Monday, June 12, 2006

Robert Bresson

Michel with coin in Pickpocket: "My fingers needed exercise to become supple."

Sometimes the things you feel closest to are the hardest to write about. Robert Bresson is my single favorite filmmaker but I’ve never been able to bring myself to write about his films. They produce such strong overpowering emotions in me that I’m afraid of being reduced to blubbering "ain’t-it-cool?-ishness," unable to do the films any justice.

I first discovered Bresson on videotape about ten years ago, and started out admiring his films from a distance. The turning point came in 1999, when I caught most of his thirteen films at a retrospective put together by James Quandt at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto. Seeing them on the big screen in pristine prints blew my mind, and recalibrated my eyes and ears. It wasn’t a passing fancy either; if anything, the power and personal meaning of these movies has grown stronger with time. I watched Pickpocket again recently, and figured it was time to make a tentative attempt to put some words down about what (I think) attracts me to his films. Bresson-philes will likely find much of the following quite familiar.

Let’s lead with the big one. What I probably love best about Bresson is that for me, his films are projective surfaces. We don’t want a film to give us, all tied up with ribbons and bows, pre-digested and completely determined, an experience that does not include us or ask anything of us. An artwork should provide a place for the viewer to project herself into it, constructing meaning in a process of collaboration with the artist. (E.H. Gombrich in Art and Illusion calls this the “beholder’s share” of the aesthetic experience.) Bresson creates this projective surface, for one, by means of an aesthetic of withholding. He creates absences which draw us into the work; we find ourselves filling these absences for ourselves by projection.

The most overt strategy to accomplish this is his use of emotionally "inexpressive" acting. When actors don’t “emote,” the viewer steps in and projects emotions onto their "tabula rasa" faces and bodies. Bresson called his actors “models;” they were often nonprofessionals who had never been seen on screen before (“virginal models”), and he never used them again. When asked if he’d cast Claude Laydu of Diary Of A Country Priest again, he said: “No….how can I?....I robbed him of what I needed to make the film. How could I rob him twice?” His ultimate casting coup of the neutrally expressionless model was undoubtedly (and perversely!) the donkey which is the title character in Au Hasard Balthazar.

The absences and overall minimalism in Bresson are accentuated by repetitions. (In Pickpocket: repeated scenes in Michel’s room, the Metro, the racetrack, of staircases, writing in his journal etc. ) Paradoxically, this combination creates a sort of hollowed-out, emptied-out vessel into which we pour….our own projections, ideas, feelings, and (very important) spiritual yearnings. But we don’t see the spiritual in his films; we see the material. Concrete surfaces are paramount here; and yet they are the portal to the spiritual. We intuit an inner life, a metaphysical life, via our immersion in the material. Quandt has called Bresson’s cinema both minimalist and maximalist for this reason.

But co-existent—again, paradoxically—with this spiritual aspect is the less-noted sensuality in Bresson. The Gare De Lyon scene of three pickpockets working the passengers in symphonic concert is nothing less than an orgy, with its erotically charged close-ups of hands caressing purses and wallets, “penetrating” them and “violating” their owners without their knowledge. When Michel returns home from the racetrack after having filched money from a woman's handbag, he lies down and sleeps till dawn (post-coitum....).

A similarity that Bresson shares with Hitchcock: neither of them particularly liked to keep the audience suspensefully in the dark for long (ironic given that Hitch was the “master of suspense”). Both revealed significant plot points well in advance so that the audience could immerse itself in the “how?” rather than the “who?” or “what?”. Bresson took this to an almost hilarious extreme: the original untranslated French title of A Man Escaped is A Man, Condemned to Death, Escapes, which gives away the ending in the film’s title itself. Before we see a single image in Pickpocket, we see Bresson’s written text: “The style of this film is not that of a thriller,” which proceeds to then blithely disclose the movie’s ending.

Bresson’s sound design is legendary: he used sound not to exaggerate or amplify images but to replace them. The world offscreen—or more precisely, certain selected aspects of it—is evoked lucidly by means of sound. For example, in the racetrack sequences of Pickpocket, we never see horses, though you’d almost swear you did; such is the ringing force and limpidity of their sound. Bresson’s use of sound is not naturalistic—he does not include, Altman-like, a dense spectrum of ambient sound and chatter. Instead, he chooses certain sounds and pinpoints them with clarity and volume in the mix. The sound mix of a Bresson film, though rich, never sounds muddy.

