Jonathan Rosenbaum, Woody Allen, & Some Critical Perils

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

This line of reasoning is unoriginal, and therefore very common. Rosenbaum, however, at least attributes it to a specific source, one that he could name: Manny Farber. To Rosenbaum, Manny Farber is the best and most important American critic to have lived (Roger Ebert ain’t there, as he’s too different; the awful Pauline Kael, likewise, as she can reasonably be called a contrarian rival). Yet this is the same Manny Farber who, in between claiming that evaluation means little to nothing, for, in his mind, the word is improperly conflated with mere ‘like’ and ‘dislike’, and not true evaluation, was ALSO a prolific writer of reviews that, surprise, surprise!, evaluated left and right, and even tried to pass off some of his more ridiculous judgments as unique. I mean, really: what do you expect? The critic’s PRIMARY job is to evaluate, because the best art art isn’t merely ideas (the realm of philosophy), social activism (the realm of politicos), or style (the realm of aesthetes and interior decorators), but a far deeper combination of all these things and other elements, to boot, as they live within narrative. Thus, it is not enough to agree with an ideological position, or personally ‘enjoy’ the camera work or a certain color, but to be able to say what it all means, within the specific universe the creation inhabits. So, it’s not merely about good or bad ideas, but how these ideas are ultimately constructed– ironically, a thing that in fact DEEPENS said ideas, compared with ‘mere’ philosophy, for it puts these ideas into unheard of but real-life situations, and tests them across time and space, in a way revealing their true mettle.

Of course, I do not think that Rosenbaum answered my questions, and, after a few e-mails, he simply declined further comment. Oh well. La-di-da, la la… To Rosenbaum’s credit, however, he doesn’t really give a damn, either. I mean, why would he? I’m just a kid on the Internet, mayhaps, with only one (published) book to my name, and ‘clearly’ looking for trouble, to simply tear somebody down in an envious, self-destructive rage. I mean, right??? The wonderful thing, however, is that my words are still here, they can stand on their own merits, they’re interesting, and needle folks just the right way. Perhaps I will grow too tired of the bullshit before I ever see any real accountability. Perhaps I will leave criticism alone, and dedicate the rest of my life to poetry and fiction– where dolts cannot truly enter, only blab from the sidelines and continue to publish others’ crap.

But, for now, the fair thing is to give others the chance to respond… which is the reason for my solicitations. There’s space, on and offline, and I’ve used it. Here’s my take on Rosenbaum’s essay, below, in the hopes that others will use it, too.

*Note– please expect my correspondence with Jonathan Rosenbaum and other critics and readers in the ‘addendum’ of my e-book, which will continue to grow, year after year, with more extras, as the dialogue on Woody Allen evolves and hopefully settles in its proper place.


What’s In A Name? 6 Major Critics Of Woody Allen

* * *

Critic #5: Jonathan Rosenbaum

Of all Woody’s critics, few have been as harsh as Jonathan Rosenbaum, a top film reviewer at theChicago Reader for about two decades, and a writer of articles and books that are quite virtuoso in their technical scope and depth. Rosenbaum’s website alone features thousands of reviews, while some of his ‘side projects’ — such as a DVD commentary on Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin, a film that he helped re-compile in 2006 — shows off a historical knowledge that few critics ever have. This sort of work ethic is impossible to deny, even if it’s not entirely congenial to the nuts-and-bolts of artistic criticism, which is what this book attempts. Thus, while Jonathan Rosenbaum mirrors Ray Carney vis-a-vis pure scholarship, he is, in his own way, quite recapitulative of that critic’s flaws, as well. In short, he has derided Allen’s characters as “cardboard-thin”[56], his style, visuals, and ideas “shallow” and derivative[57], and even complained of the “glitzy, suicidal chic” that allegedly permeates his films.[58]The problem, however, is not that Rosenbaum is negative or dismissive, but that, like Pauline Kael before him, he rarely offers any real evidence for his claims — many of his reviews are a mere four to five sentences long — and when he does, they simply don’t align with the assertions made. So, for a purportedly comprehensive essay titled “Some Notes Toward a Devaluation of Woody Allen”, there is remarkably little evaluation, to start, and even less Woody Allen, the essay’s purported subject.[59] The subject, then, is not so much Woody Allen, but a phantasm of the critic’s own making; an imago that — when it doesn’t live up to Rosenbaum’s tangents — is simply dismissed, even as he bemoans the supposed lack of intellectual engagement Allen’s films provide.

