One of the books I’ve found most helpful to my work is Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer. He refers to the actors in his films not as “actors,” but as “models,” because he sees the art of acting as something that gets in the way of the truth that is being shown. He writes: It would not be ridiculous to say to your models: “I am inventing you as you are.”
This reminds me of an interview I read with the actor Ray Winstone, in which he said that his friend Gary Oldman had been helpful to him. As they rehearsed together, Oldman would sometimes tell him, “I can see you acting, Raymond.”
Bresson sees film-making, and every other art, as being separate and unique. I disagree with him on this, and as evidence that he’s wrong I offer that I find his book helpful in all of my writing. When I read books I’ve written and cringe, it’s not because the writing is bad (though it may be) - it’s because I can see the writing, see myself writing, see my own artifice.
I seem to be closing in on the the end of the novel I’ve been working on, about a musician in Phoenix who moonlights as an armed robber. I always want to get as close as I can to having a blank page while still having a story, and I think this book might be the closest I’ve gotten so far.
There’s something unique about this one for me: Usually, when I start writing a book, I know what the final scene is going to be, though I don’t know what it means, and I don’t know much that’s going to happen before the end. With this book, though, the ending is radically different than I thought it was going to be.
I’ll write the ending soon, but first I have to crank out a ghost story set in Japan for an anthology…
I’m at the point in writing a book where I dream the story when asleep, and continue to dream it when I’m awake. And sometimes the story dreams me. Or the story and I are dreamed together.
I’ve written before about how ego is as toxic to art as it is to life.
I remembered this recently when a person struggling with fear told me, “Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to be a writer.” Not wanted to write, but wanted to be a writer. I think perhaps wanting to be something and wanting to do something are antithetical, and we must choose one or the other. I’m certain no peace can be found in the former.
I keep saying that what I want when I write a novel is to get as close as possible to a blank page while still having a story. When I watch Bresson’s films, I think he was trying to get as close as possible to a blank screen while still having a story.
A couple days ago I watched the Criterion Collection DVD of Pickpocket. Among the extra features is a short film of Paul Schrader talking about the influence it had on him. He mentions his screenplay for Taxi Driver, but for some reason doesn’t mention that the ending of American Gigolo is almost identical to that of Pickpocket.
There are also interviews with the actors, including the elusive Martin LaSalle, who had settled in Mexico City and taken refuge behind a huge beard.
Pickpocket is obviously influenced by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But, at 75 minutes in length, it is stylistically the opposite of that huge, meandering book. It contains only what is necessary, which is why Bresson insisted that there be no acting.