Senses of Cinema was nice enough to publish something I wrote earlier in the year on Robert Bresson that I titled "Sins of Omission: A Dissenting View"
I wrote the piece in some haste and submitted it without a chance to edit it. Next thing I hear from Senses editor Rolando Caputo is that he'd sent it to the web designers for publication. I had already written a revised version of the piece, and sent it along to Rolando. But there was nothing he could do with it.
So here is the revised piece that I wrote. It's a much more strongly-argued and ultimately more devastating view of Bresson. While admiring many of Bresson's films, I felt somehow compelled to publish a rejoinder when confronted by all of the intolerable (and nonsensical) cant that's been written about him for going on fifty years now.
Robert Bresson, Photography, and Cinematographie
“A film cannot be a stage show, because a stage show requires flesh-and-blood presence. But it can be, as photographed theater or CINEMA is, the photographic reproduction of a stage show. The photographic reproduction of a stage show is comparable to the photographic reproduction of a painting or a sculpture. But a photographic reproduction of Donatello’s Saint John the Baptist or of Vermeer’s Young Woman with Necklace has not the power, the value or the price of that sculpture or that painting. It does not create it. Does not create anything.”[i]
“Cinematography, the art, with images, of representing nothing.”[ii]
Robert Bresson liked to remember it otherwise, but his career in film began (even if we overlook the 1934 star vehicle for Beby the Clown, Public Affairs) in the conventional way. And though he later admitted that he learned from the beginning the underlying falsity of film “acting”,[iii] his first two films, Les Anges du Peche (Angels of Sin, 1943) and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1946), employed professional actors, and Bresson managed to extract superb performances from them.[iv] But the experience of working under conditions that he believed were a betrayal of the true nature of film made him decide to follow his instincts and commit himself to a radical departure from conventional practice.
Exactly what elements of conventional filmmaking did Bresson regard as foreign to its esthetics? He has stated flatly that “For me, filmmaking is combining images and sounds of real things in an order that makes them effective. What I disapprove of is photographing with that extraordinary instrument – the camera – things that are not real. Sets and actors are not real.”[v] This would seem to be an insistence on documentary-like verism, if we are to take literally his notion of “real things”. But while eventually eschewing sets and actors, Bresson, with an odd exactitude, maintained the practice of placing people before a camera as proxies in a drama of his own invention. And his stories invariably reflect an implicit faith in the imperilment – and sometimes salvation – of souls.
Bresson’s first daring attempts at realizing his bold new thesis were dazzling. Working exclusively with non-professionals, Bresson accomplished an inimitable adaptation of Georges Bernanos’ novel The Diary of a Country Priest (Le Journal d’un Cure de Campagne,1950), and one of the greatest of all French films, A Man Escaped (Un Condamne a Mort s’est Echappe, 1956). These two films are extraordinary for many reasons – the most significant of which is their dependence on the barest minimum of means. By strenuously controlling the impulse for effects, Bresson achieved much with very little, and earned the respect of critics and filmmakers everywhere.
Whatever cachet Bresson earned with those two films was seriously taxed, however, when he made Pickpocket (1959). What had been a perfectly apposite marriage of style and meaning had become a discordant conflict in which both seemed arbitrary, rather than right. Critics[vi] were quick to place the blame on Bresson’s choice of subject – exchanging the problems of a cancer-stricken priest and a condemned prisoner for those of a stodgy criminal with delusions of grandeur. Comparisons to Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov were unhelpful, since a petty thief has little in common with an ax-murderer. Bresson failed to ennoble Martin Lasalle’s skill sufficiently to make his eventual arrest and spiritual awakening either interesting or convincing. [vii]
It was also about this time that the first studies of Bresson began to appear, containing his own remarks about film. Filmmakers, children of the modern age, have been especially susceptible to conflating errant arguments for their work[viii] (I won’t go into the effects of “film scholarship”). And few filmmakers survive what Stanley Kauffmann recently called the “Age of the Larynx.”[ix]
In 1975, Bresson finally published his Notes sur la cinematographie – in his own words, “a gathering of notes on little pieces of paper, on cigarette wrappers; things I wrote down while shooting or on some other occasion.”[x] It is a slim volume, only 72 pages in the Urizen edition, but it contains much that is essential to any complete understanding of Bresson’s intentions, if not always his results.[xi] It is also a corrective to all of the ideas and statements mistakenly attributed to him.[xii] One detail is made abundantly clear by the book: Bresson was a painter – of what school hasn’t been divilged, but it is easy to guess from his statements about art that he was decidedly post-expressionist. His contempt for the theater and for photography, the two stools between which Bresson believed nearly all films fall, derives from a modernist painter’s mistrust of representation of any sort, whether it is an actor’s pretense of real emotion and the “suspension of disbelief” that it requires, and a photographer’s stolen moments. The quotes at the beginning of this piece sum up Bresson’s notions on theater and photography.[xiii] What they reveal is a quite naïve confusion of a medium with what it conveys. A photograph of an object, whether it is a face, a landscape, or a sculpture by Donatello, is not intended to be a substitute for those things but simply a way of looking at the physical universe. The very same thing can be said of theater and of acting. Even Picasso admitted that "Art is not truth. Art is a lie that helps us to see the truth."
