Author: Robert Bresson
Publisher: Green Integer
Who are the great filmmakers whose films and method evoke an ideal of what cinema can be? Who are the directors that made the films that have shaped the evolution of the seventh art - laying down its foundation? If I can try to answer these two question, usually with crossover between both answers, I would have to mention: Antonioni, Bergman, Brakhage, Bresson, Cassavetes, Chaplin, Dreyer, Edison, Eisenstein, Eustache, Ford, Flaherty, Garrel, Godard, Griffifth, Hawks, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Keaton, Lang, Lumière brothers, McLaren, Mekas, Méliès, Mizoguchi, Murnau, Ozu, Ray, Renoir, Rossellini, Snow, Tarkovsky, Truffaut, Vertov, Vigo and Welles. The fact that the TIFF Cinematheque regularly projects prints of their films, amongst a lot of other stuff, makes it such a valuable asset to the Toronto film community.
The highly anticipated series, which has been in the works for a while, The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson consists of, as Senior Programmer James Quandt, refers to them, "one of film history's most legendary and influential bodies of work." Bresson's thirteen films will have scheduled projections from February 9th to March 30th, with two being introduced by Cinema Studies professors from the University of Toronto: Bart Testa on Un condamné à mort s'est échappé on February 9th and 12th, and Brian Price on Lancelot du Lac on February 20th. I am particularly looking forward to Bresson's early works like Les anges du péché, Les dames du Bois de Boulogne and Affaires publiques as well as Quatre nuits d'un rêveur and L'argent. This series will then go on a North American tour.
There is going to be a book launch for the new edition of the TIFF Cinematheque publication Robert Bresson (Revised), a revision of the 1998 book. For anyone that is unfamiliar with the book, I highly recommend it. I am especially fond of Quandt's introduction and the Raymond Durgnat essay. And To further cement Robert Bresson’s street cred, it also appears on John Waters’ bookshelf in Cindy Sherman's photographs of them in Place Space. Though there is also an essay by Michael Haneke, which I find a little surprising because don't I really see any comparison; instead I think Haneke to be more derivative of the renegade horror director, Wes Craven.
Bresson's films are usually austere and bleak, sparse and daunting. He is known as a modernist director, whose emphasis is that of medium specificity: "What the cinematographer captures with his or her own resources cannot be what the theater, the novel, painting capture with theirs". His particular brand of minimalism is described by András Bálint Kovács', in Screening Modernism, as metonymic minimalism, due to Bresson's usage of off-screen sounds as exposition. While Brian Price would remind us, in Neither God Nor Master, that Bresson's films are also political as their subject matter responded to a growing dissolution in France especially in the later, post-May 1968, films. What I find so captivating about Bresson's work can be best articulated by this Andrei Tarkosvky quote, from an interview between him and Michel Ciment: "Engels expressed a marvelous idea when he said a work of art soars to an even higher plane the profoundly buried - better still, hidden - the idea behind it is. And that's the course we chose to take. We forced ourselves to submerge the idea in the ambiance, in the characters, in the conflicts between different characters." The ideas of sacrifice and redemption hidden in Bresson's films through atmosphere, characters, sound, image, and editing (i.e. cinematography) makes his cinema one of the apogee of film art. Creating images in cinema like the spellbinding bumper car scene in Mouchette where toy-cars hit one another trapping this young little girl in a anarchy of collisions, which rivals with the night-time boating sequence in Strangers on a Train, as the most exciting visual complement to describe a character's situation. There is a brutal intensity mixed with an aesthetic exultation.
With this retrospective one can discover where much of cinema seems to have been spun-off from. The influence of Journal d'un curé de campagne, an adaptation of the George Bernanos novel, as well of Dostoevsky, is readily acknowledged by Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese on their Taxi Driver. You can see the Un condamné à mort s'est échappé influence on Don Siegel's Escape from Alcatraz. Anne Wiazemsky’s immortal performance in her debut role in Au hasard Balthazar, which she would carry around with her in her other films. As well Bresson's mark on Monte Hellman sixties and seventies output or on Jean-Marie Straub’s appropriation of the Bressonian model in Not Reconciled and in Moses und Aron. And for more vibrations of Bresson in contemporary cinema there is his religious influence (i.e. moments of transcendence) in the work of the Dardenne brothers, and the austere and marginal subjects of a Bruno Dumont. Even Stephen Spielberg picked up from Bresson like the Pickpocket homage in his recent, and fantastic, The Adventures of Tintin.
