It is quite simple to assess that a storyteller might use his or her imagination to fabricate a work of fiction for a specific purpose, but it’s not that simple to understand what is real in addition to the surface of fiction, in addition to the chosen effect.
Cinematography, the art founded on the motion effect, is a magnet for this line of inquiry. Il Generale della Rovere by Rossellini, Contempt by Godard, Day for Night by Truffaut, Blow Up by Antonioni, and The Battle of Algiers by Pontecorvo question the relationship between fiction and reality, and, ultimately, the significance of reality. Those are works where cinema also investigates itself, and, in Antonioni’s film, its root, photography.
In cinematography, photography is the origin, not just in regards to lighting and framing, but to its existential core. While writers build their work of fiction by associating concepts, cinematographers must create, frame by frame, by working with the real energy of light, real objects, real human flesh, and real acting. Editing and sound will deliver the final effect, but the result of directing and acting, a unique collective effort, creates the building blocks of cinema. On this account, Marlon Brando’s view on acting is an illuminating documentation on human consciousness. His assessment of acting as a survival mechanism, a talent that we all use since we are born, is profoundly revealing of human nature, of our love and fear of the unknown. His analysis of acting as a performance played between truth and falsity is liberating.
The meaning of acting is critical because such a talent reveals about directing. There is no acting without a director; when we act away from the stage, we become our own directors and we create our own fiction. Now, what is the motive behind all this? Why did Brigitte Bardot, a teenager raised in a wealthy Parisian family, follow Roger Vadim and let him direct her in And God Created Woman? Why did she let Jean-Luc Godard direct her in Contempt? I might assume she acted moved by love and fear, but I can only watch her acting. The documentation is there, recorded on film by light itself.
When I watch how Godard captured on film the light reflected by Brigitte Bardot’s back, by her eyes, and by her reaction to Michel Piccoli’s presence, I wonder. The grip of suspended disbelief loosens, and I detect something real, something way more interesting than Godard’s concept. I see life, human will at work with all the rest of human gifts. I see union, instead of the sterile conceptual dualism between "material" and "immaterial," for there is nothing shallow in our bodies, and nothing elevated in our minds. What I see is a reminder of how art hits all the cords of the human experience. Humanity is not an idea; humanity is practice; whether our performances are outstanding or not, whether the director knows what he is looking for or not.
On a much smaller scale, I also explored the experience of the set, the mise-en-scène. Directing models on fashion shootings has been my opportunity to document, along with my clients’ needs, something real in a fictional set up. I did not photograph fashion editorials and campaigns to mock cinema; that would be a preposterous and pointless pursuit. Instead, I focused on interactions, on recording models’ actions and on how my presence would direct them. I worked by observing and capturing movements that are innate and primitive without ruling out what is predictable and safe. I directed by letting talent find its way out and by understanding that motive could surface only through an effortless performance. I was never fond of sophisticated fabrications and conceptual cages; they rarely helped me in the understanding of human nature.
There are times, special times, when fiction fades away entirely. Then, the assignment turns into a malleable, instinctual script, one that will never repeat itself. At the end of the performance, what is left is a thin layer of cellulose embedded with exposed grains of silver halide. Inside that thin layer, fiction finds itself part of reality. Photographs, fragments of reality, emerge behind the scenes. They reveal to the perseverant eye, for they offer themselves after time has passed. Freed from biased memories, marketing decoys, abstractions and superstitions, these stubborn clues, original bonds of light and silver, document our humanity. Ur-photographs witness the enduring passion of two epic lovers: the survival of purpose and the fragile beauty of the human condition.