After lunch, we adjourned to Tim’s office and chatted for almost two hours. We began by teasing out some of the general implications of Tim’s book. We then considered Bresson’s theological, intellectual and aesthetic influences, before exploring some original approaches to Bresson’s narratives, sources, exposition, tone and visual aesthetic. Our conversation yielded tantalising, fresh insights to questions that I have been considering for almost twenty-five years.
This interview is divided into two parts. The first deals with Cawkwell's general thesis, expressed in his recent book. The second deals with Cawkwell's reflections on Bresson's films, practices and background.
Jonathan Hourigan: Tim, I’ve just read your book, THE FILMGOER’S GUIDE TO GOD. There are a lot of filmgoers and cinéastes in the world and there are also a lot of Christians out there. I wonder, what’s your background to bring these two together?
Tim Cawkwell: On the one hand, I’ve always been fascinated by the cinema. I was brought up in Oxford, which is well blessed with cinemas and so I went quite a lot in my teens. And then, before I entered the University to study in 1966, I had almost a year’s gap between school and college and I went to the Scala Cinema in Walton Street every week, sometimes twice a week, to see all the stuff they were showing. By the time I went up to Oxford I’d seen about a dozen Bergman films and was a dozen Bergman films ahead of the game. So it wasn’t just Hollywood stuff but also access to European cinema and I found it just fascinating. For my university course, I read Greats, i.e. Ancient Greek, Latin, history and philosophy. But like you, Jonathan, I suspect, going to the cinema was the unofficial course. I reckon that in one term, one eight week term of 56 days, I went to see a film on 48 of them.
So, in that rather nerdish way, film just became obsessively interesting. I saw a huge number of films, very uncritically. But one of the good things about it is that you leave university, you go out into the world, you see new films all the time and you start revisiting the old films, which start making sense. Saint Paul wrote “We see through a glass darkly and then face to face.” He was talking about religious experience but I think that is very true of life experience. We experience things and they mean nothing and then later, suddenly, they make sense. And of course, Marcel Proust’s REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST is entirely based on that; how he comes to make sense of all those impressions. So, I felt the cinema is like that. It’s part of making sense of life.
On the other hand, I was brought up in an English public school and you get a lot of religion there. Probably as much as the Catholics. You have to go every day, not just Sundays. I wasn’t aware of it at the time but it obviously made an impression. When I went up to Oxford I wasn’t going to church at all. I wouldn’t call myself an atheist but a proper agnostic. Mid to late 70’s, we had our first child and in a rather ordinary, middle class sort of way I thought, “I want the children at least to have come into contact with religion. Even if they rebel against it.” Religion gives them something to bite on because one of the depressing things about the modern world is that we’re terrified of values and I’d much prefer it if, in this vacuum, people bit on the Christian religion rather than on other things. Because I think religion has the wisdom of the ages. And you can rebel against it. It’s probably important that you do rebel against it because it shouldn’t be taken on trust. As an intellectual exercise it’s very good for human beings to ask those questions. So, anyway, I took my children to church and I just found it was tremendously interesting. Intellectually, I found the questions surrounding Christianity very stimulating. I think theology is more rewarding than philosophy, which I studied at Oxford and which I found very high-powered, rarefied, narrow and difficult to understand. Which is not to do it down but theology seemed marvellous to me. It can have rigour but is also trying to make sense of the world. And I’d much prefer to read St Paul than Heidegger, for example, to take a modern metaphysician! Although we might come onto Pascal later, who is an interesting figure in between the two disciplines.
So, having got interested in religion again, that started to help me make sense of Bresson and I’d got onto Tarkovsky too by then. It seemed to be a filter – an approach to music too. I’m a great Wagnerian and PARSIFAL is the most sublime piece of religious art. And so I realised that you could have religion and cinema and indeed, art, music and all of this. If you believe in God and that God created the world and if you see God in everything, then you certainly see him in all that artistic expression. And that itself poses a number of difficult questions!
JH – We’ll talk about Bresson in greater detail in due course. But before we do, your book seems to offer a hierarchy amongst filmmakers. You look at Bresson, Dreyer, Rossellini and Tarkovsky, consistently and self-consciously spiritually engaged filmmakers. You also look at Schrader, Ferrara, the Coen Brothers and others. Not all of these other filmmakers are operating with the consistency, or insistence, of your principal four. So, I wonder, what do you think is the core of your thesis? What binds together these filmmakers, their films and the various sections of your book?
