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Scenes from a Posthumous Potshot
August 13, 2007 5:05 PM   Subscribe

In Scenes from an Overrated Career, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum writes a rare New York Times op-ed arguing that the work of recently deceased director Ingmar Bergman is overvalued compared to Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson. Both Roger Ebert and David Bordwell respond to Rosenbaum's takedown of Bergman, while Rosenbaum writes a brief eulogy blog post on Bergman. Meanwhile, another blogger discusses how Antonioni and Bergman hated each other despite recent obits that have paired them together.
posted by jonp72 (23 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
This seems like a cool post, but it only furthers my obsession with the question: Why is Metafilter all about Roger Ebert???
posted by serazin at 5:25 PM on August 13, 2007


Well, I don't know how anyone could agree with Rosenbaum (although I think Bresson is superior to Bergman), but I love these sort of outrageous critical opinions that gets everyone talking.
posted by Falconetti at 5:53 PM on August 13, 2007


I'm not going to say anything bad about Bergman, but I am going to say Bresson fucking well rocked the movie screen.
posted by Divine_Wino at 5:59 PM on August 13, 2007


Andy Sarris mentions the Bergman-Antonioni hate...

Bergman on Antonioni:
“suffocated by his own tediousness. He concentrates on single images, never realizing a film that is a rhythmic flow of images, a movement.”

But credit where it's due, I suppose.
posted by Jeff_Larson at 6:22 PM on August 13, 2007


Goddamn, I could watch cinephiles like these guys play this kind of tennis all day long. Wonderful.
posted by sciurus at 6:32 PM on August 13, 2007


I find it extremely difficult to rate any of these directors, and a few others, as better or worse than each other. It doesn't make any sense to me but then value based criticism never has. They are each giants and I'm pleased that they contributed to cinema in the the way they did.

I realize that the articles linked to are not purely value based criticism either, but it seems to be the foundation of the Rosenbaum piece.
posted by juiceCake at 7:04 PM on August 13, 2007


Rosenbaum is the Christopher Hitchens of cinema -- I don't always agree with what he's saying but his writing is so angelic it's a great pleasure to read it.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 7:26 PM on August 13, 2007


Well, I like all of them, but Dreyer is my favorite. Some of the moments in Ordet are truly sublime.

A college prof of mine encountered Rosenbaum at some film event in the 90s, and asked him a pretty simple question, along the lines of 'which Kubrick film do you think is the best?' and Rosenbaum just sort of stared at him, turned around, and walked away without saying a word.
posted by chlorus at 7:33 PM on August 13, 2007


Sometimes people write articles which irritate you because they have so much truth in them, despite the fact that they present a different opinion.

I have to agree with Ebert here though. This article is just... wrong. Rosenbaum is way of base. His criticisms aren't coherent.

Fuck that guy. Autumn Sonata is one of the most beautiful movies ever made. Call it fluff and I'll feed you my fucking fist.
posted by Alex404 at 7:33 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


I take heart in imagining that 100 years from now, Ingmar Bergman's work will still be a topic of heated conversation, while Mr. Rosenbaum will be completely and blissfully forgotten by one and all.
posted by blucevalo at 8:24 PM on August 13, 2007


Living in Chicago, I often read Rosenbaum's reviews when I am looking up movie time on the Reader's website. I think I almost never agree with him. This is an interesting article from him - makes me want to go watch some Bergman films.
posted by mai at 8:46 PM on August 13, 2007


But Rosenbaum never actually says that Bergman's movies suck. In fact, he calls them"entertaining" and "well written." Rather, he says that they weren't innovative and didn't "say something new." Oh, and that they aren't being discussed in film schools.

I get the impression these are some pretty hard disses in Rosenbaum's neighborhood, but they don't mean a whole lot where I live. Is Martin Scorsese's work original, influential, and full of relevant social commentary? I haven't the foggiest. Has he made some of the best movies in all of creation? Yes, most definitely.
posted by Clay201 at 9:11 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Rosenbaum saying that Bergman is not as influential or important as the myth would have it (or as influential and important as Godard, Bresson, Dreyer, etc., etc.) is just a backhanded way of saying that he sucks. And saying that "we've all grown up a little" since Bergman's films were in vogue is oh-so-clever, and oh-so-insulting. Whether Rosenbaum reluctantly allows that Bergman's films are "entertaining" and "well-written" is damning with faint praise.

