June 20, 2014

Robert Bresson: The Grace of Gesture & 'Notes on the Cinematographer'

f100pickpocketIf there is a patron saint of French cinema, surely it must be Robert Bresson, considered, after Renoir, the greatest of 20th century Gallic filmmakers. Jean-Luc Godard, no slouch himself in the French director's department, once observed that, "Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is the German music." High praise indeed. A new video supercut from Kogonanda for the Criterion Collection focuses on the director's inimitable use of gesture in his films. Plus, the director's own notes on cinematography and cinema.

Though he only made 13 films in a fifty year career, Bresson's influence is outsized. The relative paucity of his output is a testament both to his exacting working methods and difficulty in finding funding. Much has been written about Bresson, including Paul Schrader's book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, and no less a giant than Andrei Tarkovsky once said that, "I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman." Bresson was influential on the French New Wave, and they acknowledged his influence, though Bresson could be viewed as an uncle to the rebellious generation of filmmakers; his films were not nearly as experimental or confrontational.

One of his chief aims, though, was to extricate cinema from theater (he made his first short in 1934, when the proscenium arch was still used by many filmmakers as an aesthetic guide, and many movies were, in essence, filmed plays). He used editing, light, sound, and all the elements of a motion picture in order to paint a picture, and in this supercut video by Kogonanda, we see firsthand, in a montage of shots where the only thing visible are hands, how much drama can be wrung from the smallest gesture:

Calling himself a "Christian atheist," Bresson's lapsed-Catholicism can be seen in his films, in which metaphors for salvation and grace commonly repeat, as in A Man Escaped, which is partly based on the year he spent in a German POW camp during WWII, but which can also be seen as a metaphor about the human spirit striving for freedom.

In his reaction against the filmed plays of traditional French cinema, Bresson used his unique sensibility to establish what he referred to, in a special, Bressonian, aesthetic sense (not the technical one) as "cinematography," that is, a language of image and editing entirely apart from the traditional, narrative mise en scène; one based on cuts, sounds -- the very stuff of cinema that makes it unique from every other art form. One of the techniques he used to achieve his ends was to film multiple takes of a scene, until whatever "artifice" in the performance of the actor had been worn away through repetition, and so, by his estimation, a more truthful performance could be obtained.

To that end, he wrote his Notes on the Cinematographer(It appears to be out of print, and the few copies I've found seem to range from $100 to $900, but I'm sure cheaper copies are extant, and there are fragments on the internet, available for educational use.) Below, courtesy of White City Cinema, check out a few of the hundreds that make up the book :

  1. Not to use two violins when one is enough.
  2. A whole made of good images can be detestable.
  3. Let the cause follow the effect, not accompany it or precede it.
  4. A too-expected image (cliché) will never seem right, even if it is.
  5. When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer.
  6. No psychology (of the kind which discovers only what it can explain).
  7. Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden.
  8. Empty the pond to get the fish.
  9. Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.
  10. My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and 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.

The book is wonderful reading, and, lastly, here's a short clip of Bresson discussing cinema:

Robert Bresson was a giant among directors, a consummate "filmmaker's filmmaker," who was able to make ugly things pretty, and pretty things beautiful, and the rest of it transcend what we normally imagine is possible in cinema.

Link: My Top 10 Favorite Notes in Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer -- White City Cinema

[via Kogonanda]

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13 Comments

Wonderful.

June 20, 2014 at 11:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Micah Van Hove
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director, producer, dp

More faith based filmmakers articles like this! It's important to make films with deep meaning and hope at the end of the tunnel. :)

Great to learn from this article:
"Bresson’s lapsed-Catholicism can be seen in his films, in which metaphors for salvation and grace commonly repeat, as in A Man Escaped, which is partly based on the year he spent in a German POW camp during WWII, but which can also be seen as a metaphor for salvation and grace."

June 21, 2014 at 3:26AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Thanks, and yes, he believed in the concepts of grace and salvation, though he did refer to himself as a christian atheist, which one of those words kind of disqualifies him as believing in anything but terrestrial grace. There's a deeply existential undercurrent to French thought, and he happened to fall, as it were, on the Camus end of the spectrum, i.e., everything may be absurd and therefore probably meaningless, but you should still try to be a good person. But he said he didn't believe in god. But point taken. I dislike the word for being facile, but the man was, for lack of a better description, "spiritual."

