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Choice in Bresson

2013/12/12 2 comments

Last Treefingers transplant.

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Running through Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped is the theme of choice: Who has a choice? When? What does making a choice entail? What happens when someone makes a choice (including to the people around them)? I want to explore this theme in relation to Bresson’s own ascetic style of filmmaking, looking particularly at A Man Escaped (1956) and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962). Both films are true stories, the former of an escape from a notorious German prison during World War II, the latter naturally of Joan of Arc. The way Bresson works with the stories he is given, I want to suggest, exemplifies views about the nature of choice running thematically through A Man Escaped. (They run through The Trial of Joan of Arc, too, but less explicitly, so I shall focus on the former film.) There will be spoilers, insofar as the concept makes any sense in talking about Bresson (I don’t think it does).

Fontaine, having been captured by the Germans, begins immediately to plan his escape. This is almost his sole focus: what materials does he need, when can he work without getting caught, who will help him. (I say “almost” because he also shows care for his fellow prisoners—the escape plan is not solely for him.) He has a choice between escaping and not escaping, and chooses escape. From then on, his actions are substantially not free: his situation so limits him that there are very few actions possible that will not betray his initial choice to escape. This is made explicit when another prisoner who plans to escape with him gets impatient and tries a plan of his own. He invites Fontaine to join, but Fontaine judges the plan a failure. The prisoner tries to escape on his own and is captured and later shot. Had Fontaine chosen to attempt this plan and abandon his earlier efforts, he would have betrayed his initial choice. In a very real sense, then, he had no choice here, at least not if he was to reaffirm his initial choice.

At a second point, he again seems to be faced with a choice. He is sentenced to be shot, but before the sentence is carried out he is given a cellmate, Jost. He must choose: bring Jost in on the plan, or kill him. But even this choice—if it is not constrained in just the same way as the last one (I am still debating with myself whether or not it is so constrained)—is a choice subsumed under the initial choice: to escape. Escape is the standard that his initial choice creates, and every other choice is bound to it. Fontaine is, in this way, simply making the same choice again and again.

What is fascinating is the way this choice relates to Jost, for with Jost the question of choice is explicitly raised, at two points. Once, when Jost is explaining how he ended up in the same cell as Fontaine, he says of the actions that landed him in prison that he had no choice. Here he explicitly throws off the yoke of choice. This comes back to him later, when Fontaine brings Jost to the point of having to choose: join Fontaine, or serve the guards. Here Fontaine threatens him, psychologically coercing him to join. Jost tries to insist to himself that he has a choice, but he has already thrown off that yoke, and Fontaine makes sure he knows it. (Fontaine is not being malicious; he is simply doing what he must.) Fontaine has chosen, and Jost has rejected the burden of choosing, and so Jost is simply subsumed under Fontaine’s choice and Fontaine’s standard.

This model of choice as something very exacting, something that requires ascetic discipline—i.e. something more than what is captured by our everyday notion of choosing between flavors of ice cream—is exemplified by Bresson’s filmmaking. At the start of A Man Escaped, Bresson explicitly states that he is telling the story as it happened, “sans ornement.” At the beginning of The Trial of Joan of Arc, Bresson doesn’t make this same strong claim, but he does stress that he is relying on actual court documents and eyewitness accounts, and the suggestion is that he is not going beyond them.

In this way Bresson creates conditions in which, in his filmic choices, he as necessitated as Fontaine. A Man Escaped is as focused, austere, and patient as Fontaine’s escape; it includes nothing that is unessential to it. It does not artificially ramp up the suspense at crucial moments (yet is no less suspenseful for its modesty here), does not show gratuitous emotion, does not invent unnecessary pitfalls for Fontaine, etc. Likewise, in The Trial of Joan of Arc, Bresson horrifies the viewer without showing anything gratuitously horrifying. When Joan is burned, we hardly see it, and hear no screams, only a single “Jesus” as the flames reach her. This is enough, however: she takes his name in vain, and after all we have seen that is a more terrifying indication of her suffering than any screaming would be, however more physically uncomfortable the latter might be.

There is an obvious response: Bresson still chose the lighting, the framing, the specific scenes to show, the location of the camera and its movement, etc., etc. True, in a sense, but in the same sense that Fontaine chose not to kill Jost. The requirement, sans ornement, that Bresson imposes upon himself forces on him a rigorous constraint in every such “choice” he makes: it must not add any ornament. It must not manipulate the viewer in an illegitimate way. It must not serve effect rather than truth. In each such decision, then, there is the risk that he will betray the choice that sets the standard for all other decisions.

