Art of the Real 728x90 Film Comment Film Society of Lincoln Center

↔ (Part Six)

By Kent Jones on October 26, 2012 in Film Comment Featured

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On the topic of more or less provisional conclusions:

About ten years ago, Manny Farber showed me an article from The Times Literary Supplement that had intrigued him. It was called “Can Novels Think?” or something along those lines, and it posited the following thesis: that The Wings of the Dove was a creation of such complexity and richness that it had gradually “become” smarter than Henry James; and by implication, that works of art in general are organisms as opposed to finite objects and their continual evolution is dependent on new readers with different sets of assumptions and shared beliefs encountering the work at different historical junctures. I suppose it follows that at some point in this lengthy process, the creator him/herself and the question of personal “themes” becomes moot before vanishing altogether.

I think this is actually a condition to which artists aspire on behalf of the characters and the environments they create, often without enunciating or even knowing it. “…that which is inevitable in the work has a higher charm than individual talent can ever give,” wrote Emerson, and—particularly pertinent to criticism—“There is higher work for Art than the arts.” In cinema, there’s a lot of critical time and attention devoted to elaborating how this or that scene or shot or repeated figure illustrates this or that filmmaker’s themes or preoccupations, whereas filmmakers themselves are concerned with the opposite: getting the work to come alive, stepping out of the way and letting things happen.

And for me, the beauty in art lies in this tension between holding on and letting go. In order to let go, there has to be something to let go of, something to violate or abandon, in order that something unexpected be allowed to flower. Which is in turn modified and shaped, then turned by accident and seen in an unexpected light, leading to something new and again unexpected, and so on.

In other words, an endless pushing and pulling between the artist and art, which always aspires to the condition of nature.

Bresson is very good at allowing the stones their stoniness, at letting lanterns and gloved hands and the wind in the trees speak and proclaim themselves. He pursues this goal steadfastly, devotedly, and one could say that he does so, in part, by allowing people their “peopleness” and dramatic conflict its… “dramaness?” A better word is needed, but you get the point. Naturalism, emotional “fluency,” in Bresson’s imagination, are distractions, deflecting the strange particularity of being me or you or

Pickpocket Martin  or  Un femme douce

Not “being” in the sense of personal history or reputation, but as in right here and right now in this moment.

Oddly, this does connect with acting. With moments in acting classes when one struggles with a monologue, comes to it with a clotted mix of old notions and habits and clichés, prompting the teacher to clap his or her hands and scream “Stop! Stop thinking and just do it…” I’m reminded of Laurence Olivier’s story of a triumphant performance of Othello after which he said in a panic, “I have no idea how I did it.” I’m also reminded of cold reads during which actors sit around tables and say their lines as if they were reading the phone book (I guess I’m also reminded of the fact that Martin LaSalle came to New York after Pickpocket to study at the Actors’ Studio).

PickpocketMartin LaSalle

In Bresson, you could say that the process of the cold read is arrested and physicalized, that every line and action is the beginning all over again.

One might ask: what did Bresson gain in the transition from acting, in Diary of a Country Priest, to “modeling” in A Man Escaped?

Diary of a Country PriestA Man Escaped

I suppose he gained in articulation and clarity and lost something else, the absence of which is infrequently remarked upon in his work: community. I’m reminded here of our shared affection for the beauty of pre-code movies as the products of group creation, far more central to cinema than is often recognized.

