Sunday, April 06, 2008

A Cinema of Sensations

This week I drove up to George Eastman House to catch Jean Eustache’s Mes Petites Amoureuses (1974), which turned out to be one of the greatest coming-of-age films I’ve ever seen. This generally obscure movie deserves to be universally known.

The narrative events in the film are extremely small-scale and modest, but Eustache gives them great weight by using them as vehicles for vivid sensations and impressions: movement (a pack of boys riding their bicycles downhill on a country road, their wheels humming like music); light (the brilliant country sun followed by long hours in a dingy workshop in the city); sound (a first kiss stolen from behind in a dark movie theater during Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman while French-dubbed voices boom from the screen, substituting for Ava Gardner and James Mason); and texture (the endlessly arresting faces and bodies of a parade of nonprofessional players in schools, bars, boulevards, markets).

There is a poignant and ironic contrast at work here: on the one hand, the surfeit of sensations that the artwork gives generously to the viewer; and on the other, the silent, aching, ever-present physical longing the boy-protagonist feels in the film, a longing for sensations that are almost always out of his reach.

I also happened to revisit Bresson’s L’Argent and read Kent Jones’ excellent BFI monograph on the film. He quotes Bresson speaking to Michel Ciment in a 1983 Positif interview:

I’ve been called a Jansenist, which is madness. I’m the opposite. I’m interested in impressions. I’ll give you an example, taken from L’Argent. When I’m on the Grands Boulevards, the first thing I think is How do they impress me? And the answer is that they impress me as a mass of legs and a sound of feet on the pavements. I tried to communicate this impression by picture and by sound … There has to be a shock at the moment of doing, there has to be a feeling that the humans and things to be filmed are new, you have to throw surprises on film. […] That’s the Grands Boulevards, as far as I’m concerned, all the motion. Otherwise, I might as well have used a picture postcard. The thing that struck me when I used to go to the cinema is that everything had been wanted in advance, down to the last detail … Painters do not know in advance how their picture is going to turn out, a sculptor cannot tell what his sculpture will be, a poet does not plan a poem in advance …

You will have noticed that in L’Argent there are a series of close-ups whose only function is to add sensation. When the father, a piano-player, drops a glass, his daughter is in the kitchen. Her dustpan and sponge are ready. I do not then enter the room, but cut immediately to a close shot which I like very much, the wet floor with the sound of the sponge. That is music, rhythm, sensation … Increasingly, what I am after — and with L’Argent it became almost a working method — is to communicate the impressions I feel.

Jones writes:

The type of ‘sensation’ that Bresson is describing is felt only fitfully in the work of most other film-makers. The many shots from the inside of moving cars in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), for instance, or the episode with the broken-down boxer arriving at his hotel room in John Huston’s Fat City (1972), are powerful sensory experiences, in which film-makers have clearly sought and achieved human (i.e. personal, subjective) sense of duration, space, rhythm, the texture of reality as they perceive it. However these are isolated instances in films that, like most other works, leave behind the purely sensory to make way for the rhetorical, the poetic, the point of view of the protagonist or the purely functional. [Manny] Farber’s comments about Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) could apply just as well to a Bresson film: ‘Two exquisite cinematic moments: the safe-cracker, one hand already engaged, removing the cork from the nitro bottle with his teeth; the sharp, clean thrust of a chisel as it slices through the wooden strut.’ The very feel of the world, in which there is no hierarchy of attention and even the most apparently meaningless event has its own integrity and its own special thrill, has been central to Farber since his beginnings as a critic — he is not indulging in idle appreciation here. It’s also central to Bresson, and it informs every moment of his cinema (it’s worth noting here that Bresson began as a painter, and that Farber remains one). […]

Visually, on a shot-by-shot basis, Bresson likes to imprint a singularized action on a given space, like a charcoal line on a blank sheet of paper. The body is either traced in its stillness, or draws itself across the screen in a quick, decisive movement. When one discusses ‘rhythm’ in Bresson, it’s closer to the idea of rhythm in painting, much more than a question of ‘pace’, the actual rhythm of action, as in a film by Scorsese or Coppola, or of shot length, as in Antonioni. In Bresson, and this is a trait that he shares with Hitchcock, the length of a shot has less to do with tempo than it does with sensorial emphasis: it’s never a question of a character simply living a moment of time, as it is in most films, but the way one (i.e. Bresson) would experience the feeling of living such a moment. The shot of Yvon’s hand as it releases the waiter’s arm during the scuffle in the café has a family resemblance to the shot of Martin Balsam ‘falling’ down the stairs in Psycho — both are a-temporal, disjointed from any reasonable space-time continuum, and oriented around a particular sensation.

