This is a brilliant book, much better than I expected. Rosenbaum is
widely recognized as a great critic, particularly among hardcore film
buffs but, although the breadth of this work greatly exceeds film
criticism, Rosenbaum maintains the same level of insight that he brings
to movie reviews. In fact, I learned more and got more enjoyment from Movie Wars than from his reviews, which I think are a bit overrated (i.e. I don’t think Rosenbaum gets rim-jobs from God.)

The question this book seeks to answer is simple: why do
today’s movies suck? It is a common observation that mainstream films
are more poorly made and disdainful of the audience than ever. Not only
that, quality has eroded even at the art house and among foreign films.
Where are the Bergmans, Kurosawas and Godards of today?

The common answer to this question, given in self-important
tones by the mainstream press as well as academia, is that the decline
in film is the fault of the audience. The audience wants crap and the
studios give them crap. Rosenbaum acknowledges that there is some truth
to this claim, but finding it inadequate and simplistic, endeavors to
offer an anti-thesis to the common view.

Rosenbaum answerers the question, “why do today’s movies
suck?” in several parts. The first part of his answer is that today’s
movies do not suck. He criticizes knee-jerk conservatives who claim
that cinema is being dragged down as part of a general, cultural
decline by pointing out that it takes a while to sort greatness out.
Most of the geniuses of the first half of the century who are now
pointed to as patently superior to contemporary artists were widely
recognized as geniuses only somewhat recently. Most of the films of
most of the great voices in world cinema of decades past did not make
money and received mixed reviews. There are greats out there today, not
making money and receiving mixed reviews, and Rosenbaum thinks he knows
who some of them are. For example, Godard still does great stuff, but
it’s uncommercial stuff, so he is ignored, even by professional
critics. The new greats won’t be canonized for at least a few
decades, at which time a new generation of Chicken Little conservatives
will ask something like, “where is our Kiarostami? Where is our X? (who
may be someone even Rosenbaum hasn’t yet heard of.)

Rosenbaum does allow, however, that these great films and
even most good films are harder than ever to see, or even know about.
While the following of art films in past decades may have been small,
the films were allowed to find audiences. David Lynch’s Eraserhead
is a prime example. An independent theater in New York ran the film for
weeks before it finally caught on and became a cult hit. Thanks to
certain political changes, this is less likely to happen today because
there are so few independent theaters and those that do exist are
subject to bullying from the studios.

During the eighties, the federal government allowed studios
to regain their vertical monopolies over the production, distribution
and exhibition of films by allowing studios to own most theaters. As a
consequence, business arrangements favorable to the studios prevail,
meaning the studio gets a percentage of the box office rather than
renting out prints. This means less incentive for a theater to take a
chance on a film like Eraserhead slowly building an unexpected
audience. It also means that the studios have so much leverage, owing
to the fact that they can always show films at the theaters they own,
that they can dictate the choices of independent theaters. Miramax can
(and does) say, “you want the new Tarantino? You’ll show our new
romantic comedy.” More importantly, the concentration of theater
ownership means that there are fewer independent theaters to begin with
which means less competition and fewer choices for consumers.

Other business practices are still more sinister. Miramax and
the Weinsteins, a favorite target of Rosenbaum’s, are known to buy
rights to foreign and independent films and demand that they be
drastically re-cut or, worse still, simply shelve them to reduce
competition for the films they do choose to release. In fact, according
to Rosenbaum, if Miramax buys the rights to a film at Cannes, the odds
are that you’ll never see it. Because Miramax (a subsidiary of Disney)
and other corporate, “independent” brands so dominate the distribution
of art house films, if Harvey Weinstein and his piers don’t like an art
or foreign film, or decide that it is too artsy, that film will become very difficult to see in the U.S.

