Rightwing Film Geek

Soaked in tears about Dreyer


GERTRUD (Carl-Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1964) — 10

I’m sitting right now in a DC bar, unspeakably depressed, soaking wet with rain, face wet with tears, trying to make sense of perhaps the most discouraging filmgoing experience of my life.

Not because of the movie, which is and will remain one of my all-time favorites, the capstone to the career of one of my pantheon directors. There will be a time to write about the film proper, but not right now. To those of you who have read Pauline Kael’s legendary review of SHOESHINE, this may seem rather redundant. But here it is.

Gertrud_3I get that GERTRUD is not a film that will appeal to everybody. I would not myself recommend it to almost everybody I know in the flesh. A story of a 19th-century Danish aristocratic woman who succeedingly rejects every man around her in the name of her ideals about love, it’s a tragedy about a kind of pride and indifference to interest that practically doesn’t exist today. It’s also got a reputation (not without reason) as the slowest-paced, most boring movie ever made. It’s filmed and performed in the most aggressively stylized way of any orthodox-narrative film I can think of (it poses no difficulties with intelligibility). The actors pose for every line, generally pay no attention to each other and converse while looking in directions that make no naturalistic sense, and s t r e t c h   o u t   e v e r y   v o c a l i z a t i o n. Dreyer emphasizes the slow rhythm in every way imaginable — in camera movements, lack of cutting, real-time theatrical staging within scenes, etc. There’s also a couple of weirdly-lit flashbacks that use such a blindingly-diffused white light you would think they were shot in a room with walls made of soft-white fluorescent lights. And I know the history of its disastrous premiere and the critical derision heaped on it as a movie of sofas and pianos. All this to say — I know GERTRUD is not SINGIN IN THE RAIN. I get that. I really do. I’m not Jonathan Rosenbaum thinking GERTRUD would be popular, or could ever have been, if only Hollywood and the media didn’t conspire to limit what films we can see.

I was happy when the movie began, looking around seeing the huge National Gallery of Art screening room pretty full, though not packed to the gills. This is the best theater in DC … presentation is flawless, there are no bad seats (even the front row). And the print was in near brand-new shape.

I heard people leaving as early as the second scene, of Gertrud in the garden with young lover Erland, telling him she will leave her husband. And you know what … I can respect that. Not everybody will like everything (I have my own blind spots). And if you’re bored by a movie, leaving is a right thing to do.

There had been a few snickers … there always are. But at one scene, the laughter became a dominant reaction in the audience — the scene where Gertrud’s old lover Gabriel (we don’t then know why their affair ended) tells her that he was at a bohemian-artist “men’s party” the previous night and that Erland bragged about his latest conquest that afternoon — Gertrud.

And I snapped. I said audibly (though I don’t think anybody more than one seat away could’ve heard) “why is this funny?” I was already leaking from the eyes from the content of the scene — we’re seeing Gertrud’s heart break. And now I have to listen to (I’m sorry) a bunch of cretinous philistines laughing. Not for disliking the movie — that’s perfectly fair — but for imposing their derision on others. If you can’t adjust your expectations to accept a period piece and a stylized performance, why the frack are you at a museum for a 45-year-old Danish movie based on a hundred-year-old play? Why are you sticking around, if this is how you feel, you vulgarian? Do you think you score some points in the ledger of life for sitting through a film that you can’t respond to, but don’t have the confidence in your judgment to leave or fall asleep, so you just deride it as a nervous-panic reaction, you self-consciously “literate” yuppie bourgeois scum? Isn’t the point of museum film programs to gather a discerning audience? And I live in a city that prides itself on its intellectual sophistication.

BloomI used to believe (I think I picked it up from Allan Bloom or some among the Straussians under whom I studied philosophy) that one good definition of an art masterpiece was “a work that didn’t make itself relevant to you, but made you relevant to it.” I guess I still believe that, but I’m really coming to question whether masterpieces, by this definition, are even possible any more, since we now laugh at and deride stuff that isn’t “relevant” (Richard Roeper’s derision of HOUSE OF MIRTH as “a hat movie” was his, and that version of the show’s, point of no return). And wonder whether the cultural barbarians have won with respect to the old masterpieces. If this is the reaction to GERTRUD in a national museum just a block from the US Capitol … where can it thrive?

