I was shocked when I read the headline of the opinion piece in the Aug. 4 issue of The New York Times: "Scenes From an Overrated Career." The pullquote only made things worse: "Why hardly anyone watches Bergman films anymore."
I couldn't believe it. This was just days after the great Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman had died at age 89. There had been glowing encomiums in every print outlet worldwide, and I was certain that the praise was more than justified. Then came an upstart film critic to whittle this great man down to size.
I knew exactly who the author of the piece was. I have Jonathan Rosenbaum's new book, Discovering Orson Welles, on a pile of interesting titles that I expect to review in the coming weeks. The fact that he went after Bergman — an artist who was one of the most central in my early conception of taste — would not stop me from considering his book for a future review, but I can't deny that his attitude gave me pause. What baffled me most, though, was how someone who venerated Welles, another of the artists I also hold dear, could be so blind to the stellar talents of Bergman.
I was so overwhelmed by the great director's early films — "The Virgin Spring," "Smiles of a Summer Night," "The Seventh Seal" — that I was assured, in my enthusiasm, that someone so brilliant had to be Jewish. First of all, there was the name. I also thought that all the religious business in his movies had to be some sort of dissembling, to throw viewers off. Only later did I admit that my theory was a misguided product of my youth.
Rosenbaum, in his admittedly well-thought-out piece, never denied Bergman's brilliance; but he did have to admit that "Mr. Bergman isn't being taught in the film courses or debated by film buffs with the same intensity as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Goddard. His works are seen less often in retrospectives and on DVD than those of Carl Dryer and Robert Bresson — two master filmmakers widely scorned as boring and pretentious during Mr. Bergman's heyday."
The last half of that last sentence is not altogether true. Dryer and Bresson had their champions, though perhaps not in the general press and hardly among everyday movie-goers.
Rosenbaum's point was that directors like Goddard, Welles and Bresson were engaged with and interpreted the modern world, while Bergman "seemed perpetually in retreat from" it. Rosenbaum said this had something to do with Bergman's devotion to theater — especially the 19th-century theater of Chekhov, Strindberg and Ibsen — and that he used film "to translate shadowplays staged in his mind … . Above all, his movies aren't so much filmic expressions as expressions on film."
None of this is wrong, but the problem is not Bergman's. Everything he cherished is now scorned by the modern world, and especially by the young people who flock to movies. The problem is with them, not with Bergman. His films are filled with beauty and daring –just a different sort than is prized today.