ROBERT BRESSON: 1901-1999.
IN THE EARLY '80s, A FRIEND INVITED ME TO a screening of Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably, on the condition that, no matter what, I not say a word about it afterward. He claimed that Bresson's films had such a profound, consuming effect on him that he couldn't bear even the slightest outside interference until their immediate spell wore off, which he warned me might take hours. He was not normally a melodramatic, overly sensitive, or pretentious person, so I just thought he was being weird--until the house lights went down. All around us, moviegoers yawned or laughed derisively; some even fled the theater. But, watching the film, I experienced an emotion more intense than any I'd ever have guessed art could produce. The critic Andrew Sarris, writing on Bresson's work, once famously characterized this reaction as a convulsion of one's entire being, which rings true to me. Ever since, I've imposed basically the same condition on those rare friends whom I trust enough to sit beside during the screening of a Bresson film, and I'm not otherwise a particularly melodramatic, sensitive, or pretentious person.
Bresson isn't just my favorite artist. There's a whole lot more to it than that, though the effect he has had on me is too enormous and personal to distill. On a practical level, his work constructed my sensibility as a writer by offering up the idea that it was possible for an artwork's style to embody a kind of pragmatism that, if sufficiently rigorous and devoted to a sufficiently powerful subject, would eliminate the need within the work for an overt philosophical or moral standpoint. Every artist tries in some way to find that least compromised intersection of planes where his or her ideas meet and slightly exceed the world's expectations, but I don't think anyone has found a more perfectly balanced style than Bresson. His work communicates an unyielding, peculiarly personal vision of the world in a voice so sterilized as to achieve an almost inhuman efficiency and logic. The result is a kind of cinematic machine whose sets, locations, narrative, and models (Bresson's preferred term for actors) function together as an unhierarchical unit so perfectly self-sufficient that all that is revealed within each film is the disconcerting failure of the models to fulfill Bresson's requirements. Their emotions resonate, despite a conscientious effort on Bresson's part to make them move about and speak as though they have none. The fact that the actors, unlike any other aspect of Bresson's films, are driven by individual feeling draws attention almost by default, and creates a relationship with the audience so intimate that it's almost unbearable in its aesthetic restrictions.
A full appreciation of Bresson's work requires moviegoers to approach his films as though starting from scratch. This is a huge thing to ask of an audience, which is why Bresson's films will always select their admirers with care and infrequency. But the films earn that degree of commitment because, despite their intensive demands, they ask almost nothing for themselves. They're too plain to be considered experimental or avant-garde, and require no suspension of disbelief. But they're antitraditional as well, although their respect for the tradition of storytelling borders on the fanatical. They're neither difficult nor easy to watch, at least not in the usual senses of those words. Instead of flaunting their difference, or feigning modesty by deferring to the conventions of Hollywood film, they offer up an art so unimpeachably fair, so lacking in ulterior motivation that the effect is a kind of mimicry of what perception might be like were one capable of simultaneously perceiving clearly and appreciating th e process by which perception occurs. The only thing these films ask is that one share a fraction of Bresson's single-minded concern for the souls of young people whose innocence causes them to fail at the cruel, irrevocable task of adulthood.
Apart from his first feature, the comedy Les Anges du peche, and perhaps the curiously terse if fascinating Une Femme douce, Bresson never made a film that's less than sublime. For whatever reason, his early, black-and-white films like Pickpocket, Diary of a Country Priest, and Mouchette are the most celebrated. But, if anything, his later, less widely circulated color films--Four Nights of a Dreamer, Lancelot du Lac, The Devil, Probably, and L'Argent--are the masterpieces among his masterpieces, to my mind. Many of the aforementioned stylistic tropes for which Bresson is alternately reviled and admired reached their full significance in this latter part of his oeuvre, as the lapsed Catholicism that gave his early, doomed characters the remote possibility of redemption and allowed viewers to interpret his work's introversion as a metaphor for religious self-erasure loses ground to an even more thoroughly hopeless notion of fate as the random and godless chain of events that structures a life. In Bresson's ea rlier films, the protagonist's almost inevitable suicide is a tragic segue into the comforting delusion of heaven; in the later films, suicide is the inexorable outcome, given the bleak circumstances; and the staggering numbness induced by Bresson's cold, mechanical witness to these deaths forms the least opinionated, and therefore only accurate depiction of suicide's consequences that I've ever come across.
