Sunday, July 19, 2009

Bresson and the Anti-Film

"No actors. (No directing of actors).
No Parts. (No learning of parts).
No staging. But the use of working models, taken from life.
BEING (models) instead of SEEMING (actors)."
- Notes on the Cinematographer, Robert Bresson

Notoriously taciturn, we know so little about Robert Bresson's life, his upbringing, his relationships. But we have something more telling than any biography: a half-century career that spanned 13 films, and his book "Notes on the Cinematographer" – a small collection of fragmentary ideas, each at most a few sentences long, that he wrote to himself between 1950 and 1974. Together these form the portrait of an artistic contrarian: a man dedicated to the creation of a new art form, who conceived of film in a way that radically precluded all that came before him (and all that has followed since).

CINEMA (Photographed Theater)
Bresson and the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky tied for the "Best Director" prize at the 1983 Cannes film festival; Bresson for his last film "L'Argent," Tarkovsky for his second-to-last film, "Nostalghia." Orson Welles, presenting the award, announced Bresson first; as the 76 year old filmmaker hobbled across the stage, many in the audience booed. Bresson was passé. Tarkovsky was the new. The moment was especially awkward for Tarkovsky. He revered Bresson's films, but in return, Bresson held Tarkovsky's works in contempt.

This lopsided appreciation was no anomaly. Many beloved filmmakers have praised him: Godard, Scorsese, Truffaut, Malle, Melville. Yet Bresson's conception of cinema eliminated the possibility of reciprocity. Cinema, or as he put it, "photographed theater," was sham, a reproduction. It held as much value as a photo of a painting or sculpture. "But a photographic reproduction of Donatello's Saint John the Baptist or of Vermeer's Young Woman with Necklace has not the power, the value or the price of that sculpture or that painting. It does not create it. Does not create anything."

Bresson audaciously and perhaps naively envisioned a wholly new art form independent of the theater. The lie of acting worked in theater only because of its homogeneity; everything in the play is false – the gestures, the intonations, the sets, the lighting – and he believed that this consistency could yield truth. But film naturally encompasses the real, and the dynamic feedback between audience and actor that gives life to the theater dies on the celluloid. "No marriage of theater and cinematography, without both being exterminated. The mixture of true and false yields falsity."

Model / Automatism
Bresson's first two films, "Angels of Sin" and "Les Dames du Bois de Boulougne," were made within the studio system, with star actors and union crews. And though we can certainly find plenty to praise in each, we're also witnessing a director struggling against an industry's expectations. In them, and especially with 'Les Dames,' he attempts to give cinematographic life to a system thoroughly embedded in the art of the theater. He pushed accepted standards and methodology to their breaking point, at both the expense of his actors and his own critical reception. Maria Casarés, the world-renowned stage actress who played the role of Hélene in 'Les Dames,' publicly upbraided Bresson, calling him "a genuine tyrant... we abandoned everything that could resemble a life of our own, a personal will, in order to drag before our sweet tyrant – for he was extremely sweet – a body, hands, and a voice that he had chosen."

It was clear to Bresson that to continue, he would have to abandon the star system. He was aiming at genuine authenticity, a mindless, thoughtless will that could outline a movement from the exterior to the interior. He called the people inhabiting his following films "models," and many, including Bresson himself, have referred to their presence as a sort of automatism. To the uninitiated, this might conjure images of robotic actors delivering lines without emotion, moving with a sort of jerky other worldliness. More often than not, however, we find a deeper layer of feeling and emotion in these performances, a sort of hidden dimension lurking just under the surface, facilitated by repetition and the abandonment of the will. "Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism. It is anti-nature to subordinate them to will and to thought."

Bresson also rejected the star system because he felt that the model could only inhabit a single role. How could an audience believe in a star if he or she is one character in this film, and another character in that? His models were single serving; for any of them to inhabit more than one role would eliminate the sincerity of being that he sought for each of his films. "[The star system] makes nothing of the immense power of attraction which belongs to the new and unforeseen. Film after film, subject after subject, confronting the same faces that one cannot believe in." And though his models elevate the effect of his works, they also rendered them that much more difficult for Bresson to make. His financiers were asked to invest money into a film filled with people gracing the screen for the first time; add to that his counter-intuitive style and his reputation as a spiritual film-maker, it's no wonder that on more than one occasion he spent decades finding funding for a project.

