Tuesday, February 28, 2006

On "Au Hazard Balthazar"

(Revised 1 Mar 06.)

I've been on a Robert Bresson jag of late, ripping through Lancelot du Lac , L'Argent, and Diary of a Country Priest. Each film is remarkable, but Au Hazard Balthazar... I'm stunned.

To say that the film - directed by Bresson in 1966 - is evocative, suggestive of universal truths, and profoundly poetic almost understates its essential cinematic character.

I've watched it almost continuously since it arrived (via Netflix) last week. I won't be returning it any time soon.



Admirers of Bresson are probably already familiar with this site. I admit to having been a little slow on the RB oeuvre uptake, but thanks to N'flix...

For an obsessive's take on the production of the Criterion edition of Balthazar, visit Gary Tooze's always compelling DVD Beaver web. (Yes, He's Canadian.) I purchased my all-region DVD player from Gary's site... Beauty envelopes the world.

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Roger Ebert's essay on Bresson's uncanny creation:

Robert Bresson is one of the saints of the cinema, and "Au Hasard Balthazar" is his most heartbreaking prayer. The film follows the life of a donkey from birth to death, while all the time living it the dignity of being itself--a dumb beast, noble in its acceptance of a life over which it has no control. Balthazar is not one of those cartoon animals that can talk and sing and is a human with four legs. Balthazar is a donkey, and it is as simple as that.

We first see Balthazar as a newborn, taking its first unsteady steps, and there is a scene that provides a clue to the rest of the film; three children sprinkle water on its head and baptize it. What Bresson may be suggesting is that although the church teaches that only humans can enter into heaven, surely there is a place at God's side for all of his creatures.

Balthazar's early life is lived on a farm in the rural French district where all the action takes place; the donkey will be owned many of the locals, and return to some of them more than once. A few of them are good, but all of them are flawed, although there is a local drunk who is not cruel or thoughtless to the animal, despite his other crimes.

Balthazar's first owner is Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), who gives him his name.




(Anne Wiazemsky as Marie.)

Her father is the local schoolmaster, and her playmate is Jacques (Walter Green), who agrees with her that they will marry someday. Jacques' mother dies, and his grief-stricken father leaves the district, entrusting his farm to Marie's father (Philippe Asselin), in whom he has perfect trust. Marie loves Balthazar, and delights in decorating his bridle with wild-flowers, but she does nothing to protect him when local boys torment the beast. The leader of this gang is Gerard (Francois Lafarge), and when Marie glances up to the church choir during Mass as Gerard sings, he brings an evil even to the holy words.

Marie's father is a victim of the sin of pride. Although he has managed the farm with perfect honesty, he refuses to produce records or receipts to prove himself, after rumors are spread by jealous neighbors that he is stealing from the owner. To the despair of Marie's mother (Nathalie Joyaut), he follows his stubborness straight into bankruptcy. Balthazar becomes the possession of the local baker, and is used by the baker's boy (none other than Gerard) to deliver bread.




(Balthazar...)

Gerard mistreats and abuses Balthazar, who eventually simply refuses to move. Gerard responds by tying a newspaper to its tail and setting it on fire. Eventually under Gerald's mistreatment thedonkey collapses and there is talk of putting it down.

But the town drunk, Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert), saves him and brings him back to life, and then there is Balthazar's brief moment of glory when he is hired out as a circus animal--the Mathematical Donkey, who can solve multiplication tables. This life is soon brought to an end, as Balthazar becomes the property of a recluse, and then finally wanders back on its own to the stable where it began its life, and where it finds Marie's father and even Marie.

But this is not a sentimental ending. Marie is a weak girl, who rejects the sincere Jacques when he returns as a young man, to say he still loves her. She prefers Gerard, who mistreats her but seems glamorous with his leather jacket and motor bike. What we see through Balthazar's eyes is a village filled with small, flawed, weak people, in a world where sweetness is uncommon and cruelty comes easily.


(Marie, betrayed...)

That is what we see--but what does Balthazar see? The genius of Bresson's approach is that he never gives us a single moment that could be described as one of Balthazar's "reaction shots." Other movie animals may roll their eyes or stomp their hooves, but Balthazar simply walks or waits, regarding everything with the clarity of a donkey who knows it is a beast of burden, and that its life consists of either bearing or not bearing, of feeling pain or not feeling pain, or even feeling pleasure. All of these things are equally beyond its control.