When I first saw The Devil, Probably at the age of twenty-eight, I wrote Bresson a number of long, desperate, worshipful letters offering to do anything, even sweep the floors of his sets, to assist him in his work. At the time, I would have given up my life, my friends, even my dream of being a novelist in order to help him create films that, to this day, are for me the greatest works of art ever made. It's an unjustifiable, perhaps even irrational claim, but I'm not alone in my devotion, which might also explain why my pleas went unanswered. Perhaps I was just one of many depressed young people who'd confused Bresson's stylistic perfection for a perfect solution and my letters went straight into the trash. In any case, I've now lived longer than any of the Bresson characters whose hopelessness I once took as a reflection of my own, and I credit his films, whose effect on me remains indescribable, but whose consequence to the novelist I eventually became is simply put: In my own dark, idiosyncratic art, I c ontinue to do everything in my power to carry on a fraction of Robert Bresson's work.
Dennis Cooper's fifth novel, Period, was recently released by Grove Press.
SOUND OF SILENTS
ROBERT BRESSON IS USUALLY THOUGHT OF AS an inventor of forms--an auteur in the strongest possible sense, projecting an idiosyncratic vision of the world. His innovations, we are always reminded, are those of fragmentation and compression. He stresses "the essential," stripping down an action through close-ups, elliptical cuts, and dead-quiet sound levels until it achieves a hypnotic intensity. A pair of hands, footsteps in a Metro station, a beer glass on a zinc-topped bar: Details are plucked out and laid end to end, sending us back to our world with a sharpened sensitivity. Now you really notice how often people lower their eyes or stalk through life with delicately slumped shoulders, a bit insolent in their studied unobtrusiveness.
Still, no artist invents forms out of nothing, and Bresson's individuality has obscured the ways in which he enriched certain long-standing traditions of international film style. Despite his well-deserved fame as a master of sound, Bresson was, it seems to me, simply carrying on one of the great impulses of silent filmmaking. For him as for the aesthetes of the 1910S and '20s, ordinary cinema, which he sometimes called CINEMA, was no more than photographed theater. Captured on film, all the paraphernalia of acting and costumes and obviously expressive settings created only an ersatz world of conventions piled on conventions. What then would constitute real cinema art, cinematography, writing in and through cinema? Bresson found his answer in those techniques valorized by the silent-film avant-garde: close-ups and cutting. And his use of them drew him surprisingly close to the Soviet filmmakers of the '20s.
Lev Kuleshov considered actors mannequins; Bresson called them models. For both, a performance was distilled into key gestures, which would then be amplified by close-ups and linked by cuts. At the limit, Kuleshov reminded his students, the actor's edited body could violate the laws of nature. Recall the robbery sequences that open and close Pickpocket: No human arm could execute Michel's sidelong dip into the woman's purse, let alone his virtuosic behind-the-back wallet lift, because his position changes flagrantly between the two-shots and the close-ups. These robberies could exist only on film.
Like Kuleshov's student V.I. Pudovkin, Bresson takes a scene to be only a series of slices of space and instants of time. Pudovkin could build a locale out of close-ups; Bresson does the same with a handful of what Hollywood calls "singles," medium shots of individual players or body parts. In Film Technique, Pudovkin explains how to suggest an auto accident through bits of action. L'Argent gives us Bresson's more austere version: hand on the gearshift, foot to the pedal, and glimpses of the car's trajectory--possibly modern cinema's least visceral car chase.
In the sound era perhaps only Akira Kurosawa took silent-film notions of "pure cinema" and abstracting montage as seriously as Bresson did. But like his Japanese counterpart, Bresson transformed them. For Kuleshov and Pudovkin, reacting against tsarist cinema's packed long shots and filigreed sets, telling the story through details yielded a concentrated force, a powerful concision. That lesson learned, Bresson could turn the technique to a new purpose: the use of laconic fragments that became mysterious in their very insistence. But if you want to strip scenes down, why dwell on what most movies consider connective tissue--hands on doors, feet trudging up steps? Bresson suggests that modern cinema must seek new essentials, not character motivation or mental state but something more elusive and evocative: the concrete immediacy of each instant. To a tradition that taught filmmakers to build drama out of details, Bresson brings a new intensity and nuance, largely by lingering on what ordinary films consider t ransitions and then, scene by scene, pulling them into patterns of barely discernible differences that train us to notice minute aspects of behavior and locale.
Pudovkin and others launched a few experiments in "audiovisual counterpoint," where the soundtrack contrasts with the image track; Bresson picks up this impulse in the magical appearance of the calypso song on the bateaumouche in Four Nights of a Dreamer (the quiet elation of which puts most music-based cinema to shame). But Bresson pressed further, toward something simpler. He applied the Soviets' lesson of abstraction, fragmentation, and assemblage to the audible world. Sounds can be as discretely highlighted as slices of space; you can lay them down against a blank ambience; you can splice them together. His soundtracks aren't just sparse, they're as "montaged" as his images.
