Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bresson In Germany

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2005)

One of my favourite recent film-related moments came in watching the DVD of Robert Bresson’s L’Argent; specifically from an interview with Bresson included as an extra. At the very end, the interviewer asks Bresson about a rumour that he’d recently enjoyed a James Bond film, and the aging, massively distinguished director almost leaps to confirm this, saying that he took his two nieces to see For Your Eyes Only because they asked him to. “It filled me with wonder,” he says, “because of its cinematographic writing...if I could have seen it twice in a row and again the next day, I would have done.”

Bresson And Bond

Since L’Argent and For Your Eyes Only stand far apart at the opposing poles of filmmaking, this would seem bizarre, if not for Bresson’s earlier admission that he seldom goes to the cinema and his obvious childlike delight in the modern spectacle. He comments (this was in 1982) that he thinks the cinema has reached its limit in terms of technology but still has much to reveal artistically. The first part of that turned out to be significantly wrong of course – Bresson couldn’t have imagined the impact of digital technology, and I expect For Your Eyes Only looks primitive now by comparison. But for a director brought up in the silent era, who perhaps took himself less seriously than the legend suggests, it’s beguiling to think that even a humdrum action film might be divorced from its formulaic plotting (the sense of which of course is primarily rooted in our having seen too many of them) and superficial characterization and dubious moral underpinnings, and regarded solely as a show of light and movement and possibility.

I was especially receptive to this train of thinking because I watched L’Argent on my laptop in a hotel in Cottbus, Germany. Although I would claim not to be so film-obsessed that I need doses to get me through vacation, the laptop is a nice facility to have on long plane rides (where I replaced the drab airline fare with Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen) and in the occasional hotel interlude. Whenever we go to a new foreign city, we usually go to the cinema there once, just to sample the different nuances of the experience (which, like everything else, seem to become more conformed across countries with time), and in this way we’ve assembled a pleasantly bizarre collection of memories such as Arlington Road in Zurich, Liam in Madrid, Gaudi Afternoon in Oslo and Ripley’s Game in Amsterdam. But this streak ended in Berlin, because we couldn’t find anything worthwhile to see. The cinemas were full of Batman Begins and Star Wars and Monster In Law, and ads for War Of The Worlds. Just the same as home. Virtually no German films, except for something that seemed to be a crowd-pleasing comedy. There were only a few distinctive movies showing in the city, and it didn’t seem those would be playing in English, so that was that.

Cottbus Cinema

When we moved out of Berlin we traveled through a few smaller towns such as Cottbus, and it surprised us that each of these had its own movie theater. These were all showing, of course, Batman Begins and Star Wars and Monster In Law. But when you’re in a sleepy town square, at least superficially seeming to retain an idea of pace and balance that hasn’t completely succumbed to American consumerism, and you come across a poster for The Interpreter outside an old building that looks more like a town hall than a multiplex, you can dream that the locals might be better equipped than we are to take the movie on their own terms rather than Hollywood’s.

Best of all, we were walking down one of Cottbus’ dingier streets and we suddenly came across a faded poster for Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46. This turned out to be outside an art cinema – Kinsey had recently been on the schedule, among many European films. The establishment frankly looked slated for demolition, but I instantly loved the idea of some idealistic artisan, plugging away at bringing the citizens of Cottbus something more stimulating. I hope it works for him.

Still, in a certain strange way, I would rather be fighting the cause of cinema in Cottbus than in Berlin itself. Berlin is a city of such immense themes and resonances that you imagine a life there might be lived almost entirely as a vigil, and we were often taken by the city’s absence of a governing personality, by the sense of people stranded in too much space, trying quietly to go about their business. It’s a feast of development, with astonishing new buildings often surrounded on several sides by derelict or unused space – it’s too much to imagine what metropolis might result if and when these gaps are all filled in. Intertwined with all this, of course, is a history of staggering consequence. We visited the new Holocaust memorial, the Checkpoint Charlie museum and the Jewish museum, each one opening our minds to further complexity or emotional awareness. I’m sure it’s possible (and indeed standard) to live in the city while seldom thinking of the past, but it seemed to us that the prominence of these references would assign one’s life a greater weight, less dispensability.

Film In Berlin

Which of course could be too much to bear, and might render a Batman Begins necessary in the classic mode of escapism that Hollywood always talks about. But flattering myself to be on a more intellectual plane than usual, I found L’Argent to be the perfect film, and not merely for its extras. The film is about the chain of events that follows when a boy passes a counterfeit note, focusing on a workingman who is wrongly accused of passing the note and who gradually loses his life as a result. Everyone now seems to agree the film is a masterpiece, but why? On the DVD cover, Time’s Richard Corliss says: “Walking into a Robert Bresson film can be waking up on top of Mount Everest…the view is spectacularly disconcerting.” But this implies (if anything) some kind of lofty removal that seems at odds with the film’s clear interest (unusual for a 80-year old director) in youth and the fabric of contemporary life, as well as with what we know of his working methods.

Inside the box, Olivier Assayas sees the film as a depiction of “a cold material world, a desolate land where humanity wanders in bondage to diabolical evil.” It seems to me though that the world of the film is not completely desolate – it’s an intensely transactional environment that condemns many to blankness and others to self-destruction, but also allows possibilities for negotiation. Admittedly these possibilities appear grim and perhaps psychotic, but Bresson seems to me to speak in part to the prospects for small miracles and incremental transcendence. Which, if the viewer is suitably equipped (in this instance a matter primarily of discarding our usual attitudes) might even be found in a James Bond film.

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