Critic as Performer: Jonathan Rosenbaum on Stage, on Screen


Jonathan Rosenbaum in ‘The Two-Backed Beast, or The Critic Makes the Film’ (image courtesy of Ehsan Khoshbakht)

A month ago, when I told my friend Matthew Boese that I was producing a video for Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 70th birthday, he asked me if I had seen a short film from the 1970s starring Rosenbaum. I had heard from others that such a film existed, but I didn’t have a chance to see it until Matt sent me a Vimeo link to the film. More precisely, it’s a link to a video recording of a three-hour lecture Rosenbaum gave in 2011 at the RITS School of Arts in Brussels, which included a projection of the film ‘The Two-Backed Beast, or The Critic Makes the Film,” starring a 35-year-old Jonathan Rosenbaum.

This 45 minute experimental short directed by Peter Bull was filmed in 1978-1979 when Rosenbaum was living and teaching in San Diego. The film is predicated on a fascinating concept: Rosenbaum is interviewed in character as a film critic describing a film that doesn’t exist, a film that Bull and his crew proceed to film. That footage then is shown in alternating fashion with Rosenbaum’s descriptions as a way of comparing the two modes of representation. The non-existent film, as Rosenbaum confides in his lecture, is clearly patterned after two of his favorite movies, Jacques Tati’s Playtime and Jacques Rivette‘s Out One. It’s intriguing to see Rosenbaum’s critical interpolations of the film transposed back to the screen as a kind of cinematic game of “telephone.”

I wasn’t sure if it was kosher to make it publicly known that this film is accessible online (as of now the video only has a few hundred views) in a less-than-ideal presentation (since it is a recording of a projection, the audio is a bit murky and video scan lines run throughout). But given that Rosenbaum pointed out this video on his own website, I suppose it’s okay, and perhaps doing so might stir demand for the film to become more accessible via screenings and video distribution. That outcome would  be fitting and proper for a film featuring someone who’s been such an outspoken advocate for the Internet as a distribution platform for undiscovered films.

THE TWO-BACKED BEAST starts at the 27:30 mark:

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Just as fascinating as watching this film is to see the 35-year-old Jonathan Rosenbaum juxtaposed with his 68-year-old self, giving a somewhat different performance as a lecturer in a public setting. Age has clearly made him more at ease with himself and what he has to share with others, in contrast to the somewhat insouciant air given by his younger self in the film, unless we want to interpret that Rosenbaum’s wisecracks (“Where do you think this film is going?” “Through the projector.”) as the self-conscious facade of a young critic-intellectual.

The Rosenbaum on stage not only contrasts with the one on screen, but also with the one presented in the video “Jonathan Rosenbaum, Present” that I produced with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, found elsewhere on this site. It’s a contrast between public and private spaces, though not necessarily one of public and private personas. As he writes in his introduction to the video, Vishnevetsky wanted to capture a sense of conversational intimacy that he associates with Rosenbaum as a critic, a sentiment echoed in Rosenbaum’s own insistence of criticism as a deeply social interaction, even when it’s pursued in solitude.

But just like the act of critical writing, this conversational intimacy can’t help but have a performative quality, with some lines repeated between both videos as if from a mental script. Having spent many hours with this footage over the past month, I take away the impression that one’s social interactions are indeed a script we are constantly rehearsing and revising, working over the same lines from one encounter to the next, gradually adding new dialogue while disposing of others.

And if it isn’t we who are editing our own lines, others do it for us. The editing process between me and Ignatiy on “Jonathan Rosenbaum, Present” was  illuminating in terms of observing how each of us processed our interview with Rosenbaum, which in turn reflects on how people process social interactions in general. One might even say that this film is a kind of “sequel” to Peter Bull’s short, in that we were taking Rosenbaum’s words as a starting point to craft an artistic representation of them.

