In memoriam, Ingmar [Chicago Reader blog post, 8/7/07, with 109 comments]

Film In memoriam, Ingmar

Posted By on 08.07.07 at 01:09 PM

Ingmar_Bergman_Smultronstallet

SawdustandTinsel

TheMagician-attic

In response to the recent death of Ingmar Bergman, the Chicago Cinema Forum has organized a Bergman marathon (Chicagoist termed it a “crash course in Bergman”) to be held at the Chopin Theatre this coming weekend. Included will be the local premiere (two screenings) of a recent three-part, three-hour documentary about Bergman made for Swedish TV and screenings of five major Bergman features: 16-millimeter prints of Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), and Persona (1966), and a DVD projection of the 188-minute version of Fanny and Alexander (1982), a Bergman miniseries that was the last thing he ever shot on film.

All five of the features will be introduced and discussed by local critics. I’ll be trying my hand at Sawdust and Tinsel, and the founder of Chicago Cinema Forum (and organizer of this event), Gabe Klinger, will do Fanny and Alexander; WBEZ producer Alison Cuddy will introduce The Seventh Seal, Time Out Chicago‘s Ben Kenigsberg will introduce Wild Strawberries, and National Louis University prof Robert Keser will introduce Persona. The social aspect of the Chicago Cinema Forum has been a central part of Klinger’s project from the beginning, and two hour-long receptions on Saturday and Sunday, offering a further chance to discuss Bergman, are also scheduled.

As it happens, I had already made plans to show Bergman’s The Magician (1958) as part of a lecture course I’ll be teaching this fall at the Gene Siskel Film Center well before his death. And after I agreed to introduce Sawdust and Tinsel at Klinger’s event, I was invited about a week ago to write an op-ed piece about Bergman for the New York Times (registration required) that’s less reverential than these other activities might suggest. [2014 note: for my original draft of this piece, please go here.]

Having more recently seen the second part of the Bergman documentary being shown, devoted exclusively to Bergman’s prodigious career as a theater director–which I would argue (and Bergman himself maintained) is more important than his career as a filmmaker–I can strongly recommend it as an eye-opener. And if I had to recommend only one film to see by Bergman, I’d probably pick Persona–though I hasten to add, with some embarrassment, that I still haven’t seen Fanny and Alexander, which many regard as Bergman’s masterpiece, and which I’m planning to catch up with this weekend.

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Comments (109)

Showing 1-50 of 109

 

re FANNY AND ALEXANDER: that makes two of us–so maybe i’ll see you there …

Posted by pat g. on 08/07/2007 at 1:30 PM

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Olivier Assayas’s inclusion of Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage on his 2002 S&S poll along with Mirror, Ordet and Bresson’s L’Argent. I just recently finished the TV version for the first time some weeks ago, and I kept feeling that the sustained close-ups, though more fluid and probing than any I know of, in effect require narcissim. Not only is it made clear that Bergman is projected in to both his male and female protaganists, but he asks, and even requires us to become narcissus by identifying with them and only being able to identify with them. I think that it is at that point that his Agnosticism fully turns to Atheism. That series becomes his most full formal expression of the very thing Mirror, L’Argent, and Ordet suggest most fully in their form.

Posted by Trevor on 08/07/2007 at 6:13 PM

regarding your op-ed for the NY Times, I must applaud it. There was just too much smoke being blown. A great blow, but a bit thick. Brave comments — and fair. And I applaud the Times for running it.

Posted by Ken on 08/07/2007 at 7:07 PM

Look in my humble opinion Bergman is vastly ovverated but compared to the so called giants of today: Scorcese, Tarantino, etc. I would kill for a new Bergman. Quite frankly no one can deny him Persona. that film is a masterpiece (The king himself Godard used the M word to describe it) and Orson Welles rightfully once commented that you only need one masterpiece film. But what is really bothering me right now is the death of Antonioni and the realization that when Godard passes away the last link to to a time when Art Cinema was in vogue will pass away with him. While a kiarostami might be an equal to a Godard or Antonioni on cinematic or artistic terms he has been unable to stir the same amount of emotion in the movie going public. Perhaps as JR as commented this is a result of the multinational corporations who run the movie industry and the press covering it but that was also true in the 1960s. I have taken many friends who are not cinephiles to watch a Kiarostami film but his films have failed to radically change my friends notions of what the Cinema is and what it could be. On the otherhand, when some of these same friends are shown a Godard or Antonioni film the are blown away. Many times they may not even like the film but come out with a whole new idea of what the Cinema can represent. In fact, my cousin was so shocked by last year at marienbad that he wouldnt stop talking about for a month straight. He does not seem to have the same response with many of the new giants of the cinema. Perhaps, at the end of the day there is something trendy, vogue, or even cool about a frenchman, an italian, and pretty european women discussing art, philosophy, cinema. But a poor iranian or a poor tawainese women discussing his or her life just doesnt have that same “hipster” factor. The sad reality may be that the failure of the iranian or tawainese cinema to capture the attention of the youth and the public at large may be not the result of corporations controlling the media but of the imperialism of american culture marginalizing the so called third world cultures in exchange for the material chic culture of blue jeans, italian suits, and pretty white faces.

Posted by Puya Yazdi on 08/07/2007 at 8:44 PM

Wait a second. You wrote a piece in, of all places, The New York Times about Ingmar Bergman’s career, but you haven’t seen his crowning achievement? I think David Lodge has room for you in one of his novels.

Posted by Emma P on 08/07/2007 at 11:19 PM

“…you haven’t seen his crowning achievement?” Jonathan’s piece was focused on the emperor’s clothes, not his crown. As for “Art Cinema”: good riddance! Perhaps we can now start focusing on cinematic art.

Posted by Jason Guthartz on 08/07/2007 at 11:28 PM

although i was only three during the glory days of art house cinema (1961???) i think i can understand the nostalgia bergmanophiles express. this was such an antidote to hollywood shlock (even though the french — and bogdonovich and sarris — were discovering the hitchoko-hawksians), it really expressed rebellion and discovery and sex. good times. but, there was also something about joining with other like-minded humans in a common space and looking at something exotic and smart in the dark — hell, i imagine you could even smoke in those places! can we have the same thrill from a solo medium? youtube or dvd or whatever? the spectacle of seeing an art film in an art house — that takes film out of the realm of theatre and makes it akin to novels. it’s still art, but it’s private? seeing jules and jim at the movies is different than watching it on dvd. it just is. showing your kid gunga din at the movies is different that tcm (which i love, but it ain’t no theatre 80 saint marks.) sad but true.

