Blogging Phantoms of the Opera Jawa NYT Review Controversy

I’m very pleased that Opera Jawa, one of my favorite films of 2006, is getting its New York debut at the MOMA Global Lens series. Quite unexpectedly, a controversy has erupted around this film, provoked by Chicago Reader’s soon-to-be-retiring Jonathan Rosenbaum over a seemingly throwaway brief review of the film by Jeannette Catsoulis in the New York Times. Rosenbaum’s Reader Blog entry accuses Catsoulis’ review of being an “ugly, xenophobic” throwback to what he considers the prevailing disposition of the Times in “when a barbarian like Bosley Crowther was smugly ruling the roost.” (He does pay compliment to today’s Times film review staff as being “better than it’s ever been before,” thanks to “the lively prose of Manohla Dargis, the literary intelligence (if not the film background) of A.O. Scott, and the critical and scholarly chops of Dave Kehr.”)

A pretty heated discussion ensued in the comments section of the blog, which featured a range of contentions about, the quality of the piece, its perceived impact (and that of Times reviews in general) on the film’s potential audience, and the perils of newspaper film reviewing in general. I just want to point out some key contentions, and I’d be curious to hear what others think:

– Do you agree with Rosenbaum’s description of Catsoulis’ review as “xenophobic” and insulting to Indonesians?

– (pursuant to comments by m(ike) d’a(ngelo), harry tuttle, vadim (rizov) et al: is it possible to do justice to a challenging avant garde film in a review of under 200 words? (if you think so, feel free to post your own favorite instances that you’ve encountered

– To what extent is plot or contextual information essential when faced with a brief capsule review?

– re: Matt Zoller Seitz’ second comment in response to (Chris) wells. Which do you think is more likely to arouse a viewer’s interest in Opera Jawa: that it was one of the films produced for the New Crowned Hope series of third world films produced by Peter Sellars for the 250th birthday of Mozart; or that lead actor Eko Supriyanto was a dancer on Madonna’s Drowned World Tour?

Answer all four correctly and you may receive a DVD screener of Opera Jawa mailed to you (just don’t ask where you’ll get it from).


I think the blog commenter named “Mizoguchi” is Dave Kehr, who I believe was shaking his head vigorously while Jonathan was nodding his even more vigorously when I asked them what they thought of the film after they had both seen it in Venice. “Mizoguchi” calls the film “a rather heavy-handed excercise in European avant-garde theater… I found the overlay of European Po-Mo on the traditional material actually rather offensive — just another bit of cultural imperialism, this time extended from the left.” But this has me wondering to what degree these remarks could apply to all third world filmmakers who have been schooled and influenced by the left-wing European art establishment, from Brazil’s Glauber Rocha to Mozambique’s Abdherrahmane Sissako and all post-colonial parts in between. I find that “cultural imperialism” knock rather unfair, or at least in need of serious unpacking.

Author: alsolikelife

This is my pet project

  • Dave

    I think ‘xenophobic’ is a stretch. The Times review comes off as clueless, probably due in equal parts to a reviewer who just didn’t ‘get’ the film and the near-inability to write a 200-word review on a film of any complexity that actually says anything. The review seems to me to be one of those moments where, rather than engaging with the film, a critic cops out and runs with a theme that they can write about.
    Isn’t context most of what’s provided in a small capsule review? Perhaps a writer can squeeze in how ‘good’ they think a movie is, but they don’t have much time to justify that.
    New Crowned hope is much more interesting, because A) The NCH audience is closer to the audience for the film than the Madonna audience and B) NCH is inherently interesting to me more than Madonna (though that’s a very close call). It’s A that we should rely on here.

    All of these issues come down to one core issue: this review is lazy and bad in that it neither engages with the film or the film’s potential audience. Instead JC chooses to ridicule and relies on misguided attempts at wit and populism that end up sounding a lot like ridicule for both film and audience. It’s not xenophobia per se, it’s xeno-ignorance.

  • Joe A.

    The tone of above-it-all snarkiness in Catsoulis’ review seems pretty common these days, and not just in reviews of “foreign” pictures. “Xenophobic” is a little much I think. The word-count thing is a cop-out, don’t you think? The debate seems to be mostly about tone, and you can convey tone in 20 words, let alone 200. And, well, I think Catsoulis should respect her audience enough to believe that they might be interested in New Crowned Hope as well as Madonna.

    And yeah, “Mizoguchi”‘s comment is a little “imperialist” itself in its suggestion that filmmakers from “Third World” countries shouldn’t be allowed to draw on whatever intellectual/artistic ideas interest them.

  • HarryTuttle

    You should send the DVD to Catsoulis, because I’m afraid she only saw a trailer on her iPod. 😉

    1) The xenophobic card sounds a little far-fetched at first sight. I would say it’s more snobbery, superficiality and ignorance than an intentionally malevolent insult. But Rosenbaum is right to raise awareness on this passive kind of cultural superiority.

    2) I don’t like the principle of a capsule review, to condense the film in less word than is possible to go beyond the surface. It’s not criticism. It’s merely a “pitch”.
    This said, it doesn’t excuse writers who are paid to be meaningful in few words. It is possible to write good “pitches”.

    3) Pertinent context could be incorporated in a single sentence, or even through allusive comments disseminated throughout the capsule. It’s not a matter of word count.

    4) Personally, I thought the link between the various films part of the “New Crowned Hope” package was no more meaningful than in any given festival selection. Besides it’s not a proper commission, but films already in the making were aided financially. And the Mozart theme is tenuous. Although, it’s journalist duty to report such “marketing info” and a perfect occasion to advertize on other underexposed art-films.

    P.S. Well said Dave.