Over the course of a six-decade career, French filmmaker Robert Bresson made only 13 features. Actually, this is an abundance, as each film seems to distill a lifetime of concentration and feeling; every shot is precise and perfect, every cut conveys meaning, and every emotion is earned. Long recongnized as one of the greatest and most influential of filmmakers, Bresson’s work has been difficult to see on screen, a situation the Dryden is pleased to redress with a selection of the master’s films this March and April.
Scene from Bresson’s ’Au Hasard Balthazar’, 1966.
Born in 1901, Bresson did not turn to filmmaking full-time until 1943, after an early career as a painter and photographer and a year spent in a German POW camp. Though his first two features were comparatively conventional, his style soon became increasingly unique, moving toward an approach that the director labeled as “emotional, not representational.” To that effect, his visual style became sparer and more controlled, his sound design more layered, and his actors entirely non-professional.
Like fellow master Ingmar Bergman, his themes were often spiritual and his characters on the precipice of despair, but the director’s consummate craft and insight into the human condition produce a rare kind of exaltation. These people live in this world and caress every corner of it. Their bodies are beautiful in their imperfections, their attitudes self-effacing, anxious, cocky, and innocent in all the recognizable ways. Above all, Bresson is a social filmmaker. If his early work earned praise for its humanist values, then his ’60s and ’70s output is messier, awkwardly lurching through a violent political landscape. Continually, Bresson pursues a radical empathy, forcing us to engage and experience the world around us. This approach influenced filmmakers from Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader (their Taxi Driver bears heavy traces of Pickpocket) to Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (L’enfant, Lorna’s Silence).
These eight Bresson films, presented in conjunction with a nationally touring retrospective, include several that have been imported from France and cannot be screened easily or often. Don’t bet on seeing them again any time soon.
Lori Donnelly is the George Eastman House Dryden Theatre film programmer.
Kyle Westphal is Chief Projectionist and a graduate of The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at George Eastman House.
The Scott Expedition to the South Pole ended 100 years ago today, but still can be experienced through photo and film.
The George Eastman House Photography Collection has a small, but intriguing set of documentation from the ill-fated attempt by the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott and his team of four to reach the South Pole a century ago. The Scott Expedition resulted in the collection of numerous scientific specimens and more than 1,000 photographs and reels of film documenting the journey. But it all ended when Scott lost his life during the expedition 100 years ago today, March 29, 1912.
Lieut. Henry R. Bowers (British, 1883 – 1912) Descriptive Title: At the South Pole, Petty Officer Evans (foreground), Robert F. Scott, and Dr. Wilson at the site of the Norwegian flag left by Roald Amundsen and his team, who had beaten the Scott Expedition to be the first to reach the Pole by just 5 weeks. January 18, 1912
The Eastman House collection includes one nitrate negative (8 x 10.5 cm.) and 29 clips of motion picture film (about five to seven frames each). This is not by any means the only surviving photographic record of the final Scott Expedition, though one wonders how and when the negative made its way from the Antarctic to Rochester, N.Y. Sources point to Charles F. Hutchison, who apparently acquired them from George Eastman. Hutchison lived next door to Eastman, was a Kodak employee, and was married to Eastman’s personal secretary.
The significance of the these images lies in the serendipitous and timely discovery at the Museum of this footage, and in their power to engage the imagination into the day-to day activities — and one bittersweet moment — in the lives of these men.
The negative and clips were discovered during the inventory of materials stored in the nitrate holding area of the museum in preparation for transfer to a new vault at Eastman House’s Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center. Here is what is written on the glassine envelope by an unknown museum staff member: “These negatives were evidently sent to Mr. Eastman by Ponting, and given to the Eastman House by Mr. Hutchinson.” [sic] [Long-term EKC employee and friend of George Eastman, Charles F. Hutchison, 1875-1974].
