Cover image for Essential cinema : on the necessity of film canons
Essential cinema : on the necessity of film canons
Rosenbaum, Jonathan.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
xxi, 445 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PN1994 .R5684 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



In his astute and deeply informed film reviews and essays, Jonathan Rosenbaum regularly provides new and brilliant insights into the cinema as art, entertainment, and commerce. Guided by a personal canon of great films, Rosenbaum sees, in the ongoing hostility toward the idea of a canon shared by many within the field of film studies, a missed opportunity both to shape the discussion about cinema and to help inform and guide casual and serious filmgoers alike.

In Essential Cinema , Rosenbaum forcefully argues that canons of great films are more necessary than ever, given that film culture today is dominated by advertising executives, sixty-second film reviewers, and other players in the Hollywood publicity machine who champion mediocre films at the expense of genuinely imaginative and challenging works. He proposes specific definitions of excellence in film art through the creation a personal canon of both well-known and obscure movies from around the world and suggests ways in which other canons might be similarly constructed.

Essential Cinema offers in-depth assessments of an astonishing range of films: established classics such as Rear Window , M , and Greed ; ambitious but flawed works like The Thin Red Line and Breaking the Waves ; eccentric masterpieces from around the world, including Irma Vep and Archangel ; and recent films that have bitterly divided critics and viewers, among them Eyes Wide Shut and A.I. He also explores the careers of such diverse filmmakers as Robert Altman, Raúl Ruiz, Frank Tashlin, Elaine May, Sam Fuller, Terrence Davies, Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Orson Welles. In conclusion, Rosenbaum offers his own film canon of 1,000 key works from the beginning of cinema to the present day. A cogent and provocative argument about the art of film, Essential Cinema is also a fiercely independent reference book of must-see movies for film lovers everywhere.

Author Notes

Jonathan Rosenbaum is film critic for the Chicago Reader and the author or editor of fourteen books

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Film lovers seeking critical guidance more discerning than daily newspaper reviews but less daunting than scholarly journal articles depend on a handful of critics who write about rarefied films for a general audience. Among the best is Rosenbaum, who plies his trade in the weekly Chicago Reader0 . This collection of his work is largely concerned with the formation of a canon of cinematic masterpieces. Nearly all the review subjects in the book are obvious canon fodder, including acknowledged classics Greed0 and Rear Window0 , such challenging recent films as Satantango 0 and Archangel0 , the avant-garde works Flaming Creatures0 and *Corpus 0 Callosum, and even such "disputable contenders" as A.I.0 and Eyes Wide Shut0 . Pieces on master directors, including Samuel Fuller, Orson Welles, and Hou Hsiao-hsien, offer glimpses of further canon-worthy films. Rosenbaum appends a list of his 1,000 favorites, "a personal canon" based on "pleasure and edification" rather than historical or popular impact. Every essay demonstrates Rosenbaum's fervent dedication to the cinema and, more important, that he has the knowledge and insight to support his impassioned opinions. --Gordon Flagg Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

In combining his reviews from the Chicago Reader with writing he's done for other magazines, Rosenbaum doesn't so much argue in favor of specific canons of film masterpieces as defend the very process of choosing films of artistic or cultural significance that deserve to be remembered and merit repeat viewing. His global approach is evident from the opening section, "Classics," which discusses films from Germany, France, Russia, Hungary, China and Belgium; even the two American selections (Greed and Rear Window) were made by expatriate directors. Rosenbaum largely ignores mainstream Hollywood; except for a review of Pretty Woman (negative) and A.I. (positive with reservations), Stanley Kubrick is about as commercial as it gets. Instead, Rosenbaum rails against an attitude he sees perpetuated by American studios and critics alike, in which a film isn't worthy of discussion unless it's in wide release or prominently displayed on the video shelves. He'd rather call readers' attention to things they probably wouldn't have seen otherwise, yet his treatment of individual films and filmmakers is accessible without being dumbed down, filled with perceptive insights and fascinating juxtapositions (the Coen brothers, for example, come up in a chapter-long comparison with Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski). A closing list of 1,000 favorite films is sure to spark debate among cineastes (Ishtar?) while offering a long checklist of films to watch. (Apr. 27) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Film critic for the Chicago Reader, an alternative weekly, Rosenbaum presents a new collection of film essays, some rather lengthy, others just extended notes, and most previously published in his weekly. The result is a highly personal look at world filmmaking and directors that combines celebrations, rediscoveries, polemics, and autobiographical reflections (Rosenbaum is the son and grandson of small-town movie exhibitors). It is not, however, as the publisher claims, a reference of must-see films. Some of the better essays include an extended look at a recent restoration of Erich von Stroheim's silent film classic Greed and trenchant appreciations of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Jacques Demy's musicals, and Stanley Kubrick's later films. Rosenbaum isn't afraid to throw the spotlight on obscure international films and directors and almost forgotten American films like The Phenix Story. There are also brief essays on American directors like Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause), Otto Preminger (Laura), and Western auteur Anthony Mann (El Cid). The book concludes with a personal canon of favorite films, listed year by year from 1895 to the present. Well written, though not always exciting, this work should be considered by academic libraries. Public and school libraries would be better served by Pauline Kael's 5001 Nights at the Movies, Danny Peary's various books on cult films, or the annual compilation of Roger Ebert's film reviews.-Stephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

