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Notes on the Cinematographer by Robert Bresson

One of the keys to this book and Bresson himself is the fifth aphorism: “Metteur-en-scène, director. The point is not to direct someone, but direct oneself.” It’s a tart recrimination, less Zen-like than many that follow, but it’s pointedness portrays cinema’s great hermit. First the French term, coined by André Bazin, literally means, “scene-setter,” or “placer of the scene.” But it also connotes that the director’s unique aesthetic style is visible in her scenes.

The 130 pages of aphorisms and thoughts can be polished off in an hour or savored over time–a few a day (my preference) like many a devotional or spiritual text. Inside Bresson famously refers to his actors as “models” – actors trained by him to express as little as possible. But are they? Aren’t they closer to reality than most ‘acting?’ He says, “The things one can express with the hand, with the head, with the shoulders!…How many useless and encumbering words then disappear! What economy!”

The aphorisms touch on the creative impulse:

A small subject can provide the pretext for many profound combinations. Avoid subjects that are too vast or too remote, in which nothing warns you away when you are going astray. Or else take from them only what can be mingled with your life and belongs to your experience.   p.50


One does not create by adding, but by taking away. To develop is another matter. (Not to spread out.)  p.96

and examples from other artists:

Corot: “Il ne faut pas chercher, il faut attendre.”  (One must not seek, one must wait.)  p.76

Bresson’s thoughts are very eastern and turn the world on it’s head. Here are two favorites.

One same subject changes in accordance with images and sounds. Religious subjects receive their dignity and their elevation from the images and the sounds. Not (as people believe) the other was about: the images and sounds receive from the religious subjects…    p.97

I had to read this a few times to trick my mind out and make it meaningful. In Grünewald’s panel ‘The Resurrection” from the Issenheim Altarpiece (1515) one can see how this is true.

File:Grunewald - christ.jpg

The colors, the glow of the resurrected Christ, the tumbling, earthbound soldiers showing how awesome Christ’s power is. Accounts in the Bible are one thing, but this scene (arguably the most amazing event in human history, a man coming back from the dead) has been portrayed tens of thousands, maybe millions of time in paint. No wonder painters were so important to the church.

The last example is also one of the few with a personal touch:

Let the cause follow the effect, not accompany it or precede it. *

*The other day I was walking through the gardens by Notre-Dame and saw approaching a man whose eyes caught something behind me, which I could not see: at once they lit up. If, at the same time as I saw the man, I had perceived the young woman and the child towards whom he now began running, that happy face of his would not have struck me so; indeed I might not have noticed it.

This Chaplinesque anecdote says a few things at the same time, not the least being about human loneliness.

These notes are for any artist, no matter the medium. In lieu of a mentor they are artistic lessons that are priceless. In lieu of nothing they are everything.

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