FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 32, August 1999

 


 

Dan Friedman

Bazin at Last; or, The Style Is the Man Himself

 


 

 

 

Andre Bazin

_Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties_

Translated by Alain Piette and Bert Cardullo

Edited by Bert Cardullo

New York and London: Routledge, 1997

ISBN: 0415900182

256 pp.

 

Whatever the relative merits or demerits of a particular Proust translation, most readers agree that the translator would do well not to leave out a chapter here or there. The tendency to make exactly this type of omission when translating collections of critical essays has proved to be one of the more frustrating trends in recent publishing history. For a while it seemed to be accepted practice to translate the exact title of a collection but to include only an incomplete selection of the original essays. Harry Zohn's translation of Walter Benjamin's _Illuminations_, Alan Sheridan's translation of Jacques Lacan's _Ecrits_, and Hugh Gray's two volume translation of _Qu'est-ce que le cinema?_ have all been vital to the introduction of the original authors to a wide anglophone audience, but, despite the protestations of their translated titles, they each present the editor's own selected versions of the originals. [1] This has meant that, although it looks as though there are readily-available translations, students working in English have not had access to many of the texts in the original collection.

 

Although this is deliberately not _What is Cinema? Volume 3_, Cardullo's present edition aims to go some way towards rectifying the situation of incompleteness vis-a-vis Bazin. Rather than reach for the French collection and translate half of its untranslated essays Cardullo chooses to deal with the vast body of fragmentary work left by Bazin (nearly four hundred newspaper and journal articles) as a continuum that, amongst other work, includes those essays and reviews collected in _Qu'est-ce que le cinema?_. By working from this premise Cardullo can present a broad perspective on Bazin's work, collecting new translations of essays from journals, as well as some of the more canonical texts from the French collection that Gray chose not to translate. The essays are divided into two unequal sections whose principles of inclusion are made clear in their titles; 'Bazin on Directors and on Cinema' and 'Bazin on Individual Films'.

 

As befits a critic concerned with the establishment of the criteria of style in a new genre, Bazin is a consummate stylist. These new translations capture the immense readability of his prose with its simple, everyday diction. The notes about Bazin's contemporary cultural references are comprehensive, clarifying those remarks of his which only appear obscure because of the passage of time. Especially useful to the reader who is unused to early French film and criticism are the brief biographies of those principal and ancillary players that are mentioned. However, partly due to the editor's commendable rigour in this regard, this book is hurt by the present inexplicable publishing ukase that bans footnotes in favour of endnotes. Most of the essays are short and provided with ample helpful references at their end. The continual need to flick pages to and from the end of the essay (a destination that changes every few pages as a new essay begins) is annoying and would be enough to spoil the reading experience of the casual reader who might otherwise be attracted by Bazin's direct and expressive style. Since many of the notes were actually provided by Bazin, this constant need to read two pages at once affects even more serious or seasoned readers and, along with a few annoying typographical errors, is the only thing that spoils an otherwise pleasant and useful volume.

 

Bazin's increasing stature over the decades since his death means that there are few serious scholars of film who have not already encountered the bulk of 'Bazin at Work' in the original French. As a consequence of this, there are no startling new ideas to be found in the book, but it does have two important contributions to offer. The first is a contextualization of (and an addition to) the corpus of work by and about Bazin that is available in English. The most notable of the previous volumes are Gray's _What is Cinema?_ and Dudley Andrew's biography _Andre Bazin_, but the introduction, bibliography and critical apparatus begin to construct a more coherent body from other smaller pieces that have been written. The second contribution is how, despite the constraints imposed by the two section titles, the collection spans several concerns. It bridges Bazin's own personal reactions to films: stylistic analyses of films and general attitudes to the cinema as an art form, as well as biography (the essay on Leenhardt especially), general European history, and reflections on other critical approaches to film.

