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Cinema Signals by Jules Brenner:

Henri Cartier-Bresson:
The Man, the Image and the World:
A Retrospective

. "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye"

This appreciation of a still photographer some think of as the grand master of them all demonstrates Henri Cartier-Bresson's ability to consistently make art out of people in the midst of their lives, capturing perfect compositional moments and angles with his camera. What we see of his work merits all the praise lavished upon him, though the documentary content leaves one wishing for less in the way of rambling, unfocused articulation.

Unless artists are also big, charismatic personalities in their own right, documentaries that feature them are inclined (or, doomed?) to be a bit of a snooze. Their appearance from behind their instrument of art making --in this case a camera-- often fails to rise to eloquence or cinematic drama. But that element aside, the work itself conveys considerable impact. The DVD will have interest for those who want to examine Cartier-Bresson's extraordinary work along with his creative thought processes and its effect on a few of his subjects and observers. Study value, not entertainment.

The photographer's portfolio consistently demonstrates his remarkable aptitude for feeling the emotion of a scene before his lens, and the quickness of an athlete in reacting at an optimal moment to record it. It's a sense borne out of special instincts and a lifetime of pursuing his visual sensibilities.

"You see, you feel, and the surprised eye responds," he says.

The results convey feelings, mood, and the beauty of form as he integrates a person, several people, a crowd, or no human presence at all into a natural geometry. In almost every composition, the setting makes for an architecture of shape and perspective that engages the viewer strongly enough to produce an emotional response. Surprise is a not uncommon reaction to his images.

To me, in a world that celebrates photographers for celebrity photos, landscapes, sports and the like -- subjects that draw acclaim from something outside the art form itself -- he stands above for basing his art on the beauty in the variation of human experience as it's unfolding. He's at the top of a rarified strata of photographers who seek the creative potentials of the medium rather than the drawing power of pop subject matter.

Not that he doesn't do celebrity photos, as well. Interviews with Isabelle Huppert, Arthur Miller and other of his subjects who pay respects to his artistry from their particular perspectives are woven into this portrait of the portraitist. Huppert recalls her sitting with Cartier-Bresson and how he produced a version of her that revealed something she hadn't seen in a photo before--a remarkable comment coming from a movie star. The artist was able, in a brief and informal session, to capture a particular essence of the person, not the actress.

Miller is likewise revealing in his discussion of the artist's capture of his ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe. "This is her, this is Marilyn," the playright says, confirming the truth behind the iconic figure's expression as she waits on a movie stage for an early take. When we then see Cartier-Bresson's darkly introspective portrait of Miller himself, a circle has been completed.

As said, the documentary technique here is somewhat less than sparkling, but director Heinz Btler ultimately justifies his straight approach as suitable to an homage. Showing some wisdom in his technical choices, he opts for audio translation of the artist's words in order to avoid subtitles that would obscure part of the work on display and the informative titles that appear briefly to identify them.

Cinematic demands aside, this DVD is a contribution to art lore and a treasure for photographic art lovers who'll see it as a companion piece to the Cartier-Bresson opus in print, which they probably have on their walls or on their coffee tables. The artist does manage to openly convey his aesthetic approach, to the extent that verbalizing it is possible and, in moments, imparts insight into the values that underlie his methods. So what if there's a bit of rambling. He isn't, after all, a writer or performer--just one of the medium's towering figures. And that's what you should take away from this DVD recognition of him. Cartier-Bresson defines great photography.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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