Bresson called his new art cinematography, but not only did his definition venture well beyond the work of a cameraman, his peculiar visual aesthetic runs contrary to most photographic precepts. For Bresson, a beautiful image had no value in film. If any particular shot has significant power over the audience, then it has lost its mutability. His art lies not in the individual image, but in the montage, the sequence. The particular has value and meaning only in relation to the whole; in isolation, we find only nonsense. "An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a color by contact with other color. A blue is not the same blue beside a green, a yellow, a red. No art without transformation."

He also believed that all art lies in suggestion, and consequentially, his films doggedly work at our subconscious expectations. Space is clipped, narratives reduced, and the images flattened. Consider the setting for "Trial of Joan of Arc." Though the actual courtroom was enormous, we're never aware of the dimensions, focused instead solely on Joan's face, the upper bodies of her interrogators, and the scribbling of the court reporters. The riotous crowds are never seen, only heard, gnawing at the corners of our awareness. The church's interrogators are nameless save for one, and though they are often present in the same room with Joan, they never inhabit the same image. Their separateness is absolute; their can be no reconciliation. All of this economizing simultaneously focuses us on the interior aspects of the characters while subconsciously filling us with tension, even dread.

Bresson's works are a kind of anti-film. Not because we're only capable of defining them by what they lack (we aren't), and not because he consciously set out to create the opposite of existing cinema (he didn't). Bresson repeatedly rejected any sort of abstract intellectualism as the basis for art; he searched for the new and unexpected, regardless of any preconceptions, even his own, cautioning himself to "be as ignorant of what you are going to catch as is a fisherman of what is at the end of his fishing rod (the fish that arises from nowhere)."

No, they are anti-film because we're incapable of viewing them without bringing along all of the cinematic baggage that we've accumulated in our lifetimes. Where there are models, we see only bad acting. Where there is economy, we see only dull simplicity. Over time, we can grow accustomed to his art, appreciate it, even embrace it (to the point of risking conversion away from the cinema). But had we grown up watching the films of Bresson, we would likely find all other cinema maddeningly unnecessary, bloated horror shows plagued by histrionics and paroxysm.

Yet perhaps there's room in this world for both CINEMA and cinematography. Though CINEMA may omit the transcendent power of "A Man Escaped," Bresson's cinematography precludes the infectious hilarity of Tati or the illusionism of Lynch. And if no bridge is found twixt the two, at least we can thank Bresson for expanding the horizons of the possible, and for inspiring us with his audacious naiveté.


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Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Devil Probably (dir. Robert Bresson)

Bresson's second to last film, "The Devil Probably," is easily the most experimental of all of his works. Its loose narrative (an original screenplay written by Bresson himself) borders on aimlessness, and he leaves out so many essential plot details that we're often left grasping for straws. It's also perhaps his only film that openly lectures to the audience; several scenes clearly and simplistically indict a global economy wreaking environmental havoc on the earth. Opening with conflicting reports of a suicide, it's also one of the more striking examples of Bresson's preference for showing the effect before the cause. We're constantly weaving back and forth in time, desperately searching for clues that might explain the encounters we've witnessed. And in the end, we're left without any answers or enlightenment.

Set in France nearly one decade after the failed student revolutions of May 1968, the film opens with two newspaper accounts of the death of the main character, Charles. One states that it was a suicide, while another paper alleges a murder-suicide pact. The rest of the 90-minute film is filled with flashbacks to the six-months prior to that event, covering seemingly unconnected episodes from Charles's life. He's inexplicably suicidal; some of his companions do their best to save him from his depression, while others simply try to make some money off of his despair. His plight mirrors the general malaise of his generation, disilussioned with the aftermath of their failed uprising. They no longer speak of creation, peace, or a new world; they can only speak cynically of destruction, and of the ease with which they can manipulate the masses.

"The Devil Probably" is unrelentingly bleak. Bresson admitted as much himself, stating, "Of all my films, The Devil Probably is the most ghastly. But none of them are despairing." For me, it's his only film that I've been genuinely disinterested in. The writing, like the plot, feels unfocused at best, and lazily didactic at worst. And though I in general appreciate Bresson's pencience for eliminating outcomes as a source of tension by showing us the effects before the cause, it's only because he typically crafts a story that creates its own tensions, regardless of the outcome. It's the burning "how's" and "why's" that give the best of his films their infectious single-mindedness. But 'Devil's' confounding plot mitigates against that necessary focus, and even serves to conceal that interior beauty that he so often displays through his peculiar montages.

