Robert Bresson “Notes On Cinematography” Part Two

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Robert Bresson Notes On Cinematography

A close-up from Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped. Bresson’s films favor characters over environment, which the filmmaker also expressed in his “Notes on Cinematography”: “Don’t let your backgrounds (avenues, squares, public gardens, subway) absorb the faces you are applying to them.”

In Part One of Bresson’s seminal book, the director shared his insights into the relation between truth, reality, and film, the differences between cinema and other art, and imagining the movie before it has been made. His ponderings on the cinema art have influenced directors such as Michael Haneke, who seems to be especially interested in Bresson’s examination of reality. Here is part two with selected quotes from his book. (At this point, filmslie.com has completely realized how ugly the dashed lines  separating the different sections are, but for the sake of consistency here they appear again in their radiant exquisiteness. Enjoy responsibly.)

What no human eye is capable of catching, no pencil, brush, pen of pinning down, your camera catches without knowing what it is, and pins it down with a machine’s scrupulous indifference.
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Immobility of X’s film, whose camera runs, flies.

You will notice Bresson’s peculiar and fragmented language over and over again. It somehow seems to resemble the formality and coldness of his films. In the last sentence he probably simply means that cinema can create the illusion of movement and action even when there is none in the scene itself.

On the boards, acting adds to real presence, intensifies it. In films, acting does away with even the semblance of real presence, kills the illusion created by the photography.
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Cinematography: new way of writing, therefore of feeling.

As said in the previous post, by “cinematography” Bresson means the cinema language as a whole rather than the work of a cameraman. 

Don’t let your backgrounds (avenues, squares, public gardens, subway) absorb the faces you are applying to them.

This one seems to be key for Bresson, whose movies put the emphasis on the subjects and the personalities rather than the environment. Bresson often prefers shallow focus and close-ups. In contrast, the French director Jacques Tati did the opposite: one of the defining characteristics of his films is the focus on the whole, the environment, and society rather than individual subjects. It is a matter of style of and artistic choice. Bresson was no less interested in the universal themes, but he chose to explore them through particular examples of individuals, while Tati examined the themes as they recur in a series of characters, none of them main, and most of them name-less. The best example is probably Jacques Tati’s Playtime.

Cinematographic film, where the images, like the words in a dictionary, have no power and value except through their position and relation.
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If an image, looked at by itself, expresses something sharply, if it involves an interpretation, it will not be transformed on contact with other images. The other images will have no power over it, and it will have no power over the other images. Neither action, nor reaction. It is definitive and unusable in the cinematographer’s system. (A system does not regulate everything. It is a bait for something.)
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Counter the high relief of theater with the smoothness of cinematography.
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The greater the success, the closer it verges upon failure (as a masterpiece of painting approaches the color repro).
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A whole made of good images can be detestable.

Here Bresson references again the importance of how film images relate to each other, which was also the basis for Eisenstein’s theory of montage.

No absolute value in an image.
Images and sounds will owe their value and their power solely to the use to which you destine them.
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Let it be the intimate union of the images that charges them with emotion.
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You shall call a fine film the one that makes you think highly of cinematography.
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Cinema draws on a common fund. The cinematographer is making a voyage of discovery on a unknown planet.
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Where not everything is present, but each word, each look, each movement has things underlying.
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How hide from oneself the fact that it all winds up on a rectangle of a white fabric hung on a wall? (See your film as a surface to cover.)

Here Robert Bresson talks about the physicality of film, which was one of the major themes for experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton, most notably in Poetic Justice. The “rectangle” also alludes to the 2-dimensional nature of film, which only creates the illusion of spatiality as Michael Snow examined in Wavelength.

A too expected image (cliché) will never seem right, even if it is.
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Set up your film while shooting. It forms for itself knots (of force, of security) to which all the rest clings.
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There is nothing to expect from a cinema anchored in theater.
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On the stage a horse or dog that is not plaster or cardboard causes uneasiness. Unlike cinematography, looking for a truth in the real is fatal in the theater.
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Theater and cinema: alternation of believing and not believing. Cinematography: continually believing.

Here Bresson once again ponders over the different ways cinema and theater represent reality. Theater seems to be inherently unrealistic and therefore by definition requires suspension of disbelief, while cinema achieves its representation by using the projected images of a real horse. The plaster and cardboard stand for “a real horse” in theater, while in cinema the filmed projection of the horse stands for “the real horse.” From Bresson’s examination appears that he considers cinema closer to reality, but nevertheless both arts only represent, reflect, “metaphorize” reality without having any direct reality-value. To call upon the artifice of cinema, Lars von Trier used the theatrical narrative technique Verfremdungseffekt in his latest movie Nymphomaniac.