On the topic of Bergman's currency in film schools, as Woody Allen said a couple weeks back, most directors would have been happy to make one film as amazing as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician, Cries and Whispers, or Persona.
posted by blucevalo at 10:06 PM on August 13, 2007


As well reasoned as Ebert's rebuttal was, and mind boggling as Rosenbaum's article was, the real issue I have with Rosenbaum has nothing to do with his opinion of Bergman. It's more the complete lack of class it takes to write "[Artist X] is worse than [Artists Y and Z]" as the sole point of your article. Would it have been better to say "[Artists Y and Z] are better than [Artist X]?" Perhaps, but probably only because then the point would have been a celebration of someone, rather than a petty and poorly thought out condemnation of someone deserving of no such thing. As in, if he'd written "If you love Bergman, then I really want you to look for Dreyer and Bresson, as I believe they are even better artists."

But something like this, which can't to my mind have any better justification for its existence than to cement in the critic's mind the importance of his own opinion, is just tacky and something for which he should be ashamed. If he were to have used this opportunity to recommend someone he liked better to his audience, there is at least some service to his profession that exists, then. As in, his job is principally to disseminate information, whether that is merely his opinion on a new film or a recommendation for a film to watch. To recommend something his audience might not have seen serves these purposes. Even if he pans a film, it's a recommendation not to see something his intended audience has not seen, principally. It's still providing them with some sort of information and for their benefit. But to engage in this sort of shabby smearing provides nothing to his audience but the impression that he believes we should be taking his opinion on these things very seriously. It's vanity at best, and at the expense of someone who deserves rather better, no matter who you believe is a better filmmaker than he is.

You'll notice that Ebert never once, in his rebuttal, resorts to insulting either of the directors that Rosenbaum set up against Bergman. He never once makes a point of mentioning any perceived flaws in their work. A classier act, that.
posted by shmegegge at 10:31 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't know what film schools Bergman's not taught in; I saw Persona when I took Intro and it's also shown in the intro class I TAed for this year (at a different school, across the country). He's certainly no less taught at the undergrad level than Bresson or Dreyer (possibly even more). My first year students mostly seemed to do well with it; not all of them loved it, but they were definitely engaged.

I found Bordwell's stylists taxonomy (stubborn stylists, etc) pretty intriguing. I'm not sure style and subject matter can always be that neatly divided, but it's kind of interesting.
posted by SoftRain at 11:20 PM on August 13, 2007


Bresson is undervalued, for sure.
posted by fire&wings at 2:47 AM on August 14, 2007


I agree with about 98% of Bergman's criticism of Antonioni, for the very little this is worth. I find Antonioni's a zombie gaze ceaselessly in search of a still. The 2% is for the closing sequence of L'Eclisse, which for mine is one of the defining moments of European cinematic modernism.

While I am shitting on, Rosenbaum is ploughing as different field from Ebert. He's a much more subtle cat.
posted by Wolof at 5:09 AM on August 14, 2007


Well, at least the discourse here is on a slightly higher level than at the thread following Rosenbaum's column, the first comment in which is:

If Rosenbaum knows so damn much about motion pictures, why isn't his name as famous as Bergman's?

Rosenbaum does know so damn much about motion pictures, which certainly doesn't mean he's always right but does mean his thoughts are almost always worth taking seriously. (Being right can easily be overrated; being thought-provoking is frequently more valuable.) I have a lot of respect for Bergman, but I haven't actually seen one of his movies in many years, which is telling in itself and supports his point—I have, after all, made considerable efforts to seek out and watch movies by Godard, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Fassbinder, and other classics. Ebert's response was borderline hysterical and pretty much uninteresting; it's your basic "OMG how could you say that! No, no, that's just WRONG!!" (a tack also taken here by some commenters). Bordwell, on the other hand, was provoked into a long, thoughtful analysis that made me think and taught me things.

Oh, and the Woody Allen piece Bordwell linked to is just sad. "Bergman once told me... knowing him, this was meager compensation... as he told me once... To meet him was not to suddenly enter the creative temple of a formidable, intimidating, dark and brooding genius who intoned complex insights with a Swedish accent about man’s dreadful fate in a bleak universe. It was more like this: 'Woody, I have this silly dream.. You ever have those nervous dreams?' or 'You think it will be interesting to make a movie where the camera never moves an inch and the actors just enter and exit frame? Or would people just laugh at me?' What does one say on the phone to a genius?... I used to have long phone conversations with him. He would arrange them from the island he lived on." Did I mention that I KNEW INGMAR BERGMAN PERSONALLY?

