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