Footlight ParadeFootlight Parade

There remains a lot of hysteria around this point, as if speaking of, say, Muriel as the product of anyone but Alain Resnais will return us to the dark days of Bosley Crowther. Manny Farber addressed the issue more eloquently than anyone before or since in one of his first pieces, for The Nation in 1942. He was responding to a brittle “film is not an art form” screed from the playwright Elmer Rice, who, Farber wrote, “seems to think that art is incapable of happening when two or more people take part in its creation . . . In Young Mr. Lincoln there is an equal grasp of the idea in the direction of John Ford and the acting of Henry Fonda. The same unity occurs in Alexander Nevsky, with Prokofieff’s music, Tisse’s photography and Eisenstein’s conception.” The now-familiar argument against this idea—which is finally no argument at all—is that Henry Fonda is also in Daybreak, Daybreak is a terrible movie, and therefore John Ford should be the sole area of interest in any discussion of Young Mr. Lincoln (wasn’t this pretty much the party line at A_Film_By?). In reality, Fonda rises to Ford and Ford in turn rises to Fonda. Part of the beauty of Ford, Renoir, Ozu, Lubitsch, Hitchcock, Welles, Godard, and Hawks is the sense of artists responding together to the moment, and of the filmmaker’s conception allowing for the actors to make themselves felt.

This simply isn’t true of Bresson. There is no sense of individual creative will on the part of the people in his films—they “contribute” to the work in the sense that a compliant volunteer contributes to a study. The sense of community lingering behind everything from Passion

Passion

to Zodiac

Zodiac

is most decidedly absent in Bresson. Unlike, for instance, Pauline Kael or Raymond Durgnat, I obviously don’t see this as an artistic or moral deficit, but it does lead to some strange disjunctions and ambiguities and trade-offs and queries of the type you’re invoking.

Last night I looked at a filmed conversation between Renoir and Rivette, included as an extra on Criterion’s edition of Eléna et les hommes. Renoir speaks of the aspiration to create a “poetic reality” in which characters wind up “saying something in three words that they would normally take 200 words to express,” where one gesture stands in for a flurry of movements. One could point to any given scene in French Can Can and find an example. But Françoise Arnoul watching the old dance teacher do the splits, raising her hand to her mouth and exclaiming “Ça alors…!” in a charming approximation of spontaneity is one thing

French Can Can

Michel crying at his mother’s funeral is, as you indicated, something else again.

Pickpocket Michel funeral

Off the top of my head, I can think of multiple examples in the “Here are tears” register, and the first ones that come to mind occur in L’Argent—for instance, the owner of the photography shop crying, which is “the same but more so.”

L'Argent shop

And Christian Patey pounding his fists against the prison cell door produces an extremely odd effect—not simply “Here is uncontrollable anger,” but “Here is uncontrollable anger slowed down and disassembled movement by movement.”

L'ArgentL'Argent

The effect is, to my eyes, so strange that one might wonder if there were an ulterior unconscious goal—a Muybridge-like study in brain-to-hand coordination, for instance. Guillaume des Fôrets in Four Nights of a Dreamer going for a carefree walk in the country culminating in a somersault offers another illustration.

Beginning with A Man Escaped, Bresson’s approach to filmmaking risked a disjunction between filmed action and implied outcome, and things can get tricky in matters of casting and the representation of action. It’s difficult to look at François LaFarge in Balthazar and see the black-souled gang-leader and despoiler of women and animals he’s supposed to be (one might argue that the casting of LaFarge is meant to indicate an interior reality as exemplified by the scene where he sings in church, but if that’s the case then I don’t think Bresson paid sufficient attention to the exterior, as he most certainly did with Anne Wiazemsky in the same film); or to look at the anarchist in The Devil, Probably and see the charismatic leader suggested by the events of the narrative. One could point to numerous other examples, resulting in a two-pronged effect. On the one hand, there is the overtone created by Bresson’s utterly singular process with his people, which nullifies almost all traces of individual will or interpretive intelligence. This overtone seems to me less “robotic” than irreal—many of his “models” seem sort of present and sort of not, apparently substantial but maybe not. On the other hand, there is the stop/start rhythm: every time someone appears on camera, it is the first time all over again.