Just as Fontaine chooses to escape, and so must in every new situation choose escape again, must choose in ways forced conjointly by his situation and his choice to escape, and yet in this discovers something that is uniquely Fontaine, the Fontaine who does not kill Jost, who remains patient rather than join his fellow’s hasty escape plan, so Bresson makes the choice to tell a particular story sans ornement and is snapped into a rigidly determined ascetic discipline—film it in this way and not that, else you will betray your choice—and yet through this discipline creates films that are ineluctably Bresson. In this Bressonian model of choice, freedom, necessity, the singular and the general are united.

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Death by Fire and Death by Ice

Another Treefingers transplant.

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charming poem by Robert Frost ponders whether the world will end in fire or in ice.  For a first death, Frost sides with fire, but for a second death, he concedes that “for destruc­tion ice / is also great / and would suffice.” Fire and ice in Frost’s poem are linked respectively with desire and hate, but this is hardly the only way of conceiving the issue. Heat and coldness are not so much opposite qualities as opposite ends of a quantitative continuum: temperature is in fact a measure of the extent to which certain particles are moving. The more movement, the higher the temperature. In this sense, a death by fire is a death by extreme movement, by too much movement, whereas death by ice is death by the cessation of movement altogether. Here I want to suggest that Béla Tarr’s work addresses Frost’s question in more or less these terms, and comes down definitively on the side of death by ice. I will look at this specifically in his films Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000) and A torinói ló (The Turin Horse, 2011). [There are spoilers, and I presume familiarity with the films.]

The defining characteristic of Tarr’s films is that they are slow, but even next to the rest of his films, The Turin Horse is particularly unhurried. Complaints about the film fixate on this: not only is it slow, but nothing happens in all its interminable lethargy. It is a silly criticism, but it gets the facts more or less right. In one striking scene, however, something does threaten to happen. A man walks into the house (of the father and daughter that the film follows) and requests a bottle of brandy. As the daughter refills his bottle, he pontificates on how a mysterious “they” has brought everything to ruin. God takes place in a “ghastly creation” of a debased world, debased because they have touched everything, and everything they have touched, they debase. Meanwhile, the excellent and noble accept this change, refuse to fight, until finally they are brought to the realization they don’t exist.

Here are dealings, movement, change. Underhanded, slow, methodical, to be sure, and not the burning of fire (indeed the image of fire is used, but to describe the excellent, who are distinguished), but it is movement and change nonetheless. But with the father’s “come off it, that’s rubbish”, the prophet of doom leaves, and we are left with only the father and daughter inside the house, and the world outside it. What we find in the remainder of the film (and in what came before) is that this man’s conspiracy theory is far too elaborate and far too interesting to be the truth. In reality there is no “they”, but only the world itself, with its horrible wind. It is this wind that is the agent of death in the film, and it works not by change but by enforcing stasis. In the second scene of the film, we see the father and daughter hitch a cart to the horse and try to ride into town, only to immediately be forced by the wind to unhitch the cart and try again later. The wind forces them to stay inside, and prevents their moving anywhere else. (It is interesting in light of this function that wind, the more it moves, serves only more effectively to cool, and not to heat.)

In the first scene, by contrast, we see the father riding in the cart as the horse draws it along—here is movement. But even in this scene we see the sorry state of the horse, which clearly cannot go on much further. The ensuing film serves to snuff out what movement still remained in this opening scene, starting with the second scene in which the attempt to venture further than a few meters from the house is stymied. Having forced them into the house, Tarr sets about eliminating all other movement. By the final scene, all movement ceases: we see the father and daughter sitting at the table, each with a raw potato in front of them for dinner. The daughter is already motionless, while the father moves slightly, peeling the potato and feebly urging the daughter to eat (“we have to eat!”). But he, too, gives up, and the film ends with what might as well be a painting, the two figures motionless as the screen gradually fades to black. It is death by ice.

In Werckmeister Harmonies, the alternative to such a death is even more fully fleshed out—and thereby even more fully rejected. In the opening scene, we see a bar that is full of movement as Valuska uses drunk men as a representation of the Copernican system. Gradually, the whole bar gets involved, until the bartender kicks out the “tubs of lard.” Here is the first sign that movement will be stopped, but it is, as Valuska says, not yet over.

From that moment on, this sign seems to be disregarded, and Tarr seems to favor death by fire. A travelling exhibit comes to town, featuring a dead whale and a character known only as the Prince, who incites people to riot by a strange, incomprehensible power. The Prince starts just such a riot in the town, sparking brutality as hundreds of townsmen pillage a hospital, beating patients and destroying property. The destructive power of fire is, of course, invoked alongside this brute violence. The film seems to be favoring death by fire—certainly it is giving it a fair shake. But an equally incomprehensible power puts a stop to this violence (this I will not give away), and it is not heard from again.

