Introduction to André Bazin, Part 1: Theory of Film Style in its Historical Context

André Bazin Revisited

by Donato Totaro Volume 7, Issue 7 / July 2003 23 minutes (5677 words)

André Bazin, film critic, theorist, philosopher, and humanist wrote a series of essays between the years 1944 and 1958, before he died at the young age of 40. The majority of them were anthologized in their original language in the four volume set Qu’est- ce que le cinéma? Selections from these four volumes were trans­lated by Hugh Gray and presented in two English volumes: What is Cinema? Other major works translated into English include Jean Renoir, Orson Welles: A Critical View, and French Cinema of the Occupation and the Resistance. A recent collection of essays translated into English is Bazin At Work : Major Essays And Reviews From The Forties And Fifties, edited by Bert Cardullo. Other crucial non- anthologized articles are found in the journals Esprit, Cahiers du Cinéma and Les Temps Modernes. Given the breadth of his work, I have limited myself in this introduction to his theoretical work and omitted his critical work on genre/cycles (the Western, Neo-realism) and/or specific films.

In my exposition of these writings I do not purport to be exhaustive, but rather to arrive at an understanding of Bazin’s cinematic beliefs. By expounding, commenting on, and making necessary connections I will attempt to synthesize a complex man and his works into a manageable form. Any element of criticism is a residue of the rigorous thought process propelled by his writings.

THE ESSENCE OF CINEMA

Bazin sees cinema as “an idealistic phenomenon” and only consequently technical. Being a humanist he believes that the idea precedes the invention and hence is superior to the technical means used to achieve it. He categorizes the early pioneers (Muybridge, Niepce, Leroy, Demeny, Joy, Edison, Lumiére) as “ingenious industrialists” at best. Later, in his now famous essay “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” he would extrapolate this formula of “idea necessitating technical means” into complexity of subject matter necessitating a new form/style. To Bazin the cinema is inherently realistic ­because of the mechanical mediation of the camera. This is not the same as saying that cinema is “objective” in any sense other than relative, and that cinema is untouched by ideological and cultural factors, as many of Bazin’s critics have said. What Bazin does do with this fact is place cinema above painting – the camera vs. the brush- as a medium for duplicating reality. Further, cinema’s ability to record the event in time, making “an imprint of the duration of the object” elevates it above photography. Although the potential for human intervention is always present, even granting the mechanical intervention, Bazin believes that the filmmaker owes it to the complexity of reality to refrain from false subjective manipulation and overwrought formalist mediation.

The “myth” of total cinema Bazin speaks of is a reflection of humanity’s psychological and indeed ethical, obsession in the arts with depicting reality. 1 Possibly as a means of countering mortality, humanity has forever been attempting to preserve his/her likeness in one form or another. As Prakash Younger notes in his involved argumentation in his Offscreen essay, there is an ethical and moral link between the real world and the practice of artistic creation and spectatorial reception of art which informs the “aesthetic” practice and theory of Bazin. This moral and ethical link does not circumvent the ideological, but stands as a way through the “impasse” of the ideological, or, to once again quote Prakash, “pseudorealism” to get at the “true realism.”

As time evolved so did the means of artistically replicating reality, from cave drawings, to mummification, to engraving, to painting, to photography, and to its (thus far) most convincing form, cinema. In the task of duplicating reality cinema has surpassed all other forms of representation. Bazin envisions each rung on cinema’s evolutionary ladder as a step toward a more realistic depiction of the world (sound, color, depth of field, 3- D,etc.). Since Bazin believes that the origins of an art reveal its nature, cinema’s quest for realism supports his claim for an objective and pure cinema. This “myth” which grew out of cinema’s beginnings stands as the touchstone cinema has progressively evolved toward.

