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How films affect people: a critic sums up his life at the movies

By David Sterritt / November 19, 1981

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.

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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.