either mainstream or aspires to be. I’d rather have a small audience that’s more intense and more engaged than an audience that is larger and less engaged. 

NOTEBOOK: Do you see other preoccupations that you have carried the banner for throughout your career? 

ROSENBAUM: They’re probably there. Certain preoccupations are sort of natural, but at the same time I depend on people like you to know what some of those preoccupations are. 

NOTEBOOK: One of my favorite arguments you make in Movie Wars and in Placing Movies, partly because of its perversity, is that we’d be better off without film critics. Of course you don’t mean that there shouldn’t be film criticism. 

ROSENBAUM: I would say that the conventions of film criticism are what I’m criticizing. So, unlike many of my contemporaries who say this is the end of film criticism and film as an art, et cetera, I feel like it could be seen as a very good period, but we have to see what function criticism has. For instance, what A. S. Hamrah, who wrote The Earth Dies Streaming, criticized in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia is that I don’t address the fact that it’s harder now to make money from being a film critic. I actually think that one way this might be a good thing and not just a bad thing is that people would engage with film criticism because they care about it, not because they see it as a stepping-stone to something else—on the way to becoming a filmmaker or an academic. That it’s harder to make a living from it can be seen positively because it sort of purifies the practice. 

An awful lot of what is considered film criticism is really consumption advice. But whenever a critic asks, “Is it good?” or “Is it bad?”, you have to clarify, Good for whom? Good for what? Bad for whom? Bad for what? A film that I consider very good could be very bad or even harmful for somebody else. The point is not to have other people duplicate my preferences but for them to do their own thing and reach their own conclusions. 

NOTEBOOK: Continuing with Movie Wars, in your essay “Is the Cinema Really Dead?” you disagree with David Thomson, David Denby, and Gilbert Adair when they say there are no great new filmmakers. You point out that Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Vigo, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Charlie Chaplin all struggled to gain canonization due to long-running issues of inaccessibility of their films. In our current age, when things are ostensibly more accessible, is this type of golden-age-nostalgia thinking still something to fight against—this idea that there will be no new great film artists?

ROSENBAUM: Sure. So much of it is generational. I’ve never really gone along with the idea that the ’70s was the golden age of cinema. That’s when I was first working as a critic, and it was a lively period, but at the same time people tend to regard each vanguard as their own. It has an awful lot to do with feelings people have about themselves belonging to a particular generation. 

I think there is a problem when people make judgments about any period of cinema when we don’t have all the evidence, and of course we never do. We’re at a point now where we obviously can’t have all the evidence. There are many leaps of faith made when we say such and such a year was a good year or bad year for cinema. Everyone is necessarily ignorant on that topic, especially when you have to turn in your “ten best” list in October! The film I prefer from last year I didn’t see until this year, and that is Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell [2023], an amazing bolt from the blue.

My view of what film criticism is has to be under constant revision. 

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: That same essay ends by essentially stating that the best case for the future of film is the richness and potential of its history. Do you still feel this way?

ROSENBAUM: I think Jacques Rivette said at one point that it’s impossible to know how good a film is when it comes out because there are too many factors that interfere with a balanced judgment. Most critics are reviewing all sorts of films they wouldn’t see on their own behalf. It’s only because it’s a part of their job. Most of the films one sees are bad when one’s a professional critic. One has to sometimes inflate them to make them seem important enough to discuss. A lot of things get thrown out of whack just because the studios and the big companies monitor and even guide criticism in a lot of ways. 

NOTEBOOK: Counterintuitively, Movies as Politics starts with a section on film form. I’m curious how you think about form and if there is a writer or critic that influenced how you read and write about it.

ROSENBAUM: My favorite critic is Erich Auerbach in Mimesis. The best contemporary formal film critic would be, although he completely disowns that position, Noël Burch when he wrote Praxis du cinéma [translated as Theory of Film Practice]. But there are plenty of other critics who deal with form in various ways. I think the important thing about form is to think of it as a verb and not a noun, that is to say what forms a work. It’s not a thing, it’s a process. 

NOTEBOOK: The long piece on Chantal Akerman in In Dreams Begin Responsibilities spends a long time talking about film form—découpage and mise-en-scéne. Do you find these terms still helpful and even in use today?