Posted by Ken Krimstein on 08/08/2007 at 10:32 AM

Puya Yazdi, The hipster factor doesn’t work the same way with older enshrined masterpieces and today’s new masterpieces. The “avant-garde” is ahead of its time, it takes time for the general public to get used to it or to truly understand it. Thus a wide recognition is harder to reach when the audience is involved in the very socio-political context these visionary filmmakers denounce. It’s easier to look back on old controversies and relativize/ignore the flaws and only see a beautiful film speaking of an era that is no longer ours. “Jonathan’s piece was focused on the emperor’s clothes, not his crown.” Well, he should have made it VERY clear then, and not articulate his argumentation as if he was evaluating Bergman’s intrinsic style and oeuvre. Because such correlation is specious.

Posted by HarryTuttle on 08/08/2007 at 1:00 PM

There’s one minor change in the program: in place of Ben Kenigsberg we’ll have Jim Trainor, filmmaker and prof at the School of the Art Institute, present Wild Strawberries.

Posted by Gabe Klinger on 08/08/2007 at 3:44 PM

Here is a interesting article regarding Bergman’s Nazi Past: Posted by Ty Burr of the Boston Globe. I was reminded by a reader over the weekend that of the hundreds of Ingmar Bergman obituaries published last week — including my own — none mentioned the great filmmaker’s youthful infatuation with Nazism and Adolf Hitler. Which is odd, because the director had often admitted as much and in 1999 provided further details in an interview reported by the BBC. Bergman’s father was ultra-right wing, and both the future filmmaker and his brother were Nazi sympathizers. Bergman saw Hitler speak in Germany in 1936 and recalled the dictator as “incredibly charismatic.” But he maintains he never went as far as his brother and friends, who painted swastikas on Jewish-owned buildings. On the other hand, neither did he stop them. It seems young Ingmar just went with the crowd until the very end of WWII — not so hard, since officially neutral Sweden had a vocal pro-Nazi influence — when the revelations of the death camps opened his eyes. “In a brutal and violent way I was suddenly ripped of my innocence,” he said in 1999. He never formally apologized — nor was he asked to — and there was no PR firestorm as there was over Gunter Grass last year. Was Bergman “given a free pass”? The answer’s complex. Without question, his WWII political beliefs should have been mentioned in any comprehensive obituary, my own included. (In my lame defense, I was working on a sudden and tight deadline, and blipped over the one oblique mention that turned up.) But should he have apologized? I think he did — with his movies. Only one of Bergman’s films deals explicitly with the Nazi era, and it’s not one of the good ones. But the filmography in total is wracked with moral pain, forever insisting on the abiding foolishness of man. He called one of his movies “Shame” — tellingly, it’s about life during wartime and what it does to people — and the title extends to the whole race. The 1960s work especially is a cinema bereft of hope, “ripped of innocence,” and the source seems to spring from behind the camera. The worst behavior and the most unforgivable sins in Bergman films are wholly personal, as if the director were using the lens as a mirror. He never apologized because I doubt he ever forgave himself — his childish belief in those beautiful young Aryan men proved how deluded he and the rest of humanity could be. Bergman consequently never set himself up as a moral arbiter, as Grass did in his writings. (Nor had he actively served in the Waffen-SS during WWII, as Grass had done.) How was he going to tell you what was right when he’d been so wrong? Better to start from scratch, his films say: Assume the worst of the human race, assume that God has left the building, and sift the ashes for the few coals of grace still burning. Bergman’s career consisted of wondering how they could possibly be fanned into flame.
Posted by Josh on 08/08/2007 at 7:53 PM

Defending Ingmar Bergman by Roger Ebert I have long known and admired the Chicago Reader’s film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, but his New York Times op-ed attack on Ingmar Bergman (“Scenes from an Overrated Career,” 8/4/07) is a bizarre departure from his usual sanity. It says more about Rosenbaum’s love of stylistic extremes than it does about Bergman and audiences. Who else but Rosenbaum could actually base an attack on the complaint that Bergman had what his favorites Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson lacked, “the power to entertain — which often meant a reluctance to challenge conventional film-going habits?” In what parallel universe is the power to entertain defined in that way? I love Bresson and respect Dreyer but what does Rosenbaum mean by their challenges to conventional film-going? He continues: “as Dreyer did when constructing his peculiar form of movie space and Bresson did when constructing his peculiar form of movie acting.” And what were those peculiar forms? Dreyer built an elaborate set for The Passion of Joan of Arc and never revealed it, using closeups of faces with expressionistic angles and shadows. Bresson would shoot the same take over and over, as many as 50 times, to drain his actors of all emotion; he referred to them, indeed, as “models” I am impressed by the idea and conception of these peculiar forms, but I doubt if they are more or less “entertaining” than Bergman’s also stylized but less constricted use of sets and actors. Rosenbaum writes, “Riddled with wounds inflicted by Mr. Bergman’s strict Lutheran upbringing and diverse spiritual doubts, these films are at times too self-absorbed to say much about the larger world, limiting the relevance that his champions often claim for them.”  This statement is perfectly accurate about Dreyer if you substitute his name for Bergman’s, and perfectly accurate about Bresson, if you substitute the names and change “Lutheran” to “Catholic”. Indeed, Bresson has been called the most Catholic of filmmakers. Rosenbaum says Bergman is less taught in schools today than Godard and Hitchcock. He carefully avoids saying Bergman is less taught than Dreyer or Bresson. I grant him Hitchcock. He uses Google counts in his argument, so out of curiosity I googled “film class on Ingmar Bergman” (1,400,000) and “film class on Jean-Luc Godard” (310,000). He says Bergman is “discussed”, so I googled web discussion groups and found that Bergman scored 59,000 and Godard 14,400. Of course these entries cover a multitude of kinds of content, but there you have them. Curiously, Rosenbaum thinks it is a sign of Bergman’s decline that he is hard to find on DVD these days, because he had to purchase his copy of The Magician in Paris (“Like many of his films, ‘The Magician’ hasn’t been widely available here for ages.”). Not true. I had to order Welles’ Chimes at Midnight from Brazil, and his Magnificent Ambersons is unavailable in this country, but I find 66 DVDs of Bergman’s 50-some titles, including “The Magician,” for sale on Amazon, although some of them are for zones other than ours (an all-zone DVD player now costs less than $70, something I learned from Rosenbaum before ordering mine). You can find DVDs of all Dreyer’s films from Joan onward (five), and 10 of the 13 Bressons. The most recent of the four Bergmans that Rosenbaum even mentions is Persona (1966), except for Saraband (2005), his final film. The sin of that film was “his seeming contempt for the medium [digital video] apart from its usefulness as a simple recording device”. In other words, at 86, Bergman did not choose to experiment with digital but simply used it. Surely it is also of interest that the film reunited the same two actors, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, who had already played a divorced couple in Scenes from a Marriage (1973), and now meet again many years later. As for Bergman’s openness to a newer medium, what about his embrace of the lower costs and greater flexibility of Super 16 more than 35 years ago? What about him proving with Sven Nykvist in The Passion of Anna that a conversation could be shot on 16mm by the light of a single candle? I think Rosenbaum gives away the game when he says, Bergman’s “movies aren’t so much filmic expressions as expressions on film.” He means form itself is more important (and entertaining, I guess) than narrative, emotional content and performance. Not everyone would agree. Rosenbaum complains of “the antiseptic, upscale look of Mr. Bergman’s interiors.”  Would that include the interiors in The Virgin Spring, The Seventh Seal, The Passion of Anna,The Silence, Wild Strawberries, Hour of the Wolf, Scenes from a Marriage and indeed The Magician and Persona? (I would mention Fanny and Alexander and its horror-house Lutheran parsonage but Rosenbaum says he hasn’t seen the film voted #3 in the Sight & Sound poll of world directors and critics to determine the best films from 1975-2000.) Finally, Rosenbaum laments how Bergman’s “mainly blond, blue-eyed cast members became a brand to be adopted and emulated.”  Hello? Bergman worked in Sweden! Does he forgive Ousmane Sembene’s African exteriors and mainly black-haired, brown-eyed cast members? Or the way Ozu used all those Japanese?