In the wake of cultural studies, academic film studies has attempted to dismantle the dead-white-male film canon created in the mid-1960s by introducing more diverse voices. Rosenbaum, one of the best American film critics working today, argues for the necessity of film canons, but his own personal canon is multicultural to the core, suggesting there is no essential incompatibility between canons and cultural studies. The author makes a passionate argument for the importance of film canons in informing the public about films that should be seen. In an era in which Hollywood blockbusters dominate the marketplace, Rosenbaum calls attention to neglected masterpieces by directors such as Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Bela Tarr, Oliver Assayas, Stanley Kwan, Andre Techine, James Benning, and Guy Madden. Rosenbaum understands that canons provide maps of the cinematic landscape, and that each new canon contests that which preceded it, opening up new ways of thinking about the cinema. He concludes his book with a list of 1,000 canonical films from 1895 to 2003. This is a road map for anyone who cares about discovering new cinematic terrain. ^BSumming Up: Essential. All collections; all levels. J. Belton Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. xi
I. Classics
Fables of the Reconstruction: The Four-Hour Greedp. 3
Fascinating Rhythms: Mp. 13
The Color of Paradise: Jour de fetep. 19
Backyard Ethics: Hitchcock's Rear Windowp. 26
Songs in the Key of Everyday Life: The Umbrellas of Cherbourgp. 32
A Tale of the Wind: Joris Ivens's Last Testamentp. 38
Kira Muratova's Home Truths: The Asthenic Syndromep. 43
The Importance of Being Sarcastic: Satantangop. 48
Blushp. 53
The Ceremonyp. 58
Thievesp. 62
True Grit: Rosettap. 67
II. Special Problems
Malick's Progressp. 75
Improvisations and Interactions in Altmanville, with an Afterword: Nashvillep. 80
Mixed Emotions: Breaking the Wavesp. 95
Fast, Cheap & Out of Controlp. 101
The Sweet Cheat: Time Regainedp. 105
James Benning's Four Cornersp. 113
Overrated Solutions: L'humanitep. 119
The Sound of German: Straub-Huillet's The Death of Empedoclesp. 123
Beyond the Clouds: Return to Beautyp. 130
Reality and History as the Apotheosis of Southern Sleaze: Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Storyp. 136
Is Ozu Slow?p. 146
The Human Touch: Decalogue and Fargop. 152
III. Other Canons, Other Canonizers
Life Intimidates Art: Irma Vepp. 163
Stanley Kwan's Actress: Writing History in Quicksandp. 170
Critical Distance: Godard's Contemptp. 179
Remember Amnesia? (Guy Maddin's Archangel), with an Afterword: Ten Years Later (Please Watch Carefully: The Heart of the World)p. 187
Ragged but Right: Rivette's Up Down Fragilep. 194
Critic with a Camera: Marker on Tarkovskyp. 199
Riddles of a Sphinx: From the Journals of Jean Sebergp. 204
International Harvest: National Film Histories on Videop. 210
International Sampler: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samuraip. 216
Not the Same Old Song and Dance: The Young Girls of Rochefortp. 223
Flaming Creatures and Scotch Tapep. 230
Ruiz Hopping and Buried Treasures: Twelve Selected Global Sitesp. 236
IV. Disputable Contenders
Back in Style: Bertolucci's Besiegedp. 251
The Young One: Bunuel's Neglected Masterpiecep. 257
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities: Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shutp. 262
The Best of Both Worlds: A.I. Artificial Intelligencep. 271
Under the Chador: The Day I Became a Womanp. 280
Chains of Ignorance: Charles Burnett's Nightjohnp. 285
Good Vibrations: Waking Lifep. 291
Hell on Wheels: Taxi Driverp. 295
Meat, John, Dough: Pretty Womanp. 302
Tashlinesquep. 306
Weird and Wonderful: Takeshi Kitano's Kikujirop. 313
Corpus Callosump. 317
V. Filmmakers
Mann of the Westp. 321
Otto Premingerp. 326
Nicholas Rayp. 334
Exiles in Modernity: Films by Edward Yangp. 338
Hou Hsiao-hsien: Becoming Taiwanesep. 346
The Countercultural Histories of Rudy Wurlitzerp. 351
Samuel Fuller: The Words of an Innocent Warriorp. 357
The Mysterious Elaine May: Hiding in Plain Sightp. 364
Visionary Agitprop: I Am Cubap. 370
The Battle over Orson Wellesp. 376
License to Feel: Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Neon Biblep. 386
Death and Life: Landscapes of the Soul--The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenkop. 399
Appendix 1,000 Favorites (A Personal Canon)p. 407
Indexp. 427