Thursday, August 9, 2007

Is there a cure for Ty Burr?

Getting cranky at Zabriskie Point!

After apparently reading my earlier post, "Never trust anyone under thirty," Ty Burr (at left) picks up the gauntlet on his Globe-blog (Something of an oxymoron, no? Aren't blogs supposed to be an alternative to, rather than a brand-extension of, dead-tree journalism?) with the following:

. . . ex-Globie Thomas Garvey takes my own Sunday piece on Bergman and Antonioni to task on his HubReview blog for not insisting on their greatness strongly enough and for cutting the MySpace generation slack for not knowing their movie history (or worse, not caring to know). He makes some excellent points, but his dismissal of a younger generation's tastes is awfully broad, bordering on plain cranky.

I just came from talking to a classroom full of Harvard journalism students, none of them hardcore cineastes and none of whom had heard of Bergman before last week's obituaries. This is ignorance, as Garvey says, but it's not willful: They're 20. They're still finding things out. This is how they find things out, especially when you're talking about a filmmaker who hadn't released a new theatrical film during their lifetime. It's worth noting that Bergman has been at the top of the IMDb Starmeter -- meaning he's the most searched person on the site -- for a week now. But, yeah, Zac Efron is #2.

Garvey's trashing of current film -- "Trust me, little intern - you can skip ALL that shit - Grindhouse, The Darjeeling Limited, The Host/D-Games, Once - none of them are really worth your time" -- is just obnoxious, even if you agree with him. Tom, these are the movies, or movies like them, that speak to a kid, just as "Persona" once spoke to you and still does. Maybe that's a horrible thing, maybe the standards of serious cinema have fallen precipitously, but you'll never get a college junior from Point A to point B by being a hardliner. You sound like Bosley Crowther upon being presented with "Bonnie and Clyde," unwilling to concede meaning where you see none. (Of course, I could regularly be accused of the same. I hated "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," which one normally sane critic likened to Bunuel. Let us together shriek as one, Mr. Garvey). Still, is there a movie made in the last 15 years of which you approve?

Well, hose me down and call me cranky! Heavens to Betsy - far be it from me to criticize Harvard journalism students; I will point out, however, that in the past few years I've heard one Harvard grad wonder aloud just when, exactly, William the Conqueror invaded Angleterre ("I'm pretty sure it was 1086, Tom," she concluded with a confident nod), while others have insisted you didn't really have to hear Beethoven in the concert hall (what with today's totally awesome ear buds), and still others informed me that Shakespeare (like Bergman?), had no "relevance" today because of his "obvious racism and sexism." Given this evidence of the best education money can buy, I'm hardly shocked to learn that none of this latest crop of Ivy Leaguers has heard of a film director who hasn't released a theatrical film in their lifetime - I mean, seriously, could anything important have happened prior to their lifetime? "They're still finding things out" about William the Conqueror and things of that nature, okay? Cut them some slack!

Sorry, no. Too much slack is what they have already been cut. Harvard students should at least have HEARD of Ingmar Bergman - or if they haven't, they should have the temerity to shut up and listen when he's mentioned. If it's "obnoxious" to insist on that, so be it. Small price to pay, etc. As for my "trashing of current film," here Burr is being dishonest - I'm only trashing his intern's ideas about current film. In my prior piece, I cited several recent films which belonged, if not in the Bergman/Antonioni pantheon, then certainly in their shadow - the films of Michael Haneke (whose Benny's Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance just came out on DVD), Kyoshi Kurosawa, Abbas Kiarostami, and especially Krzysztof Kieslowski, to name a few. But do you think Burr's Harvard students know these filmmakers either? I'd bet you they don't.

And therein lies the rub. Burr's kids don't know the great filmmakers of today, either - and for him to pretend that the giants of current film are Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson is simply flattery of their immature, self-centered taste. As for his argument that film is just bustin' out all over - strange, then, that our recent crop of great auteurs has seen so little glory, in fact is generally in a constant battle with obscurity. If Burr's forgiving thesis were anywhere near true, wouldn't at least Kieslowski (whose Decalogue - image above - may be the greatest film achievement of the last quarter century) be a name as well known as Bergman's or Antonioni's? But it's not.

So sorry, but I won't be coming to Burr's "Come Dressed as the Hip Soul of Harvard" party. I'll keep sticking to my obnoxious guns - guns which Burr himself, who clearly is no intellectual slouch, has long since set aside. For it's obvious Burr knows better than to imagine Wes Anderson is anywhere near the stature of Bergman or Antonioni - but simply put, his job depends (or at least he thinks it depends) on pretending otherwise.


  1. Excellent post. Agreed, and one of the additional problems is simply that of distribution: a friend of mine (who has my old job as Classical Manager of the Princeton Record Exchange) plunks down a considerable wad of money each year to go to the Philadelphia Film Festival -- dozens of international films from Iceland to South Africa, few of which will either be transferred to DVD or available at Your Local Library for viewing. It might be vailable at a Video Rental, you say? Ha ha ha. A few in Boston and Cambridge, yes; but most rental places' idea of a foreign film is "An American in Paris." ... That we will rarely ever hear of the Great International director now--since so many of the distribution centers for overseas film aren't what they were--is one thing that Burr should tirelessly remind his readers of. It is a reversable situation, for those who care. Burr may be tired of the subject? Well ... gee, that's real tough.

  2. It is, indeed, shocking how long it takes for major works by genuinely cutting-edge directors to reach us - far longer than was the case with the old repertory-arthouse model. Haneke made Benny's Video, for instance, in 1992 - fifteen years ago! - and it's only now becoming available on DVD. I believe it was shown ONCE in the last few years at Harvard Film Archive. Prior to its release on DVD, Haneke's Code Unknown had only one brief run at the Museum of Fine Arts. Compare these timelines to those of Kurosawa or Bergman, who were something like household names, at least in arty boho households, just a year or two after their best work. Despite the existence of Netflix and Blockbuster, it seems that the real "art director" - as opposed to pseudo-art-directors, like Tarantino and Anderson, that Burr champions - are finding it more difficult to reach a public than ever.