Reading: ‘Notes on the Cinematograph’, Robert Bresson

While browsing through the bookshelves of the Irish Film Institute bookshop this week, I discovered a copy of Notes on the Cinematograph by the French film director Robert Bresson. Although I have been aware of his name for many years, I am not familiar with any of his films.

Notes on the Cinematograph contains a series of brief notes and fragments that Bresson wrote to himself while making films over a period of several decades between 1950 and 1974. On the back of the book, John Semley says ‘Half-philosophy, half-poetry, Notes on the Cinematograph reads in places like The Art of War for filmmaker’, a point which became very apparent as I began reading. At less than ninety pages, this is a book that can be read in one sitting, but demands that the reader invests far more time and thought than this to fully appreciate what is being said.

A distillation of his theory and practice as a filmmaker, the Notes on the Cinematograph is full of cryptic aphorisms and practical, common sense advice on all aspects of filmmaking, from cinema, writing and working with actors, to photography, sound and lighting.

Below are just a few of the many ideas in the book that I found particularly inspiring.

‘My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living person 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’ (Bresson, 1986:11).

‘Not to use two violins when one is enough’ (p.13).

‘The noises must become music’ (p.16).

‘The cinematographer is making a voyage of discovery on an unknown planet’ (Bresson, 1986:18).
I find Bresson’s idea that filmmaking is a process of self-discovery for the director/filmmaker, who’s role on set is ‘not to direct someone, but to direct oneself’ (p.5) a very interesting approach to making films.

‘Catch instants. Spontaneity, freshness’ p.19).

‘Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the joins (ellipses)’ (p.21).

‘Let it be the feelings that bring about the events. Not the other way’ (p.21).

‘Forget you are making a film’ (p.24).

‘Unbalance so as to re-balance’ (p.25).

‘Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden’ (p.25).

‘Music takes up all the room and gives no increased value to which it is added’ (p.28).

‘The soundtrack invented silence’ (p.28).

‘Things made more visible not by more light, but by the fresh angle at which I regard them’ (p.29).

‘Bring together things that have never been brought together and did not seem predisposed to be so’ (p.29).

‘Dig into your sensation. Look at what there is within. Don’t analyse it with words. Translate it into sister images, into equivalent sounds. The clearer it is, the more your style affirms itself. (Style: all that is not technique)’ (p.35).

These are just a few of the ideas that woke me up to the essence of what it means to make a moving image.

This is a wonderful book to discover so early on in my own journey on this course. I now need to watch some of Bresson’s films in order to fully appreciate what are, to me, quite radical and eye-opening ideas.

 


Bresson, R. (1986) Notes on the Cinematograph, Introduced by J.M.G. Le Clezio. New York: New York Review of Books.

Exhibition: ‘Vivienne Dick, 93% Stardust’ – Irish Museum of Modern Art, 16 June – 15 October 2017


Vivienne Dick, Augenblick, 2017, Production still, HDV, 14 mins. © Vivienne Dick.

‘For Dick, the title of the exhibition 93% STARDUST, suggests that we are moving into a new age, following the age of Enlightenment, where man is no longer the centre of the universe’ (Exhibition Guide, IMMA).

Yesterday I went to the ‘Vivienne Dick, 93% Stardust’ exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Vivienne Dick is an Irish artist and filmmaker, who was a key figure within the ‘No Wave’ movement, a short-lived avant-garde scene in the late 1970s in New York, led by a collective of musicians, artists and filmmakers including Nan Goldin, Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay, James Chance and others.

The exhibition at IMMA presents some of Vivienne Dick’s early Super-8 film works from late 1970s New York, including Guérillère Talks (1978), Staten Island (1978), She Had Her Gun Ready (1978), Beauty Becomes The Beast (1979) and Liberty’s Booty (1980), alongside her recent film works The Irreducible Difference of the Other (2013), Red Moon Rising (2015) and Felis Catus (2016) and the world premier of her latest film Augenblick (2017), which was made while on IMMA’s Residency Programme earlier this year.

Having never heard of Vivienne Dick until now, this exhibition was a wonderful discovery. Her New York films focus on female sensibilities. Guérillère Talks, for example, presents a series of portraits of women associated with the ‘No Wave’ music and art scene. In Liberty’s Booty, Dick makes use of real-life footage, personal testimonies and acted-out scenarios in a film which examines the commodification of the female body through the perspective of prostitutes. Filmed in Super-8, these early films have the look of home movies, with the grainy picture, rough sound and handheld photography we associate with home movies.


Images of exhibition courtesy of Irish Museum of Modern Art

In her latest film, Augenblick, ‘different realities, seemingly disconnected, flash by, from an imaginary virtual world to a frozen landscape’ (Exhibition Guide, IMMA). From Jean Jacques Rousseau ranting about society, to three female actors recounting the story of human beliefs in animism, God and the digital world through quotes from Rumi, Harari, Gramsci and Hildegard Von Bingen, to the same three women chatting spontaneously around a table.

There were a number of things I particularly liked about this moving image. Such as the way in which she blends acted-out scenarios, unscripted conversations and landscape images together in the film; her use of lines quoted from older texts; and the moments of silence interspersed with 18th century music. All of which helped to give the film an organic, spontaneous feel. Techniques which I shall explore in my own moving image making.

Black Mirror (2011), Doug Aitken

Today I have been looking at Doug Aitken’s short film ‘Black Mirror’ and it’s like someone has just opened the faucet to my imagination. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking. I’m watching it thinking ‘That’s It! That’s It!’ His use of sound, picture, voice, his approach to narrative form, it’s all there, just what I’ve been looking for. It’s a well-wrought example of a short film that experiments with narrative form in a way that I connected with on first watching. I was completely entranced by his use of character and setting, the way in which he juxtaposes images, and the way in which he disrupts the narrative flow. Suddenly, I understood what the course material was getting at.

‘LIFE in the 21st century can feel like an infinite loop of security checkpoints, rolling luggage and brief electronic exchanges, at least to a constant traveler like the artist Doug Aitken, whose latest work, a video installation called “Black Mirror,” explores the placelessness and alienation of people in nonstop motion.’ (New York Times)

It’s the type of approach I would like to try to adopt in my own filmmaking. But I’ll need to study Black Mirror in much more detail to find out what Aitken is doing, how and why. Only then will I be able to develop my own ideas in a meaningful way that is both challenging and inspiring.

Last night I was looking at Jonas Mekas’ films. Amazing! Today I was looking at Doug Aitken’s Black Mirror. Amazing! A whole new way of looking at moving image making has just opened up in front of me.

 

Images: Stills from Black Mirror, 2011 © Doug Aitken


References

Black Mirror (2011) Doug Aitken [YouTube website] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUfn1X2i_cM (Accessed on 2 April 2017)

Spears, D. (2011) ‘Can You Hear Me Now?’ In: The New York Times [online] At: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/arts/design/black-mirror-video-by-doug-aitken-in-greece.html (Accessed on 2 April 2017)

 

Jonas Mekas

Fig. 1.

“When one writes diaries, it’s a retrospective process: you sit down, you look back at your day, and you write it all down. To keep a film (camera) diary, is to react (with your camera) immediately, now, this instant: either you get it now, or you don’t get it at all.” Jonas Mekas

Born in Lithuania in 1922, Janos Mekas left home during the Soviet invasion in 1940. He and his brother were confined in a labour camp in Germany. They were brought to the United States in 1949 by the UN Refugee Organisation.

After arriving in New York, Janos became involved in the avant-garde art scene. He frequented Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16. Then arranged his own screenings and began making his own films. His early films include Guns of the Trees (1961) and The Brig (1963), which won Grand Prizes at the Parretta Therme and Venice Film Festivals respectively. It was during the 1960s and 70s that he developed his signature diary style in films such as Walden (1969), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972) and Lost Lost Lost (1976).

During the 1950s he founded the journal Film Culture, which became the voice for American avant-garde cinema. He also ran the influential ‘Movie Journal’ column for Village Voice and established institutions such as the Film-Makers Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives.