Thus, not only is Rosenbaum harsh, he is also one of Woody’s neediest critics, which is a far worse and more relevant charge. Now, I don’t mean this as an insult, but merely that Rosenbaum has a set ofpersonal needs (as most people do) that he extrapolates into art (which no critic ought to do), and expects them to be satisfied. In short, he demands things from Woody to fit his own purview (anti-racism; social justice; questions of ethnic identity), and complains when he doesn’t get them (Manhattan doesn’t have black people; WASPs live in a bubble), for Rosenbaum is a ‘connoisseur’ that thrives not on film, on its own terms, but on art’s tangents, i.e., how well they fit a set of ethical or philosophical criteria, and Rosenbaum’s own relationship to the world. One may commend Rosenbaum for his commitment to such things — as, indeed, such passions do not occur often enough — but it also forces him into perspectives that have precious little to do with art. Thus, to step outside of oneself becomes unthinkable, and to imagine that there are values not your own implies a problem (hence his frequent use of the word “problematic”, which is really a code-word for ‘not-to-taste’). One could say, in fact, that Rosenbaum watches films for — well, for Rosenbaum. This would not be much of a ‘problem’ (that word again!), except that Rosenbaum writes strictly for Rosenbaum, too, and perhaps anyone else that sees the world as he does, not ‘as is’. Sure, one could learn a lot about Rosenbaum like this, but what about the art? What of character? Dialogue? Poesy? Narrative depth? Yet such ‘frills’ are shorted when they are subsumed under a critic’s own needs and preoccupations.

Rosenbaum begins with this rhetorical question — ‘rhetorical’, for he does not attempt to really answer it: “Why are American intellectuals so contemptuous of Jerry Lewis and so crazy about Woody Allen?…[W]hat is it that gives Allen such an exalted cultural status in this country, and Lewis virtually no cultural status at all?”

He goes on to blame viewers’ “infatuation”, and the like, but seems to miss a deeper point. Jerry Lewis is primarily a comic and entertainer, and while good at his job, he is mostly that: an entertainer of fairly limited scope. Allen, by contrast, has done everything from slapstick to deep and original drama, replete with great character arcs, wonderful imagery, strong narrative, and interesting things to say not only about people and their foibles, but the wan interpretations of truth, art, purpose, and reality that they inflict upon the world. The comparison, then, is an odd one (to put it mildly) and makes just as much sense as asking ‘why’ Gena Rowlands gets so much respect from “American intellectuals” in the theater, but not Hulk Hogan, despite the latter being ‘theatrical’, as well. It is also telling that Rosenbaum complains of Allen’s inclination to “drop names”, such as Kierkegaard, or Gustav Klimt inAnother Woman, despite such things taking up, maybe, thirty to forty-five seconds of screen-time, total, even in Allen’s most ‘referential’ films. By contrast, Rosenbaum, himself, drops no less than seventeennames across his first three paragraphs alone, trapping his thoughts in a deluge of references that so often mar his own writing. To the objective reader, then, this is yet more neediness, this time for intellectual props, and others’ approbation.

Far from being a cultural exemplar, Jerry Lewis is simply an entertainer — a pretty good one, overall, but a mere entertainer, regardless. Yet to conflate with him with the visionary that Woody Allen is (or was) at his best? That’s critical negligence:

Rosenbaum then goes on to make a good point about Allen’s fans more or less ‘rooting’ for the Woody persona, as they see their own flaws and images within. But instead of further developing this thought, he merely lets it alone, calling Allen’s films “strangely unformed and unrealized”, even as he misses the deeper point concerning his original claim. In short, Allen often throws his persona out there as a means of artistic deceit. Too often, viewers have empathized with a ‘type’ like Alvy (Annie Hall) or Isaac Davis (Manhattan), while ignoring the fact that such characters are really well-sketched manipulators, subjecting others — as well as the viewer — to their wiles, and not only succeeding, but winning our empathy, to boot. Thus, while Rosenbaum’s first claim is absolutely true, the fact that such paradoxical things can even occur implies good writing and great character arcs, down to Manhattan’s visuals lulling the viewer into a complacency that its ‘darker’ reality completely undermines. This is really the bottom line, and that Rosenbaum is hoodwinked into accepting Manhattan’s imagery as merely “validating” and “attractive” (a la its lack of black people) shows that he is only too willing to take things at face value.