Posted by Josh on 08/08/2007 at 9:48 PM

My reply to a few points in Roger’s article (also posted on his web site): 1. The best discussion of Dreyer’s use of space is to be found in David Bordwell’s book on Dreyer, which I highly recommend. David is Roger’s favorite academic critic, and understandably so, given the rigor of his visual analysis, so I hope Roger can check out Bordwell’s treatment of Dreyer’s use of space, which is quite different from what his article suggests it is. To broach this matter much more briefly, I hope I can be forgiven for quoting from another recent post of mine in “a_film_by”: “Syntactically, Dreyer’s editing and his way of combining a track in one direction with a pan in another direction are more than just personal inflections, and the same goes for Bresson’s use of inexpressiveness in both performances and shots in order to make the juxtapositions between shots and what might be called the involuntary expressiveness of bodies register in a different way from how we’ve experienced them before. In both cases, I think what’s new isn’t just a new ‘personal’ meaning but a new way of producing meaning–and that for me signifies a change in language.” 2. I’m afraid Dreyer didn’t have a strict Lutheran upbringing–that’s been an old wives’ tale ever since Maurice Drouzy’s Dreyer biography came out. Dreyer hated his adopted parents, but not for any religious reasons. And I don’t know anything about Bresson’s religious upbringing; if Roger does, he should speak up. (As for Bresson’s religious beliefs, a matter of much speculation, that’s also been debated at some length in “a film by” over the past few days.) 3. Bergman’s “seeming contempt” for digital video “apart from its usefulness as a simple recording device” in “Saraband” isn’t a sin in my book but a plus. That’s what I argued when I reviewed the film in the Reader — at least that’s what I tried to argue. What I find objectionable at times in “Saraband,” as I say in my article, are some of the emotions being recorded and Bergman’s lack of interest in critiquing or distancing himself from them in any way. 4. Moreover, I have absolutely nothing against Bergman having used blond and blue-eyed cast members, nearly all of whom are extremely talented as well as Swedish. My objection is only to the way this use and practice became “a brand to be adopted and emulated”– by Woody Allen, among others.

Posted by Jonathan R. on 08/08/2007 at 10:19 PM

I am astounded that “the power to entertain” is regarded in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s article as such a detrimental quality. There is little doubt in my mind that Dreyer and Bresson did have much more importance in creating a new cinematic language, yet to provide this comparison as evidence of an “overrated career” seems to belong to the same perspective of those who believe a figure such as Sturges isn’t “a cinematic master” simply because of his films’ lack of stylistic inventiveness in comparison to Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford and Welles. If anything Bergman’s power to entertain mixed with his thematic concerns (spiritual displacement, narcissism, death) is reason enough for his status as a master. For some reason I don’t quite remember Cukor ever doing this, nor other directors doing it quite as brilliantly as Bergman. And if these thematic concerns that constitute Bergman’s oeuvre don’t say much about the larger world then I don’t know what does. As for this ever increasing opinion of the overrated nature of Bergman, I firmly believe it belongs to many cinephiles’ desire to continually be outside the mainstream. It is very unlikely that someone who isn’t a cinephile would be familiar with a work by Dreyer or Bresson, but there may be a chance that they’re familiar with a work by Bergman which seems to be reason enough to declare his overrated stature. Furthermore many of those who maintain these points of view are the same individuals who praised his films on there initial releases. Furthermore it was never evident in my reading that the article was solely concerned with the “emperor’s clothes”  since the title of the article does contain the words “overrated career”. The idea that an author would write an argument against the importance of a director’s oeuvre without ever having seen what is widely regard as not only the director’s crowning achievement, but also the summation of his career is quite simply absurd. And as a film student this assumption that Ingmar Bergman isn’t being taught in film schools with the same intensity as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Jean-Luc Godard is equally absurd. Nor is it relevant to the argument of Bergman’s overrated status seeing at how artists such as Dreyer and Bresson aren’t being taught in the same intensity as Hitchcock, Welles and Godard despite their equal importance. I’m glad that all of this was eloquently pointed out by Roger Ebert.

Posted by Jorge on 08/09/2007 at 1:00 AM

First of all, I’d like to point out that Tartan have released virtually all of Bergman’s DVDs in the UK on Region 2, so if you can’t get your Bergman fix elsewhere, that’s the first port of call. While I appreciate Dreyer as much as the next man and agree with your sentiments about his work, Jonathan, it does seem to me you’re imposing a set of criteria on Bergman which he needn’t necessarily have wanted to follow or emulate. From your discussion of Bresson and Dreyer, it seems you hold “creators of form” as being the acme of achievement in film. But what of synthesisers, directors who experiment between the margins of, say, thatre and film, as Bergman did so successfully throughout his career? No-one experimented so much with the medium from film to film as Bergman did. He was restless, sure, but is that necessarily a fault? And if the resulting films have so much to say about the human character and male-female relationships, as I believe they do, is it valid to dismiss them because they are not so extreme in their manipulation of form as those of other directors? This is the point I believe Roger Ebert is trying to make – a confluence of insight, intelligence, great performance, and progressive experiment is thrown out because of a purely formal criteria. And while we’re at it, are we really saying Bresson’s remorselessly grim view of the universe is less doom-laden and more relevant to most viewers than Bergman’s? It seems to me, in Bresson’s movies, we are FORCED to accept his view of the world and his monotone actors as if they are a fait accomplit, and not a directorial decision that often detracts from the material rather than adds to it. And if we’re going to discuss narcissism, how one can criticise Bergman and eulogise Cassavetes is beyond me.

Posted by Mike Bartlett on 08/09/2007 at 5:08 AM

It’s intriguing to me how much people are seizing on my remarks about form and ignoring my remarks about relevance to the contemporary world. I presume that’s why I’m being accused of downgrading or ignoring content, emotional and otherwise. I’ve said this before, but I usually like to think of form as a verb, not a noun. And what’s being formed and why are, of course, crucial.

