Thursday, February 19, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 39 (Robert Bresson)

Bresson, Robert
Notes on the Cinematographer

If you haven't see the films of Robert Bresson, then I recommend you log on to your Netflix account and start queueing them up. NOW!

Seriously, you are missing something from your life, something you don't even know you are missing, until you have seen them. He didn't make that many, so you can pretty much see all of them over the course of two weeks if you watch them at a rate of one per night. It might take longer if you watch them two or three times, as you should. But if you block off enough time -- say 6-11 p.m. each night, you should be able to watch each one twice.

My favorite is "Au Hasard Balthazar," which is the story of a donkey and is one of the most profoundly moving religious allegories ever put on film. And then, of course, there is "Pickpocket," a great example French existential crime drama. I also love the rest, in no particular order, "Mouchette," "L'Argent," "Lancelot Du Lac," "Diary of A Country Priest," "Les Dames de Bois du Bolgne," "A Man Escaped," and "The Trial of Joan of Arc." There are a couple I have not seen, like "The Devil, Probably" and "Four Nights of a Dreamer." I think a saw "Une Femme Douce," but I can't recall it well.

As I contemplated writing this entry, I was thinking about how many of my favorite films are religious allegories: "Au Hasard Balthazar," "Andrei Rublev" (Tarkovsky, about a Russian icon painter/monk), "The Passion of Joan of Arc "(Dreyer, which is a very different film than Bresson's "Trial") are all specifically religious, while others are in more unspoken ways, like the astounding "Werckmeister Harmoniak" (Bela Tarr, Hungrary, 2000) or Werner Herzog's "Fizcarraldo." I guess in the absence of religious belief I find an outlet for that part of my being in film.

Lately, I find I prefer films that are slow, nearly-dialogue free, and constructed in long, long takes. I have been especially enjoying a lot of Asian films from filmmakers like Zhang Ke Jia ("Still Life," "The World," " Platform," "Unknown Pleasures"), Tsai Ming Liang ("I Don't Want to Sleep Alone," "What Time Is It There"). And then there is the remarkable Pedro Costa, none of whose films are available on DVD, which is a crime. His trilogy of "Ossos," "Wanda's Room" and "Colossal Youth" are stunningly quiet, slow, beautiful films. I was lucky to get a chance to see all of them at retrospectives in Rochester and Toronto last year.

Lori thinks I secretly want to be a filmmaker, and maybe I do, but I really think that I like film for two things: inspiration and contemplation. Films are more a muse to me than anything else, and I suppose in the best case musing becomes a form or worship, which is why I suppose I like so many religious allegories or films without much dialogue. Dialogue tends to interfere with my becoming absorbed in the moving images and I prefer to become absorbed. When I am not absorbed, I get distracted, or I break out my laptop and start playing internet Scrabble while watching a DVD. When I am absorbed, I can feel the images in the same way I feel the words when I read good poems.

I bought Notes on the Cinematographer used, online, I think. Published by Green Integer, with an introduction by J.M.G. Le Clézio, who just won the Nobel Prize. It's mostly aphorisms or notes to himself about filmmaking. Much of the book is spent expounding on his theory of the "models" as being what he puts on film, as opposed to actors, of himself as a cinematographer instead of as a director, and also about why he doesn't use music to shape a scene. I never got any poetry out of it, which I had hoped I would, as his films have inspired so much.

A Random Sampling of Aphorisms from Bresson:

The faculty of using my resources well diminishes as their number grows.

An actor in cinematography might as well be in a foreign country. He does not speak its language.

To think it more natural for a movement to be made or a phrase said like this than like that is absurd, is meaningless in cinematography.

Respect man's nature without wishing it more palpable than it is.

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.

Nothing too much, nothing deficient.

To TRANSLATE the invisible wind by the water it sculpts in passing.

One does not create by adding, but by taking away. To develop is another matter.

The crude real will not by itself yield truth.

Laugh at a bad reputation. Fear a good one that you could not sustain.

No music as accompaniment, support or reinforcement. No music at all! *
*Except, of course, the music played by visible instruments.

Prefer what intuition whispers in your ear to what you have done and redone ten times in your head.

Ideas gathered from reading will always be bookish ideas. Go to the persons and objects directly.

The most ordinary word, when put into place, suddenly acquires brilliance. That is the brilliance with which your images must shine.


jenny said...

you should see 'los muertos', a fairly recent film by argentine director lisandro alonso, slow, slow, slow, beautifully composed, almost no dialogue.

jpb said...

I was pleased to stumble upon this post at your blog today. I was looking for poets, but didn't expect to find one who not only likes the same kind of poetry I do, but who also likes the same kind of film I do.

With that said, I have to admit that Bresson has long been a blind spot for me. Fortuitously, just an hour before I found your blog I moved "A Man Escaped" to the top of my queue. (Part of a long chain-of-association film game I'm playing with some friends.)

I plan to return to your blog; keep up the good work!

Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

Jenny -- thanks for the tip on 'los muertos.' I am a big fan of the Argentine New Wave of recent years and had been meaning to put this in the queue! I especially like Lucrecia Martel -- La Cienaga and La Niña Santa are both fabulous.

Jpb -- thanks for the kind words. Let me know what you think of 'A Man Escaped!'

jpb said...

If you can stand the somewhat lengthy write-up, it's

A. Garrison said...

Hi, Michael-

Any chance you'd like to sell your copy of "Notes for the Cinematograper"?

A. Garrison

Michael Kelleher, North Haven, CT said...

sorry -- looks like its coming out on NYRB Classics later this year.