Asides from his films, Bresson is also known for one small little book: Notes on the Cinematographer, whose original French publication was in 1975. It consists of poetic musings sort-of like Kiarostami's Walking with the Wind. As well it is a revered director talking about his art and process similar to Ray's I was Interrupted. It is an intense little log-book full of his likings and his disliking, references to the Renaissance and Classicism, composers and Kabuki theater, the relationship between photography and reality, theater and cinema; Pascal, Debussy, Purcell, Baudelaire, a short film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo etc. The book is divided into two periods: 1950-1958 (which includes the subtitles: Human Models, On Looks, On True and False, On Music, On Automatism, On Poverty, Sight and Hearing, Gestures and Words, The Real, On Fragmentation, Exercises) and Further Notes: 1960-1974. For English readers there is the Green Integer edition, which has an introduction by J. M. G. Le Clézio and is translated in by Jonathan Griffin.
Who can forget the appearance of Notes on the Cinematographer in Godard’s Éloge de l'amour? When a woman picks it up and starts reciting lines as if it is a holy doctrine. Notes on the Cinematographer presents a high standard of criteria on how to judge films - Bresson’s and others.
"The faculty of using my resources well diminishes when their number grows."
"Metteur en scène, director. The point is not to direct someone, but to direct oneself."
(No directing of actors.) No parts.
(No learning of parts.) No staging.
But the use of working models, taken from life.
BEING (models) instead of SEEMING (actors)."
"(1925?) The TALKIE opens its doors to theater which occupies the place and surrounds it with barbed wire."
"Two types of film: those that employ the resources of the theatre (actors, direction, etc.) and use the camera in order to reproduce; those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create."
"On the choice of models
His voice draws for me his mouth, his eyes, his face, makes for me his complete portrait, outer and inner, better than if he were in front of me. The best deciphering got by the ear alone."
“On two deaths and three births. My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and the real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.”
"To your models: " Don't think what you're saying, don't think what you're doing." And also: "Don't think about what you say, don't think about what you do.""
"One single mystery of persons and objects."
"Cinematography, a military art. Prepare a film like a battle."
"No music as accompaniment, support or reinforcement. No music at all. "
"The Noises must become music."
"You shall call a fine film the one that gives you an exalted idea of cinematography."
"Your film - let people feel the soul and the heart there, but let it be made like a work of hands."
"Catch instants. Spontaneity, freshness."
"In ***, a film that smacks of the theatre, this great English actor keeps fluffing to make us believe that he is inventing his lines as he goes along. His efforts to render himself more alive do just the opposite."
"A too-expected image (cliché) will never seem right, even if it is."
"A sigh, a silence, a word, a sentence, a din, a hand, the whole of your model, his face, in repose, in movement, in profile, full face, an immense view , a restricted space... Each thing exactly in its place: your only resources."
"The insensible bond, connecting your furthest apart and most different images, is your vision."
"Let it be the feelings that bring about the events. Not the other way."
"Cinematography: new way of writing, therefore of feeling."
"In every art there is a diabolical principle which acts against it and tries to demolish it. Analogous principle is perhaps not altogether unfavorable to cinematography."
"Forms that resemble ideas. Treat them as actual ideas."
"Model. "All face."”
"Someone who can work with the minimum can work with the most. One who can with the most cannot, inevitably, with the minimum."
"If, on the screen, the mechanism disappears and the phrases you have made them say, the gestures you have made them make, have become one with your models, with your film, with - then a miracle."
"Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden."
"CINEMA seeks immediate and definitive expression through mimicry, gestures, intonations of voice. This system inevitably excludes expression through contacts and exchanges of images and of sounds and the transformations that result from them."
"Not to shoot a film in order to illustrate a thesis, or to display men and women confined to their external aspect, but to discover the matter they are made of. To attain that "heart of the heart" which does not let itself be caught either by poetry, or by philosophy, or by drama."
"Nothing too much, nothing deficient."
"Music takes up all the room and gives no increased value to the image to which it is added."
"Draw the attention of the public (as we say that a chimney draws)."
"A small subject can provide the pretext for many profound combinations. Avoid subjects that are too vast or too remote, in which nothing warns you when you are going astray. Or else take from them only what can be mingled with your life and belongs to your experience."
