Breaking the New Wave

A critic and a curator butt keyboards over the Rohmer retrospective

Editor's note: A couple of weeks ago in these pages, a review of a new book about the pioneering film critic Andrew Sarris praised "its evocation of a lost world of American journalism and film culture, of a time when movies were discussed and written about in an idiosyncratic and deeply impressionistic manner." Lost it is, that world, but perhaps not irretrievably.

Just a week before, in the June 6 issue, our own Matthew Wilder issued an idiosyncratic take--some would call it an attack--on the films of the French writer-director Eric Rohmer, apropos of a three-week Rohmer retrospective at Oak Street Cinema. In the piece, Wilder held the now-80-year-old auteur of Claire's Knee (1971), Pauline at the Beach (1983), and a dozen other romantic comedies and "moral tales" chiefly responsible for a shift in the aesthetics and politics of the European art film--away from the radical inquiry of conventions and institutions and toward a soothing embrace of same. In reply, the Oak Street's proprietor Bob Cowgill submitted a counterargument, holding the critic responsible for, among other things, the careless perpetuation of a culture that promotes "casual dismissal" over "watchfulness and fine discrimination." At 2,000 words, Cowgill's articulate rebuttal was too long to run as a letter to the editor, but we thought it was important to present all the same--along with a response from Wilder, and a response to that from Cowgill.

It isn't merely the curator's accusation of "ethically slippery" criticism, or his financial stake in the matter, that characterizes this debate as a tale no less moral in its way than Rohmer's own. The subjectively determined direction of one's thumb aside, the issues include these: What's the definition of "professional" criticism in a paper that posits itself as an alternative to business as usual? When, if ever, does the playful expression of opinion become irresponsible? To what extent are film critics expected, by ticket buyers as well as exhibitors and publicists, to politely grease the industry's wheels? And to what extent do artists and venues deserve "appropriate coverage"--whatever that is?

It is in the spirit of rediscovering the aforementioned lost world that we set out to examine those questions, and invite your own participation in the expedition.

--Rob Nelson

 

Matthew Wilder's summary claim that Eric Rohmer "orchestrated the death of the European art film" is so absurdly overstated, and the larger implications of his assessment of Rohmer's work so depressing, that crafting a response has become an obsession. I either reply or close up shop--that was my first reaction to reading the article. With all pitfalls and reservations noted (e.g., this letter is already old news; it can't change anything; we need to show respect for our brethren who toil under deadlines and mountains of screener videos, etc.), it remains my reaction.

The allure of using giddy hyperbole is hard to resist when responding to Mr. Wilder, who dissects Eric Rohmer's "corpus" not with a scalpel but with a chainsaw, and then blames the victim for the bloody mess. It's also hard not to accuse him of a deliberately mean-spirited animus. To indicate that his disdain for Rohmer doesn't bloom from a deficient critical sensibility, Mr. Wilder leans on put-downs by a fictional private eye played by Gene Hackman in Night Moves ("I saw a Rohmer picture once. It was sort of like watching paint dry"), and by the New Yorker's Pauline Kael ("Seriocomic triviality has become Rohmer's specialty"). Mr. Wilder lifts Kael's bon mot from a blurb about Le beau marriage, a Rohmer film that the Oak Street is not presenting in the current retrospective--a matter of accuracy Mr. Wilder doesn't allow himself to be burdened with.

But if one quotes Kael on the Rohmer pictures that are included in the Oak Street retrospective, the results are a bit less one-sided, a bit more nuanced. And it's nuance that makes all the difference. Here's Kael on Chloe in the Afternoon: "The author-director, Eric Rohmer, a specialist in the eroticism of non-sexual affairs, is a lapidary craftsman who works on a very small scale. This movie is, in its way, just about perfect, but it's minor, and so polished that it practically evaporates a half hour after it's over." On Pauline at the Beach: "[Rohmer] serves up this innocuous sex roundelay with exquisite control. It's all low-key conversation, and there's a thin veneer of chic over everybody." It's no secret that Kael never cottoned to the coldness of Rohmer's subtle control and cinematic restraint, nor to his subject matter; but other critics over the years have, including Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, Stanley Kauffmann, Vincent Canby, and David Denby (whose balanced and exquisitely written appreciation of the director's work in the February 26 New Yorker is worth reading by anyone still interested in the retrospective). The point is that Mr. Wilder stacked the deck in his review: The received critical reaction didn't serve his predetermined thesis, and his credentials alone didn't give him enough courage to play the game, so he went thumbing through the index of 5001 Nights at the Movies for a few aces.

Less amusing but just as ethically slippery is Mr. Wilder's argument that "To a large degree we have Rohmer to thank" for movies that embody "middlebrow kitsch." In his ongoing fight in a confused cultural war against the forces of bourgeois complacency, Mr. Wilder has seized upon a convenient target: Rohmer is French, male, and his movies focus on sex. ("Smut swaddled in wisdom," Mr. Wilder calls the work of one of the coolest and most intellectually erotic directors in cinema history. Subtlety is not Mr. Wilder's strong point.) Mr. Wilder declares that Rohmer's pictures play to the kind of "core audience" who want movies that "soothe and flatter rather than inflame or disturb," who come to see films for a "tone of civilized pleasure" like those "happy elderly [folks]...full of deep smiles and fluttering eyelids" at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema where Mr. Wilder first experienced Rohmer years ago in New York, and for whom "the movie and the air conditioning were one."

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