The Scott Expedition yielded more than 1,000 photographs and film reels taken and processed by Herbert G. Ponting (1870-1935) in a self-built darkroom/bedroom on the Ross Ice Shelf. Ponting, who joined the team in 1910, was the first professional photographer attached to such an expedition and first to use both color plates (autochromes) and motion picture film in the Antarctic. He had hoped the material would provide a narrative of the expedition that Captain Scott might use for lectures and fundraising upon return to England 1913, but that was not to be.
On January 17, 1912, instead of being able to lay claim to the “discovery” of the South Pole, Scott and his team had the awful experience of “discovery” of the little tent and the Norwegian flag planted there on December 14, 1911 by Roald Amundsen and his five-man team. Scott later wrote in his diary, “It is a terrible disappointment and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. Many thoughts come … Tomorrow we must march on … and then hasten home … All the daydreams must go; it will be a wearisome return.”
Scott and two members of his team died of cold and starvation, on the determined date of March 29, trapped in their tent only 11 miles from a supply depot. The two other members of the team had died earlier on the return trek from the Pole. The bodies of all five were discovered eight months later.
By the turn of the 20th Century, most of the world had been mapped. However, the huge continent of Antarctica was largely unexplored. This sparked “The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration,” the 25-year period from 1897-1922 when 16 major expeditions launched by eight different countries took place.
Most poignant of all the Eastman House material is the moment captured in the single negative. The pencil inscription on the envelope identifies it: “This is one of the negatives which were taken on a roll of Kodak film on January 18th, 1912 – by Lieut H.R. Bowers at the South Pole. It shows the discovery by Captain Scott of the little tent left there by the Norwegian explorer, Capt. Amundsen, who forestalled [sic] Scott by 34 days. On right foreground, Petty Officer Evans / [on] left Captain Scott. / Middle Dr. Wilson.”
Less dramatic in impact perhaps are the 29 clips of motion picture film, which, however, document what are the real accomplishments of these intrepid explorers — the vast amount of scientific data and specimens that were observed and collected that would occupy the world’s scientific communities for decades to come.
Below: Selections from the expedition’s 35 mm nitrocellulose motion picture film strips, ca.1910-1912
Joe Struble is a native Rochesterian and has lived here all his life with the exception of 4 years spent in Richmond, Virginia where he received a Master’s Degree in Social Work. He has been employed in the Photo Collection at George Eastman House as Assistant Archivist from 1989-2005 and as Archivist beginning in March 2005. One of his greatest satisfactions is in discovery and in adding to the knowledge of material in the Photo Collection.
Our thanks to George Eastman House member Richard C. Reid for sharing his memories from our magical evening with Peter Ostrum:
As part of its Visiting Artist series on Saturday, November 26, 2011, George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film presented the enchanting 1971 fantasy film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. A capacity crowd of appreciative adults and children crowded the Dryden Theatre for the showing that marked the 40th anniversary year of its release. As a special treat, even better than a Willy Wonka Candy Bar, they also got to meet and hear Peter Ostrum who played Charlie Bucket, one of the five children who had found the golden ticket inside a Wonka Bar that won them a tour of the magical candy factory by its mystical owner, Willy Wonka (so memorably portrayed by Gene Wilder).
At 7 p.m. Ms. Dresden Engle, Public Relations Manager for the Eastman House, introduced Peter— now Dr. Peter Ostrum, a large animal veterinarian practicing in upstate New York. The genial, thickly-mustached, unassuming 52-year old appeared greatly touched by the waves of loud applause and cheers that immediately filled the hall.
In his introductory remarks prefacing the film, Peter observed that on its initial release, the movie was not a hit at the box office and received lukewarm reviews from the critics. An adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book, the picture essentially existed, Ostrum stated, to sell candy for the Quaker Oats Company which was the primary backer of the production. Over time, however, audiences found the film through its video releases and took it to heart.
He then joined his wife and family in the audience for the viewing, his first one in many years, he noted. As the opening credits rolled and the words, “Introducing Peter Ostrum as Charlie,” flashed across the screen, the audience again broke into wild applause. It was thrilling to hear them as they joined the characters in song as the film progressed. Clearly, for many viewers present, this was a film for which they held not only high respect but much love.