Another manifestation of Bresson’s aesthetic of withholding: his thrilling use of ellipses, abrupt reversals, fast elisions. Balthazar’s happy moments last no more than a few seconds, and are elided quickly, just as we spend long periods of time watching Michel picking pockets in the Metro or in his room, but two years go by in a flash (seconds, literally) when he goes away to Milan and London. Naturally, we discover little of what occurred to him during that time.

As time passed, Bresson's films began to change: they became harsher, more pessimistic; the use of music decreased or was eliminated entirely; he stopped using (lyrical) dissolves and opted for (blunt) straight cuts starting with his first color film, Une Femme Douce, in 1970; and the amount of text (spoken dialogue, etc) dropped drastically. “As I grow older,” Renoir once said, “I listen to Mozart.” But there was no mellowing for Bresson: his last two films, The Devil Probably and L’Argent, are among his blackest works, the former probably the most borderline-nihilistic teen film ever made.

As I close, I realize that there’s more I love about Bresson than I’ve had time to touch on. Quickly: his rejection of psychological realism; his abjuring of overt and gratuitous pictorial beauty (“No beautiful images,” he once wrote, “only necessary images.”); the lack of both establishing shots and facial close-ups; his way of “dismembering” the human body with careful and plentiful shots of hands and feet. He was also, along with Lubitsch, the filmmaker most in love with….doors!


Anonymous Michael said...

Wonderful post, Girish. You really convey a deep appreciation and understanding of Bresson's work, and that, in turn, is something I appreciate as one of your readers. I liked this statement: "It wasn’t a passing fancy either; if anything, the power and personal meaning of these movies has grown stronger with time." That is one of the wonderful traits of great films and great directors; I think Godard's 60s work has a similar effect on me.

I also think that your analysis of how Bresson presents films as "projective surfaces" is wonderful. The experience of those kinds of films (and cinema, after all, is an experience, or should be) is so much different, and more rewarding, than that of other kinds of films. Absence, withholding, lack, subtlety -- all these things, as you say, when used properly and skillfully require our immersion in the film, and as a result we experience more.

I haven't seen Pickpocket but have it queued up at Netflix. Looking forward to it even more now.

June 12, 2006 5:11 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Michael. I think you're going to love Pickpocket. The Criterion print is superb. I've seen the film four times now and it just keeps getting better. (And it's a taut and tight thing--a mere 75 minutes.)
Also, it so happens that Pickpocket was made in the "annus mirabilis" of the nouvelle vague, 1959, which has a special significance for me personally because I cut my cinephilic teeth on the New Wave.

June 12, 2006 5:32 PM  
Blogger David Lowery said...

Last fall, I tried to write something about a film that meant a lot to me and ended up not blogging at all for almost two weeks. It's tough.

It's been just over a year since I first discovered Bresson, but how quickly he's risen in my ranks of favorite filmmakers! I wish I could have experienced them through that 13 film retrospective...but thank god for Criterion and their beautiful transfers.

June 13, 2006 2:16 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I must admit I'm still in the midst that "admiring from a distance" phase myself. I've seen a half dozen of his films, three of them "on the big screen in pristine prints" (most recently Mouchette on my birthday) but I've never had that mind-blowing, sensory-recalibrating experience, and the closest I've come so far has actually been with a film watched on videotape, a Man Escaped.

I feel a little left out of the immense pleasure Bresson obviously brings so many of my favorite cinephiles, but I figure I will keep seeing his films, and it will eventually come or it won't.

I've never seen any of them more than once though, and I've spaced them out pretty far; it's been about one per year over the past five and a half years or so since I first saw Diary of a Country Priest. Maybe this lack of cumulative effect has been particularly detrimental to my appreciation.

Your piece doesn't feel at all like "ain't-it-cool" blubbering. You are very clear about the merits you find in his work, and I plan to reread what you have to say just before the next opportunity I find myself to watch a Bresson film.

June 13, 2006 2:27 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Ah hell, I know exactly what you mean. I've been procrastinating for weeks, trying to watch Diary of a Country Priest for a third time, and writing even a short note on it.

I do think the sound of the rake in that famous confession scene is Bresson's metaphor for the pain in the priest's belly--like the raking of claws.

June 13, 2006 5:14 AM  
Blogger girish said...

David, Brian & Noel ~

Hey thanks, guys.

You know, the only Bresson completely unavailable is his adaptation of Dostoyevsky's short story White Nights: the film is called Four Nights Of A Dreamer. It's tangled up in rights issues and is one of the most criminally missing cinephile titles ever. (I don't know how he does it, but Quandt secured a luminous subtitled print for the retro.)