Much of the confusion concerning Bazin’s writings – and indeed a major concern in the canon of film theory- is traceable to the relationship between the filmed image and its life counterpart. How does Bazin explain this relationship? He describes it in the following terms: 1) The photographic image is “a kind of decal or transfer”; 2) “The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it”; 3) Photography embalms time; 4) “The photograph as such and the object in itself share a common being, after the fashion of a fingerprint”; 5) “In no sense is it the image of an object or persons, more correctly it is its tracing”; 6) “The photograph proceeds … to the taking of a veritable luminous impression in light – to a mold. As such it carries with it more than mere resemblance, namely a kind of identity …”; 7) “The cinema … makes an imprint of the duration of the object.” 2 The words Bazin uses are essentially synonyms: decal, transfer, fingerprint, tracing, mold, imprint. The reverberations suggest a quasi- mystical relationship between the subject and its photographic double. Given Bazin’s strong Catholic background it may or may not be begging credulity to mention at this point an underlying presence of religious reverberation in lines two and six. Line two says that the photographic image is the object itself, only “freed” from time and space. By “freeing” the object Bazin is implying a form of salvation or transgression to a higher moral/spiritual plateau. Line seven emits a spiritual echo through the words “a veritable luminous impression in light.” Could the photographic reproduction be in a symbolic sense the soul of its real life counterpart? Even when, in his article “La Technique du Citizen Kane,” 3 Bazin defends Welles against George Sadoul’s charges of unoriginality he concludes with the spiritualistic thought that Welles, the modern artist, has left behind (through his films) “a resonance the likes of which we have never known before” (my translation). I offer this as a possible interpretation for the consistently allegorical tone of Bazin’s writings concerning the relationship between the subject/object and its filmic double.

THE EVOLUTION OF THE LANGUAGE OF CINEMA: an Exploration of cinema style

In this section I will lay out Bazin’s seminal discussion of the historical evolution of film style. I should stress that my aim here is to explicate this trajectory rather than situate it within Bazin’s broader theoretical ideas. I admit that even the few criticisms I make with regard Bazin’s critical application of realist style can be smoothed over by relating Bazin’s analysis of cinematic language to his larger philosophical and theoretical aims.

With the championing of realism as the eventual goal, Bazin wrote a thoughtful historical overview of the evolution of film language. The major tenet coming from this overview is that the jump from silent to sound cinema was not the major evolutional point in film language. That breakthrough point would arrive several years later (1940-41). Bazin’s starting point for his historical overview is the silent period. Employing a stylistic and semi-auteur approach he groups all directors between the years 1920 to 1940 into two groups: one which base their integrity in the image (the imagists) and another which base their integrity in reality (the realists). The imagists are broken down into two camps, those working with the plastics (lighting, decor, composition, acting) and those working with the editing (the montagists). The realists do not distort time (like the montagists) or space (like the expressionists) but attempt to depict true reality. The major exponents of the realist camp are F.W. Murnau, Eric Von Stroheim, Robert Flaherty, Carl Dreyer, and Jean Renoir. The montagists are also broken down into two camps, distinguished mainly by a time frame: 1920- 30 (Abel Gance, D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein) and 1930- 40 (the American classical “invisible” style, influenced largely, I believe, by Vsevelod Pudovkin).

The end of the silent period brought the two “image” camps to their apex in the form of German Expressionism (the plastics) and the Soviet Post-Revolution cinema (the montagists). The jump from the silent to sound cinema did not give evidence to any immediate effects on shooting or editing styles. By the late 30’s sound moved editing toward realism, switching the operative cutting style from symbolic/expressive to dramatic/analytic. Editing style became more or less standardized. Cinema reached a point of classical perfection where content fused with form. By now, 1939, cinema had reached the point where most technical innovations were established (color, track, dolly, crane, zoom, sound, panchromatic film stock) and the next evolutionary advancement, if there was to be one, would not be propelled by a technical matter but a thematic one: the subject matter and the effect it imposed on technical/formal aspects. The result of this was, according to Bazin, the most important aesthetic revolution in film history, the arrival of the mise-en-scéne style. In brief then, here is Bazin’s evolution of film language:

1915-1928

1) The Imagists:

a) Plastics (lighting, decor, composition, acting)

b) Montagists (editing)

2) The Realists:(long take, on location shooting, objective approach)

  • By 1928 the Imagists peak with a) expressionism and b) Soviet cinema.
  • Early sound films do not show immediate advancement of either style.
  • By the late 30’s sound technique leads montage toward realism.
  • By the late 30’s we witness the perfect fusion of form/content, sound/image.
  • Film reaches its “equilibrium- profile” (Jezebel, Stagecoach, Le Jour se léve).
  • By 1939 all major technical advancements are established; the next step in evolution of style is spurred by subject matter.

