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).

erratum:

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.