Richard Hell reports from Philadelphia

The following correspondence is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author. Also see The Devil, Probably by the same author.

From    : Richard Hell
To      :
Date    : Sat, 8 Nov 2003 21:19:06 -0500
Subject : The Devil in Philadelphia

Last night, Friday, November 7, I introduced a screening of Bresson's Le
Diable, Probablement (1977) for Michael Chaikin's most thoughtfully
compiled film program at International House in Philadelphia. It was the
third time I've introduced the film at various venues in the past year.
I seem to have made myself a sideline occupation of the movie
recently--I've published a few articles about it too. Last night was
interesting because I kind of fell apart in the course of my talk. I
lost track of what I was saying! Dark forces of self-consciousness
overtook me. It was like the bus scene in Devil: things started wheeling
out of control, randomly breaking loose, and a painful chaos preceded
the crunch to a halt. As I told the audience, after a prolonged groping
for words, I've actually always wanted to have a nervous breakdown on
stage. I didn't quite achieve that, but I got as close as I ever hope to
without actually dropping my pants or something. But what the hell, it
was all predestined. The worst part, and which I could barely restrain 
myself from leaping up during the film's projection to point out, was that 
I forgot to even mention Bresson's rejection of "actor" for "model"... I
hated that because I think it was a crowd without too much previous
exposure and I would have liked to prepare them for the acting style. It
always seems to me that the expressionless performances (which can also
read as "grim") of the people in Bresson are what make it hardest for
people to get started with him. People are so used to relying on signals
from the actors for the energy and import of a movie. But the good news
is that the audience was large and they sat still for the film. They
seemed affected by it. When introducing it I do my best to account for
Bresson's methods, but I also set the movie up anecdotally in a way that
might be offensive to the purist, namely by describing my identification
with its main character. The notices of the screenings sometimes quote
me as calling it, "The most 'punk' film ever made." Bresson isn't
usually thought of as a topical director but that film did literally
originate in headlines (the story was suggested by a newspaper account
of a youth's suicide), and, as presumptuous and self-centered, not to
mention irrelevant, as it might seem as information about the film, I
was astonished to the point of nausea when I first saw it and recognized
my 1977 (though in that year Bresson was seventy-six years old and may
well have never heard of "punk"); not being a film scholar, that's the
side-bar material I use to justify my intro. (One could also say that
Bresson's stripped-down approach and supreme value of honesty are
something he has in common with the best of that music era. But I don't
mean to put too much weight on the "punk"-Bresson thing. He has more in
common with Cezanne.) Anyway, the movie looked, or I could say,
"sounded," better than ever this time--the seventh, I think, I've
seen/heard it this year. The sound did especially hit me last night, all
of it of course originating in the action, horrifyingly,
heartwrenchingly, exhilaratingly: from the relentless mechanical
clicking footsteps and machine street traffic, to the hideous
interrupting organ-tuning chords in the cathedral, to the the blaring
car-horns after the bus collision, to the static crashing
explosion-waves of nuclear testing on the video monitor, to the
horrendous buzzing and whining and crunching of the sawn-down trees, to
the moment of Mozart overheard through the open window on the way to the
cemetary. Like so many things in Bresson, this way of conceiving sound
is a means of filmmaking not only extraordinarily refined by him but
almost exclusive to him among directors.


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