 

It would be remiss of a reviewer not to mention a vital part of the reading experience of the book being reviewed however incidental to the book itself. A good review of a contemporary film, especially by a critic that one admires, draws one to a screening. Among other things this volume is a collection of reviews by one of the world's great film critics, and an exposition of style which, as a result, encourages the reader to see some of the French, Italian neo-realist and classical Hollywood films that are mentioned. It is not the fault of the editor that an accidental by-product of including twenty-two lucid reviews of individual films of the forties and fifties is to advertize those films. It is not a fault at all, except that it could be years or even decades before most readers would have a chance to see a theatrical screening of some of these films. On top of this, the fifteen or so film stills sprinkled through the book serve little purpose beyond a further whetting of the appetite. Cardullo's collection can be dipped into for insights into specific films or for beautiful early articulations of the relation between the cinematic and the literary. However, with some exceptions, reading the book from beginning to end tantalizes the reader with eloquent reports of the unviewable.

 

One of the obvious exceptions to the films inaccessible to the anglophone readership is _Citizen Kane_ (a film that is mentioned in several of the pieces). The article specifically about Welles's cinematic technique in his first film is one of three essays that stand out from the others in this collection. The 1950 article from _Esprit_ on the development of the representation of Stalin in Russian cinema, the 1948 essay on Bazin's colleague and mentor Roger Leenhardt, and the article from _Les Temps Modernes_ on _Citizen Kane_ which closes the book seem of a higher calibre than the others. It is no accident that these are three of the longer, and consequently more developed, of the pieces in the book. Against a background of shorter articles making relatively direct observations, these three use their slightly extended length to make more complicated points about the place of style in film.

 

In the second essay of the collection, 'The Myth of Stalin in the Soviet Cinema' Bazin writes a concentrated analysis of the portrayal of Stalin in Soviet cinema. The specific occasion for the essay was the release of Petrov's _The Battle of Stalingrad Part II_, but the essay deals with representations of the Soviet leader across more than twenty years of film. He traces the development of Stalin's film presence from Vertov's newsreel footage of him, to the historical character portrayed by the actor Gelovani, in films for Vasiliev, Kuleshov, Chiaureli and Kalatozov, and then finally concludes that in current Soviet cinema 'identification has now positively been achieved between Stalin and History' (33). In this essay Bazin describes how the changes in the style of Soviet cinema, shown by its portrayal of Stalin, bear witness to crucial and dangerous changes in Soviet attitudes, and allowed himself an 'I told you so' postscript when it was included in _Qu'est-ce que le cinema?_ after Khrushchev's Special Report to the twentieth congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Bazin explores the iconography of cinema with its social and political ramifications far more effectively in this essay than when he directly attempts to discuss the theological implications of film. [2]

 

'The Style Is the Man Himself' is a eulogy to Roger Leenhardt, Bazin's mentor and inspiration. The excuse for the piece is Leenhardt's film _The Last Vacation_, but in the article, as Bazin himself points out, 'Roger Leenhardt's personality . . . seems more important than the film itself' (142). As so much of his understanding of the film comes from his acquaintance with the director Bazin is always consciously teetering on the edge of simply writing a justification of a film that had met with critical apathy. The essay is fascinating because it is so close to its subject and could almost be about Bazin himself, or his film-making disciples from _Cahiers du Cinema_. In yet another attempt to define the elements of style in film Bazin begins by discarding the film in question in order to describe the style of its *auteur*. It is only after he has explained the style of the man that he moves on to discuss its translation into the style of the film. For Bazin one recent advance of film form had come as stylish individuals bypassed the literary and applied their direction immediately to film.

 

Perhaps Bazin's most succinct definition of style in film comes when he discusses the technique of Orson Welles in his essay on _Citizen Kane_. He acknowledges that many of the so-called innovations that Welles used were, in fact, appropriations from earlier directors, but maintains that it was their distinctive use and combination that made the film an example of genius. For Bazin innovation is necessary for the progress of film, but it is only the constructive and distinctive combination of mise-en-scene, lens-work, length of shot, and a hundred other factors in the making of a film, that can actually establish a style capable of harnessing the power of cinema and its innovations. He temporarily opposes 'filmmaking' to 'cinema', and 'innovations' to 'ideas', in order to advocate the second of each of the pairs as the crucial context for direction and criticism (143). By doing so he highlights the possibility that a production of a film incorporating a technological innovation does not necessarily produce style. Bazin views style in cinema as the successful mobilization of filmic techniques to manifest ideas, and insists on a concept of cinema whose development is dependent upon style.