Diaristic Film

He began making videos in the late 1980s. His 365-Day Project, in which he recorded a video every single day of his life for a year, was made in 2007. Talking about his 365-Day Project in an interview with Natasha Kurchanova in Studio International, Mekas says ‘I have a need to film small, almost invisible daily moments.’ These films, each of between 4 and 10 minutes long, present small, personal moments about his life and the life of his friends.  As we watch these short diaristic films, we see what he sees while he is filming, we see the way his eye moves and the way his body moves with the camera, we see the details upon which he focuses.

Mekas used a small Sony video camera to make these films. Talking about his filming and editing processes, he says: ‘When I film, I never know how a particular situation will end. So, I just go along with it, follow it with my camera, and permit this flow. […] I do almost all of my editing during the filming. My filming is like when one paints: all decisions of hand or brush movements are decided during the process of painting. […] For me, if I failed to get the essence of the moment during the filming, no amount of editing is going to get it.’

Figs 2 to 4

With his films, Jonas has given us a direct personal response to the world, keeping the direct contact between his camera and the moment preserved.” Martin Scorsese

What makes Janos Mekas such a fascinating filmmaker for me is his search for the essence of a moment as it happens, and the approach to filming and editing he adopts in achieving this goal. What’s interesting in his approach is that there is no obvious planning or design within his diaristic films in a conventional sense. Rather than having an idea of where a film will go, he just starts and sees where it leads him. I looked at three of his films, I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009), A Walk (1990) and As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000). All the three were fascinating examples of his diaristic style. Together, they embody what Martin Scorsese calls ‘a direct personal response to the world’. Yet, individually, they are quite different from each other in their responses to the moments that are captured and ‘preserved’.

One film that stood out for me, in terms of Mekas just starting and seeing where it leads him, is A Walk (1990). A Walk is exactly that, a record of a walk Mekas made in Soho, New York. It is also his first attempt at creating a single-shot film. Completely unrehearsed and unedited, the film captures an hour long walk in the rain he made starting from Wooster Street, where he was living at the time. Accompanying the film is an equally unrehearsed and unedited monologue, in which he shares musings, recollections and poetry in response to the ambience of the streets through which he passes. Whatever comes to his mind as he walks. What fascinated me most about this film is the unrehearsed, unedited, meandering nature of the film in both picture and sound. The way in which he has captured a moment in time as it happened. A moment in time that was not predicted and that will never be seen in that way again.

I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009) is a wonderfully poetic piece of filmmaking. Filmed in 1967, in black & white, it shows Jonas Mekas leaving Chelsea Hotel and walking towards 7th Avenue. While watching the opening shot, we are led to believe that this is a simple record of him stepping out of the hotel with a stack of journals under one arm and a duffel back slung over the opposite shoulder and walking along the street. In actual fact, it is a sequence of shots repeating the same event; Mekas leaving Chelsea Hotel. Mekas manipulates time, presenting us with the same ‘event’ several times, with minor variations between. Yet, as the picture builds, it still feels fresh and unrehearsed. It’s like a memory recurring in thought, over and over. Which maybe, in a way, it is, as it was edited 40 years after being filmed.

Jonas Mekas is a fascinating and very endearing filmmaker, whose work I have quickly grown to admire. Having never heard of him or his work before, I am keen discover more about the way in which he and his films work.


References

Bogdanovich, P. (2015) ‘Jonas Mekas’ In: Interview Magazine [online] At: http://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/jonas-mekas [Accessed on 1 April 2017]

Kurchanova, N. (2015) ‘Jonas Mekas: I have a need to film small, almost invisible daily moments’ In: Studio International [online] At:  http://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/jonas-mekas-interview-365-day-project-microscope-gallery-brooklyn [Accessed on 1 April 2017]

A Walk (1990) Jonas Mekas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qj-LMIsM8c&t=6s (Accessed on 1 April 2017)

As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty – Paradise (2000) Jonas Mekas www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOwescpyMqQ (Accessed on 1 April 2017)

I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009) Jonas Mekas http://jonasmekas.com/online_materials/#I_leave_chelsea_hotel (Accessed on 1 April 2017)

 

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Jonas Mekas in New York (2015) Craig McDean, Interview Magazine, October 27, 2015

Figure 2. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)

Figure 3. I Leave Chelsea Hotel,(2009)

Figure 4. A Walk (1990)