1940

Realists:

a) Pure objective realism (Neo- Realism, Documentary)

b) Spatial Realism (Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, William Wyler).

The implication in Bazin’s historical evolution is that by the 1940’s the imagist style had been completely engulfed by the realist style. The imagists, having had their glory days in the silent period, were confronted by the realists and, after a realist maturation period in the 30’s, over­taken by them. A graph would read:

A new type of Realism evolves, splitting up into two camps, as did the Imagists during the silent period, and totally dominating 1940: a) Spatial realists; and b) Pure objective realists.

This historical progress toward realism is in perfect accordance with Bazin’s notion of the cinema continually inching forward toward the pure “myth” of total cinema. The force of History does not always obey, and this movement does not hold true for long. There is some historical truth in Bazin’s schema because, indeed, the imagists did dominate during the silent period, as did the realists during the later 30’s, but Bazin’s contention of the post 1940 period being dominated by the realist style is quickly but into question by film-noir, a movement/style derivative of German Expressionism. Nowhere in What is Cinema Vol. 1 & 2 do we see even a passing remark at film noir or the expressionistic-like Universal horror films of the 30’s. This oversight is surprising, especially with the evidence already building around Bazin toward the evolutionary direction which the dialectics of realism/formalism would take: toward a harmonious existence where the two become more or less equal and interchangeable operative modes of a complex art form. 4

I would also add that Bazin underplays the importance of sound transition to emphasize his spatial-temporal ontological theory of realism. He realized how important a step sound was toward realism, eliminating the need for expressivity and “denaturalization” that was a large part of silent cinema. However, Bazin overlooks just how important a psychological role sound played in achieving the impression of reality, and the impression of space and depth that were so important to him. Sound added immensely to realism in cinema but Bazin, perhaps so as not to interfere with his spatial/temporal claim, downplays it. He clearly emphasizes the psychological role with regard to the visuals, so the omission may be a result of sound theory not yet entering into the general discourse of film analysis. This aural component is still excluded by many people today when discussing the claim to realism cinema has over other arts.

I must mention a final slender point of disagreement. By including Murnau and Dreyer as realists Bazin is falling into the same trap that Siegfried Kracauer does when he accepts certain fantastical/formalistic scenes when they are in the proper “realist” context, such as a dream or a specific point of view (Tudor 94). Bazin is on shaky ground when he removes Nosferatu and The Passion of Joan of Arc from the expressionistic mode on the frail basis of Nosferatu‘s on-location photography and Dreyer’s refrain from the use of make-up for his actors (Bazin, What is Cinema Vol.1 109-110). What then becomes of Nosferatu‘s sinister shadows, fast motion and negative photography, and expressionistic acting, and The Passion of Joan of Arc‘s abstraction of space and extreme reliance on close-ups? In neither case do the slim realist tendencies compensate for the overwhelming artistic intervention, as does Welles’ spatial realism for example. Both films fail to completely qualify for either of Bazin’s realistic camps –the documentary- like “pure” realism or the spatial realism. Although one can argue that Nosferatu is ‘more realist’ than other expressionist films of the time, and that The Passion of Joan of Arc is so unique and iconoclastic in style, that the affect on the spectator is one of realism.

DEPTH OF FIELD

Having pointed toward Bazin’s preference for the mise-en-scéne style I will now discuss his reasons for that choice. The depth of field/long take style, known as mise-en-scéne, attracted itself to Bazin for two essential reasons:

a) It maintained the unity of space and the relationship between the objects within that space.

b) It gave the spectator, according to Bazin, the freedom to direct his/her own control over the viewing process, including what to look at, in what order, for how long, and to make their own synthesis of that viewing process. Together they maintain the ambiguity – the existential ambiguity present all around us in life- of that space.

Mise-en-scéne can incorporate two styles, one being a documentary­-like process where the camera “allows us to see” the event (Neo- Realism) and a second more aesthetic rendition of reality where the realism derives almost exclusively from the respect for spatial unity (Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Theo Angelopoulos).

An integral part of the mise-en-scéne style is the presence of depth of field. Bazin wrote entirely on this aspect in the article “Pour en finir avec la profondeur de champ” (“My Final Words on Depth of Field”) (Cahiers du Cinéma. 17-23). This article begins by stating that depth of field belongs only incidentally to the technical domain (my translation):

If depth of field interests us it is only incidentally as a technical progress of a shooting style and, essentially, as a revolution of mise-en-scéne or, more precisely, ‘decoupage’ (19).

Here he sets down the kernel for the balance of the article. Bazin examines a frame from the 1910 film Onésime (Louis Feuillade) and sees in its composition in depth and soft focus the seeds for the later more refined depth of field style. The shot in questions has the title character framed in left, extreme close-up, with a secondary character visible in the right background of the frame (my translation):

Something outside of Feuillade’s genius allowed him to spontaneously discover a prophetic frame, a rough outline of a Renoir or Wellesian shot. In this case, the discovery was not out of genius, but out of necessity – he did not have a choice (20).

Given the technical state of 1910 the shot succeeds partly; both planes are visible but the background is soft. Again, giving the state of cinematography (to render a clear, legible image) and the state of audience awareness the softness of the background appears as a default. With the ameliorization of the depth of field shooting style and the parallel advancement of audience awareness, soft focus becomes a technique (rack focus and softening of a part of the image for an effect) and takes on a different meaning, that of decoupage. 5 The soft focus effect is (my translation)

… an indirect means in which to place value in the shot which is being focused; it transcribes in the frame the dramatic hierarchy which montage expresses in time.

Consequently:

In this new complex perception the clarity of the background is no longer indispensable; soft focus is no longer experienced like an im­probability: it becomes contrast and not contradiction (Cahiers du Cinéma 22).

In a pre-montage context Feuillade foreshadows the true sense of depth of field – the ability to preclude montage through decoupage in depth. 6 According to Bazin decoupage in depth approaches a realism in an ontological sense, restoring to objects their existential density. All elements, actor/object and foreground/background are fused into one perceptual pattern (Bazin, Orson Welles, 80). A final quote serves, perhaps more than any other, as a testament to Bazin’s burning stance as “realist” theorist (my translation):

In classical style when a character becomes secondary he is usually eliminated from the scene. Welles maintains that his play not be so precise, but to keep the character “alive” so as to allow the spectators to continually dispense their attention. We must constantly be on the lookout for principal actions which can produce itself “behind our backs” so to speak. Here a part is taken from reality; a way of posing reality homogenous, of considering it indivisible and accruing equal weight to all coordinates of the screen. All the decor and all the actors in the total image are equally offered to the action and at the same time to our attention. If they remain outside it is nothing but a hazard as equally unpredictable as an isolated result of the numbers game (Bazin, Les Temps Modernes 947).

MONTAGE

Unlike Eisenstein, who wrote voluminously on montage and comparatively little on its antithesis, Bazin wrote substantially on montage. Bazin describes editing as a “series of either logical or subjective points of view of an event.” Dealing with sound films, he lists three motives for cutting: 1) As a purely logical descriptive analysis of the narrative 2) As a psychological analysis from a character’s point of view and 3) As a psychological analysis from the audience’s point of view. (Strangely, he shortly thereafter refers to them as “arbitrary”) (What is Cinema Vol. 1, 92).

Bazin opposes classical and expressive editing on the following counts. The simple geographically and psychologically logical (dramatic) cutting within a scene does not add anything to the intent of a scene, only adding emphasis. So why bother? If the scene has only one simple meaning why insult the audience’s intelligence with needless and obvious close-ups? Contrarily, if the scene is complex why presuppose only one meaning? Expressive editing invents meaning through juxtaposition of the images and not through the images themselves. This is trickery; it removes the freedom on the part of the spectator to select for him or herself and removes whatever existential ambiguity may be present in the scene. Therefore it is not faithful to reality, either spatially, temporally, or morally. Bazin is not against editing which forms the basis of film structure, that is cutting necessary to join unconnected scenes/sequences, but is against optical illusions (superimpositions, dissolves, process shots), needless pedestrian editing within a single scene, and expressive editing that adds meaning through the juxtaposition rather than content of each image. Bazin employs a simple aesthetic criteria for deciding when to edit: anytime two or more objects/subjects are necessary to the construction of meaning in a scene, depth of field is preferable over editing.