I think this plays a crucial role in the bracing nature of Bresson’s cinema, which posits existence as inherently wondrous and revelatory. In a sense, his cinema is all about the localized representation from one shot to the next of the shock of simply existing. However, I do think it’s important to remember that certain of his models bring something more pointed to their roles than others, and thus “direct” the audience through what I would call a natural intelligence and charisma. This is where I think Bresson’s conception of cinema and the finished films themselves diverge most dramatically. François Leterrier in A Man Escaped, Nadine Nortier in Mouchette, Wiazemsky in Balthazar, Dominique Sanda in Une femme douce and Antoine Monnier in The Devil, Probably are extremely forceful presences who help to anchor and drive the movies in question in a manner that is finally not so different from the way that John Wayne and Dean Martin anchor and drive Rio Bravo. L’Argent, on the other hand, is not driven by Patey (who is, throughout the film, stunned still like a deer in the headlights) but by Sylvie Van den Elsen as the woman in the country house.

L'Argent

Jeanne Lobre as the housekeeper in Une femme douce also keeps the film anchored, but Guy Frangin as the husband is a more amorphous presence, less powerfully connected to the role, not unlike LaFarge, Henri de Maublanc’s Michel in The Devil, Probably, Jean Pelegri as the inspector

Jean Pelegri Pickpocket

and Pierre Leymarie as Jacques

Pickpocket Pierre Leymaire Jacques

in Pickpocket (as indicated in your post), and Florence Delay (Carrez) in The Trial of Joan of Arc.

I find all these bits of casting to be a little bit too proximate and less than inspired. Of course, look long and hard enough at the work of any great artist and you will start seeing “flaws,” which in turn brings you back to the strength of the entire conception, at which point the flaws become simple characteristics. Nonetheless, there is a tendency in auteurism to rationalize absolutely every choice made by favorite filmmakers (or to recast certain conditions of production as choices), and it reaches a peak with Bresson, whose avowedly near-systematic work with his people is, finally, more variable in its success ratio than it seems.

All of which is a prelude to Pickpocket.

Point by point, I agree with pretty much every word you wrote about this film, but I do not agree with what I take to be your characterization of the film as a whole.

Which is to say that I agree that the sexual tensions you mention and the links between theft and sexuality are indeed present; but that I don’t agree that they function in the way you suggest. But then, based on your paragraph about Freudian interpretation and bisexuality, I wonder if we do agree after all.

Every filmmaker—every artist—leaves an unintended human residue on their work, which has nothing to do with themes or intentions or style or the “personal,” everything to do with their plain old humanity. Farber was particularly interested in this under-remarked side of art—I suppose that’s why his criticism troubles some people so much. I think Renoir was probably alone in actually cultivating his residue to the point where it fed the films and vice-versa. In the case of Hitchcock, the traces of his proper humanity merged pretty seamlessly with the emotions he was confronting in his movies. In the case of Welles, the strange pull toward a lumbering physicality and gigantism can often seem blazingly homoerotic (I’m thinking of The Lady from Shanghai in particular), just as much as in Hawks’s films (let’s take Red River as the most obvious example), a completely different case. And, here we are again, back at the process/outcome opposition.

In The Lady from Shanghai, the physical and textural weirdness—the visual isolation of Rita Hayworth within all these encounters between sweaty misshapen men studied in guignol close-ups, the pronounced lack of magnetism between the two lovers—is part of something larger, a sense that all the characters are playthings of the gods.

Lady from Shanghai

Red River is another matter, and I see your idea of Pickpocket in rough alignment with what is now a common characterization of the Hawks movie, which is grounded in the famous gunplay interlude between Clift and Ireland and the final sequence, in which female lead screams at two men to stop fighting and own up to the fact that they love each other. And, Montgomery Clift’s actual biography aside, he makes for an extremely unusual movie cowboy.

Red River Montgomery Clift

There is a sense in Red River of the narrative being made up as the film was being made, bent and stretched and looped according to the evolving behaviors of the actors in their roles, resulting in an outcome that seems organic on the level of humanity (of the actors, as opposed to the characters) but dramatically indifferent—it is behaviorally but not dramatically satsifying. I don’t believe that anything even remotely analogous occurs in Pickpocket or any other Bresson movie. I take it that you disagree, given the importance you place on the sexualized nature of the acts of theft and the imagery around those acts (which doesn’t seem that unusual to me—for instance…

PickupPickupPickupPickup

the fact that so much of the story happens off screen; and what you see as Bresson’s questionable-at-best substitution of one crime (from the Dostoevsky novel) with another far less severe one.

