Judge Chris Claro had an impassioned eye once, but the doctor prescribed some salve and it cleared right up.
"We see, we feel, and the surprised iris responds."
Good documentary film conveys the pulse of its subjects and setting. Hoop Dreams made the aspirations of inner-city athletes universal. Spellbound pulsed with the adolescent tension of scholastic success. Even a whimsical stunt like Super Size Me was able to convey the torpor of being a human lab experiment.
But documenting the creative process proves a much more abstruse undertaking. The process of creation, even with collaborators, is often solitary. It is fraught with long stretches of inactivity punctuated with flashes of genius. Its products are often thrilling, but the process through which they evolve rarely is. As Edwin H. Land, developer of what would become the Polaroid camera once said: "Creativity is the sudden cessation of stupidity."
Long considered the father of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson personified creativity. Throughout his nearly hundred years of life he painted and drew, but was renowned for his photography. Bresson traveled the world, shooting pictures and maintaining his dictum "get close enough to feel something, yet remain detached enough not to get involved." His candid shots and his portraiture emphasized the "geometry" of shadows, lines, and light, while always evincing the beauty and emotion of their subjects.
And, while Heinz Bütler displays dozens of Bresson's incredible photos in his documentary, The Impassioned Eye, he fails to generate a sense of genuine excitement about the work. In fact, much of the film is devoted to Bresson quietly flipping through books of his work and commenting on it. Definitely not the stuff of compelling documentary. As photographer Ferdinando Scianna says in describing Bresson, "you have to take pictures because it fills you with life." Unfortunately, it seems that that attitude is lost on Bütler.
It's ironic that the vibrant, dynamic works of one of the premier photographers of the 20th century would be studied in such a listless style. Various co-workers, friends, and subjects of Bresson—among them actress Isabelle Huppert (I Heart Huckabees) and playwright Arthur Miller—discuss his ability to capture moments and find truth. The spirited recollections of their interactions with Bresson offer the film's few lively moments. During these segments the audience gets a sense of what The Impassioned Eye could have been, rather than what it turned out to be: a half-beautiful, half-bland examination of the creative process.
Granted, the beautiful part truly is. Bütler shoots the work in a way that is simple, yet articulates its complexity. The display of Bresson's photos, drawings, and paintings, accompanied by lively pieces by Bach, Mozart, and Ravel, renders much of the rambling talk about his work superfluous.
Moreover, the lack of subtitles, for a disc on which many of the participants are speaking French, is a huge error on the part of Palm Pictures. True, all the foreign speakers are translated by the narrator, but that layer increases the distance between the viewer and those onscreen. There are no extras on the disc, save for trailers for some of Palm's other documentaries.
If The Impassioned Eye fails as a documentary, it does so with a good deal of respect for its subject. Though the majority of the film plods through a prosaic recounting of Bresson's career, the fruits of that career save The Impassioned Eye from being a waste of time. The film exposes viewers to the work of one of the 20th century's true visionaries and for that, it must be commended. It's just a shame that it couldn't have done so in a more dynamic manner.
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