To me, it’s particularly important that although both the Bresson and Eustache films make striking use of place and nonprofessional actors, their conveying of sensations and impressions is not done in a documentary-like manner. Instead, the filmmakers present certain details (of gesture, movement, color, light, sound, texture) while also guiding our attentions in a controlled and highly selective manner.

Once Upon A Time in America, Dead Man, L’Argent, Ivan the Terrible, Crash—these are some of my favorites in the BFI series of monographs. Are there others in the series you particularly like and would recommend?

* * *


-- The new issue of Cinema Scope includes Jonathan Rosenbaum's DVD column on "critical editions".

-- Michael Sicinski's top 17 films of 2007 along with an introductory essay; and his reviews page for March, which covers about 20 films.

-- The new issue of Film Quarterly.

-- Especially for fellow Stones fans: There's a humorous interview with Keith Richards at Entertainment Weekly.

pic: The wine glass begins to quiver, just before toppling, in L'Argent (1983).


Blogger Brian said...

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April 07, 2008 1:14 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Girish, I've never seen either of these films- I finally saw my first color Bresson film, Lancelot du Lac, at the PFA a couple months ago, and am hoping L'Argent makes its way to a local cinema screen; as far as I know it hasn't appeared on one in more than seven years. Eustache would be very welcome too; I've never heard of this one!

I'm more able to talk about the BFI book series. Of those you mention I've only read Dead Man, a terrific book indeed. I own a dozen or so, mostly the ones I've found at used bookstores for comparatively low prices. The ones I return to most often (and this may say as much about my cinematic interests as about the quality of the criticism itself) are Greed, Cat People, Sansho Dayu and the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I've read perhaps a dozen or so more either thanks to the library or to a leisurely day at a laid-back bookstore. Of those, Citizen Kane and 42nd Street stand in memory as favorites. Most recently Ian Breakwell's an Actor's Revenge has been somewhat helpful in a current research project.

Have you seen the list of films that this series was, at least originally, intended to cover?

April 07, 2008 1:19 AM  
Blogger Keith Uhlich said...

I don't know if you've seen Married Life yet, Girish. There's a scene in there that the director/co-writer, Ira Sachs, acknowledged as a reference to Mes Petits when Pierce Brosnan goes to a screening of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and it acts as something of a psychological stressor to his character (he's very James Mason in Married Life, and the scene in question has something of a "Narcissus-catching-his-own-reflection" vibe).

I hope the print of the Eustache makes it New York way -- I've only seen part of an unsubtitled copy from a French DVD as I recall (the DVD glitched 1/3rd of the way through). What I saw, though, seemed tremendous. Hope to finish it out sometime soon.

As to your BFI series question, I've pretty much only skimmed them in bookstores, though those that stuck with me in that form were Ray Carney on Shadows and Camille Paglia on The Birds. But now, come to think of it, I do own one: Jonathan Rosenbaum on Dead Man (my favorite Jarmusch). An excellent piece of work, that monograph.

Hope you're well, Girish.

April 07, 2008 10:02 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

How pleasant to shift from the contentious cerebrality of your last entry to an entry so resonant with sense and image.

With regard to your BFI question, this is a slight aside; but, I just picked up their 1994 volume World Cinema: Diary of a Day, which I've found fascinating. Compiled in celebration of the centenary of cinema, the book's conceit is an amassment of quotations from film personalities around the world, allegedly all on the same day and grouped under themes. Master quotesmith that you are, I'm sure you would enjoy the riches to be mined here.

April 07, 2008 10:36 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian, I also have about a dozen or so of the BFI books and have lately gotten in the habit of putting in an ILL for one of them when I make plans to watch the film. It's a great way to 'fix' a film in one's mind after seeing it. And I'm still hoping the reconstructed Greed goes to DVD at some point; I still haven't seen the film (in any version).

Keith, I hope all's well with you. I didn't know about the connection with Ira Sachs' Married Life (which I haven't seen) until Jim Healy of Eastman House mentioned it when he introduced the film. He also said that Eastman House is working on a restoration of the Lewin film. The Eustache series is traveling quite a bit (it's in DC now and will be in Toronto over the summer), so it's a cinch that NYC will get it soon. btw, the print of the film was flat-out gorgeous.

Maya, I've never even heard of that BFI book! I'll have to hunt for it in the library. And you're right, its reliance on quotations does intrigue me.

