Back to Bazin Part II: The Myth of Total Cinema

[See also: Back to Bazin Part 1: The Ontology of the Photographic Image]

“If the origins of an art reveal something of its nature, then one may legitimately consider the silent and the sound film as stages of a technical development that little by little made a reality out of the original “myth”. It is understandable from this point of view that it would be absurd to take the silent film as a state of primal perfection which has gradually been forsaken by the realism of sound and colour. The primacy of the image is both historically and technically accidental. The nostalgia that some still feel for the silent screen does not go far enough back into the childhood of the seventh art. The real primitives of the cinema, existing only in the imaginations of a few men of the nineteenth century, are in complete imitation of nature. Every new development added to the cinema must, paradoxically, take it nearer and nearer to its origins. In short, cinema has not yet been invented!”

Bazin’s notion of a “total cinema” is of one whose audio-visual content is not deficient in its reproduction of reality, one which looks and sounds like the real world, and which can be experienced in a manner similar to the way in which people experience phenomenological reality (i.e. the stuff you see and hear and feel around you at any time). Cinema is always “deficient”: it might lack a sychronised soundtrack, or it might be shot in black and white, or be lumbered with some other accident of historical and technical circumstance. Measured against the kind of sensuous, haptic, binaural and brilliant phenomenological interactions with the world which most humans are fortunate enough to enjoy, film will always be left wanting. That may be why it so often plumps up its dramatic effects with emotional cues like music, close-ups and beautifully deliberate compositional wonders. It’s also worth pointing out that human senses, even if you’re lucky enough to have five of them in good working order, are similarly flawed. They can be tricked, they can misinterpret what they think they’ve seen, mishear what you tell them, fail to remember what they felt before, or mistake a new experience for a similar old one, etc. You don’t need me to point out how wobbly your senses can be. You can try them out with some optical illusions at Michael Bach’s incredible website, or try to see colours in the dark, or listen to a platform announcement at a British railway station and work out what the hell it’s saying. Actually, those aren’t really failures of your senses, just limitations which they weren’t evolved to circumvent (except for the platform announcements, which are the result of crappy PA systems). But however acute your senses, representation is always external to real experience: you are always aware that you’re seeing mediated images, even if you oscillate between critical distance and suspended disbelief. I’m sure Bazin would not have denied that cinema could never reach a point where it comes to be indistinguishable from reality, but he appears to be arguing that the drive towards such a concept was an inevitable desire, and that film, due to its association with the camera’s capacity for the mechanical, objective recording of images, was especially suited to the task. And doesn’t he have a point there?

During the developments which allowed the first films to come to life, there needed to be a goal. Otherwise, the first hazy images of a person recorded on film would have sufficed. Instead, the next aim of making those hazy figures seen clearly, or making them heard stood as a benchmark for what needed to be improved with the fledgling mechanisms. If cinema’s apparatus had been designed to meet different requirements, we would have a very different kind of cinema, wouldn’t we? Perhaps one built around abstraction, dream logic, expressionism etc? You can do all those things with the cinematic apparatus, but you really have to film something in front of the camera, and it will be embodied on film as a result of that process (Stan Brakhage’s abstract films painted directly onto the film strip are one notable exception): The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may be an expressionist film, but it is a film of actors and sets made up in an expressionistic manner. If the sets were straightened out, the camera would record them as straight, not all wonky. Like your senses, the recording equipment has some problems of mediation that inflect the exact reproduction of the stuff in front of the lens, but it makes a good stab at reproducing what it sees without interfering too much. Bazin takes this as an axiom of filmic reproduction – the equipment does the best job possible of objectively capturing, rather than imaginatively reinterpreting whatever you tell it to record, and any disparities between referent and representation are indicators of the next deficiency that needs to be corrected on the path towards the end goal of “total cinema”.

Brian Henderson reveals a problem with the “Myth” essay that Bazin probably could not have anticipated:

“While film history to Bazin’s day gave his teleological scheme a certain plausibility – neorealism and composition-in-depth did integrate the visual continuity of (certain) silent cinema with the “added realism” of sound – film history since his death has decidedly reversed this pattern: montage and collage forms of many kinds have appeared or reappeared and many kinds of expressionism also. Nor is Bazin’s scheme unexceptionable in relation to his own period. The truth is that every technological and aesthetic development in film history has increased the expressive resources of realism in Bazin’s sense, but those of every other form and style of cinema also.”

