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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 7 JUNE 2010 — Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) trained in film under Jean Renoir (who cast him as a servant in La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939).  Four of the six films directed by Cartier-Bresson are on view as part of the MoMA exhibition, and all six also comprise the first disc of a new two-disc release, Henri Cartier-Bresson: Collector’s Edition (Arthouse Films). Just this once, that overused title is appropriate because it is hard to imagine a serious HCB collector who would pass up a chance to own it.

The film Victory of Life (1937) is a product of its times: made for political purposes, there is a lot of earnest rolling of bandages by defenders of Spain against the Fascist-backed forces of Francisco Franco. Except for the precision with which images are framed, it might at first appear to bear no relation to California Impressions, made in 1970 for CBS News. Shot in a style now made familiar by Frederick Wiseman — without narration or interviews — California Impressions is a look at America’s most self-contradictory (and therefore most American) state during the Vietnam era. Although only twenty-five minutes long, to those who lived through the era, it will likely serve as did Proust’s madeleine, calling up volumes full of memory.

What links those two films and the others on the disc, however, was that in making them, Cartier-Bresson moved into politics and social commentary in ways that in photography — a medium more firmly in his grasp — he customarily avoided or allowed only to appear as subtext. The films are indeed collectible and even important, but that is more because they bring a new understanding about their maker rather than the subjects he chose to film.

The second disc contains films about the artist. Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye (2003) is a measured video poem. Arthur Miller explains how Cartier-Bresson caught Marilyn Monroe deep in thought on the first day of filming The Misfits. Isabelle Hubert tells how Cartier-Bresson’s portrait of her found something unique and previously unseen, though she had often been photographed. Cartier-Bresson appears as an aged master — a man of grace and charm, with wit in his eyes and his humanity made the centerpiece, even in moments in which the filmmakers simply let him sit and do almost nothing at all.

A 1962 film, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Adventure, shows the master at work on the streets of Paris and allows him a rare moment to discuss technique, with his back turned. (Although he said that he did not want to be recognized, HCB’s legendary camera shyness may have had something to do with what he knew a picture could do.) To a practicing documentary photographer, any description by HCB of how he did what he did is important information: that he shot at 1/125th of a second and worked with a 50mm lens when on his own and a three-lens kit when on assignment, and that he believed that a bad day is a bad day: you can change lenses, but if it is a day on which nothing is happening, nothing will make it happen. In answer to the question of how many pictures did he take that day, the answer was always: how many interesting things happened that day?

There are many moments like that, and you come away from the discs liking and respecting Henri Cartier-Bresson all the more.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Collector's Edition
Arthouse Films
Color, 2 DVDs, NTSC, Subtitled in English
DVD Release Date: March 2010

Alan Behr practices intellectual-property law at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP.  A member of l’Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art, Mr. Behr also wrote on the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective Henri Cartier-Bresson: the Modern Century for Culturekiosque.

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