The essay then turns to one of the more tired criticisms of Woody’s films: that they are “derivative” of Bergman, among others, but without further comment or explanation. The short answer is that the word ‘derivative’ — if it is to mean anything at all — implies ‘unoriginal’, as in, a derivation is not a mere use, model, starting point, or allusion, but a complete rip-off. Yet this is clearly untrue with the examples Rosenbaum, himself, provides. For example, he sees Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, a middling, purely stylized, over-symbolic drama wherein characters speak artificially and have little to no real development, in Allen’s Interiors, a film that revisits many of the same themes and relationships — including ‘favored’ sisters — but with much more subtle use of symbol, far richer dialogue, and a clear beginning, middle, and denouement not only in the plotline, but of characters, themselves, who grow and react in utterly human, not merely flamboyant, ways. Allen is also accused of ripping off Fellini’s in Stardust Memories, but while the earlier film is nearly two and a half hours long, and narrowly focused on one character’s existence, Stardust Memories is one of the ‘leanest’ films ever made, and focused on far deeper concerns of the nature of truth, reality, purpose, and art, and uses Sandy Bates as a means for exploring them. It is, as Tony Macklin writes of Allen’s uses of Truffaut, “a springboard for his own vision”[60], rather than a rip-off, Sure, Allen’s own film downright feels like a homage, at times, but after so many alterations, and so much polish, the fact is, a film’s very essence changes — influenced, or not. To think otherwise simply ignores how art moves and what these words mean, ideas that are covered more significantly in Schneider’s reviews of Cries and Whispers[61] and .[62] At some point, Rosenbaum even goes on to draw parallels between Zelig and Warren Beatty’s Reds, conflating Zelig’s talking-heads with the latter film’s “witnesses”, when, in fact, it is far more accurate to say that Zelig is merely like any other historical documentary featuring a few ‘experts’, with one crucial difference: that they’re not merely discussing a fictional figure, but an utterly fantastical one, clearly making it a spoof on typical ‘period’ documentaries, and “indebted” to nothing but the knowledge of how such documentaries go.

By contrast, Jonathan Rosenbaum calls Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks a ‘near-masterpiece’ in our e-mail exchange. That’s right: not Crimes, not Hannah And Her Sisters, not Match Point, but the small, funny, yet undeniably fluffy little film, below:

Yet as posturing as these claims are, Rosenbaum’s essay really starts to suffer when he brings in the subject of Woody’s film editors. Yes, there is no doubt that Ralph Rosenblum (among others) have helped refine Allen’s work, but there is such a strong continuity between, say, Annie Hall (Rosenblum) and Manhattan (Susan E. Morse), or Crimes and Misdemeanors (Morse) and Match Point (Alisa Lepselter), re: character, visuals, scripting, poesy, ideas, and the like, despite differences of time, distance, co-writers, and changes in editors, that these are invariably Allen’s visions, and utterly dependent upon him, first. Graham Daseler calls this Woody’s “distinct stamp”, for while many have written off the ‘auteur theory’ in film, Allen, by contrast, “stands as a glaring reproof”, given how similar two films can be, even when decades apart.[63] Nor is it a sin that “Allen’s conceptions”, as originally written, end up being altered, as every work of art goes through these changes (film included) until all that matters is what’s finally on the screen. Rosenbaum then goes on to deride Allen’s “literary” conception of film, ignoring the fact that any good film must start with narrative, first, whether that means something as simple as ‘See Spot Run’, or Allen’s magisterial opening in Stardust Memories, which uses symbols, visuals, illusions, allusions, and the eliding of details and plot points to get at some ‘deeper’ things that can’t easily be put into words. This, by itself, does a good job of laying to rest the notion that Allen is not ‘filmic’, but Rosenbaum further hurts himself by bringing up Godard’s awful Meetin’ WA, wherein Godard pointlessly uses Allen’s own title screens from Hannah and Her Sisters in between his inane interview of Allen, and Rosenbaum confuses this for a “cinematic device”. It is not, for the word “device” implies a meaningful useof something, not a haphazard editing job wherein a director randomly throws garbage at the viewer, hoping it’ll stick. Had Godard started with Allen’s alleged “literary” conception, however, he might have decided on a purpose, first, and avoided the anomie altogether.

