On August 4, five days after the death of the legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, The New York Times published an opinion piece by the famous Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, headlined Scenes from an overrated career.
The occasionally brilliant, often rigid critic presented an unfounded argument about why he believes Bergman legacy is over-glorified; debating his true stature in cinema history.
A few weeks later, Rosenbaum s big bash was greeted with a universal denunciation and, by the critic s own admission, had unleashed a wave of hysteria.
After spending the last three weeks responding to dozens of scornful critics and film directors around the world, Rosenbaum divulged some startling revelations via a statement he posted on Premiere critic Glenn Kenny s blog. His statement raised questions regarding the credibility of The NY Times.
The story broke when the esteemed Chicago Sun Times critics responded to Rosenbaum s attack through an article entitled Defending Ingmar Bergman.
For starters, Rosenbaum bases his case on a comparison between Bergman and two other great filmmakers: The Frenchman Robert Bresson, known for regarding actors as models with emotionless, blank expressions; and the Danish director Carl Dreyer, who constantly explored the relation between cinematic spaces and editing techniques.
Rosenbaum accuses Bergman of possessing what Bresson and Dreyer lacked – a power to entertain, which often meant a “reluctance to challenge conventional film-going habits?
It s difficult to disagree with Ebert when he wonders: In what parallel universe is the power to entertain defined in that way? Not a single film Bergman directed – including his early melodramas, Wild Strawberries and rare comedies – was rendered to be satisfactory or, by current conventions, widely accessible.
In fact, challenging is the most common word used to describe his work. In terms of cinematic innovations, Persona remains one of the most groundbreaking avant-garde movies in history; it redefined the entire concept of film.
Rosenbaum claims that Bergman s films are 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.
The esteemed critic s statement defies nearly every modern philosophy reference that cite The Seventh Seal and Winter Light -among Bergman s other works – as the leading existential works that brought the ideas of Sartre, Camus, Hegel and other philosophers to the screen.
In addition, the greatest filmmakers in history, including Bresson and Dreyer, were always haunted by certain personal traumas, ideas and uncertainties that directly spilled over into their entire cinematic oeuvre.
Bresson is the most Catholic of all filmmakers whose films were always concerned with possibility of salvation in a Godless, modern world. The Lutheran Dreyer s most lauded works channeled the difficulty, and ultimate triumph, of faith.
Hitchcock, Bunuel, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky and the aforementioned two were no less wounded than Bergman; and each one of those directors was branded as being self-absorbed at several points in their careers.
The deep flaws in Rosenbaum s allegations about Bergman s importance are disclosed with his claim that Bergman is taught less frequently today than Hitchcock or the French maverick Jean-Luc Godard. Rosenbaum refers to his claim as a fact, yet he never presents numbers or statistics to support his statement and to contradict the reality shared by most film professors in the world.
Rosenbaum s argument crumbles when he says that one of the signs of Bergman s waning significance stems from how he is hard to find on DVD. In reality, 66 of his films are currently available on Amazon.com. In fact, no other non-American filmmaker is more prominently represented on DVD than him.
The backlash against his article forced Rosenbaum to reveal some behind-the-scenes drama surrounding his story.
Apparently, the Times op-ed editor asked Rosenbaum to write an essay that might offer slightly more perspective than the solemn obituaries.
Rosenbaum says he was asked for several rewrites and that it s obvious that some of my original emphases got altered.
Rosenbaum adds that neither the headline nor the pull-quote, which wasn t actually a quote, were his. He confirms that he wasn t 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, he writes. But, according to him, the Times wasn’t interested.
This is not the first time the newspaper has pulled such a stunt. Days after the death of great Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini in 1993, the Times published a blunt dismissal of him by Bruce Weber. It enraged none other than Martin Scorsese, who sent them an angry, scolding letter that became the talk of both the American and international culture community back then.
For a paper with such a high stature as the Times – a massive media organization that always brags about its reputation as the champion of honest journalism – this latest act stands as a patent statement about the state of American journalism.
Rosenbaum s piece was one of the most read Times articles in August, drawing more readers to check the op-ed section. Mission accomplished for the op-ed page editor, but at what price?