Donato Totaro, email@example.com
July 31, 2003
theoretical conjectures, mystical and impenetrable for many, become
clearer when placed in the context of Bazin's background. Bazin, born
in 1918, lived through one of the most fertile and probing intellectual
movements of the past half century.
Bazin's writing begins to crystalize when seen under the light of phenomenology. According to Merleau-Ponty, the heir to its founder Edmund Husserl, phenomenology is the study of essences. Adopting Husserl's tenet of returning “to the things themselves” Merleau-Ponty searched for a new form of knowledge to describe phenomena. The return Husserl spoke of was a return to “a careful description of things as they appear and of the consciousness in which they appear....” This “careful description” preserved the richness and complexity inherent in every phenomena, which eluded previous philosophies (Bannan 3).
How does phenomenology reveal itself in Bazin's writings? The most lucid insights into this bridge are given by Dudley Andrew, one of the only contemporary theorists concerned with the increasing gulf between phenomenology and film theory.
Vital to Bazin's film theory is his conception of reality. In reference to this, Andrew describes the phenomenological notion of reality accepted by Bazin:
To Bazin the “mysterious otherness” is reality vis- a- vis the film image and the “more sensitive response” his mise- en- scéne style. Therefore the presence of ambiguity, frequently mentioned by Bazin, fortifies the essential and inherent complexity of reality and perception.
Another important insight into Bazin from the above quote is the passage where reality is described as an “emerging-something”, which relates clearly to Bazin’s belief in a film style which allows for the greatest spectator participation in meaning. This can be also used to defend Bazin against ideological critics who read Bazin’s view of reality as somehow untouched by social and political conditions. The notion of an “incomplete” reality allows for a multiplicity of meaning which can encompass the social, political, and philosophical. Bazin’s ideal of an art that approaches ‘true realism’ is not an art that overlooks ideological meaning, or denies its existence, but that attempts to work through it. The idea of a filmmaker who is able to achieve ‘true realism’ does not mean that they are somehow outside or beyond ideology. Merely that they are aware of it and present a personal vision which aims to counter, step beyond, or remain as unaffected as possible by that ideology. It would be just as ludicrous and wrongheaded to say that a filmmaker is ‘trapped’ by/into ideology and therefore completely helpless to do anything to counter or fight against that ideology (barring some extreme exceptions). In Younger's defense of Bazin, this is explained as an artist who achieves “the possibility of unalienated experience.”
Hence, far from being unaware of the force of ideology, Bazin believes that art, through the power of (art)ifice, and perhaps because of it, has the potential to move beyond “pseudoreality.” One of Bazin’s most often quoted (and maligned) passages is a poetic manifestation of this creative energy:
In this passage Bazin echoes another likely influence on his thought, a philosopher whose ideas were clearly “in the air” during Bazin’s formative years, Henri Bergson. Bergson, who died in 1941, was a unique thinker who did not fit into any particular philosophical school, but whose popularity was instrumental in nurturing many of the intellectual trends in early 20th century France which would eventually coelesce into Existentialism and Phenomenology. The “true realism” which Bazin looked for in film can be likened to Bergson’s ‘durée’ (duration), expressed as real time in opposition to spatialized time. For Bergson, as Bazin, it was the artist who was best equipped to see through the ‘veil’ of ‘pseudoreality’ (which can be ideology, illusionism, overwrought formalism, etc.). It is in the third chapter of his long essay on comedy, Laughter, that Bergson discusses the relationship between art and reality in a manner which suggests Bazin. The necessities of living (work, social conformity, bodily functions) force a barrier in between both ourselves and the flux of reality and our superficial and fundamental self. This barrier is “dense and opaque for the common herd, -thin, almost transparent for the artist and the poet” (Bergson, 158). The common person is bound to a pragmatic communicational system that includes language, symbols, concepts and abstractions (spatialized time). These are necessary but, in Bergson's system, can not approach duration. The artist is less bound to this utilitarian system, which places the artist in a better position to experience duration because of the artist's natural inclination to disengage from the pragmatic and utilitarian demands of social conduct. Compare, then, the following Bergson quote to the above passage from Bazin:
Another interesting parallel that exists between Bergson and Bazin is the affinity between Bergson’s distrust of ‘spatialized time’ and Bazin’s distrust of montage. In the section on Montage in part 1 I concluded that, for Bazin, the integrity of spatial unity is of the utmost importance and supercedes all other considerations. This moral imperative to maintain temporal and spatial wholeness has a philosophical parallel to Bergson. In Bergson’s philosophy spatialized time, a by-product of the intellect’s propensity to analyze and fragment, stands in opposition to the indivisible and ongoing durée, or real time (duration). Although spatialized time is a necessary part of knowledge, it can often be hindered by the pragmatic necessities of everyday. Duration, on the other hand, is something which we grasp in moments of complete freedom, self-awareness, and authenticity (for example, through intuition rather than the intellect). I would suggest that Bazin’s ‘moral/ethical’ preference for mise-en-scéne over montage was, in part, influenced by Bergson’s own preference for duration (filmic spatial/temporal unity) over spatialized time (montage).
