Monday, July 23, 2007

Thoughts on Dardennes, Kiarostami, Bresson, Brecht and Crocodile Dundee

My friend Doug Cummings, a Dardenne brothers and Bresson fan who pointed me to the new Dardenne short (and introduced me to Bresson, for that matter), responded to the Kiarostami quote I sent him with this observation about one particular section;

>>Cinema is really a wonderful thing. Any viewer sitting in a seat in a
>>dark movie theatre is turned into an innocent child. And there's
>>nothing quite as magical as light and darkness. It can send viewers
>>into raptures. Under the circumstances, I suppose this is akin to
>>picking pockets in the dark. By captivating the viewer, we rob him of
>>his reason, which is even worse than emptying his pocket.
>Boy, doesn't this remind you of the Dardenne short?

Which got the gears turning. I wrote...

Marvelous! Of course. Once you make the connection, it even seems as if it must have been on their minds, even an inspiration for their film - though that's unlikely.

The connection certainly brings to the fore the tension I experience in my response to Kiarostami's words. With you and him, I no longer react well to movies that try to take me hostage with action sequences that batter my senses. However, I very much value the "magic" of entering into a film, of feeling with a film, experiences which (he rightly points out) are enhanced by the darkness and quiet of a movie theatre (or a live theatre, for that matter). Kiarostami seems ill-at-ease with an emotional / imaginative engagement (he reminds me of Brecht in this way), while he strongly desires an intellectual / conjectural engagement - the viewer co-creating the work with him. (The latter is a mechanism that we in the live theatre very much rely upon - or at least, that was a very important part of how I was taught. It underlies the "less is more" aesthetic that you'll hear among many artists in many art forms.) Kiarostami doesn't seem to value the idea of sending his viewers into raptures, of the viewer being "captured." Well, I do. And I suspect the Dardennes do. I doubt whether they are sitting in judgment on the woman in the cinema in their short film. And few films have so captured me, so aroused my emotions, so drawn me in, as THE SON: I doubt whether that would displease them.

I'm going to suggest that this points not to the undesirability of taking viewers to a place of childlike innocence, where the light and darkness can send them into raptures - like the woman in the cinema in the Dardenne short. And yes, that leaves them vulnerable to being pickpocketed: just because some reprehensible filmmakers set out to take advantage of us in the dark while we're in raptures, doesn't mean no film maker should seek to send us into raptures. I think it points only to the fact that, as artists, we are faced with a tremendous responsibility to the people we enrapture, that we treat with respect the people over whom we cast our spells. Enrapture them, yes: just don't pick their pocket while they're surrendered to so innocent and vulnerable a condition.

And by the way, it's a false dichotomy that suggests we either feel or think. That when we are emotionally moved we shut off our brains. Ridiculous! When the Dardennes use my intellectual curiosity to lock me into the world of THE SON, or Kiarostami engages my intellect so overwhelmingly (and I choose that word intentionally) in CLOSE-UP, or Bresson in A MAN ESCAPED, I am all the more prepared to feel deeply in the course of the film - precisely because they have so completely drawn me into their world by engaging my mind, my intellect, my curiosity.

Hm. (That's an acceptable two-letter word in Scrabble, did you know?) I'm thinking I'd like to work these thoughts up into a lecture about audience engagement, Brecht's "A Effect" (or "V Effect," if you want to really impress the academics), sentimentality, manipulation, artist responsibility, "less is more," all that. Using the Kiarostami quote and the Dardenne short, then showing clips from films that illustrate filmmakers' various approaches, from the opening of THE SON to an excerpt from CLOSE-UP, contrasted with other films that clearly use swelling music and high-intensity situations to manipulate audience emotions. (I flash on the climactic scene of CROCODILE DUNDEE, of all things, which so galled me 20 years ago when emotional music elicited tears in the corniest "lovers getting together" scene imaginable: I felt, well, robbed). I also think of THE QUEEN, where everything is framed in so muted and restrained an emotional and aesthetic range that the filmmakers calibrate our responses to be ready for the film's climactic moment, a scene which I found both extraordinarily complex and deeply affecting - as well as narratively dense, saturated with reversals - which we would find unexceptional in most other films.

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