"I'm far from sharing von Trier's cynicism, but I think there are many reasons for respecting it, most of them generational. People born before 1950 often had good reason to feel hopeful, at least during the late 60s and 70s; those born later -- von Trier was born in 1956-- had less and less reasons to feel that way. A massive backlash against the earlier generation's optimism is still going on, an indication of how potent the optimism was. (...) Within such a context, a passionate desire to create and even respect a character like Bess--however many stylistic and thematic paradoxes this entails--is clearly a heroic aspiration.
Von Trier may be deeply cynical, but he's less so than Terrence Rafferty was when he recentlly wrote in the New Yorker, "If Breaking the Waves becomes a hit, von Trier will have proved that the american audience for foreign films wants today precisely what it wanted in the boom years of the 50s and early 60s: nudity plus theology." A little later he added, "It's tempting to attribute the decline of the European film to the increase, over the years, in the erotic explicitness of American movies." When he says "decline" and "the European film" it can only be in the context of the American marketplace--specificaly the European films selected by American distributors, the tip of the iceberg Rafferty seems happy to accept as a whole. Apparently he believes the only reason films are made in Europe is to satisfy Americans who want to see tits and ass mixed in with their theology, and if these needs can't be met, European filmmakers might as well han over their assignments to "pure" American artists working free of such pressures. (...)
I can't recall much nudity or theology in European movies such as Mon Oncle, Breathless, The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Last Year in Marienbad, Eclipse, Ashes and Diamonds, or [Bergman's] The Magician--to cite only a few of my favorites that did well during those "boom years" (alongside such commercial flops as Pickpocket, Lola and Dreyer's Gertrud). (...)
I can certainly understand Rafferty's anger at the sarcasm and falsity underlying von Trier's approach--since I become angry every time I think of Breaking the Waves "replacing" Ordet (though that's surely a false syllogism). (...)
A less sympathetic reading of this flexibility might be that von Trier is "too cynical to believe even his own cynicism"--as Andrew Sarris once said of Billy Wilder. But I would prefer to regard Breaking the Waves as a search for belief that acknowledges the land mines separating a 70s consciousness from that goal, a search that burrows ever deeper into irony and ambiguity without reaching the sincerity it strives for--but without collapsing into the nihilism that I see all around me in commercial fare. (...)
Is Breaking the Waves a religious film? I doubt that von Trier knows the answer to that question--just as I doubt that Dreyer would have known the answer if he'd been asked the same question about Ordet. A vast universe of thought, feeling, and artistry divides the two films, made over 40 years apart, but this uncertainty is the point at which both of them become interesting."
Jonathan Rosenbaum in "Mixed Emotions" : review of Breaking the Waves, Chicago Reader, Dec. 6, 1996. Also in Essential Cinema (2004), chapter "special problems"
Now I can agree with Rosenbaum's 1996 reasoning. Thank you for correcting what sounded wrong in the 2007 NYT.
Though it seems that anyone making films around Denmark must be compared to Dreyer... I see the connection between Breaking the Waves and Ordet, but Dreyer is not the end all argument to judge a film in particular. Not every cinema has to be about Dreyer, has it? We certainly could look past this aspect to focus on the film itself. What is the connection between Bergman and Lars von Trier?
My unanswered comment at the Chicago Reader's blog [EDIT: Rosenbaum replied on his blog since]:
"Why would Bergman's use of "torture" on his fictional characters be different, in principle, to Dreyer's (or Bresson's)?Could someone answer me?
Jonathan, in your Essential Cinema essay, you seem to be more generous towards Lars Von Trier's cynicism in Breaking the Waves, than you are for the entire oeuvre of Bergman. You reckon there are creative, interesting ways to deal with misantropy.
If the debate is about the content and moral purpose of such sadism, then we shouldn't stigmatize "misanthropy" in itself, and focus on Bergman's hollowness (if that's the case) rather than "sadism" (which is a cliché).
I don't know what you think of these following auteurs, but on the specific case of "misantropic treatment" what degrees separate the "cynicism" of, say, Bresson (Balthazar, Une Femme Douce, L'argent, Le Diable Probablement), Kaurismaki, Herzog, Cassavetes, Elaine May (Mickey and Nicky), Peter Watkins, Alan Clarke, Polanski, Kubrick, Kurosawa (Dodesukaden, The Lower Depths) , Kim Ki-duk...
If you admire any of these, what justifies their harassment of fictional characters that doesn't work with Bergman (and I think he's at least greater than a few on the list)."
I forgot to mention Mizoguchi!
He's a specialist of stacking the deck with an overwhelming succession of sadistic pain affecting his protagonists (mostly women). Notably in Oharu, Street of Shame, Crucified Lovers, Ugetsu, The Downfall of Osen...
People don't call Mizoguchi a misogynist, but a feminist. I doubt Rosenbaum blames Mizoguchi's masterpieces for this overt "sadism". Why would we reproach it to Bergman then?
