It’s been a long time since I’ve read Andre Bazin’s writings but, having included them on a syllabus this semester, I’ve had to return to them. Bazin is rather unfashionable, his ideas on cinema’s “special relationship” to realism dismissed as naive or simplistic, his Catholicised rhetoric seen as rather quaint, and if he has been taught at all, he’s been set up as a straw man to give film students their first chance to take down a major figure in film criticism. It isn’t difficult to counter Bazin’s teleological approach to film technology, but this is not to say his work is not useful or interesting. I want to write down a few thoughts to summarise two or three (that’s not a figure of speech – it really will depend on how much time I have to prepare this in the next couple of weeks!) of his short essays and invite comment on their continued relevance or obsolescence. It’s worth noting that Bazin’s film criticism was as important a part of his work as the theoretical writing, and it wouldn’t be accurate to posit any over-arching interpretation of what he “stood for”. I would refer you to Brian Henderson’s excellent overview of “The Structure of Bazin’s Thought” (see links section below), which suggests that Bazin’s work cannot be thought of as a continual reiteration of the same concept of an objective, realistic cinema, but instead should be divided up into the historical and the ontological writings; there is little crossover between them, and the theoretical positions on the ontology of the photographic image are not simply applied to critiques of particular films.
This post should be a starting point, and there are links at the bottom if you’d like to explore more about Bazin from those who see his work as still valid to the study and appreciation of cinema.
The Ontology of the Photographic Image
Bazin begins his essay with the now well-known mummification analogy:
If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation. The process might reveal that at the origin of painting and sculpture there lies a mummy complex. The religion of ancient Egypt, aimed against death, saw survival as depending on the continued existence of the corporeal body. Thus, by providing a defense against the passage of time it satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time. To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life. It was natural, therefore, to keep up appearances in the face of the reality of death by preserving flesh and bone.
If I was a film-maker, I’d feel flattered by Bazin’s suggestion that I was the inheritor of a tradition that could be traced back to the Pharaohs. This totalising idea of film as the achievement of a long-cherished human desire to reproduce itself in images in defiance of time and mortality can never get to the heart of how technologies develop, and nor can it explain how individual instances of filmic practice come into being (I’m assuming there are not many directors who go onset because they cannot resist the pre-programmed instinct to cheat death): it’s like evolutionary theories of sexual selection that might tell us what kind of person we’re biologically predisposed to mate with, but can’t stop us falling for someone with a dirty laugh or a shared passion for Mystery Science Theater 3000.
In Bazin’s extended analogy of mummification, representational art becomes the repository of these death-defying instincts, since mummification could offer “no certain guarantee against ultimate pillage”: making images of people, we are to presume, became a substitute for the preservation of actual bodies. In turn, preservational representation gave way to “a larger concept, the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal destiny.” Is this Bazin’s poetic articulation of film’s unique capacity to embalm time, with photographic registration grasping a fragment of the world and preserving it indefinitely (consider this in contrast to painting’s attempts to reconstruct, with all attendant subjective inflections, a picture of that world) as both a living (i.e. moving) and a deadened (i.e. not actually present) thing? Or is he actually saying that a hard-wired human need to counter-act bodily ephemerality drove and inspired the development of technologies of representation? It is difficult to know, but the argument which is built upon it seems tendentious from being founded on such ambiguous, historically vague groundwork.
One of the most enticing and least contentious claims Bazin makes for the importance of the photographic image is that it uncoupled other art forms from a slavish debt to resemblance:
In achieving the aims of baroque art, photography has freed the plastic arts from their obsession with likeness. Painting was forced, as it turned out, to offer us illusion and this illusion was reckoned sufficient unto art. Photography and the cinema on the other hand are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism. No matter how skillful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity. The fact that a human hand intervened cast a shadow of doubt over the image. Again, the essential factor in the transition from the baroque to photography is not the perfecting of a physical process (photography will long remain the inferior of painting in the reproduction of colour); rather does it lie in a psychological fact, to wit, in completely satisfying our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part. The solution is not to be found in the result achieved but in the way of achieving it.
