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The French Master: Robert Bresson

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Good morning, we continue our discussion of The French masters. Today, we are focusingon Robert Bresson.But, before that I will just try to recap what we have been doing so far; characteristicsof the French nouvelle vogue or the French new wave. So, we know that the masters; wewere discussing Renoir the other day, and they believed in casting non-professional,non-trained actors to get kind of performance which was low on melodrama, that was one thing.They were the practitioners of the French nouvelle vogue. As there was a group; we havealready seen lead by the critic Andre bazin who establish a journal called ‘Cahier du cinema’.And these film makers rejected the cinematic practices of the 1950’s. Truffaut,Francois Truffaut, he went so far on writing an essay and it is a water shed kind of a piece called,‘certain quality of French cinema’. And what is that certain qualityor certain tendency of French cinema, and what is that? Focusing on big budget and bigstar cast films; basically based on these French classics. And when you adapt a novelin to film then all the problems that accompany; you have to cast big stars, you have to havebig sets, you have to have the backing of a big studio, and that is what Truffaut meansby a certain tendency or a certain quality of French cinema. And these people, the Nouvellevogue directors, they rejected these practices of the 50's. They believed in making low budgetfilms and we have already talked about that. Using hand held camera and shooting on locations.They came out of the shackles of the studio; so real locations, real people and of coursepreferred natural light to studio lighting, natural sound to extensive studio dubbing,we have seen all these. Now, we are talking about a period; remember‘The rules of the game’ was made in 1939, and we are talking about a period of thatis Second World War and this was a time when American films were not screened in France.Remember, there was a part of France which is called the occupied France, occupied by who?Student: The NaziGood. The Nazis; the Germany, Germans. So, American cinemas because America was supposedlythe enemy and films, their movies were not shown or screened in France. Now, immediatelyafter the war there was a huge demand for Hollywood products and some of the much appreciatedfilms included film noirs; such as ‘the Maltese falcon’ starring Humphrey Bogart,‘Double indemnity’ this is the Billy wilder movie, and ‘Laura’ Otto Preminger’s movie.So these were, they belong to the category of film noir; this term also was coined bythe French critics, noir. And these critics apart from being impressed by auteurs likeHitchcock and Howard hawks; they also admired the techniques which Orson Welles introducedand perfected in ‘Citizen Kane’ which was made in 1941. So, the French cinephiles,the film critics, they recognized that the major revolution is taking place which Frenchcinema is unaware of; and they are recognized that it is a key event in Hollywood, it isa key period in Hollywood that is going on. Film noir; the so called film noir, most ofthem were based on novels by pulp novels as we were talking about yesterday, James Cainwe talked about ‘Mildred pierce’, remembered? James M. Cain’s ‘Postman always ringstwice’ and ‘Mildred pierce’. Raymond chandler, what did he write? A great moviebased on his very popular pulp novel; ‘The big sleep’, directed by Howard hawks,we were talking about Howard hawks, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. So, DashiellHammett who wrote ‘Maltese falcon’, Raymond chandler, James Cain; and their kind of heroes,their kind of plots. So, the Hollywood film noir combine the hard-boiledprose of these writers, the noir writers with European expressionist, cinematography; andall these immensely appeal to the cahier critics. Now, see noir and the hard-boiled hero, theywere extremely popular with the French film makers and French critics. Does anyone rememberthat key scene from Godard’s ‘Breathless’ which is often considered as homage to film noir?Do you remember, Azher? Have you watched the Breathless? Is there any moment where?Student: Where is wondering,.Oh no, that is femme fatale, all right butdirect a reference to the film noir of Hollywood. Is there anything, any shot which you remember?Does anyone? Do you remember? No? Hero, the great Jean-Paul Belmond, he plays a very greycharacter; morally ambiguous character in Breathless. And his signature is style is;he wears all those very stylish tailors’ suits, he wears that hat and he is alwayssmoking a cigarette. Now, there is a point when he comes face to face with the posterof Humphrey Bogart, and the poster is from ‘The harder they fall’, it is a film noir.And he just you know, the look in Jean-Paul Belmond’s eyes like a pure worship. He lookingat his hero who he wants to become, it is very clear. So, that is Godard paying homage to