Movie wars

Film Criticism - Neil Berry on America's most eloquent opponent of Hollywood's manipulative agenda

Statistics reveal British cinema audiences to be stuck on Hollywood blockbusters like no other western people. You might expect British intellectuals to emit the occasional whimper of dismay, if not of positive protest, at such mass compliance with the dictates of transatlantic movie moguls. But the willingness of this country's film-goers to line up as consumers of corporate America's dreams is, it seems, a matter about which mute resignation rules among the opinionated classes.

As it happens, it is a transatlantic cultural commentator, the Chicago film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has lately emerged as the most eloquent enemy of the American "media-industrial complex". Chiming with the current anti-corporatist backlash, Rosenbaum's book Movie Wars: how Hollywood and the media conspire to limit what films we can see (A Cappella Books), published in the United States last year, is a furious indictment of Hollywood's totalitarian intent, of its inexorable drive to ensure that people get to see only what it wants them to see. Why Rosenbaum's timely tract has not yet been picked up by a British publisher is hard to make out. Its animadversions on the film industry's contribution to entrenching American geopolitical ignorance were sufficiently topical even before 11 September.

Born in Alabama during the Second World War, Rosenbaum is a cradle cinephile. Running cinemas was what his family did for a living, and his formative years were bathed in the glow of the silver screen. Later, as a student during the 1960s, he drank in the counter-cultural idealism of the era and went on to set himself up as a polemical film reviewer. Something of a cult figure, Rosenbaum numbers among his admirers that inveterate French foe of US cultural imperialism, Jean-Luc Godard.

For all his intellectualism, Rosenbaum projects himself in Movie Wars as a champion of the people, railing against the way "market research" is twisted by Hollywood to lay the blame for the dominance of the blockbuster on the public. Certain that public taste is far more imponderable than is commonly assumed, Rosenbaum misses no opportunity to explode conventional film industry wisdom. Take the explanation offered by Tinseltown executives for the paucity of foreign-language films released in the United States - that most film-goers jib at subtitles. Yet who, counters Rosenbaum, objected to the subtitles that featured in those two hugely successful American pictures, Dances with Wolves and Schindler's List? Among much else, he also challenges the corporate line that colour film stock alone finds favour with today's cinema audiences. And given the popularity of the latest film by the Coen brothers, the entirely black-and-white The Man Who Wasn't There, this is surely another Hollywood "fact" about which scepticism is in order.

Rosenbaum's excoriation of Hollywood as a piece of gross - and often stupid - calculation breaks no fresh ground. But his point is that the commercial will to bamboozle the public into submitting to a diet of prescriptive pap is being enforced with ever more systematic efficiency, and that much of the Anglo-American media now conspire to endorse Hollywood's manipulative agenda. With David Thomson, the stylish, San Francisco-based British cinephile, among the butts of his scorn, Rosenbaum is especially scathing about upmarket film critics who regularly proclaim the "death of cinema" yet appear only too anxious to swell the hype attending some chic new Hollywood release. Such journalism, he believes, distracts attention from the vibrancy of film-making in other parts of the world, leaving the impression that there is no alternative to the Hollywood bill of fare.

The gravamen of Movie Wars is that the solipsistic film culture of the United States is a pathological phenomenon, at once symptom and cause of the noxious national tendency to view the rest of humanity as "failed Americans". Yet Rosenbaum suspects that even his more blinkered compatriots are prone to disquiet about their circumscribed mental horizons. Was it, he wonders, because it crystallised this disquiet that the low-budget thriller The Blair Witch Project, with its lost and panic-stricken adolescents, enjoyed such runaway success? And he is convinced that not a few Americans would choose to see foreign films, and thereby perhaps learn something about societies other than their own, if only they were given the opportunity to do so. (Martin Scorsese said exactly the same at a recent public lecture.)

The irony is that Americans face a future in which they do not get to see all that many bona fide American films, either. Musing on the effects of globalisation on the film industry, Rosenbaum asks whether American cinema can survive as an authentic, native art form; with much Hollywood product already sponsored by free-floating multinational capital, a time may be at hand when "American" films enshrine a merely marketable idea of Americanness. Recoiling from parochialism, Rosenbaum finds this prospect by no means tolerable. Not that he hankers after films shorn of national distinctiveness. A votary of Henri Langlois's concept of cinema itself as the "one true nationality", Rosenbaum yearns for the days when independent picture houses with adventurously cosmopolitan programmes were much in evidence in America, helping to give that concept popular currency. He refuses to accept that those days have gone for ever, and his book is charged with a proselytising fervour, with the faith that committed advocacy can move mountains.

From the standpoint of a Britain glutted with Hollywood schlock, the temptation to scoff at Jonathan Rosenbaum as an American dreamer is all but irresistible. Years ago, John Schlesinger concluded that the British are simply not greatly interested in art-house cinema, and there is doubtless something in this. But is the relationship of British film-goers to the US "media-industrial complex" bound to remain so abject, so embarrassingly servile? The example of Rosenbaum's mettlesome dissent is needed as urgently on this side of the Atlantic as it is in the United States.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress