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.