film noir.So, we have already talked about other features.The employment of lightweight cameras. Why do we need light cameras; as oppose to?Student: Easy to carry. Exactly, handheld which can be used to shooton actual locations, actually streets. And lights and sound and all these equipmentsallowed the new wave directors to shoot in the pedestrian cities and in streets rather than in studios.The fluid camera motion, you understood; can anyone tell me what isa fluid camera motion, as opposed to static camera?Student: The camera moving like tracking shots.Exactly, camera tracks. You know, we weretalking about Max Ophuls’ and we talked about pan, camera panning the entire scenario.And then we have the fluid shots of Godard. There is a particular scene, Godard was oncemarried to this beautiful actress Anna Karina not Anna Karenina that is Leo Tolstoy. AnnaKarina, you remember? So, they made a movie together, I cannot remember the title of thefilm where she enters a music shops; you know shops which sales music recorders etc., notCD’s those days but record. And she enters a shop and she says; ‘I want something byJudy Garland, Judy Garland ‘Wizard of Oz’, she was also a song stress, a singer.She is looking for some music by Judy Garland, and the camera just tracks Anna Karina acrossthe shop as she looks for Judy Garland on the shelves. And then she finds the recordand she comes back and pays for it. The camera follows her throughout, so the freedom ofmovement, freedom of camera. So, that is what we understand by fluidity of camera motion.And this is as you know, camera is never still. And when you watch a movie like; Mean Streetsfor example which we will soon be discussing after once we finish French New wave, thenwe will be stepping into that area also. In Scorsese’s Mean streets, camera is never static;handheld camera. Has anyone watched ‘Mean streets’ here? How many of you have watched ‘Mean Streets’?No? I am surprised, we will do that soon.Mean Streets is a text book, I know you, know all the greats by Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas onwards;I think that was the year when most of you were born. I am right? Goodfellas isnineteen eighty nine, so around that period. So, coffee shops, coffee bars, Paris is knownfor it is coffee shops. All those intellectual discussions; Jean-Paul Sartre and Camus having,we know those existentialist writers. So, the mise-en-scene of Parisian streets andcoffee bars became a defining features of all these films; actors sitting having coffeein coffee bars on Parisian Streets, and handheld lightweight cameras gave the directors thatkind of freedom to shoot on actual location. Which is that most recent movie by Mani Ratnam,I get that impression? Students: KadalOkay, has anyone watched it? How is it? Student: Not that good.Yeah, tell us why it is not good; I mean Mani Ratnam is supposedly one of the pioneers ofnew wave, Student: It is a routine story madam, justcould not receive anything. Nothing, it is not alai Payuthey or Bombay level. It is justanother basically the story about good verse evil and who will wins.Technically? Student: Technically, the camera and the musicare very good. The story is very mundane. Story is mundane but technically,and who did the cinematography? Students: Rajiv MenonRajiv Menon that is the regular fine, we talked about auteurism right; so a cinematographerand director, actor, Aravind Swamy comes back. Another feature of French new wave cinemawas that, they did not believe in story and believed in improvisation on sets. So, traditionallinear narrative structure, the classic linear structure was completely demolished. And whowere the people? What stories did they tell you about? Now, think again ‘Mean Streetsand Bonnie and Clyde, and Easy Riders, what are they; stories about the young and therebellious, the misfits, the alienated hero. These films use the language of the youth;watch Godard’s Breathless and you will feel that the some of the things he tells his girl,they were scandalous then and for some of us they are Scandalous even today, and Breathlesswas made way back in 1960, so using the language of the youth.Heavily influenced by popular culture, what do we understand by popular culture? I mean,I do not like the way people use the word culture, very loosely you know; this culture,north Indian culture, this American culture, the western culture. What is culture, to be progress?Student: In common form, popular culture itis used to refer to something; there is not classic that is not enjoyed by a certain elites,something to that is effect. So, popular culture, say in cinema commonly refers to somethinglike; Bollywood, within India refers to the vernacular which is considered for the massesas opposed to certain strata. Very nice. Now, see popular culture is simplisticallyput, is that culture which is enjoyed by the masses; commonly accessible, easily accessible.So, we understand that R. D Burman is accessible to most and Mozart is not that is the idea.So, same in