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

↔ (Part Five)

By B. Kite on August 02, 2012 in Film Comment Featured

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I don’t think it’s likely, or even desirable, that we’ll come out of all this with any sort of joint or hybrid Bresson. Rather, for me, this exchange offers the opportunity to cultivate and clarify the Bresson that’s been germinating in my mind for decades by bringing him in contact with another Bresson well-lived with and in (your own). Maybe when we reach an endpoint they can have coffee, and how beautifully they’ll watch each other pour.

All Schradersniping aside, I think my problem with the “transcendental” approach comes down to the fact that it presumes an answer, goal, and destination, where the films, for me, seem to live in their ambivalence, and in their efforts to find expressive form for ambivalence. Even the titles point to this. When they stray from their source materials, or the noncommittal act of naming a central figure, they land in a zone of hesitancy that is, I think, characteristically Bressonian. Incertitude, the working title for Pickpocket, is both the perfect illustration of this and also a violation of the principle, since naming fluctuation also goes some way to stilling it (plus—what a great title Pickpocket is, sharp and fun to say). Much better than Incertitude are those strange and characteristic clauses: Au hasard Balthazar; The Devil, Probably. How would one gloss these? For the former, maybe: it happened (by chance, by fortune) to be Balthazar (whose story the camera-eye chose to follow, who walked this path, whose existence drew these lines and made these shapes in the world, who arrived at this spot), but (and, though) it could (perhaps) have been otherwise.


I guess most of what I’ve said so far comes back to this chance/grace business, which I’ve probably only conveyed in cryptic shorthand. So here’s a shot at something a little fuller: the two categories exist in indeterminate relation to each other, can be seen as opposed or as shifting back and forth in various gradations and blendings. Whether any particular event or moment belongs predominantly to one realm or the other may largely hinge on the position and attitude of the observer (Stevens again: “But was it Ulysses? Or was it only the warmth of the sun”).

Such a notion, in abstract, threatens to make Bresson’s films seem very dull indeed, as if they amount to little more than a big shrug and an offhand “Who knows?” But Bresson’s unique achievement, I feel, lies in his evolving efforts to find a form in which the full spectrum of interactions between these two notions remains vibrating and alive. In this light, the movies don’t resolve the issues of chance and grace, they provide an arena in which that flux can be experienced, one in which the viewer can come to his/her own more or less provisional conclusions on different viewings and at different junctures of their lives. The crowd that gathers at the edge of the gaping doorway at the end of L’Argent keeps staring, even after the action has passed, perhaps stupidly, like drivers who slow down to see the stains and remnants of an accident, or perhaps in unknowing expectation, some bovine act of faith that this hole may yet produce something.

Then there’s the mediating possibility, the one you outline in your BFI book on the film, in which the fact of merely being present for this passage, this strange happening, has granted these figures some of the watchfulness of their creator: “they are literally trying to see the murderer, to feel his presence, to comprehend him and thus surpass their collective habit of self-interestedly glossing over what’s before them.” That’s such a fresh reading of a scene that’s often taken (and that can still be taken) as an indictment of the audience, some peevish old man’s “You want more? Well there is no more” and echoing slam of the shutter.

Lancelot du Lac

I hope I didn’t give the impression, in quoting Bresson’s famous aphorism about the multiple births and deaths of a film, that I regarded scripts “[as] the enemy” (although—RB, from Notes on the Cinematographer: “Face to face with the real, your taut attention shows up the mistakes of your original conception. (Mistakes on paper.) It is your camera that corrects them. But the impression felt by you is the sole reality that has interest.”) I meant the citation rather to refer back to something I said in our first exchange about the films’ fusion of clarity and opacity, hard lines and open spaces, deliberation and discovery. If I’m putting more rhetorical weight on the process-oriented elements, I suppose it’s partially a matter of my own likings and predispositions and partially because I think they’re often elided in discussions of Bresson, which tend, in my experience, to regard the movies as the very opposite of “events . . . [that] simply happened” but rather as stages of the cross. But I should note that I’ve been steering clear of Bresson criticism in recent years—haven’t read Pipolo or 2nd ed. Quandt. I’ll do so after our exchange has ended and likely feel corrected and/or redundant.