Which is not to say that its aftermath does not exist; naturally the film explores that aftermath. It is there that we see Tarr’s conviction that the world will end in the cessation of movement, and not in the destruction caused by too much movement, assert itself. Throughout the film, there are numerous shots or portions of shots in which an inanimate object is placed in the center of the shot. It is not called attention to, necessarily, but it is there and after a while you pick up on the trend. In the aftermath of the riot, we see Valuska mindlessly persecuted, forced to flee, until, finally, he ends up in what I take to be a psychiatric ward. Here we see him sitting motionless on a bed (though he is still emitting sounds, as if humming a melody of some sort), framed in the center of the shot. After being primed by the shots that came before, we have no choice but to see him as reduced to being all but an inanimate object. It is, again, death by ice.

This is not just a case of ice triumphing over fire. It is more sinister than that, for the riot, that apparent agent of death by fire, is in fact converted into an agent of death by ice. Just as the movement of the wind in The Turin Horse led to the cessation of motion of the father and daughter, so the riot in Werckmeister Harmonies is ultimately a contribution to the death by ice of Valuska. Tarr thus does not simply come down on the side of ice; he makes room for fire. But he makes room for fire only as the agent of ice, and that, if anything, is more horrifying.

Blurriness in Sokurov’s Mother and Son

2013/12/12 1 comment

Another Treefingers transplant.

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What most immediately struck me when I watched Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997) yesterday is the extensive use the film makes of blurriness. On one level this is very obvious: Soku­rov plays with the focus until colors start running together, and nothing looks quite clear. Here I want to explore the ways this blurriness goes well beyond this obvi­ous aspect and to reflect on what it might mean for the film.

In broadest outline, the film is about a son caring for his dying mother in her final hours. We see nothing of what preceded these final hours, and, other than the son reading from a few postcards, we are given little indication of what it contained. Even those postcards shed little insight: there was a man, but the son’s question of his identity goes unanswered. Thus, much of the information we would normally use to locate and interpret what is going on in the film is simply unavailable to us. Here is a sort of blurriness: we can imagine any number of pasts for the two characters, but cannot choose among them.

But this blurriness lies among what is outside the film. It is more readily available to abstract reflection than to more direct feeling (though perhaps this will change on a second viewing). There is plenty in the film itself, beyond the visual images, that lacks definite boundaries. For instance, the use of sound turns on a fundamental fuzziness. In a striking scene near the end, the son is in the woods, leaning against a tree and sobbing. The diegetic sounds we hear are his cries and the wind. At the same time, we hear ethereal music that is clearly non-diegetic. Yet the sounds are layered in such a way that they start to merge together. While we can analyze it into parts that are diegetic and non-diegetic, in experience the distinction is lost, and we hear only one unified (even if internally diverse) sound. The rhythms of the parts seem to change in response to one another, to be in direct communication.

While I called the wind diegetic, the sounds of weather in the film actually occupy a strange middle position all of their own. Throughout the film, we hear intermittent thunder, yet we never see the rain that ought to accompany it. Is it really thundering? Or is that something added for the benefit of the viewer, and not available to the characters themselves? It is really impossible to say: the sounds are located in that in-between area that I detailed above.

One final example of sound that contains fundamental ambiguity comes from a shot in which we see the son walking toward the camera. As he walks, we hear his footsteps, which are quite loud. The nearer he gets to the camera, however, the more they diminish in sound. We see that physically he is walking in one direction, but the sound suggests he is moving in the opposite direction. Is he? Or is it that the camera that sees and the microphone that hears are two distinct observers? I don’t know. Either way, the shot introduces yet more ambiguity: what is seen and heard is not fully definite, not fully consistent, not able to be precisely localized.

Lastly, I want to note a fuzziness that becomes apparent at the level of action. The son is caring for the weak, helpless mother—here already is a reversal of the normal mother-son relationship. This reversal does not just exist in broad outline, however, but in specific moments. The mother is generally swaddled in blankets, much like a baby might be, and in one scene the son offers her a drink from a bottle with a nipple. As a third example, in one scene the son is comforting the mother and calls her “my little one”, just as if he were a mother looking on her child. In all of this, we can see an analog of the ambivalent footsteps: walking onward to death and walking backward to infancy are not clearly distinguishable. Mother and son, birth and death: these divisions too are far from sharp.

What does all of this add up to? I think there are three main effects. First, it gives the film a very ethereal quality. While the film and its characters are both very rooted to the earth and its physicality, this earth nevertheless is fuzzy. We feel that what we see and hear is not everything that is there. Where is it? Of that I am not yet sure, and don’t know if I ever will be.

Second, it heightens the intimacy of the film. The relationship between the son and the mother is that much closer because at times we cannot tell them apart. The whole world—physical, visible, audible—participates in this intimacy (an example of artistic metaphysics of the sort I have discussed on my blog). It is inescapable; it pervades everything.

