Andre Bazin at Work

Up to the publication of this book, Bazin has had the critical reputation of the high priest of realism in film. His ascribed orthodoxy maintains that the cinema has value as it preserves transient details of life with a vivid objectivity exceptional to every other art form. A statement in Bazin at Work such as “…
the essence of film from the very start … has been a quest for the realism of the image” accords with the mold of his ideas given in the previous English-language publications of his work–What Is Cinema?, volumes 1 (1967) and 2 (1971). The continuous image of the critic as the apostle of cinematic realism retains the attraction of a firm point in film scholarship. Citations can be made simply, and explanations of his work consistent and familiar.

Yet it would be unjust not to relish the dimensions added to Bazin’s film-thinking by the current collection. What Is Cinema? established Bazin’s ideas in a philosophical position in film criticism by both the moderate length of the pieces and their often abstracted assertions. The recent publication sets out his work in two parts: “On Directors and On Cinema,” and–often quite briefly–“On Individual Films.” In both sections, readers will find novel angles of the critic to limber up the rigid associations his name usually evokes.

Speaking of La Strada (1954) and the influence of Neorealism, Bazin, one of the great legitimators of theorizing film, comments: “The truth is that theories have never produced masterpieces” (115). Often counted a father of auteurism, he sounds more like a seer of current theory when he conceives “that we are moving toward a reign of the adaptation in which the notion of the unity of the work of art, if not the very notion of the author himself, will be destroyed”.

And best of all, Bazin’s long-standing identification with the long take and deep/ocus as necessary techniques of a realistic film style becomes much less sclerotic when we read (in the first essay) “…
one should be careful not to identify the cinema with any given aesthetic, or what is more, with any style” (18). It is impossible to read this new collection without a refreshed discernment of Bazin’s critical achievement and a reformed view of his realism’s meaning and scope.

Like Donald Rayfield’s recent biography of Anton Chekhov, Bazin at Work enlarges a writer’s accomplishment by re-illuminating the immediate concerns and prosaic limitations girding his creative responses. The book enriches Bazin through a sense, accumulated across the essays, of the suppleness of his thought. His apt reviews impress more with an increased awareness of their daily journalistic routine. He muses on, while enjoying radio’s “environment of sound…. Right now, as I write this article, I’m listening to Jean Vittold’s excellent, daily morning broadcast”.

In 1946, he reconsiders Scarface (1932) because “I have little to add to what has already been written [on the recent releases, due to] … the delay that the publication rhythm of a journal imposes on me”.

Taken within a grind of popular reviewing, Bazin’s assessments have aged well. He lucidly set out the issues encompassing CinemaScope at the moment of the technique’s dissemination (1953). A year after the end of World War II, he bravely commented on the Allies’ extremely influential Why We Fight films as heralding “a grave contusion of values … the manipulation of psychology, credulity, and perception”.

Bazin as a practicing journalist/confessor had constrained space for capturing the souls of single films, filmmakers, and ideas about cinema. In the articles he extracts the essences of his subjects as a confessor estimates character, with quick piety. Bazin consecrates the great French film Forbidden Games (Jeux Interdits, 1952):

If … we like to view childhood as if it were a mirror reflecting an image
of us that is purged of all sin, cleansed of our adult stains, restored to
innocence, then Forbidden Games refuses to play along…. As such, it is
the first example of its kind on the screen .

The collection affirms the depth possible in weekly reviews with a critic such as Bazin, and in the climate he helped create for addressing films.

Most current newspaper reviews answer the demand, Is the movie worth the money? Bazin’s criticism responds instead to the questions: If a film is worth seeing, why is it worth seeing as a film? And what place does a critic have as every movie offers its own epitome of cinema? In response, Bazin at Work helps distinguish two initial paradoxes–his central word–and eventual illuminations of film criticism.

Answering the first question, Bazin’s first paradox claims that films most penetrate reality, and become most filmic through apparently inimical means. The most intensely realistic movie, such as Scarface, seems born from “a novel (or short story) that chose instead to become a film”. A special effect is most effectively fantastic when also most realistic.

Films are most sacred when “working against” the medium’s affinity for religious iconography; and a film such as Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953) reveals most about the souls of its characters as it “focuses most exclusively on appearances”. In each case, the “paradox[es] of realism”–the subtitle for Bazin’s review of Farrebique (1947)–depend on a critical understanding for their illustration. Bazin’s writings justify a critic as someone who can synthesize, from many films, “the technique and the aesthetics that will capture, retain, and render best what one wants from reality” in a particular period.

If rubbing film realism in a direction opposite to custom attains a profounder screen reality, a critic has to envision a cinematic horizon beyond commercial expectations. A popular critic should see beyond public taste. Bazin then has to elaborate his second professional paradox: How can the accomplishments of many films and filmmakers conform to one progressive cinematic ideal? Bazin’s preeminence for film professionals lies in his ability to portray different moviemakers’ styles, and to mark each style in the greater evolving realism he uncovered for his time.

Here the balance in Bazin’s writings grows both more contradictory and provocative. For example, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (Part I 1944; Part II, 1946) is “a beautiful work” because of its clarity of style, despite “renouncing fifteen years of realistic cinema”. Bazin’s appreciation of the work’s uniqueness appears to surmount its antithesis to his cherished essence of film: “… we must make a distinction between the value of the style as such and the quality of its individual execution” (202).
Bazin’s paradoxes redound on his own efforts both to recognize the distinctive qualities of each film and to shape it to his preferred cinematic beliefs.

The essays allow the reader to gauge the movements between Bazin the theoretician, espousing a transcendent reality of film, and Bazin the practicing reviewer. As the latter, Bazin seeks to give a foreign, underestimated, or overly familiar movie a fresh public perception, while rising to argue for different values in a popular cinema. His entwined roles as an analyst, absolver, challenger, and expander of common notions of film remain compelling critical tasks. We miss Bazin’s capacity to discuss individual films (“The Technique of Citizen Kane”), filmmakers (“William Wyler, or the Jansenist of Directing”), film techniques (“The Life and Death of Superimposition”), and methods (“Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest”).

We have lost his interest in embracing and comparing film with other arts and sciences (from algebra to magnetism, geology to theology). We lack his large sensitivity to different movies. Most of all, we might revive his ability to stimulate thoughts on film whether from agreement with or in refutation of his arguments. The “faithful yet not literal” translations by Piette and Cardullo render Bazin’s approach translucent through each article. In the collection of Bazin at Work we find in the critic what he claimed for style in a film: “a way of thinking, the movement of a mind”, developed from exploring varieties of cinema

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