Saturday, August 04, 2007

"Landmarks in the History of Taste"

Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote up a dissenting opinion on Ingmar Bergman in the New York Times. In a certain sense it's refreshing to see that someone is willing to write about Bergman (not an anti-intellectual hatchet job, that is) at this moment and not be a huge Bergman fan. As something of a Bergman-skeptic I felt awash in a sea of much agreed-upon appreciations on blogs, websites, newspapers that decided that Bergman was not only a major figure in the history of cinema, but that he was one of the absolute elite, untouchable by anyone still living, possessing a body of work that far outshone almost anyone else in terms of universal human import and complex, profound, probing themes. (I do not share in any of these assessments.) But in fact I think what makes Rosenbaum's piece stick out is precisely one of the areas where he's not quite correct: for after Bergman's death what did we get but a great deal of heartfelt appreciation of the filmmaker? So, is Ingmar Bergman's star dimming, waning, descending? Maybe, probably, it had some--5 or 10 years ago. But I don't think it's stayed lower. Bergman's presence on DVD and probably a number of other sociocultural reasons I've no inclination or gift to parse out have, if anything, confirmed his stature.

Rosenbaum writes in the Times:
So where did the outsized reputation of Mr. Bergman come from? At least part of his initial appeal in the ’50s seems tied to the sexiness of his actresses and the more relaxed attitudes about nudity in Sweden; discovering the handsome look of a Bergman film also clearly meant encountering the beauty of Maj-Britt Nilsson and Harriet Andersson.

One could say this about pretty much the entirety of the European New Waves, loosely defined. Beautiful women (not uncommonly held up as icons of a less "enlightened" gaze) abound in 1960s Godard, Jancsó, Rivette, Bertolucci, or Antonioni, don't they? So if a little bit of sex helps sell the Art (and that does include genuinely great art), well, Bergman was hardly alone. And anyway, wasn't this kind of openness about audiences grooving on the sexual dimension of arthouse films something Rosenbaum himself dismissed as cynical about a decade ago:

Von Trier may be deeply cynical, but he's much less so than Terrence Rafferty was when he recently 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--specifically the European films selected by American distributors, the tip of the iceberg Rafferty seems happy to accept as the 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 hand over their assignments to "pure" American artists working free of such pressures (say, Brian De Palma in Mission: Impossible, a recent Rafferty favorite).

I can't recall much nudity or theology in European movies such as Mon oncle, Breathless, The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Last Year at Marienbad, Eclipse, Ashes and Diamonds, or 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). So I guess if American viewers are the nincompoops Rafferty claims, they must have had other dumb reasons for going to these films.

Actually I think Rosenbaum is more on the right track now than then; nudity as well as sex appeal (sometimes separately) played a big part--and continue to play a big part--in attracting audiences to art films. Cynical Terrence Rafferty may have been, but he wasn't totally without a point! Sometimes this was not intended on the filmmakers' parts (e.g., a Danish domestic drama from '59 could have been re-edited and dressed-up into a little sex comedy for American audiences in '61), but sometimes the filmmakers were complicit in the allure--and, one fold further, might have even consciously alluded to or critiqued aspects of it (Godard's famous sliding camera over the bare ass of la Bardot in Contempt). But the fact remains--if Bergman's popularity in the arthouse was conditioned partly by his beautiful actresses, so was everyone else's. (And the question also remains--should we really consider audiences "nincompoops" if they go to arthouse theaters for reasons both "high" and "low"?)

Rosenbaum continues (NYT):

If the French New Wave addressed a new contemporary world, Mr. Bergman’s talent was mainly devoted to preserving and perpetuating an old one.

But the preservation of the old world in a given time is usually a function of the present's activities, no? If Bergman was presenting us with the concerns of 19th and early 20th century theater and literature (and I think he was), he was still necessarily doing it in a contemporary context--he had to have been--and thus treating concerns that enough people, enough places, must have found worthwhile. Truthfully I'm not sure if any artist is ever "of the times" more than any other. The vanguard, the onward push of history only makes sense if that which exists prior to it is still around, still matters. (And the Nouvelle vague, addressing a new contemporary world, was no great shakes, politically--les Cahiers had its share of religious and right-wing sympathies in those early years. If we're supposed to laud artists for their fearless embrace of the Now and the New, in manners presumably compatible with our own, I'd say I must reject a lot of 1960s art cinema.)

Above all, his movies aren’t so much filmic expressions as expressions on film.

Stephen Dwoskin said that Raymond Durgnat showed up at the theater and bypassed the question "What is film?" by saying "This is a film!"