The consignment of so much of Jacques’ and Michel’s experience to off-screen time and space seems irrelevant to me, particularly since we’re talking about a filmmaker for whom elision and ellipsis were already common practice (there’s a lot more off-screen narrative material in Au hasard, Balthazar than there is in Pickpocket). On a more basic level, I disagree with your point about Crime and Punishment. Bresson is not transposing one crime with another. He’s just stealing a couple of narrative devices from Dostoyevsky, and very clumsily at that. Why indeed would a police officer go out of his way to shadow a guy and force him to own up to the fact that he’s a pickpocket? Experience tells us he wouldn’t, unless they both lived in a village with a population of 250. But Bresson never cared about this kind of verisimilitude. He is often an extremely blunt storyteller, so blunt that his approach to narrative reminds me of Godard on the subject of quotations in his movies: “If you want to say something, there’s only one solution: say it.” Bresson never bothers with contemporary believability in the matter of storytelling mechanics. I can think of about 50 subtler ways of conveying the horror of ecological destruction felt by the youth of the Seventies than sitting them behind a projector as they watch a montage of ecological crimes, narrating and taking notes along the way. And what about L’Argent, in which Yvon receives a letter with the news that “Our little Yvette died of diphtheria” followed by a “Dear John.” Bresson has frequently taken narratives from the 19th century or earlier and kept their anachronisms firmly in place. The stories of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Une femme douce, Four Nights of a Dreamer, and L’Argent do not “live” within their respective time periods, and the same goes for many of the purely narrative details of Balthazar and The Devil, Probably. The Bernanos adaptations, Lancelot, Joan of Arc, and A Man Escaped are quite obviously different, but the fact that they are more tightly tied to time and place seems incidental to Bresson’s interest in them, Lancelot excepted.

For me, Pickpocket is a movie about a man who is embarrassed and ashamed. He imagines that no one can see his suffering, and he is drawn to an activity which places him in physically close contact with people and which places him in constant danger of revealing himself. I guess it sounds Freudian, but just as the link between sexuality and theft doesn’t belong to Bresson or Fuller or Lubitsch, neither does every act of psychological displacement belong to Freud. After he is caught, when he comes face to face with someone who has recognized his suffering and seen “through” him from the start, he finally sees himself and her in turn. “Quelque chose illumina sa figure. Oh Jeanne, pour aller jusqu’à toi, quel drôle de chemin il m’a fallu prendre…” I think it’s one of the most moving endings in cinema, because of the suddenness and the inevitability. Chance and grace converge in a quick series of dramatic developments, images, movements…

PickpocketPickpocket

the sense of immediate luminosity in the image of Jeanne

Pickpocket Jeanne

lives up to Michel’s words “Quelque chose illumina sa figure

Pickpocket

the injection of which helps in turn to send the scene aloft.

Pickpocket

The casting of Martin LaSalle is, as you suggest (in your remarks about “wine, women, and gambling”), odd. But in contrast to LaFarge in Balthazar, I think that this particular piece of “interior” casting pays off. LaSalle vibrates like a plucked string (I think this is a good working metaphor for the pieces of casting in Bresson’s films that work), and he embodies a sense of pride and an aura of subterfuge that are perfect for the torments of this particular character, whose looks into the eyes of the people from whom he’s stealing seem to ask: Can you see my terror? Are you the one who will destroy the wall around me?

PickpocketPickpocket

I’ll end by shifting gears to Lancelot, as we’ve both done so many times before. In light of the above comments about casting, I’ll just say that when I think of that film I see Humbert Balsan as Gawain, carrying the idealism of the era in which the film was made, bringing it into moving contact with the loyalty and faith of the characters—this in marked contrast to the confusion and disillusionment of other Bresson heroes and heroines from the final stretch of his life as a working filmmaker, when his sympathy and attention were increasingly devoted to youth.

Lancelot du Lac

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