Thursday, August 02, 2007

Antonioni and Bergman Bite the Dust

Obituaries for film directors Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman hailed them as cinematic giants. Bergman was called "probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera" who brought "metaphysics - religion, death, existentialism - to the screen." Antonioni, we were told, "challenged moviegoers with an intense focus on intentionally vague characters and a disdain for conventions like plot, pacing and clarity." Both of them "rose to prominence at a time, in midcentury, when filmgoing was an intellectual pursuit." But times have changed and some critics have refused to toe the party line. After decades of being terrified into silence by liberal movie snobs who haunted cafés and cocktail parties ready to pounce on anyone who said that the latest art film was boring or incomprehensible, some brave souls have begun to speak out, unafraid of being labeled ignorant philistines.

"Only hours after Ingmar Bergman's death was announced, his fellow existentialist filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni died," wrote John Podhoretz on The Corner. "Kind of like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dying on the same day, if you think bummer movie directors are analogous to the Founding Fathers." Ding dong, the bummer movie directors are dead, Podhoretz proclaimed to the cheers of intellectual munchkins everywhere.

In a piece for the New York Post he savaged Bergman for making films that were just too hard to understand and no fun at all. "Not so long ago, Ingmar Bergman was one of the most celebrated and famous men in the world -- the recipient of universal praise for having transformed the corrupt young medium of the movies into a vehicle for difficult, punishing, sobering, existentialist high art," wrote Podhoretz. "Art, in this view, wasn't supposed to be easy to take or pleasurable to take in. It was supposed to punish you, assault you, scrub you clean of impurities."

It's bad enough that so many of his films were in black and white and had subtitles, they were depressing, too. Taking a brave stand in favor of easy, pleasurable films Podhoretz declared, "You can only tell people to sit down and eat their spinach for so long," no doubt hearkening back to that life-changing moment in his childhood when he threw his bowl of spinach on the floor and demanded that his mother, Midge Decter, give him some ice cream instead.

Jack Warner once said that he judged movies by whether his ass shifted in the seat while he was watching them and Podhoretz has been judging movies by his ass for years. Antonioni's L'Avventura is "disastrous fare," he says. West Side Story is "an unintentional laff riot." (Only elitists spell words correctly.) Raging Bull is "the most unpleasant American movie" and "torture to sit through." Vertigo is "silly." The Searchers is "a turgid, wooden, boring and weird movie." 2001: A Space Odyssey is "a crashing bore." On the other hand Podhoretz is a big fan of Road House, Phantom Menace and Cinderella Man.
Podhoretz is not the only film critic inspired by Jack Warner's critical method, which we might call Derrièrism, since most critical theories have French names for some reason. The deaths of Bergman and Antonioni have given Derrièrism a shot in the arm, or a shot somewhere anyway.

Derrièrists are tired of liberal elites telling us what is good for us. They are tired of movies that are depressing and pretentious and difficult. They don't see the need for new narrative structures when the old ones work just fine. They believe that films should be as literal and clear as the Bible. They are tired of movies that always focus on the bad news the way the media always focuses on the bad news from Iraq. And they prefer clearly resolved, preferably happy, endings.

Nehring the Edge gives us a perfect example Derrièrism with his very succinct review of Antonioni's Blow-Up: "This is candy for film geeks and crud for everyone else. The average viewer will probably find Michelangelo Antonioni's groundbreaking film to be pompus, confusing and maybe a tad stupid. If you're the kind of person who would find this film interesting, you're probably the kind of person who would have already of tracked it down and watched it. If you're a normal person, skip this one." Normal people should not even subject themselves to a film like Blow-Up, lest they be confused by its enigmatic themes.

Although Ann Althouse cried for, like, minutes when Bergman died, she had a very Derrièrist reaction to Antonioni. Blow-Up, affected her because it was the first movie she had ever seen that featured actors "naked and having sex," but she never quite made it to the end of the DVD of L'Avventura and she only liked a scene that Pauline Kael exulted over in The Passenger "because it meant that the movie would soon be over." Michael Medved, perhaps our greatest living Derrièrist critic, listed Zabriskie Point as one of the 50 Worst Films of All Time. His protégé Jason Apuzzo, whose website Libertas is dedicated to exposing the liberal Hollywood agenda, was not a big fan of Antonioni but did think he made Monica Vitti look sexy (perhaps that critical judgment belongs to a school that deserves the name of another body part translated into French.)