This sentiment should be put onto plaques and sold at concession stands.

Frankly, I don't think Bergman can touch the likes of Dreyer or Bresson as innovators in film form, as investigators of the medium and its materiality. I personally hold these latter two up much higher than the Swede as all-around artists. Yet, Bergman's "expressions on film" are no less cinematic, no less visual/aural, than Lancelot du lac or Vampyr. The cinema is an instrument of modernity (and its wake) and consequently the modernist attention to medium as field of investigation itself is something highly applicable to film. (And though we're dealing with a medium of mechanical reproduction, film is not just reproduction: it has material presence, it has a little bit of aura about it too--we can not have expected Walter Benjamin to travel this road, but we should recognize it by now.) OK. But pragmatically using the cinema as a literal medium, that is, a way to get to something else, express something else (the medium basically unimportant as long as it satisfies this function) is not an awful thing because they are centuries of history and craft barreling into this thing, Cinema, at high speeds and saying, "Modernity bedamned, give me a story, concept, or emotion--not a film strip!" It may not make for the greatest art, depending on tastes. Maybe it makes for the most "universal" art to some people. At any rate, the most recent Bergman I've seen, The Virgin Spring, struck me as a fairly "medium-invisible" explication or expression of themes: the logos of ideas conveyed by drama, presented (not incompetently) not simply as filmed theater but by relatively conventional patterns of filmic storytelling. (The second half has some striking imagery too.) And I think it's a better film than Persona, which is where I think Bergman tried to make reflexive and modernist forays into the psyche of the viewer and the workings of the medium itself (and, for me, fails miserably). Whatever Bergman's strengths finally are, I suspect they are not served by vanguardist treatments of modernity but of the continued tradition of certain older patterns within modernity. I think this is why he might still matter, which is not to say that he automatically matters, that he's beyond any debate, that he is necessarily more universal or timeless. We certainly cannot, should not, assume the last. (Less "great," less prolific, less spiritual, but I think Walerian Borowczyk actually harvests from some of the same fields--a premodern past beckoning within the trappings of modernity.) Are Bergman's works "landmarks in the history of taste"? Of course they are--all very hallowed and very reviled works are. (And I'm sure Rosenbaum would not dispute this.) But that doesn't prove the facts of their merits or demerits, either, does it? Just as Godard may have had his heyday in the 1960s: his reception is important historically, helps us understand his art, but his worth is ultimately not correlative to his acknowledge relevance or acceptance (or dismissal) at any given time or place.

Anyway cinema isn't actually a thing; it has no essence: it is a huge and unmappable system of possibilities. And Bergman's paths were one of those possibilities. "Expression on film?" Maybe. But--still--this is a film.


Anonymous said...

True, and from another angle, I hopefully anticipate some worthwhile tracing of certain surprising lines of influence that Bergman has had. For example, let's take Olivier Assayas, a critic-filmmaker whose books (still available only in French) include a study of Kenneth Anger's films, a memoir-cum-reflection on Guy Debord, and a book of conversations with Bergman -- quite an interesting grouping!

- Paul

Alex said...

Actually, Godard is having his heyday NOW, in that there were plenty of film-makers in the 1955-1975 period who shared some sense of a political cinema: Makavejev, Bellochio, Wajda, Rivette, Nicholas Ray even, Watkins, Kazan, Rouch, Marker and many others (hell, Phil Karlson's Phenix City Story for one). That's simply not true today. And Godard's oeuvre forms one of the few consistently political meditations in film for such a long period (yes, Marker and Warkins also count, but the list isn't long).

Noel Vera said...

Hullo, thanks for the link. Funny you picked my post to talk about Virgin Spring...

And I'm not sure I disagree with much of what you say. Have to digest it first.

Noel Vera said...

And I still couldn't resist reading through it, couldn't I? Basically, you say Bergman was some kind of medieval knight with a movie camera? Could be, could be...

alsolikelife said...

A most excellent response to Rosenbaum and to Bergman. Especially great recall on the Breaking the Waves article from over a decade ago! I agree with you that his more recent observations on the degree of sex appeal selling New Wave arthouse fare are probably more on target than what he said in his rebuttal to Rafferty.

Re: Virgin Spring -- like Noel I think it's very much in debt to Kurosawa, and so if one is to judge that film as un-modern, then certainly so is Kurosawa? I can't think of a single self-reflexive moment in Kurosawa's oeuvre (if that's how we are to define cinematic modernity), but I think he's the quintessential example of the kind of artist you speak of when you talk about using cinema as a "literal medium" of expression, that is without intentionally calling attention to its filmic properties. Besides, there are plenty of film classes who will do that work on the film without the director having to initiate!