"Of lighting: Things made more visible not by more light, but by the fresh angle at which I regard them."
"Bring together things that have as yet never been brought together and did not seem predisposed to be so."
"A single word, a single movement that is not right or is merely in the wrong place gets in the way of all the rest."
"Model. His pure essence."
"The exchanges that are produced between images and images, sounds and sounds, images and sounds, give the people and objects in your films their cinematographic life and, by a subtle phenomenon, unify your composition."
"All those effects you can get from repetition (of an image, of a sound)."
"If a sound is the obligatory complement of an image, give preponderance either to the sound, or to the image. If equal, they damage or kill each other, as we say of colors."
"The sight of movement gives happiness: horse, athlete, bird."
"x demonstrates a great stupidity when he says that to touch the masses there is no need of art."
"A whole gaggle of critics making no distinction between CINEMA and cinematography. Opening an eye now and then to the actors' inadequate presence and performance, shutting it again at once. Obliged to like in a lump all that is projected on to the screens."
"No psychology (of the kind which discovers only what it can explain)."
"Economy: Make known that we are in the same place by repetition of the same noises and the same sonority."
"It is in its pure form that an art hits hard."
"Do not use the same models in two films. (1) One would not believe in them. (2) They would look at themselves in the first film as one looks at oneself in the mirror, would want people to see them as they wish to be seen, would impose a discipline on themselves, would grow disenchanted as they corrected themselves."
"See your film as a combination of lines and of volumes in movement apart from what it represents and signifies."
"Displaying everything condemns CINEMA to cliché, obliges it to display things as everyone is in the habit of seeing them. Failing which, they would appear false or sham."
"Shooting. You will not know till much later if your film is worth the mountain rage of efforts it is costing you."
"Silence, musical by an effect of resonance. The last syllable of the last word, or the last noise, like a held note."
"Cinematography films: emotional, not representational."
"Let the cause follow the effect, not accompany it or precede it."
"Several takes of the same thing, like a painter who does several pictures or drawings of the same subject and, each fresh time, progresses towards rightness."
"In the Greek Catholic liturgy:"Be attentive!""
"The most ordinary word, when put into place, suddenly acquires brilliance. That is the brilliance with which your images must shine."
"Ten properties of an object, according to Leonardo: light and dark, color and substance, form and position, distance and nearness, movement and stillness."
"The people I pass in the Avenue des Champs-Élysées appear to me like marble figures moved forward by springs. But let their eyes meet mine, and at once these walking and gazing statues become human."
"Hollow idea of "art cinema," of "art films." Art films, the ones most devoid of it."
"To forge for oneself iron laws, if only in order to obey or disobey them with difficulty."
"In X's eyes the cinema is a special industry; in Y' an enlarged theatre. Z sees the box office figures."
"The future of cinematography belongs to a new race of young solitaries who will shoot films by putting their last penny into it and not let themselves be taken in by the material routines of the trade."
"In your passion for the true, people may see nothing but faddism."
"(1963) Left Rome abruptly, abandoned irrevocably the preparatory work for Genesis, to cut short idiotic discussions and desecrating obstruction. How strange it is that people can ask you to do what they themselves would certainly be prevented from doing, because they do not know what it is!"
"Bach at the organ, admired by a pupil, answered: "It's a matter of striking the notes at exactly the right moment.""
"For want of truth, the public gets hooked on the false. Falconetti's way of casting her eyes to heaven, in Dreyer's film, used to draw tears."
"These horrible days - when shooting film disgusts me, when I am exhausted, powerless in the face of so many obstacles - are part of my method of work."
"Precision of aim lays one open to hesitations. Debussy: "I've spent a week deciding on one chord rather than another."
"Oscars to actors whose body, face and voice do not seem to be theirs, do not produce any certainty that they belong to them."
"MASTERPIECES. The masterpieces of painting or sculpture, such as the Giaconda or the Venus of Milo, have so many reasons for being admired that they are admired for both the good and the bad ones. CINEMA masterpieces are often admired only for the bad ones."
"In the NUDE, all that is not beautiful is obscene."
"Cézanne: "A chaque touche, je risque ma vie."
"Let nothing be changed and all be different."
"DIVINATION - how can one not associate that name with the two sublime machines I use for my work? Camera and tape recorder carry me far away from the intelligence which complicates everything.