Third, it captures the in-betweenness that is so crucial to the film. The mother is between life and death, while the son is between two emotional states and two periods of life. Neither is quite in one or the other: their state is not definite. So of course the boundaries are unclear, open to resolution in many different ways. How could it be otherwise? (On this point I owe deep gratitude to fellow contributor dreaml0ss for helpful discussion/giving me the very idea.)

There is much more to say, particularly about those points in the film where things are definite, but this post is long enough, and that task would require a second viewing in any case.

When Plot Vanishes

The Project Treefingers blog seems to have died out, so I’m transporting my (substantial) posts from there over here.

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In moods where I’m prone to hyperbole, I like to make the claim that plot is the least important element of a film (or any work of narrative art). When I say this, I am considering the plot as an abstraction: what you would offer if you had to give a summary of what happened in the film. In this sense, two films could have identical plots but be vastly different, because the way the plot is filmed is immensely important. Of course, plot in this sense doesn’t strictly exist: it is an abstraction. What actually happens is constituted by all of the tiny details that are in part dependent on these other non-plot elements—in that sense, no two films can really instantiate the same plot, for then they would be identical films.

The point is that you can infer very little about what a film is doing from its plot—in the abstract sense—alone. This raises the question: what happens when, in watching a film, you cannot follow the plot at all? I had such an experience while watching Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai. I’m poor at recognizing faces to begin with, and having to watch with subtitles (which drew much of my attention) only exacerbated this. As such, I spent most of the film not knowing who was who or, as a result, what exactly was going on. By the end I could tell somewhat, but I was still largely in the dark, and certainly I was in the dark about what sorts of people the various characters were.

What happens when viewing a film under these conditions? One effect is that inanimate objects start becoming characters themselves. In this film, that was particularly true of the lamps and the opium pipes. With regard to the former, the lamps, which are present in virtually every scene, became the main actors. I noticed how many there were, whether they were on or off, what forces they emitted, how people stood or sat in relation to them, etc. In my favorite shot in the film, we see two characters, a man and a woman, reunited after having fought. For most of the shot, they are separated by an invisible barrier that stretches between two lit lamps, one in the foreground and one in the background. During this time, they do not talk. Only when the camera moves, changing its perspective such that the man—who has not moved himself—has crossed the barrier do they began to talk. In a shot like this, it feels as if the lamps themselves are the main arbiters of the action, controlling who does what, who can do what. The most dramatic moment in the film, for me, was the moment in which a lamp dropped to the floor and shattered. (I had this sense less strongly with respect to the pipes, but nevertheless they had a similar effect in their omnipresence.)

Equally, I noticed the minute shifts in the mood from scene to scene. I had a hard time telling whether the cinematography was any good since every object shown was so beautiful (my hyperbole is not so great here), and the arrangements and selection of these objects shot-by-shot gave Hou very fine control over the mood. Likewise, the atmosphere of the film was dominated by the use of a single piece of music, generally played quietly in the background at different volumes. It was non-diegetic music, but it infused everything until it was as much a feature of the objects as their color.

It’s hard for me to say just what these forces emitted by the objects and these minute shifts in tone were doing, precisely because I mostly failed to follow the plot. In effect, what I noticed was the environment of the film, and not the people moving within it. As such, I only half-watched the film, but even then, being able to inhabit that environment for two hours was a great privilege.

A reaction to Sokurov

I write this immediately after finishing viewing Sokurov’s The Second Circle. It was a strained encounter, mostly on account of my own faults, but I nonetheless want to comment on one thread of my reaction.

A man’s father dies. Now there is much for him to do: all the documents must be taken care of. A headstrong woman comes to bully him about this, and offers advice on how he ought to handle things. “I’m a professional, trust me.” The most chilling words in the film. I can feel his grief being constricted, choked, stifled. It cannot adopt any expression of its own, as it is being shoehorned through hoops. All of this is shown up later when he asks her a very naïve question: “what is it for?” The question is directed to her order to put slippers on the dead man’s body. Her response: “it’s the law.” Such is the response of a professional. She comments that he clearly has little funeral experience. Otherwise he would know How It Is Done. What is unfortunate is that this brilliant, naïve question yields no fruit; he remains squashed by her experience and the confidence and bullheadedness it brings. Only when she leaves, and all others, is there any release: it comes when he burns his father’s belongings. But there is something inadequate about it, which I cannot articulate. An emotion given release after it has been choked to death lies limp. I wish he had simply dug a hole in the ground and thrown his father in, the documents be damned. (Contrast with Mother and Son.)

What is amazing is how Sokurov achieves this with a minimum of facial expression—in the most constricted moments the son’s face is even hidden, and elsewhere there are only the slightest and briefest of tremors.