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Essay

not beautiful photography, not beautiful images, but necessary images…

                                                                —Robert Bresson

FOR YEARS I’VE WRESTLED with this seemingly straightforward declaration from the notebook of revered French film director Robert Bresson (a small book, but a bounty of inspiration). I’ve wanted to believe in his “necessary images” and therefore aspire to create them. To use simple, unadorned imagery to distill the filmmaking process to its fundamental elements: juxtaposition and montage, sound and music. To tell a story with pictures. To eliminate beauty for beauty’s sake. And to resist the urge to manufacture emotion, lest I betray my lack of faith in the form.

The realization of this principle, in theory at least, would compel the audience to project themselves onto the screen, to bridge the gap between the expressed and the intended. It would necessarily result in the creation of films in which—to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor—“two plus two equals more than four.” That is to say, it would result in art.

If simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, then Bresson was one of our most sophisticated filmmakers. The quiet confidence with which he allowed his stories to unfold never ceases to astonish me. Like his Japanese contemporary Yasujirô Ozu, Bresson was fearless in his formalism, and the best of his work conveys a deep respect for his audience and a profound trust in the power of pure cinema.

And yet.

With fear and trembling, I confess: though I’ve long appreciated Bresson’s stark asceticism, and have found moments of reverie in his work, rarely have I been deeply moved by it. I tend to find myself at arm’s length from his stories, unable to project enough of myself onto the blank canvases of his characters to create real emotional connection or transfer. The fault, I’m certain, lies with me. The films require too much of me, perhaps, especially in our current Age of Distraction.

But his idea has never lost resonance for me, and recently I’ve found my relationship to the notion of “necessary images” evolving. Perhaps this in itself would be a betrayal of Bresson’s rigid principles, but it is vital for me to create a working relationship to the idea, one that makes it approachable and gives me new vision for my own work as a filmmaker.

I’ve come to discover that the answer, for me, lies in definition: What do we mean by necessary?

The cinematic canvas revels in beauty. The widescreen frame is a window onto the glory of creation, and many of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in movie theaters have come from grand encounters with the vastness of nature (on earth and sometimes beyond), as rendered by our most accomplished visual stylists.

In the sprawl and splendor of films directed by Terrence Malick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa, Mira Nair, Stanley Kubrick, Wim Wenders, Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lean, Kathryn Bigelow, and Werner Herzog, to name but a very few, we are taken to distant lands, ancient times, and the outer reaches of the universe. We are consumed by the images, swallowed whole inside a darkened room, in the way only moving pictures on giant screens can do.

Watching Malick’s The Tree of Life on a massive screen at the ArcLight in Los Angeles—the images brilliant and towering, calling me to attention; the bass rumbling through me—was a more deeply religious experience than perhaps any I’ve had in a traditional church. During the sequence that imagines the creation of the earth, I had to restrain myself from standing and raising my hands in awe and worship, overwhelmed by the glory of it all. Through the flickering images I was drawn to the feet of God.

It is not the same on your smartphone. It is not the same in a book. It is an experience unique to the temple we call the movie theater. And it is, without question, necessary.

Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Jane Campion’s The Piano, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, and Martin Scorsese’s Silence all rendered me similarly moved, the vastness of their visions given life by the light of a projector.

Equally as powerful—and perhaps even more necessary, given the divided state of our world in 2017—have been my various cinematic encounters with the mystery that is the human soul. For the eye is our window, as we are apt to say, and a film camera provides our most immediate and unflinching view through the glass.

In films directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski, Abbas Kiarostami, Andrea Arnold, Ingmar Bergman, Agnès Varda, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Spike Jones, and Carl Dreyer (again to name but a handful), I have discovered deep and transforming truths about myself by looking into the faces of others. This kind of revelatory experience is virtually impossible in our everyday world, outside of our most intimate relationships. But in a movie theater, it is a regular occurrence—and therefore an often unappreciated one.

Kieślowski’s Blue is a master class in film form—everything there is to learn about editing and sound design can be found in its first ten minutes—but what lingers longest in the memory is the slow softening of Juliette Binoche’s face over the course of its exquisite hour and a half. Though time and tragedy have rendered her countenance hard as stone, behind the eyes of the woman we see a hurt and helpless little girl. And we can’t help but love her. I sometimes imagine this is the way God sees us—through the eyes. Despite our strivings for self-sufficiency, our eyes reveal our deepest needs—to love and be loved, just as we are. God responds in kind.

