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Rosenbaum discusses the impact of digital media on film criticism

Credit: Aisha Han/Assistant Visual Editor Credit: Aisha Han/Assistant Visual Editor

This Thursday, on Sept. 22, Jonathan Rosenbaum, a freelance film critic, gave a lecture in Porter Hall 100 about how the advent of the internet and modern technology has affected film criticism. Rosenbaum, who was the head film critic for the Chicago Reader for twenty years, continues to write film criticisms on his website.

After taking the stage, Rosenbaum immediately made it clear that “rather than planned-out lectures, [he] much prefers dialogues to monologues,” thus opening himself up for questions and commentary. This was analogous to his general attitude toward film criticism. He enjoys having an online presence, as he feels like he has “more of a community profile on [his] website than [he] did when [he] was writing for the Chicago Reader.” Now that he can write for a more film-centric niche market rather than for a general audience, he is able to open up a dialogue with his readers about topics he and his readers are both passionate about. He mentioned a few instances where his readers would write to him soon after he made a blog post, pointing out his typos and questioning his ideas.

In addition, with a website, Rosenbaum is able to reach a wider, more diverse audience. According to him, “at least half — sometimes more than half — of the people who come to the site are not even from the United States, but from various parts all over the world.” Even though Rosenbaum was given unusual freedoms, such as no limit on length, at the Chicago Reader, he still had some limits put on him by his editors, and now without these restrictions he is able to reflect on the differences between both experiences.

His experience of being politically censored by his editors illustrated those limits. In one of his articles, he mentioned his trip to Tehran, saying that “walking down the street, [he] could see it was as multicultural as the United States,” and his editor would not allow him to write that unless he could prove it. Rosenbaum states that his editor was often selective, in a biased way, about what he needed hard evidence for and what he didn’t.

Throughout the lecture, Rosenbaum brought up the viewpoints of the opposing side, the side that sees modern technology as the slow destruction of film criticism. Some of his colleagues, in fact, “feel that there was a ‘golden age of film criticism’ back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. That’s all over now. They basically see [the internet] in completely dystopian, negative terms,” Rosenbaum said. He also spoke about the issue of oversimplification, calling the problem “a conflict between market and scholarship.” The simpler an article, the wider an audience it will reach, and this kind of simplification leads to a certain amount of dishonesty, because reality is not always simple.

In relation to this idea, Rosenbaum stated multiple times that we should not divide the world into black and white, right and wrong. To do so would be to overgeneralize.

The latter part of the lecture focused on discussion. Multiple people in the audience asked questions which led to discussions about film quality and the criteria for quality. Rosenbaum drew a distinction between “review” and “criticism,” saying that reviews had some impact on the market, while criticism did not have a consumerist side to it. He also questioned if, with regard to art and culture, we have lowered our canon, or if we have simply changed the standards for something to be included in our canon.

The lecture was informative and, parallel to Rosenbaum’s vision, felt more like a dialogue than a monologue. It reflected the different facets of film criticism — its so-called “golden age,” and how it has changed in the face of modern technology; yet it also went beyond film and media. The talk touched on ideas like how the internet affects our perception of divisive issues, the importance of being honest about complexity and reality in writing, and the value of a diverse readership. Though Rosenbaum now writes for a smaller audience, they are more engaged and ready to comment on his work. According to him, and echoed by his readers, “the quality of the audience is much more important than the quantity.”