Breaking the New Wave

A critic and a curator butt keyboards over the Rohmer retrospective

George Steiner wrote, "A critic casts a eunuch's shadow." Well, a film programmer casts no shadow. He merely tries to give each program its optimal chance to reach a receptive audience. The film programmer's role is clear; the critic's role is not so clear. How does the critic want his shadow to fall? Mr. Wilder's review raises serious questions about the appropriate coverage to be given an artist's work in a culture set on turning the past into a part of the oppressive postmodern murmur. Given what cinema has become today, I'm not so sure even Pauline Kael would dismiss the work of Eric Rohmer. While I don't believe in slavish adoration of old masters, or in overpraising the work of minor artists, I know that aesthetic questions are not settled for all time. I also know through hard experience that cinema needs an educated and receptive audience to thrive. Guiding the audience's sensibility through an aesthetic of hypocritically empty class awareness may be less important in this context than giving an audience the tools to receive, understand, and assess.

Would I have issued this response if Mr. Wilder had written an equally unconsidered rave? No, and that's the film exhibitor's hypocrisy. But at least then those who might be enticed to see a Rohmer film would have gotten a chance to make up their own minds. Those who have seen Rohmer will not be deterred by Mr. Wilder, and neither will they be enlightened. But they might laugh at the Gene Hackman line if they haven't heard it before. Yes, it's true that Hackman's line in Night Moves is memorable; I've even used it myself. But the line wasn't there to show, as Wilder maintains, that Hackman's character had "counterculture credentials." Rather, it was obviously intended to create empathy for a character who is a regular American guy, an unpretentious former football player-turned-private eye who is operating in a world of changing values. But a thoughtful investigation of the film shows the line's double-edged quality. Hackman's likable L.A. detective doesn't intuit that his wife is having an affair; blunders onto clues that he doesn't know how to interpret; ignores a potentially crucial message; and, in the end, like Mr. Wilder, really hasn't come close to solving the mystery.

--Robert Cowgill

 

Matthew Wilder responds: I mean not to be altogether flippant when I say that I feel Mr. Cowgill's pain. Slights against one's favorite filmmakers can make a movie lover feel vindictive and protective in the same instant. I vividly recall telling one of my best friends, after his half-hour-long anti-Boogie Nights jeremiad, "You couldn't have hurt me more if you'd told me you hated my girlfriend."

Mr. Cowgill's own defense of his beloved is magnificent: impassioned, multilayered, and laden with a noble, wounded pride. The bottom line of his argument, as I read it, is that, in an era of Bruckheimer and Pokémon, the film critics at an alternative weekly ought to be championing artists like Rohmer rather than letting them starve, whether one's personal predilection tilts toward them or not. And in fact, if Mr. Cowgill were hosting a retrospective of, say, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Andrei Tarkovsky, Wim Wenders, or any other high-minded auteur whose work feels constitutionally alien but significant to me, I would be happy to pledge allegiance to his flag.

Unfortunately, Eric Rohmer is not an artist in that league. And honesty, buttressed by the experience of having studied nearly every frame of film that Rohmer exposed over the course of 40 years, compels me to share the following unpleasant fact: Mr. Cowgill expects a progressive paper to follow meekly in lockstep with the received wisdom about Rohmer, give his retrospective a nodding pass, and move on to Angelina Jolie's bungee cords. The subtext of Cowgill's argument is: C'mon, you class traitor! You're as bourgeois as me--and my institution, and my values, and my cherished 35mm prints! To Mr. Cowgill, pointing up the class dimensions of the moviegoing experience is somehow dirty pool. Could he really be falling back on that tired old notion that Rohmer is a "universal" artist peddling "timeless truths"?

I recently had an encounter with a film lover incensed by the Rohmer piece. As I tend to get emotional in such situations (if Mr. Cowgill thinks I lack subtlety in print, he should buy me a drink), I tried hard to do my best impersonation of Lorraine Bracco as Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos. So I asked, haltingly: What do you think these Eric Rohmer movies are really...about? I mean...what do they mean? The incensed one's response, after a sigh and a scrunch in the chair, was to sum up the various emotional states of lovelorn characters in Rohmer movies.

Such descriptions of emotional events are all I've ever gotten in the way of "meaning" from any Rohmer-lover in all my moviegoing days. If I had Mr. Cowgill on my couch, I would suggest that "meaning" doesn't mean much to a Rohmer lover, who essentially enjoys--as Cowgill reveals when he likens the vapid narcissists of Rohmer's films to the readers of City Pages--seeing an idealized version of himself, his loved ones, and his friends in the attractive settings of Rohmer's work. But I'm sure that if I said this to him outright, he would, like Dr. Melfi's patient, slam the door behind him without a word.

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