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October 28, 2010

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You have to wonder if Rosenbaum is quite right in the head. I'd rank Bergman as one of the five most important filmmakers ever to walk the face of the earth. Can't wait to pick up The Magician (wanders off to check bank account...)

Michael Adams

Bergman has a deeper understanding of human relations and conveys them better than any other filmmaker, once he got over the God thing, of course, and did so cinematically. His black-and-white films are breathtaking, regardless of whether he's collaborating with Fischer or Nykvist. No one other than Renoir even comes close. For me, he's the cinematic equivalent of the Stones. Even when he's simply repeating himself, he's good--with the notable exception of The Touch.

John Simon once grabbed the naysayers by their short hairs and gave them a good slap: https://bergmanorama.webs.com/filmcomment72_simon.htm

The First Bill C

Rosenbaum jumped the shark, or whatever the cinephile equivalent would be, when he admitted to reviewing his own book under a pseudonym--a female pseudonym, no less, I suppose to stick it to Sontag. (I guess he technically jumped the shark when he actually wrote the review, not when he 'fessed up.) In recent years he's become to me the pasty, thesaurused equivalent of Armond White, with less objectionable politics, perhaps, but the same startling self-regard.

Matthias Galvin

Unlike most people here, I'm going to agree with Rosenbaum. I've always felt that (with notable, wonderful exception) Bergman made the same movie again and again, and it usually turned out more overblown and less genuine than when he first started doing it.

Fellini said it best: "That man, he is so depressing!"

Glenn Kenny

Yeah, the same movie again and again, as in that run of "The Magic Flute," "Face to Face," "The Serpent's Egg," "Autumn Sonata," "From The Life of Marionettes," and "Fanny And Alexander." Exactly.

Matthias Galvin

Well boiled, they're all stuff Ingmar had already done. (And not all of them good). If clever like only the man could be a great many times.

I dunno, I just prefer the time before his discovery for the gift of heavy-handedness.

Glenn Kenny

Well, one could argue that all great artists just tell the same story over and over again. I've heard that one before. And I'm certainly not arguing that all the pictures in that list are "great." "Sonata," as Robin Wood has pointed out, has some really serious problems. And "Egg" and the little-seen "Marionettes" are extreme to the point that some disdain them as excessive. But they're not all "the same movie" anymore than "Leave Home" is the "same album" as "Ramones." I've always considered this idea that artists are obliged to "grow" according to some arbitrary critical/consumer demand to be an objectionable one in any event. I'd be interested, Matthias (and this is not a snarky question, although it might sound that way), in hearing which artist, by your lights, successfully executed a satisfactory arc or progression of growth throughout his or her career, going out on a peak, and creating works that were sufficiently different from each other to satisfy your standards. I'd guess, but that's be presumptuous of me.

Matthias Galvin

Like any nibble of criticism, my gripe is more personal than anything else. Just as mentioned before, it's the self-seriousness that gets me. Not that I'm saying that precludes Bergman from any sort of greatness on that ground: Irrespective of what I might say here, I do believe Bergman is a great director.

Someone who I might find closer to an arc you mention might even be Fellini. (A man I have problems with myself, some of which are even similar to that of Bergman). However, what makes me more inclined to forgive Federico is that he's got more lightness to him, more warmth. I can approach him more frequently as an entertainer than I can Ingmar.

Ultimately, though, I think it's a resistance I have to being told something more explicitly about life. I love it when Renoir tells me when I don't know something, but I resent it when Bergman does. It's an ultimately childish thing (sort of like when I, oh, I dunno, pick fights on the internet against my better judgment) to dislike being told. But in a sense, that's part of Rosenbaum's objection to Bergman's popularity as well (though, unlike him, I can't say, like Rosenbaum, that he's been overblown because of his social zeitgeist--I wasn't into movies then--or his influence [for better or worse] on the generations after him.)

Though, I will say: I do slightly resent how he's overshadowed Dreyer and Sjostrom. The latter was a very capable figure, but I see the former as a total giant; it (possibly erroneously) feels like Dreyer's close ups are what Bergman wanted his to be. And at that, some of the things Dreyer address, Bergman would later expand.

All that said, I still do love Smiles of a Summer night.

bill

I've never understood why "self-seriousness" or plain old "seriousness" or even, as Fellini would have it, being "depressing" are supposedly such bad things. So Bergman wasn't a stitch -- big deal. You should only try to be funny if you know for a fact that you are. Otherwise, stick to your strengths, and Bergman was really good at being depressing.