(Idiot Tangent: I realize more&more that, when writing about the filmmakers who mean the most to me, I tend to turn them into models of (modes of) being, hopefully not stiff, allegoric woodcuts, but rather figures carrying their own distinctive spectrum of resonance, like the Major Arcana in some private Movie Tarot. In the case of Bresson alone this last metaphor can find some more direct application, since in my homemade deck he holds the position of

or: the point of origin and unknowing, the big bang of creation and perpetual discovery.

Admittedly, that face hangs incongruously atop, say, Diary of a Country Priest, so I should probably make clear that my own shaky centering in Bresson tends to lie in the color films, each of which is my favorite movie. To that extent, any evolution of attitude I might see across his body of work is indicative not of a trade-off in belief systems but rather a gradual movement toward a more perfect Fool-ishness. In that sense, like the perfect zero, his end is his beginning, and Les Affaires publiques comes to look not anomalous but seminal.

This approach served, and serves, to break up some of the block-like qualities that the stretch of films running from Diary to Mouchette had started to assume in my mind. Take Pickpocket, for example. You refer in passing to “the ‘cruising’ fallacy” that underlies some recent approaches to that film. When I first came across that notion, in Gary Indiana’s liner notes for the Criterion DVD, it struck me as ridiculous, a transparent recruitment attempt by the shadowy group Auden dubbed the Homintern. But when I revisited the film—

But I should backtrack for a moment to confess that ever since I first saw Pickpocket as a teenager, it’s been a movie that never quite made sense to me on a basic, dumb level (of course I’ve always loved its setpiece sequences). Part of this may be due to the fact that I was already familiar with Crime & Punishment when I first encountered the movie and could never quite account for the transposition of the crime in question from murder to minor thievery. It may be a sign of my moral laxity, but those seem to me to belong to two wildly different orders, or even categories, of ethical transgression. Raskolnikov’s crime is plenty petty and sordid in its way, but as a statement of intent, “I am the superman, I have the right to take the life of another” lays down a large challenge, where the statement “I am the superman, I have the right to rifle through ladies’ handbags” seems comparatively ludicrous, or worse, to open a sizeable gap between observed action and thematic import that threatens to transpose the movie into the brittle sphere of allegory.

(Leaping Tangent: You speak of the “seamlessness” of “the relationship in Bresson’s work between what is planned and what is realized, between the information covered from scene to scene and what actually lives on the screen,” but Pickpocket strikes me as the film for which that’s least true. I think it’s the Bresson movie most marked by junctures on every level (and that in itself is fascinating). As we go on, I hope we can talk at some point about those areas of special tension in Bresson, when his modes of representation strain against a type of material they can’t easily contain. I think every one of his films has such moments, and they’re all interesting, but Pickpocket seems almost a compendium of them. Notably:

— Performance. One of the great pleasures of being able to attend a Bresson retrospective lies in the opportunity to sink fully into his registers. When the films are seen sporadically and in isolation, there’s often, I think, some interval of acclimatization before one can really find the entrance—one must somehow transverse the barrier of their “external strangeness” (that is, their difference from dominant modes) to penetrate the strangeness within. Both strangenesses are good and strange and worth noting, but I think the former is the more superficial, and more often a stopping place than a doorway. On the two occasions I’ve been able to see the majority of the films projected (maybe we can also discuss the mysterious ways in which they often vanish on TV), I’ve been struck by the remarkable flexibility of his systems, encountered on their own terms. This applies especially to the performances of his models—again it’s that Magic (Inner) Eye movement between initially only being able to perceive what’s not there (the whole line of clichés about roboticism) to gradually discerning the nuance and subtlety of what is (and here I find I’m citing, or in this case paraphrasing, Stevens once more. I’ll have to ponder that connection.)

