Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer has to be one of the most interesting books ever written by a major film director. Modeled on the Pensees of his hero Blaise Pascal, the deceptively modest Notes compiles several decades worth of observations on the cinema and shows the same taste for minimalism, laconic wit and profundity that Bresson brings to his visual style as a filmmaker.
Bresson’s “notes” range from cryptic sentence fragments (“The ejaculatory force of the eye”) to commonsense aesthetic advice directed to himself (“Replace an image with a sound whenever possible”) to more eloquent ruminations on the nature of the medium (one of the lengthiest examples is: “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 on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water”).
Here is the story of how I came to receive an inscribed copy of this book by my favorite film director of all time:
Early in 1998, I read an issue of the British film magazine Sight & Sound in which the then-96 year old Bresson had responded to several questions in a survey they had sent out to various filmmakers, critics and historians. Although I knew Bresson was still alive, it had been 15 years since his last movie (the masterpiece L’argent, which he completed at the ripe old age of 81) and he had kept such a low profile in the years since that I naively assumed he was probably no longer in possession of his mental faculties. His responses to the survey however were sharp, humorous and unmistakably Bressonian. After coming across a mailing address for him in an encyclopedia, The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, I decided to write him a letter and tell him what his movies meant to me.
The letter was handwritten and I didn’t make a copy but I remember writing that I had been blown away by a screening of his film The Devil Probably that I had attended at Facets Cinematheque several years before and that I couldn’t believe a filmmaker working in the 1970s on the opposite side of the Atlantic had made a film that seemed to so accurately describe the world I was currently living in. I also wrote that of all the works of art I had encountered only the novels of Dostoevsky had had a comparable spiritually uplifting effect on me. Of course, I never expected to hear back from him; I thought it would just be a nice gesture to tell him I loved his movies.
Flash-forward to a year and a half later: in May of 1999, a complete Robert Bresson retrospective was opening at the Film Center of the Art Institute of Chicago (before it moved to its current location and changed its name to the Gene Siskel Film Center): all of the master’s movies in new 35mm prints! I planned on attending all of the films at least once and I was especially excited to see, for the first time ever, long-unavailable, never-released-on-video titles like Au Hasard, Batlthazar and Four Nights of a Dreamer.
Incredibly, on the very first day that the retrospective began, when the letter I had written him seemed like a distant memory, I received a package in the mail from Monsieur Bresson. In it was a copy of Notes on the Cinematographer, which was inscribed:
“Avec mes remerciments pour votre gentille lettre et tous mes voeux
(“With my thanks for your nice letter and all my wishes
Less than eight months after I received his package, Bresson died of natural causes at the age of 98. Each semester in my Intro to Film class, I typically show either Pickpocket or A Man Escaped and lecture on Bresson’s innovative use of sound design. I tell my students the story of receiving my personally inscribed copy of Notes on the Cinematographer and describe it as my most prized film-related possession. I’m fond of telling them I love the book so much that if my apartment were to ever catch fire, I would throw it out the window and let myself burn.