The zenith of purity in the cinema

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the film’s release, here is my brief review of Robert Bresson’s magnificent Au Hasard Balthazar.

“No matter how much we may love the cinema, purity is something that we rarely find on the screen. Wonder, yes. Spectacle, emotion by the bucket-load, but purity, very rarely.

And Au Hasard Balthazar is the zenith of purity in the cinema. Through this matchless masterpiece, Bresson has shown us what the cinema might have been if it did not have the crushing obligation to make money.

For many years I regarded this as the greatest film ever made – and it still could deserve that epithet. What is certain is that with Balthazar, Bresson entered a form of expression in cinema that is so profound that it almost burns you to watch it.

Of course it’s not about a donkey, but the sins of the world. And it is a measure of Bresson’s staggering achievement that at the end of the film you can actually believe that you have witnessed the sins of the world. And it leaves you not shocked, nor angry – though both emotions are entirely appropriate – but numb with a desperate sadness.

On top of all of this, it is also the film which is the subject of probably the finest piece of film criticism in the English language – Andrew Sarris’ long and wonderful review of it in The Village Voice on its initial New York release. That ends, ‘it stands alone atop one of the loftiest pinnacles of artistically realised emotional experiences.’

And so it does.”

That was what I wrote 15½ years ago, and twice out of the three times I have seen the film in a cinema since that time, it again rocked me to my emotional core …. but, in sadness one must add that it is very difficult to reproduce the same effect at home. From time to time I watch my BFI DVD of the restored film and, I regret to say, am nearly always disappointed. It is still a great, great film, but its crushing emotional effect eludes me.

This absolutely must have to do with what I was saying in ‘How To Watch a Film’ – namely that the film world, when it is larger than their world, dominates the consciousness of the viewers, has a mainline into their psyches.

Gérard - François Lafarge in 'Au Hasard Balthazar'.
Gérard – François Lafarge in ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’.


This is particularly true of the character of Gérard (François Lafarge, the ‘villain’ of the film), who, cruelly tortures Balthazar, conspires road accidents for fun, corrupts the innocence of Marie (Anna Wiazemsky) and ultimately leads Balthazar to his death.  I cannot think of a character so irredeemably wicked in all cinema.

Seen in a cinema,  he is unspeakable,  but on the small screen, his wickedness doesn’t really seem to come across.

Be all this as it may, the film remains a pillar of purity – both purity of theme and, especially, purity of expression.  I showed the film for the first time in QFT only a few months after I arrived in 1969, and happily told the just over 600 patrons that they were about to see a film that was one of the greatest that they would ever see. Almost 10% of those patrons came up to me after the screening and reassured me that I was right.

It is one of the relatively few films that makes me think that, in spite of everything, QFT really achieved something in those difficult early years.


Filling in the gaps

Most people know that the world we see in a films is not a ‘continuous’ world but a ‘discrete’ one. The ‘instants’ in that world are captured as frames of film and presented to us so rapidly (at 24 frames per second if projected in a cinema, 25 on television), that we cannot tell the difference from a continuous screen reality.

This process in completely subliminal and takes no mental effort as it is a ‘weakness’ in our retina that is exploited. The lowest speed in frames per second at which this ‘trick’ works without us being aware that we are being conned is about 16 frames per second. As the speed is reduced below this speed, our eyes start to be aware of a flicker, which is perceived as a rhythmic change in luminosity.

One of the slang terms for the cinema in my youth (late 50s) was ‘the flicks’ and that term comes directly from the era in which film projectors were hand-cranked by projectionists and, as time wore on in the performance, the projectionists arms tired and the rate of cranking, hence speed in frames per second, reduced and the flicker became obvious to the audience.

Unfortunately it is very difficult to find videos that display this effect as your video display, whether desktop or hand held will be at least 25fps and that effectively cuts out the flicker effect, but if you have never seen it, just blink as fast as you can and you will get the idea.