In the hour-long Question and Answer session that followed as the guest of honor and Ms. Engle occupied chairs on the stage, a pole of candy bars between them, Dr. Ostrum shared his memories of the film’s production. It was largely a matter of being “at the right place at the right time,” he said of securing the leading child’s role. He was then a twelve-year old member of the Children’s Theater at the Cleveland Playhouse when his name was recommended to the film’s casting director. Since no script was available at that point, Peter read aloud from Dahl’s book as a few Polaroids were snapped. Weeks went by before he was one of a handful called in for a screen test. Despite never being told he had actually won the part, he shared, he was advised to have a passport and be ready in case he was called since he might have at best ten days’ notice (which was the case).
He flew to Munich in August 1970 where filming was done over the next five months. He was initially accompanied by his father whom, he noted, had been “a guest” of the Germans in the last war. His mother later replaced his father for the bulk of the time there. The first scenes he filmed were those seen in the beginning of the picture as he runs about town delivering newspapers, planned as a way to gently ease Peter into the whole process. Of Mel Stuart, the movie’s director, Peter said he was “not the easiest person to work with,” adding that Mel would be the first to acknowledge this. He remembers Stuart generally knew what he didn’t want in the movie but had trouble communicating what he did want. Roald Dahl, who had been contracted to do the screenplay, had sufficient difficulties with the director in translating from page to screen, to drop out of the project early, Ostrum added.
“Each day was a different surprise,” he said of the filming. His favorite scene? It was the dance sequence with Jack Albertson who played Grandfather Joe who accompanies Charlie to Wonka’s factory. The veteran actor of vaudeville, burlesque, Broadway, television and films, proved to be “a mentor” to Peter and they kept up a friendly relationship in the years that followed until his passing at age 74 in 1981. Peter’s least favorite scene involved the Wonkamobile when it was sprayed with flame-retardant foam again and again in the usual multiple takes made of any scene.
He found it easy to work with Gene Wilder who, Peter observed, essentially had been given free rein by director Stuart to develop the Wonka character that we see in the film. Peter was especially grateful for the advance warning that Gene gave him prior to shooting the sequence towards the end of the film when Wonka screams at him at length for violating the terms of the contract he had signed. Yet even with that heads up, it was tough scene on both of them because Gene hated having to be so mean to him.
At the director’s insistence, Peter and the other children were kept away from the sets as much as possible so that when scenes were filmed, their reactions to the strange rooms in the Wonka factory would be more wondrously genuine. In his case, however, Peter admitted to some peeking on occasions since he was there much longer than the other children. What did take him and the other child actors by surprise was the sight of the Oompa Loopas, the factory’s workers, portrayed by a team of little people actors aged from their 20s to 60s.
As for the impact on his life that making this one movie has had, it seems to have been reasonably good. He related a charming anecdote about nervously first telling his future wife about it while they were rowing on a lake (and prior to her meeting his parents whom he thought might tell her about the film before he could). Concerned for her reaction, he instead was taken aback when she admitted she had never seen the movie. Once she had, she again surprised him by saying she never realized how big a part he actually had in the film.
Nowadays, Peter occasionally visits some schools doing live productions of the story to talk about the film and his role in it. He credits an Internet fan of the film as being most responsible for getting the surviving cast back together for a reunion in the 1990s, and they still keep in touch as a result. As for the Johnny Depp remake in 2005, Peter said he liked it, adding that he was particularly grateful that it reinvigorated interest in the original film. Interestingly, he admitted that, “I didn’t truly appreciate the film until I had children of my own.”
When filming was over, Ostrum stated he was offered a three-picture contract, but as no particular projects were discussed, and as he wanted to get back to “seventh grade and soccer”, he declined. Although a few years later he did take some tentative steps to get back into the business, ultimately, Wonka proved to be his only movie. But Peter was clear about it: he had no regrets. “If I could only make one film, then I made a good one,” he said proudly. By their quick and sustained applause, he knew the audience agreed that he had, too.