Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 1, January 2002



André Bazin

The Life and Death of Superimposition (1946)




The opposition that some like to see between a cinema inclined toward the almost documentary representation of reality and a cinema inclined, through reliance on technique, toward escape from reality into fantasy and the world of dreams, is essentially forced. Méliès's _Trip to the Moon_ (1902) did not negate the Lumières' _Arrival of a Train at the Station_ (1895). The one is inconceivable without the other. The cries of horror of the crowd at Lumière's genuine locomotive coming toward them prefigured the exclamations of wonder of the spectators at the Robert Houdin Theater. [1] The fantastic in the cinema is possible only because of the irresistible realism of the photographic image. It is the image that can bring us face to face with the unreal, that can introduce the unreal into the world of the visible.


It is easy enough to give the counter-proof of this proposition. To imagine, for example, _The Invisible Man_ as an animated film is to understand immediately that it would lose all interest. What in fact appeals to the audience about the fantastic in the cinema is its realism -- I mean, the contradiction between the irrefutable objectivity of the photographic image and the unbelievable nature of the events that it depicts. It is not by chance that the first to comprehend the artistic potential of film was Georges Méliès, a magician.


Three American films released in France right after the war reveal, however, the relativity of realism and the conditional believability of special effects. I'm referring to _Here Comes Mr Jordan_, _Tom, Dick and Harry_, and _Our Town_. None of these films presents us with spectacular special effects of the kind found in the classics of the science-fiction genre. It seems that Hollywood is giving up on traditional special effects in favor of creating the supernatural in a more purely psychological manner, as in _Here Comes Mr Jordan_, where it is left almost entirely up to the audience to interpret the image on the basis of the action alone, as would be the case in the theater. For example, three characters are on the screen, one of whom is a ghost visible to only one of the other two. The viewer must keep his eye on the relations among these three characters -- relations that never depend for their existence on the plasticity of the image.


From Méliès's _Les Hallucinations du Baron de Münchhausen_ (1911) to Marcel L'Herbier's _La Nuit fantastique_ (1942), the dream remains the epitome of the fantastic in film. Its recognized form has always included slow motion and superimposition (sometimes shots in negative, too). In _Tom, Dick and Harry_, Garson Kanin preferred to use accelerated motion to indicate when Ginger Rogers was daydreaming; he also distorts the appearance of certain characters by means of an optical effect that recalls the distorting mirrors of the Grévin Museum. [2] But above all, he built the drama of the dream sequences according to the tenets of modern psychology.


In reality, the devices that have been in use since Méliès to denote dreams are pure conventions. We take them for granted just as much as do the patrons of outdoor screenings at travelling fairs. Slow motion and superimposition have never existed in our nightmares, however. Superimposition on the screen signals: 'Attention: unreal world, imaginary characters'; it doesn't portray in any way what hallucinations or dreams are really like, or, for that matter, how a ghost would look. As far as slow motion is concerned, what it may actually signify is the difficulty we often have fulfilling our desires in dreams. But Freud has entered the picture and the Americans, who are fond of him, know that a dream is characterized far less by the formal quality of its images than by their dynamic sequence, their inner logic, in which the psychoanalyst recognizes the expression of repressed desires. Thus when Ginger Rogers, in _Tom, Dick and Harry_, tries to please her mother-in-law-to-be by incongruously caressing her face, she is performing an act that social etiquette would have forbidden but that perfectly expresses her will. The comedy that fills Rogers's daydreams doesn't take away at all from the intelligence and the psychological realism of this film, which, in my opinion, outdistances by far many more pretentious films with their falsely aesthetic oneirism.


If a director does want to employ special effects, he can use devices that are much more sophisticated and elaborate than the tricks handed down to us by Méliès. All he has to do, really, is find a technique that makes a small advance, but an advance that is nonetheless sufficient to render the usual special effects ineffective and therefore unacceptable. Thus, in _Our Town_, a young woman in a coma, dreaming she is dead, relives in her mind a number of moments from her life in which her ghost appears along with her. One scene takes place in the kitchen at breakfast between mother and daughter (the woman who is now 'dead'); the latter, who is already supposed to be in the next world, tries in vain to re-enter the event of which she used to be part but on which she can no longer have any influence. The ghost wears a white dress and appears in gauzy superimposition in the foreground of the set, while the other characters appear in the background. Up to this point, everything is normal. But when the ghost happens to walk around the table we feel strangely ill at ease: something abnormal is occurring and we can't quite figure it out. On closer inspection, we discover that our uneasiness resulted from the fact that this strange ghost was for the first time behaving like a real ghost -- one that is true to itself. The ghost is transparent to the objects and persons located behind it, but is apt to be hidden like you and me when there is something in front of it, and this ghost does not lose the power of walking in the most natural way through objects and people. Practice has shown that this little finishing touch to the properties of the occult makes traditional superimposition look like a very inadequate approximation of a ghost's appearance.


