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

↔ (Part Three)

By B. Kite on July 10, 2012 in Film Comment Featured

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Read parts one and two.

While I agree with you that confrontations with Christianity do indeed seem to provoke embarrassment, at best, within the certain pockets you speak of, I think the move away from thinking of Bresson primarily in these terms had other, more salutary motives as well. Chief among them was boredom with the pietist hairshirt of the “transcendental” approach, which asks no questions it can’t answer by catechism. You say that it’s understandable as “a way of coping with [Bresson’s] utter strangeness within the context of film culture in the 60s and 70s,” and I agree. Still, it raises the question of how critics and audiences ought to cope with strangeness in general, of whether it’s better to cultivate or curtail one’s capacity for negative capability. This schema certainly had the effect of making Bresson seem less strange. I personally think that’s a pretty bad thing, since I find Bresson, then, now, and forever, very strange.

Likewise, when you speak of the attempts to bring new terms to the forefront, such as “eroticism, modernism, revolutionary politics, anarchism, atheism, and so on and on and on…,” most of these approaches (I’m going to subtract atheism for the moment) share a couple things in common: 1) they are all energies/aspects/tensions that can legitimately, in my opinion, be felt in Bresson’s work, and 2) none of them can be perceived through a purely “transcendental” lens (I wonder in passing what a transcendental lens might look like, and whether Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer ordered theirs from the same catalog). The materialist approach had the virtue of refocusing attention on what was on the screen rather than what floated beyond it. But I think you’re quite correct that its great disadvantage lies in its assertion of a Bresson “grown into” atheism, and thereby made more palatable. It doesn’t say anything too cheerful about our intellectual climate that it’s so eager to make despair and maturity synonymous.

(TANGENT: What of despair? You see its solid core in The Devil, Probably and L’Argent, and I wouldn’t disagree. Yet, as you note in your book on the latter film, the affect lies somewhere else. These movies are permeated with wonder and curiosity. Despair sometimes holds its position, but life carries on around it. If Bresson is, among many other things, the artist who deals most passionately and compassionately with suicide [does anyone come close?], I think it’s because he has the richest sense of all that’s left behind in leaving the world. Wallace Stevens:

One might have thought of sight, but who could think

Of what it sees, for all the ill it sees?

And again:

And out of what one sees and hears and out

Of what one feels, who could have thought to make

So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,

As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming

With the metaphysical changes that occur,

Merely in living as and where we live.)

Viktor Shklovsky famously theorized that a chief utility of art lay in its “enstrangement” of perception, “restoring the stoniness to the stone,” and Bresson’s movies perform this service for most every object that enters their field of micro-attentions. Both of the single-track approaches we’ve discussed seem to be modes of “disenstrangement,” to coin an even more awkward neologism, aimed at bringing the films back to the known. So I think the job is to get rid of these fixed positions and start tracking crosscurrents. Both “Bresson is [X]” and “Bresson is not-[X],” where [X]=Christian, seem to me to make the same mistake—that of regarding Christianity as a condition, rather than what it was for Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Simone Weil, and Pascal, namely (wait for it) a process.

(TANGENT: There is one class of believer for whom Christianity is indeed a fixed condition, namely the fundamentalist. I'm not a Christian, but my beef lies less with that tradition than fundamentalism in general—any religion of the closed book that attempts to spin a circular belief system, offering no perspectives or grounds for argument outside itself. Of course, fundamentalism comes in any number of forms: there are religious strains, certainly, but materialist ones as well. In this sphere, at least, Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson share the same unpleasant bed.)

Of course, you acknowledge that Bresson’s relation to faith was active and volatile with your Vattimo citations. Perhaps something like that was indeed Bresson’s trajectory, I’d be interested to know if you see its stages played out in particular moments of his work. I’m not being coy when I say I simply don’t know. There’s a part of me that wonders what makes, say, Diary of a Country Priest so clearly and unproblematically the work of a “believer” (is it that final image/non-image, crucial to the understandings of both Schrader and Bazin?) and I certainly join you in rejecting the notion that the late films are grounded in any straightforward atheism.

I would never say that Bresson is “strictly” process-oriented in any respect. I think it’s always a matter of fluctuation on every level of his engagement, starting perhaps with that series of births and deaths described in Notes on the Cinematographer:

"My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water."

Thematically, this might manifest in his waverings (or, to take the original title for Pickpocket, Incertitude) between the opposed/twinned notions of chance and grace. At every point, the films seem poised on shifting balances, and, given those conditions, it’s the poise that’s remarkable.

To tell the truth, part of the reason I balk a little at the notion of returning Christianity to a central position in discussing RB is that it almost always seems to lead to a mode of rhetoric that emphasizes punishment rather than pleasure. (INTERIOR TANGENT: I think our examples last time serve to illustrate the proposition that most every visceral satisfaction to be found in cinema is present in Bresson, distilled and thereby made more potent. If I could be so arrogant as to assert that there’s a proper “turning point” in one’s encounter with these works—and what the hell?—I’d locate it in the shift from viewing them as sparse or minimal to recognizing them as replete.) Even if the latter is given some place, it’s the pleasure of the penitent—one endures the films in hope of catching some glimpse of the eternal kingdom in their closing moments. There may be some very partial truth to this with reference to Diary of a Country Priest, Mouchette, and Au hasard Balthazar, and these films (along with Pickpocket, even more problematically) seem to form the ground and center of the pietist approach.

But if Bresson is anywhere near as slippery as I find him to be, it would follow that his oeuvre changes considerably in relation to whatever center one chooses. I love the story about Paul Schrader introducing an all-too-rare screening of Affaires Publiques without having seen the movie. (For readers who aren’t familiar with the surviving portions of Bresson’s first film, imagine an intro to Au Hazard Balthazar followed by a screening of Million Dollar Legs.) It was of course a wholly accidental (Au Hasard) set of circumstances, but in that context the movie functioned as a raspberry rendition of the objection Bresson presented more discretely, in elegant backhand, in his written response to Schrader’s book: “I have always been very surprised not to recognize myself in the image formed by those who are really interested in me.”

But I’m going to stop ragging on Schrader. I used to hate his book, but my feelings have softened to a strong dislike. At any rate, he found, or made, a Bresson that was useful to him, and in that sense we’re all engaged in the same undertaking, however variant the results. Maybe it would be good, as soon as convenient, to move away from the issues of Bresson’s reception and back toward the work, carrying as little baggage as possible (toothbrush, washcloth). For the purposes of our discussion, we’re centering ourselves on Lancelot, so I wonder: How does his body of work shift in relation to that choice of fulcrum?

I’ll take a preliminary stab. Since we’re talking in terms of Christianity and thematics, I’d like to bring in a few of Bresson’s remarks about what drew him to his other dream project, the unrealized Genesis: “Adam is like a shipwrecked sailor setting off to discover an unknown island. The beauty of Genesis is God asking Adam to name things and animals. I find that magnificent. And when he reaches this unknown island, everything is ready and waiting.”

So that’s an image of paradise, a place where language matches its referents and one can “speak” an object in its fullness, and be spoken to in turn. In this light, Lancelot seems to figure precisely the post-lapsarian moment. 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.

For the closing quote this time, another instance of nostalgia for the speaking object (or maybe a miracle?) From the Godard/Delahaye interview:

“Yes, vagabonds. Well, I have seen some of them speak to objects, to plants... Yesterday, I saw a fellow on the Avenue de Wagram speak to a pissoir. I did not understand what he was saying very well, but it must have been curious...”

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