April 07, 2008 1:02 PM  
Blogger andrew schenker said...

The Eustache series is playing in New York this month at the Alliance Francaise (French Institute) with Mes Petits Amoureuses screening on the 15th.
Here is a link to the program

April 07, 2008 1:27 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for that, Andrew!

April 07, 2008 1:46 PM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

I find Michael Mann to practice this kind of cinema of sensations, too, when he's on his A-game (think _Manhunter_ and _Miami Vice_). I just rewatched _Ali_ for the first time since theatres and was struck by how, even in this rather bloated film, there is little to no exposition. His cinema is built of moments, or impressions. Of course, he goes a little overboard sometimes (_Ali_'s final 40 minutes in Zaire) but the films are never boring -- and all very tactile. This is probably why Pinkerton called him the Claire Denis of the American genre picture or something. (This tactility is probably why I like both directors so much, too...)

As for BFI: I own only one, on _Andrei Rublev_, but I like Chion's text on _The Thin Red Line_ a good deal, too.

Does Jones talk about _L'argent_ in relation to other films by any chance? I've always understood it as Bresson's remake of _Taxi Driver_, which Schrader says is a remake of _Pickpocket_. Of course, Schrader remade _Pickpocket_ with _American Gigolo_, too, but I'm talking spiritual heirs, for the most part. One might argue all Schrader does is remake his favorites. But then again one might argue that's all a lot of filmmakers, or any artists for that matter, do. In any event, that's probably a good essay, right? I'd read it.

April 07, 2008 3:45 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ry, I still haven't seen Miami Vice but returned to both Manhunter and Heat not long ago and liked them even more this time.

Yes, Jones does make many interesting connections with other films, especially through the use of stills from them that evoke moments or aspects of L'Argent, e.g. American Gigolo, Psycho, True Confessions, Prince of the City, Hal Hartley's Trust, Kaurismaki's I Hired a Contract Killer, Omirbaev's Killer, Assayas' Une Nouvelle Vie, etc.

One of my long-term goals is to be able to learn from this approach and do more of it; our blog format lends itself naturally to it.

April 08, 2008 10:55 AM  
Blogger aaron said...

A couple of years back, my well-intentioned girlfriend grabbed Geoff Andrew's monograph on Kiarostami's 10 -- only, she picked it based on the spine, letting the cashier ring it up while shielding it away from my eyes (as it was to be a birthday present) -- all the while figuring it was Blake Edwards' 10.

As great as Andrew's thoughts on the Kiarostami film are, I still somehow wish that a critic dedicated an entire book to the Dudley Moore film!

April 08, 2008 2:43 PM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 09, 2008 1:53 AM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

The longer I live and see movies and write about them, the more convinced I am that cinema is mainly about sensations -- those fleeting moments that capture an indescribable feeling or indelible moment and that don't fit into any narrative peg.

I can think of two movies that I watched in the last couple of weeks that boasted a bumper crop of such moments -- Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows and Henning Carlesen's Dilemma, about the relationships between blacks and whites in South Africa under apartheid. Both are comprised largely of moments that don't drive the plot forward in any demonstrable sense.

Elevator spends quite a bit of time watching Jeanne Moreau wandering the streets of Paris and Maurice Ronet stuck in an elevator, chain smoking and muttering to himself and trying to figure a way out -- and there are a lot of more tiny, even ineffable moments that are really about not much more than an exchange of glances between people, or the effect of a feeling or thought on a character's face, or the play of light on rainy windshields or on store window displays.

Dilemma has several documentary-style montages that simply observe the little rituals of daily life, and a couple of full-length musical performances that don't relate directly to the film's main plot but serve as a sort of Greek chorus and as stand-alone movies-within-movies.

I tend to forget the details of the plots of most movies I see, but I have a very precise recall of particular compositions, shots, music cues and marginal details. I used to think that was a peculiarity of mine until I got to know other movie buffs. I am now convinced that this is how most people experience, enjoy and remember films -- in much the same way that they remember their own lives.

April 09, 2008 1:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Aaron, I agree: the Blake Edwards film deserves a monograph of its own!

Matt, I didn't get a chance to tell you that I really enjoyed your video essay on Raoul Walsh's They Died With Their Boots on at Kevin's place a while back, especially the way you illustrated movement/dynamics and the graphic qualities of the image.