I will now return to and conclude the discussion of Bazin and phenomenology. To further clarify the connection between Bazin and phenomenology I quote Andrew for a second time. Referring to the difference between the structuralists and the phenomenologists Andrew writes:
It becomes clear that as phenomenologists distrust strict logicians and reductionists, Bazin distrusts the formalists, or more accurately, filmmakers who rely on the illusionistic powers of cinema to misrepresent reality. The film grammarians, claims Andrew, force us to leave cinema and focus on a second-level system (a logical sign system for the semiologists). Phenomenology focuses on the pure experience of an event, hence the phenomena of the film experience itself becomes the only touchstone needed to begin to understand film and the relationship between it and the spectator. By eliminating the second level system we remain closer to the phenomena and also eliminate whatever inconsistencies may be open to the structural or semiotic method (or any other method which distances you from the film event.) The peculiarity of the film experience - with its unique discourse strategies, emotionalism, affinity to the individual and collective unconscious- makes it complex autonomously and, possibly, does not beg to be totally demystified or fragmented like a cryptogram.
Throughout Bazin's writings he speaks of film as if it were not the reproduction of an event but the (or a) event itself. This “primacy” felt for the film experience has an explicit affinity with Merleau-Ponty. In the Primacy of Perception Merleau-Ponty says: “ by the words, the “primacy of perception,” we mean that the experience of perception is our presence at the moment when things, truths, values are constituted for us.” (25) This could apply to the primacy of a photograph or film taken years earlier. Although the person watching a film today is aware of its “pastness” it only becomes an actual experience for the viewer ‘now’ because of this primacy of perception.
Merleau-Ponty also wrote an essay on film in 1947 entitled “The Film and the New Psychology” (48- 59). Merleau-Ponty sees film as a Gestalt mosaic and goes on at great length about the Pavlov experiments, the Kuleshov experiment, and their relationship to film editing - not exactly concepts which would seem to have inspired Bazin. Although Merleau-Ponty and Leenhardt, like Eisenstein and Pudovkin, place high value on editing as both a structural and expressive device, they also see cinema as the most realistic of arts. Of film Merleau-Ponty says that it is “the closest possible reproduction of a drama” and that “the actors should be natural, the set should be as realistic as possible.” He strengthens his case by quoting Leenhardt: “The power of reality released on screen is such that the least stylization will cause it to go flat.” There is one particular comment by Merleau-Ponty which foreshadows one of Bazin's most important aesthetic and moral credos - the presentation of spatial unity/integrity: “The joy of art lies in its showing how something takes on meaning - not by referring to already established and acquired ideas but by the temporal or spatial arrangements of elements” (58- 59). As evidenced through these statements, the link between Merleau-Ponty and Bazin is, assuredly, significant.
The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote periodically on the arts, especially theatre and literature, but reserved a special place in his heart for the cinema. In 1931, at the age of 26, Sartre wrote a laudatory essay on cinema entitled “L’art cinématographique.” (546- 552) At the time Bazin was but thirteen years of age. It's pure speculation, but the reverential tone of the essay, as well as many of its insights, may very well have lit the fire under Bazin. Much of what Sartre says seems to echo throughout Bazin's writings. Sartre praises the cinema for its innocence, its humanistic potential, its immediacy, and, above all, its mimetic qualities (my translation): “At the same time it (cinema) is, of all the arts, the closest to real life: real men living in real countrysides. The Montagne sacrée is a real mountain, the mother in Finis Terrae is a real mother. All appears natural, except the walk towards the end which we can not stop.” (549)
Sartre speaks of the “irreversibility of time” and how life, forever grounded in it, is caught in this fatalistic forge toward the end. Although this time consumes us, we do not perceive it minutely, that is each moment giving away to the next. That would be unbearable. Rather, we experience time evolving spontaneously, by chance; people age, people die, and events happen to and around us. The arts of movement (theatre, music, film) reproduce this irreversible time for us but “outside us.” The cinema, although also fatalistic, is different because it does not occupy the same “abstract and cut” time as theatre. Cinema, in its frankness, realism, and immediacy best exemplifies the “inhuman necessity” of irreversible time and man's forced relation to it.
