There are two quotes about photographer Eugene Atget that I particularly love. The first: After his death, the doctor asked his neighbors what he had died of. They replied, “He was an eccentric.” The second: “Atget never realized that he was Atget.” He never understood (or didn’t care to understand) the weighty place he occupied in the history of photography, or the influence he had on other photographers. He didn’t think of himself as an artist. He didn’t care for artistic movements and labels. He saw his job as utilitarian. He documented the world around him, and created photos of objects that painters could use as a resource.
Atget lived from 1857 to 1927, and he documented the streets and homes of Paris. He photographed shops and alleys, he photographed staircases and parks and monuments and trees. His subjects were the ordinary, everyday haunts of Parisians: wig stores and litter-cluttered alleys, dingy rooms and the spaces in back of restaurants. His photographs are hauntingly beautiful. They’re beautifully focused and composed; beautifully light and dark. Because his purpose was to photograph a thing, or a place, the movements of the people in the space didn’t concern him. As a result people and animals become a ghostly blur – a transitory spirit biding time in the solid iron and stone buildings. I find Atget’s photos wonderfully cinematic and inspiring, and I could pore over them for hours, looking for the stories behind the facades.
Many of Atget’s photographs involve windows – store windows and tenement windows – windows with the ghost of a person in them, a whirl of light that represents movement, a row of grinning dummies. Or simply an emptiness or a shadow, a hollow that holds the secret movements of the people who live there. Jean Renoir, Atget’s compatriot, adds movement and depth to images of Parisian windows to create a poetry of light and shadow, a shifting frame within-a-frame that allows him to play with interior and exterior space.
Renoir is famous for employing a large depth of field, so that objects in the background and middle ground are just as sharply focused as those in the foreground, and frequently he’ll use a window to frame the action, so that two stories occur at once in the shot, distinct but related.
In Grand Illusion, the soldiers’ exercises in the background create a source of mounting tension in contrast to the genial conversation inside of the window, and when the camera pulls back at the end of the scene, so that we’re outside the window looking in, it casts the men as characters in the story about to unfold. In Boudu Saved from Drowning, the parlor drama on the inside is contrasted (in a gorgeous tracking shot) with the world of the Parisian streets outside the window, as observed through a telescope. And this passage from Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is beautifully busy with activity in and out of windows, dividing people even as it connects them, in a drama that illustrates the power of people working together. The murder scene, viewed from across a street, entirely through windows and doorways, sets the frames of windows almost as the individual frames of the film itself, in a masterpiece of life and light and shadow – a sort of love letter to the pure joy of watching a story unfold. Beautiful.
Boudu Saved from Drowning, which stars the remarkable Michel Simon in an unforgettable performance is well-worth watching in its own right. Thought-provoking, and beautifully acted and filmed. Full of wildness and grace and beautiful space. But the real joy for me in the DVD released by the wonderful Criterion Collection was the special features. Each one a small unexpected treasure.
There’s an interview with Michel Simon and Jean Renoir. It’s black and white, from 1967. They’re sitting in a cafe. Renoir is drinking a glass of wine, and Simon seems to be eating berries from a small, stemmed glass bowl. It’s so beautiful. Their memories are so gentle and affectionate.
My favorite part is an interview with Eric Rohmer, the filmmaker, and Jean Douchet, the critic. This one is in black and white, too. The men are sitting side-by-side in a theater, facing the camera. They both seem nervous, they don’t know where to look. Douchet calls the conversation a “debate” and asks Rohmer to start it, and Rohmer says, “Perhaps we should talk about everything at once, because I feel everything is connected.” They fidget and cast sidelong glances at one another. Douchet has wild hair and a world-weary air, and he seems to have a cigarette glued to his fingers that he rarely smokes. Rohmer is delicate, with a slight beard and a shy, earnest air. And they hold forth on the film. They have so many ideas about the film, so many observations on the way it sounds and looks. They discuss sweeping themes and they remember each small, intimate gesture of the actors. They find significance in a bag of groceries hung in a window, in the summer heat, in salt spilled on a tablecloth. It’s beautiful to watch the way that they form grand, mythical theories about the film, and then shape their experience of the film to fit this mythology.
They’re trying to seem cool and blasé, of course, this being the 60s, but they’re jumping and beaming with love for the film, so pleased with themselves for having discovered it as it unfolded before them, full of gifts that Renoir has hidden for them to discover, like ghostly figures in a quiet window. Wasn’t he clever to have made a simple film that’s about so much? Weren’t they clever to figure it out as they watched? This is the way to watch a film! This is a way to go through life! Noticing everything, maybe even things that aren’t there! Joyfully forming grand theories, talking about them with a friend, and building on them as the days go along.
At one point they’re discussing sound in the film, and Rohmer says, with a shy glance at Douchet “…and we hear all the sounds of nature – the singing of the birds and such, which is wonderfully rich and well-worth analyzing.” This kills me!! Is he talking broadly about Renoir’s use of sound? Or is he talking about the singing of the birds – each bird with its own song, full of meaning that we can discover and share?