Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On Jonathan Rosenbaum's Retirement from the Reader

Today is officially Jonathan Rosenbaum's last day as writing for the Chicago Reader. I, like many of his devoted fans, find comfort in the thought that he will continue writing in other venues. I'd like to write a few words on his effect he's had on me personally over these years.

While studying at BYU I became more and more disenchanted by my experiences as an actor. After a particularly difficult semester that ended with a particularly difficult production, I decided I needed to start studying something over the break that I was passionate about. I decided to watch a few Kurosawa films that I had yet to see (despite a class I had on his films that semester taught by Darl Larsen). I went to the SLC Library and checked out ten movies. I watched them and returned the next week for the same amount. I noticed that one name came in the liner notes of some of the most interesting films: A four-film package of silents made by Georgian director Otar Iosseliani, Chabrol's The Ceremony, not to mention a book written on Jarmusch's Dead Man. I also owned the Criterion Dreyer boxset where he wrote the essay on Day of Wrath, and I remembered Dean Duncan mentioning Rosenbaum's name in one of his lectures. The biggest determining factor, however, was an article I found on James Benning's Deseret about the state of Utah (which is also finally being shown in a course at BYU taught by Gideon Burton this semester). Why would this man be so favorable about such an obscure and high minded film (that sounded ravishing to me to boot!). I was, more than anything, curious who this man was and why I hadn't heard of him before.

I was so taken with the experience I was having watching those films over the Christmas break, and how much more I felt I was learning from them than anything else, that I rearranged my schedule to continue the trend for the entire next semester (with my angelic wife's support, of course). As that trend went forward, I began noticing Rosenbaum's name in the most daring of places. His criticism was in favor of daring films, but not only because they were daring. He was aesthetically conscious, which was more than I could say for any critic I was aware of at the time, but that was not the guiding factor for his criticism. Being the religiously-minded viewer that I am, I consider it a great blessing that I ever came across his criticism. He remains the only 'popular' critic that I am aware of that is intelligent and thoughtful, yet wholly concerned and aware of the morality of film viewing and production.

Jonathan Rosenbaum is first a human being with moral obligations and responsibilities to others and himself, second a film historian, third a critic. I don't know what more any morally-minded reader could ask for than that. I do not always agree with his sense of morality, and I don't always agree with his aesthetic sense, but I am always a better film viewer, and I dare venture a better person, from reading what he has to say on film.

During that semester, I took most of my film viewing from pre-established canons, but none of them were more valuable or more rewarding than Rosenbaum's lists (either his year's bests, or his top 1,000 favorites — links to all of which are on this site, as well as on the Chicago Reader Movies page).

As my reading went on however, I discovered that filmmakers that I had loved, had also been favorites of Mr. Rosenbaum. The most memorable of these is Abbas Kiarostami whom I often quote here. I had actually picked up a copy of Taste of Cherry by accident, but that viewing was perhaps one of my most memorable, and I consider it life-changing. I searched as many movies as I could by him and placed Kiarostami at the forefront of importance in world cinema (a place from which he has not moved since for me). Only months later did I find that Jonathan is one of his greatest supporters. Likewise, one of my childhood favorite filmmakers, Joe Dante is another filmmaker discussed at length by Mr. Rosenbaum. Though I watched movies like Innerspace, The Explorers, Gremlins and Eerie, Indiana for days on end without stopping, I feel as though I had never seen them before after reading something Rosenbaum had written about them.

Perhaps I've said too much, but I'd like to emphasize the great sense of selfish loss I feel knowing that the world film community will be losing the regular writing of such an important figure in morally-concerned and intelligent film criticism. I am forever changed and bettered for having known his writing and I can say that about very few. He will be greatly missed.


P Yazdi said...

Not Mormon, nor am i religious even, but mis en scene is a moral statement! Furthermore, art should only be a moral statement by the artist. Just stumbled across your blog because i was googling Rosenbaum and I am glad that i did. I respect cinephiles who like myself have come to realize that art should be an act of morality by its author.

Trevor said...

Regardless, p yazdi, you're welcome here anytime.