May 28, 1964 [Le trou/The Night Watch]

When Jacques Becker died, he took with him the last remnants of un-ironic, quiet cool. His heroes lived in small worlds, hard to manage but easy to understand--and at the end he shrunk this down in Le trou to the title: a hole, worked at methodically, by hand.

One of the great physical joys is to pick up a hammer and bang away at something, chipping at it bit by bit, your arm like a metronome ticking off the blows, the pieces flying away, the thing broken down--or the hole widening. Becker trains his camera to stand there and watch the men make their patient getaway, the old soft concrete of the prison still tough, but eventually yielding--again, almost all of it on camera, staring for long minutes so we see the work done. It's a great movie about a prison break--but it is also the single most satisfying examination of real work I think I'll ever see outside of an instructional film--no, even better than that, because as instruction the film must simplify and cleanse the process; watching it builds your confidence that you can do it yourself. But with Becker's film it's dust and shards, and it instead builds suspense--and more pleasure than any instruction can offer, the child's pleasure--again, not only of breaking things (although a rock striking a pane of glass has its own satisfaction), but of making something--like all the prisoners' little tricks and gadgets, the jerry-rigged hour glass, the rags wrapped around improvised cutting tools, the elaborate devices for passing messages and rigging hinges--all these to build the most important thing: the hole, the widening opportunity for freedom.

--And that's all I care about; the end does not matter--of course, their escape matters to them, but I am merely the student, trained to remember only their arms swinging, over and over and over again. What more could any teacher wish, but to leave an indelible impression?


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