The lost language

Published : Jun 22, 2016 12:30 IST

A still from the French film "Mouchette", which was directed by Robert Bresson.

A still from the French film "Mouchette", which was directed by Robert Bresson.

THEY are like aphorisms or epigrams, or like the openings of fresh buds that flower into awareness of cinema as a new language. They have been compared to the Pensees of Pascal. They could be compared to the Sutras. A collection of them from the years 1950 to 1958 constitutes a slim, dainty, palm-sized volume of just 140 pages with just three or four such revelations a page. Each of them mildly mocks our normative understanding and practice of cinema. They question, redefine, subvert, enhance, pare down, sublimate, atomise and synthesise the elements that combine to jell into celluloid art. Together, they weave a different cinematic universe in which the senses and the mind are elevated to a finer and keener engagement with the medium. Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer reminds us what cinema could have, should have, been. It hits and engulfs us like a wave of enlightenment and leaves us as suddenly, our footing unsure in the shifting eroding sand, with an empty sense of loss.

Bresson uses the term cinematography not as what it has come to be commonly accepted, the work or operation of the camera, but to denote fulsomely the cinematic work itself. This cinematography is pure and original, at its best when it is ineffable, and shuns the adulterated theatrically articulated cinema. Cinema infected by the tradition and practice of the theatre is, for Bresson, nothing short of anathema.

The miscegenation, he suggests, takes place with the arrival of the talkies in the mid-1920s, and theatricality has continued to hold cinema ransom since “the talkie opens its door to theatre which occupies the place and surrounds it with barbed wire”.

He bemoans “the terrible habit of theatre” and points to “two types of film: those that employ the resources of the theatre (actors, direction, etc.) and use the camera in order to reproduce; those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create”. He is uncompromising, unrelenting, in his bid to cleanse cinema, or cinematography as he distinguishes it, of the vestigial accretion of the theatre. “Nothing rings more false in a film,” he avers, “than the natural tone of the theatre copying life and traced over studied sentiments.” He is convinced that there can be “no marriage of theatre and cinematography without both being exterminated”.

If we pause here to consider how contemporary Indian cinema fares in this regard, it is obvious that it is, almost without exception, out and out theatre. Even when it is not formulaic Hollywoodean, Bollywoodean or Kollywoodean vaudeville and pretends to be serious art, it is dramaturgic. A captured art form captivates the viewer. Like the caged denizens of a zoo. At its worst, this captivity is monumentalised as a school with a revered iconic head —the K. Balachander brand and culture of Tamil cinema is an exasperating example—and drags the art further down into the dramatic dumps and keeps it from cutting free to seek and find its own metier.

The value of Bresson’s intervention is that he holds steadfast to the singularity of cinematographic practice. It is like none other. Even our ascriptions of definitive terms of style or category of art—realism, neorealism, figurative, abstract, impressionist, and so on—may not apply to, or may sit uneasy on, the cinematography which he invents as if from scratch as an art discipline with its own intrinsic genius and attributes, which it is the creative function of the film-maker to coax out and construct on in a practice of the art that borders on the meditative.

Seeking to appreciate cinematography through or in terms of the theatre, painting or sculpture or literature may be false: “The truth of cinematography cannot be the truth of theatre, not the truth of the novel, nor the truth of painting. What the cinematographer captures with his or her own resources cannot be what the theatre, the novel, painting capture with theirs.”

It is important too, then, to understand Bresson’s own work on its own terms and not by comparison with other art; as, for instance, when a film scholar like James Quandt points out that “his images are starkly composed, flattened and stress frontally in a manner that has been compared to Byzantine iconography, and to the paintings of Pierro della Francesco, Giotto, and Vermeer”. The problem with such a comparison, even while it may help us in recognising his work more easily or in mentally sorting and slotting it as a type, is that it subsumes the originality of Bresson in such categories and tends to mislead our reading/viewing of his work.

Bresson combines an excitement about the inventiveness of the tools of the camera and the sound recorder with an abnegation, or sparing deployment, of the possibilities they open up. He is, for instance, against the commonly accepted practice of lensing to vary shots, arguing that constantly changing lenses is like constantly changing one’s glasses. He does not need, and we do not either when we see his work, the so-called cover shot or establishment shot to provide context or the locational or emotional interrelationships of the characters. Separate atomised shots add up, or accrue, exactly to the desired effect. The imaging, moreover, is never ever to be self-consciously so.

The noumenal principle that governs his construct of phenomena is, “In this language of image, one must lose completely the notion of images. The images must exclude the idea of image.”

In the same vein, he shuns any flamboyance with the camera: “Obvious travelling or panning shots do not correspond to the movements of the eye. This is to separate the eye from the body”. And he adds, for good measure: “One should not use the camera as if it were a broom.”

Approach to sound

His approach to sound is as a faculty that complements, alternates with and can at times replace the visual and not as something that supplements it. “The soundtrack invented silence” in his scheme of things.

And he elaborates: “What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear.” “When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralise it. The ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer.”

This privileging of the ear over the eye may appear counter-intuitive in cinema but is also premised on how the one can trigger the cumulative resource of the other: “The eye (in general) is superficial, the ear profound and inventive. A locomotive’s whistle imprints in us a whole railroad station.”

Fixing it visually with shot images may in fact detract from some of the intangible quality of that interior visual-ness.

His idea of editing, of what happens when shots are put in juxtaposition, is more evolved and complicated, not quite content with pace and progression through cutting or even the exponential leaps of Eisensteinian montage: “An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a colour by contact with other colours. A blue is not the same blue beside a green, a yellow, a red. No art without transformation.” This transformative quality is what makes for creative cutting: “Passage of dead images to living images. Everything blossoms afresh.”

He has no use for actors. All he needs are “models” whose movements and gestures are unself-conscious, almost automated, because, “Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism. It is anti-nature to subordinate them to will and to thought.”

“Models who have become automatic (everything weighed, measured, timed, repeated ten, twenty times) are then dropped in the medium of the events of your film—their relations with the objects and persons around them will be right , because they will not be thought .”

And so for him “the thing that matters is not what they (the models in lieu of actors) show me but what they hide from me and, above all, what they do not suspect is in them ”.

But lest all this is misunderstood as breeding a stultifying impassivity, Bresson dwells on the power of the look, “the ejaculatory force of the eye”, as he calls it. To look is not merely to see: “Two persons, looking each other in the eye, see not their eyes but their looks.”

“Who said,” he wonders, “A single look lets loose a passion, a murder, a war?”

There are then the spiritual insights these thought memes provide into the ascetic film-maker who believes in paring down—“one does not create by adding, but by taking away”—and in waiting as a nobler quality than seeking, in finding without seeking—“empty the pond to get the fish”. The artist whose subtle yet sublime purpose is “to translate the invisible wind by the water it sculpts in passing”. The artist, who, at the same time, is questioning the identity of art, who believes that “from the beings and things of nature, washed clean of all art and especially of the art of drama, you will make an art”. The mystic who “discerns” rather than “perceives”. The intuitive auteur who, Jean-Luc Godard said, “is French cinema, as Dostoyevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music”.

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