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.