Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Schrader and Bresson: Seeing and Showing

Pickpocket (Directed by Robert Bresson)
Paul Schrader interviewed renowned French director Robert Bresson in 1976 at Bresson’s apartment in Paris overlooking the Seine, while on the way to Cannes where Taxi Driver was to be shown. Schrader regarded Bresson as the ‘most important spiritual artist living - a spiritual artist who has forged a style so singular it resists imitation’. The article appeared in Film Comment a year after the interview. Bresson had initially objected to its publication after seeing an advance copy and thought it ‘flat and uninteresting’. His producer disagreed and Bresson eventually relented. This is an extract from the final section:

Paul Schrader: You say in your book (Notes on the Cinematographer): make rules, but don’t be afraid to break them.

Robert Bresson: Yes, yes. I don’t think much of tech­nique, or making technique a part of things. If you find a new way to catch life, nature, this could change details, but not the whole. I don’t think so much of what I do when I work, but I try to feel something, to see without explaining, to catch it as near as I can — that’s all. And that’s why I don’t move so much. It’s like approaching a wild animal. If you are too brusque about it, it will run away. I think you must think a lot in the intervals of working and writing, but when you work, you mustn’t think anymore. Thinking is a terrible enemy. You should try to work not with your intelligence, but with your senses and your heart. With your intuition.

I absolutely agree. Symptoms are univer­sal, causes are particular. Symptoms are more interesting because we all have the symptoms, but we have different causes. Movies should be about symptoms rather than about causes.

It is very difficult to see things. So many times you go walking in the street, you look at things, but you don’t see them. If you see the look in a man’s eyes and at the same time see the reason why he is looking as he is, you are not touched.

If movies provide the symptoms truly, the viewer will supply the causes. 

I want people to guess, to think. But it must be very clean and sharp, not fuzzy and confusing. Today movies make people want to know everything in advance, to be shown everything in a way I don’t understand.

What l love about movies is that if you and I are here talking and if you re-cut so that we are now talking in New York, the audience will assume that somehow we got from Paris to New York. You can do the very same thing in spiritual ways. If you show a situation and if you cut to another place, the audience will make the leap with you. The audience will jump across the ocean with you.

Yes, but if you don’t show a succession of things exactly as they are in life, people stop understanding. Pornography has brought that to the cinema, that you must see everything. So the public is now conditioned to films where you show everything. It is terrible, I can’ t work anymore. If I can’ t make people guess, if I am obliged to show everything, it doesn’t interest me to work.

I think that movies and pornography are different. I , personally, am not threatened by explicit movies. In Notes you say ‘the nude, if it is not beautiful, is obscene.’ Do you feel that the explicit is by its very nature wrong?

When it is explicit, it is not sexual. The same as mystery. If you don’t make people guess, there is nothing there.

I believe that sex is mysterious whether you see it or not.

Yes, but when you see too much, it is not mysterious anymore.

Even if you see it all, it is still mysterious.

Only what is lovely - sexual life is beautiful - but how they do it in pornographic films is ugly and dirty.

Light Sleeper (Directed by Paul Schrader)
But could you not show pornography show people fucking - and also be mysterious? It is no less mysterious than watching me drink from the glass.

Not by showing things, but by my sensation of things. Making people feel how I feel. The most important and the most real is my way of feeling - to make people have the same sensation that I have in front of things.

Would you not agree that you learn no more about sexual feeling from seeing pornography than you learn about what cognac tastes like by watching me drink this?

You are quite right. There is no art in only showing things as they are, in a filmed succession of things. An idiot could see what is in front of his eyes and that’s all. If you try to make people feel and think instead of hearing and seeing, then it is artistic.

Do you oppose pornography on moral grounds or on artistic grounds?

Not on moral grounds.

Artistic grounds?


If you could use the new eroticism, would you?

No. Pornography is false sexual life.

But all films are false.

Not to love. Not with a work of art. I tried to see a few pornographic films, but I left because they turned sexual life into something horrible which doesn’t exist. Perhaps for some people, but not for me.

