Monday, October 10, 2005

The Battle of Bresson

With Armond White's gauntlet throwdown to Bresson revisionism, the 'Battle of Bresson' (or more accurately, the battle over him) comes to a new level. We've got at least one expression of support over at Long Pauses, but frankly I'm going to side with David Ehrenstein (not to mention my former instructor Brian Price, who wrote his dissertation on the color films) on this one. Are Bresson's films "nihilistic," as the conservators accuse the revisionists of insisting? Well, no, but we can't simply base our perceptions of Bresson and specifically his late work on the sole and overriding theme of Bresson's austere Catholic/Jansenist faith. Bresson was a complex individual with a lot going on, and yes, one aspect of that is very much spiritual and religious in address. But anyone who wants to shoehorn something like The Devil, Probably into a straightforward vision of the absent God's great presence is going to do have to do a lot of rhetorical gymnastics.

In this case, the revisionists are--contra the conservators--the ones arguing for both a bigger and more accurate picture of this unspeakably great artist, and Armond White is dead wrong to whine as he does about Bresson's reputation being under attack from degenerates and perverts.

And also, if anyone wants to tell me Ozu was, at heart, a unknowably zen and Japanese individual whose "slow" and "un-Western" films "break rules of film grammar," they can prepare to meet me on the field of honor (by the oak trees and the pond) Thursday morning come dawn.


More coming sooner or later this week. But because I can't wait to express it: One of many very pleasant aspects of my trip to Martha's Vineyard was seeing most of the corpus of BBC's The Office, which might be the best television show in recent years. Not that I'm anywhere near qualified to make such a statement. But what fun--merciless, awkward, insightful, low-key fun.


Brian Darr said...

I'm not stalwart enough to pick a side in the Bresson controversy (also, I haven't seen any of the color films yet) though you make a good case.

But when you bring up Ozu, I'm curious to know why you put the characterization that his films "break the rules of film grammar" in with the other more-clearly (to me) outmoded Ozu myths. I've got something else going on at Thursday morning at dawn, but I still tend to buy this particular line about Ozu (though I suppose it depends on what it means for film grammar to have rules) and would love if you could point me to a book or article that could help disabuse me of the notion.

ZC said...

Brian, it's not so much that I think Ozu's films don't, in some sense, break the "rules" of film grammar--like the one everyone mentions, the 180 degree rule. It's just that the expression (like Ozu's Japaneseness, or Bresson's Christianity) has become an enormous monster in the hands of many--swiping with gusto at any readings which parse out other aspects, sometimes more relevant ones, of these works. To put it as concisely as I can, I would say that emphasizing Ozu's otherness from certain conventions (whether Japanese or Western) manifests an artificial distance from Ozu's own personal conventions. It's almost like constantly speaking of a microtonal composer in terms of classical tonal music. Even if you praise the work and the artist involved, you're still operating against it in some way, perhaps?

As for writing, off the top of my head I don't know a whole lot that address this issue clearly and head-on (Yoshida's Ozu's Anti-Cinema perhaps, though I haven't read it or even seen a copy in bookstores). There is plenty of good writing and thinking about Ozu; there's also plenty of overgeneralization and mischaracterization. The problem is when the latter starts to impede continuation of the former.

Brian Darr said...

Zach, thanks for the sensible explanation. I see that the rule-breaking label indeed fits with the "Japaneseness" label quite well in fact. Of course his films are Japanese but to insist that this is somehow their central, essential quality sounds silly. So too with the rules of film grammer. He may not adhere to the same conventions of eyeline and the 180' line that others do (though I'm starting to notice that these rules get broken by other filmmakers more often than might be assumed), but that's not the central, essential quality of his films either.

I actually did read Yoshida a few months ago (perhaps too quickly to truly understand much of it) and if I recall correctly, he doesn't delve too much into the mechanics of Ozu's filmmaking techniques. I believe he focuses more on character relationships, point-of-view, and the effects his films have on audiences. The book doesn't address the problem of the perpetuation of Ozu lore, but it does provide an alternate way of interpreting his films outside the commonly repeated ones. So even if Yoshida doesn't address the issue head-on (at least not clearly), he should fit into your scheme as a force against the misinterpreters and overgeneralizers.

Jaime said...

Holy smokes! Those guys are welcome to blow themselves up in their own rhetorical minefields; I don't deny gay or religious or nihilist readings of Bresson, but feel they can be a bit limiting. I guess there are plenty of ways to misread Bresson, like any filmmaker, but more than most, there's so much going on in Bresson's cinema that it's a *huge* mistake just to find one or two threads, see that they run through enough of his work to establish a strong enough thesis statement, and then to call it a day. (Nothing left to do but dig the moat.)