Bresson sometimes gets slagged (from the outside) for imposing a straitjacket on his performers, as if his methods ironed out any trace of individual personality and expression, but it’s difficult to think of many other directors who have given us such a wealth of distinct presences—even minor figures possess a particularity and some intimation of a history. Still, there are moments in most of the movies when the models are called on to register something, an extremity of emotion or an indication of interior process, that lies outside the performative range the film has established. Bresson seems to move almost into a Noh mode of presentation at such times, and the scene of Michel at his mother’s funeral is a prime example: the effect is less “I am crying” than “Here are tears.”

— Environment. Bresson’s decision to take to the streets for Pickpocket, sometimes shooting with a concealed camera, has the odd effect of calling attention to his artifice at some points, especially whenever a crowd is present. In the cafe and at the racetrack, the behavior of the crowd is casual/inattentive/loose/clumsy in a way Bresson’s performers never are, which seems to set some invisible spotlight over the models and divide them from the world they inhabit. (I think there’s some secret-sharer parallel with Astaire here too: John Mueller notes in his great Astaire Dancing that FA was so singularly inept at mimicking clumsiness that when called upon to do so he would fall back on the unconvincing expedient of walking on the outer edges of his feet.)

— Narrative. Even apart from the issue of the crime in question (back to that in a minute), the story structure, as adapted from Dostoevsky, sometimes pulls hard against what we’ve seen, and even against Bresson’s elusive idea of the “showable” (more on that too). Michel’s excursion into the high life of wine, women, and gambling is notoriously incongruous for the figure we’ve seen to that point, and is covered by an ellipsis and voiceover. The revelation of Jacques as a lech and a heel is likewise covered in a few retrospective lines (admittedly, it seems to surprise Michel too). For me, both of these cases add to the weird and disjunctive sense that the story hangs somewhere outside the movie, sometimes running in suggestive parallel but sometimes moving further apart, at which points the action has to be yanked forcibly in line by any means necessary.

But back to the preceding tangent.)

So that was basically my experience of Pickpocket before I encountered the “cruising hypothesis,” and as I said, the idea initially struck me as silly. Yet the next time I saw the movie, carrying this reading somewhere in the back of my mind, I found to my surprise that it clicked in a way it never had prior (though Indiana lays the notion down with more fixity than I would, and I can’t really sign on with the whole existentialist/miserabilist line he extrapolates from it). I should note that on viewings subsequent to that one, I’ve found its holding power more intermittent—I retain some gut-level impression that Pickpocket is uniquely not-quite-coherent in Bresson’s body of work (and again, I don’t find that bad, find it interesting).

So the first question that arises (and this is all thought-experiment, an attempt to engage a process of decision-making that I have no privileged access to) is why Bresson would choose to make that transposition in the crime in question. Part of it seems to have to do with his complicated and contradictory (perhaps) notion of the real and the false, which equates in his practice to the showable and unshowable. In the 1977 Schrader interview, he expresses himself quite definitely on this subject. On pornography:

BRESSON: When it is explicit, it is not sexual. The same as mystery. If you don’t make people guess, there is nothing there.


SCHRADER: Do you oppose pornography on artistic or moral grounds?

BRESSON: Not on moral grounds.


SCHRADER: If you could use the new eroticism, would you?

BRESSON: No. Pornography is false sexual life.

SCHRADER: But all films are false.

BRESSON: Not to love. Not with a work of art. I tried to see a few pornographic films, but I left because they turned sexual life into something horrible that doesn’t exist.

The conversation then moves on to the topic of violence, in particular the question of why the suicides in his films are, in Schrader’s words, “always non-violent.”

