Robert Bresson Week
When I began this project 82 days ago, I had only heard of the name Robert Bresson in the context of the British Film Institute’s list of The Greatest 100 Films. Until last week when I began Robert Bresson week, my goal was to watch Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), Pickpocket (1959) and Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and maybe Mouchette (1967) and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962).
After 4 days of analysing Au Hasard Balthazar – I’d started it in the week I did The Godfather Part II screening – it was so unfathomable (because it’s so obviously not a film about an abused donkey with several owners) that it cascaded into me finally watching it straight through three times. I had to push everything back by a week, just as I was about to head into the next week’s films, The 400 Blows and Jules et Jim.
It seems like every week I’m having to re-write the schedule in minor ways to make allowances for including additional films that I think are important. Once you start delving into Ingmar Bergman, for instance, an easy week of three films turns into a mammoth thirteen days of watching eleven films.
It was the last day of Week 10, or the second day of Week 11 – I’m not sure as I’m living in the land of the slightly elastic schedule at the moment – and as I had copy of Pickpocket, now slightly intrigued by this director, I put it on that night – hoping that it would not prompt me to watch it three times and spend 4 days analyzing it. Wrong. It was very interesting. It was thought-provoking. It was shot in such an unusual manner for 1959, like a documentary (full of non-documentary-like close-ups of hands) or a technical manual for would-be light-fingered criminals, which could be called Be the Best Pickpocket You Can Possibly Be. Except, the film couldn’t possibly be cinema verité or a documentary, because, despite its manner of allowing the audience to observe everything as if we were somehow in the pocket ourselves, it looks like it was carefully designed and well-thought out (like, for instance the design of life on this planet) and every frame calculated to elicit a response from the viewer. With a clear understanding of how to tell a story, Bresson made it unfold very naturally, except for the incredible detail of hands and pockets and sharpened spoons.
Somehow Bresson has created a world which unfolds as if the camera was just there observing, and we – the viewer – are like God, see everything and observing everything. Not knowing anything about his methods or his budget constraints, or how much footage he shot, it could be that he had a lot of time to make the film, with lots of careful attention to detail, or that he was just out there in the world capturing actors in real locations which included a lot of real people and a bare minimum of extras or that it was a very complex shoot involving lots of extras and a proper crew.
However he achieved it, Bresson has given Pickpocket and A Man Escaped an authentic feel, like it’s a naturally unfolding story, almost at random, mixed with clever close-ups which would have been cheap to create requiring a minimal crew, intercut later. It’s pretty clever, either way. As writer-director, Bresson really controlled the elements and the days he was shooting. He could have been very spontaneous in what he shot, using experimentation, and made a lot of it up along the way, or it may have been meticulously scripted and storyboarded and made in the traditional manner of having a strict schedule and adhering to it.
Being able to achieve the goal of experimenting with the filmmaking process or having the luxury of time and a budget for any kind of art involving several people, is rare.
Random filmmaking prior to Godard’s Breathless in 1959-1960 was unnatural, unless you were Chaplin or Griffith or Keaton or Lloyd – rich (or the works of many filmmakers I’ve never studied like Lumiere or Edison, I suppose). Random filmmaking is too expensive for most filmmakers, as they need backers. Although painters, writers and composers get to conceive anything their imagination can conjure, it still takes money to publish those thoughts, perform those works or exhibit those pictures to more than a very small audience – even to a small audience. Think of Haydn, Bach and Mozart – they were creating works to be heard in small gatherings of a few dozen people, or maybe two or three hundred, or maybe a few thousand in extraordinary circumstances.
Some people, Monet and Manet, Van Gogh and Picasso and Wagner, Stravinsky and Prokofiev and Shostakovich, came up with a different language, to express their thoughts, and they were extremely successful, but not necessarily in their own lifetime. Schoenberg invented his own musical language, within a set of self-imposed rules, which never became popular with the general public. Eventually, he returned to a neo-Classical musical base. So did Stravinsky at the end. Shostakovich trod a ground between experimentation (atonal and less atonal but heroic) which I have never fathomed musically. The different between his compositions which were accepted and rejected, other than the characteristics of the emotion or action in the music, I can’t discern compositionally (but then also, I haven’t tried to break it all down).
Wagner put his money where his mouth was and succeeded spectacularly – occasionally. Coppola did it too and was less successful. Keaton did it. Chaplin did it. The great entrepreneurs did it in other fields. One of the great example of this was Howard Hughes who had money that could be wasted. If he created a lame duck, it didn’t matter. Or if he took an inordinate amount of time to make a film, it didn’t matter.