It’s like violence; it has to be used in a certain way. There is a parody of violence in FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER. The suicides are always non-violent; why?

Because I do not like violence. When you see violence in a movie, you know that it is false. It doesn’t touch me at all.

Suicide is a very violent act.

It’s very violent inside you, but it’s not very violent to watch.

For me, the notion of suicide is one of violence. It’s the idea of blasting things out of your head which are destroying you; you don’t really want to die, you want to destroy the way you are thinking. Suicide involves a lot of violence, a lot of blood, it’s an explosion inside your head. I see suicide much more violently than you do. I’m moved when Mouchette rolls, when Femme Douce leaps, when Balthazar falls. I’m moved when the cross comes up in COUNTRY PRIEST, but to me, giving oneself to death is a very violent act, and I would never kill myself in a nonviolent way.

I couldn’t show violence, the blood, and those terrible things, because it would have been faked for the movie. People would say, ‘How did they do that?’

I understand your objection.

Sometimes you see things well done of this sort, but it is not moving – because you know it is false, because it is forced. But what you can do is have the sensation of death. You can be moved by death if you don’t show it, if you suggest it. But if you show it, it’s finished. The same thing about love. You don’t feel love if you see two people making love.

Lancelot Du Lac (Directed by Robert Bresson)
I sense a progression in your films: from the exterior to the interior life, from Amore to Therese in LES DAMES DUBOIS BOULOUGNE, from the Countess to the Priest in COUNTRY PRIEST, finally to the object itself in BALTHAZAR, to purely the external like a graphic object. Ozu did the same thing: he turned to a vase. So many movies are based upon the two-dimensional image of the face – the icon of the face. One thing that bothered me about LANCELOT is that you don’t see the faces.

I don’t know what you mean.

This has to be a conscious decision, because many times in LANCELOT the frame line is just below the face. Then when you see the face, it is often covered by a helmet. When he comes to pray in front of the cross, you see him entirely, you see his face. 

I don’t see what you mean.

In your other films, one always remembers the faces, but in LANCELOT, one doesn’t.

Because the face is not special. It doesn’t work. His face was a very difficult face to take.

Are you saying that the reason the camera doesn’t focus on Lancelot’s face is because you weren’t happy with the actor.

No, I didn’t say that. I say that there are faces which are different from others.

I think it’s very clear that you are not as interested in Lancelot’s face as you were in Michel’s, or Fontaine’s, or even Joan of Arc’s.

I understand what you mean, but it is not proof for me. I don’t see how you can say that.

Are you less interested in faces?

On the contrary. I am more and more interested in faces. You say in LANCELOT you don’t see his face?

So often the mask is over it.

The way it was photographed, per­haps. Maybe the difference between black and white and color.

I also have a sense that in past films you did actions in three’s. In LANCELOT, everything was done in five’s.

I don’t understand what you mean.

You usually did things five times. If it was the jousting combat, you would see the lance five times. Or the horses’ feet: in past films you would see a shot of the feet three times, in LANCELOT, five times.

It was unconscious. I needed it five times. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was a hidden reason. I did not show it five times instead of three on purpose.

Do you love iconography?

I like to start with a flat expression, as flat as possible, so that the expression comes when all the shots are put together. The more flat it is when I am shooting, the more expressive it is edited.

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
When you come back from Cannes, are you going to pass by Paris?

No, unfortunately I have to get back. This is a strange trip for me because I was too busy, actually, to make it.

But you are pleased with your film, TAXI DRIVER?


Are you going to have the big prize at Cannes?

I think so.

You are pleased with it?

Yes. Although it is not directed the way I would direct it. I wrote an austere film and it was directed in an expressionistic way. I think that the two qualities work together. There is a tension in the film that is very interesting.

Why didn’t you shoot it yourself?

I hope to direct shortly. I am still very young and it takes a while. In TAXI DRIVER, I had great faith in the director and the actor, who are friends. I believed in what they would do.

So I will see it and write to you.

- Paul Schrader: ‘Robert Bresson, Probably’. From Film Comment, Sept/Oct 1977 (full interview at: www.paulschrader.org).

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