Painting and sculpture used to belong in this tradition – of transmuting objects and figures from nature in a manner that renders the objective subjective and that reaches the viewer by reversing the trajectory. The ultimate result is something that is neither nature nor the artist but a conjunction, an enjambment of realities. Andre Malraux could argue all he wanted about how modern art has destroyed what once connected the artist with his subject ("Cezanne did not wish to represent apples, he wished to paint pictures."[xiv]), but every work of art – even Cezanne’s – is as inseparable from nature as from the painter. Nature is not surmounted, destroyed or even supplanted by art: a distinct creation is born from the artist’s vision. And the object in nature becomes “something owned,” as Rilke put it. When Cezanne painted his mountain again and again, from every direction, in every light and season, he was approaching, approximating, the reality of the mountain.
By extension, photography is a realization of Blake’s admonition: “We ever must believe the lie/When we see with, not through, the eye.” Its dependence on a mechanical device does not make it any less creative. But in its faithful recording of the actual, photography has the ability to bring us closer to the things of the physical world. Intelligence intervenes every time the photographer aims his lens.
And all a filmmaker does is arrange real objects – people and places – before his camera. This may have become old-fashioned with the invention of CGI, but it is the art of filmmaking in a nutshell, whether it’s Cocteau’s Orpheus walking through mirrors into the underworld, or De Sica’s Umberto D nearly run over by a train. Bresson’s querulous rejection of these realities for one of his own devising may have been instrumental in the creation of his own crypt-like universe, in which everyone is a Caligari somnambulist who monophonically mutter the words of his idiosyncratic creed, but for everyone else it is a ridiculously limiting, arbitrarily exclusive, and ultimately pointless exercise.
[i] Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, Johanathan Griffin, trans., New York: Urizen Books, 1977, p.3
[ii] Ibid., p. 59
[iii] “My first film was made with professional actors, and when we had our first rehearsal, I said, ‘If you go on acting and speaking like this, I am leaving.’” Bresson in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, Paris, September 2, 1970.
[iv] Both films attracted the admiring attention of a university newspaper critic named Andre Bazin.
[v] Samuels interview, q.v.
[vi] The “critics” in the 1950s were those writing for major periodicals. They were rarely, if ever, interested in – or indeed knowledgeable of – theoretical interpretation, with the exception of the radical Cahiers du Cinema, which initially attracted little attention outside France.
[vii] Dostoevsky ended his tale with Raskolnikov confessing his crime – at precisely the point at which he stood the greatest chance of getting away with it. Raskolnikov had actually proved that he was superior to the laws governing other people – which is why his discovery of Sonia’s love and his admission of guilt are so powerful.
[viii] Some of the greatest artists have drawn their inspiration from entirely spurious ideas. Robert Graves was one of the 20th-century’s greatest lyric poets, who swore lifelong devotion to a deity whom he called The White Goddess.
[ix] “In this age, sheer talk – the interview – becomes as much a part of a director’s life as anything other than directing itself.” The New Republic, Nov 27, 2006. Curiously, Bresson addressed the problem himself (without a trace of irony): “I hate publicity. One should be known for what one does, not for what he is. Nowadays a painter paints a bad painting, but he talks about it until it becomes famous. He paints for five minutes and talks about it on television for five years.” In Bresson’s case, his pronouncements on film got much wider circulation than his films, so that he was known by reputation in some cases years before his films were widely available.
[x] Samuels, q.v.
[xi] Mirella Jona Affron strains our credulity by comparing Bresson’s little book with Pascal’s Pensees. Feeble as philosophy, Bresson’s Notes have little application outside the strict confines of his work. (“Bresson and Pascal: Rhetorical Affinities”, Robert Bresson, James Quandt, editor, p.165).
[xii] “Most of what is said about me is wrong and is repeated incessantly.” Samuels, q.v.
[xiii] Bresson contradicted himself in the Samuels interview: “A book, a painting, or a piece of music – none of these things has an absolute value. The value is what the viewer, the reader, the listener bring to it.” Only a churl could not allow a photograph the same potential value.
[xiv] Andre Malraux, The Metamorphosis of the Gods, New York: Doubleday, 1964.