Hollywood; rock and roll music accessible to most whereas ((Refer Prof)), 14:56,it often would not that is the idea. So, in these films language of the youth,street jargon as opposed to very stilted kind of language that is cinema used at one point;think Martin Scorsese again, think Easy Rider, again, Born to be wild, that is the signature,theme of the movie. They are not using some classical strain of music; they are unlikeRenoir who begins movie with Mozart. So, Renoir is still meant for elitist, for all his sympathyfor common people. But people like Godard they broke away even from that, so extensiveuse of popular culture, especially popular Hollywood culture. Featured existentialistthemes that we will talk about and acceptance of the absurdity of human existence.So, most of these heroes; think Truffaut’s 400 blows, think Godard’s Breathless, Bandof outsiders (Bande a part), you know Bande a part; it is a movie by Godard.And it has been immortalized by Tarantino as? Student: His production?His production house Quentin Tarantino’s production house is called ‘Bande a part’.So, the characters in French new wave films are often marginalized and anti heroes notconventional goody two shoes heroes, loners, they betrayed, no family ties, behave impulsively,spontaneously, immoral and a moral, and are frequently seen as anti-authoritarian; andall these features are found in classic, in the Counter culture Hollywood new wave cinema,extremely anti-authoritarian, again think Bonnie and Clyde, again think Dog day afternoon,anti-authoritarian written all over it. Mean streets, any other example? Easy rider ofcourse is a key text, and we were talking about Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude the other day,all these movies shakes the foundations of traditional way of thinking, and attitudesand believes and morals. A general cynicism concerning politics, there was a student revolutionin 1968 in Paris; are you aware of that? The student’s rebellion in the Persian universitiesin 1960’s, please look it up. It will fine-tune your understanding of this entire culturalscenario; Murakami for instance in Norwegian Wood makes a reference to that incident. Please,look at that what is Persian student rebellion. A deliberate distanciation between screenand spectators, often breaking the fourth wall; Godard’s characters starts talkingto us, breaking the fourth wall, otherwise cinema is generally considered to be consistingof three walls, there is no such thing as. They do not recognize, why? Because they wantus to become one with the proceedings on the screen, but when you break the fourth wallto involve the audience in whatever is happening on screen and compel them to think ratherthan empathize and sympathize with characters. So, as Brecht rightly said that ‘peopleshould cry with brains and not with the heart’, that was what a French nouvelle vogue aspiresto do. Any comments here, any questions? So, I am just giving you an overview of what Frenchnouvelle vogue was all, about before moving on to Bresson. So, ask me questions please.Student: Ma’am is ‘Paper Moon’ is construct of one of these movies?‘Paper Moon’ by Bogdonavich? Yes, it should be, it belongs to that. It is anti-authoritarian, definitely.Student: The family ties with theAbsolutely, no such thing as family ties in the movie.Student: She constructs herself to be daughter of that guy.Of the guy that means, you have the freedom to choose your own father. You are not compelledto follow an authoritarian figure, just because you are born in a particular family.So, rebellion against that construct of family as well. She likes this guy and she says I want youto be my father figure and not anyone else; we are talking about ‘Paper moon’, andalso watch ‘The last picture shows’ Bogdanovich’s again.Student: ‘What is up doc’, is he talking about same genre or?Yes, it is in the same genre, absolutely? It is a comedy. It is a reworking of Howard Hawks’‘Bringing up baby’. Bringing up baby is a nerdy, gicky kind of a professorromance between a gicky professor played by Cary Grant and light hearted girl as playedoriginally by Katherine Hepburn, and in ‘What is up doc’ by Barbara Streisand; and isa romance between the two of them. Love story, although based on a novel is quite anti-authoritarian.Student: With clear examples in New wave in French cinema, in Hollywood cinema, how fardo you think that these sorts of movement have happened in India cinema for sake?Of course, we had one in parallel cinema movement; all those movement by Nihalani and Shyam Benegal.So, do you remember those films? There is a movie called Nishant, there is a movie calledManthan; Manthan is based on real people shot on location, is based on at entire dairy movement, Amul.And its set in Gujarat shot on actual locations mostly with non-professional actors.And all the greats who starred in Manthan, later on became pillars of arty cinemas inIndia; Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Girish Karnad, but they were not thatgreat