Bresson's take on the Dostoyevsky is miles away from Visconti's (who made it under the original title, White Nights, with Mastroianni). I remember reading the story the morning before I took the trip to go to see the Bresson, and it's a (surprisingly) faithful adaptation. It also has a hilarious film-within-a-film clip of a fake "commercial action film" (also made by Bresson, of course) that is one of the few moments of humor in all of his work.

Also, the book that Quandt edited for the retro is absolutely indispensable. It contains a large section where scores of directors talk about the influence of Bresson on their films. (Hal Hartley even cites Mamet's House of Games as Bressonian!)

Brian ~ I think I spent about 4 years in my "admiring from a distance" phase. And many more than that with Hawks (now among my four or five all-time fave filmmakers), whom I liked but didn't love for years. Again, it was seeing a bunch of his films (1) together, and (2) on the big screen, that seemed to do the trick.

For friends who are new to Bresson, the one I always recommend as a starter is A Man Escaped. It never misses, even on video (as Brian pointed out).

And I've never seen Mouchette on the big screen, just a battered videotape. Would love to catch up with it someday. And I hated, hated the way Bertolucci raped it by using that clip of its ending in The Dreamers. It seemed so shallow and exploitative (to me anyway).

June 13, 2006 9:07 AM  
Blogger girish said...


--Acquarello's been reporting from the Human Rights Watch filmfest in New York.

--I love it when David Hudson finds the time (by the way, how does he find the time to do all the stuff that he does?) to write in some detail.
This is a great post that turned me on to Joe Swanberg's Young American Bodies.
And yes, that kissing is loud.

--Zach has advice for the US World Cup team.

June 13, 2006 9:24 AM  
Anonymous Darren said...

At this point, I'd say I'm still mostly in the "appreciate from a distance" camp with Bresson. My two favorites are, not coincidentally, his most explicitly spiritual, Diary of a Country Priest and Balthazar.

A couple years ago, I decided to spend two months rewatching and writing about each of Tarkovsky's films. I did alright the first week, knocking out a short piece on Ivan's Childhood that I can still stand to reread. Then I watched Andrei Rublev for the first time in two years or so and threw up my hands in defeat. Even if I made it through Rublev and Solaris there's no way I'd be able to write about Mirror, my single favorite film.

June 13, 2006 9:52 AM  
Blogger girish said...

"A couple years ago, I decided to spend two months rewatching and writing about each of Tarkovsky's films."

Wow, Darren. That's about as ambitious and daunting a project as any cinephile can possibly set out to do!

June 13, 2006 10:03 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Maybe I've been reading the wrong texts, but more often than not I find myself frustrated with critics who write about Bresson. (Though I do think Kent Jones' BFI imprint on L'Argent is wonderful.) Often there's this overwhelming sense of hiding behind a false intellectual facade, which in my opinion doesn't really work with Bresson, whose works Girish beautifully (and accurately) describes as vessels "into which we pour….our own projections, ideas, feelings, and (very important) spiritual yearnings." To attempt to intellectualize this is sort of the antithesis of what Bresson is all about. Bresson gets you more in the gut than the brain, and few critics are willing to admit this.

We intuit an inner life, a metaphysical life, via our immersion in the material. Girish, this might just be the one of the best descriptions of the effect of Bresson's art.

Hong Sang-soo once told me that it was Diary of a Country Priest that opened his eyes to a completely different way of telling a story. Prior to that, he had resigned himself to being an experimental filmmaker, for he didn't think it was possible to tell his stories via traditional narrative.

June 13, 2006 12:13 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I've only seen Pickpocket and I had the distinct impression I didn't "get" it. I was disappointed, but I think it probably had more to do with the gap between my expectations and what I felt. (Scorsese makes a strong case for the film in his [I think] fascinating 4-hr documentary on his favorite American films.) I've felt the same way with Renoir's work, for the most part, and Godard's, which has me thinking that perhaps I don't like film as much as I think I do. I know that a lot of people like their work, and I suspect it's for good reason; I just hope that some day I see what they do.

As for Andrei Rublev--I just watched that again for the first time in about five years, and it was much better the second time around. The first time I saw it, it was very shortly after reading a spoiler in Videohound's which passed itself off as a basic plot summary. So I went in expecting a basic plot that didn't happen until the final 15 minutes--more problems with films and expectations.

Increasingly, I've made it a point to read or listen to just enough about a film to decide whether I want to see it, and then to ignore everything about it after that until I have seen it. I love that first, uncluttered experience of a great film, that moment when you realize as you're watching it "wow, this is really a great film."