Rosenbaum then takes shots at Crimes and Misdemeanors for purportedly trying “to address the rampant amorality and self-interest of the 1980s”, while pointing out that a “socially concerned” character, Cliff, isn’t reward for his aspirations, and that we’re forced to empathize more with Cliff than a murdered mistress. Yet it is again Rosenbaum’s own neediness that forces him to make such deductions, as Crimes and Misdemeanors does not in fact try to “address” what he claims it does, but merely shows amorality, in general, as it plays out within a hyper-realistic killer. This is a film that could have been made in the 1960s, or the 2060s, and it’d still be beholden to the same patterns of killers, mistresses, winners, and losers, so to give it a time-stamp is silly. Nor is it a mere case of ‘good guys finish last’ for Cliff’s character, because while Cliff has good intentions, as Rosenbaum points out, Cliff is also not exactly a good filmmaker, which Rosenbaum misses, thus putting Cliff precisely in the same artistic category as Lester, the film’s second de facto villain, save that Cliff is ultimately not successful. Nor is it a bad thing that we end up rooting for Landau a little when he offs his mistress, as it in fact takes a great script and narrative arc to turn a victim into an annoyance, and a sociopath into a minor hero, of sorts, no matter how temporarily. Again, Rosenbaum clearly does not ‘like’ the implications. In fact, I don’t either — at all. But so what? Such inversions are really what make the film work, on the level of high art, while Rosenbaum derides the very things he over-reads into the film, or — what’s worse — ignores that which he cannot see due to his chosen self-restrictions. In fact, this is really a shame, as his ‘technical’ expertise could really shed some light on the murkier aspects of Allen’s film-making, and the history of films that — when approached with a critical eye — will be remembered for what they are, rather than what they are not.

At end, Rosenbaum wishes that Allen’s characters “face” their Jewish identity issues (which is again called “problematic”), derides Allen’s reluctance to “alienate” his fans (Stardust Memories is offered as a counter-example, while ignoring many others), and shakes his head at the improbability of an Allen comedy that “tells us something about, say, American idiocy blundering through the Third World” — as if Allen needs to cater to Rosenbaum’s sense of propriety, and not Allen’s own vision. No, not every critical faux pas is a necessarily a bad one. Yet in a very deep sense, there is no ‘turning back’ from Rosenbaum’s, for it’s one thing to find a work of art lacking, and a completely different thing to wish that work of art to simply transmogrify, not because the art, itself, would be better for it, but because it would better fit your world — no matter how noble or progressive that phantasm may be. This is not only the height of personal neediness, but antithetical to what art is, and what it could do for people, if only they could get past their own desires.

5 Comments Jonathan Rosenbaum, Woody Allen, & Some Critical Perils

  1. Dan Schneider

    You went easy on him. He, Kael, Farber, are jokes. It reminds me of Randall Jarrell’s one sentence dismissal of Donald Hall’s poetry, literally. Yes, Hall is a BAD poet, but Jarrell was simply lazy and snarky.

    JR and his hero too often conflate politics and good ideas w the art itself.

    Art is the how an idea or character or tale is told, or how the image or music is presented. It is best thought of, critically, as a verb, not a noun.

    JR and his ilk are bumper sticker lovers, which is why Godard’s work is often so bad.

    This is why ‘istic’ criticism is so terrible because a piece of cliche ridden garbage can be lauded cuz so and so ‘likes’ the opinion.’

    So what? It has nothing to do w the objective success or failure of the conveyance of the points.

    I’d love to one day debate some of these poseurs in the arts. I’d annihilate them.

    Maybe Ray Carney will actually show up and engage. He chickened out of an interview with me that challenged him. This is what often happens w people lauded for no damned reason.

    1. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

      A week or two ago, I was arguing with some philosophy and ‘academic’ types who tried to deny the distinctions between art and other categories. Obviously, however, the word “art” means something, and is, definitionally, quite different from mere ideas, or philosophy, or social concerns, or whatever else that one may come up with. Those elements refer to WHAT art contains, while ‘art’ refers to HOW they are contained.

      Rosenbaum did not understand this, and Manny Farber is a mirror image of Rosenbaum. Interestingly, Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael did not get named as the ‘best’ or ‘most important’ of critics, probably because Ebert is too populist, and therefore worthless in this sort of mentality, and Kael, being a pure contrarian who aspired to wit, is a kind of feeble competition.

      Only 1 of those could write well. And 4 out of 4 hold themselves back in more immediate ways.

  2. Jessica

    All these contrivances for all these categories. All these rationalizations and justifications for this and that. What is the point? Does it affect the criticism at hand? You actually have to argue that art means this and that philosophy means something else? If people can’t even distinguish mere definitions, it’s no wonder culture is in such a LCD haze.

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