or they were not commercially successful actors but they were first featured in Manthan.Manthan is a landmark movie according to me. Before that, there was ‘Nishant’ againby Shyam Benegal. Saeed Mirza and he made a movie called ‘Albert pinto ko gussa kyoaata hai’ in Hindi; that means why does Albert pinto get angry all the time, angryyoung, the original authentic angry young man. Of course, we had our more beloved angryyoung man but let us not get into that, so that angry young man remains. But, NaseeruddinShah was the angry young man in a couple of new wave kind of cinemas. All these filmsadhere to all the conventions of Italian neorealism and French new wave. Of course, now they arehere, and they are now of course they have been; Love, sex and dhoka, is a very good example.Balki is good combinations of realism as wellas commerce but, then you have Santhosh Sivan whom I would call poetic realist, he makesquite realistic films but they are romantic, they are poetic. We had him for one of ourconferences and he spoke extensively about his style, his influences; so one of thesedays I will show you the recording from that lecture. Who else? Who else is an extremely, Anurag Kashyap?His cinema is quite authentic; it speaks of the authentic people, of India.Very realistic, very much grounded in our socio-political-economic situation.And he often cast non-professional actors; I mean you watch Gangs of Wasseypur, except ManojBajpayee and some of the actresses, none of them are recognized guys. I mean, NawazuddinSiddiqui is big now, after that all those movies. And he was definitely not cast, becauseof his looks, right; star-aura or whatever. So, what did French nouvelle vogue cinema,what is the legacy, what did it give to us; a strong auteurial voice. Everybody wantedto be an auteur for a very long time. Democratization of cinema, cinema about real people and aboutreal events; that is what we mean by democratization of cinema, it is no longer a domain of thevery elitist group; speaking the language of the common people, starring people whoare very average, who look like common regular people and not that so called movie star.From here, we will move on to, you have something to say?We move on to Robert Bresson and in particular I am going to discuss his film called ‘Pick pocket’.Do we have anyone here who is familiar with Pick pocket?Student: Heard of it. Heard of it? Good. Pick pocket is a classic;ask me one of the best films, I have ever watched. What is it all about? The hero isthe pick pocket. But true to French nouvelle vogue cinema, he is a very intellectual, veryexistentialist; inward looking, loner sort of a hero. And Bresson had a far reachinginfluence on all these film makers, especially the film makers are from nouvelle vogue andalso Hollywood new wave cinema. Martin Scorsese, for example influenced by Bresson; Taxi driver,Robert de niro’s character, there are several elements which are common the protagonistfrom Pick pocket and Travis Bickles character. Just watch this scene, see how much musichas Bresson use; this is a scene as there is a chapter in the matrix. So, just pay attentionto his acting style, the protagonist, hero’s acting style, the narrative technique, theuse of voice over, the music and how the camera moves; these are the things, I want you topay attention to it. And Paul Schrader has given commentary on this particular movie.Paul Schrader is currently, you know who is Paul Schrader?Student: Taxi driver Good, screen writer for Taxi Driver; frequentcollaborator with Martin Scorsese, also worked with him on Raging Bull, and I guess ‘Thelast temptation of Christ’, Paul Schrader is a Scorsese combination. Schrader was supposedlythe intellectual among these new wave Hollywood directors than the entire group. And he haswritten a great, seminal book delineating the works of Carl Dreyer; you remember wetalked about Dreyer’s Joan of arc, the Danish maker. Remember, Joan of arc when we are talkingabout modernists? So, I talked about Dreyer, Carl Dreyer. And the book focuses on the worksof Dreyer, Ozu; the Japanese master and Bresson, so it is by Schrader.So, Bresson (1907 – 1990), made only 13 movies in career which is spanning 40 years.And believed in necessarily casting non-professional actors, whom he called ‘models’; actorsare not nothing more than models, not our wooden models but actors are models. And believedin a dictate that ‘art is transformation’; transforms you spiritually, intellectually.