Notes on Notes on Cinematography

Last year Sight and Sound polled a multitude of film Critics on what were the seminal film texts. Before getting the issue I had guessed that Andre Bazin would almost certainly rank toward the top, as would Andrew Sarris. Sure enough the most commonly picked texts were Bazin’s dual ‘What is Cinema?’ texts, Sarris’ ‘The American Cinema’, David Thomson’s mammoth achievement ‘A Biographical Dictionary of Film’, as well as Francois Truffaut’s ‘Hitchcock’, a transcription of the French directors interviews with the British master.

However there was another book at the top and it was one that surprised me greatly. It was Robert Bresson’s ‘Notes on Cinematography’, a collection of notes, ideas and general thoughts on cinema that culminate in somewhat of a manifesto in many ways. I remember reading excerpts from it at University, most notably Bresson’s quotes on actors, whom he referred to as ‘models’. They were peculiar, often ambiguous notes that made a great deal more sense once I was familiar with Bresson’s cinema.

Bresson is a master, a director I admire greatly. He was uncompromising and his films never strike a false note in my opinion. Bresson’s style was rigid in its simplicity and his films are deft, careful creations. Like many film directors work I am often most drawn to my first encounter with it. In my case A Man Escaped is my favourite of his pictures. A terse escape movie it boasts a superb climax and creates tension through its quietness.

Today, not for any reason in particular I dusted off ‘Notes on Cinematography’ and devoted my full attention to it. It is a truly fantastic read which is much like Bresson’s films in its care, precision of statement, and truthfulness. It is endlessly quotable and any number of its truisms could form a manifesto for any idealistic young director.

Here is some food for thought…

Shooting. Put oneself into a state of intense ignorance and curiosity, and yet see things in advance.

Let it be the intimate union of the images that charges them with emotion.

What no human eye is capable of catching, no pencil, brush, pen of pinning down, your camera catches without knowing what it is, and pins its down with a machine’s scrupulous indifference.

My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.

Each statement is so simple and possesses a clarity that renders it nothing short of a revelation.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Having now read it, it appears obvious why it is a critical favourite. It justifies and encourages everything about cinema that is ideal. Perhaps then it is idealistic, but show me a single manifesto that isn’t.

This is a great collection of writing by a great film director and at a meagre 75 pages it can be read very quickly. Furthermore, it’s the type of book that you can pick up and read from any page. Each sentence is stimulating and I’m hell bent on committing them to memory. Read it today if you can, and if you can’t go watch A Man Escaped.

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3 thoughts on “Notes on Notes on Cinematography”

  1. And here is a great one…

    Let it be the feelings that bring about the events.
    Not the other way.

  2. Sweet post man. I have been looking for some new reading material of late.

    I must say that the book that pretty much got me hooked on cinema was a book titled ‘The Story of Film’ by Mark Cousins.

    Not by any stretch the complete story of film, but an effort that certainly wets the appetite if your remotely interested.

    “Garbage Day!”

  3. Hey Dr J!

    Yeah man, Story of Film is a very good read. Mark Cousins is a pretty rad guy, he does all sorts of stuff. He did a show about cinema on BBC 4 I think, I remember seeing the David Lynch episode.

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