HarryTuttle said...

I'm happy to see that not only Bergman lovers can find his article a little dodgy. Thank you very much for giving substential evidences to his self-constradictions.

You're right, it's not an anti-intellectual hatchet job... it's the most hardline ultra-intellectual agitprop I've read in mainstream media to defend auteurism! Even I find it a little too much, maybe because it's against Bergman.
Calling Bergman entertaining is like saying Picasso was too figurative for Cubism.

ZC said...

Paul, definitely--do I see an Assayas-Bergman research paper in your future? (Just kidding. Mostly.)

Alex, I was referring to the common conception of Godard as a figure who 'peaked' in his first spell (up until roughly '67)--this is not my opinion, sorry if I wasn't clear on that. (I actually think the 1970s were when Godard went into overdrive, not decline, and basically became the most important filmmaker of the past 50 years, if not all time.)

Noel, I linked to your piece because you wrote about The Virgin Spring around the same time I watched it--about a week ago. A medieval knight with a movie camera? Maybe not so much. What I was arguing involved, first, granting Rosenbaum a certain starting point (that Bergman is not as invested in the aspects of film form, and film material, as the names that are being used "against" him in this debate, namely, Bresson and Dreyer). On this premise I more or less agree with Rosenbaum, but it's a premise that itelf can, of course, be probed and questioned and no doubt picked apart to a large degree. At any rate, granting this premise at least for rhetorical purposes, I was arguing that Bergman's (alleged) disinterest in cinema-as-projected-celluloid is not necessarily bad, that there is a whole history that comes with it. Implicitly--and I think I should have gone down this road a little further--what I wanted to say was that a low evaluation of Bergman (or anyone) on terms of being insufficiently modernist-formalist is to be avoided; what we must do is exhibit an understanding (historical and formal) of how these films work before we can dismiss them for not working in a prescribed way. Which is obvious enough. But I think that a lot of the anti-Bergman contingent (of which I've been more or less a tiny part) has not sufficiently grappled with this problem.

Franz Hals and his (justly) celebrated visible brushstrokes were hardly the same thing as Abstract Expressionist painting: i.e., formal self-awareness and reflexivity do not preclude formal ingenuity, innovation, brilliance ... so I was leaving this space open for Bergmanian defense, too.

ZC said...

Kevin, Kurosawa and Bergman have a lot in common, definitely. Now, I don't think that celluloidal self-awareness, and the overt manipulation of film language, is a precondition for aesthetic worth. I don't know if anybody would argue as much. There are plenty of very strict formalists, I think, who don't demand that their favorite artists be very strict formalists, too. (This would necessitate ignoring basically all pre-1860 European art, for one thing. And ignoring most of Hollywood, most narrative film in general.) So on these grounds, I think Bergman is safe from even a lot of his biggest detractors. The question of form's importance really enters into whether or not Bergman's aesthetics are great, rich, profound, and if so, if they are such only insofar as they are "functional." To keep up the (perhaps shopworn) comparison: Dreyer was a storyteller, a narrative filmmaker, obviously. And no "more" cinematic than Bergman. But he was also, as I see it, more invested in the way his films felt, the way they impressed themselves on a viewer, than he was on letting his films breathe or go down unexpected sorts of paths. (It isn't so much innovation of film form/language as it is potentialy in film affect/reception.) My impression of Bergman is that he was always going for effects, conclusions. To put it very crudely, because I can't find a more articulate or eloquent way of stating it, when I'm moved by Bergman--unsettled, saddened, uplifted--I feel like this movement is the calculation of form, that the form did what it was "supposed" to do. This isn't a sin, but neither is it the pinnacle of film art as I experience it and choose to think it. Whereas in Dreyer, I am constantly challenged, shot-to-shot sometimes, by the frictions and (im)balances and of shots, pictorial compositions, cuts, camera movements, etc. I don't feel like Dreyer is leading me to conclusions at all; there's a richness and a weirdness to shot combinations or spatial articulations that just doesn't exist in most of what I've seen in Bergman. It's not that Bergman is blind to form--clearly he cares about at least some major aspects of what he's doing, formally and aesthetically--but rather, a formal argument for or against his work should hinge on what he's doing with the form, and how & why.

I would have to do an analysis, with screengrabs at least, to better explain myself here. Give me a little time to procure some more DVDs and hopefully I'll get back to this. But anyway, this is the sort of position I want to stake out--that one can have problems with Bergman, and root these in questions of form & aesthetics even, but not reduce the issues to a binary that doesn't really exist, that is, filmmakers who are great innovators and filmmakers who are retrograde storytellers. Someone could recount their own experience of Bergman on terms that I would find "acceptable" for greatness, or they could accept my own premises and put forth an argument in favor of (at least Bergman's use of) what I've designated 'functional' form.

