European Art Cinema The Many Maps of Misreading

Indeed, and this maybe the rub, the point where any interpretation of Bergman's films, any thematic, modernist, or self-reflexive reading comes up against another set of realities: those of production and reception as the obtain in a popular, quasi-universal, but nonetheless capital-intensive medium such as the cinema. After all, it is audiences as well as critics who decide how a film is to be understood, and the former are often cued not by the subject matter or metaphysical dilemmas about reality and reflection, of being and seeming, or the difficulties of the face-to-face in human communication, but by such "cultural capital" as a catchy title, a striking poster, the presence of well-known actors, not to mention such "chance-encounters" as the kind of cinema where one happens to have seen a film, or with whom one saw it. In his time, Bergman was seen as the very epitome of the "art cinema" director.10

Today, it makes more sense to put forward the case that the old "art cinema" vs. "commerce" divide, even the opposition Europe vs. Hollywood, or the difference between an "auteur" and a "metteur-en-scene" should be understood as a special case of a more general process, where films (or for that matter, most cultural objects and artifacts) have assigned to them identities and meanings according to often apparently fortuitous or superficial characteristics, which on closer inspection, nonetheless provide the only instructive map we have of cultural history, in this case, of film culture. Such a map ignores all kinds of stylistic or formal boundaries, relegates interpretations such as the one I have sketched of Persona to the graduate student essay, but speaks eloquently about the life of films and filmmakers in a much vaster history: that of mentalities, taste and sensibilities. One could even call it the only true "map of misreading": In the case of the cinema, this map tells us that many a European film intended for one kind of (national) audience, or made within a particular kind of aesthetic framework, agenda or ideology, undergoes a sea change as it survives the decades (or crosses the Atlantic), and upon its return, finds itself bearing the stamp of yet another cultural currency.

If this is now a commonplace about Hollywood, it is just as true for European art cinema. The qualities for which filmmakers were praised were not necessarily what the audiences liked about their films, and what made them famous was not always what made them successful. In the case of Italian neo-realism, for instance, the aesthetic-moral agenda included a political engagement, a social conscience, a humanist vision. Subjects such as post-war unemployment, or the exploitation of farm labor by the big landowners was part of what made neo-realism a "realist" cinema, while the fact that it did not use stars, but faces from the crowd made it a "poetic" cinema (to come back to Weightman's comments on Ingmar Bergman). Yet as we know, a film like Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1946) which is ostensibly about the bravery of the Italian resistance against the German Gestapo, with communist partisans and Catholic priests making common cause against the enemy, represents not only a particular (party-political) view of the resistance and a short-lived compromise among the powers that be, while with established performers such as Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi it was not exactly a film that used lay actors. Or consider why The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio de Sica, 1948), ostensibly about a man who after months of seeking work, finally lands a job, only The BicycLe Thief to lose it straight away because he cannot get to work on time, when thieves steal his bicycle, did well in America not because of the man's social plight ("Why didn't he take his car to work?"), but because audiences loved the story of the man's seven-year-old son, tears in his eyes as he sees his parent humiliated, but in the final shot, slowly clasping his father's hand again, as they walk away into the sunset.11

Rome, Open City became a success abroad for many reasons, including its erotic, melodramatic, and atmospheric qualities. In one often reproduced shot there is a glimpse of Anna Magnani's exposed thighs as she falls, gunned down by the Germans, while in another, a glamorous German female agent seduces a young Italian women into a lesbian affair while also supplying her with cocaine. To American audiences, unused to such explicit fare, the labels "art" and "European" began to connote a very particular kind of realism, to do with explicit depiction of sex and drugs rather than political or aesthetic commitment.

Bergman's films are crucial here, as is the history of his reception and reputation as an artist. Respected in the early 1960s for his films of existential angst and bleak depictions of religious doubt, he was able to have his films financed by Svensk Filmindustri, partly because in the art houses of America such graphic portrayals of sexual jealousy or violence as in Sawdust and Tinsel or The

The Virgin Spring

Virgin Spring (1959), or of a woman masturbating (in The Silence) defined for the generation prior to the "sexual revolution" what was meant by adult cinema. When in the mid-1960s other filmmakers in Europe (Denmark, Germany) began to make films for which the label "adult" was a well-understood euphemism, and when the Americans themselves relaxed censorship, the art film export as an economic factor for European national cinemas suffered a decline (in Italy, for instance), although it remained a cultural and artistic force. Above all, for the subsequent generations of (more or less mainstream) American directors, from Arthur Penn to Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese to Francis Ford Coppola, but also for the academy it was the fact that without the European art and auteur cinema, film studies might never have found a home in American universities.

What can we call this re-assignment of meaning, then, this fluctuation of critical, cultural and economic currency, between one continent and another? A misunderstanding of the filmmaker's intention? An acknowledgment that as many Bergmans exist as there were audiences recognizing something of novelty, interest or spiritual value in his films? Or just an integral part of what we mean by "art cinema" (and, finally, by any form of cinema), where the primary, economic use-value is either not relevant (because of government subsidies, as in the case of Bergman), or has already been harvested, leaving a film or a filmmaker 's work to find its status on another scale of values altogether? Is this what forms a "canon" and makes a film a "classic"? In which case, the old idea of European films as expressive of their respective national identity would appear to be rather fanciful and far-fetched. It would suggest that "national cinema" quite generally, makes sense only as a relation, not as an essence, being dependent on other kinds of filmmaking (i.e., the commercial/international mainstream, to which it supplies the other side of the coin and thus functions as the subordinate term). Yet a national cinema by its very definition, must not know that it is a relative or negative term, for then it would lose its virginity and become that national whore which is the heritage film (as in the case of British cinema from the 1980s onward).12 This is why the temptation persists to look beyond relative values, towards something that defines "national cinema" positively, such as "the decent, naive, Scandinavian male ... driven nearly frantic by the vagaries of the female."

Bergman's carefully staged self-doubt at the end of his active filmmaking life, together with the sort of qualified, but prophetic faith in his early, poetic films

(as expressed by the review of Weightman quoted earlier) may yet have a common denominator with American audiences' frisson about the "mature" Bergman's candid look at sexual obsessions and violent marital strife. For retrospectively, by a kind of pruning away, these judgments delineate quite accurately the slim ground an auteur like Bergman occupies who also has to signify a "national cinema" (the looming presence I alluded to). He has to have recognizable high culture themes, a stylistic expressivity amounting to a personal signature, a stock company of actors that function as his actual or surrogate family, and that ambiguity or indeterminacy of reference which critics (myself included) used to prize as "psychological realism." By contrast, the French cinema has always been a national cinema with such a diversity of strands and traditions (Lumière, Méliès, surrealism, impressionism, poetic realism), that it makes its famous auteurs (Godard, Resnais, Truffaut, Rivette) almost marginal figures in the overall constellation, dominated as it is by genres, stars, and professional metteurs-en-scène.

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