09 août 2007

Rosenbaum v Bergman (2)

Continuation from first post (here):

I knew Rosenbaum didn't like Bergman as much as I did, because he prefered to have 19 Godard films in his Top1000 Personal Favorites and could only squeeze in 3 Bergman's (Sawdust And Tinsel, The Magician, and Persona, incidentally they are the ones cited in his article to point to Bergman's flaws, that's how much he loves them). Our tastes are opposite regarding this pair of auteurs as I would reverse the numbers (20 Bergman's and 3 Godard's). Ironically, if we replace "Bergman" with "Godard" in this op-ed piece, I would probably agree with everything he says about the intellectual hype, the idolatry around JLG, the ego, the absence of form invention, the fakery of his gimmicks, the fading of his aura, the overrated canonization. And that's bogus. It's so easy to give a caricatural overview actually. I can't wait for Godard's funeral... ;)

From the outrage of seeing such a wide coverage of obituaries in the mainstream press, Rosenbaum can't stand that this type of (popular) cinema would be associated any longer with "art cinema", the pure cinema (non theatrical, in Bazin's terms) thus redraws the line between him and the rest of hardline auteurs who never met critical or public success. Obviously Bergman's fame is too suspect for the low-budget, unpopular camp of obscur artists. Excommunication is inevitable. Bergman, "founding father" of "boring art films", must be excluded from his own family. If he gets so much love after his death, he can't be boring enough.
Basically Rosenbaum tells the world : "All of you who came to art films with Bergman and found it entertaining, well, you haven't seen boring yet, this isn't the real thing, art is not that easy to watch, I'm talking about Dreyer and Bresson, they couldn't entertain an audience to save their lives. If you have fun, if you see boobies, if you can follow the story... you're not seeing art, and I don't even call it cinema!" (sarcastic dramatization intended)
And I doubt insulting people who made the effort to go to Bergman has any chance to open Dreyer and Bresson to a wider audience (if that was the intended goal)... This baseless condemnation is not even going to help the "cause" anyway.
For the record, let me say that I do love all three, Bergman, Bresson and Dreyer! I can see a difference of style, ambition and achievements between them, but it's only a global estimation of all of their respective caracteristics (and my subjective taste) that would help me to rank them (if I had to). I wouldn't dismiss one just because he works differently from the other. I wouldn't use the quality of one to gauge all the others. I wouldn't oppose them. The referential standard should be external to the trio, a vision of cinema as an art, not as the embodiement of one particular auteur's craft, for all others to be compared to.

"Rosenbaum", "New York Times", "Bergman" : 3 reasons (each alone would suffice) why there shouldn't be any fallacious rhetorics in this article! There are more credible ways to propose a re-evaluation of a long time resident at the cinema pantheon. If it's ok to question Bergman's authority, we could legitimately question Rosenbaum's authority as well, right?
Though he has since posted a few needed clarifications (on a_film_by, at the Chicago Reader blog, and at Scanners) :

  • "It's true that I praise Bergman as an entertainer and compare him to George Cukor (which to me is no insult)"
  • "I'm certainly not trying to say that Bergman is beneath anyone's interest"
  • "Welles could even alter our sense of film language while remaining a fluid storyteller, so I'm not even arguing that these values are always mutually exclusive"
  • "Bergman's taste for silhouettes moving across horizons" was a compliment
  • "Bergman's 'seeming contempt' for digital video in Saraband isn't a sin in my book but a plus"
  • "Bergman is not a poor director"

Wasn't it Rosenbaum who reproached to Farber we couldn't tell a compliment from a blame in his criticism? This is the same situation here. Considering the controversy raised on a_film_by and on the blogosphere, I'm not alone being confused. If Rosenbaum had to explain that he didn't believe Bergman was bad there was something wrong with the overall irony in his writing.

What annoys me most is that his argumentation mixes legitimate issues that become dubious when combined. 1) Disputing canon, 2) Observing social trends and 3) Comparing auteurs. We could argue all year long about who the greastest filmmaker of all time is, rank them artificially, number their works, mesure their popularity... but in the end subjective popularity and critical evaluation only overlap by coincidence not by causality. Everything he describes (about overblown cult, overrated acclaim, under/overexposition), could be said of Bresson, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Welles, Godard, Tarantino, Spielberg... given the proper timeframe and geographical context. Are we looking at the big picture or at minor historical incidents?