UPDATE : Rosenbaum has posted a reply to my comment on his blog:
Jonathan R. (August 20th - 11:42 a.m.)
"Brief reply to one of Harry Tuttle's points:
"Jonathan, in your Essential Cinema essay, you seem to be more generous towards Lars Von Trier's cynicism in Breaking the Waves, than you are for the entire oeuvre of Bergman."
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall making any reference to von Trier's "genius" or comparing him to George Cukor or talking about his gift for directing actresses.
In one of your previous bash notes, you mistakenly imply that I have a "weekly column" and can write about anything I want to in the Reader at any time--and also that I spontaneously contacted the New York Times just after Bergman's death, deciding in my poor judgment this was the proper moment to mount an attack on him. I guess I should be flattered that you think I have that kind of clout with the Times. But if you check Glenn Kenny's web site, you'll find an account (by me) of how the piece came to be written, and why. Of course you're still free to believe I should have rejected the Times' (supposedly) crass invitation, just as (presumably) you and Roger Ebert and Bertrand Tavernier and Owen Gleiberman all would have done if any or all of you had received the same invitation. I applaud your principled stand on this matter, even though none of you has actually bothered to take it--only implied that I should have."
And my reply today :
"Thanks for the reply Jonathan.
Firstly I'm not bashing you, it's self-defense, you initiated the assault and asked for a response. It's only about this article actually. I'm reading your Essential Cinema at the moment and admire it a lot.
I know my tone is provocative but blogs don't need the polished discourse of an exposed newspaper. I tried to drop the angry voice when posting on your blog though.
re: Lars Von Trier. You don't call Bergman a genius either (except for his stage work). So it's hard to tell how you rank them respectively. All I see is that you give a bump to von Trier, for making an interesting film despite all the shortcomings you accuse Bergman of. While the general intent of your op-ed piece is to bring Bergman down (I agree you don't call him a hack either). And both are compared to Dreyer, who seems to be the only canonical yardstick. You establish relative comparisons without a referential point, except Dreyer (who is supposed to be another floating point if old canons are disputed).
I doubt you meant Cuckor would fit in your top canon with Dreyer and Bresson, did you? Maybe the comparison was flattering but the goal of your piece was to define who's in and who's out. And if I understood right, both Cuckor and Bergman are good directors, but not worthy of the elitist canon you seem to isolate from the rest of cinema. Again I could assume wrong, but that's the impression many readers had.
The re-evaluation of Bergman's achievements is a legit endeavor, as long as you don't make it a lever to prove many other things on a more universal level (such as canon definition and auteurs ranking). Bergman is considered a master by many generations of serious critics (not just by the public opinion which has no academic weight), despite his aknowleged shortcomings. So this is not a stature anyone can brush off with the back of the hand, just because there are other auteurs who are more political or less misanthropic.
Thank you for correcting me if I misrepresented your job opportunities. Does it mean you couldn't negociate the publication of a Bergman article at the Chicago Reader?
Personally I was surprised to learn it was your first invitation by the NYT. They could use your insights more often (no sarcasm). For whatever it's worth, I think you're better than any resident NYT critic!
Though I still think this anti-Bergman piece was in bad taste, for all parties involved.
I don't blame you for accepting, and I certainly would not endorse Ebert's and Tavernier's self-serving rant (who, like you, divert the original topic to splash bad vibes on side off-topic grudges).
I saw at Premiere that with 4 drafts, things can get a little complicated alright. Though you are responsible for the objectionable content and that's what we are debating. the material and timely conditions of its making don't matter that much to the reader.
The best case scenario would have been to let you write the bash piece you had in mind against New Yorkers and Allen, and just leave Bergman out of it altogether. A straightforward fashion piece that wouldn't hide behind a pseudo canonical revision. I don't mind your attack on Allen, nor your distaste for Bergman, it's the collision I'm not comfortable with. Bordwell said it best so far, maybe you wanted to say too much in too few words. And it came off in a quite disturbing, confusing way."
Also his comment posted at the Premiere blog on August 17, about the making of his op-ed piece.
"I’m pretty sure that this was the first submitted draft of my commissioned Op Ed piece for the New York Times, written in late July, 2007. It comes far closer to what I felt at the time than the version that emerged after three separate rewrites were requested by my editor, Mark Lotto, which was published on August 4, and which I haven’t had much desire to reprint. Typically, the title that was run with the piece, “Scenes from an Overrated Career,” wasn’t mine, yet paradoxically (if understandably) this was what many readers seemed to find most objectionable."
Jonathan Rosenbaum posted on hiw blog the original draft of his NYT Op-Ed piece. I dont know when he posted it... The post's timestamp is from june 2007 (before Bergman's death!). The way he uses anachronological timestamps on his blog is mindboggling.
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