Rosenbaum on the “overrated” Ingmar Bergman

Rosenbaum on the “overrated” Ingmar Bergman August 4, 2007

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 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!

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