TC –The four central characters – Bresson, Dreyer, Tarkovsky and Rossellini – are all recognised as great filmmakers. Well, I think Rossellini is, although he’s the most problematical. But people don’t necessarily come to them and think that this is great religious art. Well, they’re big enough artists to accommodate all sorts of angles, so I’m not saying it can only be argued that they’re religious artists. But I wanted to write a book that considered them seriously as religious artists.
The twentieth century is the great century of doubt, of scepticism and atheism. Perhaps cinema has been the prime art form to express the rough materialism of the world and here were four great filmmakers who were saying that religious themes were still vital to our understanding of the world. But I hope there’s more to it than those four filmmakers. For example, Ferrara’s THE FUNERAL definitely has a Catholic sensibility. That’s clear even without knowing much about his background.
JH – But once you extend your exploration to include Ferrara, presumably there are any number of filmmakers who might have come into your orbit. Terence Davies, for example, as a British Catholic.
TC – Yes, you’re right. I don’t say anything about British cinema, except BRIGHTON ROCK. Although I do make reference to Davies’ NEON BIBLE, which is interesting because it’s Davies’ reaction against the southern Baptist South which, as a Catholic, perhaps he wouldn’t greatly care for.
So, what unifies the book, when I've developed this polemical line to place these four principal characters centre stage, perhaps especially for people who don’t go to the cinema? Well, it annoys me that religious people know about Michelangelo. And they might have read some Graham Greene. But if you said to them “Go to the cinema. That’s where the modern visual understanding of religion is being developed”, they just haven’t got a clue where to start. My book, I hope, helps them to start.
JH – But is that because, picking up on something you’ve already touched on, the twentieth century is the era of scepticism? So even those spiritually engaged filmmakers, they’re not in any sense devout or pious are they? They are doubters themselves.
TC – Yes, I think that’s right. Were any of them churchgoers? Tarkovsky clearly wasn’t because it wasn’t available, or only clandestinely. Dreyer – did he go to church? I doubt it.
JH – And what church would he have been a member of?
TC – It would have been the Danish Lutheran Church.
So, what I’d like to have explored more thoroughly in the book is the question “What is spiritual style?”
JH – That’s such a difficult question to answer.
TC – Tarkovsky, it seems to me, is the supreme spiritual stylist. He’s got a sense of wonder about people, about the world. He rejoices in the richness of looking at the world and how the camera translates objects and space and faces.
JH – Yes, although I feel uncomfortable with moments like walking across the water in NOSTALGHIA. I do react very positively to many other moments, like when they’re in the empty cathedral. For me, Tarkovsky’s is a self-conscious style. Laden, I think, with symbolism, although I know that Tarkovsky would have objected to that observation.
TC – In STALKER, there’s a 360-degree pan, accompanied by this lovely music. The camera stands by the Stalker’s head and travels over the river bed and there are objects under water. You see a lake with an island. I don’t know how it’s done technically but the film lifts. And even more obviously in ANDREI RUBLEV, with the making of the bell. Rejoicing in the hugeness of it. Tarkovsky wants the film to include everybody in this world, even though it’s an appalling, medieval world, where Russia was not the place to be, especially if you were a serf. That is quite different from Bresson’s visual aesthetic.
Just crudely, then, the Orthodox Church wants to celebrate the spiritual nature of human beings. The Catholic Church wants to celebrate God in the world, immanent at all points, if not necessarily transcendent. Protestants generally take a sterner view: It’s about the word and personal salvation. In hindsight, I might have brought these tendencies out more in the book and how I saw those things happening.
Dreyer is particularly interesting. In his PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC he makes a very Catholic film about martyrdom and Jeanne’s extraordinary character, her spirituality and her connection with God in the face of all these dreadful events and accusations. But he also makes ORDET, THE WORD, from a play by a Protestant pastor that is all about personal faith in the resurrection, which is quite a different denominational view. Then you get the Coen Brothers in O BROTHER, who have a sort of ironic detachment. That’s much more modern, or post-modern. It’s amused and satirical, although rather admiring too, I think, in a way.
JH – The Coen Brothers almost betray themselves with their evident affection for this milieu. I wonder if you could say a little more about Dreyer’s breadth of religious influences and references? His apparent catholicity if you like.