Great post!
posted by languagehat at 6:16 AM on August 14, 2007 [3 favorites]


the real issue I have with Rosenbaum has nothing to do with his opinion of Bergman. It's more the complete lack of class it takes to write "[Artist X] is worse than [Artists Y and Z]" as the sole point of your article. Would it have been better to say "[Artists Y and Z] are better than [Artist X]?" Perhaps, but probably only because then the point would have been a celebration of someone, rather than a petty and poorly thought out condemnation of someone deserving of no such thing. As in, if he'd written "If you love Bergman, then I really want you to look for Dreyer and Bresson, as I believe they are even better artists."

I think this is linked to how Rosenbaum can't transcend the limits and constraints of a New York Times op-ed. Generous, even-handed cinephilia doesn't get you op-ed space, but contrarianism does. (How else to explain the career of David Brooks?) Bordwell focuses on how the constraints of the op-ed make it impossible to generate an empirical argument beyond "This is my opinion," but I also think the way that op-ed pages promote shallow contrarianism is also part of the problem.
posted by jonp72 at 11:57 AM on August 14, 2007


Did I mention that I KNEW INGMAR BERGMAN PERSONALLY?

Yeah, that was pretty rank, but almost everything Woody Allen has done or said in the past 15 years falls into that category.
posted by blucevalo at 12:18 PM on August 14, 2007


Bergman was taught plenty back in film school, as were Bresson and Dreyer. Less so on the Antonioni, but that may have just been my classes. Rosenbaum's assertion that Bergman is this barely discussed and considered figure in film schools is an absolute lie.

My two cents on the whole argument is that to dismiss Bergman's contributions to cinema is to dismiss his command of character. He was unafraid to center his films on how his characters interacted, and the themes he explored were through the actions of those characters and the images he could make of them in the worlds they lived in. He had little care for extreme formal exploration, for the simple reason that his focus was elsewhere - and yet even then, he was not above quite a bit of strangeness in his films, with bold, memorable strokes of style.

I like Rosenbaum and all, but the idea that Bergman was somehow limiting himself by being "entertaining" and that his refusal to "challenge" conventional cinema came from "reluctance" is absolutely idiotic, and I mean that quite seriously. Not everyone comes into cinema to make his or her mark on the material with a single stylistic vision of formal experimentation; some prefer to adorn the classical forms with their own of mastery of it, and it is in those expansive careers, such as Bergman's, that we see what people truly watch, enjoy, and learn from. His work represents one powerful, influential territory in what is but a vast land; that his mark on film was different from Dreyer's is not something you can talk about in terms of being better or worse.

I'd also speculate that Bergman's complex handle on character makes him trickier to write essays about than endless noodling about the imagery of Bresson. It is easy to look at the matter-of-fact lensing of a donkey and to speculate as to what one would mean by presenting such an animal; it's another to deal with what it would be like to sit at a table of Bergman characters.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:25 PM on August 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


I took issue with this line by Rosenbaum:
His works are seen less often in retrospectives and on DVD than those of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson
Not so much the retrospectives - which are coming BTW - but the DVD claim. Currently, there are at least 21 Bergman films available on DVD in Region 1. All are in print [I believe] and easy to buy or rent. What's more, most are on The Criterion Collection label. [The others an MGM box set]. While they don't comprise all of Bergman's films they cover a significant part of his career.

I also think that Bresson and Dreyer have always been a bit on the outskirts of the mainstream international film world while Bergman was so much a part of it that you could parody him and people knew who you were referring to. For that reason, Bresson and Dreyer are always 'being rediscovered' while Bergman gets shuffled off to the 'been there done that' room where Fellini and Truffaut reside.
However, I think his films will stand the test of time just fine.
posted by Rashomon at 4:45 PM on August 14, 2007


Well, I don't know how anyone could agree with Rosenbaum (although I think Bresson is superior to Bergman), but I love these sort of outrageous critical opinions that gets everyone talking.

This is exactly why I love Jonathan Rosenbaum. I agree with him only occasionally, but his criticism always gets me to think about things in a different way.
posted by smich at 12:06 PM on August 15, 2007


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