    "My reason for being rude was to bring up what I see as either limitations in his work or limitations in the way his work is usually received and discussed"
    Rosenbaum thinks Bergman's position in canons and pertinence in today's film culture should be re-evaluated. OK. We could blame academics and critics for overrating him. We could reconsider the reasons why history has given him so much importance THEN, and why it is obsolete NOW.
    What we can argue about are the critical judgments, the premise and limitations of certain theoretical concepts (such as "auteurism", "art film", "modern cinema"), whether Bergman's individual films or entire oeuvre belong or not to such or such label, whether such labels grant/deny him a seat in the pantheon.
    But we can NOT use a starting point nobody would agree on (the alleged fact that Bergman is forgotten) and use it as a common ground for the discussion. Reality is not debatable. And this fact is not even relevant, and never will be, to define someone's historical importance.
    We could compare the strengh and weakness of some auteurs. We could compare all sorts of dichotomic arguments : classic/modern, narrative/experimental, sophisticated/rough image, stylized/naturalist performances, auteur/acteur-driven stories, politicized/fictional inspiration... but to assume there is a consensual agreement about the hierarchy of these aspects of cinema that justifies a place in the canon requires at least a demonstration because I doubt everybody will agree to set the standards on this proposition.
  2. FAME
    Rosenbaum thinks that Bergman's popularity is undeserved, that his audience likes his films for the wrong reasons. OK. He speaks of "availability", "uncontestable major figure" (among mainstream obituaries), "Google hits", "vitality", "visibility", "outsized reputation", "appeal", "New York audiences"... this is a rhetoric in reference to his public image which is unrelated to an academic estimation of his historic importance. The 2 phenomena are non sequitur, yet a causal tie underlies throughout the article. Fame has nothing to do with artistic authority. Bad artists can foster a huge fandom without any trace of talent.
    Rosenbaum declares he meant to emphasis "fashion" (Bergmania trend) for "its immediate impact" (on NYT readers). It's fine to highlight a sociological study on the good/bad reasons why cinema gets incorporated in the general culture at various levels. But the main issue with the piece is that it blames a social phenomenon on an academic canon, and vice-versa.
    "Part of what I was trying to get at in the article was the interesting paradox that Bresson and Dreyer were widely regarded as beyond the pale in the 60s, when Bergman was at the height of his fame, and that audiences are now beginning to catch up with what they were doing while we're less likely to understand more things about his work now than we did in the 60s or 70s." (a_film_by)
    Oh the irony! So what? How does this matter other than for the historical anecdote? Are we talking about how famous an auteur can get, or how high an auteur can climb the canon?
    Rosenbaum likes and prefers Dreyer and Bresson, so be it. He should write us a great book to celebrate them instead of blaming Bergman and complaining how the rest of the world doesn't share his personal taste. This hatchet job looks like getting rid of the top contender in order to undermine the competition and leave more room to the runner-ups (he would prefer to see at the top). We all have underdog favorites in our individual pantheon. But we have to realize that a global establishment is a collective consensus that doesn't match each individual pantheon perfectly. There will always be someone in the canon we don't like and it doesn't matter, because the canon doesn't represent us individualy, but a conservative highest common denominator.
"(...) I don't think history can ever be repeated -- either in film history or in the history of film reception and film appreciation. That's why I can only laugh when one of my colleagues remarks that none of the recent films can "duplicate" or "match" or "equal" or "approximate" the masterpieces or classics of the past, because my own definition of the singularity of a major film, tautologically speaking, is that it's singular."
Jonathan Rosenbaum in Essential Cinema (2004) -- Introduction.

Why confront auteurs in deathmatches if their works are singular?

To be continued ... (part 3)

4 commentaires:

davis a dit…

Harry, I very much enjoy your rigorous approach to criticism. Sometimes I don't post comments here because "Nice post, Harry" doesn't seem to add much to your cogent remarks. I'm often a lurker.

On this article, I think I have several comments, but they won't gel in my head, so I'll try just one of them at the moment -- sorry it's not a more complete response.

In one of your (humorous) disagreements with Rosenbaum, you seem to paraphrase his argument as "Bergman's films were entertaining, therefore they cannot be taken seriously." But I don't think that's what he's saying. I think he says (flatly, without elaborating) that Bergman had the power to entertain and Bresson and Dreyer did not, and that fact accounts for much of Bergman's appeal rather than the depth of his work. I don't get the feeling that Rosenbaum is repelled by entertainment but rather questioning of those who let it excuse films that have "fewer secrets to impart". Similarly, that it's not the nudity that repels him; it's that it seems to be enough for Bergman's fans (in his view, not mine). There's a slight distinction here. (This too: Ebert attacks Rosenbaum's assertion that New Yorkers were drawn to his films because of the blond-and-blue cast, responding as if Rosenbaum is blaming Bergman. He's not. He's explaining a phenomenon -- similar to the entertainment argument -- in which viewers overlook weaknesses because of simpler pleasures.)

