Friday, January 27, 2012

What's in a face?

Posted By on 01.27.12 at 04:53 PM

Bresson.jpg
For the past few weeks, I’ve wanted to write something about the Robert Bresson retrospective currently under way at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It’s possibly the most important revival program in town, since—as Jonathan Rosenbaum likes to note—Bresson’s exacting sounds and compositions take on deeper meaning when projected from celluloid rather than presented digitally. But this master filmmaker has been written about so much in the past few decades that Bresson criticism now runs the risk of overshadowing the actual work. I encourage those who know Bresson only through his reputation to forget the reviews and just go: few filmmakers speak so directly to one’s eyes and ears.

I started watching Bresson’s films when I was 19 or 20. None of them had been released on DVD yet, but fortunately my college’s media archive had roughly a half dozen on cassette. Only professors were allowed to borrow movies, so I had to watch the tapes on one of the 12-inch television sets (and with headphones, of course) that sat in the front room of the archive. Across several Friday afternoons in spring, I made my way through the videos, my face just inches away from those of Bresson’s immortal models. I’d read a bit about these nonactors—or rather, the director’s motivation in using them. Rather than hiring professionals who could act out certain emotions, Bresson sought the faces and bodies that personified them. I’d been used to looking at actors in movies—whether as icons or as skilled performers—and I’d seen enough documentaries to regard “real people” as I would characters. But this was something different, a challenge to “read” the language of spontaneous expression and movements, to find abstract values (principally, grace) in the concrete forms of faces and bodies.

When I left the media archive, I tried to look at people differently. I didn’t take their gestures for granted—I thought about what they communicated even when they made no pretense to communicate. Humanity seemed to beam at me from all directions. I’ve taken other lessons from Bresson in the years since that encounter, but none have had the power of that initial experience. I can hope to reclaim some of it by seeing the movies in the optimal condition. There are several titles that I haven’t yet seen on film—including Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), which screens tomorrow and Monday, and The Devil, Probably (1977), a devastating tale about suicide and cultural despair that affected me so deeply the first time I saw it that I could barely speak for hours—and a few that are so rare I’ve never been able to see them—including Les Anges du Péché (1943), which plays tonight and tomorrow, and the Dostoevsky adaptation Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), which screens next month. But I envy the moviegoers for whom this retrospective is their first introduction to one of the most prophetic figures in cinema.

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