We knew that we wanted to turn an hourlong interview into a potent distillation of around ten minutes, so editing essentially was a process of selection and elimination. In my judgment, we tended towards a combination of the aphoristic, the anecdotal and the confessional. I also found it telling that we generally did not include a number of Rosenbaum’s political pronouncements, especially on particular films from both the past (JFK and Silence of the Lambs) and present (Lincoln). We didn’t really get into much discussion over why we made those cuts, but I suspect it has something to do with the particularities of those statements creating too much of a detour from the flow of the interview, or that they might make the video too of the moment. Perhaps we felt a bit overfamiliar with his positions from reading them in his writings or hearing him utter them in past conversations. The statements we retained have something like an evergreen scent of enduring truth, and convey what we feel are the guiding principles and experiences that inform Rosenbaum’s thinking, something essential that rises above the transient concerns of a particular film or political discourse.

But is the transient really that expendable? Or is that judgment an alibi for some kind of reticent discomfort we have with another person’s overt political views? Rosenbaum’s unabashed political statements on film have always been one of the more unruly aspects of his writing, and my reactions to them over the years have run the full gamut from disbelief to delight, and sometimes both at once. I suppose part of why I am writing as much as I am about these cuts is that my feelings are unresolved even now. Perhaps it is worth making available the interview in its entirety, like the lecture from RITS.

My time spent listening to Rosenbaum’s RITS lecture also informs these reflections. At one point he says that he likes to think that a reader or audience takes from him whatever they find useful, whether or not they are aligned to what he thinks is useful. It’s that openness and transparency that makes Rosenbaum truly unique among critics, in a profession that typically clings to a sense of authority over its audience. It’s also made him a precursor to today’s prevailing film culture, where the Internet has flattened the discourse among an egalitarian global network of peers, each contributing their own insights to the conversation.

Of course, online film culture has also flattened people’s attention spans due to an overwhelming amount of information and social media chatter, something that was particularly draining to experience during Oscar season. During that period, playing this RITS lecture multiple times and really taking it in served as an oasis from the noise of fleeting interests. Hoping to retain a sense of the sustaining, I extracted the following ten quotes that I transcribed from the lecture. In a way, this is a response to Matt Singer’s tribute to J. Hoberman, distilled in ten lessons he learned as a student in Hoberman’s film criticism class. But while Singer’s notes are more practical guidelines for the aspiring critic, my Rosenbaum selections cut more philosophically into cinema culture at large, whether experienced by the critic, the cinephile or anyone. (Sometime collaborators Hoberman and Rosenbaum have had a sort of rivalry over the years, so it’s fitting that their respective admirers carry it on to the next generation.) These aren’t so much “Rosenbaum’s Ten Commandments on Cinema and Criticism” as moments that I found truly lucid and illuminating in reflecting on my own practice as a critic and lifelong cinephile. So in a way, they reflect my own present concerns as much as Rosenbaum’s. And those genuinely felt points of intersection between two people are worth cherishing whenever and wherever we find them, for they remind us of what is truly social in the age of social media.


“Using the first person has been an important part of my writing, based on the principle that there is no such thing as objectivity, there’s only subjectivity. So that the more that you know about the subjectivity of whoever you’re reading, the more equipped you are to read this person. It’s not necessarily even about agreement, but just knowing where certain positions come from, what formed them.”

“Criticism facilitates the public discussion of film. The discussion and the discourse begin before the critic comes along, and it continues after the critic leaves. And the best thing that criticism can do is improve the quality of the discussion in the middle, in terms of suggesting other paths it can take and so on. But it should never be the first word and it should never be the last word.”

