07 octobre 2007

Adrian Martin on Bergman (5)

Continuation of the Bergman obituary controversy (see first post of the series here), Adrian Martin gives his take in the october issue of filmkrant #292 :
"Surely we have all had this feeling, at some time or another, as we have contemplated one of the long-canonised 'old masters' of cinema - that they disconnected from the forward movement of history long ago. That, more simply,
they lost touch with the present, and started to become living anachronisms, no longer 'in sync' with the problems and pulses of the contemporary scene. (Adrian Martin)"
We could regret that filmmakers don't surprise us with every new film, like we used to be astonished by earlier films. We could regret that aging filmmakers stop exciting the younger cinephiles, or lose touch with the latest fashion in the ever changing culture of images. We could regret that they make films for themselves and not for us anymore (as if they ever did).
I only see there a natural phenomenon of maturity or senility, whichever you want to call it, we should expect and sympathize with. A seasonned filmmaker just doesn't make a film the same way after 30 innovative films and 30 years of cultural emancipation.
Here is one of the limit of the enshrined "politique des auteurs" due to the young age of Cinema history, falsely compared to the larger Art History. An auteur is supposed to always lead the pack at the avant-garde and to be relevant, while they are just weak humans and cinema is a mercantile industry. Only few can stay in control of their oeuvre from beginning to end and keep a vivid desir to be ground-breaking. We know that the revolutionary ideals grow tired, replaced by a need for the security of reactionary values.
Old masters want to go back to their youth and feel uncomfortable with the progressive values the newer generations identify with. This goes as well for society as for the evolution of artistic movements. And old masters often just want to indulge in traditional modes of expression. But I guess that content (its subtext and its interpretation) matters more to the political commitment than the form of expression.
Also, the masters who haven't "sold out" to "prestige cinema" maybe died young or didn't get the opportunity to continue to make films late in their life? This question requires some refined contextualization. We easily get a romanticized view of old history, of which we only remember the highlights, and compare it favorably to the contemporary world, which is overloaded with pointless details. Old filmmakers living till their 80ies have been through many artistic movement and drastic social changes, which happened less to artists of previous centuries with shorter life expectency and historic changes with more inertia.
"Does this matter? What does it really mean for us, as critics or viewers, to demand of any filmmaker that he or she should 'invest in the modern world' - or else be declared outmoded, old-fashioned, a dinosaur? (Adrian Martin)"
This notion of "relevance to the contemporary world" pushed by Rosenbaum is highly subjective and obviously critics will justify a posteriori that such or such auteur is more relevant because it best represents their political agenda. So throwing this allegation as a universal evidence is a polemic in itself. I wonder what Rosenbaum thinks of the relevance to the modern world of Rivette's and Rohmer's latest films...

Adrian Martin talks about this subjectivity of the spectator. The same way the personality of the auteur departs from the evolution of society and culture (as I explained above), so does the personality and expectations of the critic who has been shaped up by the discovery of cinema of a certain era during the impressionable years of adolescence when we form our values. The clash of these reverred times with the contemporary emphasizes the rejection of certain unforgiven digressions by the masters who betrayed our loyal trust in them.
All this turns out to become a personal affair, an emotional divorce with the originel fantasy, which has less to do with the modern world. Let's relativize the whole alleged inadequacy. The evolution of Art only remembers the cutting edge milestone films, not oeuvres as a whole. We can't reproach to an auteur not to live on the edge with every new film. However the normal life of an auteur, the continuity of an oeuvre doesn't have to always match the latest art novelty. It's ok for an auteur to make weaker films or uninventive forms or redundant obsessions, and we shouldn't call it a failure or a missed opportunity.

