"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...
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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.