Time marked by a shutter click

Pix, Number Two

March 13, 1998

Pix is an innovative, eclectic, diversely illustrated new magazine about cinema, edited and published by Ilona Halberstadt and distributed by the British Film Institute (quite a contrast to the BFI's now-unreadable, Hollywoodised glossy, Sight and Sound). Its second issue, which is substantial enough to be called a book, ranges over the life and work of Bernardo Bertolucci (an interview, with three translated poems by the director), the radical films of the Indian documentary maker Anand Patwardhan (interview and filmography), and an illuminating appreciation of Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould by a concert pianist, Katharina Wolpe.

The pi ce de resistance is, however, an appreciation of Henri Cartier-Bresson's work in the cinema, supported by a wonderful collection of images: chiefly, his own photographs of directors and stars (such as Jean Renoir, Jacques Tati, Robert Flaherty and Marilyn Monroe), and frame stills from the documentary films he directed. Cartier-Bresson refused to give a formal interview, as is his habit, but was otherwise cooperative and generous with permission to use his work. Some of the selected photographs and drawings - for "H C-B" now works mainly with brush and pencil, rather than a camera - do not perhaps have much bearing on film-making: never mind, it is always a pleasure to see them.

Cartier-Bresson's first involvement with cinema came in 1936, when Renoir took him as a second assistant on the strength of his early photographs. Over the next three years, Cartier-Bresson was an assistant on three Renoir films, La Vie est a Nous, Une Partie de Campagne and the classic La R gle du Jeu. In the latter film, besides playing a tiny role as an English butler, he was in charge of the firearms in the celebrated hunting scene, having spent a year as a hunter in Africa after doing his military service. It was not very easy: since the actor playing the marquis had no idea how to hold a gun the assistant director had to shoot the rabbits while the actor pretended.

According to Cartier-Bresson, "I knew very soon, as did Jean, that I would never be a movie director, and I went on to do documentary films, which for me was closer to reportage." His first effort was a 45-minute film, Victoire de la Vie (Return to Life, in its English version), made in 1937-38 during the Spanish civil war for the Association of International Doctors to help the hospitals of Republican Spain. It shows the usual horrors of war but mostly it shows how wounded soldiers recuperate and return to battle. The film is propaganda for a cause now 60 years dead but it nevertheless remains moving, unlike newsreel footage of the time.

The main reason is that Cartier-Bresson's eye picks out the apparently insignificant details that turn a man lying in a bed into an individual, not a symbol of a cause. You see, for instance, a female nurse tending a soldier with his leg up in bandages, tickling the sole of his foot, and his uncontrollable reaction - joyous revulsion. "I only enjoy what's out of a subject and yet becomes the subject. Significant detail," says Cartier-Bresson.

His second film was separated from the first by a world war. Cartier-Bresson was a prisoner-of-war in Germany, escaped three times and joined the Resistance. In 1944, he began work on Le Retour (Reunion), a half-hour documentary made in collaboration with the Allied authorities, about the return of French prisoners-of-war to France. It is, as Halberstadt remarks, a film "full of movement. Columns and columns of people walking, carrying their belongings, and often waiting - for papers, for transport." And it contains, in one brief scene, an interview in a displaced persons camp in Germany that generated one of Cartier-Bresson's most famous still shots: a woman, posing as a refugee, stands exposed before another woman, who has at that very moment recognised her as a Gestapo informer. In the photo (reproduced in Pix along with more than three dozen frame stills from Le Retour), there is no physical contact between the two women; their contrasting expressions instead speak volumes. In the documentary, the brief hiatus (a "decisive moment", indeed) during which Cartier-Bresson snapped, is followed by the natural human reaction - a heavy slap across the face.

The impact, curiously enough, is reduced not enhanced. With this photograph, we fill the image with our own imagined emotions; the equivalent moving image does not permit us to do this. Of course, had the slap been part of a narrative feature film, it might well have had enormous impact. One thinks, for, instance, of the celebrated, stinging slap in The World of Apu by Satyajit Ray, a film director for whom, notes Halberstadt, Cartier-Bresson has "a great passion".

His comparison of photography with cinema is pertinent here. "Photography per se means nothing to me except a passion for seeing instantly and shooting. It's an instant glance and the subconscious works. It's instant drawing (like instant coffee): the camera is just a sketch book. You have to respect your tools. In drawing there is graphology. In photography there is none. There is immediacy, and your subconscious and sensitivity grab the subject - it will never repeat itself. The eye takes its pleasure with the plastic rhythms, geometry of instant composition. Whereas in movies you give a shape, a montage. In film, as in music, time counts. Editing is the backbone, a musical rhythm just like a geometrical composition in photography and painting."

Cartier-Bresson made only two more films after Victoire de la Vie and Le Retour: California Impressions and Southern Exposures, both concerning the United States and made in English for CBS in 1970 and 1971, respectively. Halberstadt singles out a number of tantalising significant details in each - a woman shoves a feeding bottle in her baby's mouth, while her eyes remain glued to the TV; the owner of an old plantation house sings The Last Rose of Summer in the music room with its peeling walls. But it is Cartier-Bresson's still photographs of American consumer society in the 1940s-1960s or his dramatic, inward-looking portrait of Martin Luther King for which he will always be remembered. This book is an intelligent, eloquent reminder of the uniqueness and versatility of a master of the visual world.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES. There will be a one-day public symposium on Cartier-Bresson at the Institut Francais in London on March 20, after which his American films will be screened.

Pix, Number Two

Editor - Ilona Halberstadt
ISBN - 0 9525370 0 1
Publisher - BFI
Price - £19.99
Pages - 200

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