Thus it mostly matters to our subjective expectations. But does it matter to cinema History? If Rosenbaum asks about the relevance to the contemporary world, it implies that films should fit in place in the universal order of human History. But cinema History is a patchwork of whatever is best representative of our society. It doesn't matter who made the film. It doesn't matter if a given auteur has placed all or only one work on the canonical list. The relevance of the concern featured by an oeuvre is different from the immediate relevance of an oeuvre as an artistic statement.
Adrian suggests that "cultural fashion or social topicality" could resonate within a longer scope than the immediate political scene.
I would futher add that the apparent immediate irrelevance could hide a transcended subtext.
Regarding the case of Bergman (who I never considered to be out of touch with the modern world, no more than the bulk of critically acclaimed masters), I think he did nothing all his life but deal with politics in the form of human relationship. A film doesn't have to be overtly political or dealing with grand issues to matter to our society. The conflicts within the nucleus family, within the couple, between generations are where all political questions begin and end. The fine behavioral analysis Bergman did of interpersonal interactions, marriage and divorce, love and betrayal, emotion and pain, health and illness, life and death tell us as much about the mentality of our society and the reaction of individuals to the political events. Traces of the macrocosm are always contained in the microcosm to some extant.
It's true that Bergman rarely spelled out a specific political context, nor did he try to comment actualities. However it doesn't mean that the concern for our contemporary world was absent from his oeuvre. Maybe he felt more confortable dealing with politics by proxy, through the reflection on something he best mastered, the unspoken sunken wounds of human psychology.
It's a "portrait en creux" of politics : a description where the subject is absent and only the surrounding, the negative print, informs us.
This idea should be developped more thoroughly with examples drawn from every films Bergman made. That's why the rebuttal is not an easy task. We can't cite obvious examples where the plot is directly relevant to the contemporary world and remains relevant today, because it's the subtext, the deeply layered psychological portrayal that answers this question through hints difficult to summarize in a one-page pamphlet.
Maybe I should start with Monika, Shame, Persona, From The Life of Marionnettes, The Silence...
* * *
P.S. This is also the problem of the seemingly plotless films of the "contemplative cinema" trend, which seem in retreat from the contemporary world, because they deny a role to intellectual verbalisation, they estrange their protagonists out of an identifiable/realistic context towards the epure of what could be described as an apolitical parabole. And I believe otherwise, because there are other, less obvious ways to deal with politics and comment on the contemporary problematics.

7 commentaires:

Marina a dit…


Just as you, actuality and judgements / evaluation on the basis of up-to-date-ness have always intimidated me. When we are dealing with the history of cinema (and in that respect, contemporary cinema in its context), social surroundings are not the prime factor - they are not what has made cinema - cinema, art - art. Art is only thinkable outside the historically given - from its conception to its individual incarnation. History is in motion - it enwraps us and prevents us: from observing, from living in another (possibly, the best for us) way, with other means and views. To look beyond this current history, or, in fact, - to see the humane outside this contemporary datum, from different angles: that is what art does and that's why it is vital to people and, yes, to history. Art, philosophy, etc., etc...everything that can reach beyond the social fact sets history in motion, life in some kind of development - activity, action. Going beyond this motion, art finds only stillness - eternity, I would guess. And from this stillness, some day, the motion of a different history will be born.

I hope we will start to appreciate - not judge or criticise - the values of art in that respect: as inevitably outside the current or past actuality, as that which will remain and nourish a future historical contextuality. If a piece of "art" is not born out of that stillness of the non-historical, it has never been art.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Hi marina,

Yes, that's it. I'm not saying that politics and emotional connection is irrelevant, but like you say it's not the only major factor. So it's unfair and shortsighted to use politics alone to discard a film or an oeuvre altogether.
When we look back on Art History, the political alignment of great artists from Renaissance or Greek Antiquity doesn't strike us as the only component of their artistic stance, if it matters at all today.
True art is timeless and stand alone independantly from its original context, because it speaks of universal values such as humanity and spirituality in absolute terms.

If we are judging the political commitment of filmmakers in order to write down a "political history" in cinema or an "history of the XXth c. through cinema", then the "matters to the contemporary" factor becomes dominant. But when we talk about the "aesthetical canon of cinema history" then it's only one of many secondary aspects of the evaluation of films.

Marina a dit…

Hello, Harry,

I think I was a bit ultimate in the previous comment or that's how it ended up sounding. Let me elaborate:

"When we look back on Art History, the political alignment of great artists from Renaissance or Greek Antiquity doesn't strike us as the only component of their artistic stance, if it matters at all today."

Exactly, it's not the only component. But it is an intial fact that exists: without the historical momentum the Ancient Milesians wouldn't have pushed it forward. They saw the limits, or the "dark" empty spaces and tried to "discover" what was missing. Of course, later, these "enlighted" spots were re-illuminated and re-illuminated, and re-illuminated...

The historical situation and the artist's / philosopher's biases are limitations. In this sense, you can say that the artist is his own historical context to the effect that he's modelating his own perceptions and believes. But this is what many people do and still - they're not artists. Art is born when the possibilities behind the current situation / perception are noticed. An artist could mirror a political event in his work and he'd have created more of a news report than an artistic creation. But if he takes this event and places it (even at the borders) of a broader pleiad of possibilities for this situation and reality, he would have gone beyond the pure historical. That's the stillness, I was talking about: that of historical situations, from which only one is momently fulfilled.

In this way, an artist can see beyond the accidentallity of history, which is a manifestation of the accidentallity of human nature in the sense that only a limited scope of human nature is realised in the historic momentum. Thus, by broadening the historical, the artist goes deeper into the Realm of the humane. And there he finds the stillness (infinity) that is limitedly manifested in history, Man, psychology, culture, etc.

In this sense, even a political history of cinema could use the inclinations of an artist beyond the historically manifested: it could exploit how he/she would imagine the possibilities.

HarryTuttle a dit…

The self-defined context of the artist is an interesting point.
Like Adrian Martin says the artist belongs to a wider community of artists, rather than just his fellow citizens. And he refers to timeless values and wider-scope trends of humanity.

If we consider and talk about cinema as an art, then we can't limit ourselves to judge their currency value defined by the local geography and the political climate.
I would tend to agree with you when you say the artist who restrict his/her role to political commentary on the currency, most likely fails to create and artistic abstraction of his world view. I often feel that "political films" are either too literal or too allegoric to be significant on the long term. But maybe the debate becomes to theoretical there...

Going back to Bergman, if he had (misguided) sympathies for "Hitler-jugend" in his teens, he was a bad citizen as a (young) person. But could we say that his oeuvre endorses or promotes in any form the Nazi values or racism? He wasn't misguided as an artist.
The Serpent Egg, which is not his best film for sure, address the issues of Nazi Germany. In Persona, he shows a picture of a young jew arrested by the Gestapo and the immolation of a monk against the Vietnam war. It's not much, and we could almost blame him for exploiting this iconography without expanding on it, without truly integrating it to his narrative. But it's a visible hint of his concern as a filmmaker.
Though like I said, Bergman addressed the contemporary through other means, from within the allegory of the microcosmic interpersonal conflicts: adolescent crisis, parental indifference, violent emancipation, moral oppositions within a family, rejection of the father, mental illness, betrayal...

Marina a dit…

"Like Adrian Martin says the artist belongs to a wider community of artists, rather than just his fellow citizens. And he refers to timeless values and wider-scope trends of humanity."

Yes, and even more (with a danger of returning to the theoretical sphere) - could we justifyingly claim that an artist belongs? To anything expressable? I mean, everything that ends up "articulated" in art is only an approximation of what was felt or seen in images or a gust of sensations; of the driving force, led to the realisation of an art form. That driving force could be a belief or an anger, dissatisfaction with the present (past, near future), anything that precedes "clearness" and is being partially lost in it. That force, I believe, is the archetypal nature of the artist, to which he belongs, meaning by which he/she is "governed". That force could "accept" the present and the artist could be labelled "up-to-date". But if he/she assumes that the present excludes that force (and vice versa), he'd find little interest in exploiting it and thus be labelled "old-fashioned". He'd then tend to dwell in a more abstract dimension of reality - that which is not observable but could exist or even - will exist (had existed).