BRESSON: I couldn’t show violence, the blood, and those terrible things, because it would have to be faked for the movie. People would say, “How did they do that?” [...] Sometimes you see things well done of this sort, but it is not moving—because you know it is false, because it is forced. But what you can do is have the sensation of death. You can be moved by death if you don’t show it, if you suggest it. But if you show it, it’s finished. The same thing about love. You don’t feel love if you see two people making love.

I think these questions of the real and the showable, and Bresson’s shifting attitudes toward them, lie somewhere near the center of his work. There are many deaths in his films, but I think the only killings he deems showable are:

— the shooting of Balthazar (actually this is the most uncomfortable movie for me in terms of this discussion, especially the scene where Gerard ties the burning rags to the donkey’s tail). But by including that, I guess I’d also have to add the snared animals of Mouchette.

— the languorously extended movie death in Four Nights of a Dreamer (how cool to get an idea of what other people’s movies looked like to Bresson. I think he must have really enjoyed shooting a scene containing nothing but “false” elements).

— and last and weirdest, the bloodbath at the beginning of Lancelot.

(Bloody Tangent: You describe this scene so beautifully in your last response, but what is one to make of it? It’s grotesque, savage, and extravagantly false within Bresson’s usual frame of reference. For me and for many, it unavoidably brings to mind the duel with the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (a film, however, which wasn’t released until the following year). I think this last association was largely banished from mind for a long time when the image of a rigidly po-faced Bresson held sway. Now that there’s greater interest in, and appreciation for, Bresson’s very real but elusive sense of humor, I think it’s sometimes oversold.

My initial thoughts are that the sequence probably aims to point towards some of the matter-of-fact brutality of medieval modes of representation (in illuminated manuscripts for example), as does the film’s poster.

In addition, it establishes briskly, sharply that this film enjoys a special status within Bresson’s body of work—that here the usual (if slippery) distinctions between real and false don’t apply, or at least don’t apply in the same way. I wrote briefly last time about how the film seems to be situated in the dying light of the Age of Myth, on the cusp of two worlds, and Bresson speaks in the film’s press book about his active search for anachronism, rather than fidelity to any known period. From this timeless position, it glows with an alien light that seems both pre- and post-historic (at least I can never quite shake the sense that it’s also something of a science-fiction film, a visit to the world of the clanking robo-men).)

So, returning to Pickpocket, it seems possible that Bresson regarded the murder in Crime & Punishment as essential to that book’s trajectory but not showable within his own terms (and in Dostoevsky, the act becomes particularly squalid in the description of its detail and difficulty—it is not an easy killing). So—why take, or use, that book as a model in the first place? It is a very weird thing to do. And I don’t have the answer, this is all kind of a kind of Midrash gloss on a mystery. Maybe the process went the other way, and Bresson wanted to make a movie about pickpocketing and decided to use Dostoevsky’s frame? That strikes me as, if anything, even weirder. The idea of an übermensch announcing himself on the stage of the world by stealing wristwatches seems closer to Kafka somehow, maybe there’s a clue in that shift of register?

I’m willing to spin speculation along all kinds of lines, but of course I simply dunno. So I just have to look back at what’s on the screen. If there needs to be a substitution, it’s certainly hard to imagine a more perfectly Bressonian crime than pickpocketing, those tiny, covert motions. But any concept in Bresson becomes, in the shooting, newly resonant in its particularity. You mentioned the “erotics of touch” in Bresson, and I think that’s true and more than a metaphor—that it slides, directly or obliquely, into sexuality. Incidents of casual contact between bodies is relatively rare in his films, and when contact occurs, it tends to be loaded.

Au hazard Balthazar

I think the first cue that links theft and sexuality in Pickpocket comes at the racetrack, in the petite mort eye flutter that Bresson rhymes with the opening of the purse latch. But the purse is outside the body—not a covering, as clothes are, but an accessory. The majority of the film’s stealthy penetrations are focused on the bodies of men, and given the hyper-acuity of touch and perception in Bresson’s films, their unmatched ability to inspire physical empathy in the receptive viewer, it seems relevant to ask what exactly we’re being given to feel here, in these fingers sliding under cover, lightly grasping wrists, snapping buttons.

