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Monday, January 23, 2006

This week at the SFC: Baldwin's Nigger and Pickpocket

Thursday January 26th

STUDIOFILMCLUB will be screening a Robert Bresson - Horace Ove double bill (both are short films...). We have screened two films by each director before (L'Argent and A Man Escapes, Reggae and King Carnival) are looking forward to seeing these two classics on the 'big' screen! read on....

BALDWIN'S NIGGER and PICKPOCKET

Baldwin's Nigger (Horace Ove/UK/1969/45') was Horace Ove's first film - a 1969 documentary, this 45-minute piece captures novelist James Baldwin and comedian-turned-activist Dick Gregory addressing a political meeting in London. Cinema verite in the purest and most simple of terms, it also happens to be a superb example of the approach. Its simplicity is its key, the film's events being captured on a single 16mm camera with black and white film stock and a directness which speaks volumes. Director Horace Ove is clearly in awe of Baldwin and as such lets him do the talking; there is no authorial voice here beyond Baldwin's and as such we are left with only one option – to listen.

And of course, this is what we do. Baldwin is a remarkable orator and a great visualist, discussing the black experience with an intelligence, sharp wit and, understandably, a great anger. As he offers his thoughts on slavery, on the then current Vietnam War, on the similarities between the struggle in the UK and the struggle in the States, we are sucked into every word. Yet Ove also gives us plenty to see. Certainly, he is often loathe to move away from his principle speaker and the sweat accumulating on his brow as he grows ever more forceful, though when he does offer a cutaway to an audience member or pans his camera across the collected faces such moments feel necessary. They offer a sense of place, not only of the room itself and the meeting therein, but also the historical context. The tiny moments, such as one member of the audience obscuring himself with a clipboard for fear of being seen or the snatched headline referring to the situation in Vietnam, prove integral and at once proclaim the film's significance in historical, political and cinematic terms.

BALDWIN'S NIGGER: an interview with Horace Ove

Jason Wood: How did you originally come to be involved in the making of Baldwin's Nigger?

Horace Ove: Firstly, I had been very impressed reading Baldwin's novels in the early 1960's; Another Country and especially Giovanni's Room, because it was the first time I had read a book about white gay men in Paris written from a black man's point of view. I was also aware of his writings on the whole social and political movement happening in America at that time. Then I heard he was coming to the West Indies Students' Centre here in London to give a talk with Dick Gregory, a top black American comedian at the time who had given up his career for the struggle, I had just left the London School of Film Technique and thought it would be a great opportunity to film it. I then met Baldwin at a gathering and put it to him, saying that I had no money to pay him. He said 'Go ahead, just do it', and from there we became good friends over many years.

JW: What are your memories of both James Baldwin and Dick Gregory and how closely does the film capture both their personalities and their views on issues related to society and race?

HO: My memories are that they answered a lot of questions that I had at the time about the black struggle. He had a great insight to what was really going on, the hidden psychological games that the people in power were playing and so on. He was able to explain this in a way that was easy to understand. He was a great communicator, they were both very open and a had a great sense of humour. I think the film does capture all that.

JW: How do you feel Baldwin's Nigger is related to your other film and photography work in either theme or visual style?

HO: What Baldwin's Nigger, as well as the other documentaries I went on to make, did was to convey the reality of the situation, the people, the environment, and to be true to the moment, not to impose my point of view on it. That goes for many of the dramatic films that I have made as well, Pressure, A Hole in Babylon, The Garland and so on. I like to do a lot of research with real people first before starting a project. MY approach to photography is the same too, I don't go for the posed photograph, I just want to capture the reality of a particular moment.

JW: How do you think audiences seeing the film today will relate to it? As a historical document on two leading cultural figures what impressions do you feel it leaves us with?

HO: I think audiences that see it today will be amazed at the relevance of what Baldwin and Gregory were saying then to the present time. It all connects to the situations that exist here in Britain, the US and the rest of the world. Instead of Vietnam, its Afghanistan, Iraq, London, New York. It's totally relevant – they address universal issues to a universal audience.