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. Bazin seemed to offer a coherent notion of cinematic space that still carries some pop-cultural currency – almost all of the personnel working on special effects whose work I consulted were talking in terms of “making things as real as possible”, and when they used “real” in such quantifiable terms, they were appealing to a kind of sensory resemblance, what Stephen Prince has described as “perceptual realism”, when an embodied, objective visuality is seen to inhere in shots without cuts, and composited elements that appear to share the same physical space. The flaw in Bazin’s argument here is not just based on a failure to predict that the camera might be used to conjure ever more elaborate anti-realistic illusions (though we might argue that the prevalence of CGI has produced a fetish for making the impossible seem as much like photographed reality as possible), but that it presumes that there is a continuous external reality which exists to be photographed. To assess the progress of “total cinema” towards its goal, are we all clear as to what we are measuring its success against? Is there only one perceptual sense of the world in whose image the cinema is to model its representations?

Bazin seems to have misidentified the reasons for the develoment of the cinematic apparatus. He says that cinema could have been invented much earlier than it was, but without a fully developed theory of how media are shaped by social needs, ideological buffers and other historically contingent influences, he can’t quite explain why cinema emerges when it did and in the form it did. He even has to fall back on a fairy metaphor:

“The guiding myth, then, inspiring the invention of cinema, is the accomplishment of that which dominated in a more or less vague fashion all the techniques of the mechanical reproduction of reality in the nineteenth century, from photography to the phonograph, namely an integral realism, a recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time. If cinema in its cradle lacked all the attributes of the cinema to come, it was with reluctance and because its fairy guardians were unable to provide them however much they would have liked to.”

No fairies were available for comment. Bazin ignores determining factors (social, economic, ideological) that might also have had a hand in pushing the development of cinema in particular directions, in order to claim the cinema as the end product of a near-spiritual well to remake the world as a preserved representation. If I think Bazin is missing some crucial points in his argument, why don’t I just consign him to the critical dustbin and read or teach stuff that’s a bit more up-to-date? First of all, there’s the ease with which Bazin can be used to open out some important ontological questions about film. I did think about giving my students an essay list this semester that contained nothing but the question “What is cinema?”, and I’m sure they would have gone straight for Bazin for his lucidity and accessibility, even if they felt he didn’t provide accurate responses to the question: he’s a lot easier to read than Jean-Louis Comolli, with his giant, convoluted sentences, or Deleuze, with his, er… Deleuzianness. (By the way, I haven’t produced such an essay “list”, since it might be a rather cruel experiment for a first assignment, but I will be asking them some very open-ended ontological questions about film and media: usually, assignments are much more closely tied to particular film texts and interpretative analysis, so I’m interested to see how this will go…)  Bazin’s clarity of prose style is not an incidental point – I think it comes from a very lucid worldview that is internally logical even if it is out of step with the academic quick-march. He was an idealist, not an idiot. And remember the most important thing – as indicated by the title, he acknowledges that total cinema is a “myth”, an idea whose ultimate goal might be impossible, but whose central concept has guided the development of cinema and constructed its mechanisms in accordance with “realist” principles. Now you can get on with the task of critiquing the notion of a continuous, unified external reality and of film as the perfect medium for conveying a sense of said reality.


Brian Henderson, “The Structure of Bazin’s Thought” Film Quarterly 25:4, 18-27.

Steven Shapiro, “The Cinema of Absence: Film’s Retreat from Total Reality.”

Donato Toraro, “Andre Bazin Revisited.”