The 198OS and '90S saw the return of Bresson's rewarding opacities. Incomplete establishing shots and devious Kuleshov-effect editing are the armature of Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary and Detective, of Hal Hartley's Simple Men, and of Abbas Kiarostami's films, particularly that extended exercise in minimal shot/reverse shot, Taste of Cherry. At a moment when CINEMA has perhaps never been so puffed up, the tradition Bresson sustained shows that films can still live on a human scale.
David Bordwell is the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
The Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, DAVID BORDWELL is co-author (with his wife, film scholar Kristin Thompson) of Film Art: An Introduction (Addison-Wesley, 1979), widely considered the field's defining textbook. The author of numerous studies, including The Classical Hollywood Cinema (Columbia University Press, 1985) and Making Meaning (Harvard University Press, 1989), Bordwell is also co-editor (with Noel Carroll of the essay collection Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (University of Wisconsin Press, 1996). In this issue, Bordwell joins novelists Dennis Cooper and Gary Indiana and artist Stephen Prina in reflecting on the art of Robert Bresson in a special tribute commemorating the director's recent death.
What's wrong? Open the door! I was scared. What happened? / What's wrong? Open the door! I was scared. What happened? / You can't lie underwater like on a bed and then just wait. / You can't lie underwater like on a bed and then just wait. / It's impossible. Wait for what? / It's impossible. Wait for what? / Idiot! Do you know the mess you can get me into? / Idiot! Do you know the mess you can get me into?
THESE WORDS ARE THE LYRICS TO A SONG I wrote in 1997 entitled "The Devil, Probably." A year earlier I had generated the text that would become those lyrics by isolating thirty-five frames of a minute-long scene from Le Diable, probablement, a film by Robert Bresson, and then transcribing the English subtitles from them. The scene depicts the first suicide attempt by Charles, his failed drowning in a bathtub. An image of placid containment, it bears little trace of the implicit trauma of the event. Rather, the nude male seen from behind--turning, through subtle, nearly imperceptible adjustments to the body, at times toward androgyny, at times not--expels water. We see what the body can do. The sequence of thirty-five frames provides a backbone for a work I made in 1996 that takes the aforementioned lyrics as its (admittedly lengthy) title.
On a recent night, while I was crossing the Pont des Arts on the way to the tea dance at Le Depot, a bateau-mouche passed beneath. The huge, hulking water vessel will, for me, always be identified with Bresson. The title sequence scene of The Devil, Probably features an image of this type of boat accompanied by a persistent mechanical hum, transported through the darkness at the edge of intelligibility, a domain that is exploited repeatedly in the film.
For years I had wished to offer a class the structure of which would allow me to screen the same film week after week. Sensitive to the fact that the intensity of such a forum--which could easily devolve into an empty, academic exercise--would depend a great deal on the film selected, I developed a project called "The Devil, Probably X II + I." The "plus one" component was The Third Generation (1979) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. (The opening credit sequence of this film presents Hanna Schygulla as a secretary working in a high-rise office building in Frankfurt. On a video monitor in the office, the last scene from The Devil, Probably--the final trip to the cemetery--is being screened, suggesting, perhaps, with the concise bluntness Fassbinder so often demonstrated, that Bresson's film might serve as a preface to his own.) I gave the participants in my class the option of keeping a weekly journal instead of writing a final research paper. These journals, when submitted, were often voluminous. The first entry of one of them was quite short and began something like this: "I've just watched this film for the first time. I can't make any sense of it, and furthermore, I can't think of anything to say about it. How am I to continue in this class? How can I become a success in life?" The final entries of the same journal were long, erudite discussions that pursued the film down a variety of paths. I would like to think that a testament to Bresson's work and its capacity for encouraging debate rather than shutting it down with a resounding No or a prematurely affirming Yes. Once again, Bresson provided the appropriate body for a project in which I was engaged.
For some, the body's salient contributions to a film are the utterances it makes. However, Bresson restores the mechanics of the body so often superseded by language; he shows what a body can do, how it turns, raises a hand, opens a door, passes through, and then closes it. He is able to isolate a gesture--two hands ripping bed linen and then braiding it with wire, say, or a hand swiftly pouring several cups of coffee in one sweep--and transform it into a materialist metonym for an entire life. Just as easily, a body can vaporize into darkness, as when Charles, asleep on the floor of a cathedral, is rousted by the police. He becomes a silhouette relieved only by faint highlights of the eyes. These treatments of the body are not attempts to generalize in the interest of communicating to a wide audience, a dubious occupation at best. It is the particularity of Bresson's treatments that allows for application to the general. German/French filmmaking team Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet have expressed a de sire to restore to cinema the wind of the silent era eradicated by the talkie. Bresson did for the body what Straub and Huillet do for the wind. Notorious for long rehearsal sessions and multiple takes, he worked the body until it lost all comfortable familiarity. To seek expression in a medium that has institutionalized mere expressiveness may well seem quixotic, but it is precisely this attempt to forge expression that has become the mark of Bresson. Open and shut the door!
