Bergman had been the key figure in a painstaking effort, by him and by critics worldwide, to elevate the cinema into an art form equivalent to novels, poetry or classical music.
These were not the kinds of critics who wanted people to believe that westerns or gangster movies or musicals could be great art on the order of Tolstoy and Dickens. These critics wanted the movies instead to mimic the forbidding demands and even more forbidding themes of high modern art - from the difficult poetry of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to the assaultive aesthetic of Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp.
I don't know which "critics" Podhoretz is talking about, and I doubt he does either, but no matter. What he's saying, essentially, is that a film can only be challenging in ways that he personally sees fit, and Bergman's great crime is that he refused to play along.
Bergman was their man. In a relentless series of films - one or two a year - made between 1950 and 1982, he punished his audiences with a view of life so dark and foreboding that he made his fellow existentialist artist, Samuel Beckett, seem as upbeat as Oprah.
A dark view of life, though, isn't neccessarily punishing; that's why Waiting for Godot continues to be a very popular play, even if it fails to meet Podhoretz's key criteria: upbeat. Look at most of film noir, or even at Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, or a great deal of Bergman. The best Bergman films aren't punishing to sit through at all, in my opinion; they're interesting, and part of the reason is because you find yourself as a viewer engaging with a very active and intelligent artist.
The problem with Bergman for many people, including Podhoretz -- whom I suspect has never sat through a Bergman film in his life -- is that his reputation precedes him. People tend to assume the worst about him, that his films are just gloomy and boring and purposeless and a grind to sit through. Some bad ones are. But if you like movies, if you love the moving image, I don't see how you can fail to be interested in a film like Wild Strawberries or Virgin Spring or Hour of the Wolf. Or The Seventh Seal -- that chess game with Death has been spoofed many times, but the spoofs haven't hurt it any, haven't lessened the richness of it or the great narrative pull of its stark images. These films are captivating. There's a sense of connection when I watch them, between me as a viewer and a director who expresses his view of what it means to experience the sense of darkness that simply comes with being alive.
One of the best things I've read this week regarding Bergman's death is from an old New York Times review by Woody Allen, who seemed to regard Bergman as his mentor.
In addition to all else - and perhaps most important - Bergman is a great entertainer; a storyteller who never loses sight of the fact that no matter what ideas he’s chosen to communicate, films are for exciting an audience. His theatricality is inspired. Such imaginative use of old-fashioned Gothic lighting and stylish compositions. The flamboyant surrealism of the dreams and symbols. The opening montage of ‘’Persona,'’ the dinner in ‘’Hour of the Wolf'’ and, in ‘’The Passion of Anna,'’ the chutzpah to stop the engrossing story at intervals and let the actors explain to the audience what they are trying to do with their portrayals, are moments of showmanship at its best.