At root, therefore, cinema is the art that asks us to fill in the gaps in its own version of reality, or artifice. In fact, it goes beyond that, as I now hope to demonstrate. Already in these articles, I have had occasion to mention the work of Lev Kuleshov, a Soviet experimental film theorist and film maker. His ‘Kuleshov effect’, in which different emotions are transferred to an actor’s expressionless face, are, in all examples I have seen, somewhat underwhelming, (click here).

Ivan Mosjoukine, the actor used by Kuleshov.

This ‘effect’ is simply something that, it is argued, is inherent with montage (the placing of one shot after another in the editing).

However, there is another experiment that he made which has, IMHO, far greater significance. The original is, as far as I know, lost, but I saw the details ‘reproduced’ as stills in a book some time ago. It is a part of film practice known as ‘creative geography’. What it boils down to is that, watching a film, the human mind seeks certainty where there is none and ‘fills in the gaps’. In the original experiment, a man and a woman meet at a Moscow landmark, set off walking and arrive at some steps, which are ‘revealed’ to be the steps of the Capitol building in Washington.

Among film makers, of course, this allows a plethora of ‘cheat shots’ used to convince us that action is taking place in some famous location when it isn’t. What Kuleshov showed was that our brains take markers from early shots and apply them to later ones making the conclusion that they are contiguous in space, if not, necessarily, in time. The couple, of course, would have taken some time to walk from any large building to another, that has its own logic.

So, the act of editing together shots does not only progress the plot in a linear way, it defines the space which is presented discretely and suggests that it is continuous. We fill in the gaps because, originally, when the couple set off, the fact that, in the next shot when they are shown, they are still walking, means that we assume that they have continued to walk to the point at which we next see them.

This may be a blessing, as it means that we are not subjected to tedious minutes of exposition of all that takes place, but it is also a curse, as when time is passing, the film-maker is obliged to indicate the fact otherwise we may assume that the subsequent scene is contiguous with the former in time as well as space.

In Bruges, subject of my last post, is quite instructive in this. As the climax approaches, on the third day, the action splinters in space – Ray (Colin Farrell) takes himself off to commit suicide then on to a train and finally back to Bruges; Ken (Brendan Gleeson) goes to the ‘gun man’ then to the park to encounter Ray and finally waits for the arrival of the furious Harry (Ralph Fiennes) who in turns gets a phone call from Ken at around midday and proceeds to come to Bruges to vent his spleen on the other pair.

Martin McDonagh the writer/director keeps the audience abreast of the passage of time neatly with an alarm clock, a clock at the station and the arrival of dusk as Harry arrives in Bruges. In screen writing circles, this is called “explaino” and, if it holds up the action is a negative virtue. The master at good “explaino” was Hitchcock, but McDonagh’s exposition is also right up there, using very brief shots and phrases thrown into naturalistic dialogue.

The important thing in complex narrative films is to keep the audience convinced that there aren’t any holes into which the film has fallen, many thrillers tend to play fast and loose with this ‘rule’, on the basis that the audience are too caught up in the story to notice the ‘holes’, but true artists don’t rely on such trickery.

We subconsciously ‘fill in the gaps’ in relation to characters’ thoughts and feelings as well, but that is even most complex, and the subject for another day.





Elements of cinema – 1: The Script

In the introduction to my “Forty films” list, I asserted that many people are, effectively, looking in the wrong place for ‘art’ in films. One of the things I was thinking about was the central place of ‘plot’ and ‘theme’ in many people’s estimation.

I am a child of the 60s and the culturally dominant aesthetic of cinema in the 1960s was the politique des auteurs. In a nutshell, this idea, originally espoused by François Truffaut, and embraced by his friends and colleagues, was that critical orthodoxy at the time (in referring, principally to French cinema) massively overvalued literary values and worthy stories at the expense of truly expressive and cinematic values that were not the product of literate scripts but expressive mise en scène by the director.

