Legenda’s Moving Image line was born in 2010, when we announced the first titles, but in June we held a christening, so to speak. Professor Emma Wilson, general editor of the series, organised a lively and well-attended seminar at the impressive new Alison Richard Building, home to Cambridge’s CRASSH research centre for the Humanities — the CRASSH pad, so to speak. As someone who used to play croquet in the neighbouring gardens, when an undergraduate at Selwyn College, I remember Cambridge’s arts complex mainly as a heap of concrete oblongs. But the Alison Richard Building is only the newest tranche of quite a substantial reinvestment, and it all feels rather swishly modern again. Acoustics and quality of projection in the seminar rooms were particularly good, and believe me, that doesn’t go without saying for all newly-built facilities.
Each of our debut authors spoke for half an hour, and a fruitful joint Q&A followed. First up was Paul Julian Smith, author of Spanish Practices: Literature, Cinema, Television. We really could not have asked for a more distinguished figure to serve as no. 1 in a series intended to embrace not only film but also television and other media: Paul was one of the youngest Professors of Spanish ever appointed, was elected an FBA in 2008, and now holds a senior position at CUNY. Though he only decamped to America three years ago, his talk, on Almodóvar’s Women, brought a wry New Yorker wit to mention of an unusual form of cultural translation: a remake of Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, almost shot by shot, as a Broadway show. This made for a pretty rum plot, but, as Paul remarked, it made a lot more sense than Spiderman, the season’s big hit. Almodóvar himself was closely involved in the Broadway project: an interesting reminder that film and the musical theatre don’t meet only at Spamalot.
Our second speaker was Laura McMahon, author of Cinema and Contact: The Withdrawal of Touch in Nancy, Bresson, Duras and Denis. Laura spoke, among other things, about the surprisingly deep and affecting characterisation of Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic Au hasard Balthazar. There was some talk afterwards of how the pitch meeting for this movie must have gone: “So, the lead character is Balthazar, a farm donkey who puts up with everything they make him do.” “Cartoon, is it?” “No, no, live action. 35mm.” “Right, so he’s a talking donkey?” “No, no, a completely untrained donkey. We wanted a genuine sense of contact with the animal.” A pause. “Is there — I can’t believe I’m asking this — a love interest?” “Well, there’s the farm girl who befriends him. She’s a victim too, and they both have horrible lives.”
But it is, of course, a masterpiece. Godard called it all of life in 90 minutes, and went on to marry the farm girl to boot. In the most picaresque scene of the movie, human beings are relegated to being little more than extras, as Balthazar is led through the straw-strewn backstage lot of a circus, which is lined with cages of wild animals he could not possibly have encountered in nature. Bresson intercuts hauntingly between their eyes:
This being an election year, American websites and TV stations are already full of infographics about the clash of Donkeys and Elephants, that is, Democrats and Republicans. But so far as I know, Au hasard Balthazar is the only time the confrontation has happened for real.