June 21, 2014 at 3:42AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
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Writer/Director

That Christian atheist quote has never had attribution, and bold statements from Peter Cowie, Roger Ebert, and Gary Indiana have only helped fuel the belief that Bresson didn't believe in God, which seems to be one of the major shortcomings of most contemporary criticism of his work.

In interviews with Bresson, you'll find he has explicitly expressed his belief in God directly. This is also stated definitively in the making of Mouchette documentary that accompanies both the Criterion and the Artificial Eye releases.

And I'll rest my case with a quote that can be attributed: Paul Schrader's 1977 interview with Bresson for Film Comment:

"I can't understand people who say there is no God."
- Robert Bresson

Notes from the Cinematographer is a great book, but if you've read it and want more, I suggest Tony Pipolo 's Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film, James Quantd's casebook Robert Bresson, and Ian Cameron's The Films of Robert Bresson (out of print but easily and cheaply attainable).

And an excellent free resource is robert-bresson.com

June 26, 2014 at 1:23PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Brandon Simmons

I don't think it's necessarily important whether he was a "Christian atheist" or not, but all the extant information is to that effect, excepting this Schrader interview I have not read, from resources on the net to books with ISBNs. A person's soul is not anyone's domain but theirs, if they believe they have one to begin with, and it's pointless to make hay out of it on the internet, which I was, ironically, doing, when I bristled at the idea that Bresson was a "faith-based" filmmaker, what with all the connotations that phrase carries; I was pointing out that Bresson was not an evangelical filmmaker, and those two phrases tend to be uncomfortably close (cf. "faith-based initiatives" et al.) It's also not so important whether he was a "director" or a "filmmaker" or an "auteur" or a "Frenchman." But in 2014, if you say something is faith-based, you are saying not merely that there was a spiritual or metaphysical dimension to his films, but that they were, in fact, explicitly religious. Was my point. Not that he didn't believe in grace or salvation, I hope that came across in all the parts of the post where I talk about grace and salvation. No religion or politics, folks. Never a good idea.

June 27, 2014 at 6:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
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Writer/Director

I want to thank you all for remembering Bresson and his work.
I was a teenager when had this experience called "Le Journal D' un Curé de Campaigne" / diary of a country side priest (?). For the first time in my life, I was in silence, astonished, in front of the Creator / God.
You have to see it beyond and trough the image and sound. The beauty and the invisible.
I Love BRESSON.
Once again, thank you for remebering him.

PS. To me, he is not a Film Director.

June 26, 2014 at 4:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Miguel Carvalho

Absolutely. Not just a Film maker. A True Reflector of Beauty Of /& The Invisible.
Serene & Sublime.
To argue whether he believed in God is superfluous.
Grace runneth Over...

June 27, 2014 at 7:39AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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jacob

If anyone is interested, I have a PDF copy of Notes on the Cinematographer.

June 27, 2014 at 7:49AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I would be interested in that.

June 30, 2014 at 12:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Lorenz Inez

I would also be interested in getting a PDF copy.

July 24, 2014 at 6:43AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Colin

I am interested in getting a PDF copy of Notes on the Cinematographer.

August 2, 2015 at 9:32AM

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Gaurav Dhwaj Khadka
Filmmaker
10827

I am very interested, if this is offer is still a-go.

February 9, 2016 at 12:51AM

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Rose S
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I would love a copy... just discovering this thread. My email is lauriestrickland@yahoo.com

April 14, 2016 at 4:00AM

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Laurie Strickland
Producer, Writer, Actress, Director, Filmmaker, Poet
8

If you can read french, finding a used copy of the Notes sur le cinématographe is easy. I got mine for 5$.

July 3, 2014 at 12:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Francis

Where did you find it?

April 14, 2016 at 4:01AM

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Laurie Strickland
Producer, Writer, Actress, Director, Filmmaker, Poet
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