05 août 2007

Rosenbaum's prejudice in Bergman obituary

Bergman aside (we'll get to that later), Jonathan Rosenbaum's contrarian reaction to this filmmaker's legacy (article in NYT, August 4th) only demonstrates a selective memory, dishonest arguments, double standard principles and the poorest clichés on art cinema.
"Almost every statement in this rather shallow article could be challenged on the ground of irrelevance, biased vision,unfairness, questionable reasoning or sometimes even plain silliness. I am surprised that this comes from a critic of J. R.'s stature"
Jean-Pierre Coursodon (on a_film_by)

Let's just do that (for those who only skimmed through the article) :
  1. Deception #1 : "Like many of his films, “The Magician” hasn’t been widely available here for ages." (Anecdotale Fallacy)

    Sure, from a filmography of 62 films, only few made it to DVD yet, but that's more than most auteurs have (including Bresson or Dreyer with a smaller filmography, respectively 14 and 23). Who are we kidding?
    He corrects on a_film_by : "I agree that many Bergman films are out on DVD, even though it's obviously a much smaller fraction of the whole work than one finds with Dreyer and Bresson."
    Only 34 of his films are available on DVD at FNAC !
  2. Deception #2 : "His works are seen less often in retrospectives and on DVD than those of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson" (Unrepresentative Sample Fallacy)

    Does Jonathan Rosenbaum (JR) assume the American distribution market alone defines the worldwide relevance of an auteur? I considered JR as the less insular of American critics until now.
  3. Manipulation #1 : DVD availability and Academic syllabus (hic et nunc) are the absolute reference to measure the long term relevance of an artist in film history. (Appeal to Authority Fallacy)

    JR usually protests the contrary when defending his overlooked champions (Burnett, Tashlin, Tarr, Ivens in his book Essential Cinema). Not to mention the entire history of film criticism proven wrong time and again after a misguided disdain (La Règle du Jeu, Lola Montes, Welles, Ford, Hitchcock, Hawks, Nick Ray, Ozu, Kurosawa) or premature appraisal (Duvivier, Autan-Lara, Delannoy, Clément, Wyler, Stevens, Zinnemann...). Of course JR didn't forget that, so why even trying to push THAT argument to demonstrate anything about an auteur's stature?
    I can't comment on the presence of Bergman in Academia, especially not in the USA, but I doubt it's true worldwide, and there are probably other possible, practical explanations than a fall in disgrace. Persona, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Cries and Whispers are often cited by film scholars and published in referencial books.
    Even if it was true, we could only regret that one filmmaker is forgotten. The idea to rejoice about certain films being left out of film studies is a sad thought, and a shame for the diversity of cinema culture as a whole. Why would an ecclectic critic like Rosenbaum use this argument to establish a false "common wisdom"?
  4. Simplification #1 : "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" (Unfair comparison)

    What JR disputes is that Bergman is "an uncontestable major figure in cinema" and he uses (greater) major figures to diminish his stature in comparison. But *if* he's inferior to these names (which is itself a whole aesthetical debate and certainly not a given), it doesn't mean that he's not part of these major figures. I can think of many mediocre films by these 3 masters that don't mesure up to Bergman's consistant oeuvre. Why even oppose masters against eachothers as if the unique quality of one excluded the other unique quality of the other.
  5. Manipulation #2 : "two master filmmakers [Dreyer and Bresson] widely scorned as boring and pretentious during Mr. Bergman’s heyday"

    Bergman has always had a "boring" label attached to his cinema, though maybe not by the same public. But JR uses references of various reliability, eras and demographics (DVD industry, obituaries, film buffs or Google) to assert Bergman's reputation, then he equates that directly to the critical pan of a specific time and place for Dreyer and Bresson as if there was a valid correlation to find in such a nebulous comparison.
    Fame v. Critical appreciation (= equivalency?) .
    We can clearly read between the lines that JR's actual grudge is not Bergman (whom he kindly aknowledges some talent), but the circumstances that have given Bergman the celebrity his favorites (Bresson and Dreyer) deserved. Well, Bergman is not responsible for the blindness and favoristism of critics at large and the audience throughout ages, no more than he should feel guilty about the decent fame his films earned (within the Art Film league, which is definitely smaller than the Mainstream league!).
  6. Truism #1 : Obituaries are unanimously respectful, admirative and complacent.