Posted by Jonathan R. on 08/09/2007 at 5:27 PM

P.S. Just for the record, I like entertainment as well as many films by George Cukor. (I was especially knocked out by Bhowani Junction when I resaw it recently. A very advanced film for its period.) My comparison of Bergman with Cukor wasn’t meant as a slam but as a tribute. All I was trying to say was that sometimes the power to entertain and the power to change the way you look at the world can wind up in conflict with one another. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that they always do.)

Posted by Jonathan R. on 08/09/2007 at 5:32 PM

As for relevance to the contemporary world, is anxiety about mortality or the (non)existence of God ever going to vanish (at least in North American and European culture)? As a critic who’s tended to downplay the importance of religious themes in Dreyer and Bresson’s work – rightly pointing out that the material aspects of their films deserve consideration too – I can see why you’re not particularly sympathetic to Bergman’s treatment of these themes, but someone from a more devout background might find them hitting home with a lot of power. . Antonioni was a director who was far more concerned with relevance than Bergman, and I think some of his work – particualrly BLOW-UP and ZABRISKIE POINT- suffers for it. His early ’60s films were probably a prophetic view of the impending triumph of the yuppie, but what do the Yardbirds smashing their guitars and a glimpse of female pubic hair have to do with the illusory nature of reality? ZABRISKIE POINT has more overt political discussion in its first reel than you’ll find in the entire Bergman oeuvre (apart from his suppressed anti-communist film), but SHAME now seems like a deeper examination of the anxieties provoked by the Vietnam War.

Posted by Mark on 08/09/2007 at 10:27 PM

Cervantes et Shakespeare they died the same day. Today it’s time to movies: Bergman and Antonioni. All cinema lovers we are very sad these days. Try to ckeck out “The making of Fanny and Alexander” made in 1986 as a complement to your sceening. It’s a beautiful document. Are you planning to see the long version made for TV? Bergman’s filmography are so rich that always you can find new senses inside his work. My last great surprise was “Shame” (1968) a magnificent piece of movie making (right between “Persona” and “Cries and Whispers”). I do not know why “The Magician” was so difficult to find in US. I saw a excellent 35mm print in Chile some years ago. And if you come to Paris, in St André des Arts cinema they will shown the Bergman’s Saga with 38 excellent 35mm prints, like they made since 20 years. As a gift… in YouTube you can find the complete series of commercial clips made to swedish Briss Soap in 1951. http://fr.youtube.com/watch?v=inqJeWDHav8 One of them starred by Bibi Andersson, and all of them with Gunnar Fischer like DoP. I saw them for the first time in a 16mm copy owned by the Frankfurt Filmmuseum. They are funny and with a irresistible Bergman touch. He always denied them. Today it’s to late.

Posted by Nicolas Lasnibat on 08/10/2007 at 2:33 PM

While I agree that Bergman should be championed for his emotional depth and there very much is a time and a place for the depth he added to this medium and its emotional potential, that aspect alone leads us and viewers and craftsmen to naval-gazing and complicity. Though I can’t find a full copy in print of Bordwell’s book on Dreyer I view him as the greatest of all filmmakers. He was well aware of the power of emotion and used it sparingly. Roger Ebert’s citing of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc comes off as aloof. Even in that film (though virtually a different medium since it was prior to synchronized sound), Dreyer began exploring the space inside with his pans which alone makes that film stick out historically, and outside with his camera turning upside down. I think at its essence, the Ebert rebuttal mistook Rosenbaum’s descriptions as “arguments.” But what seems most troublesome was the following quote: “‘Riddled with wounds inflicted by Mr. Bergman’s strict Lutheran upbringing and diverse spiritual doubts, these films are at times too self-absorbed to say much about the larger world, limiting the relevance that his champions often claim for them.’ This statement is perfectly accurate about Dreyer if you substitute his name for Bergman’s, and perfectly accurate about Bresson, if you substitute the names.” Has Ebert seen a Bresson film? Has he seen a Dreyer film? Every frame and every movement is designed to question, evaluate and distance (using varying methods and degrees) the spectator from the image, action and emotion. Especially in Dreyer, the camera is so far from the subject (in movement and in distance) and so concerned with and aware of the surroundings that one’s thoughts and one’s personal musings inevitably stray outside of these characters. His subject is the other, whether divine or terrestrial. His subject is communion outside of one’s self. Bergman, as I mentioned in an earlier post, formally as well as thematically is the exact opposite. Though he is primarily concerned with characters entrenched in their own class structure both the characters and Bergman’s films are completely unable to see outside of them. They cannot see the world, they are unable to get outside of their own dilemas, so they are unable to see the dilemas or struggles of others. The pinnacle of this formal expression is Scenes from a Marriage. I’m reminded of an interview between David Sterritt and Kiarostami where Sterritt suggested that Taste Of Cherry was not a psychological film. From Kiarostami’s response, I got the impression that in his mind, if films got so far into a character’s psyche, the film could not view the forces and powers outside of the individual. That applies to economic as well as transcendent forces. Though I deeply respect Bergman for his expressions and insights, they were self-centered and short-sighted. In many ways it is no wonder that in the end he found that silence to mean no divine existence.
Posted by Trevor on 08/10/2007 at 5:54 PM

JR I too find it quite funny that you are being accused of ignoring content for form and of being a cinephile. While I love reading your criticism my only real major differences of opinion with you is the fact that in my opinion you place too much of an emphasis on content compared with the old Cahiers critics. For example, one can read your defense of a michael moore film as being a defense based on content. Compare this with Jean-luc Godard who has basically panned all of Moore’s films to date. Furthermore, I would also venture to guess that your lack of enthusiasm for Vertigo is also a content issue. Now I think what JR was trying to state about Bergman is something that in any other art would not be an issue. But only in the Cinema is content still so important to movie critics, fans, and the public at large. In painting or literature what makes someone a master is his or her ability to fuse form and content and thereby create new meaning in that art. Picasso, Joyce, Faulkner, etc. these artists are praised for there unique form that created new language in there perspective mediums. That is the problem with the ovverated nature of Bergman. Compared with a Godard, Antonioni, or a Rossellini he is not a master on the same level. But in his time he was more celebrated because of the content and the narrative nature of his work. That is what i believe JR is trying to point out. He is not denying that Bergman is a great filmmaker. But for JR Bergman is ovverated because he is not a master on the level of a Dreyer, Bresson, Godard, Hawks, etc. because he failed to achieve what all the masters in all the arts did achieve: the creation of a new form whereby meaning and content derived directly from this new formic language. Also, he makes another argument that he rightfully points out is being ignored by everyone. That much of Bergman’s content is no longer as relavant as it was when he was making his films. This actually is a very subjective opinion but one that i would agree with. Bergman’s thematic content seems a relic of his time and does not speak to me (a 29 year old persian american) they way it might have when his films first came out. But in Bergman’s defense this is also the case with a lot of other great directors (Rossellini, Bresson, Mizoguchi). But coupled with Bergman’s inability to radically change the language of Cinema the fact that his films content has dated signifies a significant decline in his relevance to current cinema and the world at large. For me Persona is still one of the 50 best films ever made and one of the great works of art of the cinema. But i still know the difference between Bergman and Renoir just like i know the difference between Bob Dylan and Mozart no matter how much i like Like a Rolling Stone.