Speaking of moments of 'sensation' in films, as I look over my little pocket notebook that I use to jot down notes of a page or two after seeing each film, I notice 2 things: (1) The majority of my notes don't concern narrative events as much as isolate, describe and reflect upon certain moments I don't want to forget; and (2) the 'sensations' that originate not just from the diegetic but also the non-diegetic elements of a film (e.g. framing, editing, non-diegetic sound, etc).

April 09, 2008 10:56 AM  
Blogger Laura Deerfield said...

Cinema of sensation - this has helped me put a finger on a particular quality in many of my favorite films - something I've described as visual but knowing that term was inadequate for what I meant.

It's the evocative sensual moments that I love...not only in artistic films, but in action/blockbuster movies which rely on sensation though often in a way that doesn't connect back to the story...and I'm happy to see the mention of Cat People as it's one of those movies I've specifically written about, discussing the way that meaning is created through set decoration, lighting and camera angles ( ), all of which are ways that Val Lewton creates sensation, refers to as much as shows...

April 10, 2008 2:14 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Laura, that's an excellent point about action cinema! And thanks for giving us the link to your blog.

What you say reminds me of film scholar Tom Gunning's idea of "cinema of attractions." He proposes that before the crystallization of the grammar of narrative cinema, "early cinema" (cinema in the first decade or so of its existence) was already proposing alternatives to the narrative-driven cinema that did not yet exist. And this alternative was a cinema that was centered on the sensational and the spectacular.

April 10, 2008 7:04 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael Z. Newman at Zigzigger has a terrific post on widescreen aspect ratios and television, esp. discussing the release of ER on DVD in widescreen. Here's an excerpt:

"ER won praise in the 90s for being unconventional, for being more cinematic than the typical TV show. Its steadicam shooting by Thomas Del Ruth certainly influenced many movies and TV shows. It did this working in the 4:3 shape. Retransferring it at 16:9 is supposed to add aesthetic value, but this only works if you buy into the aesthetic and technological superiority of one ratio over another, willy-nilly. The choice to release the video in this format may have as much to do with a sense of audience demand for images to fill their new 16:9 TVs--16:9 to better reproduce a cinematic frame--as with an aesthetic consideration about the value of one framing or another absent external constraints. It may be the product of a preference for one shape over another for reasons that probably have less to do with the possibilities of expressivity in widescreen than with the prestige and legitimacy that have been attached to cinema ever since television replaced it as the dominant mass medium."

April 10, 2008 7:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

J. Hoberman in the Voice, an excerpt:

"In the relatively innocent early '60s, West 42nd Street was a carnival of pinball parlors, freak shows, and, mainly, movie theaters. Some offered western triple bills for 40 cents. Others—smaller, shabbier, and forbidden to kids—featured Olga's House of Shame. What my 13-year-old mind could not then grasp was why, along with amateur documentaries of "nudist-camp volleyball," these theaters also showed atrocity footage of Nazi concentration camps—was it because there were naked women there, too?

"That pornographic juxtaposition of horniness and horror is the subject of Ari Libsker's Stalags—a dense account of the pulp novels that flourished in Israel around the time I was pondering 42nd Street marquees (and East Village artist Boris Lurie, himself a concentration-camp graduate, began collaging pinups with photos of liberated Buchenwald). Named for the German prison camps in which they were set, the "stalags" were soft-core s&m porn in which downed U.S. or British pilots were abused by lustful, bodacious "female SS brutes," ultimately repaying their tormentors in kind."

April 10, 2008 8:41 AM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

This wonderful conversation reminded me of Bazin's thoughts on the neorealists:

"Hitherto dramatic literature has provided us with a doubtless exact knowledge of the human soul, but one which stands in the same relations to man as classical physics to matter- what scientists call macrophysics, useful only for phenomena of considerable magnitude. And certainly the novel has gone to extremes in categorizing this knowledge. The emotional phsyics of a Proust is microscopic. But the matter with which this microphysics is concerned is on the inside. It is memory. The cinema is not necessarily a substitute for the novel in this search for man, but it has at least one advantage over it, namely, that it presents man only in the present- to the "time lost and found" of Proust there corresponds in a measure the "time discovered" of Zavattini; this is, in the contemporary cinema, something like Proust in the present indicative tense."

April 11, 2008 4:10 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nicholas, my Bazin reading has generally been spotty and piecemeal, and for the last few years I've been meaning to devote a summer to a long, slow Bazin immersion. I'm hoping this summer will be it.

April 12, 2008 2:05 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Sandrine Marques at Contrechamp has a nice post comparing, with paired images, James Gray's The Yards and Gus van Sant''s Paranoid Park.

April 13, 2008 11:10 AM  

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