To Terry Teachout Bergman films were once a good way to impress a date but have long outlived their usefulness. "Ingmar Bergman has fallen from fashion, but I well remember when he was the very model of a Foreign Filmmaker, the man whose movies embodied everything that wasn't Hollywood," he wrote in 2003. "Those, of course, were the days when Hollywood wasn't cool: if you wanted to impress your date, you took her to a Bergman. (A little later on, it was O.K. to take her to one of Woody Allen's ersatz-Bergman movies.) Now he belongs to the ages, and I know more than a few self-styled film buffs who've never seen any of his work." Now that he is older, and his ass has grown more sensitive, Teachout knows better. "Wild Strawberries is a beautiful movie -- one that knows how beautiful it is, and wants you to know, too. The older I get, the less readily I warm to that kind of art, be it film, painting, music, the novel, or what have you."

Coincidentally, the week Antonioni and Bergman died, online film critics released a list of their 100 top films, which included only 11 subtitled films (only one of which made it into the Top 20) and two films each in the Top Ten by Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott. Missing from the list were The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander, The Virgin Spring, Winter Light and Persona. Nor did the list include L'Avventura, Blow-Up, L'Eclisse, La Notte or Red Desert. In fact, not a single Bergman or Antonioni film were anywhere to be found. And anyone looking for the films of such tedious, long-winded foreign directors as Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Luc Godard, Luis Buñuel, F.W. Murnau, Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, Satyajit Ray or Kenji Mizoguchi would have to look to the snooty Sight and Sound poll for satisfaction. It is a list that is steeped in Derrièrism.

There are still some hold-outs who resist the onslaught of Derrièrism like Japanese soldiers hiding on islands who don't realize the war is over. Dan Callahan laments the "pop mindset that rules today" and inadvertently reveals the liberal agenda behind the adulation heaped on Antonioni and Bergman by some critics. "More than one commentator has termed their mid-twentieth century, fearing-the-atom-bomb, discuss-our-alienation-over-black-coffee-later modernism as "'quaint,'" he writes. "We live in a period where some of those in power have termed the central tenets of the Geneva Conventions 'quaint.' Can the term 'elitist' be far behind?" Robert Stein says that Bergman's films were full of "ideas," as if this were a good thing. "You might feel drained after the movie, you might never want to watch another Bergman for ten years, if ever, but you don’t feel you’ve been talked down to," writes Dan Leo at New Critics. "You haven’t been lied to."

The Rightwing Film Geek, Victor Morton, who calls Podhoretz a "twit," also resists the triumph of Derrièrism. "I don't think sneering 'over-rated' is very productive," he says. Although he confesses that Antonioni is not a "personal favorite" of his, he nevertheless has subjected himself to watching his films anyway. "Rather than sneer," he suggests oddly. "Why not consider that this is a blind spot of yours and a personal shortcoming." At the end of his post he reveals that after seeing Antonioni's The Passenger recently, something "clicked," but regrettably, it wasn't his revolver upon hearing the word "culture." "I made a mental note to give his other films a fresh look in light of The Passenger," he writes. "In fact, now we all have more reason than ever to do so." Morton may already be too far gone, but imagine if more young film critics got off their asses and actually saw Bergman's and Antonioni's films and made some effort to appreciate them. Fortunately, that isn't likely to happen.

Update: Mr Podhoretz responds via email: "Let me say, after close consideration of your deep critical faculties, that you're a dope."

Update 2: Derrièrism earns an entry in the Urban Dictionary.

Crossposted at New Critics

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Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion. I mean it is not as if the average age of these films is something like 50 years, so why would it be worth seeing them.
Too bad they won't be able to take advantage of new technologies as YouTube to release a new 1 or 2 minute long version for those of us who are still a tiny bit intrigued but still like to wiggle our behinds on the chair while we are at it.

Kathy said...

I saw a Bergman movie once, but the B&W film was so dark, I couldn't figure what was going on at all. Was it supposed to be that way? Eventually I fell asleep and had vivid dreams, tho I don't remember them either.

TJ said...

JPod's response is great, but there's a typo: " . . . you're dope."

I never would have pegged him for using street lingo, but there it is.

Edward Copeland said...

The Online top 100 was embarrassing for a lot of us, who are admitted cinephiles, though not all snobs about it. I've never warmed to Antonioni, but I recognize his influence. Bergman on the other hand I've grown to like more and more with the exception of a couple of bores such as "Persona" and "Cries and Whispers." What bothers me about the online list and lots of people's opinions on any subject is that they seem to think that if something didn't happen in their lifetime, it's not important or not worth knowing. (For instance, the list I submitted and all all-time lists I make, I never include any film newer than 10 years old because you really have to revisit things to see how they stand up. Change is inevitable and the blush of first love with some movies can go away with age.)

nick said...

A very fine post. As a film snob and fanatic, Bergman and Antonioni are two major inspirations for me. It is disappointing to see so-called legitimate film critics who can't or won't try to understand and interpret such defining pieces of art.

Fuck 'em.

