ERIC KOHN: There's no easy way to have a short conversation about Robert Bresson without shortchanging a career spanning 13 films and widely considered paramount to 20th-century film history. Bresson's Catholicism, his narrative precision, use of non-actors and painterly formalism have been analyzed many times over.
However, the Bresson retrospective that begins at Film Forum today ahead of a national tour, and includes 35mm prints of 11 films, is the first one in 14 years. Jonathan, around the time of the last major Bresson retrospective, you wrote in the Chicago Reader that Bresson's work may have trouble surviving "because most of it doesn't 'translate' to video." You cited his extreme attentiveness to sound and framing techniques as qualities best appreciated in the theater. In the years since you wrote that piece, the marketplace has shifted from video to DVD and Blu-ray, improving the quality of home viewing. Anyone with a Hulu Plus account can watch a high-resolution version of "Pickpocket." What do you consider to be the lasting appeal of watching Bresson films on a big screen in 35mm? And are there any films in this latest retrospective that you would like to single out as under-appreciated or worthy of reevaluation?
JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: First of all, Eric, just for the record, there are 14 Bresson films — that is, films written and directed by Robert Bresson — and not 13. The missing item is, of course, the earliest, "Les affaires publiques" (1934), a comedy short whose only surviving print is regrettably slightly abridged (missing, I’m told, one or two musical numbers). Unfortunately, this has been missing, to the best of my knowledge, from most or all of the Bresson retrospectives.
It seems that overlooking of this film has in recent years become almost systematic; reviewing Tony Pipolo’s mainly superb "Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film" for Cineaste, I noted “a determination not to regard […] Bresson’s uncharacteristic first film as a significant part of his oeuvre--which even leads Pipolo to conclude his first paragraph by saying, 'In forty years he made only thirteen films" (which would have of course been correct if he had said ‘features’ instead of ‘films’), and to assert, repeatedly, that 'Les Anges du péché' is Bresson's ‘first film,’ restricting virtually all his discussion of this comedy short to an almost invisible footnote to the book’s penultimate chapter.” I wrote about this film at some length for Film Comment several years ago, but that piece isn’t available online. As a judicious and thoughtful early account of the film in Sight and Sound, shortly after a print of it was found in 1987, I would highly recommend "Lost and Found: Beby Re-inaugurates" by the late Gilbert Adair, which Michael Brooke recently posted here.
Regarding the importance of viewing Bresson’s work on film rather than other formats, I was thinking chiefly and specifically of the relation in Bresson’s work between sound and image. The sound in a film is generally perceived as being in the background relative to the image, whereas the sound in video formats is more often perceived as being in the foreground. I’m not thinking so much of the setup of the equipment as I am of the way we tend to layer image and sound in our own perceptions. Viewing Bresson films on video disturbed and altered this relationship and when I once tried watching "L’argent" on VHS many years ago, I even felt that the film no longer existed in that format. Since then, watching excellent versions of "A Man Escaped" and "Pickpocket" on DVD led me to revise my opinion of this overall principle somewhat. But I think it’s worth adding that every viewing situation tends to be somewhat different. An excellent setup for watching a film on DVD can be superior to the experience of watching a bad 16mm print, but that doesn’t mean that it will always play out that way; for me, there are too many variables to allow for any monolithic judgments on that score.
As for the Film Forum retrospective, I should note that although "Four Nights of a Dreamer" doesn’t really qualify as one of Bresson’s major works—even though it does contain one of his greatest sequences, the exquisite and mysterious passing of a bateau mouche under a bridge—it’s become one of the most neglected because it’s been so difficult to see thanks to some rights issues. My two favorite Bresson films at this point are probably "A Man Escaped" and "Au Hasard Balthazar," but I hasten to add that most of the others remain for me essential works; the only ones at this point that have mainly failed to engage me are "Les Anges du peché" and "The Trial of Joan of Arc," and this may be at least partially because of cultural lapses on my part. (Tony Pipolo, among others, has plenty of interesting things to say about both films.)