June 13, 2006 12:49 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

I discovered Chantal Akerman way before I really, seriously watched Bresson (rather than just watching him because he's canonical), so your comment about the "dismembering" of the human body is what resonates the most with me. If nothing else, I'm eternally grateful to Bresson just for that, for illustrating fractures in the soul that aren't visible on the surface.

One of the things that I really liked about Pickpocket is the implicit sensuality of the choreographed thefts, much in the same way that I find Ophuls' camera movements sensual. There's just something so tactile about those scenes, something that no amount of narrative or dialogue can ever capture, it only exists in the fluidity of the gestures and relative motion.

Then there's also Jef's blank face in Melville's Le Samouraï which also hearkens back to the inexpressivity of Bresson's models that is particularly suited to Pickpocket, where any trace of emotion could blow the theft. It's not just an affectation or a style in the film, it's an occupational necessity.

June 13, 2006 3:54 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"Hong Sang-soo once told me that it was Diary of a Country Priest that opened his eyes to a completely different way of telling a story. Prior to that, he had resigned himself to being an experimental filmmaker, for he didn't think it was possible to tell his stories via traditional narrative."

Filmbrain, that's fascinating. I didn't know that.
I know you had a chance to spend several days with Hong; I hope one day we'll be able to read about all the things you two talked about. It'd be cinephile catnip.

Tuwa, I'm the same way. I read just the minimum necessary to decide whether I want to see a film or not. Ideally, I like to know absolutely nothing about a film going in. All the reading comes afterwards.

Acquarello, I really like your statement: "It's not just an affectation or a style in the film, it's an occupational necessity." The reason I love LE SAMOURAI has a lot to do with its Bressonian aspects.

And yes, the sensuality of the theft scenes is striking.
And the released and spent aftermath of the episodes intimating (to repeat what I mentioned in the post) something of the post-coital.

I'm just curious: what points of comparison do you see between Akerman and Bresson?

June 13, 2006 4:40 PM  
Blogger phyrephox said...

Mentioning a comparison between Akerman and Bresson, I'd be curious to see one between Bresson and the aforementioned Melville. A lot of people say his work is Bressonian, but I read a quote somewhere said by either him or Bresson that it is the other way around.

I've been dying to see Four Nights of a Dreamer for years, as Visconti's adaptation is one of my favorite films, but as you say girish, it's near impossible to find. I second FB's assertion that reading about Bresson is often frustrating, and writing about him is very difficult, and I really enjoyed your piece. I wish more people wrote about less canonical films of his though, Lancelot, Gentle Woman, Four Nights, and Devil Probably. Some people (including FB) wrote on the also under-talked about Trial of Joan of Arc, a film I had nearly forgotten and is a rare Bresson that does not do much for me.

June 13, 2006 5:38 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Phyrephox ~ I think I also read that, possibly in a Melville interview where he responds to a question (not altogether seriously perhaps, though it's hard to say) by saying that Bresson's films are Melvillian rather than the other way around.

I think that's a great idea about tackling non-canonical Bresson: think I might cue up The Devil, Probably, which I have an irrationally strong attraction to.

June 13, 2006 5:52 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Sensual, spiritual, profound and insightful. Your post is just like a Bresson film! :)

That "collective theft" sequence at la Gare de Lyon is a masterful of camerawork and montage that left a huge impression on me too. It's flowing breathtakingly from end to end and voilà it's already over. Not only the direction captures the art of thievery, but I felt like Bresson had just stated his compact manifesto of cinema direction. Especially the continuous movement in the carriage with the camera glancing at each protagonist through the crowd at strategical moments all at once. Without grandiloquence, pace and choreography in unison.

He's a master of cinema language. Pure image grammar instead of acting delivery. This cinema talks to the intellect while starving the guts. Is it possible to enjoy intellectual transcendence without shame? ;)

I always thoughtUn condamné à mort s'est échappé was an in-joke. If we get in the film thinking we already know the outcome, Bresson defuses our reasoning in the opening sequence. Fontaine, in fact, attempt to escape the police car, which earns him more brutality and aggravates his case.

Is there a Bresson blogothon in the air? ;)

June 13, 2006 9:18 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Some Bressonian aspects in Akerman's cinema:

- The disembodied framing. This is especially visible in Jeanne Dielman, but even in her structural documentaries, this happens too, like News from Home where people constantly drift into and out of frame, or the elevator shots of Hotel Monterey.

- Muted expression. This can be seen in the way Aurore Clement (Akerman's alter-ego) plays her roles, like Les Rendez-vous d'Anna or the "somnambulism" of the characters in Toute une nuit, where the articulation of profound emotion almost collides with a kind of weariness in their expression.