TC – Dreyer is complicated because ORDET is a very committed Kierkegaardian film but DAY OF WRATH is a very cruel picture of religious bigotry. So, you’ve got to be careful. Clearly, the views of the characters are not the views of Dreyer himself. But I think he had an extraordinary sympathy and a sense of religious story telling. I saw his LEAVES FROM SATAN’S BOOK a couple of years ago and I think he was just fascinated with stories about religion. His screenplay for the Jesus film is well worth reading. It never got made but it’s very interesting and a great loss that he never did make it. But whether he went to church, I doubt it.
JH – So it comes back to my earlier question about piety and devotion?
TC – Yes. Rossellini, he was brought up, I suspect, a very good Catholic but didn’t go to church, in the Italian manner. You could be a good Catholic in Italy but your wife went to church and you didn’t go yourself. Bresson, we’ll come to in a moment. So these people, like so many artists, they are distrustful of institutions. An odd thing about religion now is that all sorts of people have a religious sensibility, across the spectrum and in all sorts of ways but never go to church.
Atheists are rare but many with some sense of religion distrust the institutional church because like all institutions in the western world, we look at them askance. We’ve had a good Enlightenment upbringing, a sceptical upbringing and we wonder about authority and power. And the church has all those trappings. I think Tarkovsky said he had no time for the official church. I don’t know what he’d seen of it and it has to be said that the Russian Orthodox Church under Soviet rule was not a beautiful sight. I don’t think it was a good model for him. But of course, he had that Russian sensibility: the artist was the priest. You came to God through the artist, not through the priest.
JH – He had quite a lot of confidence in that view.
TC – Yes. So, I think I should have said a little more about how the filmmakers I discuss in the book use the camera to portray a view of the world that might be religious, or spiritual.
It’s particularly interesting to compare Bresson with Melville because Melville, I think, was an atheist, on his own admission. He’s very much in the milieu of post-war Paris and his films are all about people asserting their individual meaning in a corrupt world. Where honour and loyalty are much more important. You never feel with Melville that he thought that robbing a bank was an immoral thing to do. But if you betray your colleague in Melville, well, he wouldn’t call it a sin but it wouldn’t be right behaviour. Incidentally, I have a chapter in FILMGOER’S GUIDE comparing Melville with Bresson and write that the pair of them represent two poles of moral French thought. They are “two opposite halves of the same sphere.” They certainly share stylistic concerns. In Melville, Lino Ventura is a very Bressonian actor. He has a very marble, white face. Doesn’t give much away. Is inexpressive — even if he is inexpressive by choice, as opposed to Bresson seeking to make his models expressive despite themselves.
So do we say that Melville has a spiritual style? Well, yes, I think we do and part of it is that he respects the human face and human qualities and actions in an awkward and meaningless world.
JH – That seems to be close to a unifying definition, although a very broad one, perhaps because otherwise, it seems to me that Tarkovsky is a symbolist, in a very Russian way. There’s water everywhere and not just running idly by. But there are no symbols in Bresson. Very little water! Perhaps, when the narrative is that profound and also with the other elements of the Bressonian project, it doesn’t need symbols. I always find Tarkovsky problematical — of course, it’s a question of personal taste — because symbols seem so prevalent.
TC – Yes, although that’s not how Tarkovsky would assess those images. Water is significant for him. I think of it as the element for him that binds the world together. It’s the creative force. But Tarkovsky would have resisted symbolic interpretation. He’d say that it can’t be put into words. It can only be articulated through my camera, through the movement of my camera. I think that’s right.
JH – I certainly wouldn’t argue for an easy correlation between image and a single, definable, symbolic value. But the world simply doesn’t look like Tarkovsky’s world in the way that it does look a bit like the world photographed by Bresson, or by Melville, or Rossellini. But I do think the respect for faces and for the depth and unknowability of the human heart, or soul, is important but once that’s the criterion, you could include any number of other filmmakers.
TC – Yes, that’s right Jonathan and you’re right to come back to Rossellini and to neo-realism. Because isn’t it a feature of neo-realism — which I imagine Bresson would have been very aware of, starting to look at films after the war and thinking about what films to make and in what way — that neo-realism starts to respect non-professionals? To respect the dignity of human beings, even with nothing, from poor areas of Rome, or wherever in Italy?
