Late last year, I wrote a letter to your publication regarding Jonathan Rosenbaum. The letter questioned how Rosenbaum could utterly excoriate Shadow of the Vampire for its near-slanderous portrayal of F.W. Murnau when only a few weeks earlier, in his review of Quills, he had stated, in no uncertain terms, that historical accuracy wasn’t really important so long as the film is entertaining.
I’m writing again because now I see that Rosenbaum has repeated his gaffe. But rather than contradicting himself over a period of weeks, he’s actually done it within the space of a single article.
I’m referring to his mini reviews of Kate and Leopold and The Majestic from your December 21 issue. The sunny, false nostalgia of Kate and Leopold doesn’t seem to bother him at all, nor do its legion historical errors (although in a time-travel movie such things are to be expected). But only a few paragraphs on, he rips apart The Majestic for indulging in precisely the same kind of ahistorical nostalgia, providing a long list of the film’s blatant factual errors (something he doesn’t bother providing for Kate and Leopold, even though it’s rife with them). This kind of glaring discrepancy is initially so mind-boggling that I feel I have reached the expressive limits of the English language and must instead respond: Excusez-moi?
But when looked at alongside the Quills/Shadow of the Vampire thing from last year, a clear pattern emerges: Mr. Rosenbaum doesn’t necessarily have anything against historical inaccuracy in and of itself, but if you apply it to film and film history, then you’re in for a severe butt-chewing, guaranteed. If Kate and Leopold had been about a fictitious inventor of the motion picture camera getting sucked through a time warp as opposed to a fictitious inventor of the elevator, would Rosenbaum have let it off as easily? I don’t pretend to be omniscient, but somehow I doubt it. Additionally, The Majestic’s view of the blacklist may seem especially reactionary in a time when the vice president’s wife is issuing lists of “unpatriotic” academics and the attorney general is accusing those who question his actions of “aiding terrorism,” but the implication there is that stupid, backward nostalgia is better or worse depending on its timing. Sorry, I don’t buy that and I don’t think Rosenbaum does either.
Rosenbaum, to his credit, is the first to admit that he has biases like everyone else (indeed, he does just that in the first paragraph of the December 21 article). But why does Rosenbaum consider part of history (namely, the part that deals with his chosen area of expertise, i.e., film) more sacrosanct than the rest of it? Does this kind of attitude go beyond mere personal bias and indicate something deeper? There’s a nagging voice in the unnecessarily large chamber of my mind that actually cares about this stuff wondering if there’s any further implication in all this that may or may not prompt me to look at Rosenbaum’s work (which I really do admire, but I don’t write letters to people telling them how much I like them) with a more critical eye. Not that he cares–nor should he–but it’s something I want to get off my chest anyway.