“As a writer, the things that have had the most effect, and that I’ve felt the most satisfied have not been for the things with the largest circulation. Because it seems to me that if it’s more focused in a smaller group, it can have a much greater impact. The things that have had the best impact on my career have grown out of things that I’ve written for magazines that have a circulation of 1,000 or less…The best thing anybody ever said about me that helped my career was being praised once by Godard. Godard wouldn’t have known who I was if he hadn’t read me in a magazine called Trafic which has a circulation of barely more than 1,000. When you think about it, all the big movements that are considered important artistic revolutions like the French New Wave, like Italian Neorealism, it’s a small group of friends, just a few people hanging out in cafes and stuff and having meals together. It seems to me that that’s more important in a way, because that’s what can change things. Whereas I’ve had the experience, for example, of writing for the New York Times. I had to rewrite it so many times that what finally came out was more theirs than mine. And people got very angry with what I wrote at the time, but I felt it was because I wrote it for the New York Times. So it wasn’t really me. It could have been somebody else taking exactly the same role and writing what they wanted, and it didn’t matter that it was me. So yes, maybe it reached millions of people, but so what. I didn’t feel the same kind of satisfaction I feel about something else I’ve written that could actually change things.”

“(There’s an attitude that) film is supposed to be very disposable. In other words, the week a film comes out, it’s very important. Three weeks later, it has no importance. This affects criticism a lot in a very negative way, because you have to pretend that whatever you’re writing about is very important, and it sometimes isn’t. Sometimes the films that week aren’t important. But you still have to pretend it is important, otherwise people won’t read you. But then you have to clear space in your brain for whatever comes along next week. So it means it’s just as important to forget what you were saying was important the previous week.”

“I interviewed Godard once, and he said, ‘I want to be used as an airplane, not as an airport.’ What did he mean by that? I think he meant that people take me to where they want to go and get off. Their destination doesn’t have to be my destination. And I feel the same way about film criticism.”

“The pressure to have new products and to believe that everything new is better is a business decision, but the idea that it’s all better is questionable because you hear false things all the time. Like the first thing that you used to hear about DVDs is that unlike VHS, they wouldn’t age, they wouldn’t become defective, all these things that we know aren’t true now… Part of the idea of these new formats is that they enable the companies to sell us the same products again. I think it’s easy to become seduced by that, but it’s unfortunate.”

“One thing that fascinates me, and it’s another reason why I think today is a better situation than the supposed golden age of the Sixties, is when it comes to difficult filmmakers. In the Sixties, even people who loved Robert Bresson considered him a joke. He was not taken that seriously. Same thing with Carl Dreyer. Whereas today someone who’s a much more difficult filmmaker than either of them, Pedro Costa, even though you could say he is a neglected filmmaker, he’s had retrospectives all over the world…I’m guessing at least twenty or more. Whereas Bresson didn’t have a complete retrospective anywhere until around the time he died around ninety. So I think it’s a different situation. I think there are actually younger people who are interested in difficult films, who will see or search them out in a way that wasn’t true before. And I think that’s because of the Internet. People can nurture one another in these interests.”

“I think that one thing that affected me a lot as a critic was the first book I wrote, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies. Because that was an attempt to see my early experiences of films historically. Because what I was interested in with my research was all the things that are left out of criticism, like what was going on in the culture at that particular point. I would look up old ads in the local newspapers to see what was playing and when, but then I would look at everything else that was happening that day, which could have been affecting the way we were seeing the films. If there was a war being fought, all kinds of different things. And usually one can only really understand these things years later, but one can attempt sometimes to try to be historical about the present. It’s hazardous but I think it’s worth trying.”

“You can never isolate a film from everything else. You’re reacting not just to the film, but to what cultural role the film is playing in the culture that you know or encounter. An awful lot depends on how much you see the film as part of a wider world. A lot of people object strenuously to the idea of talking about anything except the film itself. They really want to isolate it from the rest of life. Because they see film as an alternative to life, not as a part of life… If it were an alternative to life, I don’t think it would be as interesting to me to be a film critic.”

“We talk as if we know everything that’s going on in film, but we never do. I get infuriated when I hear about critics saying ‘This was a good year for film’ and ‘This was a bad year for film.’ How could anybody possibly know, when most of the films being made, we never heard of and we never will hear about? It’s easier to make films now but so much harder to get them seen. There could be all sorts of other films being made now that could give a whole other view of the present, but we don’t hear about them.”

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, and a contributor to Roger Follow him on Twitter.

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