ROSENBAUM: Timothy Barnard has published monographs on terms like montage and découpage and mise-en-scène. And he thinks he’s come up with a better definition of découpage than either Burch or even Bazin for that matter. It’s something always in the process of being refined more precisely. But I think the way Noël Burch used the term was to show continuity between what a film is in its planning stage and in its final form. You don’t have a kind of distinction like that in the West, or at least in the US. It’s no accident that there are different terms in different cultures and that we’ve adopted several of them—mise-en-scène, auteur, film noir, and so on. 

NOTEBOOK: In the book you mention that André Hodeir’s artistic work taught you more about form than his writing.

ROSENBAUM: Right. I’m sort of fascinated by the fact that you start out with music and end up with prose. How you get from one to the other is part of the focus of the last essay in the book. 

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975).

NOTEBOOK: You differentiate yourself from many of your colleagues by praising what the internet has done for film culture and how it allows people to access things and be in a constant dialogue. Yet in Moving Places you praise midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show [1975] as radical communal events. Is that sort of in-person cinematic culture a possibility you still hold out hope for?

ROSENBAUM: I do, but I also have to acknowledge that the way filmgoing is collective and communal has changed from what it used to be. Now you’re much less apt to be seeing the same film at the same time in the same room as everyone else. On the other hand, when I was first discovering the art of film in New York City as a freshman at NYU, I would see a movie like L’avventura [1960], and two or three weeks might go by before I’d run into somebody else who saw the film and who I could discuss it with. Now you can go on the internet right away and start discussing it and find other people who will discuss it with you. 

Now it’s true there’s more bad stuff because of the internet than there was before, much more. Some people are so overwhelmed by the badness that they don’t notice that there might be more good stuff too. The arguments I’ve used on behalf of the good stuff would be two online magazines that don’t exist anymore, Rouge and Lola Journal. There are probably other examples, too. There were really no equivalents to those in the ’60s or in the ’50s. 

One thing that is also important to emphasize is that when a new approach to something appears not many people buy into it, but then over time they eventually change. That’s why Godard is much more settled even though a lot more people don’t like his later work. More so than when the films were coming out in the ’60s. They would almost all close in a few days. People forget that. People were not rushing off to see his films at all. They were tough sells and most critics attacked them. 

NOTEBOOK: Moving Places opens with some poetic lines that are essentially a jazz riff on some sentences from Faulkner’s Light in August. They are followed by a question: “What has any of this to do with cinema?” This to me feels like the essential question that runs through your entire career, the way you used cinema to talk about politics, other arts, or current events. Is this a question that has stayed with you since writing it?

ROSENBAUM: Sure. Any film can be looked at as a reflection of what is going on in society or what it’s doing on its own terms. Whenever one chooses to write about a film one has to pick and choose what to address and what not to address. If you say something is good, you have to say good for whom, good for what. That ties it to the present situation the viewers are in, and that’s important. 

I would like to expand the options of the viewer, that’s one of my main missions: to say cinema consists of a lot more than the media pretends. I can also say, and this is very important to me, from my website’s analytics, which tells me every day the traffic to my website, the age group that goes to my website the most is the youngest age, from teens to twenties, and the age group that goes to jonathanrosenbaum.net the least are people my own age. And all the intermediate age groups follow the same curve. That’s very important to me because that has something to do with the future, an attitude towards the future.

NOTEBOOK: Moving Places ends with you on a train ride back to New York for your sophomore year of college, which is just two years before the first review that begins In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. A little over a year ago, you were back in Alabama to attend the funeral of your brother Alvin, but in the early ’60s you couldn’t get back in time to attend your grandfather’s funeral, and you wondered, “Was this the price I had to pay for moving places?” Does this question of the personal price to pay for moving places—which becomes this idiom for devoting oneself to film, to any art form really—still resonate with you?

ROSENBAUM: To some extent it does, although part of what I meant by “moving places” was traveling elsewhere. I think what I learned from my brother Alvin, who was only two years younger than me, at the time of his death, was the very fact that he died happy. He even made a point of building his own coffin months earlier, before he became sick. Everybody dies, everybody has to die, and yet it’s generally considered a terrible thing. People don’t usually consider it a terrible thing that they’re born. If dying is part of life, why should everybody always have a negative attitude about it? It becomes a losing proposition if you automatically see it as negative and in no other way. Another person who died very happy, I’m happy to report, was Raymond Durgnat. I wasn’t with him, but I was in touch with his brother when he was in the hospital. There’s a very important lesson in that, as we get older and are approaching death, we shouldn’t be freaking out about it.

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