So, rather than supplanting painting and sculpture by doing their jobs more effectively, photography took on those aspects which plastic arts could perform less efficiently. There is a teleological argument here – it implies that painting was incomplete, that its own codes and conventions were malformed precursors of something that required more advanced technologies for its realisation. This always precipitates the most common criticisms of Bazin, that he posits film as an objective medium of record, whose truth claims hinge upon a privileged link to reality. It forms this link by having a direct, indexical relationship between image and referent. That is to say that, because the film camera operates as a photochemical process independent of human intervention (except the interventions needed to prepare and commence the running of the equipment), it can be seen as less subjective, less prone to the manipulations of the human hand that always divert, even minutely the passage of an object’s image into its painted or sculpted representation. When the shutter on a camera opens to let light in, the light reflected from the object in front of the lens causes a chemical change in the light-sensitive material of the film itself. Hey, I’m not a scientist: if you want to know a bit more about how the process of photography actually works, you could do worse than follow this link. The point for Bazin is that photography and film are distinct as art forms because of their very basis in mechanical processes which take away the element of human activity. Whatever is done with those images afterwards, their origins always confer a particularly authentic status that provides a heightened sense of presence, along with a concomitant sense of absence – you know that what you’re looking at in a photograph was really present in front of the camera, even as the image’s relocation to a 2-dimensional space in front of your eyes marks it as simultaneously absent, only an image.
On this issue, Bazin has been superseded by decades of critical theory and criticism that have demolished notions of an objective reality that can be represented truthfully. The path from phenomenological reality to spectator is always one which will branch, fork, twist and undulate according to the specific capabilities, experiences, knowledge or desires of the apparatus, the artist and the spectator. Regardless of the photochemical relationship between the image and the represented object, the image is always selected. It does not give the viewer a window into an extant, continuous reality, but instead offers a limited perspective, around which meanings and inferences will be generated by viewers with varying frames of reference and intertextual knowledge bases. Bazin’s ontological claims, it is argued, are irrelevant in light of the image’s subjection to ideological, technical and heuristic influences. In short, the camera cannot operate objectively, because its images are always constructs that are open to interpretation.
I may be defeating my own purpose here. If I wanted to concur with those critics who assert the continued relevance of Bazin (you’ll find plenty in the links below), I probably shouldn’t have started with his most obviously flawed article. I first became interested in Bazin when I began my PhD thesis on special effects, and I was looking for some theories that would help me to examine the instability or otherwise of the film image’s claims to authenticity. One of the ideas that was sparked by reading Bazin’s ontology essays was that the spectator is often measuring the onscreen images against a perceived notion of reality, even if that notion might be a subjective one. When watching a fantasy or science fiction film that involves a lot of special or visual effects trickery, that same kind of measuring takes place, with the spectator trying to discern the illusion by sorting the profilmic from the fabricated. That residual belief in an inherent difference between, for instance, live action footage and computer-generated characters might be a holdover from Bazinian ideas of the fundamentally objective ontology of the photographic image. His faith in the ability of long takes and deep focus to preserve that objectivity is mirrored in a set of devices of authentication which are still deployed in cinema today, whether it is in the extended takes inside the taxi of Abbas Kiarostami’s 10, where a dashboard mounted digital camera fixes on the faces of the passengers or the driver for many minutes at a time, or in the virtualised camera that circles the moving car in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, for which a seemingly impossible long take through heavy traffic has been seamlessly stitched together from multiple takes and augmented with digital objects.
In each case, a sense of engrossing access to a continuous space is generated by the impression that the camera is present to capture, rather than construct, a moment in its entirety. But neither film depends upon an indexical relationship between image and object. The long take can be made to perform the effect of a filmic reality, either by using small, intimate digital cameras (where no chemical reaction between light and film takes place), or visual effects (where the continuity, and the spatial fluidity, of the shot is an illusion).
I hope to find time to develop these thoughts in relation to some of Bazin’s other writing, but I welcome comment on what I’ve written so far.
- Peter Matthews puts up a strong defence of Bazin here.
- Girish Shambu’s blog has an entry on Bazin’s writings with a useful comments section.
- Andy Slabaugh on Bazin’s ontology at Cinesthesia.
- Donato Toraro, “Bazin Revisited.” PART ONE & PART TWO.
- Bazin’s article, “The Life and Death of Superimposition“, in which he looks at trick effects.
- Eva Baaren, “The Total Myth of Cinema: About the Continuing Need for Reality in Digital Cinema.”
- The following articles are available from JSTOR if you have access, and on old-fashioned paper even if you don’t:
- Ian Jarvie, “Bazin’s Ontology” Film Quarterly 14:1, 60-61.
- Brian Henderson, “The Structure of Bazin’s Thought” Film Quarterly 25:4, 18-27.