SERPENT'S EGG, HOUR OF THE WOLF, THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, WINTER LIGHT, and so on and so forth...I have a hard time understanding the problem here.

Glenn Kenny

Who's fighting?

Agreed, in a sense, on the Dreyer issue, and wish that Criterion would correct its edition of "Gertrud." But one thing about Dreyer is volume—there is, finally, less of an oeuvre to contend with than Bergman's. And some of it—like "Gertrud"—is "difficult" in a way that certain Bergman films are not.

The issue of subjectivity is interesting here. You cite Fellini; for Buñuel, "Juliet of the Spirits" finished Fellini, and there are a lot of former fans of Federico who would cite the ornateness of the later films as being just as objectionable as the heavy-handedness of the late Bergman stuff. The issue of resentment is worth exploring too. Is it actually because of the way Bergman puts things, or because of the cultural baggage of all things "Bergmanesque," which has a connotation and an easy-to-parody feel that you don't necessarily get with Renoir? It's a question worth exploring, as is the question of how time and distance can reduce or increase the cultural baggage. In the way that, say (and this is a completely arbitrary for-instance), Malick's "The Thin Red Line" becomes a different film once you're accustomed to the fact that its all-star cast merely appear when they appear, and that's it, as opposed to trying to spot them and wondering whether or not their individual parts had been hugely cut, and so on.

Matthias Galvin

Bill, Glenn

Perhaps Fellini came to mind because of the quote earlier, but Renoir is certain. I think for myself it's a warmness, like what Sarris mentions in The American Cinema about Ophuls in his entry on Renoir. And it's that sense that I get from Bergman; not quite a condescension (though, he does look down on some of his characters), but certainly variations of frustration he has with people, both in general, and in more institutional ways.

Bergman tends to be jaded, and at least for me, I find that difficult to identify with emotionally (which is why I can certainly attempt an understanding--as no great artist will ever be understood--of Bergman intellectually, but emotionally the man escapes me). However, it still astonishes me some of the warmth he's capable of, particularly Smiles of a Summer Night, but it's interspersed among his work. Granted he wasn't funny, but bill, I think that he could still achieve great things when he was going against himself.

Fellini, for all his frustrating slips into self-gratifying conceits in the tail of his career (a good friend of mine called them "collage pictures"), still had a sort of curiosity about human nature that sprung more innately, I think: men like him were more interested in people qua friends or acquaintances. They liked the experience of bonding with people, making jokes, having fun, etc... Where it seems Bergman wanted more to understand them. (If it might not have already been clear, I have similar difficulty approaching Kubrick, but again, the strength of the man's virtuosity will always trump whatever it is I have to say).

And as far as the fighting bit: it was only afterwards that I realize I had said a piece, without going into why, so I thought it easy to confuse me with the angry man in the dark.

Asher

"I'd be interested, Matthias ... in hearing which artist, by your lights, successfully executed a satisfactory arc or progression of growth throughout his or her career, going out on a peak, and creating works that were sufficiently different from each other to satisfy your standards."

I don't think that 7 WOMEN is a peak (many others do, of course), but I'd still suggest Ford, who at once can be said to make the same film over and over, and yet, certainly progresses a great deal from STAGECOACH to LIBERTY VALANCE. Then there's Preminger, who didn't go out on a peak but progresses vastly from his early noirs to his Cinemascope epics on social institutions - and yet, there's a continuity in his work, it struck me watching THE CARDINAL the other week that there's something of the same imponderable blaknknes in Tryon, as filmed by Preminger, that there is in Simmons in ANGEL FACE, Tierney in WHIRLPOOL, or Maggie McNamara in THE MOON IS BLUE.

Brian P

it's all relative. one man's depressing is another man's bad-ass, penetrating, exhaustive, cinematic apogee.

Tom Russell

"I've always considered this idea that artists are obliged to 'grow' according to some arbitrary critical/consumer demand to be an objectionable one..."

Fuck yes.

