Colin Burnett

More Than Meets the Eye: A Response to Kevin Lee and Terrence Rafferty

Terrence Rafferty's The Austerity Campaign That Never Ended, appeared in The New York Times, July 4, 2004. A rebuttal by Kevin Lee is found here. The following is Colin Burnett's response.

Colin Burnett has a Master's in Film Studies from Concordia University, Montréal, and has recently published on Bresson in Offscreen.

Let me preface my comments by saying that Terrence Rafferty's glib article wouldn't be worth mentioning in the slightest except for the discouraging fact that it was publishing in the NY Times, a fact which if kept clearly in mind helps to further contextualize and measure the extent of Rafferty's failure here. It hardly needs to be stated by me that the NY Times is the world's most trusted daily, that people regularly and unreflectively cite it as an authority—the authority—on world and cultural affairs. Taken in this light, Rafferty's piece is an unmitigated catastrophe, a retrogression in Bresson criticism and, needless to add, deleterious to the readers whose opinions it seeks to mold. It is, in a word, a blockade against reasonable critical and independent thought, which, if not a bad thing in and of itself, is doubly bad in the context of Bresson.

However, while I certainly concur with a large part of Kevin Lee's passionate and detailed rebuttal, particularly because it encourages one to return to the films again and to actually study them empirically, I can't help but feel just as uncomfortable with some of his comments as I do with most or all of Rafferty's. Let me cut to the chase. A Jonathan Rosenbaum-like "secularist" or "materialist" polemic against proponents and disciples of Schrader's transcendental interpretation, while certainly necessary and justified given what the films are, only brings us half-way back to the films themselves. The reason for this is that secular interpretations and approaches to Bresson, as Mr. Lee's response demonstrates, still seem to be far too comfortable in attributing this or that view or position to the film's maker. What I'm suggesting is that, given their style, the films make it extremely difficult to attribute any opinion or personal expression to Bresson at all. It is just as hasty to claim that Bresson the author believed that "Tout est grace," the last words uttered in Diary of a Country Priest, as it is to state that "Bresson's reverence for the visual and aural sensuality of everyday objects amounts to nothing short of hedonistic materialist fetishism!" or "Bresson tried to embrace the world, to burrow deep into its textures, sensations and events, and in doing so, perhaps, to redeem it." Now, whereas I realize fully that Lee did not intend for the first of these lines to be taken at face-value and acknowledge the careful thought that went into the placement of "perhaps" in the second, I do think that they both exhibit an approach that seems to circumvent what I will call these films' challenge to interpretation.

Let me rephrase. In his films, Bresson is, I take it, only present in his absence. What could this mean? It means that although Bresson is their maker, and that filmmaking on broad terms, as a human action, is both intentional and necessarily 'about' or 'saying' something, Bresson only 'speaks' to the viewer in a way that might be described, for lack of a better term, as 'coded,' which seems to be corroborated by the aphorism in Notes sur le cinématographe that says, "[l]es idées, les cacher, mais de manière qu'on les trouve. La plus importante sera la plus cachée" (p.45), not to mention his brief musing on 'the internal' and 'the external' in a translated passage collected in MOMA's Rediscovering French Film:

It is the interior that commands. I know that this could seem paradoxical in an art which is all exterior. But I have seen films in which everyone runs, which are slow. And others in which the characters don't move, which are fast. I have ascertained that the rhythm of the images is powerless to correct any interior slowness. Only the knots which tie and untie in the interior of characters give a film its movement, its real movement. It is this movement which I strive to portray through some thing—or some combination of things—which may not only be dialogue.... (p. 155; italics in source)

On these grounds, Sontag's suggestion that Bresson was an esoteric filmmaker is spot on and for reasons that she did not fully develop. Of course, it'd be silly to carry this to an extreme and suggest that Bresson's films contain some secret and coherent teaching about modern life, or something of that nature. Having said that, the films do encourage one to think about certain things in certain ways and there are clues that guide us through these thoughts. My view is that Bresson's films are—I hesitate to use this worn word—'open,' a point which Lee would probably not deny, but for this reason they include all possible interpretations of all audiences (secularists and transcendentalists alike) as well as the intentions of their author. While our intuitions about the intentions of the author must in some way act as a guide as we wade through the available information and interpretive stances, let's face it: it is quite often extremely difficult to figure out what Bresson means—and this expressly because it is difficult to figure out the motivations of his characters, of certain visual, aural and other stylistic choices, and so on. The dictum that artists explain what they mean only indirectly by the act of representation applies most strictly to a modernist like Bresson. Of course, I am in no way suggesting that his films are absolutely open or sheer possibility; if calling a Bresson film 'open' is correct, then there must be some thing about which this description is accurate.

My suggestion is that we begin studying (and I choose that word carefully) Bresson's films in a way that'll produce sound speculative insights based on close analysis and interpretation of the films individually and only subsequently of the oeuvre as a whole. This is how Plato's Dialogues have been studied for centuries and, while Bresson is no Plato and never sought to be, I think that this careful and—I'm willing to admit—time-consuming approach would benefit the films and how we understand them. Lee's approach starts us on our way but may ultimately end up stopping too short by virtue of the premature, albeit attractive, hypothesis that Bresson is a 'secularist,' even if the goal is only to apply the term to his color work. A Bresson film pushes the interpreter to master the equivocal, and this cannot be done if we focus on certain aspects at the expense of others.

But I don't want to leave the common viewer who has no time to 'study' these works with the feeling that he/she is necessarily going to be disarmed or helpless when confronted with them, for then I'd be no better than Rafferty. Narration in the Fiction Film by David Bordwell may have its shortcomings, but one of the book's highlights is the chapter on Bresson's Pickpocket, in which it is argued that the viewer's attention is pulled into a tug of war between the perception of order (style) and the perception of meaning (content). I like this suggestion because it accounts, in some way, for the challenge that a Bresson film poses, in that it frustrates attempts at 'cataloguing' all the plot-driven details that are both shown and not shown, not to mention the stylistic repetitions and slight variations on them that carry the film forward. I therefore like the idea of latching onto a given detail (usually stylistic) in a Bresson film and following it to the film's end. In Lancelot, when and in what context are we shown shots of horses' eyes? In A Man Escaped, when and in what context is the Mozart cued? While following these stylistic features all the way through may not produce a solid grounds for concluding what they mean or how they work, this exercise does help one to not only organize one's own thoughts about the films, but they assist one in discovering how the text itself is organized. end block

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