achieves this quality through its ability to juxtapose themes in time
and space. The terms Sartre uses to coin this ability are “surimpression”
(superimposition) and “polyphonies cinématographique” (cinematographic
polyphony). This simultaneity of themes can be expressed in two ways:
through editing (Bazin's “imagists”), as he demonstrates with an example
from Abel Glance’s Napoleon, or with what Sartre believes to
be a more elegant manner, by the joining of two themes within the
same scene/shot (Bazin's “realists”). To describe the “more elegant”
manner Sartre uses an example from Pabst's
Bazin's philosophical heritage deeply influenced the development of his personality and ideals. Out of Mounier’s Personalism evolved Bazin's Catholic humanism; out of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology evolved Bazin's notion of reality, ambiguity, and the perceptual immediacy of the film experience; and through Sartre, Bazin realized the importance and potential of cinema as a realistic art, while also opening up to existentialism. The tone of his writings, sometimes clear, sometimes ambiguous or allegorical, and always invigorating, reflect this intellectual development.
BAZIN RESCUED FROM HIS CRITICS
this final section I would like to address some of the criticism that
has been leveled at Bazin since the turn to politicized film theory
models. This section will serve as an introduction of sorts to the
“enlightened” contemporary critics and theorists simply write Bazin
off as a naïve realist who omitted the ideological underpinnings of
the image. From this they extrapolate an “idealistic” theory that
points to a spiritual or ambiguous reality that overlooks social and
political reality. The model to begin the counter-argument against
this erroneous impression of Bazin is Emmanuel Mounier. Mounier,
a Christian humanist, played a large role in shaping Bazin's vision
of the world (Gray, int. What is Cinema Vol.2 3, Andrew, 29-37).
Mounier saw the world around him encroaching on and suffocating humanity.
Stifled by Individualism (Bourgeois & Capitalism) and Collectivism
(Fascism, Socialism, Communism), Mounier envisioned an eventual apocalypse
(a “tragic optimism”) and then a utopia based on the concepts of the
person and the community: freedom, the family, spiritual and moral
rebirth (Amato 129- 147). Mounier eventually
rebelled against his academic post and made the journal he founded,
Esprit, an organ of politically motivated cultural criticism.
Mounier took repeated stances against all forms of Fascism (German,
Italian, Spanish), criticised Christianity for not engaging in social
action, condemned the French bombing of Indo-China in 1935, and eventually
joined the Resistance and was imprisoned by the
I also find it more than just a little ironic that much of this criticism against Bazin comes from the relatively safe haven of academia, whereas Bazin, after his mentor Mounier, lived what he preached. Bazin was an ambassador of film, travelling around among his community presenting films and discussing them at film-clubs, workers groups, and church halls. He was not politically naïve, nor was he unconcerned with real human problems. He may have been an idealist, but if so, because he believed in humanity. This does not mean he was politically naïve; far from it. Ideologically he was a liberal humanist who was an instrumental figure of several left-wing journals, including the Catholic-left journal Espirit, Travail et Culture and the journal he founded, Cahiers du Cinema. Anyone who refers to Bazin as ‘apolitical’ has not read enough of his work. Outside of the obvious left-leaning political nature of his book on the cinema of the French Resistance (French Cinema of the Occupation and Resistance), is his remarkable and prescient critique of Stalinist Socialist Realism, “The Stalin Myth in Soviet Cinema.”
