Indiana's Horny Adolescent Fantasy

17 Feb 2015 | 02:11

    Pickpocket

    Directed by Robert Bresson

    In Her Shoes

    Directed by Curtis Hanson

    Film Forum's ongoing presentation of several Robert Bresson films (Pickpocket and Mouchette for the next two weeks and Au Hasard Balthazar a couple years ago) has prompted a sort of iconoclastic revival, post?The Passion of the Christ. Now it's the atheists' turn to claim Bresson, as if getting rid of the last vestiges of Christianity in art. But are they right?

    It's reasonable that seeing new prints of Bresson's masterpieces should challenge previous Bresson scholarship that was based on worn copies and lousy 16mm versions. Restored prints refute the received wisdom that Bresson was ascetic or austere. Film Forum's previous restorations proved Diary of a Country Priest and Les Dames du Bois de Bologne are among the most sensual black-and-white movies ever made. Their richness is preserved on Criterion's DVDs as well as on New Yorker's A Man Escaped DVD.

    Since more people see Bresson's films on DVD than at Film Forum's ideal big-screen presentation, you might expect an onward-and-upward reassessment; instead, Bresson revisionism has gone straight to hell. I'd like to perform a preemptive strike on the liner-notes essay for Criterion's upcoming Pickpocket DVD that attempts to hijack Bresson for a godless age.

    Currently, moviemakers win approval for being secular: whether the mildly irreverent Wedding Crashers, the disbelieving yet sentimental Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio or their art-house equivalents The Holy Girl and My Summer of Love, which offered MTV-trite religious skepticism. Those films are merely petulant commercialism compared to Bresson's high-minded art exercises, which were never so esoteric that they were beyond the ken of regular moviegoers.

    Controversy isn't needed to make Bresson more exciting and relevant. But Gary Indiana's Pickpocket essay confirms that after The Passion of the Christ, critics and left-leaning media wonks no longer use art to understand human experience or contemplate survival.

    This attitude is hostile to the fact that Western Christian habit was the basis of Bresson's intense absorption in the toughest, most mystifying human experiences-a disillusioned country priest, an alienated petty thief, a scheming urban sophisticate, provincial girls approaching their first change of life. Each one's personal agony or private passion was shrewdly, cleverly displayed through a highly idiosyncratic composition and editing style that only appeared detached. Bresson unconventionally built direct access to numinous imagery and subtle evocations of the otherworldly. Previous film scholars were right to consider that these movies offered a transcendant viewing experience. (Paul Schrader's 1972 book-length study Transcendental Style in Film articulated a devout intellectualism that not only led to Schrader's Taxi Driver and American Gigolo scripts but also Bruno Dumont's La Vie de Jésus and Humanité.) All recognized that Bresson had expanded cinema's potential to touch questions about faith, as well as the mysteries of evil. Bresson forced his audience of educated, presumably skeptical viewers to appreciate the moral struggle and spiritual essence that are inherent to daily living and that make survival possible.

    But Indiana renounces the Christian basis of Bresson's films, saying they are "fixated on the death of feeling and the uselessness of Christian faith." He twists Bresson's movies into meaninglessness-that is, to Indiana's own petty use. Thus Pickpocket's mortifying story of Michel (Martin LaSalle), a young Parisian who opts for the emotional aloofness of criminal life, is interpreted as a libertine's parable. "Stealing has a specific psychosexual meaning for him?he can cop an orgasm if he manages to be in the right place at the right time and rubs against the right partner. His fears are more logistical than spiritual, and also function as aphrodisiacs." This horny adolescent fantasy perverts Bresson's consistent view of behavior and struggle. As criticism, it overlooks the compelling evidence that Pickpocket responds to Hitchcock's startlingly Bressonian 1956 The Wrong Man, a correlated look into the abyss of modern crime and punishment. (LaSalle even resembles Henry Fonda; Indiana pretentiously offers Egon Schiele.)

    It's impossible to popularize Bresson by denying his own professed religious ideas, but Indiana goes for a sophomoric equation-Camus-while condemning Bresson's favored source, author Georges Bernanos, as "a protofascist Christian." He then sullies Pickpocket's inherently Christian critique of commodity fetishism by illogically aligning Bresson with Guy Debord and the Situationists. By removing the core of Bresson's beliefs, Indiana negates Bresson's vision-that faith which extended to Jacques Demy transforming Pickpocket in Bay of Angels (as he also transformed Les Dames into Lola). Demy's testaments to Christian humanism illuminated Bresson's gravity, disproving Indiana's claim that "belief is just as toxic as cynicism."

    Such facile Freudianism belittles Pickpocket, particularly when Indiana misreads Bresson's sensuality. He rejects what Schrader called its "redemptive ending," where Michel, imprisoned by his restless anomie, finally accepts Jeanne's love. Indiana fantasizes that Michel "will probably find dozens of lovers in jail." This is laughably literal-minded-not just lowbrow, but gutterbrow. It disregards Bresson's erotic appreciation and critique-the admittedly conservative yet undeniable connection of rock n' roll?era sex with mechanized depersonalization (especially in Balthazar and Mouchette). Yet Bresson never denies the sensuous, stealthy, erotic exchange of Michel's pickpocketing routines. These montages fragment intimacy. A network of illicit practices, they are marvels of cinematic legerdemain: no less an irony for sober-minded Bresson than ecstatic Christianity.

    Indiana's essay is an enraging hipster polemic, but what causes alarm is its glib presumption that Bresson's vision was nihilistic, an iconoclastic view that, with Criterion's sanction, threatens to spread. Writing of "action [scenes] that speak volumes about nothing but feel uncomfortably textured like real life," Indiana ignores how Bresson penetrated the surface of real life. Bresson was not Bunuel's anarchistic fellow-traveler. But even that perception is better than any Indiana offers. Flip Bunuel's comic misanthropy and see the deep pity that Bresson emphasized. If Bunuel was horrified by man's hypocritical habits and institutions, Bresson took the unceasing tendency toward cruelty to heart. The important difference is the contrasting display of Bunuel's disgust and Bresson's compassion. Both expressions are equally human-and among the glories of film art-but the distinction may also explain why Bresson's b&w films (shot by L.H. Burel and Ghislain Cloquet) are so visually exquisite. These films don't predict our decline but chart our stumbling. Michel confesses, "I ran. I fell," nobly underscored with Mozart. No argument can deny that Bresson filled even the most sordid plots with spiritual beauty.

    Another soulless Curtis Hanson film, In Her Shoes wastes Cameron Diaz as Maggie the pretty, trampy younger sister to Toni Collette's homely, hard-working and resentful Rose. After a big fight, they are reunited by their estranged grandmother Ella (played by Shirley MacLaine) who lives in a Florida retirement community. It's the most freakily un-Jewish Jewish cast since Avalon. Imagine a Jonathan Demme comedy without the spirituality, just lots of melting-pot tokenism (the unlikely Jews are joined by assorted blacks and Asians) and you'll have the idea.

    Entertainment like this (the sisters' contrasting temperaments become comic, tragic, then maudlin) solicits the audience's worst instincts. While In Her Shoes lacks James L. Brooks' enlightened genius into what others trivialize as warmth, it could nonetheless become one of those atrocities that people will invest with their own emotion and turn into an undeserved "classic" like Thelma and Louise or Beaches.