For the rest of the movie, as Gertrud’s prideful isolation grows stronger, there was laughter widespread enough that I wrote it down in my notes six times. To nearly-quote Kael, I was no longer sure whether the tears I was shedding, and they never stopped entirely for long, were for the tragedy of Gertrud or the tragedy of GERTRUD. I left the theater trying to tune out all the “that was so slow” comments (fair point though that is; I wasn’t in the mood to be charitable). When I got outside, people were staying in the foyer or the outside breezeway, because it was raining. I didn’t care if I got soaked — headed for the nearest bar to drown my depression (though to be honest, Ive only finished half of my first beer while writing this post).

I’ve had audiences laugh at movies I love — TOKYO STORY, Dreyer’s own DAY OF WRATH. I dunno why this felt so uniquely discouraging. It’s almost enough to make you want to reject the mass of people and retreat into splendid lonely isolation with your own ideals unspoiled.

Oh … wait …


August 22, 2009 - Posted by | Carl-Theodor Dreyer


  1. Mark the date, my friend. For we are in total agreement.

    Despite the sniggering nincompoops, I’m glad you got to encounter Gertrud in a fine glowing print in a darkened room.

    (FWIW, I always have the same problem w/ audiences and Sirk, to a point. I mean, Sirk knew laughter was a likelihood, and staged numerous end-runs around it. But, alas, never enough.)

    Comment by msic | August 22, 2009 | Reply

  2. Wow, Vic, I feel for you. I think the last time I heard someone laugh so loudly or regularly at a serious movie that someone else piped up to say “Why is this funny?” or “Why are you laughing?” was when I caught a Maurice Pialat film a few years ago. But it was a smaller crowd, and there were only one or two offenders. Nothing quite like what you describe here.

    Comment by Peter T Chattaway | August 22, 2009 | Reply

  3. As bad as the texters and talkers are, without a doubt the worst moviegoer is the derisive laugher for precisely why you’ve explained. All ability to engage with the film is killed when even just one person is hooting as though everything made before 1990 was intended to play as camp.

    The worst experience I can recall was during Forty Guns, although the original Japanese Godzilla is up there, for reasons you can expect, and the climax of Dogville produced their share of snickering.

    For whatever reason, I’ve found this behavior more common in the arthouse/museum/festival scene than in the multiplex. You’d think those viewers would know better, but I honestly think they believe they’re properly enjoying films when acting this way.

    Comment by markpfeiffer | August 22, 2009 | Reply

  4. I’ve found that the kiss of death comes most often from audience members who’ve been assigned to watch the movie for a class. UC Berkeley has an introductory film course every semester (which seems to translate to a good portion of the student body as “easy A”), and the screenings (at the PFA) are open to the public as space allows. In the past, the programs were often good enough that I’d take the opportunity to watch, say, Late Spring again, but I always had to cut out before the Q&A. The impatient sighing during the film, meant to broadcast boredom, was almost more than I could take, but having to listen to condescending questions would probably make me snap.

    I’ve never had to sit through widespread ridicule of a beloved fave, though. Rough.

    (Michael, I know exactly what you mean about Sirk. “Oh, Mother, stop acting!” in Imitation of Life always cuts through a good number of those laughs like a knife.)

    Comment by davis | August 22, 2009 | Reply

  5. Had a similar experience a few years back with my first (so far only) theatrical screening of BLUE VELVET. The audience, openly restless through much of the film, finally exploded in laughter when Isabella Rossellini stumbles onto the lawn naked and burned. A girl three seats away exchanged glances with me, with a look on her face that read, “Why are these people laughing?” I could only shrug in disgust.

    Still never seen GERTRUD, but I think I’ll watch it on my own for my first go-around. (I taped it off TV some years back… guess I should dig up that tape…) My condolences on that hellish screening, man. Shit like this just ain’t kosher.

    Comment by Steve C. | August 23, 2009 | Reply

  6. My heart goes out to you. The only consolation I can offer is that such ignorant derision is eternal. Over the years I’ve seen and heard if directed at many films, “The Birds” and “The Night of the Hunter” among them. There’s no “why,” beyond insecure people and the need for some of them to pretend to be superior to what they’re watching…

    Comment by Glenn Kenny | August 23, 2009 | Reply

  7. People do that kind of thing quite a lot at the film series at my college, so I don’t usually mind it. But I can see why it’d be hard to take with this one. So delicate and easy to dismiss- and so powerful if you take the trouble to care.

    Comment by Daniel O'Sullivan | August 24, 2009 | Reply

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