“Why do people go to the cinema? What takes them into a darkened room where, for two hours, they watch the play of shadows on a sheet? The search for entertainment? The need for a kind of drug? All over the world there are, indeed, entertainment firms and organizations which exploit cinema and television and spectacles of many other kinds. Our starting point, however, should not be there, but in the essential principles of cinema, which have to do with the human need to master and know the world. I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: for time lost or spent or not yet had. He goes there for living experience; for cinema, like no other art, widens, enhances and concentrates a person’s experience—and not only enhances it but makes it longer, significantly longer. That is the power of cinema: ‘stars’, story-lines and entertainment have nothing to do with it.”
“I see it as my duty to stimulate reflection on what is essentially human and eternal in each individual soul, and which all too often a person will pass by, even though his fate lies in his hands. He is too busy chasing after phantoms and bowing down to idols. In the end everything can be reduced to the one simple element which is all a person can count upon in his existence: the capacity to love. That element can grow within the soul to become the supreme factor which determines the meaning of a person’s life. My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware that beauty is summoning him.”
Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking soundbites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, ‘that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘The Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machinegun?”
The obscure 1995 Leonardo DiCaprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.
The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. Kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”
In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, “The NBC Nightly News” and other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them.
The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.
In terms of cinema and filmmaking, there are certainly the unexpected gifts that the actors bestow on you. Film is always a question of compromises with respect to what you originally intended. My father, who was a stage director, told me that you should be happy if you obtain 40% of what you’ve set out to do. When he told me that, I said, “Well, I’m not interested in becoming a director.” I think that limit of 40% is a bit of an exaggeration, but if you get 70% of what you were looking for, then you can be happy. Usually, when making a film, the surprises are negative surprises. You don’t get what you wanted or what you hoped for. The only nice surprises are those that are offered to you by actors when they offer you these gifts, as I mentioned before, when they are better and give you more than what you had originally conceived. That doesn’t happen every day on set, but if it happens a couple of times in the course of making a film, you can consider yourself very lucky.
The truth of my feelings about the cinema of Robert Bresson is very simple. When walking out of a screening of Pickpocket as a young man, with close friends who hadn’t understood a thing about the film, who had missed what seemed so incredibly obvious to me, I felt, deeply, that it had let me see into the inner beauty of cinema in a way that would someday allow me to make films myself.
There are a lot of filmmakers I admire: Bergman, Fassbinder, Cassavetes, Visconti, Mizoguchi, Rohmer, Scorsese, Dreyer, Rossellini, Pasolini, Renoir, Tarkovsky, just to mention the few that most naturally come to mind.
But Bresson is, for me, in a category of his own. He is what keeps me faithful to what cinema can achieve. In moments of discouragement, he reminds me how great films can be…
And I don’t think I would be making films if not for him, or certainly not the same films.
February 6, 1932 — October 21, 1984
“I saw my first two hundred films on the sly, playing hooky and slipping into the movie house without paying—through the emergency exit or the washroom window—or by taking advantage of my parents’ going out for an evening (I had to be in bed, pretending to be asleep, when they came home). I paid for these great pleasures with stomachaches, cramps, nervous headaches and guilty feelings, which only heightened the emotions evoked by the films. I felt a tremendous need to enter into the films. I sat closer and closer to the screen so I could shut out the theater. […] At that period in my life, movies acted on me like a drug. The film club I founded in 1947 was called—somewhat pretentiously but revealingly—the Movie-mania Club (Cercle Cinémane). Sometimes I saw the same film four or five times within a month and could still not recount the story line correctly because, at one moment or another, the swelling of the music, a chase through the night, the actress’s tears, would intoxicate me, make me lose track of what was going on, carry me away from the rest of the movie.”
“When I make a film, I never stop uncovering mysteries, making discoveries. When I’m writing, filming, editing, even doing promotional work, I discover new things about the film, about myself, and about others. That is what I’m subconsciously looking for when shooting a film: to glimpse the enigmas of life, even if I don’t resolve them, but at least to uncover them. Cinema is curiosity in the most intense meaning of the word.”