Harry, auteurism was first a politique--Rosenbaum's polemics (even flawed as I think they are in this case) are at least continuing in a tradition of argumentation, and the ranking of certain figures above others. I don't think this is the wisest way to proceed, at least not these days ... but now there are opportunities for people to be the Positif to JR's Cahiers, as has happened throughout the online film community in the past few days.

ZC said...

I was really unclear here:

But he was also, as I see it, more invested in the way his films felt, the way they impressed themselves on a viewer, than he was on letting his films breathe or go down unexpected sorts of paths. (It isn't so much innovation of film form/language as it is potentialy in film affect/reception.)

I confused myself by revising the sentence while thinking of Dreyer when I originally meant Bergman (or vice versa), even misspelling a word in the process, and no doubt confused some of you all too. What I meant to say was more like:

"But he [Bergman] was also, as I see it, invested in the way they impressed themselves on a viewer, arriving at designated points, than he was on letting his films breathe or go down unexpected sorts of paths [like Dreyer was]. (The issue isn't so much innovation of film form/language as it is the creation of potentiality in film affect/reception.)"

HarryTuttle said...

As Coursodon recently reminded on a_f_b, "politique" in French can also mean "policy" which is the case in this instance. I believe auteurism was born before the overt politization of CDC. Instead of Positif v. CDC, isn't Rosnebaum pulling a Jeunes Turcs v. Bazin here since he calls into question "facile entertainment" and "undeserved obsolete establishment"? Only that he puts auteurism on its head by denying Bergman's signature.

HarryTuttle said...

If Rosenbaum had given his contrarian piece a political angle (instead of basing it on celebrity status, statistics and stylistic caricatures), the debate might have been worth arguing.

Alex said...

zI think what Rosenbaum ultimately points to is that Bergman wasn't a very profound film-maker. First, in most of his films I've seen, there's a quite obvious, easily graspable moral teaching. (This is partially again why Bergman was easily consumed by Americans in the 1950s). That's not only a ethical problem within his movies, but also ultimately a political one.

There's rarely any suggestion in Bergman that politics even exist (in any serious sense, anyway). On the margins, you do see some minimal awareness of politics in Bergman, but his politics is (at least to my eyes) far more rudimentary and naive than almost all other major film-makers. Example: his characters behave exactly the same when they're under nineteenth century royal or aristocratic regimes (or even medieval times) as they do in 1960s democratic Sweden.

Bergman's angst is too easy, and too readily used as a motif. This is something that, for example, both Leigh and Cassavetes recognize as a path to avoid.

This is partially what saves Kurosawa, who has a similar moral tendency to Bergman to moral cliches and oversimplification, but generates a lot of interest and complexity by being so concerned with Japan's politics and political history.

ZC said...

Harry, yes, this is what I mean--I'm referring to Rosenbaum engaging in film cultural politics, not bringing (or trying to bring) politics into film culture. The "policy" of polemicizing for or against certain authors ...

ZC said...

That's an interesting, clearly put formulation for the ranks of the Bergman-skeptics, Alex. I'm still mulling it over; I feel like I should see and re-see more to add to that. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Really wonderful piece Zach! I liked it much more than Rosenbaum's piece (which seemed to have huge logic gaps) and could relate to a lot of what you were saying. I've always had problems with Bergman and I'm really not sure why. I admire him a great deal and his actors were amazing.

After reading this I'm pretty sure it's the "preachy" aspect of his work, possible lack of politics and maybe some other missing social concerns that seem to evade Bergman that might turn me away a little bit. I do need to see more of films though.

Like yourself I love Dreyer's films (I'm sadly not very familiar with Bresson) but I found your comparisons very interesting.

Anonymous said...

cinebeats: I've long felt similarly about Bergman (admire him, don't feel personally engaged by him that often). But if it's politics you're looking for, have you seen "Shame"? That's an overtly political film (while "The Silence," with its impending military coup, or whatever it is, in an unnamed European country, is more oblique about politics).

Zach: Really enjoyed this post and thread -- and I included a link to some of your comments as part of the discussion over at scanners.

Alex said...


Shame initially seems to be about politics.......but it ends by being far more about Bergman's over-used angst motif than any actual politics.

