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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