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

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.


Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine