Back to Bazin Part III: De la Politique des Auteurs

[See also Back to Bazin Part 1: The Ontology of the Photographic Image and Back to Bazin Part 2: The Myth of Total Cinema]

andree_bazin_1When Andre Bazin made his intervention in the auteur debate in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, the cinephilic journal he co-founded in 1951, it read like a stern finger-wagging in the direction of some of his more boisterous protegés. La politique des auteurs was the debate which bubbled around the core contention that, even though it was produced in a collaborative environment, usually under the auspices of a production-line studio system, films were most valuable when they represented the distinctive vision of their director. In English we call it the authorship debate, or, as Andrew Sarris later translated it (with a slightly different inflection), the auteur theory. The writers, actors, producers and other personnel might have significant input, the Cahiers critics argued, but because the director was in command of the mise-en-scène (the stuff in front of the camera), a medium-specific mode of film criticism and appreciation could be fostered through study of a director’s authorial stamp, observable in the visual style that could be traced across a range of works “signed” by that particular artist. Richard Dyer has given a cogent summary of the debate’s legacy in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies:

“[Auteur theory] made the case for taking film seriously by seeking to show that a film could be just as profound, beautiful or important as any other kind of art, provided, following a dominant model of value in art, it was demonstrably the work of a highly individual artist. Especially audacious in this argument was the move to identify such artistry in Hollywood, which figured as the last word in non-individualised creativity (in other words, non-art) in wider cultural discourses in the period. The power of auteurism resided in its ability to mobilise a familiar argument about artistic worth and, importantly, to show that this could be used to discriminate between films. Thus, at a stroke, it both proclaimed that film could be an art (with all the cultural capital that this implies) and that there could be a form of criticism – indeed, study – of it.”

truffautOne of the keystones of this debate was François Truffaut’s A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema, published in January 1954. Truffaut rejected the French cinema’s slavish adherence to a “tradition of quality” that cannibalised and diluted the literary heritage of the nation and did little to foster a distinctive, innovative form of cinema that advanced the perameters of the art form. He picked on writers Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche as indicative of a trend in safe adaptations and artistic concessions to public taste:

“To their way of thinking, every story includes characters A, B, C, and D. in the interior of that equation, everything is organised in function of criteria known to them alone. The sun rises and sets like clockwork, characters disappear, others are invented, the script deviates little by little from the original and becomes a whole, formless but brilliant: a new film, step by step makes its solemn entrance into the ‘Tradition of Quality’. They will tell me, ‘Let us admit that Aurenche and Bost are unfaithful, but do you also deny the existence of their talent…?’ Talent, to be sure, is not a function of fidelity, but I consider an adaptation of value only when written by a man of the cinema. Aurenche and Bost are essentially literary men and I reproach them here for being contemptuous of the cinema by underestimating it. They behave, vis-à-vis the scenario, as if they thought to re-educate a delinquent by finding him a job; they always believe they’ve ‘done the maximum’ for it by embellishing it with subtleties, out of that science of nuances that make up the slender merit of modern novels.”

Stirring stuff. But there are also some sarcastic, moralistic generalisations in Truffaut‘s argument. He contends that “the hundred-odd French films made each year tell the same story: it’s always a question of a victim, generally a cuckold”, and complains that Aurenche and Bost attempts at earthy realism have lowered the tone of dialogue scenes: “In one single reel of the film, towards the end, you can hear in less than ten minutes such words as: prostitute, whore, slut and bitchiness. Is this realism?” And later on:

“Long live audacity, to be sure, still it must be revealed as it is. In terms of this year, 1953, if I had to draw up a balance-sheet of the French cinema’s audacities, there would be no place in it for either the vomiting in Les Orgueilleux or Claude Laydu’s refusal to be sprinkled with holy water in Le Bon Dieu Sans Confession or the homosexual relationships of the characters in Le Salaire De La Peur…”

Whoa, there. Is that really François Truffaut, firebrand polemicist and co-founder of the Nouvelle Vague, talking like a square? It looks a bit strange now, finding such prudism used to drive through his more powerful argument that film criticism should celebrate the things that make film special and in the process nurture a new kind of cinema that engages with those distinctly filmic qualities. Whatever, this article was crucial in ushering in a new critical stance at Cahiers that celebrated the work of Hitchcock, Bresson, Hawks Nicholas Ray and many more whose artistic personae could be observed even in the work they produced according to the dictates of major studios. And that’s where Bazin steps in:

“I realise my task is fraught with difficulties. Cahiers du Cinéma is thought to practise the politique des auteurs. This opinion may perhaps not be justified by the entire output of articles, but it has been true of the majority, especially for the last two years. It would be useless and hypocritical to point to a few scraps of evidence to the contrary, and claim that our magazine is a harmless collection of wishywashy reviews. Nevertheless, our readers must have noticed that this critical standpoint – whether implicit or explicit – has not been adopted with equal enthusiasm by all the regular contributors to Cahiers, and that there might exist serious differences in our admiration, or rather in the degree of our admiration. And yet the truth is that the most enthusiastic among us nearly always win the day.”