The Swedes made abundant use of superimposition in their heyday (the period of _The Phantom Carriage_), when they were turning the fantastic into a national speciality. One might have thought that the process that had helped so many films to achieve the status of masterpiece had once and for all gained its patent of nobility and credibility. In fact, though, we lacked points of comparison at the time for criticizing superimposition, and now America has rendered certain uses of it obsolete through the perfection of a process called 'dunning'.


Up until recently it was easy enough just to superimpose two images, but they remained reciprocally transparent. Thanks to dunning, to certain improvements due in particular to the use of bipack film (two layers, one orthochromatic and one panchromatic, separated by a layer of red filter), [3] and to an important improvement in the synchronization of sound and image through the use of masking and counter-masking, it is now possible to obtain an opaque superimposition of the two images, or, as in _Our Town_, a one-way opacity for one of the two images, a device that is even more extraordinary. Thus the ghost in _Our Town_ can be hidden by objects in the foreground without ceasing to be transparent to the objects behind it.


If you think about it, such supernatural phenomena are essential to verisimilitude. There is no reason why a ghost should not occupy an exact place in space, nor why it should blend mindlessly into its surroundings. And the reciprocal transparency of superimposition doesn't permit us to say whether the ghost is behind or in front of the objects on which it is superimposed, or whether in fact the objects themselves become spectral to the degree that they share space with the ghost. This defiance of perspective and common sense becomes most annoying once we are aware of it. Superimposition can, in all logic, only suggest the fantastic in a conventional way; it lacks the ability actually to evoke the supernatural. The Swedish cinema probably couldn't get the same results today as it did twenty years ago. Its superimpositions wouldn't convince anybody anymore.


Translated by Bert Cardullo

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Missouri, USA


This essay first appeared in French in _Écran Français_ in 1946, then was included in Volume 1 ('Ontologie et langage') of _Qu'est-ce que le cinéma?_ (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1958-1962), pp. 22-30. Translated here, for the first time, with the permission of Madame Janine Bazin.


Translator's Footnotes


1. This was Méliès's own theater, named in honor of the renowned French magician, with whom he had been acquainted (and who also received a tribute from the American Erich Weiss, whose stage name became Houdini). Before he began making films and showing them in his tiny theater, Méliès used the space for fantastic sketches and magical acts, which he performed with the aid of trap doors, mirrors, invisible wires, and all the other trappings of stage illusion.


2. Famous museum of wax figures in Paris.


3. Bipack film is another name for integral tripack film, whose three layer emulsion Bazin describes. Yet another name for this type of film is monopack -- called so because the three layers of emulsion are imposed on a single base material. The dunning process is a method for the combination of separately photographed foreground and background action. The foreground action is lighted with yellow light only in front of a uniform, strongly illuminated blue backing. Panchromatic negative film is used in the camera as the rear component of a bipack in which the front film is a positive yellow dye image of the background scene. This yellow dye image is exposed on the negative by the blue light from the backing areas, but the yellow light from the foreground passes through it and records an image of the foreground action at the same time.





_Arrival of a Train at the Station_, Louis and Auguste Lumière, 1895.

_Les Hallucinations du Baron de Münchhausen_, Georges Méliès, 1911.

_Here Comes Mr Jordan_, Alexander Hall, 1941.

_The Invisible Man_, James Whale, 1933.

_La Nuit fantastique_, Marcel L'Herbier, 1942.

_Our Town_, Sam Wood, 1940.

_The Phantom Carriage_ (aka _The Soul Shall Bear Witness_), Victor Sjöström, 1921.

_Tom, Dick and Harry_, Garson Kanin, 1941.

_Trip to the Moon_, Georges Méliès, 1902.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


André Bazin, 'The Life and Death of Superimposition' (1946), _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 1, January 2002 <>.




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