Pickpocket (Robert Bresson/1959/France/75'/B&W)

Jean Pelegri, one of the non-professional actors in Bresson's Pickpocket, said of his director: "He knows what he wants but he doesn't know why.

"Nobody could be less dogmatic or more obstinate than he. He relies entirely on his instinct." Most people think that Bresson, one of the few film-makers who has never had to compromise for commercial purposes, is an intellectual who knows precisely why he wants what he wants. Which is partly the reason why not everybody warms to his rigour and severity. But there's no doubt that he is a great film-maker, and that Pickpocket is one of his masterworks.

It is, at base, about self-fulfilment and redemption through love - a common enough idea in films. But this 1959 epic has seldom been equalled as a philosophical treatise on the subject. The point is that the film is as much a visual argument as a spoken one. Michel (Martin Lasalle) is a petty thief who, after being arrested and then released, starts discussing the rights and wrongs of crime with the police inspector. The only way he can find a place for himself in society is to engineer a head-on collision with it. It gives him a reason to live. In that way, picking pockets becomes an exciting, almost sexual adventure. It is a kind of pact with the Devil. But he has to leave France for London when the band of thieves he joins is arrested. And when he returns he is also caught. It is only when he is visited in prison by Jeanne (Marika Green), the girl who looked after his mother before she died and is now abandoned with a child, that he realises that his whole life could be changed by love. The humiliation of prison inspires him to a desperate act of faith.
The story is told in the form of Michel's diary, almost exclusively in mid and long shots with minimal camera movements and fade-outs as an alternative to editing. Only once does another way of working come into it when Bresson, who was fascinated by the methods used by pickpockets, describes the operations of a gang among the crowds at a railway station. He also pays great attention to the sounds of the city which resound in the small apartment in which Michel lives. The Longchamp races frame the story and one notable sequence follows another, so that the parable grips even at its most internal.

Bresson is clearly not a film-maker for everybody, but he has pursued his own way remorselessly for the best part of 40 years and he has a very faithful audience. His literary adaptations - from Giraudoux, Diderot, Bernanos and Dostoevsky - are often merely points of departure. For him, "the most important ideas in a film are the most hidden", so the watcher has to look hard to find them. It is not an easy process but it is a rewarding one since you feel he has a profound understanding of what he is talking about. His films have little or nothing to do with those of the French New Wave but a lot to do with his Catholic background and the fact that he spent 18 months in a German prison camp during the second world war. Prison also features Les Anges du Peche, Un Condamne à Mort s'est Echappe and The Trial of Joan of Arc. And most of his central characters seem imprisoned, if only in the soul, either through their misfortunes or because society has made it inevitable. If this seems a gloomy process through which to journey, there are always points in his films where redemption and exaltation prevent glumness.


A few quotes from....Robert Bresson: Hidden in Plain Sight by Gary Indiana

Read all...

http://www.criterionco.com/asp/release.asp?id=314&eid=450§ion=essay&page=1

- True, Michel could get a job. But stealing has a specific psychosexual meaning for him, beyond fulfilling the simple need to eat. Michel is like a man who knows 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.

It's unlikely that Michel steals because he considers himself a “superman,” in a class of hypothetical, extraordinary beings whose unusual gifts place them above the law—though he posits such a theory, abstractly, in his sour, unengaging encounters with the police detective played by Jean Pelegri. Michel steals because it is the only act that makes him feel alive in a world becoming dead; not only dead to pleasure and unprogrammed emotions but, as later Bresson made ever more explicit, organically dead. Theft reconnects Michel to the flow of life around him, from which he otherwise feels desperately isolated, and which he perceives as pathetically limited in its possibilities.

- In Pickpocket, the society whose laws Michel breaks is far more criminal than he is—not technically, not legally, but spiritually: this is Bresson's archly comic irony, heavily veiled in nocturnal chiaroscuro. His film's tragedy, which is finally more important, is that Michel would like to feel guilty for his crimes, and would even like to love his mother, or Jeanne. But like the humans of the future that Bresson so clearly envisioned, who are already living among us, Michel can't feel a thing, and couldn't love anyone if his life depended on it. The sad truth is, it doesn't.

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