Rosenbaum also acknowledges that American mainstream films are
being dumbed down, or at least staying consistently dumb, but blames
the producers more than the consumers. According to Rosenbaum, the
testing methods studios use to recut films are “pseudoscience” that
doesn’t represent real consumer tastes. Although he doesn’t provide
enough evidence to fully justify this claim, Rosenbaum’s reasoning is
at least somewhat convincing. He cites a James L. Brooks feature as a
prime example. It started out as a musical, but after test audiences
expressed dislike of the music, all of it was removed. The film
subsequently flopped and since that time, it’s been proven that
musicals can still make money. Although, unlike Rosenbaum, I am
inclined to think that the researchers employed by studios have a
pretty good idea of what they are doing (maybe because I don’t want to
think that earning two degrees in the social sciences was a complete
waste of time), two points stand. One, when artistic integrity is
compromised to the extent that you are willing to take the music out of
a musical, the end product will probably not have much of an impact on
audiences. Two, it’s hard to imagine how research based on test
screenings could avoid a conservative bias. On some level, audiences
realize and have internalized conventions. So, for example, if musicals
are out of favor, they’ll probably say they hate musicals. That doesn’t
mean that Chicago can’t come out and, based on word of mouth
and other acclaim, make well over $100 million. Nonetheless, I know how
well focus groups work for politicians and other marketers and
Rosenbaum did not convince me that the film industry is much of an
exception, so this was the least convincing part of the argument. A
better point is that the conservative bias of the testing is not a
problem for studios, who prefer to churn out a predictable product with
predictable profits rather than produce risky films that might have a
huge impact. In other words, nobody gets fired for greenlighting Charlie’s Angels 2.

Rosenbaum’s main concern, however, is not whether XXX is worse than Cannonball Run II is worse than The Green Berets and so on. It’s that our alternatives to XXX
are narrowing. Why does the truly independent film scene lack the
vitality of the independent music scene, or the literary fiction
market? It’s not the expense of producing films because, again, the
good stuff is out there. Part of the problem is the unfair advantage
given to big studio films over others. Here Rosenbaum uses an analysis
following Noam Chomsky’s analysis of the news media. Essentially, the
studios demand that the press adhere to a deceitful, profiteering
agenda and the press complies without a qualm. Rosenbaum lays out the
sleazy details about ,quid pro quo interviews, press junkets,
press screenings, free banquets and free hotel rooms that make up
modern film “journalism,” and which is perhaps tolerated because the
same companies making the big features buy ads from the periodicals
covering them and both companies are owned by the same conglomerates. A
similar state of affairs may exist in the worlds of book publishing and
music production (the reputability of music industry ranks somewhere
between that of illegal arms dealing and child prostitution), but the
good books and music are still able to find their audience, unlike most
good films, because record labels don’t own record stores and book
publishers don’t own

Rosenbaum’s greatest ire is reserved for the willing players
among the media: those willing to write and publish flattering puff
pieces about films they haven’t yet seen; big name film reviewers who
are both professionally and personally uninterested in foreign language
films; journalists who spend most of their Cannes coverage discussing
what the Weinsteins do and don’t like; the AFI.

Oh, does Rosenbaum hate the American Film Institute, which
he sees as one more pawn of the industry hype machine, due largely to
the AFI’s disingenuous list of the top 100 American films of all time.
AFI is honored by perhaps the most Ruthless passage in the book, of
which the following is only a sample.

[The federal government] now gives [AFI] about $100,000. By
contrast, Britain supports its own Film Institute to the tune of over
$60 million a year. Yet, on reflection, I doubt whether the AFI can
justify getting even two cents on it’s present agenda. When they
recently shut down their theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington,
the AFI’s director, Jean Firstenberg, said to the press that video made
repertory programming unnecessary. If she meant what she said, I’d
rather see the funds used to reduce the AFI to rubble.

In the end, these effects – corrupt journalism, corporate
oligopoly and monopoly, abuse of studio power – combine to insure that
many good and great films are never released in the U.S., talked about
in the press or even seen by critics, who have internalized the idea
that films without commercial viability aren’t worth seeing, let alone
telling readers about. Let’s see, word check: over 1,500 and I’ve only
begun to cover what Rosenbaum crams into 220 pages. I’ll end with the
kind of blurb the book rails against. “Movie Wars is passionate, Ruthless, intelligent, creative, enjoyable and a must read for the serious film fan!”



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