MichaelLitle Plus

Sebastopol, California

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Robert Bresson advised filmmakers to show "what has not yet been seen." His movie Pickpocket demonstrates the craft of watching people like a pickpocket watches, very carefully. When the thief makes his move, and a citizen has been relieved of his wallet, a viewer feels this is not just another clever illusion. Bresson says he tries to make life present itself. He writes scripts, and his people memorize a minimal number of lines. But rather than hire actors skilled in pretending to experience the feelings appropriate to any particular drama, he hires real people who repeat what he asks them to say with minimal inflection. His most "theatrical" work Lancelot du Lac is unmistakably an artifice.

Godard studied Bresson. Self-aware movies became popular when viewers became sophisticated. The artificial nature of pretending for a camera is clear in Wes Anderson's Aquaitica & Hotel Budapest. Being "in the know" about film artifice encourages us to take a cynical pleasure in the spectacle. By cynic I don't mean in the modern use as in jaded, but rather in the Greek use, as in skeptical. One does not get seduced by the drama.

Pulp Fiction "broke through" to a mass audience with Tarantino's self-conscious tricks - talking about a foot massage just before a casual killing. One reference goes back back to Hemingway's The Killers. The dialog in the original short story is matter-of-fact as the men sit in the diner where their victim works. When the Don Seigel made the movie with Burt Lancaster as the victim his stardom leads us to identify with a man about to die. Adding the discussion of a foot massage distracts us while the anxiety builds. Identification with a protagonist is the sine qua non of Hollywood (& now world) cinema. With our film Gateless, following the Buddhist Wheel of Life, it was important to show how the world surrounding the character exists prior to the character. In this sense, a genre picture sets up a set of rules for us the audience. But there may be a deeper reading to cinema's ability to reveal circumstance prior to the theatre's ability to establish character. As Jean Renoir said in an interview about why he likes to let his actors play before they set their lines, "existence precedes essence". This notion summarizes the philosophy of existentialism developed by Albert Camus & Jean Paul Sartre, some say as a response to the situation of colonialism in Algeria, and Nazism in France. How to behave with purpose, when the social world is crazy - power is centralized in a unjust state.

Can we transpose this inversion of power? Given global warming, now everyone can relearn the indigenous wisdom - of course our environment comes before civilization. Back to movie theory.

How many young people say about their latest movie experience "you got to see the effects"? Does this imply they ignore the drama? I think not, they allow their feelings to wallow in the pathos of the hero or heroine at the same time as they observe the spectacular. I am weary of technical wizardry. And I prefer films that rely on real space and time to convey their tales. When I feel a movie-maker reach through the screen, I experience something quite different from the different kinds of thrills most screens provide. Making a ghost appear or disappear is about my speed. Or the great young filmmaker Rahmin Ramani with Goodbye Solo forces us to imagine the experience of flight. The human dilemma pushes to the front in all three of Ramani features I have seen, whereas such a filmmaker as Aronofsky likes to pokehis finger in your eye.

In Notes of a Cinematographer, Bresson writes about choosing innocent people who reveal themselves. He claims to dislike acting. He rehearses until the affectation is drained out of the behavior he wants. This way of presenting swims upstream in our time when pretense has become a way of being. An audience who comes to see a story film has been trained to watch actors who pretend very well. How then, to invent a movie (as distinct from factual documentary) that might make visible a fresh series of moments?

With Gateless, we improvise a lot. A volunteer cast limited me to two takes. But free cameras allowed two angles per take. Presenting the story the morning of the shoot (or changing it radically during the rehearsal) gave players no time to plan motives. A few times people rehearsed exchanges.

I am happy if you think some moments feel awkward. Doesn't life itself feel that way?

Among the leads, trained actors - Susan, Chip & Rachel provided me with structure within struggling dramas. Seasoned performers Kyra or Jena gave the roles their well-developed concentration. Aristo maintains his varied roles using his focus as a shaman. Katrina's inventiveness, and training as a singer, surprised me often. With the amateurs I relied on giving them tasks they were familiar with, and on directing them as I imagine Bresson did, to repeat specific behavior. Two extraordinary performers, Jonathan & James, can dive into a role with complete absorption. As can David.

The world is too dangerous for anything but the truth, and too small for anything but love. William Sloane Coffin 1924-2006


  1. wendy cassel
  2. James McGuire