The lesson from Schrader is this: there are all these "masters of masters" influencing academia, and building/reinforcing received opinion, Schrader is one of them with his Ozu/Bresson/Dreyer tome, and you can say he's right, or he's wrong, but most importantly you have to question these (often self-appointed) "masters" when the need arises. Sontag is a better example: "Spiritual Style..." is a great essay except when it tries to build fortifications for some Bressons and against others. (I've heard that she wasn't mad about his color films, either, which would have been unfortunate if true.)

Jaime said...

Also, Zach, I think I remember that you saw WHERE CHIMNEYS ARE SEEN a year or so ago, and reported back that it didn't do it for you. Well, it sure did it for me, I loved it.

More than that, though, I'm sorry you missed the Hong Sangsoo! Did you at least sell the ticket?

ZC said...

Jaime, I think the point being advanced by David Ehrenstein, myself, and others is not in favor of a "gay" or "nihilist" reading (or whatever) but in favor of a reading that recognizes these very, very present elements in the work itself, which presents evidence decisively in "our" favor. The only ones who advocate a specific type of reading are those (personally religious people or not) somehow deeply invested in reading Bresson--all of Bresson--through a sheer spiritual lens. Why is it that some people, like Armond White, are so loathe to mention how beautiful Bresson's models are (or how much the camera sometimes lingers over them)? Why is it that the completely obvious homoeroticism of, say, A Man Escaped is so threatening? (Whether or not Bresson himself was gay, I don't know and have little interest in.) The movements in Bresson's late work suggest that he was evolving into something new as an author, and yet critics continue to insist that these late works must be analyzed and judged based predominantly on the religious content of certain early works. Those who push for actually thinking about Bresson are, pace White, practically labelled as grimy hijackers of an angelic legacy. I call 'bullshit.'

And I wasn't crazy about Chimneys when I saw it a while back, but I didn't dislike it, either. It seemed sort of 'there,' an interesting film with modest, interesting ambitions. I don't have much else to say about it. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing it again one day.

Jaime said...

Zach, I think I still agree with you - that is, that a preponderance of "evidence" in a film will justify a reading along evidential lines. (Hey, that sounds good, even a little Zachian.) The gay and nihilist subtextual readings of L'ARGENT and UN CONDAMNE A MORT... serve to indicate the richness of those films, in all their mystery. That those readings cannot explain the films a hundred percent is okay: in Bresson's case, that's what you get, his works are such weird objects, and there are many ways through them. No reading can match my reactions to these films - it's more than enough to watch the end of AU HASARD BALTHAZAR and just cry, cry, cry.

I don't think somebody like David Ehrenstein, eccentric as he is, is an irresponsible reader, as AW has characterized Gary Indiana - and as some Masters of Cinema (what a name!) writers have characterized David E. I don't see him (D.E.) selling fanciful, la-de-dah readings of Bresson's work; whereas Armond's huffy denials are, for him, par for the course.

Jaime said...

Have you seen this? Looks to have been active for nearly a month, and if you write a comment on any of his posts, you may end up in dialogue with Joe Dante or John Landis!

Jaime said...

Would like to hear your take on V. Morton's extended "indictment" of Bresson, viewable in and via his latest 'blog entry. That is, would like to hear what you think other than "Victor's a great guy."

ZC said...

I don't know, Jaime--what else is there to say? Victor's wrong! His dislike of Bresson is based on his lack of success getting "into" Bresson (as he can w/ the Dardennes), so it's merely a blind spot on his part, I'd say. Momentum in film culture is moving in Bresson's favor, so Victor's rants don't bother me too much.

Jaime said...

"I don't know, Jaime--what else is there to say? Victor's wrong!"

Maybe so, but he spends and awful lot of time and text on it; he's nothing if not (sometimes I think nothing but) meticulous and exhaustive and certain. Perhaps you didn't see his long "indictment" of L'ARGENT?

ZC said...

Jaime, the problem is not that I haven't seen his indictment of L'Argent, it's that I haven't seen L'Argent! (It's perpetually rented out at TLA.) As you say, meticulous Victor is articulate about his positions, and for certain things--like Bresson--I don't know how to debate with him or his positions simply because he's clearly not getting what he wants from these films. To me he's grossly missing the point, but he's entrenched on his stances on the subject. The only thing would be to attack those broader stances. Which I'm not inclined to do, for the time being at least.

Anonymous said...

Hi Zach,

I came across this blog as I was searching on google for Robert Bresson.

I'm an independent filmmaker from Portland, Oregon and recently completed my feature film "The Wind Blows Where It Will":

I owe much cinematic debt to Bresson (along with particular mention of Chantal Akerman). Seeing that you're also influenced by him, I was wondering if you'd be interested in sharing your thoughts on my film. Let me know and I'd be happy to send you a DVD. I can be reached at