The Clarifying Obscurity of Robert Bresson

What a film demands from a viewer varies a great deal. Often not much is demanded. Keeping the characters straight, remembering what has happened, and following the plot are usually enough for much commercial cinema to “work,” to make sense and entertain. We easily accept the illusion that we are watching a fictional cinematic world in which we are not present or detectable, and we allow ourselves to imagine that we are watching, unobserved, what simply happens in that world. We can occasionally notice that an actor is doing a fine job or that a director has edited a sequence in a confusing way, but if that happens too frequently something is going wrong. Things are going well when we are absorbed in the depicted world, not attending to the world as filmed; that is, when we attend to the filmed world, not to the film world, the world of the actors, the sets, the music, the directorial decisions.    Some cinema addresses its viewer in a different way, though. Something brings us up short when viewing it alters our immediately absorbed attentiveness and seems to demand a regimen of reflective attentiveness. We can still be absorptively engaged in the filmed world; a level of concern, interest in what is happening, tense expectation, still engage us — but in parallel, and, if done successfully, in a way that does not interfere with the normal reaction. We are puzzled that we are looking for several seconds at an empty staircase or an open door or an empty meadow, that the camera lingers on a scene several seconds after a character has departed it, that between one scene and a later one a temporal slice has gone missing and we are not shown events that have happened that we would expect to

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