This is an idea that struck a chord with me in my late teens and I have only rarely had to modify that view in the intervening fifty years. However, I was, from time to time, inclined to feel that the scenarist has been undervalued critically and when great scripts get made, sometimes the director gets the credit.

So, today, I want to look at a modern film script that shows what the scenarist brings to the creative process. It just so happens that the scenarist of this film is also its director, but that doesn’t matter as I only want to talk about the way in which the script elevates and expresses the film’s qualities.

The film I am talking about is Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. You can download the film’s shooting script by clicking here.

In Bruges is a magnificent morality play that takes a critical look at redemption and turns many of our easily held moral judgements inside out. It seems very ‘Irish’ but not a frame takes place in Ireland. The very nature of what follows forces me to reveal many spoilers, so, if you haven’t seen the film, please, stop and click here to buy a modestly priced DVD, or download immediately,  one of the best films you will see all year . (And please return when you have seen it! )

So, what’s in a script? Yes there’s action and plot and dialogue (of which more later), but, more importantly it will determine the characters, the structure and the thematic heart of the film. So let’s look at them.

The film is self-evidently a black comedy – the story of two Irish hit men who botch a mob killing and are sent to Bruges to be dealt with , but McDonagh, from very early on in the film, brings serious theological questioning into the script, largely by inverting our sense of morality and making the most attractive characters do very ‘evil’ things.

It commences with one of the most brilliant opening lines of dialogue that I can remember:

Ray – After I killed them….

Most films that revolve around a murder make the murder the central incident in the story  – Psycho, for example. It is the same for literature – viz. MacBeth or Crime and Punishment –  and though it is not always central to the theme of the work, its gravity is acknowledged in its structural importance, but here, it has happened even before the film has started (though we see it in flashback, but that is to draw the analogy with the final scene).

Originality is not “the most important thing” in a film, but it’s inverse – the derivative and the clichéd are some of the most glaring faults. There is certainly nothing clichéd about the cast of characters of In Bruges. All of the major characters are defined, effectively, with qualities that are the opposite of what we expect. There is an arms dealer who is obsessed with the intricacies of the English language – two hilarious scenes have him agonising over the pronunciation of ‘dumdum’ and the correct use of the word ‘alcove’. Click here for a clip.


There is a dwarf who has bizarre racist ideas, and does all kind of drugs, and a drug pusher with a heart of gold. The ostensible villain of the piece – Harry the psychotic mob boss (Ralph Feinnes) – is shown to be unexpectedly honourable when he blows his own head off (as he had earlier indicated that he would), when he realises that he has killed ‘a child’ (actually the dwarf dressed up as a schoolboy).

There is also an adage about film which says that it can give objects life.  There is a wonderful example of this when Harry throws an explosive tantrum after being told by Ken that he hadn’t killed Ray as demanded.   Harry stares at the telephone receiver then smashes it time and time again on a table top; no only does this show just how to be feared Harry is, but it shows his powerlessness at that moment, and the smashing of the phone is a classic example of ‘killing the messenger’. The telephone receiver becomes the object of his ire, and, when his wife intervenes by reminding him (of the phone) that “It’s an inanimate fucking object!” to which Harry, bizarrely replies “You’re an inanimate fucking object.” as if to emphasise what a crazy mental world he inhabits.


Ken and Ray: two killers divided by culture.

But it is in the two central characters – Ken and Ray (Brendan Gleason and Colin Farrell, respectively) – that McDonagh’s playful method defines itself. They continue the methodology of having anti-archetypal characteristics, but in totally different ways so that they are at once similar and opposite.  Ken is cultured, religious and loyal to his boss friend Harry. Ray is uncultured, sceptical and clearly holds Harry in some, albeit fearful contempt.

Their attitude to culture is beautifully defined in an early exchange of dialogue:

Ray: Bruges is a shithole.

Ken: Bruges is not a shithole.

Ray: Bruges is a shithole.

