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Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film, plus some poetry

Reflections on Bresson 12: The Heresy of Explanation

The Hebrew scholar and translator of the Old Testament, Robert Alter, has a good phrase to describe the fundamental weakness in modern translations of the Bible into English (New English Bible, Revised English version, Good News etc.). He writes of ‘the heresy of explanation’: modern translations use English words in a desire to clarify the meaning of the Hebrew and in doing so debase the original by draining away both its concreteness and its mystery. The Hebrew Bible leaves the reader ‘guessing about motives and intentions’ and sets ‘ambiguities of word choice and image against one another’ so that the reader is not presented with a neat resolution. If you reduce ambiguity, you ‘reduce, simplify and denature the Bible’; if you preserve it, you compel the reader to engage with the text, to enter a process of negotiation with it, and more than negotiation, a process of puzzlement and of sudden illumination. The modern translator has not ‘explained’ the text, but ‘explained it away’.

Alter is engaged on a great project, namely to translate the Old Testament in a manner worthy of the original. He has now done ‘The Five Books of Moses’ (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), ‘The Story of David’ (Kings) and ‘The Psalms’, striving to achieve an exactitude of faithfulness to the Hebrew (which on his own admission is not always achievable). The result is powerful and sinewy, constantly ambushing the reader who thinks they know the texts, and intriguing those who do not. It is no surprise that the translation into English to which he doffs his hat is the King James Version, which in seeking to produce a simplicity and dignity in the English, and to impact on the ear, can achieve that necessary mix of the compelling and the elusive. (Alter is less keen on its understanding of the Hebrew, but that is another story.) It works precisely because it intrigues, because it propels a wish to understand, because it echoes the nature of divine mystery in which truth is present but veiled.

Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthasar works in exactly the same way. The sequence of images arrests the viewer: why is such-and-such happening? The film opens with a young donkey at its mother’s teat. Children stroke the donkey. A girl’s voice says, ‘Give him to us’ and a man replies ‘Out of the question’. The film pauses momentarily on the image, as if the matter was resolved, only for it to dissolve into an image of the man with the two children and the newly born donkey going down the slope. This is a jump dissolve of real import: we understand that the man has relented, the children have got their way. The explanation exists in the gap between the images, in what we are deliberately not shown. For to show it would risk committing the ‘heresy of explanation’ – explaining away the story, impeding the story, clogging its forward momentum, draining away the puzzlement that pulls us headlong into the story, that makes it buzz in the brain long after the film itself is finished.

That scene of the children and the donkey is simple enough, but what are we to make of the sequence near the end of the film in which Marie’s father dies? It has the Bressonian trademarks: minimal backgrounds, doors, above all hands. His wife, Marie’s mother and the visiting priest enter the house. The priest then enters the room on his own to her words, ‘He’s in despair, comfort him.’ Only then are we shown the father on his sick bed, who on seeing the priest, turns on his side away from him. The priest picks up a copy of the Bible from the bedside table and says, ‘You will be greatly forgiven on account of your suffering.’ Shot of the father still turned away: ‘Perhaps I suffer less than you think.’ The priest reads from the Bible, ‘He doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.’ Cut to the mother moving outside to sit and pray: ‘Dear God, don’t take him away from me too.’ The next image is of the priest’s hand tapping on the window to signal it is all over. Mute witness to the whole sequence is the donkey Balthasar tethered near the entrance to the house, glimpsed only at the edge of the screen.

The sequence is a series of mysteries: why is the priest here in the first place? When he offers comfort, why does Marie’s father refuse it? Why does he seek to minimize what he has suffered? Why does the priest read out that God does not afflict mankind willingly? Why is the Marie’s mother’s prayer that he not be taken away refused? It is tempting to answer these questions by reference to the loss of faith and the death of God, to a conclusion that divine comfort is an irrelevance. I think however there is a much deeper narrative at work, which is revealing the human and the ecclesiastical comforts, the mother’s and the priest’s, as superficial, but which recognizes the affliction and grief suffered by humans in this world; Bresson is making the point that there is some mysterious value in setting that suffering in the context of divine love and human compassion. It is inexplicable because to explain it is to devalue it. The hard images need to stand on their own.

In the 400th birthday year (2011) of the King James Version of the Bible, there has been welcome reference in the media to the virtues of its paratactic style, for example in a book like Genesis. Paratactic style? To you and me that’s a series of main clauses linked by ‘and’: “And X, and Y, and Z etc.” Alter is eloquent on this aspect: the characteristic biblical syntax , he says, is ‘additive’, working with parallel clauses linked by ‘and’ (which in Hebrew is not a separate word but rather a particle, waw, prefixed to the first word of the clause). Again, modern translations fall down. In Genesis 24: 16-21 (Rebekah meeting Abraham’s servant), Alter’s translation has fifteen ‘ands’ (the KJV has sixteen), while the Revised English Version has only five, producing ‘a kind of narrative arrhythmia’.

In cinema, ‘and’ may be represented by a cut or a camera movement that jumps or moves from one action to another. Understanding this immediately sheds light on Bresson’s style in virtually all his films: they are a series of actions. In Au Hasard Balthasar and L’Argent in particular they create a terrific momentum for the story and create suspense at every moment: what will happen next? This is too an essential feature of Fontaine’s actions in A Man Escaped: neither he nor the spectator know what his next step is. This is the opposite of fate or destiny: this is willed action. “Nothing is inevitable until it happens.” If it is proper to speak of a Bressonian theology, it is vital to understand that he believes in human free will; the problems derive from the way people choose the bad – witness the narrative of L’Argent at every turn.

Alter again. His Spencer Trask lectures delivered at Princeton in 2008 have been published as ‘Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible’ (Princeton UP 2010). In it he traces the presence of the KJV in modern literature – Melville, Faulkner and Bellow specifically – not just in terms of style but in its ‘affective range’. Sensitivity to Bresson’s biblical style (and remember, at one time he was slated to make a film of Genesis chapters 1 to 11) opens up an awareness of what other films might be doing. I think a case can be made for the richness of John Ford’s The Searchers being created not just by the ambiguity of Ethan Edwards’ character but by the biblical momentum of the story. Secondly, the paratactic style of Cormac McCarthy, writing surely in the penumbra of the KJV, is used superbly by the Coen Brothers in their film of his novel No Country for Old Men, and still absorbed by its narrative power, they have now entered the Old Testament more deeply still in True Grit. There is life in the old book yet.

© Tim Cawkwell

February 2011