Some writers and artists like to improvise a story as they go along. Cassavetes did it in Shadows (1959). I heard that Moebius did it at times. But improvising isn’t the same as working instinctively.
Robert Bresson says here that he’d rather people feel his work before understanding it, and that his aim is to create a mood around a character or situation (spot on!). But feelings are also understanding — just another sort of understanding. What I like about him is that he evades providing an easy answer, and always replies according to what he’s feeling, and very humbly. He seems awkward and answers with just the essential words to explain himself to — or to correct — the interviewers’ assumptions, who come across more like interrogators.
I think what he asks of people is that they satisfy themselves with a sort of instinctive knowledge about what they’re looking at; letting themselves be led by the medium (film) and enjoying its unique qualities without needing to have everything explained. Because when you have feelings for something, you instinctively know it.
This reminds me of what David Lynch has to say about his way of working. When someone in the audience wants to understand his work, he talks about the need to understand it instinctively, through feelings, through the instinctive knowledge you already possess. It’s about letting yourself float along with the medium and let the story lead you, instead of wanting to control the story and everything around it. Even better: it’s not a story which is telling you how and what to think, but a story that allows you to appreciate it for the beautiful qualities it possesses, like a poem.
Other films that possess these qualities are Picnic At Hanging Rock (Peter Weir) and Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky). In mirror there is a “false” tension at times, which has less to do with action but with inner mood. There are sounds where there shouldn’t be any, fragmented pieces of memory, flashbacks, quick jumps from black & white to colour, and from archival footage to fiction. The film goes as far as having poems narrated over the image. In Picnic At Hanging Rock there’s always something unseen, out there looming about. There are unanswered (and unasked) questions, and unresolved problems, just like in real life.
A story is not just about reading through text or watching a sequence of scenes to arrive at an answer, it’s very much about enjoying the process. Plot comes to organize things but it can’t take over too much. Otherwise it will become an exercise in plot building, all technique but no feeling in the work.
This brings me to Robert Aickman’s thoughts on his own writing:
“The stories which I consider to be my most successful came to me as if dictated, and in very little need of correction, as if written in at least a half-trance”
“Aickman believed in ‘mystery,’ from which ghost stories emerged. In many respects, Aickman regarded ghost stories as ‘enigmas.’
(Gary William Crawford, “Robert Aickman, An Introduction”)
Jack Sullivan has written of ghost stories in general:
What unifies all of the better stories, whether of active seers or passive victims, is an unbroken sense of mystery and enigma….Ghost stories….sabotage the relationship between cause and effect. The parts are self-consistent, but they relate to an inexplicable, irrational whole. Instead of lighting up, the stories darken into shadowy ambiguity; instead of depending on logic, they depend on suggestion and connotation.
Aickman’s belief in the supernatural is fundamental to the understanding of the stories themselves. There is no logic or moral. Many times the stories themselves seem to explode into time and space.”
To me, all this is summed up in Aickman’s thoughts that “The true ghost story is akin to poetry: only in part is it a conscious construction, and when the Muse does not speak, you cannot write it.”
I can trace a parallel to Bresson’s idea of preferring feelings before intellect.
All these authors are writers who use image, text or sound to tell a story. They’re creating instinctively without caring too much whether the viewer understands the story logically — emotional understanding is a great part of knowledge. They’re not improvising like Cassavetes did, it’s a careful story that is perhaps organized by plot. It follows its own logic and it constructs itself that way.
So, I believe that if the viewer accepts the “logic” of the world they’re being offered, they’ll instinctively understand the story even if they can’t explain it to someone else. Those stories are the best ones.