Posted by Puya Yazdi on 08/10/2007 at 6:09 PM

Puya wrote: “…what JR was trying to state about Bergman is something that in any other art would not be an issue. But only in the Cinema is content still so important to movie critics, fans, and the public at large.” That needs to be said again and again and again. Film criticism is uniquely retrograde in this regard, stuck in modes of aesthetic appreciation which predate the birth of the medium (and which predate the era of Malevich, Mondrian, Kandinsky, et al). Yet when a critic emphasizes these aesthetic qualities, as Jonathan does in his best work, that critic is pejoratively dismissed as a “formalist”. Of course to even recognize a content-form distinction in the first place plays into the hands of those who wish to prioritize things like narrative, theme, characters, acting, etc., over those modes of perception enabled by light-moving-in-time.

Posted by Jason Guthartz on 08/10/2007 at 7:54 PM

“Yet when a critic emphasizes these aesthetic qualities, as Jonathan does in his best work…” Woops – meant to write: Yet when a critic emphasizes FILMIC qualities, as Jonathan does in his best work, that critic is pejoratively dismissed as a “formalist”.

Posted by Jason Guthartz on 08/10/2007 at 7:57 PM

Mr. Rosenbaum, your point about the potential conflict between the power to entertain and the power to change the way we see the world is well taken. I would say in response that if Bergman failed to change the way we see the world through medium-specific means, he changed the way we see the it through other ones. Yes, many of his films are pretentious and attitudinizing, but their expressions of sexual politics, destructive emotion, and the feeling of spiritual abandonment make them relevant to this day. You say you find it interesting that “people are seizing on my remarks about form and ignoring my remarks about relevance to the contemporary world.” Maybe it’s because your remarks in the Times about his relevance are so underdeveloped. In fact, most of your article consists of assertions with little or no expansion or substantiation. All you actually write about his style is that his images have a “hard severity” and that he makes good use of close-ups. You briefly mention his “stylistic departures” but don’t really discuss them. And you very briefly cite his “fluid storytelling” skills, an area that skirts the visual-style/verbal-content divide. (And yes, Jason G., there is a legitimate divide, especially in narrative film.) That’s not a lot of discussion, but at least you establish a negative discourse by comparing his style to that of Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Welles. Your comments on Bergman’s verbal content, however, are brief, underqualified and unsubstantiated. You don’t really cite any specific films in relation to thematics. You briefly cite Ibsen et al as precedents, then drop the matter. You say he was in retreat from the modern world but don’t say how. You say he at best compressed the insights of other minds but don’t name any, or say how he failed to build on them. You say that his films are too self-absorbed to have wider relevance, which is an interesting point, but I think spiritual confusion (Winter Light, Through a Glass Darkly) fear of death (The Seventh Seal), unrealized dreams (Scenes From a Marriage), the contingency of personal identity (Persona), the disappointments of old age (Wild Strawberries) and the destructive link between machismo and male sexuality (Sawdust and Tinsel) are pretty widely relevant. Yes, people in this discussion have occasionally danced around the issue of the relevance of his messages. But you set the precedent.

Posted by Mike A on 08/10/2007 at 9:32 PM

To Mike A.: I’m glad you think at least one of my points is well-taken. Otherwise, even though you sound as punitive as the pastor in Winter Light, I have to concede that you must be right. When that Times editor invited me to write an Op Ed piece on this subject, I should have demanded four times as much space–not half a page of newsprint but two entire pages–before ever agreeing to continue, and then taken full advantage of this unbridled editorial freedom by qualifying and substantiating all my comments on Bergman’s verbal content. Instead, I stuck with the length I was assigned and chose to dance the night away around the issue. Guilty as charged. So thanks for teaching me that Bergman had so many original and interesting (and therefore relevant, as opposed to banal and warmed-over) things to say about spiritual confusion, fear of death, unrealized dreams, the contingency of personal identity, the disappointments of old age, and the destructive link between machismo and male sexuality–all of which you elect not to spell out, qualify, or substantiate, despite the fact that you have unlimited length. But in your case, I applaud your brevity. Think how bored we all might be if you tried to explain what you really meant.

Posted by The Weary Precedent Setter on 08/10/2007 at 11:02 PM

Roger Ebert–Mr. Middlebrow himself–defending Bergman? Now I know the filmmaker’s rep is in big trouble.

Posted by Noel Vera on 08/11/2007 at 2:25 AM

I’ve seen Fanny & Alexander twice. Like all Bergman movies the photography is absolutely stunning, but I find it a hard story to engage with. I admire the film but don’t really care about the characters. The Silence is my favourite Bergman. ——- Just like to add that while Bergman and Antonioni recently made headline obituaries, one of our great cinematographers quietly passed away: Laszlo Kovacs. I particularly a fan of his photography on Paper Moon. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0004088/

Posted by Alef on 08/11/2007 at 6:18 PM

Ouch! Of course, there’s more specificity about Bergman’s themes in my measly little post than there is in your entire article in the Times. But I’m glad to hear I spared you some boredom- I’ll sleep better tonight. It’ll also help knowing my superficialities weren’t published in one of the most widely read and influential papers in the Western world. I’m going to stop bugging you now. Cheers.

Posted by Mike A on 08/11/2007 at 8:04 PM

Mike A – Rosenbaum is right to take issue with your attacks because, like his own in the Times article, you failed to substantiate your comments. I think it’s important to remember that you both can view Bergman in a different light, shocking I know.

Posted by dave on 08/11/2007 at 10:00 PM

Mike A. and dave: I’m just a casual reader here – but are you guys really that naive as to think that “The Weary Precedent Setter” is Jonathan Rosenbaum? Does that comment sound like something that he would write? Welcome to the world of blog comments – where anyone can pose as anyone.

Posted by Adam on 08/12/2007 at 2:07 AM

Sorry, Adam. But that’s who I am. Mike A. and Dave are right.