Glenn Kenny

@ Asher: Yes, I thought of Ford, and of Preminger. In the arena of making the same film again and again I think of Tarkovsky, who happily (okay, maybe that's not quite the right word) admitted as much. Biñuel is a very interesting case, as his pictures are all very different in their particulars—even the three "omnibus" ones, "Discreet Charm," "Milky Way," and "Phantom" all unfold to a logic that is not like that of the others'—but all undeniably Buñuelian. And then there's Hitchcock, whose consciousness of this was such that "North by Northwest" plays like the out-bang-everything-that-came-before finale of a Macy's 4th of July fireworks display.

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.

Michael, I wonder if you've actually seen THE TOUCH recently. I saw it in Bologna last summer, in a newly restored version. Quite a movie.

Matthias, I could go on disagreeing about individual points or trying to figure out the difference between Fellini’s presumably “warm” curiosity about human nature vs. Bergman’s presumably “cold” desire to understand people, and I really wish that the whole question of how much or how little this or that director likes/hates his or her characters would just dry up and blow away. I will just say that my admiration for Bergman has evolved and grown over the years, and that Wim Wenders sums it all up beautifully in an essay he wrote – can’t remember the title – that was published in one of his Faber collections, either EMOTION PICTURES or THE LOGIC OF IMAGES. For my generation, understanding Bergman was like passing through the eye of a very small and thin needle: we were presented with his greatness on a platter, we rejected it, and then found him again on our own. In my case, some of it had to do with my brand of exposure to French films and filmmakers. Because modern French cinema would be unthinkable without Bergman.

First Bill C – you’re doing a real disservice to Jonathan.

Victor Morton

"The issue of resentment is worth exploring too. Is it actually because of the way Bergman puts things, or because of the cultural baggage of all things 'Bergmanesque,' which has a connotation and an easy-to-parody feel that you don't necessarily get with Renoir?"

On the day Bergman died, I wrote that while it's easy to laugh at an allegorical Reaper, because we all have, from Garfield and Bill & Ted to Woody Allen, who would even think to laugh at an allegorical Donkey, or even get that one can? I didn't mean that explicitly as a slam against Bresson, but if he had had the cultural impact Bergman had, Allegorical Donkey of Suffering would have become as much a punchline as has the Grim Reaper, and we'd joke about the Jansenist-zombie acting of Claude Leydu, Francois Leterrier, Nadine Nortier and Martin LaSalle as much as we do the self-analytic Angst acting of Ullmann, Von Sydow, Thulin, the Anderssons, etc.

Another comparison, on the day Bergman died, several folks in the newsroom came up to me and asked "The Film Guy" about Bergman and what I thought of him, in the same way newspapermen at work always chat about the day's news, even though they all had seen none or just one of his movies. And while someone else wrote the obit, "Film Guy Victor" was specifically assigned to be the editor, even though I don't work on the features desk. "You'll give it a lot of love," the ME said. In contrast, when Eric Rohmer died earlier this year, only one person came up to me and he had a professional question -- how big a deal is this director, how big should we play it. And I had to give my honest professional judgement, which was -- it belongs in the paper but only a 4-5 graf item in the News Briefs roundup.

Glenn Kenny

I should have spoken up in this respect sooner, but yes, I also, like Kent, have a major disagreement with First Bill C with respect to J. Rosenbaum. Jonathan has his quirks, but his mode of argumentation and his attention to detail—not to mention his ability to actually get details right—are among the many, many, many things that distinguish him from White, and make him a critic worthy of engagement and high respect.

The First Bill C

@Kent/Glenn: Fair enough. Death in the family, lashing out all over.

The Siren

Oh I love The Magician. What good news this is.

With regard to (and great respect for) Rosenbaum, the primary problem with that article was the lack of acknowledgement that all reputations cycle, often with the needs of the current era, and by no means due solely to us being so much more clear-eyed than whoever was watching the movies before. This is something Rosenbaum himself acknowledged when his op-ed was raked over the coals at Scanners. (Incidentally, whoever headlined that piece "Scenes from an Overrated Career" has a strong claim to the hotly contested title of "Most Evil Copy Editor Now Working.")

I expressed my problems with Mike's Bergman piece before, and it's similar to Glenn's. It really does make Bergman sound like about as much fun as cramming for the SATs, which isn't right. There is plenty of humor in Fanny and Alexander, for example; Smiles of a Summer Night is a comedy and a funny one; and even The Seventh Seal is droll at times. But in any event, I don't understand why seriousness of theme and intent should be held against anyone.

