I first heard the precept “Battles are fought at the edge of maps” from a friend of mine whose father had been in the military, but I was unclear exactly what it meant. It did sound intelligent if gnomic.
I then came across it in Robert Bresson’s ‘Notes on the Cinematographer’, his collection of pensées, wise if still gnomic, distilled from his experience of film-making up to 1975 when he had already made eleven features. His formulation was as follows: “What happens in the joins [French jointures]. ‘The great battles,’ Général de M. . . used to say, ‘are nearly always begun at the points of intersection of the staff maps.’” (The general’s name is coyly withheld – who was this genius? Actually I feel that the idea was just as likely to have been formulated as a throwaway thought by some anonymous officer, an unconsidered trifle which was then picked up and made into something more considered.)
My friend from whom I had first heard the aphorism clarified for me that it came about he thinks in the Second World War when in doing reconnaissance (since “time spent on reconnaissance is rarely wasted”) officers found that the area they wished particularly to study required two maps side by side, or even four maps corner-to-corner, because as sod’s law would have it the particularly interesting terrain, the terrain of particular concern for the battle to come, was right on the edge or at the corner of the map. (The problem is solved now by the maps all being digital so one can choose where to have the centre point.)
I can understand this militarily, but confess some puzzlement as to what Bresson was thinking. My interpretation is that it is in the juxtaposition between shot A and shot B of a film that significant meaning arises: at the point where the shot changes, i.e. the joins, the spectator is pitched into a new development, or the unexpected, or sudden enhanced anticipation of what is going to happen.
The general idea continues to have traction: the gnomic can somehow be mesmerising. Lo and behold it is the epigraph to Michael Ondaatje’s new novel ‘Warlight’ in this form: “Most of the great battles are fought in the creases of topographical maps.” In the acknowledgements this is credited to ‘a remark made by Robert Bresson during a filmed interview’. That brings the two strands together: the idea somehow current in the ether and the name of Robert Bresson. Roll over, Général de M.
Well I remain uncertain as to quite what Bresson meant, and wish he was still alive so that we could ask him. I think it may also relate closely to the precision of his film-making, especially in the reconnaissance stage, but also when he was improvising on set. Does it refer to stripping away everything to leave some essence?
Although Pawel Pawlikovsky’s Cold War could not be described as Bressonian, it does have that sense of precision that you find in Bresson’s films and which can be such an unexpected ingredient of compelling story-telling. I particularly admired the way that the narrative made jumps forcing the spectator to fill in the gaps, without ever at any point making this too difficult. It shares too with Bresson the quality of compression that makes the film much larger than its 88-minute length. In a hyperbolic age, this is extremely valuable.