‘Diary of a country priest’ you can see cross in the background.Religion and spirituality are common motives in his films.So, he considered the most Christiansof all film makers not in the narrow sense of the word; but in a more spiritual, moreyou know all encompasses sense of the term. So, you just watch the clipping from ‘Pick Pocket’, comment?Student: Sounds are very realistic.The footsteps! Good. Music, how about background music? Did you notice any background music?The hero is about to pick somebody’s pocket, right. Generally, it would be a company withlot of thrilling kind of music. Here is no music; he is just doing it as all in a day’swork for him, very regular. Anything else?Student: The action are really deliberate;when he puts the latch, takes his jacket off and puts it on the hanger, the way he doesit is a deliberate sort of thing, like he does every meticulous.He is a very meticulous person. The way he takes off his jacket at the end of the scene,puts it up on hanger, hangs it very meticulously, carefully up there. Lives very sparingly ina room and surrounded with books. He is an intellectual we are told; he reads heavy books;French philosophy, Russian philosophy that is what most of the time we find him reading.When he picks somebody’s pocket; he is holding a newspaper. What about acting?He is a non-professional, he was not well known actor to begin with. So, it was a deliberate attempt on Bresson’spart to cast non-professional actor. What effect does it lead to?Do we see lots of emotions and expressions on him? No. That is one technique; that people like Dreyerand Bresson employed very frequently, that makes the actors rehearse so well.Firstly, cast non-professional actors because there were otherwise there would not be any senseof lack of empathy. The moment you cast well known actors, beloved actors; your sympathiesare directly, automatically with them no matter what roll they enact.Scarface, Al Pacino; so that is Al Pacino, whatever he does is good enough for us.But, the moment you cast a non-professional actor, what happens? You are forced to think about the events.You are not emotionally manipulated. So, eschewing the use of actors,eschewing well known actors and stars, eschewing the use of music; because what does backgroundmusic generally does to us?Student: Creates emotionsExactly, it leads our emotions, it dictates our emotions, and it manipulates our emotions.Background music; especially the way it use in our cinema, it tells us where to cry andwhere to laugh right and where to; you know there is a certain kind of flute music playingand we know it is a love scene. So, you know the other day I was watching a movie, I wouldnot tell you the name of the movie, it is a Hindi movie with friend of mine, and themusic starts playing and she nudges me and she says you know what; it is a love scene,she is going to tell him that she loves him. And I said how do you know?She said, look there are two things; there is music for one, it is a moon lit night secondly and thirdlythis is boys pay attention to this, she is wearing a pink dress.So, everything falls in place. It happens the way you know, and it is supposedly a more realistic kind ofa movie made by one of those directors who prides himself on doing not so conventionalbut still there are certain tropes. Here, you do not know whether to empathies or sympathizeor just to distance your-self. So, the idea is to distance yourself from whatever is happeningand just think what is happening. So, the director is not making any judgements , youmake your own decisions or judgements about whatever is taking place on screen.So, ‘Pickpocket’.Bresson is considered one of the Christian of film makers whose style includes; realismalong with absolute aestheticism. And if you watch this particular scene, you watch allhis films why this particular scene. You will find that how all details are parts down;very sparing, extremely sparing use of all cinematic elements.And he believed that the cinema is interior movement.His major works include; The angels of sin,scripted with Jean Giraudoux; Giraudoux was playwright, French playwright of that period.‘The ladies of the Bois de Boulogne’ 1945 which was adopted or adapted by Bresson alongwith Jean Cocteau; do you remember we were doing Cocteau? Beauty and the Beast?So, Cocteau was another important artist, painter, writer, actor, film director, playwright.‘Diary of a country priest’ is based on a novel by George Bernanos; and tells thestory of a young priest living in the country side, so lot of a spiritual, religious element.In ‘The devil probably’ (Le diable probablement) he brought the theme of literal and figurative pollution,one of his last films. Pickpocket starred the actor you just saw;Martin LaSalle and Marika Green. It is about a man who feels alive when he pickpockets.And it is a pickpocket by choice, this is the vocation, this is the career.Therefore when you are quite on the mark, when you observe that he does everything very meticulously,he is not forced to be a pickpocket; that is the only way he feels alive.So, it is a very existentialistic theme.You feel alive when you are doing some crime, when you are committing a sin.Otherwise, you are useless, you are dull. Emotionally, he cannot feelconnected to anyone unless and until he touches them in order to rob them and that is theonly connection he feels it. It is a wonderful movie, you watch it.Lots of his themes. So, Bresson’s regular themes, frequent themes; the expression ofspiritual interiority and also inferiority