With this essay Bazin was, as usual, an astute observer ahead of his time by denouncing socialist realist films for their mythologizing of Stalinism (mixing of myth, history and propaganda). At the forefront of Bazin’s attack on these films was the perverse and near-fetishistic idolatry of Stalin. As Bazin sensibly noted, a person can not place themselves in history while history is still being made! As Andrew notes in his introduction to the essay, Bazin showed great integrity by writing this staunch critique of Stalinist propaganda at a time, 1950, when many French socialists were still supportive of Stalin. After the article came out to press Andrew notes that Bazin “…had to duck in and out of the Esprit office for fear of running into a verbal or physical battle.” (Andrew, Introduction to "The Stalin Myth in Soviet Cinema." 1985, 30.).
fact Nikita Khrushchev, in his famous 1956 speech where he denounced
Stalin, made mention of the role of cinema in the fabrication of historical
lies and the distorted view of
image of Bazin that emerges from Dudley Andrew’s wonderful critical
biography André Bazin is of a devoted but divided soul. Bazin
played an active role in the artist's and intellectual's part of the
In whatever sense film appropriates reality, for Bazin it remains always as an “artifice” which is dependent on one part audience suspension of disbelief (in degrees according to the nature of the film) and one part creative intention. So much so that Bazin believed that the film world and the real world could never be juxtaposed, but rather that the film world, for a time, substitute for the real world: “For a time, a film is the Universe, the world, or if you like, Nature” (What is Cinema Vol.1 p.109). In the Bazinian film world suspension of disbelief never becomes a factor because of the persistent ontological references of film and reality and the powerful psychological hold cinema has for its spectators. If film is in a sense reality then we do not have to suspend disbelief to accept it. This implied inessentiality of suspension of disbelief is at the root of the problem many people have with Bazin's theory. The beauty of Bazin's theory is that it may never be proven "wrong," for the answer to cinema's longtime inexplicable allure over audience's may well have its basis in Bazin's theory, that being the ambivalent dichotomy existing in the film world between suspension of disbelief and illusion of reality.
Joseph. Mounier and Maritain: A French Catholic Understanding
of the Modern World.
Andrew, Dudley. "André Bazin." Film Comment (March/April 1973): 64- 68.
- - - - - - - - - - “The Neglected Tradition of Phenomenology in Film
Theory.” In Movies and Methods Vol.2 625- 632. Bill Nichols,
Rudolf. Film as Art.
John F. The Philosophy of Merleau- Merleau-Ponty.
André. Orson Welles. Jonathan Rosenbaum, trans. 1972.
Bazin, André. “Pour en Finir avec la profondeur de champ.” Cahiers du Cinéma 1 (1951): 17- 23.
Bazin, André. “La Technique de Citizen Kane.” Les Temps Modernes 17 (1947): 943- 949.
André. What is Cinema? Vol.1. Hugh Gray, trans.
André. What is Cinema? Vol.2. Hugh Gray, trans.
Bazin, André. "The Stalin Myth in Soviet Cinema." Movies and Methods Vol. 2, ed. Bill Nichols, University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1985, p. 29-40.
Henri. "Laughter" in Comedy. Intro. and Appendix
Noël. Theory of Film Practice.
Brian. “The Long Take.” and “Two Types of Film Theory.” In Movies
and Methods, 314- 324 and 388- 400. Bill Nichols, ed.
Emmanuel. Personalism. Translated by Philip Mairet. Notre Dame,
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. "Film and the New Psychology." 1945 In Sense and Non- Sense 48- 59. Hubert L. & Patricia Allen Dreyfus, trans. John Wild, ed. Northwestern University Press, 1964.
- - - - - - - - - - - “The Primacy of Perception and its Philosophical Consequences.” 1947. In The Primacy of Perception, 12- 42. James M. Edie, trans. John Wild, ed. Northwestern University Press, 1964.
Roud, Richard."André Bazin." Sight & Sound 3/4 (1959): 176- 179.
Dagobert D., ed. Dictionary of Philosophy. 5th ed.
Jean- Paul. “L’art cinématographique.” 1931. In Les Écrits de Sartre:
Chronologie, Bibliographigue, Commentée, 546- 552. Michel Contat
& Michel Rybalka, eds.
Andrew. Theories of Film.
Dudley. The Major Film Theories.
André. Jean Renoir. W.W. Halsey II and William H. Simon, trans.
Francois Truffault, ed. 1971.
- - - - - - - - - - - Qu'est- ce que le cinéma? Les Editions du Cerf, 1981.
István. The Work of Sartre Volume 1: Search for Freedom.
 Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. I, 15.
Oddly enough, as I was finishing writing this essay
I read piece by Jim Hoberman in the Village Voice entitled “Lights,
Camera, Exploitation” where he invokes André Bazin and his Stalin
essay in reference to a made for television film on 9/11 called
DC 9/11: Time of Crisis. Hoberman repeats Bazin’s point about the
film mythologizing a living president (George Bush). Village
Voice. August 27 -