Wilder, Wilmington and Rosenbaum

This evening’s Billy Wilder class was in itself worth the entire price of tuition, which included a spirited discussion of the film, lead by guest speaker Jonathan Rosenbaum, and a passionate defense of Billy Wilder by instructor Michael Wilmington.

The 14-week class is offered through the University of Chicago and taught by Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington. Rosenbaum, film critic for the Chicago Reader, joined us this evening for a discussion of the Wilder film of his choice, Ace in the Hole (1951) starring Kirk Douglas.

Rosenbaum’s insightful comments and the dialogue between the two critics as they discussed Wilder’s films were very interesting. Added to that were comments both thoughtful and inane, from the audience, a diverse group of movie lovers of all ages, including Gold Coast retirees, 30-something business people and geeky film nerds.

The high point of the class came when a class member disparaged Billy Wilder for his cynical view of society and the media in Ace in the Hole as anti-American. This man was criticizing Wilder, a “foreigner” who came to this country, exploited opportunities provided to him in his adopted country, made a lot of money” that other (Americans) were (denied) and then spit on America with his harsh portrayal of American society, greed and opportunism.

Wilmington, who’d been up to this point sitting in the audience while Rosenbaum lead the class, was visibly upset by this comment and felt compelled to jump out of his seat and come to the front of the room to respond. He obviously felt strongly in opposition to this point of view, which he mentioned was often lobbed against Wilder in reference to this film from the moment it premiered. It was a thrilling moment to witness Wilmington’s heartfelt, articulate argument in defense of Wilder.

It was also an eye-opening experience to hear the opinion of someone who felt that if you live in this country and dane to criticise or comment on society, and shed a negative light on some aspect of American society, then you should be escorted from the room. And God forbid if you should be a “foreigner.”

One thought on “Wilder, Wilmington and Rosenbaum

  1. Excellent recap of the evening’s discussion.
    Here’s a question for you: Do you think those who criticize Wilder for being cynical do so for personal reasons–for example, do they somehow feel threatened by those they perceive to be outsiders? Are they unwilling to look at the darker sides of their own lives?
    Or, does someone like Wilder offend them because in their own movie-going lives they’re used to typical Hollywood fare–upbeat viewpoints, simple characters who are either good or bad, and conclusive endings in which “evil” is punished?
    In other words, do you think people are responding primarily from a personal viewpoint or a cinematic one? And where does your own response to Wilder’s films fit in?

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