- The ritualization of the mundane, not only in terms of domesticity in Jeanne Dielman, but also expounded to the psychology and in the nature of the ritual itself. For instance, Saute ma ville has that obsessive shoe polishing sequence. And in The Eighties, the rehearsals are literal repetitions, slightly modulated, that reveals (or conceals) the significance.

- The impenetrability of women (Mouchette, Marie in Au Hasard Balthazar and especially the wife in A Gentle Woman). La Captive is the most Bressonian of Akerman's films in this respect, but films such as Je, tu, il, elle or Night and Day also show this, where the nature of female desire is something elusive and indefinable (even a bit capricious, in a way).

June 13, 2006 9:39 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Also meant to add your analogy of the theft orgy in Pickpocket with violation match the common feeling expressed by victims of robbery who use the term "rape". An irrational feeling that reveals how intimately we associate ourselves to properties and money.

More comparison to ponder : Bresson v. Kieslowski. Maybe not immediately on a visual level, but a certain conception of stylized narration, maybe a "moral (non)realism"?

June 14, 2006 4:10 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello & Harry ~ Great points! Thank you.

Acquarello, that's a super solid list. The last one ("impenetrabiity of women") had not occurred to me, but it makes perfect sense.
I remember watching La Captive and being reminded of Une Femme Douce. I think that might be the Akerman film I feel closest to, perhaps because of the Bresson and Hitchcock connections.

I picked up the Ivone Margulies book on her after you suggested it--it looks really good. More than reason enough to revisit her films, which I want to do.

Harry: "I always thought Un condamné à mort s'est échappé was an in-joke. If we get in the film thinking we already know the outcome, Bresson defuses our reasoning in the opening sequence."

That's very true. This is part of pattern of "fast reversals" I notice in his movies. He'll posit a contradiction or an abrupt turnaround, but it's short-lived, like the one you mentioned in A Man Escaped. e.g. Pickpocket begins with the Longchamp racetrack theft, and as Michel is walking away in a sort of bliss, he says, "I felt like I was walking on air," and seconds afterwards, we elide to him in the back of the police car sandwiched between two cops.

"Not only the direction captures the art of thievery, but I felt like Bresson had just stated his compact manifesto of cinema direction."

Very true.

Another thing I like about him that I forgot to mention in the post: The way his camera lingers for several beats on a space (often empty of humans) before and after a character enters or leaves the frame. A gesture that's inexplicably moving.

June 14, 2006 7:32 AM  
Blogger girish said...

--Round-Headed Boy on Two-Lane Blacktop.
Honest--I'm not just saying this because I've got Bresson on the brain but this movie has always reminded me of Bresson, though its ending is (literally) out of Bergman.

--Dennis Cozzalio on TCM in June.

--Anthony Kaufman's mid-year list of Best of 2006.

--Jaime Weinman points to a YouTube clip of the first (insane) 10 minutes of Hellzapoppin'.

June 14, 2006 7:42 AM  
Blogger girish said...

via Darren:

"Why Blog Post Frequency Does Not Matter Anymore:
Daily posts are a legacy of a Web 1.0 mindset and early Web 2.0 days (meaning 12 months ago!). The pressure around posting frequency will ultimately become a significant barrier to the maturity of blogging.
Here are 10 reasons why..."

June 14, 2006 8:31 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Heheh, that blog frequency article makes for some timely reading. :)

I love the thoroughness of the Margulies book, it really helped me to appreciate some of the more "offbeat" Akerman efforts like Window Shopping or A Couch in New York.

I have a great affinity for La Captive as well, it's Proustian, but not Proustian. Like Une Femme Deuce, it's not just about memory, but the projection of memory, so it's a reality that's twice removed. Margulies discusses this recurring theme of "Who speaks for the woman?" in Akerman's films, but the same can be seen for Bresson's depiction of women too - you don't know why they love (beyond a human need too), you only see how they suffer because of it.

June 14, 2006 9:55 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Yeah, that blog frequency article hits the spot, doesn't it?

"it's not just about memory, but the projection of memory, so it's a reality that's twice removed."

What an insightful point, Acquarello.

You know, I have a vivid memory of seeing long-time Toronto filmfest programmer Kay Armatage introduce Akerman at LA CAPTIVE in 2000, and proudly say that Toronto had programmed all her films over the years save her commercial one (she meant the William Hurt/Juliette Binoche A COUCH IN NEW YORK), and watching Akerman step up to the mic and bristle, saying that it was no more and less commercial-minded than any of her other films. (Good for her.)

June 14, 2006 11:15 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

I would kill for a copy of The Devil, Probably on DVD. (I actually have the Korean release, but there are no English subs.)