"Going back to Bergman"...

Yes, from the point of the "microcosmic interpersonal conflicts", Bergman is extremely contemporary: because the macrocosmos of the world is reflected/interwoven in the microcosmos of the interpersonal. And here we could even spot the artist's stance: that the "family" is not an isolated sphere - it is organically shaped from the outside and the inside. But then again, it gives the opportunity to dive into the eternal: relationships, feelings, believes, characters and how they clash together. The contemporary situation becomes a simple provocation which allows these clashing forces to manifest in a certain way. I haven't watched "The Serpent Egg" and it's been years since I viewed "Persona", but in it and in "Autumn Sonata" there's a recurrent attitude towards the historical context: the past is a restriction, it caused the invisible torment through the collision with the shaped-by-the-surrounding-atmosphere human nature. The accumulated suffering is always a result of how Man was dealing with the past context and transfered it into the microcosmos of the "family". Thus the present - the day of the unleashed conflict - becomes a time of freedom, of hermetic safety which makes the people understandable to each other and allows them to conflict openly.

Have you noticed such separation between past and present: the first - the source of conflict (without the possibility of settling it), the second - the manifestation of conflict (understandability, the outside world is only a witness of the past)?

HarryTuttle a dit…

The "archetypal nature" of the artist's perspective in an interesting aspect to understand his independence from the political scene.
Though I don't know if you call "present" what society calls "up-to-date" (society can be conservative and nostalgic, failing to see the actual novelty), or if it's the artist's force that is the true "present"?

"the shaped-by-the-surrounding-atmosphere human nature"
Yeah I found it much more insightful to analyse how political events condition the minds of certain generations, how their behavior is altered by what they witnessed along their lives, by imitating political leaders or by reacting against immoral stances they heard. Without the need to mention current political events, without commenting directly on political matters, staying within the comfort of a household interior, isolated from any direct exterior influences. Because the political influences have operated their conditioning over the years preceding the mundane event depicted by the family drama.
Comparing family drama from different periods and different countries show a notable discrepency of mentality and political education. It's politics for those who don't need everything spelt out for them in the language of self-refering politicians.
I didn't quite understand your last question, but maybe this somehow address what you said.

I just saw Kiarostami fascinating educational short documentary : First Case, Second Case (1979), and this is a perfect illustratio of the microcosmic/macrocosmic implication of politics in cinema. Kiarostami stages and films a microcosmic scene inside a classroom (where there is no blatent political sign at face value). And when he interviews officials and intellectuals about the behavior of the pupils, they automatically expand the conclusions to society at large, to politics and religion, to repercussions of school education on grown up adults within a future society. Cinema offers a case, an example, a parabole, and the viewer understands the moral/political implications of the mundane conflicts portrayed in this dailylife incident.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Ed Howard at Seul le cinema, on the Rosenbaum v. Bergman affair :

"Critics often point to Bergman's theatrical fascination as an inherent negative — something you'd never hear about, say, Fassbinder — but this scene makes it clear that even early on Bergman understood the difference between cinematic and theatrical space, and was able to combine them in interesting ways. (...)
There is quite possibly no greater director of embarrassment than Bergman, and he perfectly captures the humiliation of Frost, cutting between tortured close-ups and wildly exaggerated crowd shots of the observers. (...)The scene becomes sheer torture as it goes along, as much a purely symbolic representation of primal emasculation as a recounting of a specific incident. (...)
And though Bergman is frequently accused of theatricality because of the overwrought performances he wrings out of his actors in his wildest scenes, it's in the more realistic segments of his work that theatricality more often has free rein. (...)
It may seem odd that I've chosen a Bergman film I don't really like that much to mount a defense of this great director. But what struck me, on watching Sawdust and Tinsel, was not only the number of things that didn't work, but just how much did work in spite of the many weaknesses."