Last Word: A daring experiment in form and narrative that in the end mitigates against Bresson's greatest strengths.


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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mouchette (dir. Robert Bresson)

Will this film make me laugh? Cry? Will I have fun for a couple of hours then forget all about it by the next day? If that's the kind of questions that run through your mind when evaluating a film, then for God's sake, please read no further. Robert Bresson is clearly not what you're looking for, and his film "Mouchette" will quite likely force you to ponder questions about life and death that you probably spend most of your waking hours trying to avoid.

Yes, it's bleak. Mouchette is a prepubescent girl who lives in poverty. When she's not at school or at work at a local diner, she's at home caring for her dying mother, baby sister, and wine-smuggling drunkard of a father. Her teacher slaps her for singing out of key, and her schoolmates despise her and her cheap wooden clogs. Mouchette's few joys in the film include throwing mud at the rich girls, decimating her opponents in a game of bumper cars, and caring for an epileptic murderer. Cheery, no?

The film delights in symbolism. We open with some of Bresson's most stunning and effective cinematography, a cat-and-mouse game between Arsene, the poacher, and Mathieu, the game warden. A figure concealed by dense shrubbery sneaks upon a clearing. Hands, in closeup, set partridge traps. Another pair of eyes watch, wait. The traps snap, and the game begins. Birds struggle helplessly in the nooses, writhing in pain. Mathieu carefully approaches one of the frightened animals, seizing it in a moment of weakness. He unties the noose, releasing the bird. Arsene watches his defeat, then flees the scene. The sequence economically anticipates the film's primary motif. Mouchette is like this bird, caught between two opposing forces: her own independent, noble spirit, and a society that despises her for circumstances beyond her control. She struggles, but in vain. Will someone release her from this trap? In a way, yes, though her "liberation" has left audiences implacably divided, often along religious lines.

"Mouchette" is the second time Bresson adapted a novel by Goerge Bernanos, the first being his internationally renowned success, "Diary of a Country Preist." Bernanos's style seems perfectly suited for Bresson; he deals with the interior aspects of the characters, their thoughts, the movements of their souls. Bresson's peculiar aesthetic seems uniquely capable of rendering these themes on the screen. The flatness of his photography, the automatism of his characters, the interdependence of his images, all point toward the hidden, concealed, yet inexplicably revealed. And though the "plot" defies all attempts at conventional analysis, the film is a wholly compelling exercise in form, layered with meaning, and divisive in it's conclusions. It's also an impressive sifting of characters, themes, and motifs, each of which stand on their own, yet combined form something altogether different.

Last Word: "Mouchette" is a touching film of rebellion and independence that unites audiences in their appreciation and divides them in their conclusions.


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Lancelot du Lac (Robert Bresson)

Audiences have a very clear set of expectations from film adaptations of the Arthurian legend. Chivalry, adventure, romance, shining armor. Dashing knights and deliciously bountiful bosoms. Movies in this cannon elucidate a genre as well-defined as any, but what can we expect from "Lancelot du Lac" by Robert Bresson, the French auteur who's entire conception of the cinema stands completely apart from (and in opposition to) everything we've come to understand of the medium? It took him 25 years to get funding for the project, if that's any clue.

Clearly, you can throw out the shining armor, bountiful bosoms, and adventure. Bresson's domain had always been the hidden interior, and the superficial ostentatiousness of the genre could only serve to conceal this from us. Also, most films about the knights of the round table gloss over the more barbarous aspects of the mythology, but not Bresson's. From its opening montage, we witness gloriously dispassionate decapitations, stabbings, hangings, burnings, and even temple desecration. Rivers of blood improbably squirt from even the smallest of wounds, coating their dull, dirty armor, while faceless knights casually seek out more carnage. A perfunctory introduction tells us that in the quest for the holy grail, the knights have turned on each other, dying by each other's hands as often as not, and after this brief exposition, we find the knights returned to their castle, their ranks decimated, their king disheartened. The knights openly squabble, and even the horses bay in fear, presumably tormented by the horrors they've witnessed.

