How films affect people: a critic sums up his life at the movies
New York — In 1977, on a rented TV set in southern California, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum watched an old Doris Day movie called ''On Moonlight Bay.'' He remembered the first time he saw it, as a third grader in Alabama. He recalled his second viewing, at summer camp in 1953, when he silently sang along with the theme song. And he realized that the film was a time machine, carrying him back to experiences and feelings long past but never quite forgotten.
Three years later, this epiphany became part of a book called Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (Harper & Row, New York, $11.95) which Rosenbaum describes as ''a narrative exposition of myself through movies and of movies through me.'' Traveling in time machines with names like ''Bird of Paradise'' and ''Rear Window,'' ''On the Waterfront'' and ''Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,'' he zooms backward and forward through the years, tracing his lifelong career as a moviegoer and hunting out the secret connections between his own development and the zillions of motion pictures that influenced him along the way. It's a quirky , eccentric, and imperfect book, but it's packed with ideas, and it points out some enormously promising new directions in film criticism.
As a movie fan, Rosenbaum is an ''extreme case,'' by his own admission. His father owned a string of theaters in the South, so picture shows and free tickets were a way of life to him from the beginning. He grew up loving movies, but he acquired a healthy suspicion of their effects, too. As a critic, he is fascinated with figuring out ''what films do to people,'' himself included. Sometimes the answers involve scholarly analysis, and sometimes they are more homely. Is his longtime love of CinemaScope, for example, the aftereffect of growing up in a long, low house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright - instilling a permanent yen for the ''dynamic and restful'' qualities of horizontal lines?
By the time he published ''Moving Places,'' Rosenbaum had taught film at New York University, worked at the British Film Institute (where he edited a provocative book on filmmaker Jacques Rivette), and written for a number of periodicals, from American Film and Omni to the New York's Soho News, for which he now writes a regular column. He has also made brief forays into the film industry, as a script consultant for Jacques Tati and an extra for Robert Bresson. He often writes on challenging and exploratory films, but he has never lost his keen interest in ordinary, everyday moviegoing - a taste that shows up strongly in his intensely personal book.
It was that 1977 viewing of ''On Moonlight Bay'' that got ''Moving Places'' rolling, Rosenbaum said over lunch recently. ''Something fell into place as I watched the very beginning, with Doris Day's family sitting together in a living room and watching slides of themselves on a screen.'' It somehow reminded him of his own childhood, his family memories, and the many screens that have seemed to mirror his own experience.
This conjunction between life, memory, and art is at the core of Rosenbaum's book. ''What people call their aesthetics is often the rationalization of something that's even more personal,'' he says. ''In a sense, I was trying to get at the roots of my own aesthetics. In doing so, I found I was involved in all sorts of other things. That always happens, even though we usually try to keep things in distinct categories, to make our lives neater.''
Rosenbaum has tried to break down the barriers between those categories - to find how his life circumstances have influenced his response to films, as well as the other way around. He never forgets that the relationship between ''on screen'' and ''off screen'' is a two-way street, and that the connections between them can be as tenacious as they are subtle.
Many of Rosenbaum's observations about film go for other media, too - all the media that play a part in our daily lives. He feels their role in personal and social development begins when we are very young.
''We may not have developed aesthetics when we're children,'' he says, ''but we have our senses and our emotions. And film can seem like a very big experience back then. I think children perceive colors much more vividly than adults, for example, because children don't classify experiences yet: They can see red as red and not associate it with a traffic sign that says 'stop.' So they can experience things with greater intensity, even though they may not understand them.''
Rosenbaum found he could recapture some of these experiences by looking at movies he saw long ago. ''Seeing a film for the first time since I was a child was the best way of learning who I was at that age,'' he says. ''Seeing the film reminded me of my responses, and taught me something about myself.''
The influences were not always positive, by a long shot. ''I spent a lot of pages discussing 'On Moonlight Bay' not because I liked it,'' he says, ''but because I hated it. It was important to explore this and single out the effects it had on me, and probably on other people.''
On the surface, of course, this is a harmless Doris Day musical with Gordon MacRae and Leon Ames, full of nostalgic family fun based on a Booth Tarkington novel. But what are its implicit attitudes.? ''It's terribly wrapped up in rejection and enslavement of the female,'' says Rosenbaum. ''And there's a way in which its nostalgia rationalizes the Korean War by reinterpreting it as World War I.''
