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Cinephiles Interviewed: Jonathan Rosenbaum

Jonathan Rosenbaum


Yesterday’s cinephilia session featured an intriguing debate between Girish Shambu, Miguel Marías and Jonathan Rosenbaum. The packed session, however, left me with some urgent questions, so I looked up Jonathan Rosenbaum for a short talk on his personal experiences as a cinephile. A topic that has recurred in every debate is the distinction that is often made today between two categories of cinephiles. On the one hand there are nitrate-loving nostalgics, who feel sceptic about the future of film criticism, cinephilia, and film in general, while on the other hand a new generation of cinephiles has come to the foreground, embracing new methods of film viewing and criticism. Since he is one of the leading writers on the subject of cinephilia, I wanted to know where Rosenbaum would place himself on this axis:

“I grew up with a family of exhibitors, so I would practically see every movie that came to town when I grew up in the 1950s. Back then, movies were the major form of cultural expression in the United States, so on the one hand I feel nostalgic for what cinema was during that period. The disappearance of nitrate is actually only one of the many shifts that have occurred. On the other hand I realise this era is over. Because it is gone, there are interesting new possibilities. I wouldn’t like to say that there are two camps and I’m in one or the other. I rather feel like I have a foot in both. There’s also the problem that one can be in favour of nitrate and still not be able to do anything about it. Peter von Bagh (the artistic director of Il Cinema Ritrovatov, Ed.) is, for example, somebody who really deplores the situation, whereas for me, I feel a little more positive. It’s not all there yet, but there are possibilities now that didn’t exist before. What we had in the past, we can’t regain. Like Jim Hoberman mentioned earlier this week, it’s wasteful to lament something that’s gone and isn’t coming back.”

Contemporary cinephiles not only have to deal with the broader availability of films, but also of film writing. More than ever, it has become difficult to distinguish cinephilia’s products. Are we, in addition to current discussions on canon formation, in need of a canon of film criticism and theory?

“I like to think of it as existential. Basically, if people are focussed, then there’s a lot of richness in terms of what one sees, what one reads about, but if one doesn’t have a focus, and doesn’t know where to go, there may be too many choices – but I think that should be a way of becoming focussed. It seems to me that, with the old film culture, we didn’t make choices. Instead, we were given a particular kind of culture, and we had to appreciate it or not, whereas it seems to me today we can choose our film culture. So in that sense, I think that there’s a great potential, but that one has to be a participant instead of simply being a recipient.”

Which essential pieces would you suggest?

“A lot of my contemporary favourites are the ones that contributed to Movie Mutations (Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin’s book on the changing face of world cinephilia, Ed.). Prior to that I was influenced by some of the Cahiers writers: Godard, Rivette, Moullet. At one time, I was very much influenced by Noël Burch’s Praxis du cinéma, although I wouldn’t know if I would feel the same way about it now. In America, there is of course Manny Farber.”