    An obituary is a boring job, you remind people who the person was and what achievements of theirs are left in History. Have the "socially aware adults" lost any sense of respect for someone's funeral memory? Bergman's thunder had to be shared with Antonioni already!
    It's not an opportunity to spit on someone's grave, for curtesy sake! Bergman only made 1 film in the last 10 years. JR believes mourning has lasted long enough (5 days) to begin right away with the free bashing. If the biased adoration had lasted months after his death, I could understand JR's impatience to balance with a dissenting view. Sure, every proclaimed master can and should be scrutinized and desacralized, no question about that, but each thing in its own time.
    It's not like if JR had only this one time soapbox-opportunity to seize, in order to restore the truth... he's got a weekly column for himself in the Chicago Reader (among other platforms). [EDIT: Rosenbaum corrected this assumption of mine on his blog]
  7. Manipulation #3 : "If you Google 'Ingmar Bergman' and 'great,' you get almost six million hits." (Appeal to Popularity Fallacy)

    Now JR gets his audience poll from an internet search engine, with a laughable query! (it doesn't even mean that the adjective "great" on these pages is associated to Bergman, or that these pages shine a positive light on him. One could think of "great failure/disappointment" for example...) How come someone could publish THAT in the New York Times???
    If you like silly populist statistics, here's IMDb top250 The Seventh Seal makes #81 (18,700 votes!) and Wild Strawberries #158 (10,460 votes), Dreyer (film with most votes : 6,600 votes) and Bresson (film with most votes : 2,000 votes) are nowhere to be found. What does it prove about their respective popularity among IMDb voters?
  8. Simplification #2 : Bergman circa 50ies reduced to superficial clichés only the shameless populist reviewers would dare to mention : sexiness, nudity, beautiful actresses. (Caricature)
  9. Manipulation #4 : Blaming Bergman for his imitator (Woody Allen) and his incidental/local fan base crowd (which is assumed unworthy). (Guilt by Association Fallacy).
  10. Deception # 3 : "Mr. Bergman’s star has faded" (Begging the Question Fallacy)

    Evidences produced were false or deceiving so how is that conclusive? It's not because you say it or wish it that it's a reality. Here are some surveys showing that not everybody has forgotten about Bergman yet... (I'm not suggesting these consensual/local/timely polls represent a solid foundation to determine someone's universal pertinence but apparently they contradict JR's sense of reality)
    - The 13th Most Influential Director of All Time (2002 MovieMaker Poll)
    - Survey of Filmmakers: Top 25 Directors (2005 poll by The Film Journal)
    - The Top 100 Directors #7 (They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? December 2006) 11 films ranked in the top1000 (for comparison : Dreyer #13, 5 films in top1000 / Bresson #16, 9 films in top1000)

There is an ongoing debate around the article at a_film_by where Jonathan Rosenbaum responds to certain accusations.

Zach Campbell at Elusive Lucidity also debunks some of JR's fallacies.

Jonathan Lapper at Cinema Styles does the same breaking down job to uncover the fallacies.

And Girish shares his reservations too.

There are probably many things to denote about Bergman's stylistic (arguable) achievements and content (arguable) value, but serious critics shouldn't have to resort to fallacies and other smoke screens to put a critical point across in the hope to confuse and persuade an ignorant readership. This is low standard criticism in my opinion (for whatever it's worth).

Next we'll look into the critical accusations...

12 commentaires:

Greg a dit…


I found you because you and I are lumped together on Greencine Daily right now (http://daily.greencine.com/archives/004143.html)
Here's the paragraph just above the comments:

Harry Tuttle's a bit angrier at Rosenbaum, arguing that the NYT piece "demonstrates a selective memory, dishonest arguments, double standard principles and the poorest clichés on art cinema." More from Jonathan Lapper: "Rosenbaum is as always a superb writer and distiller of ideas and as I recently noted on these pages one of my favorite critics. His argumentation here however, seems specious at best."

Well, I'm glad you found his attack on Bergman as weak and factless as I did. Please give mine a read if you have time. It's located here: http://cinemastyles.blogspot.com/2007/06/try-2.html

Thanks and I'd love to hear your opinion on it.

All the best,


HarryTuttle a dit…

Hi Jonathan,
I liked your post too. I notice the same fallacies stood out in this specious argumentation. Like David Hudson said, the tone of my post is more aggressive... but I still respect Rosenbaum's expertise. Sometimes his taste just doesn't compute with my ideal of critical fairness.

when I read the reactions to JR's article it seems we have to be "Bergman lovers" to get offended by his methods. The Bergman-resistants seem to find the piece fair and balanced, and even thought-provoking... Subjectivity at its worst.

