Still out there? Good. The Siren has raised the blinds, put away her lace-trimmed hanky and is ready to face down Gladys Cooper, or whatever else gets dished out this week. She is still working on her Nightmare Alley thoughts, but the sudden, unwelcome spike in film obituaries has spurred her to put some down some old rambling thoughts.
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Hell of a time for film fans, isn't it? RIP, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Michel Serrault and László Kovács. More interesting than the end-of-an-era stuff, however, is the subsequent scorekeeping. We cinephiles tend to pooh-pooh Greatest 100 Films of All Time Lists, then dive like Greg Louganis into debates over whether or not a director is an all-time heavyweight. In the most recent round, Jonathan Rosenbaum had critics all over the blogosphere uncorking either the champagne or the smelling salts when he ran a New York Times opinion piece on Bergman that the editors, in a moment of inspired chutzpah, titled "Scenes from an Overrated Career." Roger Ebert wrote a spirited defense, and discussions ensued all over everywhere, particularly at Scanners, a_film_by, Elusive Lucidity and Girish.
It is fascinating how the general tone in the treatment of a director or other film artist changes over time. If you admired Bergman in 1973, the year of Scenes from a Marriage, chances are you still do. But in that year you wouldn't have been contending with nearly as many reservations as have been heard in the two weeks since his death.
Other directors are also getting fewer awed reactions than in the past. When in her late teens the Siren started trying to watch movies in an intellectuallly engaged manner--reading up on history, seeking out serious critics, trying to mix as many highly regarded films into her viewing as possible--it was axiomatic that John Ford was a towering great. That was a while back, and Ford's status has slipped for some; he even got a sideswipe in Rosenbaum's piece. David Thomson and Richard Schickel, both veteran Ford haters, have a lot more company now.
On the other hand, back in the 1980s the Siren had a hard time getting a serious discussion of Billy Wilder going, unless she wanted to talk about his supposed misogyny. (She didn't want to talk about that, because she doesn't think he IS a misogynist, but that's another post.) Reagan was in office and, not coincidentally in the Siren's view, Frank Capra was fashionable. It was a go-go era, a time of vocal patriotism, even more so than now. Capra was better suited to it than Wilder, with his mordant view of what success means for Americans, and what we will do to achieve it. With the publication of Cameron Crowe's book and the tributes after Wilder's death in 2002, suddenly the Siren had no trouble finding Wilder admirers. He is better suited to the tenor of our own times than Capra--Ace in the Hole is a lot closer to the age of reality television than Meet John Doe--so it isn't surprising that Wilder now is more in vogue.
In vogue, if not in full pantheon membership. According to Brian Baxter of Britain's Guardian, Wilder is still "second rung" (though "never second rate"). In this Guardian obituary for Ingmar Bergman, Baxter names a "handful of geniuses--Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, [and] Roberto Rossellini" who outrank Bergman and Antonioni, and by the way, they're also better than Wilder, Visconti, Kurosawa and Ray. You might think that with six Film Pageant Runner-Ups (if Mr. Bresson cannot fulfill his duties as Greatest Director of All Time...) you would have just six different ways of getting pissed off. But the Siren's initial reaction was "What about Max Ophuls, huh?"
Her readers can replace the name of Ophuls with their particular favorite. We all have our teacher's pets, no matter which directors are being debated more in film classes. Year by year, with pious patience, the Siren sits waiting for Mitchell Leisen to get his due. And she loves John Ford, but has resigned herself to the naysayers. Now the Siren can read David Thomson's vituperative Ford piece in A Biographical Dictionary of Film without recourse to ripping out pages, scribbling in the margins or calling her cousins to rant. On some directors she retains a certain touchiness, however. When you trash Ernst Lubitsch, smile, cowboy.
The Siren is firmly on the side of the Bergman lovers. His "private psychodramas" still say many large and universal things to her. She does think, however, that people should give Mr. Rosenbaum a break about not seeing Fanny and Alexander. For one thing, Antonioni's death sent the Siren scurrying to her Netflix queue in embarrassment--even though he isn't really in her chosen specialty, boy, does she need to get cracking on his filmography. For another, she is exceedingly fond of Fanny and Alexander and does not wish to hear it nitpicked, by Mr. Rosenbaum or anybody else. Far more painful than someone loving a movie you loathe is someone who hates a movie that you consider a work of genius--or, worse yet, waves the movie aside as old hat.
Rosenbaum himself gave a nod to the way reputations cycle when he showed up at Jim Emerson's place and remarked, "I don't think I could have written such an article for the Times WITHOUT it being to some extent a piece about fashion." The Siren thinks Bergman will swing back into fashion; he's too good not to. One rediscovered movie is often enough to do it. When I Vitelloni had a brief re-release in theaters some time back, the Siren went to see it. As she sat in the audience she felt a sense almost of surprise coming off some other patrons--the startled laughter and enjoyment of people who weren't expecting to be wowed. Fellini has also been out of style--try Googling Fellini and "overrated" and just look at all the opinions that come up--but the movie is so good it constitutes its own form of rebuttal. So does Fanny and Alexander.
Anyone wish to share some perceptions of who's in favor these days, and who seems to be getting more knocks than in the past?