Kent, in a 1999 article for Film Comment, you wrote passionately against the common description of Bresson's films as "transcendental," a generalization you felt came at the express of understanding his evolution as a filmmaker. In your BFI book about "L'Argent," you discuss seeing the film for the first time and focusing on "sensual details" before delving further into other aspects of its appeal. If Bresson's films are rooted in the present moment, then the broad range of subject matter in his work would appear to represent a vast range of human experiences. But are those experiences universal, or does one need to feel particular empathy for a Bresson protagonist—whether it's the alienated young girl in "Mouchette" or the desperate, unemployed Yvon in "L'Argent"—in order to fully understand the mastery at work? And while there's no doubting the value of Bresson's technique, can you single out any instances where anyone other than Bresson has successfully applied it?
KENT JONES: I have nothing against the word “transcendental” per se, but I do have a problem with the employment of it as a tag. Paul Schrader used it judiciously. His book ["Transcendental Style in Film"] was about three filmmakers, but the word stuck to Bresson (but not to Ozu or Dreyer), and became frozen and all-defining. It also became more or less interchangeable with “Jansenist,” “Catholic” and “Christian.” Which then led to a furious and concerted effort to discuss Bresson in a “de-Christianized” context. “Political,” “erotic,” “materialist,” “revolutionary,” anything but Christian. This seems counterproductive to me. Looking at Bresson’s movies through the lens of institutionalized religion is obviously reductive and contrary to the spirit of his films, but denying the crucial importance of Christian redemption and Christian imagery in the work is a losing proposition. It’s common among people writing about cinema to remake their favorite filmmakers according to an ideal image. From my perspective, the problem originates with a fixation on judgments and interpretations that pin filmmakers in place, as opposed to a just description of the action of the work, the gesture, the action.
Of course there is identification in Bresson – it just happens at a different level from where it happens in, say, "Rio Bravo" or "Husbands" (or, for that matter, in "Tintin" or "Transformers 3"). Of course one identifies with "Mouchette" or Yvon, Joan of Arc or Fontaine. It’s important to remember that on the level of narrative incident, Bresson’s films are straight out of 19th-century fiction. On a more local, moment-by-moment level, they’re obviously something else again. One becomes attuned to the auras of people, stripped of any possibility of defense or subterfuge. The risk, I think, is in their interchangeability: One could imagine Luc Simon as Yvon and Christian Patey as Lancelot, or Antoine Monnier, the hero of "The Devil, Probably," in the role of the pickpocket. But that is also a strength, because it reinforces the idea of chance in human affairs: this person exists now under these circumstances. There’s a powerful sense of chance in Bresson.
I would never presume to claim that "Film Socialisme" is an easy film to come to terms with, whether it has detailed English subtitles, “Navajo” English subtitles, or no subtitles at all, and I’ve watched the film in all three of these forms. Each form entails certain losses as well as gains--and the same is true for seeing "Histoire(s) du Cinéma" with sparse, detailed, or no subtitles (and with or without the alternate use of printed texts as supplements or crib sheets). The myth that comprehensive subtitles would make everything crystal clear and available for instant consumption is well worth demolishing. But I regret that many of the most contemptuous dismissals of the film at its premiere—most especially, I’m sorry to say, that of Todd McCarthy, my favorite industry reviewer—were founded on impugning Godard’s humanity, based on some stupid casual remarks he made during the early 1970s, when in fact "Film Socialisme" qualifies as the most tender and humane of all his late features, something that becomes immediately apparent when you consider its treatment of both children and animals.
I also think that some shots and transitions in the first part of the film are among the most beautiful and powerful to be found anywhere in Godard’s work. As a full work, I continue to find much of the film obscure—but the same is true for me of "Hélas pour moi," which I like far less, and "For Ever Mozart," which I actively dislike. Even though I tend to prefer Godard’s late video works to his late features, I would count "Film Socialisme" as one of the few exceptions to this rule, along with "Passion" and "Nouvelle Vague." Every time I re-see (and re-hear) the film, in whatever form, I make many more discoveries.
The limitation to be found in practically all of Godard’s work ever since he moved back to rural Switzerland is that of self-imposed isolation, removing himself from the same film community where he presided as a central figure and guru for most of the 60s. In some ways, this has turned him into a crank and crackpot, some of whose root concepts are not only obscure but also highly debatable—such as some of his notions about both film history and the Holocaust in "Histoire(s) du Cinéma," for instance, and maybe even some of his ideas about international finance in "Film Socialisme" (although this is an area where I feel far less qualified to judge), some of which might be compared to Tolstoy’s questionable and tiresome ideas in the polemical stretches of "War and Peace." But this isn’t the same thing as claiming that Godard wants to be perverse or incomprehensible. On the contrary, every interview I’ve read or heard with him about "Film Socialisme" earnestly and honestly seeks to clarify what he’s saying--as does the best criticism I’ve read about the film, such as Andréa Picard’s.
