Breaking the New Wave

A critic and a curator butt keyboards over the Rohmer retrospective

It's always a low blow and often a sign of desperation when a critic turns against the audience; it's the guilt-by-association critique, the flip side of the defense to which movie producers resort when trying to disprove critical pans by pointing to box-office success. But seldom has it been done in such an incoherent and dishonest manner. While one wonders what the other members of the audience thought of Mr. Wilder's expressions when he exited the Lincoln Plaza, or what a man of his obvious anti-bourgeois persuasion was doing there in the first place, it should be pointed out that Rohmer's pictures, with the exception of My Night at Maud's and Claire's Knee, have never been commercially successful outside of New York, even by the small-scale box-office standards of the art house; their long swatches of articulate and unworldly dialogue, and their finely tuned character calibrations, demand that viewers watch closely and patiently. For many unprepared viewers, Rohmer's generally slow-paced work evokes not "bourgeois tranquility," but boredom. Mr. Wilder's response to these films is much closer to the middlebrow norm: dismissive, defensive, and reflexive in its readiness to trash the artist rather than examine the viewer's own predilections and tastes.

We have all felt this reflex when talking to those who don't appreciate the difficult movies we like: Their confusion and boredom are blamed first on the filmmaker and then on us; our satisfaction or complexity of response are seen as the bounty of an overly intellectual, pretentious, or, in this case, bourgeois aesthetic. And it helps if the dismissal of our pleasure can be delivered in the cellophane of political correctness that puts a sheen on the dismisser's aesthetic complacency. (Mr. Wilder tsk-tsks over Rohmer's generational sex comedy Claire's Knee, which he calls "seriously creepy." Whatever happened to his espousal of films that "inflame and disturb"?) This is precisely Mr. Wilder's approach: He co-opts the very middlebrow mindset that he purports to despise in order to diminish, simplify, and distort an artist whose work he is temperamentally unsuited to appreciate, and then uses a politically correct insinuation to close the case. Chalk up another one for New Age prudery.

Rohmer's movies are difficult to appreciate, but in an odd way. They are determinedly focused on certain subjects, and play variations on these subjects from film to film; they use the structure of classic farce, but dare to be, in Stanley Kauffmann's phrase, "courageously calm." They take on serious and timeless themes--self-deception in the quest of meaning, the stake of the self in initial sexual appraisal, the obsessive narcissism inherent in sexual seduction--and pursue them in a milieu of apparent privilege and self-obsession. (If this doesn't sound relevant to many in the City Pages audience, I don't know what would.) And it is here where Mr. Wilder commits the oldest error in criticism: He confuses the limitations of the author's characters with the author himself. This kind of thoughtless conflation has been used in the past to condemn writers by all kinds of doctrinaire thinkers. Mr. Wilder seems vexed that Rohmer dares to exclude any character in his movies that doesn't serve the critic's focus; he seems frustrated that Rohmer is interested in repeating variations of themes with talkative characters that make his movies resist easy categorization ("French bourgeois linguistic self-indulgence," Mr. Wilder calls it, bringing out the "b" word whenever he wants to score). He seems upset, in short, that Rohmer insists on being an artist, but not the artist Mr. Wilder wants him to be.

As Mr. Wilder tries to link Rohmer to what he and his friends call the "Landmark Theatres Experience," it's clear that the director has become this week's poster demon in the fight against a critically unexamined stereotype. Even here, Mr. Wilder is amusingly inaccurate: Of the past ten Rohmer films, only two have played locally at a Landmark theater. Indeed, Rohmer's new work doesn't get much national attention anymore, and the current series at the Oak Street shouldn't mislead: Rohmer's films are appearing across the country almost exclusively in nonprofit cinemas and museums (most of our prints are being shipped to the National Gallery of Art), and the Film Forum and the Oak Street are the only venues I know of that are showing more than ten. Where is Landmark in this equation? Accuracy doesn't matter for Mr. Wilder: He's targeting the "cinema as wine-tasting class" aesthetic, and a few stray bullets are to be expected in such an important cultural war.

It was an aesthetic and commercial challenge to present such an ambitious series in Minneapolis centered on a director as narrowly focused as Rohmer, a fact that Mr. Wilder's predictable pan makes clear. Thinking otherwise is fanciful and naive, or willfully perverse. And this is why Mr. Wilder's views are dispiriting to those who try to make meaningful cultural contributions in the pop Zeitgeist: They are symptomatic of a prevailing, conventional, close-minded superiority that masquerades as an alternative view; they promote an attitude of casual dismissal rather than support watchfulness and fine discrimination; they rough up that convenient straw man, the bourgeoisie, but refuse to turn around and look in the mirror. (Mr. Wilder's review appeared in a periodical that put a toilet on the cover of its summer books issue: For City Pages, the books and the bathroom are one.) Ultimately, criticism like this suits the consumerist culture it pretends to oppose, and assumes an entitlement to the movies it wants to dispose of. (Mr. Wilder's most telling line offers a guide to "Rohmer beginners looking for one-stop shopping": It's the kind of thing one of Rohmer's deluded "tinkly female voices" might have said, never quite aware of what she was exposing to us.) A world-class artist easily categorized; fourteen films lumped into one easy dismissal; the audience held in contempt. Next!

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