Kevin Lee

On Terrence Rafferty's The Austerity Campaign That Never Ended

The following is a rebuttal by Kevin Lee of Terrence Rafferty's article The Austerity Campaign That Never Ended, which appeared in The New York Times, July 4, 2004. The Rafferty article is found on the NYT website, and a backup copy has been preserved here (for reference purposes only). A subsequent response to this rebuttal, by Colin Burnett, is located here.

Kevin Lee is a filmmaker and writer based in New York City.

Occasionally, and more often than I would like, one will encounter a strain of film writing that I call "cocktail party criticism." In such writing, the critic is pressed with a topic that is either difficult to discuss or is beyond the critic's expertise, and is looked on to provide an answer that, in compliance with the unspoken rules of cocktail party conversation, sounds authoritative, easily digestible (and subsequently forgotten) and has a good punchline for decorative effect. It is no coincidence that these same criteria define the world of mass media film criticism, which explains why so much writing on film is populated with so much well-phrased nonsense that's as diverting to read as it is inattentive to the film supposedly being reviewed.

In this light, I can offer a generous measure of sympathy to what Terrence Rafferty is trying to do in his decidedly unsympathetic appraisal of Robert Bresson. Rafferty finds himself in the cocktail party position of a critic trying to explain a "difficult artist" to his general readership. Such a task is made even more difficult when the critic has his own persistent problems with the films, as Rafferty clearly does with Bresson. How then to be honest to one's own feelings, in such a way as to be honest to the readership? What Rafferty does is a cautionary example of cocktail party writing, in how he jumps to easy, premature presumptuous and ill-informed conclusions, for the sake of retaining the precious air of critical authority to reassure and gratify his audience.

Rafferty is in trouble from the start when he assumes the sheepish apologist's position in describing Bresson's art, immediately doing Bresson a disservice. Assured that most viewers simply aren't going to "get" Bresson, he seems resigned to cut his losses and make whatever advocacy of his films he feels comfortable with, in generally defensive terms. This, to me, is film criticism at its most fatuously conservative, content to couch its guarded praise in tongue-in-cheek zingers: "While I wouldn't suggest that the two most recent releases, A Man Escaped and Lancelot of the Lake (1974), answer to any reasonable definition of fun, they are, if you surrender to their inexorable rhythm and the rigorous perversities of their style, utterly compelling. (And they're short.)" You can practically visualize Rafferty holding his cocktail and getting uncomfortable as the two dollar words roll off his tongue and past his audience's faces of anxious uncertainty. So he ends by giving them a wink and a nudge (at Bresson's expense), saddling the late director with cliched connotations that he's one of those artsy filmmakers that you're supposed to like, even if, you know, you don't. In doing this Rafferty panders to a well-entrenched fear of non-mainstream cinema, encouraging his reader to shrug off any film that offers the opportunity to engage in a new way to enjoy and appreciate a movie.

Of course it would help if the critic himself were open to such opportunities. Rafferty claims that A Man Escaped "doesn't answer to any reasonable definition of fun," and yet I can think of few prison movies that are as tense, as exhilarating, and just plain entertaining as A Man Escaped – if Rafferty doesn't feel the same, so be it, but his comments seem too eager to close the case. When he claims that the film "lacks the humor and the bonhomie of, say, The Great Escape," he seems to forget how much of this seemingly isolated study of a single convict's escape depends precisely on an extensive network of inmates who are integral to his achieving freedom. It's this very theme of secret collaboration, connecting with others under threat of execution, and placing one's trust and faith in the hands of others (as Leterrier does with his cellmate Jost, after agonizing over whether to include him in the escape plans or kill him), that is central to the tremendous emotional, intellectual and spiritual force of this film.

Such a triumphant assertion of humanism is certainly a contributor to the feeling of "deep, overpowering joy" that Rafferty feels, and that may also be felt in the other masterpieces Bresson made around the same time. Rafferty characterizes this period as the better half of Bresson's career, imbued as he says with "manifestations of what has to be called divine grace." Rafferty is obviously informed by Paul Schrader's oft-referenced but troublesomely limited contribution to Bresson scholarship, which argued that Bresson was a "transcendent" artist whose brilliance and uniqueness were bound in his films' ability to build to a climactic, unmistakable moment of triumphant exultation. Considered this way, everything Bresson did from Mouchette onward is by definition an abject failure. (Thus it is telling that Schrader's Bresson scholarship does not cover any films from the '70s and '80s).

At this point we must ask ourselves a simple question: are we really that eager to conclude, as Rafferty does, that Bresson, in the twilight of his career, was a spiritual burnout, "a sort of cautionary tale for spiritual pilgrims – especially those who, like him, try to unify the spiritual and the aesthetic?" Or is it worth inquiring whether the supposedly inferior second half of Bresson's career has its own ineffable virtues, even if doing so means to revise one's preconceived understanding of what Bresson's earlier films were about?

Rafferty's very definition of what constitutes Bresson's early greatness is fraught with dubious assertions. And this is where the "austerity" issue comes in, the most longstanding and cliched word to describe Bresson's films (even Rafferty jokes about this by stating that it's on "Page 79 of the official movie critic's handbook," which he must have consulted upon writing his essay). Wedded as ever to the tedious currency of the orthodoxy, Rafferty characterizes Bresson's technique as "moviemaking that has taken the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and though that may not sound like a very good idea (it certainly wasn't for Lars von Trier and the Dogme group), damned if Bresson didn't make it work." Perhaps what made it work was that it wasn't so impoverished and chaste to begin with. How few filmmakers do we know have created compositions as attentive to the rich textures of everyday surfaces, from the soft and inviting fur of a donkey to the shiny forboding veneer of Lancelot's armour? How fewer still have explored the soundtrack so assiduously, to tap into an overabundance of meanings and sensations, such that the most overused sound effects (the roaring of a crowd, a slash in a pond, the clanging of swords) take on a whole new resonance and intensity? Bresson's reverence for the visual and aural sensuality of everyday objects amounts to nothing short of hedonistic materialist fetishism! Perhaps these days, it's getting harder to discern any sort of richness and detail that doesn't have to do with MTV flash-cuts and Tarantinian eclecticism, even for middle-aged film critics who should know better.

By shifting our understanding away from St. Bresson The Transcendentalist to Robert The Secularist, one can bypass statements that seem as stuck in a state of spiritual neutral as they claim Bresson of being: "Once obsessed with the presence of grace, he became obsessed with its absence... When his faith deserted him, he was just himself: all dressed down with no place to go." Anyone who's given Lancelot du Lac, The Devil Probably or L'Argent an attentive viewing can discern that these movies were made by a guy who had his eyes and ears intensely trained to the world, in all of its bracing sensation and sprawling activity. It is not that Bresson had made bitter and severe conclusions of the world, but that he took the bitter severity that undeniably exists in this world and faced it head-on instead of shutting himself away. Rather than trying to saddle the world's ills with a false feeling of transcendence – which would have amounted to the same appeasing cocktail party truisms Rafferty employs to ingratiate his readers – Bresson tried to embrace the world, to burrow deep into its textures, sensations and events, and in doing so, perhaps, to redeem it.

A confidently open-minded critic might say that Bresson's later films demonstrate the transcendental aesthetic taken to new extremes, new challenges, and new heights – to make that transcendental impulse more accountable to the reality of the world, instead of using it as a convenient refuge. But to make such an argument, a critic would have to rise to those challenges instead of falling back on one's assumptions masquerading as a cocktail party version of the truth. One would need to be as fearless in exploring the difficulties of great films as Bresson was in exploring the difficulties of the modern world. end block

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