And Rossellini makes FRANCIS in that tradition with, I believe, novice Franciscans as the little group of monks. Pasolini sees that and it’s an influence on his GOSPEL film because of course, Pasolini loves faces. With all those Italian Renaissance painters before him; Giotto, Masaccio and any number of others. He sees faces and he thought the rural proletariat had that sense of mystery that the modern urban world was in danger of crushing. So that’s a spiritual style. So I think neo-realism, even in the hands of someone like Visconti, in OSSESSIONE, remembering the wasters in that film, they still have that wonderful dignity. You feel sorry for them and it’s partly the way they look.
JH – You argue that Tarkovsky was the great spiritual stylist. You also argue for the serious and explicit spiritual and theological concerns of at least your principal four filmmakers but then you also suggest that Dreyer, Rossellini and Tarkovsky were neither pious nor, indeed, even practising members of a church. Where might you locate Bresson in that respect?
TC I can’t watch Bresson’s films of the 1950’s and not think that he was a practising Catholic. It gets more complicated later and it would be a perfectly normal pattern for someone to be that kind of Catholic and then to wake up one morning and to think “Gosh, I don’t believe this in the way that I used to. I’m not going to go to mass.” Of course, the great question then is did he take communion before he died, did that worry him?
JH – Certainly there was a beautiful, austere memorial mass after his death. In Paris, that I attended. And I’m sure that he was more than a 'religious atheist,' to pick up Rossellini's description of himself, which you refer to in your book. He was certainly an insider.
TC – I think that JOURNAL D’UN CURE DE CAMPAGNE is such a central film in this regard. I define French Catholicism by that film, which might be a terrible mistake because I’m sure it’s much more complicated than that. Never mind. I think Bernanos’ novel and Bresson’s film of the book define the Catholic Church in France and its priests. But it’s a radical and disturbing definition.
JH – It’s interesting, isn’t it, that most of the artists engaged in this area are wrestling with quite radical theological possibilities and ideas? There isn’t, is there, much conventional theology? For example, I can’t think of many recognisable British Protestant filmmakers.
TC – No. I can’t either. Most of these great religious or spiritual artists in the cinema are radicals of one sort or another. There isn’t a good Anglican film, although I read something a couple of years ago — FUSILIER by Jack McManners — and I thought “This would make a good film and it’d be a film about the virtues of the Church of England.”
JH – But even with ideas around theology, are there films that articulate or animate ideas around a mainstream Protestant sensibility or belief system? Or maybe it’s just so ingrained in our culture that we don’t see it. Maybe FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL is a very British Protestant movie but it seems to lack that quality of something to bite on that you spoke about earlier.
TC – You might be right because it’s a major objection that people feel about the Church of England, that it doesn’t stand for anything. But if it’s got a strength, it’s that it wants to be open to people, to be available to people. It’s very non-dogmatic and open. So you’re right. All sorts of rather ordinary FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL type of stories could be deemed to be Anglican. And in this country when you get Anglican priests, largely on television, they're figures of fun. Which is rather reassuring in a way. So a serious picture about a Protestant priest? Of course, Bergman did it. Priests keep cropping up in his films but they’re very unsympathetic characters.
JH – Perhaps it’s the same reason we don’t have any happy Catholic films? Even SOUND OF MUSIC puts us through it!
TC – I’ve never seen it but I’m sure that THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S with Bing Crosby is a happy Catholic film.
AMERICAN THEOLOGICAL AND NARRATIVE TRADITIONS
JH – Just before we move onto Bresson in detail and for my own interest, I wonder if we could look at the relationship between American theological and narrative traditions. I’m thinking about narrative structure and traditions and the hegemony of contemporary American cinema. Mainstream American cinema is invariably underpinned by the Hero narrative, the metaphysics of second chances, individual power, individual agency and personal redemption. One’s encouraged, to some extent, to take these features to be universal but I have a feeling that they’re born of the theology of the early American, non-Conformist Protestants?
TC – Is it not those early Protestants asserting themselves as individuals and communities against Old Europe, the Vatican and other institutional authorities? I’m also struck by Westerns. What is the theology of Westerns? Actually, they operate, by and large, free of religion. John Ford is a slight exception to that but if you take Anthony Mann, Boetticher, Hawks, their films are about individuals. They make their own morality. And this is why John Wayne is their great American hero. Wayne made the rules. He imposed his will on people and he was a good man and so, when imposing his will on people, the result was good. And doesn’t that come from — you can’t necessarily say it’s from the earliest Protestants — but from trying to tame the wilderness. You’re on your own. It must have been very rough and harsh.
