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A Man Escaped

Videodrone: ‘A Man Escaped’ and the films of Robert Bresson on disc and streaming

“This story is true. I give it as it is, without embellishment.”

That’s an understatement of an opening remark. A Man Escaped (Criterion) is a mesmerizing meeting of opposites: a prison escape thriller directed by the austere, introspective Robert Bresson. Based on the memoir by Andre Devigny, a member of the French Resistance imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Gestapo during the German occupation, Bresson (who was himself a German POW) transforms Devigny’s daring escape into an ascetic film of documentary detail. Kept in a tiny stone cell with a high window and a thick wooden door, the prisoner (renamed Fontaine in the film) makes himself intimate with his world–every surface of his room, every sound reverberating through the hall, and every detail of the prison’s layout that he can absorb in brief sojourns from his cell.

Bresson defies expectations of action cinema by focusing on the patience and perseverance of the planning and every minute detail of the preparation. He magnifies every detail with insistent close-ups and detailed examinations of every step, from constructing and hiding ropes and hooks to painstakingly carving out an exit in the heavy cell door, and he a pair of fellow prisoners become a sort of Greek chorus discussing his chances and progress. Shot on location at the actual prison in Lyon, Bresson painstakingly recreates every detail of his ordeal while denying us all outside of his perspective and elements extraneous to his purpose. It’s beautiful, almost meditative, and strangely rousing, a drama where the slightest gesture carries the weight of a confession. In such austerity the tiniest of details take on a monumental significance.

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The Soul of Cinema: Robert Bresson

Northwest Film Forum is screening six Robert Bresson films, Tuesdays through Thursdays over the next two weeks (May 1-May 10), so we’re reprinting this essay written for the 1999 Bresson retrospective.

[Originally published in slightly different form in The Seattle Weekly, March 24, 1999]

It’s a cliché, but it bears repeating: Robert Bresson is an original. Over fifty years since his first feature, Les Anges du Peche (1943) made during the German occupation of France, Bresson recreated the very nature of cinema for himself in his own small way. In a mere thirteen features in his forty year career he carved out one of the most unique bodies of work in world cinema, a set of films both somber and celebratory in their search for grace. He had long retired from directing when he died in 1999 at 98 years of age, having spent the previous fifteen years attending concerts and perhaps still painting. He refused to speak about his work and had stopped granting interviews for some time, but his legacy of cinema speaks volumes.

To the uninitiated Bresson can seem maddeningly indifferent—his films eschew the kind of dramatic spikes and psychological grounding of his contemporaries (the psychological intensity of Bergman seems downright flamboyant next to Bresson’s minimalist approach)—and even many cineastes are left cold by Bresson’s remove. Insisting that cinema is properly not the marriage of photography and theater, but of music and painting, Bresson dismisses the tradition of film acting as “filmed theater.” He systematically strips affectation and method from his performers by relentlessly drilling them in rehearsals until they master the mechanical, uninflected motions and line deliveries. They aren’t actors but “models,” taking a term from painting to describe their function in his filmmaking practice.

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New Yorker Essentials – DVDs for the Week

As the shock of New Yorker’s announcement sinks in, so does the complicated legacy of New Yorker. In conversations with friends and colleagues who programmed college campus films series and commercial repertory calendars (back when such things were a vital part of a metropolitan city cinema landscape), we all recalled the high prices of New Yorker film rentals and the deplorable condition of much of its print library. In my days as a video store manager, I sweated the premium prices of New Yorker videotapes, titles that would be lucky to break even, and they dragged their feet when it came to price reductions (many of which I wound up reviewing for Amazon.com during the early days of its home video launch). As a viewer I was often frustrated by the image interference caused by the heavy Macrovision copy protection. When it came to DVD, the quality was always fine, but never showed the crispness of Criterion restorations and digital mastering.

New Yorker Films' first release
New Yorker Films’ first release

Yet for all those gripes, New Yorker was essential to the richness of cinema culture in my time. It kept alive the canons of Bertolucci, Fassbinder, Godard, Herzog, but in addition to its commitment to the European canon, it brought to light filmmakers from neglected corners of the cinematic culture, in particular Africa, South America and Iran. Would the films of Ousmane Sembene be accessible to American audiences if not for New Yorker? Would the films of South America’s Cinema Novo movement have been “discovered” with them?

Just contrast New Yorker with Miramax. Back in their Miramax days, the Weinstein Bros. showed cagey instincts when it came to sifting through imports for that sexy title that they could sell with their own inimitable mix of art cinema ballyhoo and cultural cache. They outbid everyone else to secure those films in which they saw potential and sunk money into striking good prints with strong, readable subtitles, and into promoting their films. And at times they brought in the scissors to trim down their imports. They combined the arrogance of an old-time studio boss with the promotional savvy of a William Castle or a Kroger Babb, only with a touch of class.

New Yorker never had those promotional instincts and certainly never had the capital to compete with Miramax and the boutique divisions of the major studios that flowered in the wake of Miramax’s success. But then it never occurred to Dan Talbot and the New Yorker crew to edit down the films they imported. Miramax made foreign filmgoing special. New Yorker was about special foreign films and filmmakers. It was, in many ways, up to the audiences to find them.

Most of those studio indie/art film divisions have since been shut down or absorbed back into their parent companies, and the Weinsteins are still looking for a signature acquisition to re-establish themselves outside of Miramax (which is doing just fine in its more modest, post-Weinstein incarnation). On the home video side, we’ve seen  specialty labels like Tartan Films and NoShame close up and others struggle to continue.

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