In sum, Rosenbaum does not consider his ''time traveling'' to be a mere exercise in memory or nostalgia. He says his book is largely addressed to people outside the film community, but he also feels that his key concern - ''What do movies do to people?'' - is of paramount importance for audiences and critics, and should be explored as thoroughly as possible by anyone who has contact with motion pictures. Audiences, meanwhile, should be alert to how movies - pandering to our every whim - reinforce prejudices we might be better off without.
''A movie like 'Star Wars' preaches xenophobia of a really extreme variety,'' says Rosenbaum, offering a provocative example. ''By contrast, a movie like 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' does just the opposite. It's important for us to be aware of what these films are telling us. 'Midnight Express' shows how awful it is for an American to be trapped in a Turkish prison. But why doesn't it tell us how awful it is for a Turk to be trapped in a Turkish prison? How much do the villains in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' represent Iranians to us? People have to consider these things - to know what they're seeing the film for, and what they're getting from it or reading into it. It's the lack of awareness that can be dangerous, because that makes us into babies that can be manipulated.''
Since films are manipulative, and can pull all kinds of tricks without warning, are they an acceptable way for children to learn about the world around them? Rosenbaum feels children are too smart and too innocent to take the movies too seriously on a literal level. ''As a child,'' he recalls, ''I didn't feel the movies were true. They were better than true, in a sense. So I wasn't looking for the real world when I went to see a film.''
As an adult, though, he feels one can learn a lot about one's own makeup by looking back at those ''better than true'' experiences. ''Movies are manipulative,'' he agrees, ''but they have a material side that can be examined fairly. You can go back and look at the artifice and falseness of a film from the past, and find out a great many things that are true about that period. The films I give the most space to in my book are full of falsity and lies, but I think they have taught me a great deal. Not as much as I can learn from films I admire by people like Dreyer and Bresson; but still a lot, and a different order of things.''
Above all, Rosenbaum values the special qualities children have when they confront a film - or some other work of art - and he wants to keep certain of those qualities alive in his own critical perceptions. ''That kind of innocence is something I'd always like to have in relationship to films that really matter ,'' he says. ''In fact, I'd like to have it in general, though the world requires us to have other qualities as well.''
This boils down to ''a moral question,'' in his view. ''The task of a critic is always to keep oneself impressionable,'' he says, ''the way a child can be impressionable. And at the same time, you must be an adult who can judge the appropriateness of the film. That's playing both ends against the middle, but the best critics are all children and adults, in certain respects. I don't agree with that automatic and mechanical knowingness you get from some people who don't acknowledge their childhood responses. On the other hand, there are also problems in the childlike leap that film freaks make when they let movies keep them from reality. The child and the adult are both important.''
Though he is a critic, Rosenbaum has no illusions about the state of today's criticism. ''There's an unsolvable problem,'' he says: ''If you do too much film criticism, it can destroy the responses I've been talking about. It's hard to think of anyone who has both a childlike and an adult perspective on film, and has been able to sustain them indefinitely. It's a very big challenge.''
Movies themselves are geared more and more to a strictly utilitarian role in Rosenbaum's view. And this diminishes the value they might otherwise have for our culture. ''TV has fractured the audience as a social unit outside the home, '' he says. ''Even the ad campaigns have a way of splitting up audiences and targeting certain groups. The movies are addressed to particular classes, not all classes at once.''
He feels ''Apocalypse Now'' is more like a traditional Hollywood film, trying to incorporate all the elements that different audiences might seek. But there's something artificial, something forced about the attempt - ''it's what a shopping mall does, trying to put all of culture into one package.'' The trouble with this calculated approach is that it breeds superficiality, which is the death of meaningful work. ''If one takes art or politics seriously, one doesn't put them in a category separate from one's life. Once you start doing that, you're compromising politics, art, life, or all three. They are supposed to be addressed to one another, to relate to and enrich one another. But this creates difficulties with regard to consumerism, which requires that works be enjoyed and then thrown away. Even film criticism has taken on the function of a shopping mall - be it simple or sophisticated, it's all for your shopping convenience.''
In his book, Rosenbaum tries to relate life and work and art in all kinds of ways, to break down the barriers between them and construct a verbal ''improvisation'' that spins happily through all the categories. Not all his methods or ideas are fruitful, but he has suggested fascinating new realms of autobiographical criticism for himself and others to explore. And it all sprang from a moment at summer camp in 1953, when he got up from a minor-league Doris Day movie and felt something ''small, warm, glowing, and at least momentarily precious'' that he deeply hoped would ''never go away.'' His judgment of the movie has changed drastically, but he still values the childlike aesthetic thrill he got from that old, sweet song on Moonlight Bay.