I must confess: although I am a great admirer of Mr. Rosenbaum’s work, his review of Shadow of the Vampire [January 26] must be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read. Then again, I’m not sure how seriously I’m supposed to take it, seeing as it appears alongside a review calling the utterly reprehensible The Wedding Planner “worth seeing.”
But anyway. Rosenbaum’s main problem with the film is the way it “libels” F.W. Murnau and deprecates film history all in the name of contemporary “kitsch.” This, I must say, puzzles me, in light of his earlier “must-see” review of Quills [December 15], a film that showed absolutely no regard for the historical Marquis de Sade by reinventing him as a glib buffoon and rode roughshod over historical reality so as to make a few facile points about censorship and freedom of speech. In his Quills review, Rosenbaum said that “no serious challenge to Sade’s moral position is even contemplated, much less explored,” echoing his statement in the Shadow review that it has “[nothing] meaningful to say about Nosferatu.”
But for Quills, Rosenbaum essentially discharged his critical responsibility by calling the film “a guilty pleasure.” Why, then, is he unwilling to do so for Shadow? On Quills, Rosenbaum said, “If he [Philip Kaufman] and [writer Doug] Wright want to make hash of the entire Sade debate in order to show us a good time, why not?” On Shadow, he says, “Viewers who argue that if it’s ‘entertaining’ it’s OK to turn one of the greatest film artists into a shallow-minded hack and murderer…are agreeing to let wealthy bozos looking at profit margins have more say about these matters than people who care about silent movies.” This statement is particularly bizarre, since (a) Shadow was hardly the product of a bunch of “wealthy bozos,” any more than the latest Kiarostami or Resnais film, and (b) to claim that nobody who worked on the film cared about silent cinema–particularly director Merhige, whose previous film was a silent black-and-white film made using vintage techniques and equipment–is as libelous as anything in the film itself.
These criticisms would be fine if Shadow weren’t an entertaining film, but virtually nobody seems to believe that–including Rosenbaum, who, like everyone else, praises Willem Dafoe’s hammy performance. It is true that Murnau is not as well-known as Sade, and therefore a fictionalized portrayal like Shadow could be potentially more harmful to the unspoiled minds of the public than the equally fictionalized Quills. But Sade is not particularly well documented from a historical perspective, and neither is Murnau, so for Rosenbaum to praise Quills and mercilessly slam Shadow seems like nothing more than pure hypocrisy. Besides, Shadow could conceivably kindle an interest in the “real” Murnau and lead to a revival of his works, something that is already happening, judging from the number of newspaper articles on the man and from the number of friends and colleagues who have expressed interest in viewing his films.
Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:
I was trying to make fun of my own capacity to be entertained by a movie as dumb as Quills, so I guess I failed. Josh Martin labels me unwilling to call Shadow of the Vampire another guilty pleasure, as if critics were supposed to react to everything the same way for the same reasons. I’m unable to be entertained by Shadow, so pretending otherwise would be a lie. And I don’t expect everybody to agree with me.