Lost in the Movies: A Man Escaped

A Man Escaped

Appropriately enough, while reviewing the austere minimalist Robert Bresson, who abhorred waste, clutter, and distraction, I am about to embark on a digression. For the past couple weeks I've generally stuck to a film-per-day, with the exception of the introduction to my AUTEURS series. This has kept me writing, though occasionally below the level I would like, and gives me something concrete to focus on. Nonetheless, I expect to depart from this in the coming days. For several reasons, one of them named "Twin Peaks." I've been watching the entire series for the first time and in my desperation to (initially) find out who killed Laura Palmer and then (eventually) to see where the hell the series can go after that question has - apparently - been answered, I've converted all my Netflix queues to the show. Expect a review of Fire Walk With Me next week and possibly a review of the series this weekend. In the mean time, I could dip into my personal collection (which I spent the last few months watching anyway) but I won't be tackling many sights unseen.

Furthermore, there are a number of topics circulating the blogosphere which have piqued my interest, and oddly enough, they're all political. First, the upcoming W. by Oliver Stone...certain to be the most interesting release of the year even if it's not very good. Second, the political implications of The Dark Knight, which I already discussed in my review but which may possibly warrant further discussion. Thirdly, a dust-up over Jon Voight's extremely silly op-ed about Obama being a socialist unduly influenced by his childhood teachers (never mind that Obama first encountered said childhood teachers as an adult...). I'm not sure if I want to gallop off in these directions, but I thought I'd throw it out there. For now, though...A Man Escaped.

I could try to pull off some politicized segue but that would be pointless because Bresson's film makes no room for politics. Were a Martian to watch it, he would learn very little about the German occupation of France, and certainly nothing about the political reasons behind it. The story of A Man Escaped is one of survival, pure and simple. Spiritual and religious overtones build throughout the film, but at its core the mission of the man is so simple, so direct, that there is not much room for anything else.

I recently purchased A Man Escaped and chose to watch it tonight in the absence of any Netflix. I'd already seen it several years ago in a theater, and believe me, that's the way to see it. Though I enjoyed it on DVD, I have to admit I was not nearly as absorbed or involved as I had been seeing it projected onto a screen, surrounded by an audience in a dark room. It isn't just widescreen epics that call out for the cinema, it's any work of art which uses the form as it was originally intended. And while a great film can engage you on TV (Lawrence of Arabia colonized my imagination on small-screen viewings before I ever saw it in a theater), a movie like A Man Escaped demands full attention and absorption; it stubbornly resists a pettier form of consumption.

But while I wasn't as immersed as before in the film's intense focus on its hero's incredibly thorough and patient pursuit of escape, I did notice some things. Robert Bresson makes a kind of spiritual and philosophical dialogue the spine for the picture, connecting the intensely detailed vignettes and providing the engine for the escapee's growing courage and determination. Ever the Jansenist, Bresson incorporates both works (the prisoner, Fontaine, tries to establish a connection between himself and his neighbors in their cell, and he has a very disciplined and methodical approach to his escape plans) and faith (despite the doubts of others and himself, he continually asserts that he will escape). There's even a Catholic priest and Protestant pastor thrown in for good measure. But it seems to me that whether it is God who guides Fontaine to his escape, or blind luck, or some sort of amorphous fate, is ultimately beside the point. Fontaine, in his works and in his faith, is a sort of existentialist: there is something achieved in the mere act of preparing for, believing in, and finally attempting an escape. It gives him a purpose, a focus, a way to get through the day. It defines his existence and his person. That Fontaine makes it out of the prison is almost incidental when looked at in this light.

Chance plays a substantial role in Fontaine's escape. The bad luck of another escapee, who tries and fails in his attempt, paves the way for Fontaine; and a 16-year-old cellmate, introduced at the last moment, provides the assistance needed to execute his plan. Without trivializing the harrowing conditions of prisoners of war, it can be said that Fontaine's existential dilemma and leap into the void is a larger-than-life manifestation of what faces anyone committed to a great act. This could be a physical or mental feat, or an artistic one, which brings us to Bresson himself. Indeed Fontaine, with his obsessive attention to detail and extreme patience, resembles the director in his methods. But plans alone will not save him and eventually his fortitude must meet with the unpredictable elements of the outside world. His tenacity will be put to the test by the way he incorporates the uncontrollable into his own plans. Indeed, A Man Escaped can be read as a metaphor for the making of cinema. Plan all you want, and these plans will serve you well, but in the end you will also have to grapple with forces outside of yourself and harmonize with this outside world to achieve your will. The man escaped is the patron saint of all directors and any risk-takers, no matter how small.

[One more thing: I see that my blog has been linked on a site or two and can reasonably surmise that there's somebody out there (damn, it's like Wait Until Dark in here!) Make yourself heard! But seriously, leave some comments, start some discussions. Tackle some older posts -- Brave Little Toaster or The Dark Knight...doesn't even have to relate to my post. I enjoy the give-and-take (I've been a regular on imdb for years now) and kind of miss it in my monological (how I wish that was a word) blog entries. So please, feel free to comment away, even if you have nothing to say. That certainly hasn't stopped me in the past!]


James Hansen said...

Glad to hear you're watching Twin Peaks! I'm soon going to introduce some friends to it...it's really excellent from beginning to end. Hope you're enjoying it.

I saw "A Man Escaped" on DVD a few years ago and remember that same sense of immersion. It's showing in theaters in NYC soon and I plan to check it out. I'll probably have more to say then when it is fresher in my mind, but I enjoyed reading your thoughts here.

Joel Bocko said...

I liked it until the episode that "solves" the case (maybe there's another twist in the offing; I'm about 2/3 through the second season). It's amazing how much better the Lynch-directed episodes tend to be. Not that there aren't other good ones, but they're usually not quite in the same class. The scene where Killer Bob walks onto the set, stares into the camera, and walks right towards it still terrifies me upon memory.

But it seemed like they tied it up too quickly & abruptly, and then the show just becomes another quirky/wacky small-town series. Maybe it would have found its voice again but obviously it didn't get the chance (or maybe it does, and I just haven't gotten there yet).

I can't wait to see Fire Walk With Me.

Brandon Colvin said...

I LOVE Robert Bresson.

Your appreciation of A MAN ESCAPED was wonderful!

This is my Bresson filmography ranking (I haven't seen a few of them):

1. Au hasard, Balthazar
2. Pickpocket
3. A Man Escaped
4. Diary of a Country Priest
5. The Devil, Probably
6. Une femme douce
7. Mouchette
8. Lancelot du Lac
9. L'Argent
10. Four Nights of a Dreamer
11. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Joel Bocko said...

Brandon, glad you enjoyed the entry. I have enormous respect for Bresson, but harbor some ambivalence about the way he's generally treated by critics. The film I have the most problems with is Mouchette. I'd like to review that & Au hasard Balthazar sometime soon. Balthazar is another film I had a complicated relationship with -- I waited years to see it and was bitterly disappointed when I finally did. However, it grew on me and is now probably my favorite Bresson.

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