HarryTuttle a dit…

More evidence brought up by the NYT readers (published on August 8th) about Bergman's vitality within the university.

one excerpt: "Bergman brilliantly wed story and style, so to reduce the still extremely modern-feeling use of the camera in “Persona” (that endless tracking shot on the beach, anyone?) as the work of a theater director ill-suited to cinematic expression only reveals that Mr. Rosenbaum has fallen prey to the film critic’s fatal flaw — mistaking a personal bias for objective reality."

Pacze Moj a dit…

Welcome back, Mr. Tuttle!


Although I didn't read the Bergman obituary pieces, I do find it rather in bad taste, on Rosenbaum's part, to use a man's death as an occasion to attack him.

Your points are spot on.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks for the support Pacze Moj,
I noticed it's easy to be forgotten when stopping to post for more than a week.

the NYT piece is not accessible online anymore? I can forward it to you if you want to read it.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Last top50 of best filmmakers published by Claude-Jean Philippe among 78 French critics and professionals in Paris :
#7 Ingmar Bergman (113 points)
#15 Robert Bresson (90 pts)
#20 Carl Theodor Dreyer (76 pts)

They didn't forget Bergman in France yet... Althought they did forget Tarkovsky in this list, so maybe we shouldn't take it too seriously! ;)

HarryTuttle a dit…

A booklet co-published by Cahiers and Le Monde on Ingmar Bergman (Dec. 2007) with a DVD of Persona.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Do Swedes still blame Bergman for upping the divorce rate? By Gwladys Fouché at The Guardian (July 31st, 2008)

"Scenes from a Marriage was broadcast on Swedish television as a mini-series and became a huge national hit. "On Wednesday nights the streets were empty because everyone was at home watching Scenes from a Marriage," recalls Steene. It was so popular it is said to have increased the national divorce rate, as spouses were able to finally articulate their grievances towards each other. It's hard to think of another movie that has had such a huge impact on people's lives."

How could such film not be considered socially progressive and pro-feminist if it helped women to open up and claim their right to break the painful bounds of marriage?

HarryTuttle a dit…

Google Ngram on a corpus of millions English language books between 1920 and 2008, for the occurences of the phrases "Carl Dreyer", "Robert Bresson" and "Ingmar Bergman" : see here

HarryTuttle a dit…

"I have to say that's a piece I regret, cause I know the way it came out was more negative than I intended it to be. Cause the editor wanted it to be more negative than it was."

Jonathan Rosenbaum, panel 1 (from 50'30"), Illuminating the Shadows: Film Criticism in Focus (NorthWestern University, 21 April 2011) [MP3]

HarryTuttle a dit…

Ingmar Bergman studies (Film Studies For Free; 29 June 2011)

HarryTuttle a dit…

"It has happened to me once, for example writing for the New York Times. I had to rewrite it so many times that what finally came out was more theirs than mine. And people got very angry with what I wrote at the time. But I felt that it was because it was in the NYT. So it wasn't really me, it could have been somebody else taking exactly the same role and writing exactly what they wanted. And it didn't matter that it was me. So, yes it maybe reached millions of people, but so what, you know. I didn't feel the same kind of satisfaction I feel with something else that I write and I can change what I want."
Jonathan Rosenbaum; Courtisane Festival (27 Nov 2011) Bruxelles

4 years later he's still in denial. He convinced himself that it wasn't his fault, and like an immature children, refuses to take any responsibility for his acts and blame any scapegoat available, i.e. the NYT editors. Yeah, right. A veteran writer like Rosenbaum CAN be manipulated by the editors of a powerful newspaper, and he had no idea how these things worked when he got involved. At no point could he stop the collaboration because he felt the processed betrayed his true feelings, thus maintaining what CRITICS call integrity. Nah. Instead of owning up to his indulgent acceptance of the multiple corrections (because his ego was blinded by the prospect of being published in the fucking NYT), he just pretends that he was manipulated all along and that the result is none of his willing. That's his story and he sticks with it. I wonder what young inexperienced writers could hope to author in the press if the great Rosenbaum isn't capable to resist temptation and complacency...
"It didn't matter it was me" so he says. That speaks volume about the meaning of criticism according to this cop out talking point. Whatever, film writers are interchangeable. Readers only react to the medium, they aren't capable to differentiate whether the content is written by a trustworthy source or not... What a low opinion he's got of readers!
And then he goes around claiming that film criticism is all about subjectivity and nothing about objectivity. What is your subjectivity worth if "it doesn't matter it was you who wrote it"???

Some people never learn, even when you take the time to explain...