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Hands Down – The Most Important Film Book of 2016

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Along with Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, this is one of the essential film books of 2016.

Robert Bresson is one of the most mysterious, and yet the most accessible of filmmakers – much like his compatriots Yasujirō Ozu and Carl Th. Dreyer (forming writer / director Paul Schrader’s holy trinity of cinema). His classic, epigrammatic text Notes on the Cinematograph, first published in English in 1975 in an edition entitled Notes on Cinematography translated by Jonathan Griffin, has been out of print since its initial publication. I came across the first hardcover edition in a remainder pile at Brentano’s in New York in the early 1980s, going for $2 a copy. I bought five copies on the spot, and it remains on my shelf as one of the key books by any filmmaker on their work, stripped down to the essentials.

Now, New York Review Books has republished Notes on the Cinematograph in a new translation, back in print in a real edition – a very cheaply bound one circulated for a time a few years back – but just as importantly, they’ve gathered together interviews with the director on all of his films from 1943 to 1983, the year of his last film, L’Argent, along with a few supplementary texts written by those who worked with him, and with a selection of exceedingly rare production stills, in an essential text entitled simply Bresson on Bresson – Interviews, 1943–1983.

The result is mesmerizing; Bresson is absolutely modest, serious, and above all patient – my first takeaway from the volume was how extremely tolerant he was of the various interviewers who interrogated him over the years, asking the same questions again and again – how he used actors (or “models,” he called them), how he used as little music as possible, how his camera lingered on an empty space long after the actors had departed. Yet Bresson managed to turn even the most banal questions to his advantage, never passing up an opportunity to offer some fresh thoughts on his work.

Bresson on Bresson – Interviews, 1943–1983, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis, edited by Mylène Bresson, with a preface by Pascal Mérigeau, offers an series of penetrating insights into the director’s work, and serves as a useful model for filmmakers today, in an era where spectacle and special effects have replaced, for the most part, thoughtful cinema.

As the NYRB notes,”Robert Bresson, the director of such cinematic master-pieces as Pickpocket, A Man Escaped, Mouchette, and L’Argent, was one of the most influential directors in the history of French film, as well as one of the most stubbornly individual: He insisted on the use of nonprofessional actors; he shunned the ‘advances’ of Cinerama and CinemaScope (and the work of most of his predecessors and peers); and he minced no words about the damaging influence of capitalism and the studio system on the still-developing—in his view—art of film.

Bresson on Bresson collects the most significant interviews that Bresson gave (carefully editing them before they were released) over the course of his forty-year career to reveal both the internal consistency and the consistently exploratory character of his body of work. Successive chapters are dedicated to each of his fourteen films, as well as to the question of literary adaptation, the nature of the sound track, and to Bresson’s one book, the great aphoristic treatise Notes on the Cinematograph.

Throughout, his close and careful consideration of his own films and of the art of film is punctuated by such telling mantras  as ‘Sound…invented silence in cinema,’ ‘It’s the film that…gives life to the characters—not the characters that give life to the film,’ and (echoing the Bible) ‘Every idle word shall be counted.’

Bresson’s integrity and originality earned him the admiration of younger directors from Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette to Olivier Assayas. And though Bresson’s movies are marked everywhere by an air of intense deliberation, these interviews show that they were no less inspired by a near-religious belief in the value of intuition, not only that of the creator but that of the audience, which he claims to deeply respect: ‘It’s always ready to feel before it understands. And that’s how it should be.’”

Anyone even remotely interested in film should buy this volume immediately, along with the republished text of Notes on the Cinematograph, as a useful tonic to the current ultra-commercial cinematic landscape. As Alan Pavelin wrote in Senses of Cinema long ago, “Robert Bresson’s 13 features over 40 years constitute arguably the most original and brilliant body of work over a long career from a film director in the history of cinema. He is the most idiosyncratic and uncompromising of all major filmmakers.” Or as Martin Scorsese put it, “we are still coming to terms with Robert Bresson, and the peculiar power and beauty of his films.”

This is the essential film book of the year. Pick up a copy now – right now.

Robert Bresson on Pickpocket (1959)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

This 1959 French television interview with Robert Bresson on his then-just-released masterpiece  Pickpocket is interesting for a number of reasons.

Compare this to his interview on L’Argent, made in 1983, roughly a quarter of a century later. Here, Bresson is relaxed, basking in the glow of admiration his film has justifiably received, but also in the fact that the new critics of the period at the influential journal Cahiers du Cinéma have singled out Bresson as one of the few “old school” directors worthy of continued critical attention, along with Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Pierre Melville and a few others.

Bresson here is at the top of his game, and he knows it; the questions are cold, hard, almost prosecutorial, but Bresson is more than up to the task of responding. He is beyond attacks now, consecrated by the New Wave as one of the few filmmakers that matter. The interviewers take his work seriously, and their roles as critics seriously, in sharp contrast to the “happy talk” interviews that predominate today, when someone comes on television to “plug” their latest film.

Bresson here has nothing to prove, and he knows that no one will contradict him; his reputation and his work speak for themselves, but more — the surrounding culture also respects his work, and he is entirely in tune with the cinema of his era. By 1983, cinema has changed so much that it’s mostly escapist genre fare, something that Bresson deplores; in 1984, François Truffaut, the leader of the Cahiers critics, and later a brilliant filmmaker in his own right, will die, and the world of cinema he championed will begin to expire with him.

But for now, all is in order, and the right priorities are being addressed; listen to what Bresson has to say about film, his work, and his guiding precepts.

Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959)

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, for some scenes from Pickpocket.

“From distant climes, o’er wide-spread seas, we come,
Though not with much éclat or beat of drum,
True patriots all: for, be it understood:
We left our country for our country’s good.”

—George Barrington, A History of New South Wales

This perfect film from Robert Bresson, one of the cinema’s greatest directors, is only 76 minutes long, and seems almost devoid of action, and yet it’s one of the most thrilling, and cerebral, of all “crime” films. Michel (non – professional Martin LaSalle) is a young man who lives in a garret, and supports himself through a life of petty crime on the smallest possible scale. At the same time, he feels himself to be a “superior” being, smarter and more valuable to society than any average person.

Michel idolizes the pickpocket George Barrington, a real life criminal who was known as “the prince of thieves,” and despite the efforts of his friends Jeanne (Marika Green) and Jacques (Pierre Leymarie), Michel persists in his marginal, self-destructive lifestyle, even going so far as to match wits with the Parisian police (in the person of an unnamed Chief Inspector, portrayed by Jean Pélégri).

But things really get serious when Michel falls in with a professional thief (brilliantly portrayed by stage magician and illusionist Kassagi, who also served as a technical consultant on the film), and embarks upon a life of crime in earnest. It’s only a matter of time, of course, before he gets caught – - -

To say anymore about this superb film would be to deprive the reader of the pleasure of experiencing it for her/himself; Bresson was one of the cinema’s foremost and most individual artists, who made only a few films. Each one is a deeply personal statement, designed both as philosophical inquiries into the human condition, and as absolutely unique examples of pure, sculptural, pared-down cinema.

Despite the rigorous visual style Bresson employs throughout all of his work, Pickpocket is still — somewhat paradoxically — deeply accessible to contemporary audiences — my students, for example, regularly single it out as one of their favorite films in my Introduction to Film History course.

It’s available on Criterion DVD in an immaculate transfer, and at 76 minutes, there’s really no reason why you can’t buy or rent a copy, pop it into the DVD player right now, and experience it for yourself. I’m sure there are streaming copies as well.

Here’s an excellent essay on the film by critic Gary Indiana.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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