Experimentation is the luxury that few people can every afford, because the people with the money aren’t the people with the ideas. Not 9 times out of 10, not 99 times out of 100, not even 999,999 times out of a million.
Musically, if I wanted an orchestra to play an experimental composition (or a standard musical work) of 30-45 minutes I would need two sessions (each session with 100 players costing $30 thousand). Plus $5-10 thousand to record, edit and mix it. If it was purely about experimenting, then I could probably hire the Sydney Youth Orchestra or the Australian Youth Orchestra for a day for $5,000, just to play hundred minutes of music over a period of 360 minutes so I could hear how it sounded but not perfect the performance or record it at the level the notes the composition required. If I wanted to record it and it was going to be perfect in execution, then it’s $70,000. Even experimenting with the creation of film (developing) and music (an orchestra playing) is costly. Paint and ink, less so.
Godard tried it with Breathless and succeeded in making a film – highly regarded – with no screenplay, and a film crew ready to work, but not being used on some of the mornings or afternoons or evenings, for which they were being paid, while he came up with ideas for the next thing he wanted to do. Coppola tried a more measured approach with Apocalypse Now, and got his vision on film, edited and released and it was successful. He tried it again with One from the Heart, edited and released, and found himself in $50 million of debt.
I find it funny to observe that in the world of pop or rock music, such a thing was not absurd or foolhardy in the 1960s with many artists including The Beatles. An artist or band with a monster release could go into the studio for a year, at the recording label’s expense, if there was sufficient evidence of previous sales.
Spielberg’s spectacular failure, 1941 is an example. Following that, his good returns were acceptable for a low budget art film, The Color Purple, which were in contrast to the budget vs return for Empire of the Sun, which left the accountants with nothing but red ink. For the artist, when you gain that status, you merely move to a different studio, and make another Indiana Jones film. Universal Studios had to cop their failures (Always and Hook) and happily realize the joyride of their billion-dollar successes (E. T. and Jurassic Park).
Big ideas require big money – and that’s not written in stone but it is obvious. You can’t conceive of the orchestral requirements of Belshazzar’s Feast if you’re playing a Mozart symphony and a Rachmaninov piano concerto in the same concert. It’s ridiculous. But the true story is stranger than fiction – go online and read how it happened.
If you gave me $60,000 which wasn’t my money, or wasn’t advanced to me, and, needed to be repaid, I could easily conceive of a large orchestral piece of 40 minutes which I think would be one of the most extraordinary pieces of music ever heard or recorded. I would dazzle the audience with an oboe-flute interplay that would build to unheard of dissonances and lead to Prokofiev-like melodies and Shostakovich-like harmonies with a satisfying conclusion. It would be a journey as loving, embracing, joyful, and unsettling and disturbing as our own personal experience of life. I would offer no pre-concert talk. Just an experience like no one in a concert hall had ever experienced. It’s all in my mind at this moment. I see music in every bit of creativity my mind can conceive.
If I was Stanley Kubrick, and the year was 1965, and you gave me $4. 5 million, I could create something on film, to a level never conceived of (or seen or heard or recorded). The difference is that Kubrick conceived it, and people came. People came. I don’t think he could have redeemed himself or had the control over the next two projects without the previous four project’s success.
But If I created something musically for $600,000 or $60,000 I’d make it new and amazing, even if there’d be no way of getting an audience to hear my creation. It would be Kubrick $10 million, receipts $30 million. Philip $60,000, receipts $1,000.
The only way to do it would be to guarantee SSO, or MSO, a fee of $60,000 for one day’s work (performance and recording, for release), contingent on three performances in an important part of their concert subscription series.
Kubrick had a guardian angel with 2001: A Space Odyssey and a film that was doomed on every level, other than its superb execution, made money; and therein lies a tale. A great mind can sometimes only be expressed with great expense. If I was a composer who would write the wordless choral music that Kubrick used for an understanding of the horror and fear and awe of the apes and humans who encountered the monolith, music which Ligeti had already written, no one would pay for the chorus or orchestra and the recording costs. Ligeti’s music which Kubrick adopted is inconceivably conceived. And yet, it only is known to the world, through a recording that became an accompaniment to a monolith as a joining of an alien world/intelligence (Ligeti’s wordless choral music) with an object, variously called a monolith, but which is a gravestone or monument essentially, married with an interaction by the beings of this planet, earth, to the vision and sound of another intelligence. How appropriate that a Louis XVI drawing room is the thing that links Bowman and the alien intelligence, which could evoke the classical music of Haydn or Beethoven, not Strauss or Ligeti, but like Telemann and Handel in Barry Lyndon (which Kubrick surreptitiously pre-empted in A Clockwork Orange).