And yet, it’s slightly odd because John Ford does understand in moving west that they had to stick together. You had to have mutual support against Native American Indians, against the weather, against hunger, against the immense difficulty of the journey. And that’s actually about survival through community.
And then, in the twentieth century, it’s all about guns making the rules. It’s about James Stewart having the character and the innate goodness to be the hero and to resolve the story. So there’s a shoot-out at the end, like in WINCHESTER 73 and James Stewart must win because he’s morally good. Isn’t that coming out of the American experience? The rugged individualism? It was fought, in practice, in taming the wilderness in the nineteenth century but it comes out of their minds, somehow, in a more violent form in the twentieth century.
JH – Is there something in the form of Calvinism or Protestantism that they took across the Atlantic, that’s around the individual and pre-destination? Which cuts across what you’ve said about the potency of the individual.
TC – We must not underplay the factor of 'community'. One historical feature of the American West was the Baptist church spreading west. The Baptists thought it was a missionary field. Now, the Baptist church has come out of Calvinist theology, which is to do with individual salvation and the elect; but even if it's about individuals, they exist in a group context.
John Ford has, from time to time, rather interesting pictures of Baptist ministers. But Ford was a Catholic, so it’s complicated. Well, he comes out of that Irish Catholic tradition, although I don’t know if he was practising. One of the great religious scenes in the cinema is the funeral scene in THE SEARCHERS. It lasts barely a minute of screen time, a wonderful shot, as John Wayne says “Put an Amen to it!” and walks away. Just a very simple scene in long shot and John Wayne walks away, turns his back on the scene. Wayne, as Ethan Edwards, embodies the potency of the Hero, turning his back on the community as expressed in a religious context.
JH – I also adore the scene when Wayne talks to his dead wife in the cemetery in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. It’s very moving.
TC – I agree. It’s very good.
I’m not really answering your question. I’m very struck that O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU seems to be a wonderful insight into the American south. It’s shot through with Baptist theology. The Coen Brothers are Jewish I think but they’ve got a real handle on the nature of Christianity in the American south. If you’re not saved you’re damned. It’s like George Bush putting people into Guantanamo Bay. They’re cast into outer darkness. These are the Infidels. And that, I feel, is out of the American Baptist south. Of course, there are lots of Catholics in America but at the moment, the Calvinist strain is what’s asserting itself. The Calvinist community is what’s important. If you’re in it you’re ok. If you’re out, you’re either damned or they’ll have nothing to do with you.
JH – Calvinism and Baptism you’ve run slightly together. I guess what I’m really trying to get at is this: Is there something in American Christianity, especially early American Christianity, that has informed a world view that has created this difference between American and European cinematic traditions? A world view that has allowed American cinema to dominate global cinema and that rhymes with Joseph Campbell and his analysis of the Hero narratives that extend right back through human history. And the capacities for individual agency and potency and individuals’ capacity to redeem themselves, are these parts of the American theological and narrative traditions?
TC – I don't think we can make a sweeping generalization about American and European cinematic traditions based on the religious cultures they came out of. The heroic qualities of Westerns must have appealed to all sorts of people in different countries, hence their box-office value. But I'm not sure if this has much to do with a religious response, more a search for myths. American views of liberty are surely the key here. In the absence of institutional, traditional authority and where government derives from the common people, the individual has to make the law and if something goes wrong, people have to redeem themselves; no-one else is going to do it for them.
To explain where this links with their religion, I’m not as clued up as I should be. Calvinism is a major strand of the Protestant Reformation. You’ve got Lutheranism and then you’ve got this more extreme, perhaps more intellectually rigorous version. Calvin himself was an extremely clever theologian. His writings are very potent. His Protestantism is what then starts to influence the really radical Protestant sects that started appearing in the early seventeenth century. While there are more grounds for accommodation between Lutheranism and traditional Catholicism, the Calvinists create Wee Frees in Scotland — (incidentally, for this see BREAKING THE WAVES) — and the Dutch Reformed Church. They began to take more extreme forms and are very much focused on “We’re the group with the right answers. Join us. And if you don’t join us, we don’t have the theology to save you.” I’ve always felt the Catholic Church and Christianity survived because they had enough clever guys at the beginning who thought we’ve got to find a way that’s inclusive of everybody. Now that’s rather crude but I’ve never had that sense with Calvinists. “He who is not with us is against us.” They’ve got this very divisive view of the world.