There is however Balthazar's bray. It is not a beautiful sound, but it is the sound a donkey can make, and when Balthazar brays it might sound to some like a harsh complaint, but to me it sounds like a beast who has been given one noise to make in the world, and gains some satisfaction by making it. It is important to note that Balthazar never brays on cue to react to specific events; that would turn him into a cartoon animal.

Although the donkey has no way of revealing its thoughts, that doesn't prevent us from supplying them-quite the contrary; we regard that white-spotted furry face and those big eyes, and we feel sympathy with every experience the donkey undergoes. That is Bresson's civilizing and even spiritual purpose in most of his films; we must go to the characters, instead of passively letting them come to us. In the vast majority of movies, everything is done for the audience. We are cued to laugh or cry, be frightened or relieved; Hitchcock called the movies a machine for causing emotions in the audience.

Bresson (and Ozu) take a different approach. They regard, and ask us to regard along with them, and to arrive at conclusions about their characters that are our own. This is the cinema of empathy. It is worth noting that both Ozu and Bresson use severe stylistic limitations to avoid coaching our emotions. Ozu in his sound films almost never moves his camera; every shot is framed and held, and frequently it begins before the characters enter the scene and continues after they leave.

(The suggestion of empathy...)

Bresson's most intriguing limitation is to forbid his actors to act. He was known to shoot the same shot 10, 20, even 50 times, until all "acting" was drained from it, and the actors were simply performing the physical actions and speaking the words. There was no room in his cinema for De Niro or Penn. It might seem that the result would be a movie filled with zombies, but quite the contrary: By simplifying performance to the action and the word without permitting inflection or style, Bresson achieves a kind of purity that makes his movies remarkably emotional. The actors portray lives without informing us how to feel about them; forced to decide for ourselves how to feel, forced to empathize, we often have stronger feelings than if the actors were feeling them for us.

Given this philosophy, a donkey becomes the perfect Bresson character. Balthazar makes no attempt to communicate its emotions to us, and it comunicates its physical feelings only in universal terms: Covered ith snow, it is cold. Its tail set afire, it is frightened. Eating its dinner, it is content. Overworked, it is exhausted. Returning home, it is relieved to find a familiar place. Although some humans are kind to it and others are cruel, the motives of humans are beyond its understanding, and it accepts what they do because it must.

Now here is the essential part. Bresson suggests that we are all Balthazars. Despite our dreams, hopes and best plans, the world will eventually do with us whatever it does. Because we can think and reason, we believe we can figure a way out, find a solution, get the answer. But intelligence gives us the ability to comprehend our fate without the power to control it. Still, Bresson does not leave us empty-handed. He offers us the suggestion of empathy. If we will extend ourselves to sympathize with how others feel, we can find the consolation of sharing human experience, instead of the loneliness of enduring it alone.

The final scene of "Au Hasard Balthazar" makes that argument in a beautiful way. The donkey is old and near death, and wanders into a herd of sheep--as, indeed, it began its life in such a herd. The other animals come and go, sometimes nuzzling up against it, taking little notice, accepting this fellow animal, sharing the meadow and the sunshine. Balthazar lies down and eventually dies, as the sheep continue about their business. He has at last found a place where the other creatures think as he does.

(Balthazar, finally at rest...)

--

Until Later,

TS

(Don't Go Back To) Collapsing Stars

UK pop scribe Rob Jovanovic recently contacted TLASILA HQ regarding a Michael Stipe tome he's researching. Can't imagine there would be much of a market for a bio of my erstwhile Athenian acquaintance after Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun, but there's no accounting for torpor.

Mr. Jovanovic launched the standard, expected fusillade of Stipe-centric Boat Of inquiries; in return I managed to maintain consciousness while crafting my responses.

Of course, when one considers that Nest (adj.) and Boat Of were likely witnessed by 500 souls, tops (23 concerts in three cities over a three-and-a-half year period), a stock larder of queries focused on a well-known, albeit short-term member of the collective should be expected.

