A Cinema of Sensations
This week I drove up to George Eastman House to catch Jean Eustache’s Mes Petites Amoureuses (1974), which turned out to be one of the greatest coming-of-age films I’ve ever seen. This generally obscure movie deserves to be universally known.
The narrative events in the film are extremely small-scale and modest, but Eustache gives them great weight by using them as vehicles for vivid sensations and impressions: movement (a pack of boys riding their bicycles downhill on a country road, their wheels humming like music); light (the brilliant country sun followed by long hours in a dingy workshop in the city); sound (a first kiss stolen from behind in a dark movie theater during Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman while French-dubbed voices boom from the screen, substituting for Ava Gardner and James Mason); and texture (the endlessly arresting faces and bodies of a parade of nonprofessional players in schools, bars, boulevards, markets).
There is a poignant and ironic contrast at work here: on the one hand, the surfeit of sensations that the artwork gives generously to the viewer; and on the other, the silent, aching, ever-present physical longing the boy-protagonist feels in the film, a longing for sensations that are almost always out of his reach.
I also happened to revisit Bresson’s L’Argent and read Kent Jones’ excellent BFI monograph on the film. He quotes Bresson speaking to Michel Ciment in a 1983 Positif interview:
I’ve been called a Jansenist, which is madness. I’m the opposite. I’m interested in impressions. I’ll give you an example, taken from L’Argent. When I’m on the Grands Boulevards, the first thing I think is How do they impress me? And the answer is that they impress me as a mass of legs and a sound of feet on the pavements. I tried to communicate this impression by picture and by sound … There has to be a shock at the moment of doing, there has to be a feeling that the humans and things to be filmed are new, you have to throw surprises on film. […] That’s the Grands Boulevards, as far as I’m concerned, all the motion. Otherwise, I might as well have used a picture postcard. The thing that struck me when I used to go to the cinema is that everything had been wanted in advance, down to the last detail … Painters do not know in advance how their picture is going to turn out, a sculptor cannot tell what his sculpture will be, a poet does not plan a poem in advance …
You will have noticed that in L’Argent there are a series of close-ups whose only function is to add sensation. When the father, a piano-player, drops a glass, his daughter is in the kitchen. Her dustpan and sponge are ready. I do not then enter the room, but cut immediately to a close shot which I like very much, the wet floor with the sound of the sponge. That is music, rhythm, sensation … Increasingly, what I am after — and with L’Argent it became almost a working method — is to communicate the impressions I feel.
The type of ‘sensation’ that Bresson is describing is felt only fitfully in the work of most other film-makers. The many shots from the inside of moving cars in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), for instance, or the episode with the broken-down boxer arriving at his hotel room in John Huston’s Fat City (1972), are powerful sensory experiences, in which film-makers have clearly sought and achieved human (i.e. personal, subjective) sense of duration, space, rhythm, the texture of reality as they perceive it. However these are isolated instances in films that, like most other works, leave behind the purely sensory to make way for the rhetorical, the poetic, the point of view of the protagonist or the purely functional. [Manny] Farber’s comments about Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) could apply just as well to a Bresson film: ‘Two exquisite cinematic moments: the safe-cracker, one hand already engaged, removing the cork from the nitro bottle with his teeth; the sharp, clean thrust of a chisel as it slices through the wooden strut.’ The very feel of the world, in which there is no hierarchy of attention and even the most apparently meaningless event has its own integrity and its own special thrill, has been central to Farber since his beginnings as a critic — he is not indulging in idle appreciation here. It’s also central to Bresson, and it informs every moment of his cinema (it’s worth noting here that Bresson began as a painter, and that Farber remains one). […]
Visually, on a shot-by-shot basis, Bresson likes to imprint a singularized action on a given space, like a charcoal line on a blank sheet of paper. The body is either traced in its stillness, or draws itself across the screen in a quick, decisive movement. When one discusses ‘rhythm’ in Bresson, it’s closer to the idea of rhythm in painting, much more than a question of ‘pace’, the actual rhythm of action, as in a film by Scorsese or Coppola, or of shot length, as in Antonioni. In Bresson, and this is a trait that he shares with Hitchcock, the length of a shot has less to do with tempo than it does with sensorial emphasis: it’s never a question of a character simply living a moment of time, as it is in most films, but the way one (i.e. Bresson) would experience the feeling of living such a moment. The shot of Yvon’s hand as it releases the waiter’s arm during the scuffle in the café has a family resemblance to the shot of Martin Balsam ‘falling’ down the stairs in Psycho — both are a-temporal, disjointed from any reasonable space-time continuum, and oriented around a particular sensation.
To me, it’s particularly important that although both the Bresson and Eustache films make striking use of place and nonprofessional actors, their conveying of sensations and impressions is not done in a documentary-like manner. Instead, the filmmakers present certain details (of gesture, movement, color, light, sound, texture) while also guiding our attentions in a controlled and highly selective manner.
Once Upon A Time in America, Dead Man, L’Argent, Ivan the Terrible, Crash—these are some of my favorites in the BFI series of monographs. Are there others in the series you particularly like and would recommend?
-- The new issue of Cinema Scope includes Jonathan Rosenbaum's DVD column on "critical editions".
-- Michael Sicinski's top 17 films of 2007 along with an introductory essay; and his reviews page for March, which covers about 20 films.
-- The new issue of Film Quarterly.
-- Especially for fellow Stones fans: There's a humorous interview with Keith Richards at Entertainment Weekly.
pic: The wine glass begins to quiver, just before toppling, in L'Argent (1983).