Posted by Jonathan R. on 08/12/2007 at 9:32 AM

Also liked Kovacs’ work with Richard Rush, especially the ratchet focus in Psych Out.
Posted by Noel Vera on 08/12/2007 at 6:03 PM

I hope I can be forgiven for copying a slightly expanded recent post of mine from Jim Emerson’s Scanners blog: Last night I finally saw the three-hour version of Fanny and Alexander–the version that Bergman himself regarded as the compromised theatrical version (which is also the one that ranked so highly among critics in the Sight and Sound poll), not the much longer director’s cut made for Swedish TV. The latter is also available in the same Criterion box set, though I haven’t encountered much evidence that many of my colleagues outside of Scandinavian countries, including those who rank Bergman so highly and profess to be scholars of his work, have bothered to see it. In his piece on the film for his “Great Movies” series, Roger does acknowledge the longer version’s existence and Bergman’s own preference for it, but he doesn’t get around to clarifying whether or not he’s seen it and, if he has, whether he agrees or disagrees with Bergman’s own estimation of it. Sorry, guys, but I saw the three-hour Fanny and Alexander back to back with the 1953 Sawdust and Tinsel, and I much prefer the earlier film. Both are impressive in some ways, but the earlier film is far more impressive to me as an almost perfectly achieved work in relation to Fanny and Alexander, a bit of a sprawl by comparison which affects me the same way it affects Alef. Maybe I’d feel differently about the five-hour version, but that’s not the version people have been criticizing me for not seeing. For a very smart and adept estimation of what’s good and what’s not so good in the three-hour Fanny and Alexander, check out Pauline Kael’s detailed review. And please don’t come back to me with Oscar nominations. After all, the vile racism of The Deer Hunter as well as what I assume is the boring wartime propaganda of Mrs. Miniver were both validated and ratified with best-picture Oscars. To all the most vocally fervent Bergman and Fanny and Alexander supporters out there: when are you going to see the original 312-minute TV version and explain why the 188-minute version is presumably better? Even Kael seemed to imply that when she concluded her review by noting that Bergman ALSO made a TV version, failing to acknowledge that the shorter version was simply a digest that Bergman had to put together in order to get the film shown in theaters.

Posted by Jonathan R. on 08/12/2007 at 10:49 PM

I’m planning on watching the TV version of FANNY AND ALEXANDER as soon as I can.
Posted by Gabe Klinger on 08/13/2007 at 11:40 AM

Though I am not a Bergman scholar, I have seen the 5 hour Fanny and Alexander within the last year or so, and I can say that is a significant improvement over the theatrical cut, which I actually find overrated. (The same is true with the 5 hour Scenes From a Marriage by the way: the miniseries cut is superb, whereas the theatrical cut is less so). The criterion essay the accompanies the Fanny and Alexander dvd set nicely captures what the fundamental difference between the two is, namely that in the long cut, you get a much richer immersion into fantasy. With much of that missing from theatrical cut, it becomes a much more anemic film. I, too, would like to hear how anyone could think it’s a better version.

Posted by ZS on 08/13/2007 at 4:13 PM

Can one admire both Bergman and Dreyer? Yes indeed. So many (myself included perhaps) have taken to thinking the so-called Rosenbaum/Ebert battle is over who is greater Bergman or Dreyer. Personally I vote Dreyer, but that is not to diminish Bergman. Bergman is perhaps a stepping stone to greater heights (such as Dreyer and Bresson). True, Bergman has an undeniable(?) masterpiece in his midst with Persona and a few near-calls, but JR may very well be right in his assessment of Bergman’s lack of reputation these days, but then what great master is truly revered in today’s Harry Knowles-esque wolrd of bloggers, where anyone with a keyboard and mouse can chime in (just as I am doing here by the way)??? Bergman may no longer have the reputation but is that the fault of his style (or lack thereof) or the result of a modern world of Tarantino-bred freaks (no offense QT)?? Is Dreyer relevent to the world? Probably not anymore, but that does not diminish his greatness as a stylist, and that should also not diminish Bergman’s stylistic approach. I must surely give Bergman his props (to use one of those modern terms) for changing my views on Cinema when I was still young enough to change, and also for his leading me to the heights of Dreyer and Bresson and Tarkovsky and maybe even Bela Tarr. I know I sound rather wishy washy on the whole shabang, but I cannot help liking the cinema of Bergman while simultaneously decrying his lack of relevence in today’s world. I may not agree totally with your op/ed piece JR but certainly I applaud your production of it.
Posted by Kevyn Knox on 08/14/2007 at 12:53 AM

As far as Bergman’s form goes. His was a form which needed closure of some sort. A visually static (and yes gloomy dammit) outlook on the idea of cinema. No more or less theatrical than Dreyer, yet Dreyer needed no such conclusion to his cinema. Bergman’s cinema needed to dole out answers and in doing so his style may have fallen to the wayside. Still there, just hiding a bit. Whereas Dreyer’s form was everything to his cinema. The difference between a teenager’s overwhelming desire to have sex and an adult’s knowledge that sex will indeed come to him in time. Perhaps this is a crude allegory but I think it quite apt.

Posted by Kevyn Knox on 08/14/2007 at 1:06 AM

One way to distinguish Bergman from both Dreyer and Bresson is to distinguish the art of mise en scene from the art of what the French call decoupage (which means “breakdown into shots” but can also more generally be defined as mise en scene plus editing). One thing I regret about my Op Ed piece is its implication that the art of decoupage is superior to the art of mise en scene, which is a short- sighted view: after all, Playtime, which is as important to me as Ordet or Gertrud or Au Hasard Balthazar, is mise en scene, not decoupage. And seeing Sawdust and Tinsel again over the weekend, I found the mise en scene even more dazzling than I remembered. Some bloggers have been confused by my claim that Dreyer and Tarkovsky had more to say about the modern world than Bergman, but I was thinking in part about Day of Wrath as a film about totalitarianism, Gertrud as a film about both feminism and intolerance, and Stalker as a film about a very contemporary form of self- deception. For me, these films dig a lot deeper into the issues they take up, intellectually and politically, than Persona or Shame do–or Sawdust and Tinsel or Fanny and Alexander, for that matter. In fact, for me the only glaring weakness in Sawdust and Tinsel is the psychologically bogus way that its actor character is drawn to mock and jeer at the circus director even after he seduces his mistress, for no reason in particular except to suit Bergman’s fairly systematic s & m dramaturgy, which obliges practically everyone to be as mean as possible. This only makes sense to me as a simplistically misanthropic statement about people in general, and as such it seems puerile alongside the complex and nuanced ethical investigations of Day of Wrath or Gertrud or Stalker.

