Judge Gordon Sullivan is in his middle comma as a DVD reviewer.
"Only a fraction of the camera's possibilities interests me—the marvelous mixture of emotion and geometry, together in a single instant."—Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson was a giant of twentieth century photography. To the fan of art, he left countless classic pictures and demonstrated that everyday subjects on the street (or what we now call "photojournalism") could provide the material for art. To the film critic or theorist, he left the concept of "the decisive moment," that split second where emotion and geometry meet in a photograph to capture the feeling of a picture in its form. Finally, to the photographe,r he left a legacy of 35mm street photography, photography that was free and intuitive that prized mobility, spontaneity, and sensitivity. There's no question that Cartier-Bresson belongs in the upper echelon of photographers. To that tremendous legacy we can now add Cartier-Bresson's talents as a director, thanks to this DVD from Arthouse Films.
Henri Cartier-Bresson: Collector's Edition is a two-disc DVD set that gathers (on the first disc) documentaries that Cartier-Bresson shot and (on the second disc) documentaries about Cartier-Bresson. They go as follows:
• Spain Will Live—Cartier-Bresson's documentary on the fascist collusion in Europe to support General Franco's regime in Spain.
• The Return—After spending time as a French POW during World War II, Cartier-Bresson documents the return of other liberated POWs to their native countries.
• "California Impressions"—A short documentary created for CBS News, this film examines Cartier-Bresson's travels in California.
• "Southern Exposures"—Also created for CBS News, this film takes a look at several notable Southern institutions, like churches and plantations.
• Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Adventure—Mixing shots of Cartier-Bresson at work along with interview footage, this documentary from 1962 shows the photographer in his middle period.
• Contacts: Henri Cartier-Bresson—A look at Cartier-Bresson's photography utilizing Ken Burns-style cinematic techniques.
• Flagrantes délits—A montage of Cartier-Bresson's work set to music.
• A Day in the Studio of Henrie Cartier-Bresson—This documentary shows the photographer indulging in his love of drawing and painting.
• Lest We Forget: Letter ot Mamadou Bâ—A documentary made with Cartier-Bresson for Amnesty International expressing the photographer's horror at the murder of Mamadou Bâ and his brother.
Henri Cartier-Bresson: Collector's Edition is an odd release that's obviously aimed at a niche market. The documentaries by Cartier-Bresson, included on the first disc, are generally historical oddities. I'm glad they're being preserved, but without the name of Cartier-Bresson attached, these films wouldn't see distribution beyond the rare historian or archivist. Much like Cartier-Bresson's photography, the images tend to be candid-seeming shots of people going about their business, and while voiceover is used in many of the films, it's the images that tell the story. That thread is pulled through the documentaries featured on the second disc as well. Although a number of them feature interviews with Cartier-Bresson and his contemporaries, the vast majority of the running time of all these documentaries is taken up by shots of Cartier-Bresson's fantastic photographic legacy. Generally, these documentaries about Cartier-Bresson eschew any kind of narrative and instead let the photographs (and interview subjects) speak.
All this is really to say that none of the material on these two discs is really aimed at someone new to Cartier-Bresson's work, or even at someone with a passing familiarity. There's no comprehensive look at Cartier-Bresson's life, and although many references are made to incidents throughout his life, there's no real attempt (except in the accompanying liner notes) to present a solid biographical sketch to anchor some of the documentary discussions. That really leaves this disc for the hardcore collector or educator. Those already intimately familiar with Cartier-Bresson's life and work will appreciate the new dimension opened up by the films (and have less trouble following the documentaries on the second disc), while the educator can show any one of these films in isolation after having given students a solid overview of Cartier-Bresson's life and works.
For those groups, this is an excellent DVD release. On the audiovisual front, the source material has some obvious variance in quality, but overall this material looks and sounds about as good as you'd expect. There's print damage and occasional flickering in some of the older material, and the color CBS footage tends to look a bit murky, but all of it is watchable. The new documentaries occasionally look a little noisy, but that doesn't detract from seeing Cartier-Bresson himself discuss the work. The audio is pretty evenly split between French and English stereo tracks, and subtitles are provided for those documentaries with only French audio. Although the tracks show the limitations of age, they are generally pretty easy to make out.
I have two small complaints about Henri Cartier-Bresson: Collector's Edition. The first is that subtitles weren't included for all material, even those documentaries in English. For instance, some of the accents in "Southern Exposures" can be a bit thick, and since the audio is a bit old it's hard to turn it up to get a better sense of what's being said. Subtitles would alleviate that. Also, the only real "extra" on this set is the generally wonderful thirty-two-page set of liner notes that provide overviews of the film, quotes from Cartier-Bresson, and reproductions of the photos. It's the last one that I find problematic. Cartier-Bresson was obsessed with the geometry of his shots, and he was fanatic about presenting his images in their original framing. However, some of the shots featured in the booklet are cropped, which is jarring for the familiar photos and obviously counter to Cartier-Bresson's intentions. These, however, are minor points and don't significantly detract from the wealth of material on display.
Although not for Cartier-Bresson neophytes, this DVD set offers an amazing peek at the cinematic work of a photographic genius, as well as several interesting looks at his life and work. It's certainly worth a rental to anyone familiar with Cartier-Bresson's work, and serious collectors and art educators are going to want to add these discs to their collection.
At this decisive moment, I have to find Henri Cartier-Bresson: Collector's Edition not guilty.
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