What we have already seen, when this exchange takes place, is that Bruges is a magnificent well-preserved mediaeval city, so Ray’s assertions tell us nothing about Bruges, but a lot about him. And this ‘uncultured lout’ image is reinforced in his attitudes – mildly homophobic (he describes the small glasses of beer ordered by Ken as ‘Gay beer’ as opposed to his large ‘real beers’).  One of the comic high-points is his insensitive treatment of a family of severely overweight Americans click here to see the clip:

An extremely creative part of script-writing is the control of information between the audience and the characters. This is playfully acknowledged in the above scene when Ken emerges from the tower, not having experienced the previous scene and falls into the same ‘trap’ as Ray, in trying to be helpful. The fabulous irony of this scene only emerges in a throwaway line of dialogue later in the film when the ticket-seller in the tower (who had previously been so unhelpful with Ken) announces that “The tower is usually open until seven. Yesterday an American had a heart attack up the tower. The tower is closed this evening.” So Ray’s insensitivity was entirely justified!

Another funny, but less than attractive aspect of Ray’s character is his tendency to base his attitude to things from a very narrow knowledge base. For example, dwarfs, whom he happily calls ‘midgets’, have a tendency to suicide. This gem he makes the subject of a conversation with his newly-found girlfriend.

America? The Vietnam war and the killing of John Lennon: click here for the famous restaurant scene.

Incidentally,  this scene follows a somewhat tortuous conversation between Ken and Ray as to when it is acceptable to hit someone first rather than as retaliation and Ray is very certain that, if someone comes at you with a bottle, to hit first is justified!

Some of the best aspects of the film are the ironies that proliferate in its moral heart. Ray has, accidentally, killed a child while carrying out a contract killing of a priest; (one of the film’s imponderables is the reason for that killing).  Ray is sinking in a vortex of guilt and despair. This is not helped by the fact that among the cultural attraction to which Ray is dragged by Ken is The Last Judgement triptych by Hieronymus  Bosch, and one of the churches contains a phial of Jesus’ blood!

Ken has a pivotal rôle in all this, and the peak of irony is reached in the following scene – click here


This scene seems to me to be filled with some very deep Catholic logic: that to allow someone to kill himself is worse than to kill him.

The scene is incredibly impressive at a level of film-craft – the complex inter-cutting of gestures and movement is a brilliant piece of ‘direction’ or ‘editing’, but look at the shooting script – pages 59-63! It’s all there!! So perhaps when, unlike here, films are made from scripts not written by their directors, it’s all there too.

So does this mean t hat suddenly, film directors are simple craftsmen, slavishly presenting the great creative works of genius scenarists? For a while, I started to worry and wonder, but that is not the case. I checked out the script of Howard Hawks’ El Dorado (from a magnificent script be Leigh Brackett – the most talented woman in Hollywood for years). But when I looked for one of the great expressive scenes – the arrival of Bull in the first section of the film, I discovered that it wasn’t there. It had been restructured and improvised by Hawks during the shoot.

Martin McDonagh was writing In Bruges for himself to direct, so it is natural that he started to ‘direct’ the film on the page, professional script-writers such as the late great Leigh Brackett, wouldn’t have done that – they ‘knew their place’. But there are examples, even modern ones, where scenes are remarkably detailed in the shooting script. In the film Se7en, there is a scene in which Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) are researching the murders – one in a library, the other at home. This elegant montage is accompanied by a recording of Bach’s Air on a G string. Click here to see the scene. This is all in the script, even the choice of music, and it wasn’t written by David Fincher!

The great dark heart of In Bruges came from Martin McDonagh’s vision, and the ‘visionary’ directors of the past, like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini all, largely, wrote their own scripts. The politique des auteurs is not yet dead. But we should pause to give all directors credit for the thematic inspirations of their films that may have come from somebody quite ‘else’.