EK: Kent, in Film Comment, you complained that Godard's films "continue to be misperceived as r osetta stones in need of decoding." But how else can one appreciate "Film Socialisme" without digging into its innumerable historical references and implied polemics? Additionally, some have speculated that "Film Socialisme" is Godard's last film, or at least one of his last. Is there anything about it that you would consider a summation of his career?
KJ: I saw "Film Socialisme for the first time in Cannes, and while I largely agree with Jonathan’s assessment of the press and industry screenings at that festival, I don’t remember that particular screening as being noteworthy. It was more along the lines of “Chalk up another Godard film – time for lunch.” There was nothing like the mass exodus from "Colossal Youth," for instance. Was it the “scandale au festival?” If so, it was an extraordinarily quiet one.
As far as my remark about rosetta stones, I’ll stick to that, but I need to provide a little context.
Deleuze once wrote – at the moment I can’t remember where – that Godard “invented a new way of thinking,” or something to that effect. I think this is correct. What exactly comprises that new way of thinking? From my perspective, it’s a hybrid, in which paradox, association and juxtaposition (visual, verbal and aural) join forces to create a potentially endless relay. Andréa Picard’s Cinema Scope essay, to which Jonathan refers, is indeed very good, but I can not agree that "Film Socialisme" is a “film essay.” Chris Marker and Jean-Pierre Gorin make film essays. Godard makes narratives which are sliced up, reconfigured, abandoned and finally exploded. What is left – intentionally, I think – is a ruin. And as Charles Péguy says in the quotation that opens Picard’s essay, “Ruins are eternal.”
To be clear, I am not using the word “ruin” pejoratively but descriptively. When one thinks of a film by Resnais or Kubrick, for instance, one imagines a solid construction. But from an architectural standpoint, Godard’s films are phantom structures with missing doorways and unfinished walls, moss-covered stairways and half-assembled plumbing. To a great extent, this is deliberate, of course. In his later films, Godard takes strands of narrative and builds over and under them, extends or atomizes certain motifs to the point where they become unrecognizable as elements of one single narrative.
His work in video, where he doesn’t bother with narrative at all (not counting "Grandeur et Decadence"), is another matter – I am referring to his extraordinary TV series "France/Tour/Détour/Deux enfants," to the little seen and still fresh and surprising "Puissance de la parole," to his incredible shorts "Soft and Hard," "Liberté et patrie" and "The Old Place," all done in collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville, and the great "Je vous salue Sarajevo" and "L’Origine di XXIème siècle." It’s not really correct to call these essays, either. They are meditations, excavations, explorations, analyses, elegies, cinematic poems – sometimes a little bit of each. As for "Histoire(s) du cinéma," it stands absolutely alone – it is indeed a ruin, and one of the cinema’s grandest.
At this point, all the work is on video (actually, HD) and the narrative and non-narrative tendencies have all but converged, save for one crucial difference. When Godard works with [Anne Marie] Miéville, their texts are largely written and spoken by the filmmakers. When he makes a (semi) fiction(al) film without Miéville, the texts are largely assembled from multiple sources and sort of recited but sort of acted. This is an important distinction, because the movement from quotation to quotation can be difficult to follow and put together. Part of it has to do with the relationship between the people on screen and the words they’re given to speak, and with the actions they’re given to accompany those words. From my perspective, this accounts for the occasional “obscurity” that Jonathan mentions.
This approach deprives the films of what Jonathan calls Godard’s crank/crackpot tendencies, but more importantly it deprives them of a fair percentage of their mystery, their thorniness, and their awe-inspiring power. They are neither neat nor orderly, “solvable” nor “decodable.” I once characterized my problems with "In Praise of Love" in terms that were too harsh by half, but I included a quotation from Wallace Stevens that seems just as pertinent 11 years later: “…the probing of the philosopher is deliberate. On the other hand, the probing of the poet is fortuitous.” The poet has no obligation to be clear or absolutely precise; he or she has an obligation only to his or her own internal reality, which incorporates a vision of and relationship to the shared reality of public life.
