SMILES OF THE SUMMER NIGHT: Mozart isn’t obsolete, and neither is Bergman.
There hasn’t been such a stir among film critics for years.
I’m talking about the blogging fury set off by Jonathan Rosenbaum’s August 4 New York Times op-ed article, “Scenes from an Overrated Career,” an assault on the reputation of Ingmar Bergman. Everyone in cyberspace was having a go at the veteran critic of the Chicago Reader for his scabrous essay about the recently deceased Swedish filmmaker.
Leading the pack was a Chicago colleague, Roger Ebert, who in his Sun-Times blog described Rosenbaum’s piece as “a bizarre departure from his usual sanity.” Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman labeled Rosenbaum’s words “staggeringly wrongheaded.” Internet writers chimed in from as far away as Cairo, where an Egypt Daily News reporter complained of Rosenbaum’s “unfounded argument.”
I follow Rosenbaum regularly in the Chicago Reader. He’s among the handful of American print critics whom I count on for an original, penetrating, and, often, political take on the cinema. His notorious Times essay sounded like someone else’s voice. Out of character for Rosenbaum, it was insulting to regular people who go to the movies. He referred, petulantly, to New York audiences who responded to “the mainly blond, blue-eyed casts” of Bergman films. As for Bergman’s œuvre, Rosenbaum’s criticisms were byzantine. Bergman possessed — a negative? — “the power to entertain,” and, coupled with it, “a reluctance to challenge conventional film-going habits.” Rosenbaum summarized his objections to Bergman: “His films aren’t so much filmic expressions as expressions on film.” Huh? What does that mean?
As described by Rosenbaum, Bergman was an obsolescent artist whose movies, instead of looking forward like those of Godard and Resnais, reflect the 19th-century concerns of his drama heroes, Strindberg and Ibsen. No wonder, Rosenbaum claimed, he’s rarely taught in film courses.
Really? I taught a course in Bergman just last year. Some Bergman movies are influenced by Ibsen and Strindberg, but both dramatists resonate today, Ibsen with his political and feminist consciousness, Strindberg with his expressionism and his battle of the sexes. Anyway, many of Bergman’s films are totally forward-looking, high-modernist formalist classics, as cinematic as movies can be. Persona, for one. Is Bergman relevant in 2007? Let’s note such “God is dead” masterpieces as TheSeventh Seal and Winter Light. In a deluded era where God is in every football huddle and anti-abortion rally, how refreshing to have Bergman’s anguished characters faced with a silent void, where the good Lord hides his face. If there is a Lord.
Was Rosenbaum’s perspective shaped a bit by Times editors who wanted a sensationalist anti-Bergman article? In an August 17 letter to critic Glenn Kenny’s Premiere blog, he explained that his article had been titled not by him but by the Times, and that he’d rewritten it four times at an op-page editor’s bidding. “It’s obvious,” he said, “that some of my original emphases got altered.” In fact, he’s teaching Bergman’s The Magician in a university class.
This Saturday, September 29, the Museum of Fine Arts will be one of 99 locations around the globe where viewers can vote for the best of 12 finalist choices in the Manhattan Short Film Festival. Half the 12 are worthy of your attention, works from Kenya, Singapore, Britain. My ballot goes to Josh Raskin’s “I Met the Walrus,” from Canada, an animation of John Lennon–like drawings illustrating a secretly taped real-life conversation between John and a 14-year-old fan. John the Walrus: “Kiss for peace, smile for peace, go to school for peace.”