A Filmic Map / part 3: my own Notes for Watching Bresson

•June 20, 2017 • Leave a Comment

A Filmic Map

[discussions of Cinéma Vérité]


Notes for Watching Bresson

I’m fascinated by small things. The overlooked. The missed. That must surely be connected to my gravitation toward certain writers: Elizabeth Bishop, Jorge Luis Borges, Emily Dickinson, William Stafford, Yosa Buson. In film, that attention slips easily into the works of filmmakers like Krzysztof Kieślowski, Michael Powell, Carl Theodor Dreyer who, in work after work, created small but inexhaustible worlds – like no other – in which great transformations and inward journeys were (and are) possible. These worlds remain long after the films go silent. A champion for this group could be Robert Bresson.

Au hasard Balthazar, directed by Bresson, is one of the most beautiful and mysterious works of cinema. One of my ten favorites. I never tire of exploring this strange, mysterious story. The director’s method, and this film is a perfect example, is to force the viewer to provide the emotion for any scene. In some cases, actors – “models” would be his word – were forced in scores of takes to perform until all the acting was stripped away, all possibility exhausted, leaving only a stark visual to convey the narrative. In this regard, the director approaches a scene in haiku-like fashion. Bresson shows the viewer, and resists the temptation to tell. His narratives are far more visual than spoken. In fact, he wants to move the story beyond what words can give us. This forces the viewer to become a participant in the film. In many ways, the director is like a star singer, on stage, in the middle of a well-loved song – not singing, but pointing to the audience who knows the song and eagerly begins to fill the air with words and melody. Bresson removes, layer by layer, emotion from the acting and the story, forcing the audience to fill the void.

His unusual method of filmmaking is made clear when reading Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer (translated by J.M.G. Le Clézio, published by Green Intiger, 1997), a book, spanning the years 1950-1974, that is not, as the title suggests, a physical how-to for cinematographers; instead, it gathers the director’s own personal cinematic ideas which are philosophical or truth-defining.

      “Rid myself of the accumulated errors and untruths.” (p.13)

      “An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a color by contact
      with other colors. A blue is not the same blue beside a green,
      a yellow, a red. No art without transformation.” (p.20)

      “Unbalance so as to re-balance.” (p.44)

      “Be the first to see what you see as you see it.” (p.56)

      “Practice the precept: find without seeking.” (p.66)

In other words, his purpose is to lift the accepted notions of cinema above the day-to-day filmmaking and commerce of the art into higher levels of human thought in the same manner as Lao Tzu’s Tao-te ching or William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” or Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace. More philosophy, than job description, Bresson’s principles adapt themselves to all the creative arts, and serve as the foundation for my ekphrastic poem “Notes on the Cinematographer,” which focuses – without retelling – on his great Au hasard Balthazar.

My introduction to his films was Journal d’un cure de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest), a story that for me is comparable to Bergman’s Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light), the second film in his early 1960’s trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence – all three becoming the focus of my poem “Chamber Music”. Both Diary and Winter Light explore faith and its loss in a deep, human way.

Although I’m certain he wanted his films to succeed at the box office, if for no other reason than giving him the financial footing needed for his next project, I don’t believe his works were intended at all for mass audiences. To watch a Bresson film, one needs silence, time, stillness, patience. No distractions. Only then will the power within each story present itself in a personal and understandable way. He could do more with sound – and by this I mean dialogue, music, sound effects, physical noise – or the absence of it than 95% of all filmmakers. His camera is never rushed. His stories and visuals are always quiet, haunting, penetrating.


A quote from Kieślowski on Kieślowski, one which certainly applies to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s mastery of both frame and story, but may be equally applied to Bresson as well:

“This, among other things, is where the magic of the screen lies: that suddenly, as an audience, you find yourself in a state of tension because you’re in a world shown to you by the director. That world is so coherent, so
comprehensive, so succinct that you’re transported into it and experience tension
because you sense the tension between the characters.”

Bresson’s final note in his book:

      “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.”

(Spring 2016 / Summer 2017)


My reading of “Notes on the Cinematographer”


Wendell Berry, “2008, XII” …

•March 21, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Wendell Berry
“2008, XII”

        My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…
               Hosea 4:6

We forget the land we stand on
and live from. We set ourselves
free in an economy founded
on nothing, on greed verified
by fantasy, on which we entirely
depend. We depend on fire
that consumes the world without
lighting it. To this dark blaze
driving the inert metal
of our most high desire
we offer our land as fuel,
thus offering ourselves at last
to be burned. This is our riddle
to which the answer is a life
that none of us has lived.

Ezra Pound, Canto CXX

•March 7, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Ezra Pound

…a writer with many problems [I’m thinking of points in Louis Menand’s “The Pound Error,” an article published in The New Yorker, June 2008] … Pound was influential, ridiculed, hated…a fascist, a bigot, brilliant editor, anti-Semitic, poet who made things “New” by using the “Old,” a tireless supporter of writers and artists, radio propagandist, prisoner in an Amercian camp in Italy, winner of the Bollingen Prize, disgraced, a terrible judge of character, both a follower of Imagism & one who abandoned the same, mad, sane, an inmate at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (1946-1958), free, a great talker, and, as Menand writers, one who in “his last years…did not speak.”

Canto CXX

I have tried to write Paradise
Do not move
      Let the wind speak
that is paradise.

Let the Gods forgive what I
      have made
Let those I love try to forgive
      what I have made.

James Wright, “Beginning” …

•February 13, 2017 • 1 Comment

Moon, November 2016

Supermoon, November 2016

James Wright

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.
Note: “The November full moon … is at its closest position to Earth since Jan. 26, 1948, about 30,000 miles nearer than it typically is.” – Real-Time News


Ono no Komachi, [Hana no iro wa] … “The flowers withered” …

•January 27, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Painting by Totoya Hokkei

Ono no Komachi and Cherry Blossoms by Totoya Hokkei

Ono no Komachi

[Hana no iro wa]

The flowers withered
Their color faded away
While meaninglessly
I spent my days in the world
And the long rains were falling

       [Trans. Donald Keene]

Paul Celan, “A Leaf” … a poem of our times…

•January 20, 2017 • 2 Comments

paul-celan-2Paul Celan

– a poem from Schneepart

A Leaf, treeless
For Bertolt Brecht:

What times are these
when a conversation
is almost a crime
because it includes
so much made explicit?

       [Trans. Michael Hamburger]

Mark Johnston, “War Movie in Reverse” …

•January 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment

aerial-view-of-the-aftermath-of-first-trinity-testA powerful poem from Writing in a Nuclear Age, an anthology, edited by Jim Schley (New England Review / Bread Loaf Quarterly, 1983) [Photo: aerial view of the aftermath of first Trinity test, New Mexico]

Mark Johnston

“War Movie in Reverse”

Holes close to smooth skin
when the shrapnel flashes out.
The shores of burns recede,
and flames leap with their hot metal
back into the bomb that rises,
whole and air-borne again,
with its gathered blast.
Leading the plane perfectly,
the bomb arc back slowly
through the open gates
and disappears into the waiting belly.
The bombardier lifts
his peering eye from the sight.
Swallowing its wake,
the plane returns to base
with its countermanded mission.
The pilot, irresolute now, faces
his commandant, who marches,
brisk and backward
to the general’s lair.
The general takes back the orders.
But into what deep and good and hidden
recess of the will
go his thoughts of not bombing?