Rosenbaum on the “overrated” Ingmar Bergman


John Podhoretz of the New York Post was roundly denounced this week when he dismissed Ingmar Bergman, who died on Monday, as an over-rated figure from the past whose “day had passed”.

Victor Morton at the Rightwing Film Geek blog called Podhoretz an unproductive “twit”, Gary Susman at Entertainment Weekly‘s PopWatch Blog called Podhoretz a “spectacular . . . philistine”, and Glenn Kenny at Premiere.com wondered if Podhoretz had any actual pro-Bergman critics in mind when he belittled the Bergman buffs of the 1950s and 1960s as people who were “embarassed by the movies” and “offended” by the medium’s “unseriousness”.

Podhoretz might very well have been wrong if he was making such sweeping assertions about film critics. But what about the critics who covered other media? Todd McCarthy of Variety makes a point not unlike the one Podhoretz made when he writes:

Certainly Bergman was the director who won over literary snobs to the idea that the cinema could be an art. Fifty years ago, the American intelligentsia was dominated by critics and academics who either never saw movies or looked down on them as formulaic diversions. Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” probably did more to begin a shift in thinking than any other film, with Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima, mon amour,” Antonioni’s “L’avventura” and several other Bergman films soon following to fuel the fire.

In short, Bergman made cinema acceptable among the high-brows, who were additionally impressed by the fact that he practiced his art under unconstrained conditions in a faraway land unhampered by crass commercial considerations. But this doesn’t mean that his legacy should be limited to this rarefied view of his work. . . .

And now Jonathan Rosenbaum, the famously contrarian critic for the Chicago Reader, has a piece in today’s New York Times headlined “Scenes From an Overrated Career”:

Sometimes, though, the best indication of an artist’s continuing vitality is simply what of his work remains visible and is still talked about. The hard fact is, Mr. Bergman isn’t being taught in film courses or debated by film buffs with the same intensity as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard. His works are seen less often in retrospectives and on DVD than those of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson — two master filmmakers widely scorned as boring and pretentious during Mr. Bergman’s heyday.

What Mr. Bergman had that those two masters lacked was the power to entertain — which often meant a reluctance to challenge conventional film-going habits, as Dreyer did when constructing his peculiar form of movie space and Bresson did when constructing his peculiar form of movie acting.

The same qualities that made Mr. Bergman’s films go down more easily than theirs — his fluid storytelling and deftness in handling actresses, comparable to the skills of a Hollywood professional like George Cukor — also make them feel less important today, because they have fewer secrets to impart. What we see is what we get, and what we hear, however well written or dramatic, are things we’re likely to have heard elsewhere. . . .

The stylistic departures I saw in Mr. Bergman’s ’50s and ’60s features — the silent-movie pastiche in “Sawdust and Tinsel,” the punitive use of magic against a doctor-villain in “The Magician,” the aggressive avant-garde prologue of “Persona” — were actually more functions of his skill and experience as a theater director than a desire or capacity to change the language of cinema in order to say something new. If the French New Wave addressed a new contemporary world, Mr. Bergman’s talent was mainly devoted to preserving and perpetuating an old one.

Curiously, theater is what claimed most of Mr. Bergman’s genius, but cinema is what claimed most of his reputation. He was drawn again and again to the 19th-century theater of Chekhov, Strindberg and Ibsen — these were his real roots — and based on the testimony of friends who saw some of his stage productions when they traveled to Brooklyn, there’s good reason to believe a comprehensive account of his prodigious theater work, his métier, is long overdue.

We remember the late Michelangelo Antonioni for his mysteriously vacant pockets of time, Andrei Tarkovsky for his elaborately choreographed long takes and Orson Welles for his canted angles and staccato editing. And we remember all three for their deep, multifaceted investments in the modern world — the same world Mr. Bergman seemed perpetually in retreat from. . . .

Above all, his movies aren’t so much filmic expressions as expressions on film. One of the most striking aspects of the use of digital video in “Saraband,” his last feature, is his seeming contempt for the medium apart from its usefulness as a simple recording device. . . .

Despite all the compulsive superlatives offered up this week, Mr. Bergman’s star has faded, maybe because we’ve all grown up a little, as filmgoers and as socially aware adults. It doesn’t diminish his masterful use of extended close-ups or his distinctively theatrical, seemingly homemade cinema to suggest that movies can offer something more complex and challenging. And while Mr. Bergman’s films may have lost much of their pertinence, they will always remain landmarks in the history of taste.

So, in a nutshell, it would seem McCarthy and Rosenbaum are both arguing that Bergman achieved his cultural clout because of the literary and theatrical qualities he brought to his films — but not because he introduced any particularly memorable cinematic qualities to the artform. Bergman’s movies were, in other words, appreciated for something other than their movie-ness.

And ironically, it seems Rosenbaum is critiquing Bergman for not being high-brow enough — for stooping to “entertain” and for being “reluctan[t] to challenge conventional film-going habits”.