I liked that Mike wasn't taking the "oh Bergman's a theatre guy" tack. But then I ran into the word drivel, like slamming into an overpass at about 90 mph. Drivel. Silly, stupid, worthless. Not describing one or two lesser or even bad Bergman movies, but apparently some chunk of Bergman's filmography, size unspecified. Not even Rosenbaum went nearly that far.

Victor Morton

RED-LETTER DAY: Victor about to defend Jonathan Rosenbaum.

As much as I detested Rosenbaum's New York Times attack piece on Bergman (while the 6-feet of dirt over him was still fresh, no less), it turns out Rosenbaum actual first submission to NYT was a very different and much-more-balanced piece. It was the kind of piece I can read and think afterward "the guy's wrong but he's entitled to prefer Bresson and he has some interesting things to say."

J-Ro later posted that first draft here: https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=20786

lipranzer

First, the specific: when I watched THE MAGICIAN for the first time all the way through (when our store got the Criterion version), it never occurred to me it could be a "self-pity party," which I normally run away screaming from (one of the reasons why, for example, I've never been able to stomach STARDUST MEMORIES, despite it being one of the most technically accomplished of Woody Allen's films), precisely because it's so witty and entertaining and strange (as I've mentioned here and elsewhere, I always imagined it what would happen if Fellini ever tried to make a Bergman film. And if Fellini did think Bergman was too depressing, that antipathy ran one way; according to everything I've read, Bergman was a huge fan of Fellini, despite his excesses). Maybe if I watched THE MAGICIAN again (incidentally, while I like it, I don't put it in the same class as, say, SEVENTH SEAL, PERSONA, or FANNY AND ALEXANDER; I'd still have no trouble recommending it, though), the "self-pity" would turn me off, but I don't see that happening.

Now on to Bergman in general; when I first read Rosenbaum's dissection of Bergman (and I should add here while I have some major problems with Rosenbaum, to compare him to Armond White is definitely hitting below the belt), the part of my brain that thinks of Reductive Retorts That May Miss The Point kicked in and said, "Of course Rosenbaum would feel that way! Rosenbaum's a Marxist. Marxists generally feel religion is the Opiate of the Masses, and any questions that deal with the philosophical and metaphysical are irrelevant to life and bourgeois. Bergman primarily dealt with the philosophical and metaphysical questions in life. Therefore, Rosenbaum is inclined to hate Bergman. Q.E.D." After re-reading it, and reading other pieces critical of Bergman by others, I realize, of course, just how flip I was being, but I still think Rosenbaum and others are missing the point about Bergman by seeing only the "heaviosity" of his films, which, as others here and elsewhere have pointed out, is hardly the case. Only rarely in a Bergman film do I feel like I'm Being Told What To Think (as in THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, the weakest of that trilogy, and the first time I saw WILD STRAWBERRIES, though that one improves upon multiple viewings), and while I do agree his characters can be cruel, I never felt him being unnecessarily cruel to his characters, unlike some filmmakers (cough *Lars Von Trier* cough). And finally, yes, Bergman has made the occasional dud - I'm afraid I've never been able to get into THE SERPENT'S EGG - he still remains a master to me.

I do suspect one reason for people's apathy towards him now, as opposed to someone who's watched him over the years, like Rosenbaum obviously has, is seeing all the imitators who only see that "heaviosity" and miss his humor, among other things.

Hollis Lime

"...even The Seventh Seal is droll at times."

I've always considered The Seventh Seal a straight up absurdist comedy. I think some people have so effectively turned Bergman's films into homework, that his sense of humor is what is often overlooked.

Kent Jones

The humor issue is ridiculous. Never once have I heard a single solitary soul complain about lack of humor in the collected works of Malick, Bresson, or Tarkovsky. Why? Because it's irrelevant. Some people find their way to humor, others don't, end of story. Insisting that Bergman is cold and clinical just doesn't wash. If such were the case, he would have been incapable of conceiving of, let alone shooting, the final moment of SARABAND.