To characterize Godard in purely political and historical terms is, paradoxically, to do him a disservice, because it places him at a little bit too great a remove from “the spirit of the forms,” to evoke Elie Faure. Given the fact that he has fought so hard for the image and against the dominance of the text, this is more than a little ironic. Godard is a poet of the image and a great one, and that is more than enough – he doesn’t have to be everything else.
Of course, he has created the same kind of problem for himself that Ezra Pound created with his Cantos (and by the way, I am not implying that Godard is anti-Semitic by introducing a comparison to Pound) – both poets have found themselves looking at western civilization from a great distance, finding errors and suggesting correctives. The fortuitous and the exploratory continuously segue into the deliberate – but unlike Pound, Godard always quickly segues back.
The characterization of Godard as a misanthropic charlatan is utterly contemptible and deserves to be tossed on the garbage heap along with that idiotic Times “think piece” about “aspirational viewing.” But I do not share the belief that any of his films is 100% coherent and unified. Rather, I agree with Alain Bergala that from "Passion" on, the work has come to us in an endless stream, resisting finality, drifting toward and away from cohesion – I once saw this as a limitation, but I no longer do. The recitation of texts is at times powerful and cogent and at other times purely musical and contrapuntal. The actions of the people onscreen are sometimes overwhelmingly eloquent (as was the case with the old couple in "In Praise of Love" or the husband and wife in the middle section of "Film Socialisme") and sometimes obscure and perfunctory at the same time, playing out a monotonously aggressive form of slapstick (the two women from the TV station in the same section).
The movement from one image to the next, and the coordination between that movement and the interpolation of sounds, on the other hand, is never less than bracing, often astonishing. The political and historical cogency of Godard’s cinema has always existed within (and sometimes been overwhelmed by) a greater existential urgency, because the films are always asking: How do I (Godard) live? What is this thing called “I?” Who are these others like me but not me, and how is a “we” formed?
For those reasons, I do not see a neat address to the world in any of his movies, but a flow of gestures and shifts and “moves” (to use a term he once favored) in which insights and flowerings of thought come suddenly, violently. The movement of Spanish gold linked to the flowing of sparkling water in "Film Socialisme" does not, from my perspective, develop into a precise historical thesis as much as it provides a rhetorical setting in which the images and sounds on board ship ebb and flow into some of the most piercing moments inrecent cinema, where the political, the historical and the existential merge.
This occurs throughout "Film Socialisme," on certain cuts to the assaultive images and sounds of consumers literally and figuratively adrift, to the soliloquies of the bewildered father and the formidable yet delicate mother (the “Martin Family,” touching whether or not you know that their name is meant to evoke a resistance network) and to the movement from one image and sound to the next in the Palestinian section, where a quote from Scholem in a 1926 letter from Jerusalem (“the country is a volcano… the day will come when language will turn itself against those who speak it”) under a breathless montage of ignited violence and conflagration leads to Jakobson’s citation of the phoneme as the only possible means of separating sound from sense under an image of St. Jerome (who translated the bible into Latin), segueing visually into an image of scrolled texts suggesting an amplification device and aurally into a plea for two voices to speak together (“…only successful when dissonance is introduced by a common note”), followed by a dip to black, a still image of a soldier reading, a statue at a wall, converging girls’ voices in Arabic and Hebrew fading into the track under trapeze artists catching each other in mid-air by the sea in Varda’s "Les Plages d’Agnès," followed by Joan Baez’s recording of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” in German.
And none of us has adequately described the texture of the images or their duration, the glowing color, the sonorous quality of the voices, the slow and seemingly ineluctable movement of forms from Jerome to the scrolls. It’s a lovely passage, but perhaps not quite as shocking as those cuts to the dancing or praying or dining passengers. Or the red flowers that appear so suddenly amidst the green landscape in "Notre musique," evoking the disappearing but still vibrant hopes of socialism with a physical impact. Or the amazing moment when the maid props up Lemmy Caution’s feet with a copy of Marx and responds to his question about working too hard with a business-like “Arbeit macht frei” in the too-little-known "Germany Year 90 Nine-Zero" – the historical amnesia of the new world order in one quietly shattering exchange.
Not all of Godard is that eloquent, but how could it be? To arrive at such moments is already enough.