Bazin opposes the contention that editing is a more realistic depiction of the physiological viewing process on several counts. Logical cutting according to drama, narrative, and anticipation constructs a sense of an integral space. The master shot establishes a location so that the cutting to points within is physically (spatially) understood; the dramatic action makes it psychologically understood. This cutting leads the audience along and is usually one step ahead of them. Bazin sees this as only one of two possible modes of realism. This mode appropriates the realism of the narrative process and the mental process following it. The second mode of realism appropriates the event itself. The implication is that there is a choice between one type of reality and another. Here it is instructive to recall Younger’s distinction in Bazin’s understanding of realism in art between “pseudorealism” and “true realism” -the former being caught in the trappings of ideology or meaningless formal articulations. All arts share in this inability to completely capture reality, but there are differing ways of countering this problem. The true realist does not fight against this opposition but merely tries to accommodate it through sincerity and honesty. According to Bazin, within the historical conditions of the 1940s and 1950s, the best way to achieve this was by means of spatial integrity, depth of field, and the long take mise-en-scéne. Cinema can never totally duplicate the viewing process – physiologically and psychologically. That would be impossible, and if possible it would be a visual quagmire. Bazin realizes that the human eye does not perceive a scene in the same way as a camera recording a scene in depth of field and/or long take. This limitation becomes a virtue. By being faithful to the space and the event itself the spectator is able to perceive this hypothetical scene with greater insight and clarity than if he/she were physically present at the scene. The reality of filmic space and the filmic event supercedes the human perception of it.

The essay “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage” presents, in the strongest possible sense, Bazin’s mistrust for montage and discloses the essence of his preference for the mise-en-scéne style. Bazin denounces the “trickery” of montage, evident in the animal film by Jean Tourane. Here montage becomes emblematic of its untruthfulness – by relating the human qualities of animals by virtue of off-screen guidance and editing. Later in the essay he discusses the process shot, an equally deceiving effect, and says that the point is not whether or not the trickery is noticeable, but whether or not it is used (a question of integrity). Thus far Bazin’s reasoning implies that the artist has a moral obligation to the audience and the faithful rendition of the event/space. He then uses an example from the film Where No Vultures Fly to demonstrate how much more effective depth of field is than parallel montage. (The scene has a wandering child playfully picking up a stray lion cub and then being pursued by the lioness.) The fact that the lion is tame is unimportant; this deceit is made “morally” correct because it occurs in a homogenous space. Bazin sees no deceit in the proceedings behind a long take/depth of field shot (numerous takes, removal of walls, props, etc.) but instead wants us to neglect the causal events and consider only the final results. 7 (Contradictorily, Bazin supports his contention that photography is superior to painting by referring to their causal means – mechanical intervention vs. human intervention. Though ‘mechanical’ must be considered relatively, since all ‘tools’ (pen, brush, needle, etc) used in art are a form, lesser perhaps, of mechanical intervention.) Through these contradictions we can decipher Bazin’s true motives for his disliking montage and upholding mise-en-scéne. Montage is untruthful to spatial integrity and also deceives the audience through its juxtapositioning; therefore montage is of secondary importance, morally and aesthetically, to the mise-en-scéne style. The integrity of spatial unity is of the utmost importance and supercedes all else – deceit included. Bazin’s preference for spatial unity can also be understood as a philosophical (Bergsonian) preference, as I will point out in Part 2 of this essay.

