Robert Bresson’s “Notes on Cinematography” Part One

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Robert Bresson Notes on Cinematography

Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket

Robert Bresson is one of the main figures of the French New Wave. His movies explore the moral, the just, and the personal, although that’s probably an oversimplification of his works. And if Sergei Eisenstein and Francis Ford Coppola delved into cinema editing, Bresson examined cinema theory (which he referred to as “cinematography.”) Bresson’s cinema and writings have influenced filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Michael Haneke.

filmslie.com recently managed to get a copy (from 1977) of Bresson’s seminal book “Notes on Cinematography,” which consists of short quotes not only about cinematography, but rather about cinema art and theory as a whole. Bresson’s language is fragmented and sparse, reluctant to verbs, and often somewhat similar to the style of post-structuralists such as Roland Barthes. What follows is by no means a comprehensive reproduction of the book, but rather a selection of some of Bresson’s insights. Future posts will cover other sections. The sections in this post do not follow the book’s order, but different sections are separated from each other just like they are in book. The dashed line plays the role of the Separator. And believe it or not, we start with Bresson’s examination of filmslie.com’s favorite topic–truth, reality, and cinema’s relation to them.

The mixture of true and false yields falsity (photographed theater or cinema) [author’s emphasis]. The false when it is homogeneous can yield truth (theater).

In a mixture of true and false, the true brings out the false, the false hinders belief in the true. An actor simulating fear of shipwreck on the deck of a real ship battered by a real storm–we believe neither the actor, nor in the ship, nor in the storm.

What Bresson seems to examine here is the pretension for reality in cinema. Through suspension of disbelief by the audience, theater can invoke a feeling of reality by being consistent in its representation–even when it is inherently and intentionally unrealistic like Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. Cinema, on the other hand, pretends to be more realistic, but at the same time is inconsistent because of its inevitable unrealism. The illusion of reality thus becomes dispelled, and belief in the truth of the images no longer possible.

A single word, a single movement that is not right or is merely in the wrong place gets in the way of all the rest.
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Retouching the real with the real.
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The power your (flattened) images have of being other than they are. The same image brought in by ten different routes will be a different image ten times.

Here Bresson seems to examine the illusion of spatiality in film much like Michael Snow did in Wavelength.

Two types of film: those that employ the resources of theater (actors, direction, etc.) and use the camera in order to reproduce; those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create.
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Cinematography is a writing with images in movement and with sounds.

To the last sentence the book’s editor has added the following note: “As will become clear, ‘cinematography’ for Bresson has the special meaning of creative film making which thoroughly exploits the nature of film as such. It should not be confused with the work on a cameraman.”

An actor in cinematography might as well be in a foreign country. He does not speak the language.
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No marriage of theater and cinematography without both being exterminated.
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The truth of cinematography cannot be the truth of theater, nor the truth of the novel, nor the truth of painting. (What the cinematographer captures with his or her own resources cannot be what the theater, the novel, painting capture with theirs.)
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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.

Here Bresson’s idea sounds similar to Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage, which suggests that the editing of two shots and their relation to each other creates meaning beyond the meaning of the two individual shots.

To create is not to deform or invent persons and things. It is to tie new relationships between persons and things which are, and as they are.
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Bring together things that have as yet never been brought together and did not seem predisposed to be so.
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Be the first to see what you see as you see it.
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Your film must resemble what you see on shutting your eyes. (You must be capable, at any instant, of seeing and hearing it entire.)