Doodle Bean said...

Dear Mr. Swift,

Are you really criticizing our grand American tradition of Attention Deficit Disorder?!?!

Why, ADD has been a huge plus for our great nation -- if for no other reason than the pharmaceutical company profits!

And that grainy black & white photo is not entertaining at all!


Doodle Bean

OutOfContext said...

We may be winning the culture war after all with the majority of serious writers on the side of clarity and straightforwardness. I mean, when you can only quote guys like Dan Leo to oppose right-thinking anti-elitists, it shows how weak the opposition has become.
I'll take a good Bruce Willis pic any day (except the one where he was dead, but we didn't know it--what was that? I don't approve of that.)
Mr. Copeland, since you seem to have your fingers on the pulse of the Hollywood heartbeat, can you tell me why no one has filmed Lynne Cheney's "Executive Privelege"? "The story of two reporters who wrestle to decide whether to publish a scoop at the expense of national security, Executive Privilege was noted more for the fact that a "Washington wife" had penned it and less on the book's own merits.", writes Famous Authors Vol. 5. Topical and dramatic. Sounds like a clear-headed writer and director could make a hell of a motion picture out of that.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I don't know that having a blog classifies you as a film critic, but if it does - look at me momma!

And, like Ed, I was severely embarrassed by that Online Top 100. I got an inkling there was something wrong as soon as the original Top 500 shortlist (which was made up only of the titles that made it on at least 3 Top 100 lists) featured Anchorman: The Legend of Will Ferrell, Jurassic Park and American History X, but not L'Atalante (didn't even make it on 3!! lists), or The Leopard, or The Wages of Fear, or Viridiana, or In Cold Blood, or...
And the final list was far less credible than the AFI's, to which it was supposed to be the street-cred response.

Bergman has only directed one film since I was born (which never got a release in Melbourne though fortunately it played at the film festival), and Antonioni not many more than that. I've only seen three Antonioni films (L'Avventura, La Notte, Blow-Up) and am presently in the process of tracking down a few more (The Passenger, L'Eclisse, The Red Desert, Il Grido) and feeling guilty that I haven't already. But I've seen a fair few Bergman films, and most of them more than once, so I like to pretend I've done my part.

I only managed to fit two Bergman films (Seventh Seal and Cries and Whispers, both quite high) and no Antonioni ones (though I do love L'Avventura, I swear) in my original list and I already felt dirty. But when I read that The Matrix made it one place higher than The Third Man and the movie featured on the second-highest number of lists was Indiana freakin Jones, I just felt raped.

Another thing that bugged me was how the damn thing was geek-boy-centred to the point that very few of the films listed gave up the top billing to a woman, and fewer yet featured a woman with any discernible personality.

Anonymous said...

There is indeed some odd stuff on the Top 100, but I immediately forgave when I say the Werner Herzog entry. He is one of my very favorites; and unbelievably, I have yet to meet another person who has seen one of his films. See them; and don't miss Fitzcarraldo.

Jon, I hope no conservatives show up here and find out you have accused them of being butt twitchers. I have it on good authority that they are very opposed to twitching.

Save the Oocytes! said...

"Although Ann Althouse cried for, like, minutes when Bergman died, she had a very Derrièrist reaction to Antonioni."

Sir, the use of the word "like" in this context seems to call into question Professor Althouse's intellectual bona fides (I misuse this term proudly), and to that I must most strenuously object. Her coverage of Project Runway surely catapulted her into the highest echelons of American intellectualism. Her approval of Bergman is therefore more a function of said intellectualism and a lapse in her conservative faith. Fortunately, a public self-criticism should be sufficient to expunge her guilt in this matter. Her rampant intellectualism is quite another.

Dan Leo said...

I am honored that you deigned to quote my humble words, Dean Swift. And I think it was your noble ancestor Dean Swift the First who once said: "Fuck these idiots."

Consider yourself blogrolled.

Anonymous said...

There is so much degenerate so called "art" around. It is important that conservatives, old and young become aware of the dangers of such art.

I propose that we arrange an exhibition of such degenerate art, with select conservatives (such as Jonah Goldberg and Ann Althouse)interpreting and commenting on them.

I think that this is a unique idea, and has never been tried before.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Podhoretz's searing analysis of the intellectual fraud, Ingmar Bergman, is a triumph for all of us with real accomplishments. Take Mr. Podhoretz himself, a scion in the great intellectual tradition of his parents, Midge and Norman, unafraid to work as a running dog for Rupert Murdoch, unafraid to be three hundred pounds overweight, and, above all, unafraid to bad rap people (after their deaths, of course) for not making "feel good" movies. My hat is off to you, Johnny Boy.

Doodle Bean said...