It’s a congress that only exists in close-up, that disappears in wide shot, that remains illicit. Since Michel’s targets are largely oblivious (though I wonder about the slab-faced staring man)


one could possibly see these tensions as pointing in the general direction of frottage, or subway groping, rather than cruising, but I think the presence of Kassagi kind of tips the balance. I hope we can talk sometime about the processes through which Bresson sought to extract an “essence” from his models, and what he achieved by them. It’s the topic that seems to get the most attention in Notes on the Cinematographer, and Kassagi presents a unique case, since he was also a stage performer and we have some record of his mode of self-presentation in that area. From the excerpt of his act presented on the Criterion DVD, I think it’s fair to say that he burned with a bright flame. Bresson dampens that pretty thoroughly, seems indeed to surround the figure with the sulfurous smoke befitting some minor Mephistopheles. He’s certainly the most mysterious presence in the movie. His recruitment methods are peculiar, and his brusque backroom initiation of Michel seems—suggestive.

So I think these tensions are present in the film, and I’m not sure why they strike some Bresson partisans as outlandish. And I’m especially unsure why they initially struck me as such, since I’m gay to begin with. As always, I can hypothesize. For one thing, they open the film all-too-tidily to a thoroughly Freudian interpretation, and I sure as hell am not going to pursue that since I think Freud was one of the primary brainplagues of the 20th century. (But—Bresson was reportedly in psychoanalysis for decades so ???) For another, if taken as a skeleton key, this reading makes the film seem pretty reactionary, turns it into the story of a naïf’s perilous venture into the gay underworld, and his rescue by a true-hearted woman. I know some advocates of this interpretation have extrapolated clear biographical implications for Bresson from this, but that seems presumptuous to me. I can say on the basis of his films that his attentions strike me as bisexual, but that’s as far as I’ll go. I somehow imagine that you might respond that every great director’s attentions are bisexual, which is possibly true, so I’ll qualify that to say Bresson’s seem to me sexily bisexual. But I don’t know who he liked to sleep with.)

Wow, the Idiot Tangent seems to have eaten most of my entry, and there are still so many other things I wanted to respond to from your last post. I’ll list a few as a self-reminder:

— RB & anarchism.

— Assayas’s linkage between RB and 18th-century prose.

— Idea that any scene in Lancelot could be “taken apart and put back together in another order.”

— JLG & RB.

— Notion that the later films become “multiple.”

But before closing, I did want to say a couple more things about the film that’s purportedly our focus. It seems somehow appropriate that Lancelot should become the Grail of this exchange, and that our approach to it should be so circuitous. In that spirit, I’ve had some second-thoughts on something I wrote last time: “The people of this world are still dependent on a hierarchy of revelatory sign systems, but in the failure of the Grail quest, the world has largely ceased to converse in intelligible terms.” I’ve realized since that the quest was, of course, a success for one of the knights—Parsifal, the holy fool—though the pre-credit title informs us that he has since disappeared. Also, even if the sign systems of men break down, the earth still speaks.

Thanks to Phil Coldiron for providing me with copies of some of these movies! To close this time, not a quote but an anecdote. From an interview with Jonathan Hourigan, who worked with Bresson on L’Argent (wish he’d write a book). He’s quoting from his diaries here:

In similar vein, on 13th August I wrote, "On the way to the projection, we pulled up at the top of Avenue Wagram next to another car with its windows open. Very funky, urban music poured forth, loudly and R leaned out of his window and told the driver that his music was very beautiful. The young man looked at R, elderly and in the front seat of our over-crowded vehicle, as though he were mad. R then started miming to the music saying "this is how the modern music goes", bouncing around in his seat."

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