Similarly, in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, Claire Denis’s 35 Rhums, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, Götz Spielmann’s Revanche, Bruce Beresford and Horton Foote’s Tender Mercies, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, Todd Field’s In the Bedroom, Paul Schrader’s Affliction, and Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida, we sit alone in quiet rooms with characters who seem at once very different, yet somehow familiar to us. In the eyes of another, we find a soul that knows neither gender nor ethnicity. We find a shared experience, while at the same time we approach an abyss as fathomless as the stars and space that surround us.

We approach the essence of creation.

Because to render the human face in generous light is an act of grace. And to eliminate beauty for the sake of principle is akin to legalism. What is necessary, therefore, is to portray with honesty the experience of life on earth: the good and the bad, the blessing and the curse, the beautiful as well as the ugly.

“Here is the world,” wrote Frederick Buechner. “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

Later in this special issue, my friend and fellow guest-editor, Gareth Higgins, will argue (along with over a dozen accomplished writers in our centerpiece symposium) that the purpose of art is to help us live better. And to live better is to deepen our capacity for empathy. True art opens a door onto the experience of the other, and film in particular allows us a vicarious encounter with a broad swath of human emotions, the darkest of which, if we are fortunate, we rarely experience directly.

To better understand the joys and sufferings of our fellow human beings is in every way necessary.

To be fair to Bresson, I admit that I may have misinterpreted his notion of “not beautiful, but necessary” from the beginning. I had always read the mantra as pitting the two against each other, implying that a necessary image could not be a beautiful one, nor vice versa. Perhaps I was wrong.

Beauty is marbled throughout Bresson’s filmography, perhaps nowhere more than in Diary of a Country Priest, which is abundant with striking photography, rendered in haunting black and white by his longtime cinematographer L.H. Burel. (Is it a coincidence, I ask myself, that Diary remains the Bresson film that most captures my attention?)

Perhaps Bresson knew all along how to hold the beautiful and the necessary together. Or maybe he was like me—a work-in-progress who often makes bold declarations, only to see them disproven by the talents of others. Maybe he wrestled with this dichotomy for the duration of his career, or maybe he forgot it as soon as he’d written it. After all, it was just a single idea in a notebook full of them.

But from ideas spring forth principles, and from principles spring forth the freedoms to push the limits of art. May it always be so.

And so we come to this special issue of Image.

Our desire in planning it was simple: to gather a handful of the brightest and most interesting filmmakers, writers, and scholars working today and let them talk about whatever moved them.

As we began to discuss the names of folks we hoped would contribute, our wish list could have filled three years’ worth of journals, and that was extremely encouraging. The appetite to watch, contemplate, and discuss the art of film—especially film that seeks to explore faith and mystery—is alive and well in the world. We’re deeply grateful to our contributors, who have brought great heart and elegance to their reflections.

Given the predominance of long-form series in today’s overstuffed small-screen marketplace, however, you may be surprised to find that, aside from a single essay on growing up with network reality shows (a bold and vulnerable piece that caused me to rethink my entire relationship with that much-chastened genre), there is little mention of what we used to call television.

This is no slight to the form; after all, the most success I’ve had in the business has been on the small screen, and I appreciate the depth and nuance that can be mined over the course of a multi-season story.

But I’m a Flannery man at heart, and I love my stories in smaller doses.

I love how films push the boundaries of their form in ways that television rarely even aspires to. For it’s not just the story you tell; it’s the way you tell the story. Small-screen stories almost always devolve over time into people sitting in rooms talking. It’s a writer’s medium, after all, and while it can often be a transformative one, it does not hold a candle to the theatrical experience. To the time inside the temple.

In the end, what’s truly necessary is for audiences to continue watching films in communal environments—whether in magnificent theatrical palaces (for which there is no equal), or ’round the contemporary campfire of the flat screen at home (a diminished but necessary substitute). As Gareth has said, at a time when the most important question we can ask may be “What is it like to be you?” the light bouncing from a generously lit face to our own watching faces conveys a truth no words could ever replicate. It is a necessary experience, and it needs to be shared.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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