Posted by Jonathan R. on 08/14/2007 at 2:16 AM

One way to distinguish Bergman from both Dreyer and Bresson is to admit that they are all very glaringly different individuals whose intensely separate lives and artistic visions share only the commonality of that certain medium they all worked in and mastered: what the Lumierre brothers rightly called cinématographe (writing the movement). Their successes and failures will remain private ones and elusive to those who seek to understand them. The movies they leave behind are mysterious artifacts of these struggles and will slowly reveal themselves only to those who look with love. And lest we forget, Bergman, Bresson, Dreyer and Antonioni all stand on the same side of the fence. They are beyond our words. And I can’t express why, but this is the saddest movie artifact I have ever come across: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8qxiwhuD3g

Posted by Danny Onions on 08/14/2007 at 1:36 PM

Being Scandinavian, living in Sweden, it is fascinating to follow the commments on Bergman as they unfold here. Immediately after Bergman’s passing away Swedish TV sent six of Bergmanâ’s films, and also the three-part documentary Mr. Rosenbaum refers to above somewhere. The films broadcast were Summer with Monika, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Winter Light, Persona, and the five-hour version of Fanny and Alexander. An excellent opportunity to assess and re-assess his work. Leaving disputes about form and content aside, I believe there are two important observations in the original op-ed piece: one concerns Bergman’s love with theatre and his skill with his chosen actors, the other concerns the themes chosen. There is an evolution of form and content from the early 50s into the early 70s. During the 50s Bergman’s films were considered accessible, even entertaining. Gradually the themes explored turned inward, estranging (Swedish) audiences, but gaining the respect from those who were willing to invest their time in films like Winter Light and Persona. This inward journey is difficult–we are taken to places where the emotions are ugly, as Mr. Rosenbaum put it. Cries and Whispers can be thought of as the end station for this process. In the films of the 60s the characters are plagued by existential angst, ”expressions of sexual politics, destructive emotion, and the feeling of spiritual abandonment– a phrase stolen from Mike A above. I have a hard time believing in many of these angst-ridden characters, and see only the manipulations of the puppeteer. There is a borderline sadistic treatment of them in many of Bergman’s films which is hard to take. It is as if the wrath of the scriptwriter is taken out on defenseless marionettes. Hard to see what is relevant about that today. Fanny and Alexander was made at a time when Bergman seemingly had mellowed. I remember seeing it during its first run in Gothenburg. I was surprised by the warmth of characterization and sympathy shown towards many of the characters. As for the question of whether the three or five-hour version of Fanny and Alexander is the better one: the five-hour version is richer, better paced, more humane and believable in terms of character. I have seen the longer version several times Get the Criterion and see the long version! Dreyer, Bresson or Bergman? Or Hawks and Kiarostami, which I prefer? Bergman certainly was a great and important film director. How great? I find that a less interesting question, and I shall gladly leave it to those who are intent on discussing canons. It will be interesting to follow the developments.

Posted by R.Lyng on 08/14/2007 at 2:50 PM

Its very livener to read a conversation about cinema in so serious terms. But putting the polemic aside (anyway, i don’t think Bergman is overrated), i just want to express my gratitude to the leading personage of the discussion.. Unattached to mainstream obligations, often teaching us and polemizing about masters of the art (i began to watch kiarostami, tsai ming-liang, tarr and others just catching his reviews), Jonathan deserved more respect as a jornalist, writer and film historian and critic. I think that Ebert’s words “bizarre departure from his usual sanity” were very hard to take..

Posted by Germano on 08/14/2007 at 10:28 PM

I agree that JR is indeed the champion of the unknown cinema. Sure everyone knows about Kane and Casablanca and Rashomon and Persona and City Lights (all great films for sure), but is Jonathan Rosenbaum who has championed films such as Satantango and the cinema of Kiarostami and the likes. Great job indeed JR.
Posted by Kevin Knox on 08/15/2007 at 12:08 AM

I appreciate the supportive posts. Below is the copy of a letter sent by French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier to the Sun-Times in support of Roger Ebert’s article, taken from his website. And below that is the copy of a response I sent to the Sun-Times yesterday; the last I heard, the editors there were still deciding whether or not to run it. Tavernier’s letter to Roger: “Read and loved your defense of Bergman. Everything you say, all the points you raise, are valid, make sense and refute the vicious attacks of this sometimes brilliant but very often intolerant and rigid writer. He [Jonathan Rosenbaum] has a lot of pre-conceived opinions and for him a lot of films and directors are presumed guilty before being heard or seen. You have a right to dislike Bergman or Herman Melville or Malraux. You have the right to prefer Raymond Chandler or Balzac or Eudora Welty to Heidegger or Ezra Pound. But nobody forces you to write that, to take a public position against the artist you do not like. Most of the time the essays and books written against are forgettable or narrow-minded. You can like Dreyer and Bresson without firing at Bergman or Fellini. It was the great mistake of some of the best French critics such as Francois Truffaut; to defend Hitchcock, which was an important cause, he felt the obligation to wipe out the entire British cinema. To push Rosselini, Ophuls or Jacques Becker (have seen recently his “Touchez Pas au Grisbi” and the very modern description of the aging gangster, very innovative), you had to eliminate De Sica, Duvivier or Autant-Lara. To praise Mann you had to kill Delmer Daves. It seems that Mr Rosenbaum, who has been impressed by the new wave, has learnt more the intolerance than the perception.” My response: “Dear Bertrand, Let’s see if I have this straight. Your letter implies that it’s perfectly OK for Roger to dismiss Abbas Kiarostami as an important filmmaker solely on the basis of Taste of Cherry and 10, thereby consigning The Traveler, Homework, Close-up, the Koker trilogy, and The Wind Will Carry Us to oblivion. It’s also OK for Roger to bypass the original version of Fanny and Alexander, which Ingmar Bergman himself preferred, while chastising me for not having yet seen the three-hour version (which I finally caught up with last weekend). But it’s scandalously unacceptable for me to have responded favorably to an invitation from a Times editor to argue that some recent claims being made for Bergman after his death, in the Times and elsewhere –some implying that he dwarfed every other filmmaker in the history of cinema—-were a bit overblown, even if I allude in the piece to Bergman’s “genius” and compare him to a director as admirable as George Cukor. Your outburst reminds me of a critique I used to hear in Alabama during my teens: ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’ But if I wanted to write a major polemic (as I tried to do, for instance, in my book Movie Wars), I wouldn’t have attempted to squeeze it into an Op Ed piece. All I wanted to do was let some air into a subject that people appeared to be taking for granted–although the mere fact that my comments appeared in the Times seems to have unleashed a wave of hysteria. Peace, Jonathan Rosenbaum Chicago 60613″

Posted by Jonathan R. on 08/15/2007 at 3:31 PM

Wow, Bertrand Tavernier’s comments are horrid. I’m not really sure what the big deal about the piece was. I mean pointing out the Ingmar Bergman may be overrated is hardly in the same league as totally dismissing Kiarostami, and if I remember correctly Angelopoulos as well. I am huge Bergman fan and honestly after reading Rosenbaum’s piece if you were to tell me it would cause a stir, I would have been surprised.

