The following newly written essay is based on notes for a lecture I gave at my friend Sara Vaux’s Religion and Film class at Northwestern University last year.
“The filmed sequence shows a prisoner’s unsuccessful escape from a prison van, from the first attempt to the last consequence. The sequence consists of about forty setups, each one clear and simple, with no regard for superficial beauty. Each setup makes sense only in connection with the preceding one and the one that succeeds it.
The necessary prerogatives for the escape – the fugitive, his hand, the door handle inside the car, a vehicle and a streetcar which force, or almost force, the prison van to stop – are clearly shown in their interrelationships. In relatively quick succession, we see first the fugitive, who stares ahead; then the road, where in a moment a vehicle may force the prison van to stop; then the fugitive’s hand, reaching for the door handle.”
– from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1966 application to the German Film and Television Academy, Berlin. Fassbinder was shown the opening scene of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, without being told the title, and asked to analyze it. Fassbinder’s application to the school was rejected.
To many film critics and historians, it would seem perverse to suggest that Robert Bresson and Clint Eastwood might have anything in common. Bresson’s movies come across as self-consciously crafted works of “high art,” the seriousness of which is signaled by their esteemed source material (e.g., 19th century Russian literature), religious overtones in the images and dialogue and, in the earlier films, the use of canonical classical music (Mozart, Schubert, Lully) on the soundtrack. These signposts are in part what has precipitated endless critical discussion of the “transcendental” qualities of Bresson’s cinema. Eastwood’s movies, by contrast, are often relegated to a less elevated sphere of discussion. (A refreshing exception is the staff of Cahiers du Cinema who, forty three years after naming A Man Escaped the best film of 1956, daringly named The Bridges of Madison County the best film of the 1990s in a decade-ending critic’s poll.) Eastwood’s movie star persona still tends to be the focus of the reviews of even the movies he directs but doesn’t star in, as opposed to whatever ideas he might have as a filmmaker. And because of his long associations with the detective thriller and western genres, Eastwood is still thought of primarily as a genre director. Some schools of critical thought unfortunately believe that true artists do not work with generic conventions. Indeed, Bresson never made a movie that could be classified as a genre piece.
Nevertheless, to look at the actual nuts and bolts filmmaking practices of each director is to notice a strange symmetry between them in regards to form. And this ultimately translates to a symmetry in regards to ethics as well. Fassbinder’s analysis of the opening scene of A Man Escaped, a brilliant close reading of Bresson’s style, could also apply to many, many scenes directed by Clint Eastwood but not, I believe, the films of most other contemporary directors. For example, Fassbinder notes how Bresson clearly shows us all of the elements of a scene in their “interrelationships.” Eastwood, the director, has a comparable clarity of form to Bresson regarding how images relate to each other – Eastwood allows viewers to see, in a simple and direct way, exactly what he wants them to see, no more and no less, through similar chains of interrelated images.
The scene in all of Eastwood’s movies that most obviously resembles the opening of A Man Escaped is the climactic scene of The Bridges of Madison County, a terrific film that transcends the trashy romance novel on which it is based. In that heart-stopping sequence, Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) is in the passenger seat of her husband’s truck as the two are stopped in traffic in the rain. Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), the man with whom she has just had an affair, is in the truck in front of them, unbeknownst to the husband. Francesca looks at the passenger side door handle and contemplates whether to open the door and “escape” from her husband’s truck in much the same way that Lieutenant Fontaine in A Man Escaped has to decide whether to try escaping from the prison van. If she doesn’t flee from her husband and leave with Robert at that precise moment, she knows he will drive away, out of town and out of her life forever.
What these scenes have in common is ultimately something more than the superficial similarity of a narrative situation where a character is attempting to determine whether to jump out of a stalled vehicle. The deeper affinity lies in the fact that in each instance suspense is being generated by the director through purely visual storytelling; in Eastwood’s case he makes us feel the power of Francesca’s dilemma through cinematography and editing, clearly showing us the interrelationships between Francesca, her husband, the door handle, the traffic light, and Robert’s reflection in the rearview mirror of the truck in front of her. This is a perfect illustration of Fassbinder’s formulation that “each shot makes sense only in relation to the one that precedes it and the one that succeeds it.” Sometimes a door handle is just a door handle. In Eastwood’s film, because of the context in which it is carefully placed, it’s a door handle that can make you cry.
Another aspect of Fassbinder’s analysis that I think can be applied to Eastwood as well as Bresson is the “disregard for superficial beauty.” It is often difficult for filmmakers to resist the temptation to show beautiful images but this is precisely what Bresson and Eastwood do. They both believe in showing what is necessary at the expense of showing something beautiful. This is particularly striking in Eastwood’s case given how closely he is identified with the western, a genre known for its pictorial beauty. But from High Plains Drifter to Unforgiven, Eastwood doesn’t typically linger on shots of sunsets, landscapes or other types of picture-postcard scenery commonly associated with the genre.
Finally, both Bresson and Eastwood might be said to have a minimalist or “essentialist” style, ruthlessly paring down the image to only what they deem is its most essential elements, but they achieve this in different ways. The most prominent way Eastwood pares down his images is through the use of low-key lighting. Eastwood has consistently made the darkest movies (literally, if not figuratively) in Hollywood over the past several decades. Working with talented cinematographers like Jack Green and Tom Stern, Eastwood submerges his images in darkness as a means of directing viewers’ eyes to exactly what he wants them to see. Bresson achieves similar ends by favoring a shallower focus image and by fragmenting the human body into close-ups of its various parts.
What does this have to do with ethics? The essentialist style of both men is ultimately pressed to the service of the same theme: redemption. Eastwood is interested in redemption in terms of social justice, Bresson is interested in redemption as a kind of spiritual transformation that occurs inside of an individual. For Eastwood’s purposes, it’s important that he paints the broadest possible portrait of society so that he can more effectively juxtapose his individual protagonists against it – hence his sometimes misunderstood melodramatic style. Society in Eastwood is frequently portrayed as corrupt and incapable of providing true justice; therefore it is usually up to one individual to restore justice and a sense of social order. This is most obvious in the westerns (think of the depictions of community in the towns of Lago in High Plains Drifter and Big Whiskey in Unforgiven) but it’s also true of the contemporary films as well. Eastwood’s uncluttered visual style is especially important here because “unnecessary” images will only get in the way of his ambitious societal portraits. Surely Clint Eastwood, a master of shorthand communication and a melodramatist par excellence, is the only man who could have made as ambitious a film as Invictus clock in at a relatively lean 134 minutes!
Robert Bresson approaches the theme of redemption differently. Because Bresson is interested in the redemption of individual souls, he prioritizes interiority and subjectivity. Bresson constantly looks for ways to draw us into the inner lives of his characters: fragmentation, voice-over narration, neutral acting, etc. Interestingly, in comparison to the melodramas of Eastwood, society is depicted as something abstract and almost unreal in Bresson because his movies are so relentlessly focused on the individual. (Many critics have pointed out that, for this reason, some of Bresson’s contemporary movies like Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and Une Femme Douce seem to be taking place in a distant, dreamy past.) This means that whatever measure of redemption Bresson’s characters manage to achieve is pointedly not felt by the larger society within the film, unlike in Eastwood’s films where that impact is often felt with a vengeance. The community in Diary of a Country Priest, for instance, does not know or care whether the priest has received God’s grace before dying. The important thing is that the character feels it and, if we are seeing and hearing the movie properly, hopefully we feel it too.