Dear Mr. Day,

Anonymous is a good authority?!?!?!?


Doodle Bean

Anonymous said...

You will respect my Authooritay!!

Bukko Boomeranger said...

I hope you have never seen any films by Bergman and Antonioni, because I am looking forward to reading your reviews of them, a la your efforts on Amazon.

mw said...

Jon, I am very very pleased to inform you that Your blog has been awarded the first Derrièrist Blogger Award/Tag/Meme.

You are among the charter recipients of the Partisan Reflection on a Pissant Provocateur Award - This much sought after award (affectionately referred to by the blogospheric cognoscetti as the “Pissy Blog Award.” or just "The Pissy")seeks to recognize the biggest Derrières in the blogosphere and those that strive to wipe the Derrièrist spirit across the internet.

Congratulations!You can collect your Blog Award Badge here.

Jaesoreal said...

I think Seth Green is the greatest director of all time! Robot Chicken rules!

Brian Darr said...

Jon Swift- You'll be disappointed to learn that Murnau made it, though perhaps consoled by the fact that he only barely slipped in at #100. It may be worth noting that the film that did it is available on DVD with a soundtrack by the heavy metal band Type O Negative.

James Higham said...

It's true - it's the Emperor's Ndew Clothes all over again. Most of those films are boring but Anonymous is wrong in saying old films are unwatchable. Some of the best, like Third Man, for example, need to be in B&W and are classics. And what about Hitchcock?

As for Seventh Seal - it deserves a place in the Top 100.

Anonymous said...

"Art, in this view, wasn't supposed to be easy to take or pleasurable to take in. It was supposed to punish you, assault you, scrub you clean of impurities."

No wonder JPod's winger sensibilities are offended: in the right's view, religion's supposed to "punish you, assault you, scrub you clean of impurities." Art's supposed to prepare us to fight Islamofascism.

Anonymous said...

That post was way too long and very negative.

Anonymous said...

We haven't had a comment from Stella for quite awhile. I think we need her opinion on this topic. Where is Stella?


Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure it was Harry Cohn, not John Warner, who assessed movies with his ass. A famous anecdote had him pontificating at length to Herman Mankiewicz, Orson Welles, and others about how he could tell a hit by whether his rear end tingled, and Citizen Kane was not a hit.

After an awkward silence, Mankieiwicz chirped, "Imagine! The whole world wired to Harry Cohn's ass!"

Deborah Newell said...

I propose someone put together a B&W film short of l'enfant Podhoretz sitting in his high chair, eating ice cream one dizzyingly slow spoonful at a time. The director, whoever that might be, could use a Phillip Glass piece for the soundtrack. That, or an endless loop of the Wicked Witch's cry I'm mellll-tinnnnnng.

Batocchio said...

With all due respect to Nick's comment above, I wouldn't call Podhoretz or Medved "legitimate" critics if the standard is merit, insight or taste. ;-) And funny how their aesthetic bent is as wacky as their politics...

Thanks, Jon, for putting it all in perspective as usual. I'm still working on my Bergman post - and after that, will have to do Antonioni. It's been a rough couple of weeks for artist deaths.

Anonymous said...

This is the greatest Swift post EVAH! I would recommend leaving it up for even longer than you left the one about your horrid mother. You're halfway there already...

Anonymous said...

I was going to comment that it was indeed Harry Cohn's ass, not Jack Warner's that was used to review films, but I see someone has beaten my ass to it. Oh well. It was a great column, even if Podhoretz thinks you're a dope. Or thinks "you're dope." Word to your mother. But who helped him spell "dope"?

Anonymous said...

Wherefore art thou, O Jon Swift?

Please come out of hiding, thither.

mw said...

Jon, Are you dead? Or are you just pouting about the award? I'll take it back if you don't like it.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Rev. Swift has decided to pay the ultimate tribute to Antonioni and Bergman...

mw said...


That would be pathetic.

A derivative, hackneyed, formulaic ending.

Although, it might pass Derrièrist muster.

Anonymous said...

it might pass Derrièrist muster.

My derriere was musty last week but I changed my underweariere and it got better.

Doodle Bean said...

Dear Mr. Swift,

Do please come back! I didn't mean it... not really.

I didn't mean any of it! Please, come back and write something so I may laugh again!

And again!


Doodle Bean

Anonymous said...

Those of us who are (usually) silent fans are beginning to worry. We can only hope that you are safe, sound, and maybe tired of writing. You, and your wit, are truly missed.

KEvron said...

i once came across a nifty observation about the velvet underground; that hardly anyone had bought their first album, but everyone who did started a band.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your submission to the Film Junkie Carnival. Unfortunately we cannot use your piece at this time.

Awkwardly yours,

Blue Skelton Productions

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