I can only guess how Jovanovic will redact, reduce, subsume, or altogether expunge these recollections from his text, but I've no doubt a septic splinter of me will lodge itself into Shiny Happy's G.I. tract.

(Mr. Jovanovic's questions appear in bold. Sections in italics indicate omissions rectified. Lest you think me unnecessarily glib or flippant, let me now publicly acknowledge my gratitude to Rob for contacting me and posing these questions. Thanks very much.)

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Initial impressions in response to your queries:

1) can you remember where / when / how you met carol levy?

My first recollection of Carol is one of her ducking into a shop on College Avenue, laughing with friends, early autumn '79. I took note of her - she had style, albeit of a rumpled sort, and she seemed far more intelligent than her companions. I followed her intently, but quickly lost sight of her within the shop. A good first impression...



(Carol Levy, 1979.)

We met formally in queue in front of the UGA cinema, early in 1980. Mike Green and I were waiting to purchase tickets, and as soon as Carol approached we asked her to join us in what was then Pre-Cave. She said "yes," and that was it. I've no recollection of the film we were waiting to view, or if Carol joined us in the theatre. Making her acquaintance effaced memory of the evening's subsequent events.

2) can you remember where / when / how you met michael stipe?

I first noticed Michael (we referred to him as "Mike" back in the day) standing on the sidewalk outside of the Cobb Institute (270 Cobb Street). He just sort of wandered up - he had a bit of green dye in his hair. Vic (Varney) seemed to know him, and as they engaged in conversation I listened for clues. Michael's responses were agreeably oblique.



(Stipe, doing the Gorton's of Gloucester red carpet thing, 2005.)

3) what were your previous bands, if any?

I was preternaturally disposed toward disruption. My first instrument was my parents' Sylvania hi-fi console, and throughout grade school I abused it with regularity. I loved putting the turntable in neutral and spinning albums off their axes. An uncle later gave me a shortwave receiver - such an extraordinary gift. It opened up a glorious universe of pure, oft-fractured sound.

I also sang in the local Baptist church choir (from the age eight until 12), played percussion in my high school's marching band, and joined my first group - an otherwise all-black ensemble called Mpinga - at 15. I played a few gigs with them (at Adel, Georgia's Ebony Club) as a percussionist, and through their delightful aegis drank my first beers and kissed my first women of color.

At university, I enrolled in an electronic music course, influenced primarily by Brian Eno and the album Outside the Dream Syndicate by Tony Conrad & Faust. After hearing Lee Perry's Superape album, I experienced a profound epiphany. Dub signified, epitomized, and encapsulated all sonic and aesthetic possibilities...

I signed on at the student radio station, and in between shifts (I hosted the jazz show, eschewing then-au courant fusion rubbish for Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, and as much Karlheinz Stockhausen as I could sneak into the mix) I would lock myself into the production studio on weekends and forge ersatz dub mixes from extant albums - Richard Hell and the Voidoids' Blank Generation, Television's Adventure, the Ramones' Leave Home, Giorgio Moroder's From Here to Eternity, many others - that I found to be under-produced. A year later (1979) I migrated to Athens.

4) i have notes that you played with stipe and levy under three different names: pre-cave, nest (adj), boat of

Pre-Cave was the second of four distinct developmental phases.

The first was Prepared Party - the John Cage reference (folded into the Athenian constant) was intentional. Each was commandeered by Mike Green and I. Prepared Party was the most overtly experimental of the quartet, and we entertained no aspirations of performance. From late '79 into early 1980 we made a few hours of recordings. Shortwave transmissions, taped sounds of tennis shoes tumbling inside a clothes dryer, manipulated turntable, Mike's stabbing bass guitar overlays, furtive vocalizations.

Pre-Cave was where Carol and Michael entered the scene, although Mike and I recorded at least a dozen hours of Pre-Cave recordings prior to their arrival. We rehearsed throughout the summer of 1980, recording hours of tape in the musty confines of the Cobb Institute basement. Its earthen walls made for an ideally soundproofed environment, and thus emboldened, we plied our trade with enthusiasm. As Mike Green was teaching English in Paris during that summer, the line-up was Carol, Michael and I. Carol and Michael played organ and sang backing vocals, and I played Mike Green's bass, sometimes played drums, sang the lead parts, and created the taped backdrops. We had a 40-Watt Club gig scheduled for July, but for reasons I've long forgotten we postponed our debut until the fall.