Poduska on Bazin’s Ontology, Cinesthesia

11 thoughts on “Back to Bazin Part II: The Myth of Total Cinema

  1. Just a quick comment – I’d like to write more, but have 4 screenings to get to today! It’s true that Bazin doesn’t seem to acknowledge (in the work that has been translated into English) the fact that ‘the camera might be used to conjure ever more elaborate anti-realistic illusions’ and that his work ‘presumes that there is a continuous external reality which exists to be photographed’. I think Perkins does a great job of deconstructing Bazin’s notion that film is purely an extension of the photographic image in the third chapter of ‘Film as Film’, equally ascribing the evolution of the medium to pre-cinema attractions (magic lanterns, dioramas, etc) as the mechanical ‘mummification’ of (pro-filmic) reality. As soon as one takes this into account, it opens up all the questions that you’re asking – and of course Bazin’s theory can’t accomodate them. It’s probably his only major oversight (or: one of the only times when he failed to cover his back).

    So, yes, it’s unquestionable that Bazin privileged one aspect of the medium at the expense of others, but I don’t have a problem with the fact that his writing is constantly skewed by his intellectual and emotional engagement with the ‘real’ – it’s what makes his work quite so remarkable. Henderson’s criticism above seems redundant: I don’t believe Bazin overlooked the fact that ‘every technological and aesthetic development in film history’ increases the ‘expressive resources’ of every other form and style (not just realism) – quite simply, he just wasn’t as interested in the alternatives!

  2. Thanks for taking the time. Much appreciated. I think what Henderson is getting at is that Bazin might have been suggesting that cinema’s natural evolution would cause the obsolescence of all the elements which were not necessary for its continuation. You’re right that he’s not interested in montage effects, but this seems to be because he believes them to be betrayals of cinema’s true purpose. I don’t have a problem with that either – it’s internally consistent, and it enables him to make some important statements about the pro-filmic event which still carry a lot of currency today, even if his reason for believing in them is too determinist.

    Do you think that Bazin is engaged with the real, or is he, as his critics maintain, just presuming it is there as an objective entity and modelling his understanding of cinema accordingly?

  3. Pingback: Unbreakable Patterns « Spectacular Attractions

  4. Pingback: Back to Bazin Part III: De la Politique des Auteurs « Spectacular Attractions

  5. ” No matter how skillful nature is, her work was always in fee to an inescapable objectivity. The fact that nature intervened cast a shadow of belief over the image.”

    These are not Bazin’s words – I’ve swapped “nature” in for painter (and human hand), “objectivity” in for “subjectivity”, and “belief” in for “doubt”. But the new sentence, I think, retains the same sense that Bazin is after.

    It is not about whether the photographic image appears more real than painting (or special effects etc) but that *if* it is more real (as in the common sense of the term) this alters how an artist might work with it. To put it another way, if in baroque painting work must be done to bring objectivity to it we can think of photography requiring work to be done to bring subjectivity to it.

    Bazin’s solution is to find the path of least resistance. Painting will be freed from the work required to give it a sense of objectivity and photography will be freed from the work required to give it a sense of subjectivity.

    Each to their own.


  6. In science there is a distinction made between real images and virtual images. A real image is defined as that image which would occupy a screen (such as a movie screen). This is not to suggest a screen image is “real” in any other sense of the word. It means the word “real” is being used as an arbitrary signifier for what is otherwise an image occupying a surface. A virtual image, on the othr hand, is where an otherwise real image (for example on our retina) appears to be located outside ourselves in space. For example we would speak of a reflection in a mirror as being a virtual image since it refers to where the reflection appears to be in space. These are not necessarily two different images. The reflection we see in a mirror can be regarded as the virtual component of what is otherwiseas constituted on our retina, which would be the real component.

    Now there is some ambiguity here since an image on a movie screen is also where the same image, on our retina, appears to be otherwise located, outside of ourselves, on the screen. This would tend to suggest the image on the movie screen is also virtual. Yes. It is. The virtual component of the retinal image and the real component of the movie screen image, coincide with each other, at the same location in space: the movie screen.

    With a mirror this coincidence doesn’t occur. The virtual component of the retinal image appears located in the mirror but there is no corresponding real component (a screen image), occupying the same location within the mirror.

    An important point here is that alternative uses of the word “real” would tend to coincide with what we have otherwise called here a virtual image. For example, the sense in which mirror images can be said to appear “more real” than screen images.