Overall, Bergman nearly always surpresses politics - characters from the middle ages appear as angst-ridden moderns. Characters from the nobility of the nineteenth century appear as.....angst-ridden moderns. Making movies about other times is a perfect way to explore politics other than our own (Kurosawa Welles and Jancso utilize this method, for instance)- and Bergman ignores the opportunity he himself is creating. Bergman often creates figures who very naturally would have political pasts and activities and ignores that side of their existance. Say, what did the high ranking Professor (Wild Strawberries) - unavoidably a major political figure in the politics of the time - actually do in WWII? Apparently......indulge in more angst.

ZC said...

Cinebeats, I'm glad you liked the post and found some congruences with your own opinion.

(And more Bresson should be seen stat! He's super-great. My favorites are Balthazar and Lancelot du lac probably.)

Jim, thanks for linking to me--I'm glad you got something out of this post, too. I've posted a reply in your comments section.

I've still yet to see The Silence and Shame, but some more Bergman is very high the Netflix queue ...

Anonymous said...

I have not seen Shame or The Silence so I've added them to my "must see" list as well. I see a Bergman film fest in my future.

Balthazar has been on my "must see" list forever so I should get to that soon. I get the feeling I will like Bresson's work once I make time to see it.

Marilyn said...

I'm a huge fan of Bresson, not a particular fan of Dreyer (though I admire his technique enormously), and a fan of Bergman. I find comparison of the three to be a strange exercise in jerry-building an argument. They don't correspond very well, in my opinion.

I think a better comparison is between Bergman and the man who followed him in death just a day later--Antonioni. Their views on relationships are very similar, to my mind. While one has an overlay of Lutheran repression and the latter an extremely repressed Catholicism blanketed by modern European ennui, La Notte and Scenes from a Marriage could be virtual companion pieces.

When we look at this apples-to-apples comparison, it's easy to see that Bergman has the slight edge in terms of entertainment value. Antonioni certainly has better visual framing and technique, but his emotional void is a little too extreme, too much a caricature of arthouse as seen by today's eyes. Bergman is the better of the two at helping audiences identify with the struggles and failures of his characters; he understands the universal zeitgeist (fear of intimacy, death, and authority) so much better that his films are bound to hold up over the years.

I like Bergman's ingenuity and his whimsy as much as his more portentous overtones. I also think he had a more trenchant critique of celebrity culture and its peculiar effects on the female psyche in Persona than I've seen in virtually any other film by a man. Bergman may be the arthouse director for people who don't like arthouse, but that doesn't lessen his achievements in my book.

Noel Vera said...

I think Rosenbaum clarified in a film by that his article is meant to provoke arguemnts, start a debate and discussion. It's done that, certainly, but the comments here go further than most I've seen.

Isn't part of what people believe obsolete in Bergman his concern about religion, and god? That we pretty much feel god is dead, has been dead for some time, and that the fanaticism shown by either Muslims and Christians is the fanaticism of people trying to deny a truth they feel in themselves? And that Bergman's works don't reflect this?

Whereas ennui and alienation--it's the modern condition, so Antonioni's themes as a whole seem more relevant (though apparently Ken Russell feels it's the other way around).

Marilyn said...

Noel - Your contention that "we" think God is dead is belied by the huge numbers of people throughout the world who not only believe in God but also go to some type of church. Most are not fanatics, as you characterize them.

I would say we are in sort of a post-ennui state. People still experience alienation from their societies, but they have found electronic substitutes. For example, all the cellphones plastered to people's ears keep them connected. The Internet has been a great tool for reengaging social discourse, though at a distance.

Our cinema needs to engage more with these post-ennui experiences, a The Conversation for the 21st century.

Anonymous said...

Marilyn -

I keep reading Bergman and Antonioni comparisons yet I don't really see them myself, but your comment was interesting to read. It's probably due to the fact that I really need to see more Bergman, but I've always thought of his films as monologue heavy, with a focus on character and lots of reflection on God.

One of the reasons I like Antonioni's work so much is that he seems to prefer silence over dialogue and isn't very interested in typical characterization or God.

What you seem to point out as Antonioni’s faults, seem to me to be the differences between the two directors and are the reasons why (so far) I have preferred Antonioni’s films to Bergmans.

Thanks to your comment I’ve added Scenes from a Marriage to my list of “Must See” Bergman films and I look forward to comparing it to La Notte, which I like a lot.

Great discussion you have going here Zach!

Alex said...

"Isn't part of what people believe obsolete in Bergman his concern about religion, and god?"

No, what's obsolete in Bergman is that his take on religion is a very conventional one of his time: religion viewed through a combination of 1950s sociology on one hand, and cliche "highbrow" religious philosophy (a la pop Schopenhauer). said...

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