Oscars schmoscars

I have always had an ambiguous attitude to the Oscars. The Academy’s track record over the past almost 90 years has not been good. The judgement has too often favoured the big over the great, the shallow over the profound and the mawkish over the moving. Then, in my more generous moments, I have thought that they, at least, provide a carrot for filmmakers to elevate their work over the lowest common denominator level that seems to be the norm for much of Hollywood’s output.

I don’t even want to get into the question of non-English language cinema except to say that how Almodovar’s Talk to Her (Hable con Ella) failed to be nominated for Best Picture, which it most certainly deserved to win, I fail to understand, especially as Almodovar himself won most deservedly for Best Original Screenplay, and it was a year of relative midgets won by Chicago. But there are just too many voters who can’t be bothered to read the subtitles (even in Spanish, which is the second language of California!!).

This is not to say that I am making my remarks primarily on the basis of my own likes and enthusiasms. But one looks for the winners of the past to be the most admired classics of today.  But no, Citizen Kane regarded as inferior to How Green was my Valley, Vertigo wasn’t nominated in any category! No Best Director Oscar for Hitchcock, Welles, Lubitsch, Chaplin… I could go on and on. Nor do less ‘intellectual’ categories fare very well. No best actor for Cary Grant, nor best actress for Marlene Dietrich, or Jean Arthur,  whom James Stewart described as “the best actress I ever worked with.”

Perhaps even worse than this is the way that, over the last decade or so, the marketing departments have gone bananas with carefully crafted ‘Oscar-ready’ productions. Thematic threads abound with Good Things  – tolerance of a host of minorities, battling against injustice, and, bizarrely, the British Royal Family! Then there are the equally obligatory Bad Things to be roundly condemned – slavery, war, social prejudices, as if art is disguised sociology, and this decade’s social obsessions will last as long as Shakespeare’s plays.

But hey, there must be some good things in the Oscars, even for a Grumpy Old Film Critic like me. Well, at least once in the last decade and a half, they made an heroic and great choice – Million Dollar Baby. But, as I pass backwards in time, I can’t understand how they chose Birdman over Boyhood12 Years a Slave to virtually anything and certainly Her and Nebraska,  etc., etc.

And, of course, there are years like 2009 when nothing deserved an Oscar and like 2008 when nearly all those nominated (except, possibly, Michael Clayton), were better than most of the winners in surrounding years.  I well recognise that the Best Picture Oscar is not meant to be a foolproof value judgement for the future, but couldn’t they “get it right” once in three years rather than once in ten, as, approximately, at present.

Here is my list of Best Picture Oscar “should have beens” since 2000.
2000 –  Requiem for a Dream
2001 – Mulholland Dr
2002 – Hable con Ella
2003 – Goodbye Lenin
2004 – Million Dollar Baby
2005 – The New World*
2006 – Letters from Iwo-Jima
2007 – Atonement
2008 – In Bruges
2009 – Fantastic Mr Fox
2010 – Inception (with reservations)
2011 – The Tree of Life
2012 – To the WONDER
2013 – Her
2014 – Boyhood.

* In fairness, The New World was excluded from consideration as Malick re-edited the film after poor audience response to its US release.

So, what should win this year – I don’t know because, regrettably, I have only seen one nominated film – that is Carol, which, in spite of  its Good Thing leanings, is full of classical filmic qualities and makes a fascinating companion piece to Far From Heaven. If it wins, which I doubt, I won’t be rejoicing, but at least I won’t be tearing my hair out.

