Monday, January 11, 2010

Eric Rohmer (1920-2010)

If funerals, as they say, are for the living and not the dead, obituaries and appreciations (especially in an Internet age) are for the writers not the subjects.

Better writers and more informed film historians will argue about and establish Rohmer's place in the canon of great directors. Less enthusiastic amateur cinephiles may have to dig through the headlines at IMDB to find the news and rack their memories to remember if they've seen one of his films.

I confess when I went to IMDB and saw Rohmer's passing was only the second headline, below the notices of Simon Cowell's departure from American Idol, I was momentarily indignant. But it's always been that way for Rohmer, hasn't it? Amongst the uninitiated, he'll forever be remembered more for being the subject of Pauline Kael's classic slam than for being the auteur of My Night at Maud's, Chloe in the Afternoon, or Perceval. Kael's comment flitted through my mind not long after I heard the news of Rohmer's passing, and I tried to capture and bottle the anger and indignation I felt so that I could remind myself that a critic needs to be right 999 times to atone for the one time he or she is that wrong that snidely.

Such an object lesson still makes Rohmer's films secondary to something else, so I'll hasten to say there is a humility and a simplicity to his films that those weaned on explosions may find boring (I won't prettify the sentiments by using some nicer word), but those who love talk, ideas, and, above all, people, will find rich and savory.

In his chapter on Rohmer in Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, John Caruana begins, fittingly, with a quote from Blaise Pascal: "Temporal afflictions conceal the eternal joys to which they lead." It took a long time for me to work my way past the "temporal afflictions" in Rohmer's films and catch a glimpse of the eternal joys to which they lead. But that's a part, too, of why I am so fond of his films. Those glimpses are none too frequent in our lives as well--but they are there. Caruana writes:

"But what appears to be an obstacle to appreciating Rohmer's spirituality is actually an important key to unlocking its mystery. Rohmer's unassuming style powerfully renders its spiritual message. For what is essential about Rohmer's God, like Blaise Pascal's before him, is that he is a hidden God. For Rohmer, God's invisibility speaks to humanity's distance from him, but also to God's respect for human autonomy" (74).

Caruana goes on to suggest that Rohmer emulates his God by withdrawing as much as feasible his authority over his work, giving his viewers unimagined freedoms to exist within his work and to draw their own conclusions about the world he has created.

The respect given to the viewer by Rohmer is something that is so rare in an age of lowest common denominators, of speeches giving hammering home epiphanies and music creating artificial significance. That respect for the viewer is infectious and it permeates the work and creates a space where characters can exist with dignity and humanity in spite of their foibles. If we are lucky, it carries past the film and begins to help us catch a glimpse of how we can give our neighbor freedom and respect. I know Rohmer's films have helped me cultivate the still fragile buds of habit in my own thought life that struggle to first think charitably about my neighbor in order to create a right foundation from which acts of love and compassion can be built.

A few months ago, at the Toronto International Film Festival, I had cause to meditate on a film from Alain Resnais, and I wrote the following:

There is a communal aspect to film going that is present in the culture at large and highly concentrated around major festivals. People talk about films and the way they shape our lives in a way I seldom hear them talk about books anymore. For good or for ill, films matter to people, and as a result the relationship between cinephiles and an auteur is often something quite different from that of their relationship to authors, actors, and other celebrities.

Two years ago, the eighty-seven year old Eric Rohmer sent what could well be his final film to the festival (Romance of Astree and Celadon) and the fact that the much beloved director could not himself make the trip to present the film in no way diminished the joy of his fans at having another film. Life gets mighty precious, Bonnie Raitt sings, when there is less of it to waste.

Alain Resnais is eighty-seven this year, and Les Herbes folles could well be his last film. That he was not able to be in the Scotiabank theater to present the film did little to diminish my pleasure in having two more hours in the dark with an international treasure of whom we are not yet ready (are we ever?) to let go.

I knew before today that I would probably not see another new Eric Rohmer film in this life. I knew this. This news was not unexpected. And yet, I still was not ready to let him go.

Are we ever?

1 comment:

Christopher Lake said...

Thanks for notifying me of this piece, Ken. As you write above, I knew that Rohmer had to leave us relatively soon, but when I read the news, I was still surprised and saddened. This reaction is with my (still!) only having seen "Chloe In The Afternoon" and "Claire's Knee." (As a 36-year-old film buff and fan of Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, and Kieslowski, I admit this with some embarrassment!)

I have wanted to see "My Night At Maude's" for years but have never found a place to rent it (and due to not having a credit card, I don't have a Netflix account). I should have just shelved out the bucks for the Criterion "Six Moral Tales" set. Now that Rohmer has departed this life, I sense that when I finally do see MNAM, it will be a wonderful yet bittersweet experience. Rest in peace, Mr. Rohmer!