First, a huge thanks to Jim Healy and Pat Loughney at George Eastman House for inviting me to join them and Dave Kehr for the weekend in Rochester. We packed a boatload of rarities into two days: three by Raoul Walsh (The Monkey Talks , The Mystery of the Hindu Image , Kindred of the Dust ); two by Allan Dwan (Fifty-Fifty , David Harum ); Edgar G. Ulmer’s Natalka Poltavka (1937); Josef von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment (1935); and Joseph Pevney’s 3 Ring Circus (1954).
Every bit as rare and fun was the company and the nonstop film-talk. The sheer number of films that Dave, Jim and Pat have seen (and can call up instantaneously and vividly from their memory-banks) is absolutely staggering. It has now officially dawned on me that the number of good films in the universe is, for all practical intents and purposes, infinite. (Duh.)
So, Jonathan Rosenbaum has a controversial piece on Ingmar Bergman (“Scenes from an Overrated Career”) in the NYT. Some eloquent reactions, well worth reading, can be found at: a_film_by, Zach’s place, and the comments section of the previous post here (scroll down).
I have some trouble with several points of rationale JR uses in his critique. First, applying the word “theatrical” reflexively as a pejorative for films is tricky. Cinema is a synthetic art, combining literature, music, theater, etc., but it’s also a synergistic art in that these elements go through some sort of a transformative operation to emerge as something qualitatively different in the finished cinematic work. Since ‘theater’ is an element of cinema, it can be problematic to automatically use the word to criticize a film.
Second, lack of prestige in academia for a filmmaker could be as much evidence of unjust neglect for one reason or another as of declining relevance or quality. Third (as Zach points out), using sexy women to sell Art is hardly unique, either now or in the 60s. Finally, so many of the justifications used in the piece to devalue Bergman can arguably be wielded to praise some other filmmaker ("the power to entertain," "fluid storytelling," "deftness in handling actresses," "his favorite sores and obsessions," "ugly" emotions, "antiseptic, upscale" interiors, "distinctively theatrical").
Rosenbaum’s piece is definitely a putdown but I don't really see it as vicious or scandalous. It’s a contrarian dissent and I think it can be put to productive use. Unlike the middlebrow hatchet job the NYT performed on Derrida a couple of years back, this is an op-ed piece, not an obit, and while clearly not a ‘balanced’ one, I’m glad it’s out there. (Here is the respectful NYT Bergman obit; I agree that the practice of using an obit to settle old scores is pretty gauche.) I think JR’s piece can serve a good purpose by setting in motion some re-evaluation and dialogue. In the a_film_by discussion, several charges are leveled at the piece and JR responds to some of them, acknowledging their legitimacy and adding that "the article is meant to stir the pot, not close the lid.”
Can I confess something? I really admire Bergman both as a film-historical figure and as a filmmaker, but I have some trouble with a couple of aspects of his work. Sometimes his films seem to contain (for me) a sadomasochistic streak that sets up a through-line from the creator’s self-punishment, that punishment then proceeding to characters and then the audience in sequence. I find it hard to come up with a convincing aesthetic justification for this strategy (which in itself, of course, is neutral and not worthy of condemnation) in Bergman’s films; I can also sense the filmmaker taking a certain relish in this gratuitous exercise. This bothers me.
Now, Bresson’s films can be every bit as convulsive and pain-filled and anguish-causing, but I never question his motives or impulses the way I’m a bit suspicious of them in Bergman. (Just my subjective and honest reaction here.)
Finally, what of Bergman’s modernist experiments and their merits? When I first encountered his late 60s films, many years ago, they were my earliest exposure to cinematic modernism. Persona, The Passion of Anna, and Shame struck me with gale force. Antonioni means more to me now than Bergman (both as filmmaker and film modernist), and I am curious, and also a little afraid, about revisiting those 60s Bergman films and wondering how they’ll strike me. Perhaps the Rosenbaum piece provides just the catalyst to do that.
If you feel like it: I'm wondering what your favorite Bergman films are, which ones have held up well for you, and which haven't? And any thoughts on why?
A few links:
-- Steven Shaviro on Antonioni.
-- At Acquarello's: current and upcoming DVD releases.
-- David Bordwell: "Two Chinese men of the cinema."
-- Michael Atkinson at Zero for Conduct: "I’d like to use The Bourne Ultimatum as a stick with which to beat modern American movies."
-- Isidore Isou, 1925-2007.
-- At Chris Cagle's: several new posts on films from 1947.
-- This one-minute clip, "Tyrone on the News," is one of the funniest things I've seen on YouTube. (Via Panopticist.)