So, Rosenbaum is coming at Bergman from a very different angle than Podhoretz did, but the basic point they make is still the same: Bergman was over-rated and isn’t all that relevant any more.

It’ll be interesting to see what sort of response Rosenbaum gets!

Screened for critics, sorta, but still.


Bit late with this one, but anyhoo. As of Friday morning, I believe there were something like 14 reviews of Bratz: The Movie up at RottenTomatoes.com — there are now 46 — so evidently some critics saw this film in time to write it up. But here in Vancouver, the only press or preview screening was on Thursday night — and as we all know, night-before screenings “don’t count”. So this film gets an honourable mention in the “not screened for critics” file.

The Golden Compass — more preview footage

Yahoo! Movies and the official website for The Golden Compass have both posted the extended preview reel that played at Comic-Con recently. The actors look great, the visual effects look great, the music sounds great, and darn it, I find it all rather moving. If this were any other film, I would be very much looking forward to watching it. (Scratch that: I am very much looking forward to watching it.) But, alas, all the excellence on display is tainted by the fact that we all know where this will lead, if and when the sequels follow the story to its conclusion. Sigh.

Ouch. or Zing! Take your pick.

Here are the first two sentences from John Anderson’s review of Daddy Day Camp for Variety magazine:

Some former child stars have been known to overdose on drugs, get busted for carrying guns, pose nude for Playboy and appear on late-night infomercials. Fred Savage has directed “Daddy Day Camp.”

So, um, comparatively speaking, that’s a good thing, right…?

Review: The Bourne Ultimatum (dir. Paul Greengrass, 2007)

In this high-tech digital age, the makers of high-profile action movies sometimes like to brag about how they used real cars and real stunts — even when some of the defining images in their films couldn’t possibly exist without pixels on a screen. (Yes, Live Free or Die Hard, I’m pointing at you and that spinning airborne car that just happens to miss our hero by a hair.) But every now and then, along comes a film that really seems to have happened in front of the cameras — and The Bourne Ultimatum is just such a film.

[Read more...]

The Bourne Ultimatum — the review’s up!

My review of The Bourne Ultimatum is now up at CT Movies.

One angle I don’t pursue in this review is the comparison or contrast that some have made between Jason Bourne and James Bond. Matt Damon himself told the Associated Press:

Bond is “an imperialist and he’s a misogynist. He kills people and laughs and sips martinis and wisecracks about it,” Damon, 36, told The Associated Press in an interview. . . .

“Bourne is this paranoid guy. He’s on the run. He’s not the government. The government is after him. He’s a serial monogamist who’s in love with his dead girlfriend and can’t stop thinking about her,” Damon said. “He’s the opposite of James Bond.” . . .

Damon said he bumped into former Bond star Pierce Brosnan in London and they chatted briefly about how the British super-spy’s movie handlers were trying to update the character with last fall’s “Casino Royale,” which introduced Daniel Craig as Bond.

Brosnan told him the aesthetics and style of Bond can be updated “but fundamentally, what the character is is something from the 1960s,” Damon said.

There may be some truth to Damon’s characterization of Bond if he is thinking of the Roger Moore movies — but that Bond was very different from the character Ian Fleming created in the 1950s. The Bond of the books certainly wrestled with the moral implications of his missions, and he wasn’t quite the rampant hedonist that we saw in the films. (Hedonist, sure, but not quite so rampant.)

I have not read all of the James Bond books, but I have seen all of the movies, and the differences between them may be particularly obvious if we look at the two versions of Moonraker (published 1955, filmed 1979). If memory serves, Bond doesn’t bed anyone in that book — though admittedly not for lack of trying. There is a woman with an engagement ring, who Bond assumes is wearing the ring in order to ward off attention from the villain, but at the end of the book it turns out the woman really is engaged, and Bond chides himself for not allowing for the possibility that the engagement ring was genuine. In the film, on the other hand, Bond beds something like half-a-dozen women, just to kill the time.

Also, in the book version of Moonraker, Bond seriously considers a suicide attack, destroying a missile on its launch pad in such a way that Bond himself would die, but the millions of people living in London would be spared. Say what you will about Bond’s personal life, but he is serving his country (and the planet, in some of the wilder movies), and he puts his life on the line to do so.

And what about Bourne? “He’s not the government,” says Damon — but would being the government necessarily be a bad thing? Don’t get me wrong, I love the Bourne character, and I love the Bourne films. But I don’t think Bourne is inherently morally superior to Bond simply because he fights to protect himself, whereas Bond fights to protect his fellow citizens. (In the newest film, by the way, Bourne actually puts an innocent civilian in harm’s way; maybe that civilian will be released by the CIA eventually, but given how lethal and paranoid the CIA are in these films, who knows?)

It seems to me that Bond and Bourne are both escapist adventure heroes, but heroes who address different needs. And just as there is room for both conventional wisdom and subversive wisdom in our philosophies and theologies, so too there is room in our collective imagination for heroes who fight on behalf of earthly powers and heroes who fight against those same powers.


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