Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly has a fun article up on the late Ingmar Bergman and what Gleiberman calls “the Four Stages of Watching Bergman” (“Youthful Befuddlement”, “Collegiate Awe”, “The Mary Wilkie Phase” and “Really Seeing Bergman”). He also takes special aim at that Jonathan Rosenbaum article:
But something else, too, conspired to make Bergman passé, and that was the rise of a new mystique in art film — a cult of austerity that persists to this day. In a staggeringly wrong-headed but quite revealing harangue that ran in The New York Times five days after Bergman’s death, the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, ”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, or 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…. 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.”
I’m not sure where Rosenbaum is getting his statistics. From everything I’ve Googled and read, Bergman’s films are more popular now, on DVD and in college classes, than those of Bresson, Dreyer, or Godard. (Hitchcock is another story, but then — he’s Hitchcock.) I also don’t know how anyone could think that a movie like Persona, with its naked acting and mind-warp structure, or Scenes From a Marriage, which so captures the music of relationships that I could it watch forever, is lacking in eternal secrets. What’s truly notable about Rosenbaum’s dismissal, however, is the battle line he’s really drawing: between Bergman the middlebrow, an art filmmaker who actually deigned to tell his stories fluidly (how vulgar!), and Rosenbaum’s heroes, such as the arid, oblique Bresson, with his dessicated zombie acting and general lack of forward motion.
Specious as it is, this argument represents what has become a vanguard attitude in the way that foreign films are now routinely celebrated — not for their expression, but for their benumbed lack of expression. You see it in the canonization of directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami, the spiritual heirs to Bresson: filmmakers who fetishize their refusal to dramatize, who create art that is meandering and oblique, at times to the point of madness. For a while there in the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s, Ingmar Bergman’s films held sway as a ”classy” cultural phenomenon, but through all the symbols, the feverish close-ups, the otherworldly chess games, the torment and the tenderness, what you always felt was his deep desire to connect. That’s what made his art, and art film itself, matter.
And so the battle of the brows — high vs. middle — continues!