It's my favorite of his -- I like to think of it as Bresson's Breakfast Club. ;-)

June 14, 2006 11:20 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Actually, I only have a New Yorker VHS copy of that one (and also UNE FEMME DOUCE). Yeah, they sure are crying out for DVD release...

June 14, 2006 11:23 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I've linked to it already on this blog but it's related to Pickpocket here : a statistical analysis of number and length of shots in Bresson's film. And because I'm such a nerd, I even made a graph out of it.

I didn't see much Akerman's yet, but it's funny how she would portray women as "impenetrable", as it's such a male cliché about women.

Yeah this blog frequency rational is like a late illumination... "Pointless clutter might not help the visibility and credibility of the blogosphere".
Btw, Girish you're posting "too much" insightful posts. I'm always behind striving to catch up... ;)

June 14, 2006 6:25 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Ah, so much good stuff here. In addition to a thrilling discussion on Bresson, I've finally found a perfect justification for blogging only once or twice a week. That article is priceless. Plus, Harry, I don't recall ever seeing such a careful, thorough breakdown of shots in a Bresson film, much less in any film. I, a fellow nerd, dig your graph.

June 14, 2006 7:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry, you are in great fellow nerd company. That analysis and graph are awesome--it would make Bordwell blush. Thanks for linking to them.

"Btw, Girish you're posting "too much" insightful posts."
Harry--I shall use that (and, like Michael, the new blogging rules of Web 2.0) as my cue to post less! :-)

Actually, this coincides with my own plans of posting once (or, on the outside chance I'm having a swimmingly prolific week, twice) a week. And during the week, we can always discuss and shoot the breeze and bring up whatever y'all want to bring up in the comments section. That's my thinking.

June 14, 2006 7:23 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I was kidding Girish. I'm too slow that's all. You're not in the daily posting category yet.

And thanks for liking my graph, I though it might be a little esoteric.

June 14, 2006 8:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"I though it might be a little esoteric."
Oh no Harry. I went to chemical engineering school for five years and plotted enough graphs to last me a lifetime!

June 14, 2006 9:07 PM  
Blogger That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Girish, I've never seen a Bresson (to my discredit) and didn't even read your post until after I'd written about TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, so I was flabbergasted to see me finding some of the same points in Hellman's film that you find in Bresson's. But I wonder if I actually like TWO-LANE because of its rock star casting and Warren "Da Man" Oates and its '70s America feel and would find the blank spaces and projection harder to embrace in Bresson's movies. Guess I'll have to try one and find out. A work colleague recently watched DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST and wanted to know what I thought of it. I got the sense that she wasn't sure what to make of it at all.

June 14, 2006 10:03 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"You're not in the daily posting category yet."
Harry, perhaps I'm slower-than-average, but blogging about the kind of cinema we blog about is hard work (and fun, of course, or we wouldn't do it). That's precisely why we like it, I guess: that it demands such high levels of "participation" from us, which necessarily makes it a slow, but hopefully reflective, process.

June 14, 2006 10:07 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"But I wonder if I actually like TWO-LANE because of its rock star casting and Warren "Da Man" Oates and its '70s America feel..."

TLRHB ~ Sure, but I got the feeling from your review that you also liked the blankness and "tabula rasa" performing style in the Hellman film, so it's possible you may like Bresson too. I'd recommend (as I did earlier somewhere in the comments) A MAN ESCAPED. It's on DVD. And afterwards, if you google up some reviews of the film, it might give you a broad sense of his preoccupations and style.

I must say: Despite my deep and long-lasting love of rock and pop (much longer than for movies), it was as much Monte Hellman's stylistic choices as his subject matter or inventive rock-star casting that makes me love this film.

June 14, 2006 10:17 PM  
Anonymous Walter said...

"Sometimes the things you feel closest to are the hardest to write about."

I know the feeling. A big reason I initiate blog-a-thons is to force myself to write about my favorite obsessions; otherwise, I'd revise and re-craft endlessly without actually posting anything. (Giving yourself a deadline is a great way to get out of writer's block.) Despite any caveats you may have had in your mind, this is a great post. I've never seen a Bresson film--French cinema from the 1950s onward is a big lapse for me--but, thanks to this essay, I've now got "Diary of a Country Priest" and "Pickpocket" in my Netflix queue.

June 14, 2006 11:19 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

You know, Girish, as far as blogging frequency is concerned, I'd love to post more if I could, but it's partly a time-management issue for me, and also partly an issue of approach -- like you, I prefer to write longer, more analytical posts, and these take time, patience, and (on many occasions) a lot of tweaking. Or, as you say, "That's precisely why we like it, I guess: that it demands such high levels of "participation" from us, which necessarily makes it a slow, but hopefully reflective, process."

