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."

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!

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.

 

Bob Cowgill gets the last word: That Mr. Wilder has a right to his preferences has never been in question--and I have no interest in battling him on that front. What is at issue is his obligation to the artist and the audience given his privileged role as a writer for the major "alternative" or "progressive" paper in our community. I assert as a minimum standard that he should: receive and reassess the artist's work in good faith, which means showing a high regard for accuracy and precision of vision when he interprets and contextualizes, something he did not demonstrate in the Rohmer article; help his audience to understand themes and currents and complexities in the artist's work that might foster intelligent and thoughtful discussion and interest; and assess the artist's work apart from rather meaningless generalizations about his putative audience. I would also try to wean him from his swaggeringly dismissive style of pop-culture condescension, but there is always the possibility that I have missed an element of self-parody.

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