Sunday, January 01, 2006

Pickpocket d. Robert Bresson, 1959

Robert Bresson's Pickpocket reminds me of a relatively obscure song from a few years ago, “I Want the Quiet Moments of a Party Girl” by Owls. I don't remember too well the song itself - cute, off-key vocals and sparse art fag/indie guitars stand out - but I'm still in love with the title. Yeah, I'd love the private moments of the bravura-affected blonde, the hidden peccadilloes of her flawless, or perfectly flawed persona. This type of unveiling, sadly, is privy to few - a best friend, maybe; a long-term significant other, probably; family, at least at one point, most certainly. What most of us get (alas) is a carefully sculpted facade; we see not the plain girl, only her adjective riddled form. If only we could see the real party girl - i.e. the girl, no party - maybe we could understand her a bit better and like her a bit more. The point is this: Bresson's film is exactly that thing most carefully guarded; it is those veiled, quiet moments of the party girl.

The Crime Thriller according to Bresson. Against expectation, this is not the place for dramatic arrests, purloining double-crosses, or coup-de-grace shootouts. In the stead of usual generic tropes, we get the quietude and alarming stasis of one man and a negation of the expected dramatic high points of the crime thriller.

What is widely known and critically rote is everything written in the above paragraph. Gospel by now is the idea that Pickpocket is a crime thriller without the trappings of a crime thriller; it is a story about the soul of a thief, not about the thief himself. Also understood is the fact that the thieving sequences are filled with homoerotic imagery, a stand-in for the protagonist's (for lack of a better word) absent sexuality. The reason he chooses to become a pickpocket is his disconnect with the world around him. Eminently solitary, the pickpocket in his brief interactions with his victims gains human contact.

Now, to make this a bit more personal: what the quiet moments of the party girl do is allow another person to know her. Her popular, modified image is a distancing device; if I can show a false side of me, her subconscious says, the criticisms directed my way will miss their mark and fail to sting. Pickpocket is a 75 minute film, and therein lies part of its brilliance.

A brief digression: remember watching Dirty Harry or Ronin? The chase scenes were great, the terse one-liners were fantastic, the films were a hoot. Ok, but what do you know about Harry Callahan's soul? I’m not trying to be elitist here - Dirty Harry would be a completely different film if it were a soul-examining piece. What I am trying to get at is this: how personal does Dirty Harry, Ronin, or any of that ilk feel? Do you know these films beyond their flashy exteriors? Do the images of these films haunt you days, weeks, and months after seeing them? Or are they films that stand strictly as films, impervious to any type of attack other than exclamations of, "Fake!" Hm?

At a brief 75 minutes, Pickpocket achieves intimacy with the viewer. Or rather, the viewer (hopefully) achieves intimacy with the film. By erasing the mountain peaks of the crime thriller - the adrenaline/testosterone filled tropes of the genre - Pickpocket becomes a story of the mundane. The explosive moments in the crime thriller work to distance the audience from the film and the characters therein; a blind leap into a dumpster from four stories up simply is not feasible for the average person. But a slowly learned, methodically practiced, luck-filled leap into pickpocketry is. Moreover, the absence of authentic and sincere interaction between individuals is even more empathetic. All this is longhand to say that I am haunted by Pickpocket. I’ll leave the particulars for you to find out, but the film is one of those rare works that finds its way into the deeper parts of your soul, grabs hold of you, and refuses to let go.