 

As with large sections of the book there are resounding contemporary echoes to Bazin's words. A Hollywood that has recently brought us a glut of poor special effects-driven films (_Dante's Peak_, _Twister_, and _Independence Day_ to name a few) could learn much from an eminent critic who notes that innovation is nothing without style. Bazin's use of cinema as a guide to the mores of a national culture in the essay on Stalin prefigures the attempts of Film and Cultural Studies to use cinematic praxis as a tool for social analysis. His observations on the implications of marketing on art are still pertinent in their methods of analysis. Bazin's subject is the gap between the developments of CinemaScope, colour, and sound film, and their adoption as industry standard, but the same reasons pertain to the in-built obsolescence that is de rigeur for the equipment needed for the distribution of music (CDs, DAT, minidiscs), information (modems, computers' speed and memory), and pictures (televisions: digital, cable, internet).

 

Although, reading it now, his analysis spills over into other aspects of mass culture, the particularity of the medium is a crucial aspect of these reviews. Bazin was hypersensitive to the fact that he was talking about the texture of film rather than that of literature. In this collection we read of Bazin's desire for film to attain the status of the novel without being consumed by the forms of that genre. At the same time as he understands the influence of mass distribution on the form of the novel he knows that they can exist independently of their distribution in a way that film cannot. His advocacy of the primacy of filmicity over plot and of cinematic style over literary development has the urgency of a parent whose child's sturdy exterior is belied by the frailest of health. For Bazin, film exists because of a quirk in economic relations that allows money to be made, it is an entirely contingent art form -- people have to believe in film or it will cease to exist.

 

A passionate believer in cinema, and founder of _Cahiers du Cinema_, Bazin's main legacy will perhaps be as the mentor of its younger writers who went on to become the directors of the Nouvelle Vague, but this book helps to illustrate the reasons why he was so influential. By encouraging and analyzing each new stumbling expression of the infant cinema his contribution to the self-consciousness and self-confidence of the medium of film was incalculable. His example of earnest clarity and impeccable style gave others the lead and the model of how to write about film. In his defense of Leenhardt's _The Last Vacation_ we can read an explanation of the pitfalls of film-making that befall an experienced critic trying to 'cross from the left bank of the Seine to the right' but we never doubt the sense of trying (237). At its most daring the review could even be a tentative manifesto for charismatic critics to make stylish films: a speculative hope that was fleshed out spectacularly by Truffaut and Godard in the years immediately following Bazin's untimely death.

 

Style can never be pre-formulated, which means that the priority of filmicity over ideology is a given for Bazin. Films are made to explore the boundaries of the form, not as didactic illustrations of pre-existent world views. Running through this collection, as it does through Bazin's thought in general, is the belief that film theory starts by commenting on film praxis rather than by applying an ideology already formed from either a philosophy of film or from a political philosophy. The inclusion of over twenty articles that develop Bazin's distinctive conception of the nature of film by commenting on individual films is testament to that belief. As well as providing an important source for anyone working on the films he discusses, the book acts as an illustration of how Bazin came to view cinema as he did. For Bazin, style is how film speaks, and, as he comments in 'The Evolution of the Language of the Cinema', when faced with the development of new subject matters and new forms, 'as good a way as any towards understanding what a film is trying to say to us is to know how it is saying it'. [3]

 

Yale University, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Jacques Lacan, _Ecrits: A Selection_, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock, 1977); Walter Benjamin, _Illuminations_, trans. by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969); Andre Bazin, _What is Cinema? Volume 1_, translated and selected by Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967); Andre Bazin, _What is Cinema? Volume 2_, translated and selected by Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).

 

2. As in, for example, 'Cinema and Theology' (61-73) or 'A Saint becomes a Saint only after the Act (_Heaven over the Marshes_)' (205-211).

 

3. _What is Cinema? Volume 1_, p. 30.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

Dan Friedman, 'Bazin at Last; or, The Style Is the Man Himself',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 32, August 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n32friedman>.

 

  

 

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