BAZIN & THE THEORETICAL WORLD

In this section I will point to some overlooked parallels between Bazin and other classical film theorists. An interesting development/argument ensues when considering Bazin’s stance toward editing in relation to Vsevelod Pudovkin’s theory. In Pudovkin’s illuminating and influential film theory the natural way for a filmmaker to constitute a scene is to assume a hypothetical “perfect” observer, an imaginary, attentive, sensitive eye which captures the scene not the way everyone would see it but the way an acutely intense, analytical, and probing observer would. This is an ideal approach, but realistically, most directors either do not place that much thought into the editing or do not have the aptitude to, and, consequently, fall back on the more traditional editing style, to what Noel Burch terms the “zero point of cinematic style” (11). Even given the ideal, Bazin would still reject Pudovkin’s theory because of its potential to reduce the possibility for multiple interpretations. Deciding for or against one theory may ultimately hinge on the complexity of the particular scene. Given a simple, straightforward scene where the meaning is only at the surface level, Bazin’s resistance to the theory is tenuous, but a complex scene with possible multiple interpretations gives more credence to Bazin’s opposition. Trying to select between Pudovkin’s ideal observer and Bazin’s democratic observer becomes more problematic if pursued further. Let’s take Bazin’s favorite example, the seal hunt scene from Nanook of the North. Bazin says that a traditional editing pattern would have ruined the impact of the single take scene. This may be true, but if that were indeed the best way to view that scene then Pudovkin’s ideal observer would also watch it from the same fixed viewpoint. The argument could go on and on. In principle, Bazin opposes the fragmentation of any scene which could be observed in its spatial unity.

Bazin and Rudolf Arnheim, despite one being a realist and the other a formalist, begin their theories from the same starting point. Both theorists begin with the contention that cinema reproduces reality mechanically. Arnheim’s end goal is the equation film=art, while Bazin’s is film=reality. Bazin accepts the contention, and in fact posits it himself, but adds to it by elevating the filmic double to a spiritual/moral/ethical level. Arnheim refutes the contention by saying that regardless of the process, even on the most elementary level the recording of an object/subject is answerable to many factors. (Example: The problem of reproducing three dimensional objects in a two dimensional medium – positioning of object- and the intangible aspect of intuition – deciding whether a person is more him or herself in profile or full face or whether one angle of a mountain is more expressive than another) (Arnheim, 8- 11). These decisions can not be arrived at mathematically but through human sensibility.

Arnheim begins with the contention and then attempts to accord to the filmmaker the same artistic intervention of the painter. Bazin, in contrast, downplays the filmmakers intervention. In both cases the limitation – not being able to reproduce reality exactly- becomes the source for the respective ends. In Bazin’s case the film, in its faithfulness to the event, grants the spectator a privileged experience of that event; in Arnheim’s case the spectator experiences the event colored through the artist’s sensibility.

Writers who try to reveal inconsistencies in how Bazin applied his own theory to criticism often focused on his troubled affirmation of Welles as a realist. Andrew Tudor, in Theories of Film, says that Bazin enters “deep water” in doing so because Welles is the great inheritor of German Expressionism. Tudor, although noting the two types of realism Bazin formulated – the pure realism and the spatial realism- does not allow Bazin this benefit. I can respect Tudor’s refusal to grant Bazin the benefit of two types of realism, but I disagree with his reason. Tudor believes that Welles’ baroque style – the chiaroscuro lighting, the excessive camera movements, the odd angles- is, along with montage and decor, just “another – way of destroying the visual unity of space.” Bazin is well aware of Welles’ affinity for the baroque and the manipulative potential mise-en-scéne carries:

Welles’ pictures are more difficult to analyze because of his over-fondness for the baroque. Objects and characters are related in such a fashion that it is impossible for the spectator to miss the significance of the scene. To get the same results by way of montage would have necessitated a detailed succession of shots (What is Cinema Vol.1 34- 35).

Bazin does not deny that the depth of field style can, in that sense, appropriate montage – for that is Bazin’s point- and the point missed by Tudor. Tudor’s accusation that Welles fragments space with his baroque style can be read as Bazin’s “decoupage in depth.” Hence, decoupage in depth is not anomalous to Bazin’s spatial realism but an essential part of it.

Although Welles inherited many traits from German Expressionism Tudor can not deny that the context is different – within Wellesian mise-en-scéne- ­and that there is a difference between cutting a space through montage and cutting a space “in depth” as does Welles. It is this distinction – manipulation via editing vs. manipulation via mise-en-scéne- which makes the difference for Bazin.