Mike returned to the States shortly thereafter, and we transmuted again into Nest (adj.). Mr. Green selected the moniker, and he and I fell out laughing for several days in brute response to its absurd fecundity.



(Mike Green, co-founder and chief theorist of all things Nest/Pre/Boat-esque.)

Nest (adj.) made its debut at the 40-Watt Club in October, 1980. The line-up was Carol, Michael, my then-girlfriend Mary Rockwell (on turntables, played offstage), and I. Mike Green was unable to make the gig, but as we were at heart a collective ensemble, there were seldom hard feelings. Nest (adj.) had a second performance at the Cobb Institute Valentine's Day party (Mike Green, Carol Levy, myself, and guests Craig Woodall and David Gamble comprised the group), but thereafter we decided against further name changes.

"Boat of Three" was the title of an unused Nest (adj.) piece; I altered it and we had our CB handle. Boat Of's debut gig was in May, 1981 at the 40-Watt. The line-up was Mike Green (bass, vocals), Carol Levy (guitar, vocals), and I (vocals, percussion, Vic Varney's purloined Hawaiian guitar, and tapes). Michael performed with us (Mike, Carol and I) for a second and final time in June at Tyrone's O.C. Boat Of continued until March 1983, when Carol was killed in a dreadful automobile accident.

In her honor, I then changed the name of the group to Peach of Immortality.

Peach transmogrified into To Live and Shave in L.A. in 1991. The fifteenth TLASILA album (Noon and Eternity) will be issued by New York's Menlo Park Recordings in May, 2006.

Considering the 1979-1983 timeline, Boat Of primarily comprised Mike Green, Carol Levy, David Gamble, and me.



(Boat Of, summer 1982: David Gamble, Carol Levy, Sandie Phipps, some other dude. Mike Green was probably in Paris. He was always the sensible one...)

Secondary members were Sandra-Lee Phipps, Jim Walker III, Dominique Amet, Davey Stevenson, and Mr. Stipe.

(Dominique and Davey, as well as Craig Woodall, referenced earlier, were members of Limbo District, the only other Athens group we held in serious regard.)

Michael was involved from 1980 to 1981. Carol, from 1980 to 1983.

5) did you name all of these? why the change in name?

See above.

6) what were your musical influences?

Initial influences: environmental sound, manipulation of home entertainment equipment, shortwave radio, Velvet Underground, King Crimson (through 1973), Krautrock, pre-punk (Stooges, MC5, Electric Eels), glam (Roxy Music, David Bowie, T. Rex, Jobriath, etc.), punk (Sex Pistols, Slits, The Saints, The Damned, Patti Smith, Ramones - though only their first two albums), post-punk/no-wave exemplars (Public Image, The Pop Group, Joy Division, The Fall, Mars, Teenage Jesus), the avant-garde (Stockhausen, Xenakis, etc.), funk, then-nascent hip-hop, and George Jones (but nothing after 1965).

7) how would you describe the three bands listed above?

1) Prepared Party (1979-80) was overtly experimental, private, very much a delineation of strategy and intent.

2) Pre-Cave (1980) was a transitional vehicle. Theory transformed slowly into performance praxis.

3) Nest (adj.) (1980-81) explored the earliest of our ideas. We had good songs, but we were also interested in disrupting tropes, expectations, etc.

4) Boat Of (1981-83) primarily localized within the realm of performance, a corrective affront not only to Athens but to contemporary scenes in general.

8) how did you fit in to the athens scene musically (if at all)?

We wanted everyone (save Limbo District) to die. We found all the other groups insipid beyond reckoning...

Twenty-six years on, people claim to have attended our gigs, cite performance specifics I can't even begin to remember, etc. I find this oddly comforting.

All but two of our concerts were recorded. A two-disc retrospective compilation will be released on Smack Shire in late 2006. It will include material recoded by each of the four entities.

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hope thats ok for now

many thanks, rob

Hope this sheds light on your inquiry.

Best,

Tom