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Fighting over Bergman's legacy

The Battle Over Bergman continues, and it's gone mainstream. Since Ingmar Bergman died July 30, an age-old debate about the director's place in film history has once again been rekindled, this time by Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum's incendiary contrarian piece in the New York Times. Roger Ebert responded to Rosenbaum's case against Bergman here.

Critics around the world, and across the web, have been debating Bergman's reputation, but now even the popular magazine Entertainment Weekly has joined the fray. EW film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote of Rosenbaum's takedown:

I also don't know how anyone could think that a movie like "Persona," with its naked acting and mind-warp structure, or "Scenes from a Marriage," which so captures the music of relationships that I could it watch forever, is lacking in eternal secrets. What's truly notable about Rosenbaum's dismissal, however, is the battle line he's really drawing: between Bergman the middlebrow, an art filmmaker who actually deigned to tell his stories fluidly (how vulgar!), and Rosenbaum's heroes, such as the arid, oblique Bresson, with his dessicated zombie acting and general lack of forward motion.

Specious as it is, this argument represents what has become a vanguard attitude in the way that foreign films are now routinely celebrated — not for their expression, but for their benumbed lack of expression. You see it in the canonization of directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami, the spiritual heirs to Bresson: filmmakers who fetishize their refusal to dramatize, who create art that is meandering and oblique, at times to the point of madness. For a while there in the '50s, '60s, and early '70s, Ingmar Bergman's films held sway as a ''classy'' cultural phenomenon, but through all the symbols, the feverish close-ups, the otherworldly chess games, the torment and the tenderness, what you always felt was his deep desire to connect. That's what made his art, and art film itself, matter.

Geilberman's piece, "The Moment I 'Got' Ingmar Bergman," can be read here:

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20051393,00.html

Next, Glenn Kenny, of the late Premiere magazine, devoted a post to the controversy he called "Art Film Pissing Contest" on his blog, "In the Company of Glenn":

I hold Rosenbaum in very high esteem, and the Times op-ed was—as George Clooney once said of Tarkovsky's "Solaris" (1972), I'm always amused to recall—not his best work. A lot of Rosenbaum's critical "debunking" here goes consists of defining what Bergman was not—e.g., not an avant-gardist and/or formal innovator on the level of Godard or Resnais. He brings up what he sees as Bergman's "perpetual retreat from the modern world," a variant of the "solipsist" position on Bergman which kind of begs the question as to exactly which world, say, the characters in Scenes from a Marriage inhabit. But these are supportable positions; I just don't happen to share them. The stuff about the blond, blue-eyed cast members, however, practically screams "Holy shit! I'm under by 200 words!" The snipes at Bergman-chic are about as critically substantive and useful as, say, making fun of a Pedro Costa fan for his taste in t-shirts. The evocation of "relevance" is tiresome....

Less interesting, though, is the either/or-choice both [Rosenbaum's and Gleiberman's] pieces imply. I myself want Bergman and Bresson, please. I'm going to continue to, unless you convincingly demonstrate to me that it is constitutionally impossible to have a coherent appreciation of both. Which I doubt can be done.

Kenny's post is here:

http://glennkenny.premiere.com/blog/2007/08/art-film-pissin.html

In a reply to Kenny in the comments section, Rosenbaum offers further elaboration on how he came to write the NYT piece and what he meant to accomplish with it:

On July 31st, I received an email from a Times Op Ed page editor whom I hadn't previously been in touch with: "We were wondering if you might writing a short essay for us on Ingmar Bergman-- something that might offer slightly more perspective than the solemn obituaries, a clear-eyed audit of his achievements, his actual influence on and place in world cinema." I called him back, and it did become clear he wanted something that was less reverential than what had already been appearing in the Times and elsewhere, and this wasn't in conflict with my own inclinations. I'd never been invited to write anything for the Times before this, so it seemed worth going ahead with it.

Three days and four drafts later, we came up with something we were both happy with. The editing was amicable but also difficult--I'm not accustomed to doing so many rewrites. And it's obvious that some of my original emphases got altered. The fact that Bergman wasn't being taught too much today wasn't meant as a knock, just as a statement of fact. (After all, some of my favorite filmmakers, such as Feuillade, aren't taught too much either.)

Clearly the very fact that this was a Times Op Ed piece wound up affecting the way many people read it; it automatically made the whole thing more of a fashion statement than what I had in mind--but this is context more than content. I can't imagine so many people would have gotten so worked up about it if something similar had appeared in the Reader. I guess it must have felt to some people like one institution was attacking another institution--and if that's what it was or how it seemed, then I guess I was at least partially a tool in this process. As you imply, neither the headline nor the "pull- quote" (actually not a quote at all) was mine, and I can't say I was very happy with either. I'd wanted a more extended (and favorable) treatment of Bergman's mise en scene, in film as well as in theater, versus what I regard more as the decoupage of Dreyer and Bresson, and I certainly didn't regard the comparison with Cukor as any kind of putdown--unless it's a putdown to say that I respect the mise en scene of Bergman more than the intellectual or spiritual content.

Rosenbaum's full post can be read here:

http://glennkenny.premiere.com/blog/2007/08/art-film-pissin.html#comment-79858051

And the battle continues...

P.S. Rosenbaum has responded to Bertrand Tavernier's letter about him in the Reader Mail section of RogerEbert.com.

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