The last theorist I will consider is Brian Henderson. He serves as an endpoint to this section because Henderson exemplifies the by-product which can result from the constant need to reevaluate and think through existing theories.

In his essay “Two Types of Film Theory” Henderson discusses the choice representatives of the formalist and realist camps, Eisenstein and Bazin. One of the conclusions he arrives at is that both theories, albeit drastically different, are in the general sense, ‘incomplete’ theories of the sequence. Out of this evolves Henderson’s critique of both theories: neither considers the relation of the part (the sequence) to the whole. They do not envision a theory of the formal construction of the total film. At this point Henderson does not posit any answers, but only raises the question of whether there can be a theory dictating the complete organization of a film.

Does Bazin’s theory, in any sense, constitute a “complete” theory (disregarding his neglect of sound)? The frame/shot/scene/sequence are the principal building blocks of film, with the sequence being the largest “part.” Bazin’s mise-en-scéne contains all these elements and his constant championing of mise-en-scéne at the expense of montage dictates how these elements should be used; as such, this constitutes a theory of how a film should be constructed from beginning to end. Although Bazin expresses approval of simple editing to join homogenous spaces (connecting scenes/sequences which in themselves are shot in depth), he never felt the need to expand on the relationship between long take and editing. Consequently, all that is missing to form a “complete theory,” in the very general sense, is a term designating this “carry- over” from sequence to sequence. Henderson himself would later supply this term. In the subsequent essay “The Long Take” Henderson examines the role of editing within the long take style vis- a- vis Welles, Ophuls, and Murnau. As an answer to his own query, he posits the inter and intra-sequence cuts, cuts occurring in between sequences (inter) or within sequences (intra) (See essay by David George Menard, “Toward a Syntheis of Cinema- a Theory of the Long Take Moving Camera.”). Regardless of the validity of Henderson’s theory, the point is that through a thought process predicated on Bazin’s theory and a need to “complete” it, Henderson constructed a theory of the sequence cut. This interplay between contemporary and past theorist is a vital part of the theoretical world’s evolution and proves the validity of past theories. As art evolves so must the theories.

Read Part 2 Here.

Notes

  1. In making this contention Bazin is, of course, glossing over a long line of antithetical movements (Expressionism, Surrealism, etc.) revolting against this obsession with realism.
  2. All of these quotes or paraphrases are taken from What is Cinema Vol. 1 pps. 14, 15, 96, & 97.
  3. André Bazin, Les Temps- Modernes 17, (1947), 948. Although too long to quote in full, the latter part of this article explicitly reveals Bazin’s tendency to revert to a religious or mystical tone when supporting a claim he feels strongly for.
  4. There still are filmmakers who fall exclusively into one or the other camp, Miklos Jansço for example, but most directors utilize both styles according to their needs: Hitchcock, Godard, Kubrick, and Scorsese as prime examples
  5. There are two terms used by Bazin which either take on a different meaning in their English translation or don’t have an equivalent. Montage in English terminology implies a rigorous and expressive editing style. Most editing sequences juxtapose shots of varying space, time, and content combining to create an over- all idea, meaning, or tone. Editing implies the formal construction of the film from one shot to the next and is not nec­essarily expressive. Bazin uses the terms interchangeably. The second term, decoupage, has no English equivalent. The French definition is “to cut,” but applied to film the word is better described as construction. Noel Burch, in Theory of Film Practice, defines the three terms for which decoupage is inter­changeably used for as: 1) The final form of a script replete with the required technical information. 2) The practical breakdown of the film’s construction into separate shots/sequences prior to filming & 3) The underlying structure of the finished film, which has probably deviated from the original “decoupage.”
  6. With the meaning of decoupage in mind, we must consider the other means by which depth of field appropriates montage: the moving camera, especially the reframe, the zoom, lighting, props, and the use of off- screen space.
  7. The phenomenological approach at understanding the essence of phenomena also foregoes the causal series of events (Husserl’s “bracketing”).

Introduction to André Bazin, Part 1: Theory of Film Style in its Historical Context

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of ACQQ (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 7, Issue 7 / July 2003 Essays andre bazin, film history, film style, film theory, new wave, people_bazin