And I do prefer it that way -- not just as a blogger, but as a reader. My favorite bloggers tend to post less but write more when they do post, and as that article points out, if they posted everyday I'd likely just fall behind. Quality of content and interesting and thoughtful posts are more important to me than frequency.

June 14, 2006 11:46 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"Giving yourself a deadline is a great way to get out of writer's block."

So true, Walter. And I'm amazed at your taking on not one but several Miyazakis at one shot. There's no way I could've pulled off that one, but I'm glad you did and we could read about 'em.

"Quality of content and interesting and thoughtful posts are more important to me than frequency."

To me too, Michael. I know I always believed it, but because the blogosphere has traditionally stressed frequent posting, I second-guessed myself on it. It was nice to see it validated (and then some) in that article.

June 15, 2006 8:29 AM  
Blogger girish said...


--Jim Emerson on Manohla Dargis and film criticism.

--At MZS's: Five for the day--Western towns.

--Darren on Michiko Kakutani and Nick Hornby's last book.

--Tom Breihan on seeing Cat Power in concert.

June 15, 2006 8:37 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Regarding Harry's comment: I didn't see much Akerman's yet, but it's funny how she would portray women as "impenetrable", as it's such a male cliché about women., I think that Akerman is taking it a step further though, in the sense that it's not just about a commentary on impenetrability, but on the nature of that impenetrability (it's not a superficial exploration of women's impenetrability in the way that Truffaut's Le Deux anglaises et le continent is for instance).

On the one level, there is a silence of history, since Akerman's mother was a Holocaust survivor and she has said in the past that she felt profoundly disconnected from her heritage because her mother wouldn't talk about the past. There's a great scene in Tomorrow We Move where mother and daughter read the grandmother's wartime childhood diary, and the text used were actual entries from Akerman's mother's diary. So in a way, she was "hearing" from her mother the things that she had never told her in person, not just about the terrible things that happened during the war, but also the powerlessness of being a young girl during that time. (So, impenetrable in the sense of cultural detachment and incomplete identity).

Another is a kind of social disconnection as an artist (which is where this sense of transience in her films come from, I think) where, by nature, she almost has to remain somewhat distanced from the society she's observing. (Impenetrable is more like distant or "aloof").

Then there's the more conventional feminist reading of others speaking for the woman, as in La Captive where the woman's "voice" is not a true representation but a (predominantly male) projection of her desire. This happens in Je tu il elle and J'ai faim, j'ai froid also where the women reflexively comply with what the men ask of them.

June 15, 2006 1:22 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Thanks acquarello! very helpful insight. I guess I was thinking mainly about La Captive and J'ai faim, j'ai froid. Women are also rather stereotypical in Golden Eigthies. But these might not be the best entry point to find out about the weight of silence in a personal history.
There are so few women directors to make potent comparisons...

re: blog frequency.
I have trouble with GreenCine Daily. I don't know if there are too many links per day or if my blogroll got longer on the side, but I cannot check it out comprehensively like I used to. Although the Cannes coverage was really handy!
When there is too much good information coming in, I lose track of everything.

June 15, 2006 8:20 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Acquarello and Harry.

A few links:

--Rich Juzwiak has an encyclopedic post on Russ Meyer's Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls with dozens of screen caps.

--Harry asks for your suggestions at a large film festival in Paris.

--Music: I love Bill Frisell's live concerts because of all the "live looping" he uses. Here's Panopticist in an interesting post on the live looping technique.

June 16, 2006 9:06 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I had to do one of those glazy-eyed spolier-averting skim-reads here because I haven't seen Jonathan Glazer's BIRTH. Jim Emerson makes connections with Bunuel with tons of images.

June 16, 2006 9:12 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Wow. Not only a beautiful, evocative post, but some of the richest discussion I've read online in some time. I've been trying so hard to write about "Balthazar", which is surely one of my top ten movies. I wept when I first saw it. It touched something so primal and deep about the animal eye, the burden of life, and the capriciousness of fate. You inspire me to keep working at it.

And like several others have posted, the article on blogging frequency reminds me that it's good writing that matters, and the crosspollination of sites. I'm starting to write in bursts these days rather than every day as when I first started.

A bit off the track but did we ever decide upon an experimental film blogathon? A specific date?

June 16, 2006 11:48 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey there, Michael. Thanks for the words. I've been enjoying your interviews and posts, as always.
And that avant-garde/experimental blog-a-thon is on Wedesday, August 3.