Victor, even in this "writer's cut" version, I strenuously disagree with two of Jonathan's central points: that Bergman wasn't a modern artist and that he was uninterested in the possibilities of film as a language.

md'a

The word "drivel" was not specific to Bergman. "Like almost any other significant, prolific artist," I said. If you work for decades at a steady clip, you're gonna produce your share of stinkers (though of course reasonable people may vehemently disagree about any given film or album or novel or whatever). I was trying in the piece to find a middle ground between Bergman the Quintessential European Film Artist and Bergman the Ludicrously Overrated Hack, which are the two useless generalizations I most frequently encounter. In particular, I was attempting to *counteract* the layman's likely impression of Bergman as Cinema Studies material, forbidding and dreary and dull—acknowledging that this impression exists and has at least a little basis in truth, but then looking beyond it. Evidently I failed, but hey, I produce drivel just like anyone else. (I do wish I'd had at least double the word count.)

All of that said, I confess that I don't share the increasingly common critical viewpoint that any work by a Certified Master should be approached with great humility. Glenn's formulation above is "as much as I might dislike or object to a particular work of Bergman's or a particular aspect of a Bergman work, I've never been sure that I could apprehend it well enough to dismiss it." I see that kind of genuflection—in a less charitable mood, I'd call it ass-covering—more and more nowadays: "This didn't really work for me, but that's probably my failing." And it may well be. I've been rewatching a lot of films from the '90s of late, and have in many cases been shocked by how little I recognize my opinions of 10-20 years ago. But that doesn't incline me to append an I-may-be-wrong qualifier to every damn review. (I did do so for Inception, largely because of how badly I whiffed The Prestige.) Eastwood is a major artist, and I may rewatch Hereafter in 2025 and wonder how I failed to apprehend its awesomeness, but for right now I'm quite comfortable calling it empty-headed...well, drivel, frankly. Bottomless cynicism does criticism no favors, but neither does constant forelock-tugging.


Hollis Lime

@Kent:

I agree with you that a sense of humor is not a necessity to be a great filmmaker, but Bergman, at least for me, DOES have a sense of humor, so I always look at parodies of Bergman's supposed humorlessness (like SCTV's "Scenes From An Idiot's Marriage", though that skit is funny) with bewilderment.

Now, when am I gonna write my essay on how Bresson is a deadpan comic filmmaker and the forerunner for Kaurismaki and Jarmusch...

Castle Bravo

Anybody who doesn't think Persona is an ultimate masterpiece can go fuck his mother hard enough to send his dick back in time to fuck his ancestors too.

Asher

Then there's Lang, who perhaps progresses in the opposite of Preminger's direction, from a series of epic masterpieces that diagram cities, criminal organizations, space travel, modernity, to the early-to-mid Hollywood work, where actual characters and human desires begin to enter the Langian universe, and then his late period (WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR. MABUSE), which is a sort of minimalist reprise of the abstraction of his early work.

The Siren

Mike:
"If you work for decades at a steady clip, you're gonna produce your share of stinkers."

Well, no. That doesn't follow at all, not for movies and not for any number of other fields. It is frequently true. It is not universally true. There are those who work for decades and produce only mediocre-to-rather-good; there are those who work at a very high level consistently; there are those who oscillate between high and low. In no way it is false humility, forelock-tugging or genuflection to acknowledge that a fighting word like "drivel," applied to some unspecified batch of a renowned director's filmography, needs to be either supported, and supported well, or replaced. I personally wouldn't apply the word to Sergio Leone, possibly my least favorite canonical filmmaker. And that isn't me being Uriah Heep. It's me acknowledging what I can reasonably expect to back up, in 1400 words or 14,000.

Victor Morton

"there are those who work at a very high level consistently"

Can you name one? I for the life of me cannot, absent applying Auteurist Zombie glasses.

Hitchcock and Kubrick are my two absolute favorite film-makers. Each of them, in interviews, made it clear that he thought some of his work was either not worth discussing or was faintly embarrassed by or outright disowned it. I could toss in Wilder, Bergman, Welles, Kurosawa, Lubitsch, Huston, Lang -- anyone whom I have ever seen give a substantive interview about his career has acknowledged some failures in it, even if he blamed it on others or the studio.

The closest I could come would be Dreyer, but only because he disowned TWO PEOPLE (and he could hardly be said to have worked "at a steady clip"). I've seen it; it's not a terrible film (and frankly I disagree with Dreyer's stated reasons for disowning it -- the male lead was WAY less mannered than the female lead). But while it IS must-viewing for Dreyer completists, if it were to disappear from the world tomorrow, it would not be a great loss (except to us Dreyer completists). If it was all Dreyer had ever made, or as good as he got, nobody today outside Denmark would know who he is.

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