Bresson's real purpose is the "why"? Why did the quest fail? Why have they turned on each other? Has God forsaken them (as Arthur openly wonders), or were they corrupted by their own greed and lust? These two opposing theories are (inconclusively) played out in the love affair between Queen Guinevere and her knight, Lancelot. Lancelot contends that their sin brought ruin to the enterprise, though Guinevere counters that only his pride and arrogance could lead to such a conclusion. They sought not the grail, she says, but God. They wanted to own Him. How could it have turned out otherwise?

Of all of his mature films (i.e., from 'Diary of a Country Priest' onwards), 'Lancelot' may come the closest, at least superficially, to approaching a more conventional narrative form that we can relate to. The tragic plot is practically Shakespearean, through Bresson does his best to subvert it's dramatic peaks and valleys. Employing entirely non-professional actors (or "models" in Bresson's terminology), they speak and move with a kind of thoughtless, glazed automatism. Their clumsy, impractical armor constantly invades the film's soundtrack, and Bresson ties together scenes with only the most minimal segues. We're often left wondering how much time has passed, our attention forcibly magnified as we strain to fill in the narrative gaps. We take cues from even the smallest of sounds, and find beauty not in any particular image - each of which has a peculiar flatness unique to Bresson - but only in their relationships, their juxtapositions.

Though many see the mystery of grace as a constant thread in Bresson's films, it's hard to fathom God's hand in the mutual annihilation of King Arthur's knights. Bresson can be accused of many things, but he has always intentionally avoided didacticism or ideology. If we learn anything from this film, we can't name it. It's only felt, brought to us through some kind of inner dynamic, an interior touch paradoxically rendered by the elimination of any exterior signs of it. How can we find feeling in a character without emotion? How can we find beauty in a 50mm lens? This is the real mystery weaving it's way through all of his films. The violence in 'Lancelot': crude, yes, even laughable by today's standards. But the mystery is there. A river of blood, bathing them and us.

Last Word: 'Lancelot' is at once Bresson's most violent and most approachable film, yet will likely not sate the uninitiated. Prepare for multiple viewings and endless introspection.


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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Cheri (2009, dir. Stephen Frears)

Deja vu. I know I've seen this movie before. But where? Oh, right. EVERYWHERE. "Cheri" is like one of those tired period pieces that Hollywood seems to toss out every couple of years just to prove that it can still make films without massive explosions or CGI. The kicker here is that "Cheri" isn't a big-budget American movie. It's the latest film from British director Stephen Frears, the wildly uneven culprit of both the critically acclaimed ("Dirty Pretty Things," "The Queen," "Dangerous Liasons") and the cinematically challenged ("Hero," "Mary Reilly").

"Cheri" charts the illicit love affair between the aging Parisian courtesan Lea (Michelle Pfeifer) and the young, dark, and fabulously wealthy Cheri (Rupert Friend), who happens to be the son of another famous courtesan Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates). At the beginning of the film, we find Cheri adrift in a world of loose women, alcohol, and opium, and Lea whisks him off to the country as a favor to his worried mother. However, they find themselves oddly drawn to each other, and what was supposed to have been a short respite from the sins of the big city turns into a 6-year affair. Neither seem really aware of what they have until Peloux abruptly ends it by arranging a marriage for her son to the young daughter of yet another wealthy courtesan.

I think you can see where this is going. The problem is that you won't care. If the tired thematic material doesn't turn you off, the genuinely insincere acting certainly will. Pfeifer's performance is predictable at best, and Kathy Bates plods through her scenes with all the grace of a rhinoceros. Cheri was the only character I was even mildly intrigued by, but Rupert Friend's "performance" rested entirely on how many ways we care to interpret the same doleful expression. The remaining supporting cast consisted mainly of over the hill prostitutes drenched in makeup, and the cinematography was cookie-cutter from start to finish.

The film is based on the book of the same name by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Collete is perhaps best known for her novel "Gigi" which was also adapted for the screen in an award winning 1958 Lerner and Lowe musical. Maybe back then Hollywood filmmakers were still new enough to the material - and audiences were conservative enough to be mildly shocked by them - to make these sorts of films worthwhile. But today, with a few very notable exceptions, adaptations of this nature seem doomed from the outset.

Last Word: A tired, predictable period piece filled with wooden acting and cookie-cutter filmmaking.


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