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

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”


~ by samofthetenthousandthings on June 20, 2017.

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