Stephen Prina is a Los Angeles--based artist and musician. His film Vinyl II premiered in February at the J. Paul Getty Museum in L.A.
I think of Bresson's films as residue of an ever-receding moment, or perhaps of a state of mind, an atmosphere, that living in the present makes less and less available. It's something like this: You go to a work of art and hope to be transformed. Quietly, secretly, to be roused from a waking sleep, agitated at some resonant depth in your psyche, shown something you couldn't have shown yourself. Bresson shocks you into reconsidering your whole existence. Not in the cheap sociological way that makes so many current movies "relevant," but in the almost somnolently muffled, self-exasperated way that Sartre's Nausea makes you see what is right in front of you as the infinitely strange, unassimilable horror that it is.
EVEN BEFORE ROBERT BRESSON DIED, AN elegiac note had begun to sound in various essays and articles written about him. Elegiac not for him personally, but for his whole conception of cinema. The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum, for instance, worried that Bresson's films, in which the meticulous composition of shots and the precise spatial location of sound effects are of paramount importance, translate unusually poorly to home video; and, since video is where today's would-be cineast gets acquainted with film history, the persistence of Bresson's vision is called into doubt. In Robert Bresson, Cinematheque Ontario's 1998 collection of essays, Martin Scorsese put it this way: "I have to wonder whether or not young people who have grown up on digitally engineered effects and DTS soundtracks can actually find the patience required to watch a film by a Bresson or, for that matter, an Oza or an Antonioni. In a way, it seems impossible: it's as though they're from different worlds."
These are not trivial concerns. They suggest larger questions about aesthetic obsolescence, the effects of technology on culture, and precisely what sort of different world we uneasily inhabit now, in contrast to the world of 1960, or even 1980. Complaints of an ever-shortening audience attention span have been heard for decades; we are assumed to live, today, in a state of perpetual distraction, lacking depth or interiority, and I suppose the question really is, to what end? Charles, the protagonist of Bresson's The Devil, Probably, provides an answer of sorts when he recites a list of consumer products and banal leisure-time activities as the things he would lose if he killed himself.
It occurs to me that I saw all of Bresson's films except L'Argent in the era before home video, when to know about film one had to go to screenings--in other words, to schiep all over the city, in all kinds of weather, at odd hours, to places where twenty-five or thirty other people would have gathered to see the same movie. Those were social occasions as well as aesthetic experiences, and they had something to do with a kind of[ldots]well, communion with other people interested in film as more than idle entertainment, who had also carved out the time in their lives to see something special--something important enough, taking sufficient priority over other things, to claim the particular hours when the theater happened to be running the film.
The VCR/video store phenomenon has eliminated the sense of occasion around viewing any movie. With the generally welcome convenience of seeing films whenever you wish to, at home, on a television set, something essential in the experience of film-I mean the aesthetic experience itself; in short, the entire point of it-has been diminished. Like many technical innovations, home video "saves time," while leaching the flavor out of the time it saves. The idea of the intricately organized frame and its variegated effects, the precise use of sound, the scale of the projected image, everything that could give a film the multilayered, revisitable texture of a novel, has become less important than a kind of documentary immediacy. The expectation of seeing something new, life rendered from a fresh angle, in a complex way, has also dimmed: The art no longer "advances" in time, one no longer has to keep up with it, all periods are jumbled together and equally available on a store shelf. The sense that certain movies wer e speaking to a particular, rarefied constituency, one that possessed a hard-won familiarity with the medium's possibilities, disappeared at the moment when any slob could take those movies home. (Imagine that the only books you could get from the library were expurgated or condensed, or had parts of each page sheared off.)
With respect to Bresson, it seems to me that the things his films deal with are anathema to contemporary filmmaking: the alienation of his characters from any type of quotidian, materialistic modeling of personality; their abject internal revolt against reality; their torturous movements toward grace; their obdurate unlikeableness--everything rendered in plain, often metonymic movements, gestures, glances, with gravid silences between laconic bursts of speech, spells of utter blankness, one thing following another with a maddeningly stingy economy, as if "almost nothing" were, for the filmmaker, a theological imperative. And then there is Bresson's breathtaking avoidance of picturing key events; his selective foregrounding of sound over image; his refusal to use stars or even professional actors; his disdain for psychology; his lingering attention to everything that exists between thought and action; his exclusion of anything "theatrical"; the mesmerically even, unruffled tone of his films from beginning to end; and last but hardly least, his unequivocal loathing of capitalism. His films feel necessary in a way that other films just don't. Bresson ruins our taste for the mediocre.
Gary Indiana is a novelist and frequent contributor to Artforum.
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|Date:||Apr 1, 2000|
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