Renoir and Plotless Cinema – Jonas Mekas
January 26, 1961
There is a new book by Ezra Goodman, The Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood. Goodman quotes D.W. Griffith as saying: “The simple things, the human things are important in pictures. There are supposed to be only seven or eight plots. They are relatively unimportant. The most important thing is humanity.” The old man of cinema knew it all the time.
It is an important point, this plot business. It almost makes the whole difference between entertainment and art, between purely commercial cinema and author’s cinema. Crazed about the plot, the critics almost killed Picnic on the Grass and Another Sky, two of the beast movies to come to town in a long time. Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel they did not even notice. Now they are trying to kill Buñuel. The critics prefer plot, the artist prefers the regions beyond plot.
The masterpiece of the personal, “plotless” cinema is Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (at the 8th Street Playhouse). And it is in Rules of the Game that we see the superiority of Renoir over Bergman, Cinema vs. theatre. Whereas Bergman sustains his scenes through the dramatic climaxes, Renoir avoid any such dramatizations. Renoir’s people look like people, act like people, and are confused like people, vague and unclear. They are moved not by the plot, not by theatrical dramatic climaxes, but by something that one could even call the stream of life itself, by their own irrationality, their sporadic, unpredictable behavior. Bergman’s people do not have a choice of free movement because of the imposed dramatic construction; Renoir’s people have no choice because of the laws of life itself. Bergman’s hero is the contrived 19th-centruy hero; Renoir’s hero is the unanimous hero of the 20th century. And it is not through the conclusions of the plot (the fake wisdom of pompous men) that we learn anything from Renoir; it is not who killed whom that is important; it is not through the hidden or open symbolism of the lines, situations, or compositions that Renoir’s truth comes to us; but through the details, characterizations, reactions, relationships, movements of his people, the mise-en-scène. Gradually, as the film progresses, plotless as it is, the whole nerve system of the pre-World War II French aristocracy is reveals to us, sickening as it is.
And that is the secret of the art of Buñuel and Renoir. The very last image of They Young One, with Zachary Scott standing there alone by the waters’ edge, the burning patch of sun behind the trees, and the over growth of the trees—this in itself is worth more than all the New York film critics and their papers put together. Our film critics are butches of the human and the beautiful. And so are there papers.