Granted, Rosenbaum implies a negative correlation between entertainment and serious art when he says the "power to entertain ... often meant a reluctance to challenge conventional film-going habits". In this case, his argument isn't with the viewer -- trying to explain Bergman's popularity -- but with the man himself for compromising in order to please them. Unfortunately, he doesn't elaborate.

But I think this comment is interesting, because it's one of many phrases in this piece that is couched in uncertainty. The Rosenbaum I'm familiar with makes strong assertions, but here he keeps returning to inconclusive phrases like, "which often meant," "nearly all," "sometimes, though, the best indication...," "make them feel less important" [emphasis mine], "likely to have heard elsewhere," "at least part of his initial appeal," "seemed perpetually in retreat," "maybe because we’ve all," and "may have lost much of their pertinence". In this supposed hatchet job, Rosenbaum is unusually circumspect.

I agree with you on many points, and I'm especially puzzled by his shallow analysis of "[Bergman's] bitter and pinched emotions" presented with "excellent cinematography and superb acting." I wonder if Dreyer's Gertrud would be an interesting counterpoint from Rosenbaum's canon?

HarryTuttle a dit…

Hi Davis,
Thank you for the comment, I appreciate the feedback. It's always comforting to know that someone reads and find my post nice. :) When I feel I'm just writing for myself, I'm not bothered to even be readable...
If even a serious critic of the stature of Rosenbaum declares he doesn't care for reliable essays, then who out there is interested in meaning anymore? This is so disappointing and frightening.

And by the way, nitpicking my posts is always welcome.

You're right about Rosenbaum's point, but his fault was to make it confusing. He mixes his taste, his prejudices, his guestimations, his wishes and give them all the same level of credibility as some kind of tangible evidence to confirm his idea of an ideal canon.
As you note, he swings between the viewer, the masters and the critics... we never know, based on the role they have in his conclusions, if he endorses or criticizes these point of views.

Your analysis of the phrases he uses, reflecting uncertainty is very interesting! This should really prevent authoritative, canonical conclusions. Actually I'd like to know who else gets in the canon, on par with Dreyer, Bresson and Godard... because there aren't enough perfect auteurs who had everything, groundbreaking, insightful and politically aware.

I didn't touch on Bergman stylistic reproaches yet, because it's like preaching someone who is against conversion. According to him, Bergman's assets are weak spots for a great auteur, and eliminatory for a canon... so it's impossible to argue.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Glenn Kenny : "This past July marked the third anniversary of Bergman's death, and the continuing—as opposed to waning—fact of his stature as a cinematic master makes Jonathan Rosenbaum's new-conventional-wisdom op-ed in the Times in the wake of the filmmaker's death seem even more churlish than had likely been intended. With a "case closed" confidence, Rosenbaum stated,"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." I've never quite gotten over that last bit, which seems to blame Bergman for the scorn straw man Rosenbaum erects. But the more germane self-satisfied faux-"tant pis" occurs earlier in the piece, with Rosenbaum's oh-gee-isn't-that-tough-luck shrug, "Like many of [Bergman's] films, 'The Magician' hasn’t been widely available here for ages." But—ooops!—here's The Magician on DVD, on Criterion no less, in a gorgeous restoration that gives amazing solidity and depth to Gunnar Fischer's black-and-white images—I was practically hypnotized by the steely frames of the eyeglasses worn by Naima Wifstrand's crone and Gunnar Björnstrand's inquisitor."
Some Came Running, 28 Oct 2010

HarryTuttle a dit…

Kent Jones : "There’s a big difference between the work of an artist and the way it’s received. Unfortunately, for various reasons, a lot of people ignore that difference.

It's almost as if today’s dedicated follower of film critical fashion is obliged to poke a hole in the Bergmanesque balloon. Why? If you ask me, it's because of the place Bergman’s films occupied in the American cultural landscape 40 years ago, when people like Simon (sorry Michael) were using him as a club to beat Bresson or Godard, and when he was ubiquitous in first-run arthouses, on the revival circuit, on campuses, in bookstores, and in Woody Allen movies. The American idea of Bergman - quite different from the French or Swedish ideas of Bergman, very different from the reality of the films themselves – was finally pretty limiting.

It still seems to get under people’s skins that, for instance, Bergman arrived when the American art house market was at its peak, which is the one and only reason he “overshadowed” Dreyer and Sjostrom (as…what? Best Scandanavian Director of All Time?). But at this point, it’s ancient history, and there’s nothing but the films. Does Bergman have a deeper understanding of human relations than anyone else? I don't know, but fortunately art isn't a competitive sport. His body of work is astonishing, probing, troubling. Simon doesn't interest me much as a writer, but I like what he says in the piece about continuity. The way Bergman built and developed from one film to another is pretty impressive. [..]"
Comment to Glenn Kenny's post cited above (28 Oct 2010)