Posted by ZS on 08/15/2007 at 3:59 PM

Looking back at it, I think that what may have gotten some people so worked up–even though most of them didn’t mention it–were my remarks about the ugliness of the emotions expressed in some of Bergman’s films, which they presumably wound up taking as personal attacks on their own seriousness in regarding Bergman’s spiritual concerns with reverence. I was discussing this issue with a friend last night, and we hypothesized that Bergman’s (and also sometimes Woody Allen’s) films often appear to say that if God doesn’t exist, there’s no moral or ethical compass left to work with–which to my mind is a real copout in relation to humanism, as well as an irresponsible “Open, sesame” to a kind of misanthropy and misogyny that I find distasteful, hence ugly. I also tend to connect this despairing “anything goes” notion to the extreme cruelty that becomes virtually fetishized in some of Bergman’s films. (To put it in the crudest possible terms, it’s presumably OK to heap abuse and scorn on your girlfriend if God doesn’t exist anyway.) Place this jaundiced view of mankind alongside the ethical concerns of most other important spiritually minded filmmakers (not just Dreyer, Bresson, and Tarkovsky, but also Bunuel), and Bergman starts to look like a bit of a primitive. This, in any case, is what I was trying to get at in my Op Ed piece. And if Bergman fans want to persist in seeing some higher form of humanity in Bergman’s contempt for mankind, I’d like to hear their arguments.

Posted by Jonathan R. on 08/15/2007 at 6:19 PM

P.S. I’d agree that the view of people in the three-hour “Fanny and Alexander” is somewhat softer and warmer than what I’ve just outlined above, which may partially account for its relative popularity. But that alone doesn’t make it a masterpiece.
Posted by Jonathan R. on 08/15/2007 at 6:23 PM

“I was discussing this issue with a friend last night, and we hypothesized that Bergman’s (and also sometimes Woody Allen’s) films often appear to say that if God doesn’t exist, there’s no moral or ethical compass left to work with–which to my mind is a real copout in relation to humanism, as well as an irresponsible “Open, sesame” to a kind of misanthropy and misogyny that I find distasteful, hence ugly.” This is a slightly reductive reading of Bergman at least in relation to his whole career. While you do correctly read his despair about the non-existence of god, I do think later Bergman films tend to find some solace in love and family however fleeting and transitory they may be. I am thinking her of the ending of Scenes of a Marriage or even Cries and Whispers, or the role that imagination and fantasy play in at least the longer cut of Fanny and Alexander. These moments may not be triumphs of humanism but they are at least less nihilistic than earlier films such as Persona or the odd The Hour of the Wolf (which strangely enough is the one film I chose to revisit after his death) Besides, if misanthropy were a standard by which we should consistently object to, we would have to abandon Luis Bunuel and Stanley Kubrick. I am not sure if either had any more faith in humanity than Bergman did…. but perhaps they were more funny about it than Bergman? Is it really that a Bunuel, a Kubrick, or other cinematic misanthropes are that much more ethical, or are they simply able to convince us of their vision of the world through a more effective, and varied, manipulation of style? The gender relations in The Shining, for example, are every bit as crude as in most Bergman films, but perhaps don’t feel so because of the detached style. The problem, I think, in relation to Bergman’s being over praised–or rather why your piece seemed to raise such ire–is that the Roger Eberts of the world act as if film history ends in the 60′s or something. Yes, Bergman made a lot of masterpieces (at least I’d argue), but in terms of formal innovation, or more broadly using cinema to understand the world, I am not sure why he should be held to a higher esteem than a Kiarostami, Angelopoulos,Hsiao-hsien, or dozens of other directors in the last forty-years that have made as many, if not more so, wonderful films.

Posted by ZS on 08/15/2007 at 8:26 PM

To “The Weary Precedent Setter” It seems that people need to know more about what tolerance means. Maybe if you had kept your point of view to yourself then perhaps people, who have such a strong esteem towards Bergman’s films, wouldn’t feel so disturbed by it. But no, you published it in the “TIMES”. Obviously you knew that in doing so, you would be causing some stir. But then again we’re talking NEW YORK. Quoting from Stanley Kubrick’s superb “The Killing”: ” Individuality is a monster, and it must be strangled in its cradle to make our friends feel comfortable.” I do like some of Bergman’s films and although I agree that there is a certain lack of “humanism” (a term I’m not very fond of using because it’s misleading)in them I prefer to think that, to a certain extent, Bergman was exposing themes rather than glorifying them. But we leave that to interpretation. I was gladly surprised that “Inquietude” from Manoel de Oliveira made it into your ten favourite films of the nineties. He surely lacks recognition from his enormous output, especially here in his home country. I still prefer his “Vou Para Casa” but “Inquietude” was surely remarkable. P.S. Being impressed by the French New Wave surely is a sign of good taste. And Jacques Tati is, perhaps, the french filmmaker I cherish the most.

Posted by from Portugal on 08/15/2007 at 10:48 PM

Judging a film or a body of works is not that different from judging a person. There are people who are clever or even brilliant in something they do but you just hate their guts or they are morally objectionable. In this case, “humanism” does matter. Therefore, I do want to a encounter a film/person that is brilliant AND sincere and humane. I like to relate art to life, why should I view artists differently. If I were to have a dinner party, a Stanley Kubrick (perhaps the most overrated of them all) or an Ingmar Bergman is not invited. A Jacques Tati is delightfully welcome – same goes for Renoir, Ozu, Keaton, et al.

Posted by Ben on 08/16/2007 at 1:00 AM

I agree with ZS, that misogyny is not a discriminatory criterion to judge the importance of any work of art. One might find it ugly, others wouldn’t. We could discuss the ethics involved, the point of producing a pessimistic vision… We could analyze Bergman’s personal psychology, question his own ethics… But this only qualifies his films thematically. I don’t think it helps to determine their artistic importance. Van Gogh didn’t paint Gernica, he only painted gloomy flowers, ok we might say he’s not a politically engaged artist, but does that make him any less important than Picasso in regard of art history? My point is I don’t understand how we could balance moral content (or stylistic discrepency) with canonical importance. If philosophical probity is the ultimate standard in cinema, that would leave out a lot of auteurs from the Pantheon… not just Bergman. To me, Bergman’s (apparent) “contempt for mankind” (I call it cynicism), in his films, is to be contrasted with a subtext which begs the audience to confront this reality and react to the film with a higher moral ground than the protagonists. Quite like with Homer, Shakespeare, Sade, Dostoevsky or Camus. Sadism, cynicism, fatalism or melancholy could be the dramatic setting of a great tragedy that puts into perspective the lower extremes of the human condition, not to condone or aesthetize them, but to criticize the society that allows them. In this regard I never considered a negative (diegetic/narrative) worldview as negative in itself (for the filmmaker’s intention), much less as a canonical exclusion in the realm of arts. P.S. If we’d discuss the career of Woody Allen, it would be obvious to mention Bergman, on the side. However Allen’s cinema can hardly help in any way to understand better Bergman’s cinema if we are assessing Bergman’s career. Allen’s stature is not even at the level of this small circles of masters that caused this argument about the ultimate canon. They don’t even make the same kind of movies.

Posted by HarryTuttle on 08/16/2007 at 7:22 AM

How exactly is Tavernier defending Ebert’s stance on Kiarostami, whom his letter never mentions? I don’t think he’s defending every word Ebert has ever written.

Posted by Mark on 08/16/2007 at 9:34 AM
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