Earth has fallen


A year or so ago I spent (some might say wasted) an inordinate amount of time compiling a list of films that I regarded as key to the understanding of the creative processes that go to make great cinema. I published them on IMDb as 40 films to help you understand the cinema.
Such lists are, evidently, subjective but I believe a subjective list from someone who has given a lifetime to extolling the virtues of the cinema as an art has more validity than one from a casual cinema goer. I will take a couple of entire posts to explain the origin and methodology of the list creation process, but I want, here, to show how hazardous such an endeavour can become.
Even while I was working full-time in the cinema, it was never possible to continually refresh one’s mind of the entire canon of classic films. You are left with your memory of a film and a general sense of its ‘importance’. This can vary from wild enthusiasm to subdued reverence.
One of the undoubted highlights of the Centenary of Cinema season which I presented at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast throughout 1996 was a screening of Alexandr Dovzhenko’s Earth. Even though the print (copy) of the film was poor, the improvised piano accompaniment by a music student whose name now escapes me, was magnificent and the film duly earned a great ovation. Even before that screening, on the basis of a single film society screening in my student days, I had regarded the film as an apogee of poetic silent cinema (and that was its reputation).
There was, hence, no doubt in my mind that it belonged on my list of 40 Films… In my commentary on the list, I happily extolled its virtues, safe in the knowledge that my judgement was sound:

 In a way, silent film aesthetics are a ‘disjoint subset’ of modern film aesthetics. That is to say that there are not only some things that sound film can do that silent film cannot, but some things that silent film can do that sound film ‘cannot’. Obviously, one can make a film and simply leave off the soundtrack, but that actually creates a different aesthetic, as it is necessary to express visually not only the words that people say (which can be done with inter-titles), but also the intonation, and the sense of noise or silence in the film world.
Of all silent films, I believe that Alexandr Dovzhenko’s Earth does it best.
An only mildly propagandist story of simple Ukrainian farmers is turned into exquisite visual poetry by the director, whose other work is barely ever shown. 

Nothing too controversial there, then. Except that I was idly flicking through YouTube, a subset of which is available on my smart DVD player, when I encountered a ” full movie” version of the film.
I know I will now be hoisted on my own petard. Yes, internet films are a shadow of their ‘full’ selves, but I wanted to check out my memory of the film from 20 years ago.
Oh dear, the first 10 minutes are static and turgid. Well after twenty minutes the visual methodology starts to emerge and by the halfway mark, one can start to appreciate Dovzhenko’s command of the cinematic form. But should it really be in my 40 films? I think not.

So the questions I want to ask are:
a) Since the film hasn’t changed over the past 20 years since I saw it last, is it my aesthetics that have changed, or was the circumstance of the screening resonating with the sense of grandeur that the Centenary of Cinema season sought to encompass?
b) Are all classics subject to such deformation of valuation in time?

I will return to this in the near future.

A new beginning….

MotoGimpSept15 407
A new angle on film….

I should have done this years ago.

For all my working life I was privileged to spend my days talking and thinking about films – not just any films, but the great masterpieces that make the cinema the dominant cultural construct of our modern world. Now, instead of wasting my time on trying to keep the house manageable between the visits of my cleaning lady, I’ll be setting down as many thoughts as I can manage that have been filtered through my experience still bearing the tag ‘valuable’.

Most, but not all posts will feature aspects of cinema that are important in that they continue to be meaningful after several years or decades. There will be review of films, mainly  ancient but also fairly modern. There will be reflections on the nature (in the ontological sense) of cinema and the film experience, and I will throw in curved balls from the other arts (I tend to call them ‘the lesser arts’) and current affairs.

As anyone who knows me can well imagine, I know where I am going, but have no great idea exactly what route I will take to get there. That will make the blog more unpredictable, which I hope will also mean less boring.

The emergence of youtube is an extraordinary resource for those seeking to explore and explain the cinema and I hope, therefore, to  provide a plethora of links to illustrate my observations. Didacticism is the aspect of modern cinema (in fact all cinema), which I find most indigestible, especially when it is directed towards moral attitudes and so I hope to avoid this in these pages and ask only that readers consider my observations as attempts at understanding and certainly not Holy Writ.

That’s all for now and I leave you with a treat from 100 years ago: Easy StreetChaplin, 1916. Click on the image to see full film. Enjoy! (You will see the reason for the title of this post…)


Keep watching the masterpieces….