through concrete images and sounds, very littledialogue, very little music but real life sounds and very concrete images.His heroes alienated, loners, misfits, extremely Dostoyevsky.And therefore, the influence on De Niro andScorsese in Taxi driver; Taxi driver is inspired by Dostoyevsky ‘Notes from underground’.The direct, most direct influence on Bresson’s pickpocket; ‘Pick up on southern street’,a Hollywood film, 1953. Pickpocket opens with the very enigmatic caution.The style of the film is not that of a thriller. So, just because of the story of the Pickpocket; do not expectthe thriller here, it is a very moral existential theme that is the disclaimer that come on screen.Michelle the actor, the hero is an enigmatic, intellectual based on Dostoevsky’s raskolnikov in?Raskolnikov is a famous character ‘Crime and Punishment’.He lives in a small room just like raskolnikov, he is surrounded with books, a petty thief who pushes moralboundaries by indulging and picking pockets. In a way, it is a critic of capitalism, becauseMichelle often resists becoming a regular wage earner. People often tell him, you are well read;you are quite educated why do not you take up a job? He says I do not want toend up becoming somebody’s slave or a regular wagon.So, picking pocket is not the definitely not only choice available to him, he makes thatchoice, he is not compelled to by that. So, what Bresson is discussing now here is;freewill versus coercive social forces. Society demands certain things but this man wants to retainhis freewill and therefore, he chooses to become what he is. You may or you may not agree with him.He has a sick mother, so his family ties and he does not feels much attached to his mother.He has saintly girl friend, who suffers and suffers because of him.But, his most satisfying human contact is made when he picks people’s pockets again Bresson’sadherence to the principles of French new wave. Acting should be draining actors ofemotions and that what you feel, when you look at his face; drain of emotions that iswhat Dreyer also practiced and preached. Using non-actors. Avoidance of extreme close upsin order to dispense with oneness with empathy. Avoiding music; because, he could not wantto lead emotions, influence emotions. And use of voice over, did you notice that; andvery dead pain, it is not an emotional voice, he dead pains through it. And total rejectionof melodrama; when mother dies nothing happens, so there is no background music, no tearfulfarewells, mother just dies. And by bringing all these cinematic elements together,what does he try to achieve? He allows the audience with great deal of freedom to interpret theactions on screen, he does not lead you on, he does not tell you what to think or feel.He allows you just watch certain concrete images and makeup your own mind about that.So, this we have already seen. And anti authoritarian and misfits those characters; and all theseelements are found in Bresson’s Pickpocket. Existentialist characters; yes of course,there is a famous montage, I and urge you that you watch the movie and there is a famousmontage which has been emulated by several directors of picking pockets.So, a montage where the hero indulges in pick pocketing and that is something that all of us, thatis a text book kind of a montage scene. The movie finally raises moral questions,will we be judged and by what law, what law governs us? The legal or laws created by man or more universal?A clipping and this is just a digression, there is a scene when finally Michelle isimprisoned and his lady love comes to visit him in the prison, and they talk to each otherthrough this grill, the prison bar and the same scene is replicated by the Scorsese;remember Scorsese and Schrader combination and Schrader is a great follower of Bressonand so was Scorsese. And this is the scene from New York anthology, remember?New York stories; it is a set of three films made by Scorsese pieces, life lessons, starring Nick Nolte.The other two films in that anthology are by Coppola and Woody Allen.If you have not already watched that anthologies called New York stories, so this is the scene fromNew York stories where Scorsese pays his homage to Bresson; replicates almost the same scene,Nick Nolte behind, a prisoner of his own cell, a prisoner of his own creativity, he plays a painter.Influences on Taxi Driver; again a combination,famous collaboration between Scorsese and Paul Schrader, both admires of Bresson. Taxi driver (1976).So, following the same tradition, the same conventions as Bresson did usinga confessional narration, a voice over, a lonely alienated socio path kind of a herolooking for a reason to live. The world for him is morally grey, dark, existentialist,absurdist, almost meaningless world. And a voyeuristic look at the society; so most ofthe time you watch Pickpocket through Micelles’s eyes and in Taxi Driver it is De Niro’s eyes,we were talking about close up of his eyes and mostly it is a voyeuristic gaze atthe world outside and