A Filmic Map … Discussions of Cinéma Vérité and Works That Have Been Its Fuel

A Filmic Map

[Discussions of Cinéma Vérité]


In writing, my tendency has always been to work in sets, suites, or groups. Ideas in my head swirl in multiple patterns. I never see one; I’m always looking beyond the one. Two reasons: a decade immersed in the poetry of T.S. Eliot – “The Hollow Men,” The Waste Land and, in particular, Four Quartets – as well as the first time I watched rashomon-storiesAkira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), a film that has left its imprint of form and story in me. Kurosawa once said something to the effect of drama should always be viewed in threes. The premise of Rashomon is recognized in threes. The purpose, apparently, is a certain tension that is created, sustaining the work and the connection between story and viewer. That makes perfect sense.

A poem – a small suite – I once brought to a writers’ group (small band of three) bore the name “Cinéma Vérité,” and carried the theme of personal politics, having nothing to do with cinema – though the title, of course, originated with French New Wave film. As I recall, I successfully finished two of the set, and they were published separately. The title stayed in my head. The ms of poems has had several titles (A Glass That Falls and Lost fo-jeanne_dielman-608Connections, Hidden Intentions … are two that come to mind) before settling on Cinéma Vérité – the title poem, connected to Chantel Akerman, herself a product of French New Wave filmmaking, and her great work Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).

My work in the poetic project “Tales of Brave Ulysses” – ekphrastic writing – consuming years of writing and thinking, eventually found or created (I’m sure which is true) the need to focus on films. The poems, which began to grow, became a large mass, without clear direction or center – a bit out of control. Considering Rashomon, or more correctly, Kurosawa as the center point – I began to understand the poems in groups of three. This led to organizing the ms into three major sections: The Way the Story Begins, Spaces Between the Words, and A Scribbling on the Walls – each of the titles coming from poems connected to the French New Wave … respectively, “Games of Persuasion” [L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961 ), Alain Resnais, dir.], “False Windows” [Ma Nuit chez Maud (1969) Eric Rohmer, dir.], Cinéma Vérité Front Cover 2and “A Scribbling on the Walls” [La Jetée (1962), Chris Marker, dir.]. Each section was comprised of fifteen poems – but the form and, more importantly, the “story” each section carried – seemed too static, so I added a poem to section three, with the slightest of altered ordering. This addition gave, at least to my mind, a real balance to the ms as a whole.


The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger always create a strange, compelling place or world that doesn’t powell and pressburgeractually exist, yet does, and in many ways is more vital – certainly more lasting – than the people who are found there. Their stories … A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Red Shoes (1948), … show how place changes people. Michael Powell made several films before and after his work with Pressburger, but those works – notably, The Edge of the World (1937), Peeping Tom (1960), and Age of Consent (1969) – never stray from a primary focus on place. Reality and fantasy coexist in these films – and I think that may be the secret to their lasting success. The stories are universal, but strongly grounded in a specific and real world.

Black Narcissus (1947), one of their best films, embodies the struggle – the tension between body and spirit, flesh and reason, self and other, freedom and repression. The story, in terms of its visual and Black Narcissus 11narrative force, makes this conflict direct and clear. Coming to terms with truth is never easy, is often horrific, and is nearly always transformational. A Powell / Pressburger film always moves toward transformation, but it’s a change that is only possible with and through loss. This is the type of journey everyone knows about but wants to avoid at all costs.

The setting of Black Narcissus – the strange, remote, deteriorating Palace of Mopu, black-narcissus-373high in the Himalayas – is a perfect fit for a journey to find the self, and creates the necessary tension that will force the issue. The look of the film – exotic, haunting, disturbing – is, according to several sources, heavily influenced by the paintings of Caravaggio and Vermeer. There are several films that have impacted me to such a degree I carry them in my head – always. This is one of them.


It was inevitable that I write in some way about the works of Powell and Pressburger. The visual world of their films is one I immediately connect with. The characters in their stories are compelling and unforgettable – at least to me. When considering writing a poem connecting with their films, I felt a bit overwhelmed – unable to decide which film should be the focus. Once I gave up the notion of only one film, the writing became easy. “Michael Powell’s Women” was the result. I’ll end with a video video of my reading the poem, with comments.


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 (1966), 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, 1951), 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 (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963) – 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.” (p.140)

(Spring 2016 / Summer 2017)

My reading of “Notes on the Cinematographer”


To be Orson – or not

Chimes at Midnight is an eccentric-driven work of art – a vehicle for Orson Welles, both as actor and director, to find his core. Without a doubt, Welles was born to play Falstaff – by far, his greatest character in film. Welles had the gift of brilliant acting and directing – though the Hollywood system would say … misfortune … regarding his role as a director. The film studios shunned him, audiences were completely confused by his works, his fellow actors tolerated him, his friends adored him – some movie goers idolized him. In his life, Welles also had the ability to blend fact and fable in his to a perfect mixture. In many ways he was the poster child for failure, for unfulfilled promise. Bursting on the movie scene at twenty-four with Citizen Kane – bringing with him his glorious fellow actors from the Mercury Theatre, a company he and John Houseman founded in 1937 – Welles’s career began to unravel even as it was beginning.

I view Chimes as the pinnacle of Welles’s up and down career. An extraordinary filmmaker with a singular vision – a chaser of cinematic dreams, fulfilling none of them. He was his own worst enemy when it came to his art; rather than settle, finish, or complete projects, he preferred to walk an artistic escalator – similar to what one might imagine in an MC Escher painting (always moving, yet never arriving). I’m amazed Welles finished any of his works – some filled with flashes of genius (America has always hated that word) and artistic possibility – with visuals from across the world, since Welles might begin a scene in Morocco, make changes in Spain, and finish the takes in Italy. A cinematic drifter.

“Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery then, no.” – spoken by Falstaff (Orson Welles) in Chimes at Midnight

Few filmmakers have had the ability to create an alternate universe in their works A few come to mind: Carl Dreyer, Michael Powell, Chantal Akerman, Krzysztof Kieślowski – and Orson Welles must be included. Always innovative, even when using tested forms, and forced to be creative, he had as strong an artistic sensibility as any filmmaker ever, but he also had no patience. Welles could rarely finish works because he was consumed by three or four ongoing, though seldom realized, projects. He once said of filmmaking, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” That makes since – especially considering how most of his stories did not stop – like his never-finished life-quest to capture Don Quixote on film – they simply continued to unfold in the universe, never finding a place to land.

Here are his thirteen finished major works (finished, more or less – one of them, Mr. Arkadin, existing in three different versions, none of which were what Welles envisioned): Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, Othello, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, F for Fake, The Other Side of the Wind.


Cinéma Vérité is a collection of poems published by A-Minor Press, 2013.


One Response to “A Filmic Map … Discussions of Cinéma Vérité and Works That Have Been Its Fuel”

  1. […] A Filmic Map […]

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