Saturday, May 12, 2007

Journal d'un curé de campagne (Dairy of a Country Priest, Robert Bresson, 1951)

My Senses of Cinema article is finally out:

Journal d'un cure de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, Robert Bresson, 1951)


It's strange how Bresson's Journal d'un curé de campagne (Dairy of a Country Priest, 1951), a film considered by many to be so spiritual, is so thoroughly immersed in the physical. But Catholicism--and the film is steeped in it--is full of paradoxes: loving one's enemies; believing in one God with three incarnations; needing to die to gain eternal life. Bresson at an early point of his career--using the Georges Bernanos novel--seems to be telling us that to present matters indefinite (the spirit, or soul), you need for material matters definite (the body, the world it lives in); more, to break free of the world of the physical you must first take a firmer hold on said world--for traction, if you like.

The film's first image is of the eponymous diary. You see the texture of the journal's thick paper cover; behind that, a blotter splotched with ink; behind that, a page full of scribbling. The act of writing--scratching ink on rough paper, carefully blotting it, just as carefully closing the cover to keep the contents safe--will become a repeated motif, emphasizing the act of physically capturing and putting down on sheets of flattened pulp one's thoughts and ideas and emotions. Capturing and rendering on paper, so to speak, such elements of the soul as one can record.


Anonymous said...

Have you read Daniel Harper's "dissenting view of Robert Bresson" yet. It seems meant only to provoke argument and even outrage, and in a rather immature way. Harper focuses on the fact that critics who have liked Bresson are often not even spiritual, and finds this hypocritical since an appreciation of Bresson would appear to hinge so much on belief. I feel he entirely misses the point about Bresson, which one could argue has a lot to do with montage. I agree with you that material engagement is essential to his cinema, but I think the tendency by many such as Harper is to pigeon-hole him as a "spiritual" filmmaker and criticize or lionize him from there. Have you read Rosenbaum's review of "Lancelot du Lac". He describes this engagement with the material facts via montage as "the indissoluble surface that speaks". I think that's probably the best description I've heard. Bresson does not think camera and microphone have an alchemical power as Harper contends. Quite the opposite, he knows all to well they are only machines. As he says in his notebook, "My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water." Response?

Noel Vera said...

Nope, have not read Harper, but from what you've told me about him, I can't feel I trust an exclusionary view of the man--there's plenty for the spiritually and materially oriented to work on, is what I think.

Haven't read the Rosenbaum either, but I wrote a piece on Lancelot that's been waiting to be put online (Light Sleeper--I don't know what's happening there). Can't say what I have to say would be any more profound than what Rosnebaum has to say. That's an interesting statement--making something inert express itself.

I like the Bresson quote--he's one of the few filmmakers I know who actually seems to know what he's talking about. Interesting that he'd put the process of filmmaking in terms of dying and coming back to life.

Dan Harper said...

I wrote the "dissenting view" of Bresson for Senses of Cinema, but my dissent was aimed specifically at some of his films, certainly not all of them. I happened to single out two for the highest praise. I even wrote my own piece for Senses of Cinema on "Diary of a Country Priest" some time ago.

A "materialist" approach to Bresson's work? Even when we try not to, we invariably use religious language when discussing Bresson.

Noel Vera said...

You did, Dan? I should look it up.

I can see Bresson functioning as a critic's own religion.

Noel Vera said...

Hi, Dan, do you mean you're Dan Harper? Googled Senses and that's the only article that came up...

Dan Harper said...

Yes, I'm Dan Harper. A friend told me a piece I'd written was mentioned in your blog, so of course I had to check it out! How nice to be called "immature" at my age (49).

Incidentally, I'm leaving the States (Alaska, currently) and moving to the Philippines next month.

Noel Vera said...

My bad, I'd mistaken you for another Dan (or have I? You're not Dan Sallitt, right?).

Interesting piece, especially the complete one you posted on your blog. This one I thought was most provocative:

"for everyone else it is a ridiculously limiting, arbitrarily exclusive, and ultimately pointless exercise."

To which I wanted to reply, "possibly, but it's his ridiculously exclusive and pointless exercise, and he seems to have convinced a few (not a lot, but still) reasonably inteligent people to climb aboard for the ride."

Can a group of people through sheer force of imagination weave the Emperor a new set of clothes, on the spot, while he's parading stark naked down the street? Common sense tells us of course not, but still, but still...

(Incidentally, are you Filipino, or is there some specific reason why you're based in the Philippines? Curious minds want to know)

Dan Harper said...

The way Bresson peels away layer after layer of his surfaces, until only the barest outline of things - a woman, a door, a tree - and then are made to bear the weight of all those peels, of all their "thingnesses," just because, like figures in an icon, they are pointing to a drama somewhere outside the frame, this practice is a perilous one, which can very often yield poor results or none at all. Like a fisherman who refuses to use any bait - what he catches can sometimes be the result of luck, or even accident. Bresson creates in shorthand, his own patois of signs and signals. And as in Matthew Arnold's line, "Thin, thin the pleasant human noises grow."

As I wrote in my original piece, there is definitely something to this practice, of starving expression of practically all of its means to express. But I find it exhausting, suffocating almost. Bresson seems to reject nearly everything that I love about the world of things, only to point to some otherworld perpetually exiled just off camera.

I'm not Filipino, but perhaps someday I may become one. I became acquainted with the place when I fell in love with a woman from Masbate. After many years, we two became Frost's couple from "Meeting and Passing":

Afterward I went past what you had passed
Before we met and you what I had passed.

We exchanged destinies - she is now an American citizen.

Noel Vera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noel Vera said...

It's risky, it's risky I agree. With Pickpocket I remember you contended that Bresson's protagonist didn't even have the momentousness of Raskolnikov's philosophy ("I'm the superior being") and actions (murder); I'd say that's an even more ambitious goal, to dwell on crime and punishment but at a petty, everyday level, and using pure filmmaking technique to give the admittedly quotidian subject matter any magnitude.

I remember you felt Bresson failed to make his case; I'd like to hear a more detailed account of why, if you're ever up to it.

As for your circumstance, can't help but think (with my own circumstance thrown in)--there's nothing more agreeable than an American who's left his country to enjoy the world around him, just as there's nothing more melancholy than a Filipino who's left his country to explore the world around him.

Anonymous said...

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