June 16, 2006 1:16 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Oh good! Perfect segue. :) I was going to mention that the NYVF schedule has been posted on the online calendar. Stuff worth noting for the AG blogathon are a new Martha Colburn (title to be announced, her work is in the same vein as Stan Vanderbeek cut-and-paste animations), several Seoungho Cho works (he did Orange Factory a few years ago, which reminded me of a cross between Aleksandr Sokurov and Mike Hoolboom), Shannon Plumb (she makes Super-8 films, the ones I've seen are all pantomime sketch comedies), and two animation programs. ...Then there's also the annual Armond White pop culture rumination snoozefest. :(

June 16, 2006 1:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Great timing, Acquarello. Thank you!

June 16, 2006 1:39 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Speaking of avant-garde, Michael was too modest to mention his just-posted interview with Canyon Cinema.

June 16, 2006 1:44 PM  
Blogger girish said...


--Brian Darr on horror movies.

--Filmbrain's picks at the New York Asian filmfest.

--Andrew at Lucid Screening on a couple of anarchism docs.

June 17, 2006 9:14 AM  
Blogger Dennis Cozzalio said...

I'm just now getting acquainted with Bresson, Girish. Thanks for the wonderful insights, especially about your personal experience with the films. I'll be linking to this article this weekend.

Speaking of links, Jim Emerson's got something interesting going on over at Scanners: he's looking for brief descriptions of favorite opening shots.

June 17, 2006 6:51 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey there, Dennis. Thanks for that link; what a great idea.
And I enjoyed your new Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls post..

More links:

--Michael Guillen has been busy doing interviews, including this one with John Cameron Mitchell.

--Shameful movies of Odie's past at MZS's.

--Andy Horbal's comfort movies. (Just remembered that I did a post on this myself last summer.)

--Chuck Tryon's been very busy at Silverdocs.

June 18, 2006 9:43 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I love your comments. Always a good discussion, plus random linky goodness. Rawk.

June 18, 2006 8:54 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, I thank all readers (like you) who choose to contribute their time and feel at home here!

June 18, 2006 9:06 PM  
Blogger Albert Alcoz said...

Great Blog! Though i prefer reading abou Martin Arnold than about Robert Bresson for the simple reason than there aren't book about Piece Touché, Alone and those movies.
Everything has been said about Bresson.

June 19, 2006 7:43 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

I can't say everything's been said about Bresson--but he does get plenty of press compared to Arnold.

June 19, 2006 8:08 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I just saw A Man Escaped (by which I mean: ten minutes ago) and I was impressed with the sound in general. One nit, though, was the noise in some of the recording: I could hear it come in and cut off once the lines of dialogue started and stopped. The film did have some neat uses of sound, though: cracking window panes, the scrape of impromptu hooks, the wire straining against human weight and, most memorably, that periodic squeaking. (I'd taken it to be a weathervane! God knows why. We know who among us wouldn't have escaped.)

I thought the film was amazing. I'll have to give Pickpocket another chance, but I'm almost scared to--maybe I should try another Bresson first.

Another film I saw recently, for the second time--Maborosi. This ties in to two of your comments: first, the sound design. I love how the director--like your point about Bresson--frequently didn't show the source of the sound, leaving the visuals to our imagination. And, second, the first time I saw this film it really kind of annoyed me. I don't know why; perhaps I was tired. I realized early on last night that I'd seen the film before, but this time it was an entirely different film, or I was an entirely different person. You've posted about your own experience with that before. :-)

While we're on the subject of sound design and horses, how about that Tati gag in Jour de fête with the whinny and the passing truck? The truck passes; we see a fake horse at the back of it, the kind that might go on a carousel. That passes too, offscreen to the left, and behind it in a field we see a real horse. Clever.

July 14, 2006 12:08 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, you might try DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST.
Very astute comparison with Tati--another master of sound design who "implied offscreen space" with it.
Glad you liked the Bresson! :-)

July 14, 2006 8:10 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

It was a remarkable film.

Self-dialogue, early on:
Relax; he'll escape. The director told you so in the title.
He might have lied.

Relax; he'll escape. The director told you so in the title.
But there are two of them. Which one will it be?

Thanks for the suggestion, Girish.

July 14, 2006 9:32 AM  
Blogger wjfljql said...

i'm glad i've found someone who understands a bit the problem about writing on bresson. i'm trying to trying to write an essay on him myself, but focusing on the so-called facticity of his images. hope you guys could give some comments while i finish the essay. it's on my blog.

July 15, 2006 9:59 PM  

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