    For example, Dan North assumes (like many before him) that Bazin is using the word “real” where optics would have otherwise used the word “virtual”. But Bazin is using the word “real” in the sense that optics does, as pertaining to screen images. Without this understanding Bazin could very well appear to be promoting a cinema of the mirror, against which one could then argue the cinema can only be (for better or worse) deficient in this regard. ie. that a mirror does a better job.

    “Bazin’s notion of a “total cinema” is of one whose audio-visual content is not deficient in its reproduction of reality, one which looks and sounds like the real world, and which can be experienced in a manner similar to the way in which people experience phenomenological reality (i.e. the stuff you see and hear and feel around you at any time). Cinema is always “deficient”: it might lack a sychronised soundtrack, or it might be shot in black and white, or be lumbered with some other accident of historical and technical circumstance. Measured against the kind of sensuous, haptic, binaural and brilliant phenomenological interactions with the world which most humans are fortunate enough to enjoy, film will always be left wanting.”


  7. “No matter how fuzzy, distorted, discoloured, no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of it’s becoming, the being of the model of which is is the reproduction; it is the model” – Bazin

    In these words we see that Bazin is not at all investing in any virtual reality model of the cinema. Bazin will get his kicks from even the most “deficient” images (in terms of virtual reality). Bazin’s realism is two fold. It is towards real images rather than virtual images (in the optics sense), ie. that which photography and painting share in common – images that take place on a surface, and of those surface images it will be those that are “real” in another sense, as images created by nature, no matter how “badly” done by her.

    This is not to say that the virtual is ignored. On the contrary there will be a collapse of distinction between the two (what we might otherwise call “suspension of disbelief”). To the surrealists Bazin turns for clarification on this:

    “The surrealist does not consider his aesthetic purpose and the mechanical effect of the image on our imaginations as things apart. For him, the logical distinction between what is imaginary and what is real tends to disappear” – Bazin

    What Bazin is arguing is that photography is that which certain painters (up until the invention of photography) had been otherwise only able to represent through their art – the idea of photography, since photography had not yet been invented. The invention of photography is then the realisation of that idea. Photography was the model for a certain kind of painting. Painting could only represent a photographic image whereas a photographic image was that image.


  8. What undermines many criticisms of Bazin is the assumption that “reality” is somehow given and that photography somehow “obviously” does not reproduce it. But what is this “reality” that photography so obviously fails to reproduce? In Bazin this question is not in any way better answered. Rather we see a definition of “reality” that emerges (between the lines so to speak) as that which photography reproduces. Or better, that the photographic image itself is reality. “It is the model” as Bazin will say in a moment of clarity.

    The photographic image is a reality in itself. It is that reality which certain painters otherwise represented in paint. Or that CGI artists otherwise represent in computer animation.

    Beyond this reality, ie. that which the photograph fails to reproduce, or painters fail to represent, can only be some sort of other reality. But what? Is it to be defined negatively – as that which photography isn’t? No, it will forever remain invoked but unexplained. Unelaborated. As if it were not in need of such.

    Bazin, at least, gives us an image of what he means by reality.

  9. What is obviously at issue in much of contemporary theory is not really any philosophical problem with the concept of reality as such – ie. the conceptual problems such terminology invokes – but will be little more than a simple arbitrary distaste for photography – what Manovich will charmingly call “the art of the footprint”. But Manovich is not content to frame cinema this way – as the stuff of wax museums – but wants to challenge this very definition – he will go so far as to argue that cinema has it’s origins in animation. From the point of view of deconstruction we could easily use Manovich’s own words against him, as if he were suggesting (and I challenge anyone to see how this reading could not follow), that therefore, cinema demonstrates animation is the art of the footprint.


  10. The solution for Manovich and others is that the cinema has at least two parents, a history of animation and a history of photography, neither of which can claim sole custody of their child. The cinema can be regarded as a case of what Deleuze would call “disjunctive synthesis”. The mutually exclusive definitions of cinema that Manovich and others will want to hold apart from each other, lest they come face to face with each other, and implode, can be brought together. They will not implode. The result is cinema.

  11. Pingback: À la découverte de la réalité virtuelle avec Klynt VR |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s