Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See
Jonathan Rosenbaum
London: Wallflower Press, 2002.
£12.99, 234 pages, ISBN 1-903364-60-4.

Nicolas Magenham

Alluding to the Star Wars cycle and summing up the contents of the book, the title Movie Wars announces Rosenbaum's bellicose agenda, his eager fight against the Hollywood hegemony (whose symbol could be George Lucas's movies) and the media devoted to Hollywood. Unlike other critics who put the blame on a supposedly less and less demanding audience, Rosenbaum turns toward the decision-makers and the mass media to explain the pervasive feeling that cinema is allegedly dying. According to him, producing, distributing and promoting only one type of cinema, they prevent thousands of movie buffs from getting the opportunity to have access to a more innovative cinema (notably world cinema). Rosenbaum uses a postal metaphor in order to show how difficult it is to see such films: when he watched one of the sixties films that mattered most to him, it was like "receiving a letter from a friend who lived far away but knew exactly what [he] was thinking. […] there are still friends of this kind scattered across the globe, regardless of the state of our postal delivery. It's the state of our postal delivery, cinematically speaking, that most of the remainder of this book will be concerned with" [34].

In a chapter on some "vagaries" of promotion and criticism, Rosenbaum shows how Hollywood studios strive to merge criticism and publicity, notably through the practice of the movie junket. Rosenbaum denounces the method: journalists are invited either to movie sets or to previews, at the expense of the studios which put them up at "fancy hotels" and arrange interviews with the actors and/or directors. If these journalists don't write favorable articles, "then the studios won't invite them back to future junkets" [49]. Rosenbaum also complains about the fact that what one calls a "film expert" in the United States is merely "someone who writes or broadcasts about film", someone who simply "reflect[s] the existing tastes of the public" [57]. But he exemplifies this idea with two long pages demonstrating sometimes laboriously that the recently departed film critic Gene Siskel was not a real film buff, and as such should not deserve to be regarded by the president of Chicago's principal film venue as someone who "helped focus the international entertainment spotlight on Chicago" [59].

Movie Wars also tackles the Hollywood system of production and distribution in a way that may sometimes evoke Michael Moore's engagé documentaries, that is, in a mixture of persuasive exposure and over-simplification (but without Moore's irony though). Rosenbaum denounces the practices of a company such as Miramax—which notably distributes Tarantino's films. Rosenbaum seems to be even more irritated by such pseudo-independent companies which belong to studios (in this case Disney) than by majors which at least openly admit their venality. Rosenbaum evokes for instance the way Miramax buys films simply to prevent other distributors from buying them. In other words, as Rosenbaum puts it, "there's statistically less chance of the public ever having access to a movie if Miramax acquires it" [118].

As an American cinephile living in the United States, Rosenbaum has to put up directly with the institutions that he denounces in his book, and as such he happens to lack some distance. In a European country such as France, if the Hollywood hegemony is an unbearable reality, it is relativized by the existence of a living national cinema, as well as the possibility to have access to world cinema (in large cities at least). The absence of such diversity in the US contributes to Rosenbaum's excessive disgust at the Hollywood system, and by extension at many Hollywood movies. In other words, Rosenbaum displays here and there an understandable but irritating black and white vision of cinema, which alters the force of his discourse. For instance, in the chapter on the mainstream American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest American movies, Rosenbaum retaliates by way of creating his own list. But this idea takes an absurd turn when he obviously makes it a point of honor not to integrate in his list the films that both he and the AFI like, as if this "composite list" were a pact with the devil.

In another chapter, Rosenbaum writes about the increasing disfavor of formalism in academic film studies. He who only believes in aesthetic canons and aesthetic theories confesses his disaffection for the emergence of "the treatment of film as social, economic, and psychological symptoms" [87], but he uses dubious arguments to express his opinion. For instance, he thinks that the material and technological limitations of the equipment used in teaching (most of the films being studied on video or DVD) engenders the "limitations of what's being taught" [89]. Doing so, he injudiciously uses material reasons to imply that Cultural Studies is a "limited" discipline, as opposed to the prestigious and sacred aesthetic theory. He goes so far as to write that "it doesn't seem accidental that the relative disfavor in recent years of aesthetics in academic film study and the increasing popularity of the social sciences coincides precisely with some of the conditions of watching films on video"!

In fact, what Rosenbaum denounces in the first place in contemporary film courses is their "weary acceptance of the priorities of the media as an unalterable fact of nature" [87]. He notably deplores that the interest of mass media in stars more than in directors is reflected in academic film studies, forgetting that a teacher of star studies and the mass media do not speak the same language on the topic. Rosenbaum does not seem to realize that when Richard Dyer and Premiere lay emphasis on stars, they do it in different ways. Although they are both fascinated by their subjects, the former adds critical insight to fascination, which a mainstream promotional magazine rarely does.

Nevertheless, chapter four somewhat alleviates the feeling that Rosenbaum's vision of cinema is too Manichean and over-simplified. This chapter dealing with Joe Dante's Small Soldiers (1998) demonstrates that Rosenbaum can be flexible when he wants to. He analyses in detail the critical reception of Dante's film and brings out what the majority of critics did not perceive when the film was released: the fact that it is a satire of "the consumption of war as spectacle or art" [75]. At the end of the chapter, Rosenbaum evokes in a questionable way the inability of many American critics to regard certain films as satire, films which do not conform strictly speaking to the Swiftian model (i.e. "the contempt for humanity in general and the audience in particular" [76]). Defending a Hollywood film such as Small Soldiers, Rosenbaum shows he is not systematically rigid.

So Movie Wars is a book which is intended for the film buffs and the academic readers who want to know more about the damaging effects of the Hollywood machine and the mass media on films. And even though they may leave an unpleasant aftertaste, Rosenbaum's extreme remarks have the advantage of revealing how unbearable the Hollywood hegemony might be for an American who is really keen on cinema as an art.

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.