Jonathan Rosenbaum, Woody Allen, & Some Critical Perils

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Woody's face, upon reading Jonathan Rosenbaum's critiques.

Woody’s face, upon reading Jonathan Rosenbaum’s critiques.

[Update for 11/13/2014: My book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, is now out, and can be purchased via Amazon. It includes, in full, the e-mail exchange that I describe below.]

About a week ago, I solicited Jonathan Rosenbaum for comments on my essay deriding his (and others’) interpretation of Woody Allen, which forms part of my upcoming e-book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real. I believed, of course, that the reasons were pretty clear. Rosenbaum — top critic, top film expert, top DVD commentator, top etc. etc. etc. — had a dozen or so reviews of Allen’s films, most of which, quite literally, involve a 4-5 sentence dismissal, with little to no evidence for his judgments, and even less argumentation. His essay, “Notes Toward the Devaluation of Woody Allen,” fares even worse, because unlike in the context of a brief dismissal, which might simply be constrained by the demands of a newspaper, or whatever else, Rosenbaum finally had a few thousand words to put the nail in Allen’s coffin. He does not, however, and given the man’s reputation, it’s shocking how little of his essay in fact even address Woody Allen’s films, content, as it is, to merely skim along the surface of things.

So I e-mailed Rosenbaum, reiterating my points, and not really expecting a reply. To my surprise, however, it came, quite respectful and very prompt. More surprising, however, was what happened near the end of our exchange, wherein Rosenbaum made the claim that he finds “evaluation” to be an unimportant task for the critic, all things considered. Now, such things are certainly in vogue these days, and subjectivists will still insist that art cannot be ‘judged’ for a while yet. It was shocking to hear this from Rosenbaum, however, because, well, the man gained his reputation on precisely that: evaluation. Ever read his take on Taxi Driver, which helplessly careens between minor adulation and silly charges that the film is “ideologically confused”– i.e., has no consistent idea or philosophical posit? That is called, what? It is ‘evaluation’. Ever read his various “10 Best” lists, across multiple categories, whose only existence can occur if the critic, first and foremost, evaluates films for this inclusion, thus naturally excluding others as substandard? I mean, the word is “best,” as in, transcending merely ‘better,’ or ‘good,’ but in the realm of best. Not favorite, mind you, not essential, not important, but best, which is a word with a specific meaning. Or hell, what of the essay in question– “Notes Toward the De-Valuation…”, which has the word ‘evaluate’, within, and implies judgment– the very thing Rosenbaum denies the importance of, yet does in review after review, essay after essay, thus staking his own celebrity on such, but eliding it when philosophically expedient?

Manny Farber Jonathan Rosenbaum

Manny Farber, who is both Jonathan Rosenbaum’s hero, as well as a pretty bad critic. Image via RogerEbert.com.

This line of reasoning is … Continue reading →