Note that Bazin’s opening is rather subtly barbed, in contrast to Truffaut’s show-boating. He wants to put forward the temperance argument that usually gets shouted down by colleagues who have little but “enthusiasm” in their corner. He wants to draw attention to the flaw in a critical stance that, in its most “enthusiastic” incarnations, ends up aggrandising artists in an uncritical way, since “enthusiastic” admirers of Hitchcock, Land or Hawks end up presenting these directors as infallible, and their every film as  a consistently valuable contribution to an ingenious oeuvre. Bazin saw himself as out of step with the critical consensus at Cahiers, where his defence of individual works by “lesser” directors represented a “critical contradiction”. In short, he is frustrated by the partiality of some of his fellow critics. An auteurist critical position is untenable as long as it requires you to appreciate anything made by a celebrated director, assigning a film value according to its author rather than to its objectively noted merits. In even shorter shortness (!), he says, this kind of hero worship clouds the critical faculties. It is an ahistorical approach that isolates the revered artist from social and cultural contexts; and it’s a blind alley – who wants to read a review of a film when you automatically know that the critic is going to be favourable to a director who has already been garnered with the title of auteur? The Cahiers critics distinguished between metteurs en scène, those directors who competently converted a screenplay into a film for the studio, and auteurs, whose films exhibited distinctive formal and stylistic properties even when working at the behest of an overseeing institution. The establishment of this special club of invitees (Bazin warns against an “aesthetic personality cult”) might have led to certain directors getting certain privileges at the hands of certain critics, as if the larger project of encouraging film appreciation might overrule individual acts of objective engagement with particular films.

Bazin doesn’t want to stem the flow of auteurist criticism – he just wants to divert its course. The focus on “the personal factor in artistic creation as a standard of reference…” he says, “has the great merit of treating the cinema as an adult art and of reacting against the impressionistic relativism that still reigns over the majority of film reviews.” In other words, he recognises the polemical value of examining cinema with a particular bias towards a certain kind of film-maker or from a certain angle of inquiry (focusing on mise-en-scene or thematic intertextuality, for instance). But partiality and personal preference should be kept in their proper place:

“Every critical act should consist of referring the film in question to a scale of values, but this reference is not merely a matter of intelligence; the sureness of one’s judgement arises also, or perhaps even first of all (in the chronological sense of the word), from a general impression experienced during a film. I feel there are two symmetrical heresies, which are (a) objectively applying to a film a critical all-purpose yardstick, and (b) considering it sufficient simply to state one’s pleasure or disgust. The first denies the role of taste, the second presupposes the superiority of the critic’s taste over that of the author. Coldness … or presumption! What I like about the politique des auteurs is that it reacts against the impressionist approach while retaining the best of it. In fact the scale of values it proposes is not ideological. Its starting-point is an appreciation largely composed of taste and sensibility: it has to discern the contribution of the artist as such, quite apart from the qualities of the subject or the technique: i.e. the man behind the style. But once one has made this distinction, this kind of criticism is doomed to beg the question, for it assumes at the start of its analysis that the film is automatically good as it has been made by an auteur. And so the yardstick applied to the film is the aesthetic portrait of the film-maker deduced from his previous films.”

The most famous point that Bazin makes concerns the studio system itself. The Cahiers critics provocatively lauded directors who were firmly imbricated in the Hollywood production line system, as if to test the limits of their argument by focusing on artists whose personal signature would rise to the surface of their films despite the industrial strictures that might have seemed to depersonalise the individual works. This, Bazin argues, should instigate a more nuanced attitude to the creative role of the studios. Genre, for instance, might be seen as “a base of operations for creative freedom”, perhaps because it allows the personality of the director to be revealed through a series of dialogic interactions with and commentaries upon a pre-existing set of texts:

“The American cinema is a classical art, but why not then admire in it what is most admirable , i.e. not only the talent of this or that film-maker, but the genius of the system, the richness of its ever-vigorous tradition, and its fertility when it comes into contact with new elements … ?”

An excellent question, I feel. While the concept of a director as an authorial presence is undeniably tenacious, and often very useful, it is not the case that the communication between director and spectator is mono-directional: the author is a conceptual filter through which we interpret a film; that is, our page_ms_hitchcock_01_0705241228_id_9532intertextual, accreted construction of Hitchcock, for instance, inflects our viewing. My Hitchcock is not necessarily your Hitchcock, even if we’ve read the same books about him and seen the same selection of his films. The “genius” of the system might be that it commercialises that complex interaction, settling it into a saleable brand name as if it represented a shared and cohesive set of propositions (i.e. “if you liked Hitchcock’s last film, this new one has enough similarities that we’re sure you’ll like (and pay to see) this one, too). Or, more optimistically, the system might be ingenious in a creative sense, providing the framework in which a varied set of artists can be set similar tasks (e.g. the making of a genre film), testing them out in an environment that invites comparative analyses and foregrounds their personal answers to impersonal questions. That system requires a kind of criticism that provides those analyses, but Bazin suggests, I think, that it demands a wider view of the context in which, individual creativity takes place, and the formative limitations that are imposed upon it.

[For my quotations I have used the translations of Truffaut and Bazin’s articles in Barry Keith Grant’s fine collection, Auteurs and Authorship (London: Blackwell, 2008).]

Back to Bazin Part 1: The Ontology of the Photographic Image

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.


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