Bazin and “The River” as a Problem in the History of Film Theory, Part 1

Re-thinking Bazin

by Prakash Younger Volume 7, Issue 7 / July 2003 25 minutes (6161 words)

I. Introduction

In The River the screen no longer exists; there is nothing but reality. Not pictorial, not theatrical, not anti-expressionist, the screen simply disappears in favour of what it reveals. This classicism goes beyond The Rules of the Game; it is the culmination of its realism. The River sits at the avant-garde of the cinema, along with TheBicycle Thief, Diary of a Country Priest, and everything which really counts in the contemporary cinema; that is, with those works which contribute to the transparency of the medium. Whether it veers toward the theater or the novel, or whether it relies on original scenarios, the cinema must restrain itself from using its techniques to amplify objects which express themselves through it. The cinema will be fulfilled when, no longer claiming to be an art of reality, it becomes merely reality made art.

- André Bazin, “A Pure Masterpiece: The River1

In the context of developments since his death in 1958, many of the critical categories and values espoused by André Bazin have come to seem quaint and naive. Criticism of his work first sprang up among his own disciples at the Cahiers du Cinema during the early 1960’s and over the course of the decade he drops out of sight as a critical reference point in that journal. 2 During the 1960’s and 1970’s attention to the cinema’s ideological functions became increasingly important within Film Studies and it was during this period that Bazin was effectively demoted: once a theorist to be reckoned with, he was now cast as the brilliant critic who established the canon of films around which the discipline was originally based. 3 Theoretical developments within the discipline and the on-going expansion and deconstruction of the canon have meant that even this contribution has come to seem idiosyncratic; in the words of Noel Carroll, his sharpest critic, Bazin’s theory is “redolent with spurious metaphysical trappings” and is in fact merely “a thinly veiled brief in favor of a certain style of film”. 4 Above and beyond such critiques is the greater problem of irrelevance: both the concept of a transcendent “reality” and the correlated critical ideal of transparency seem a world apart from a field that has absorbed and internalized the lessons of Althusser, Lacan and Foucault.

Despite this devaluation Bazin’s work continues to be referenced within the field for its historical importance and wealth of fertile critical metaphors. Those who continue to defend that work as important often attempt to strengthen their case by pointing out that Bazin saw his formulations as provisional; in this view, the object of inquiry “cinema” is a historical process whose primal origins in the human psyche and ultimate ends in the specificities of future films are necessarily out of sight. As Dudley Andrews puts it:

Bazin did not claim we might achieve a comprehensive view from outside the system to oppose to the value-laden apology for certain films and auteurs; rather, he argued that every critical endeavor is perforce value-laden, situated inside the system it hopes to understand and in some way promote. Bazin’s life philosophy, essentially hermeneutic, could be termed a project of understanding human processes that itself, in turn, contributes to those processes, since human knowledge is knowledge ever catching up with its object. 5

Andrew and others who value Bazin clarify his position by setting its theoretical claims within a project of reflective criticism fully aware of its historical limitations. This is in contrast to those like Carroll who engineer weaknesses in that position by making arbitrary distinctions between its theoretical and critical aspects. 6 The first qualify his theoretical statements by historicizing them while the second render them ridiculous by stripping them of their historical contexts. Thus, despite their differences both supporters and critics of Bazin can be understood to distance themselves from his position as theory, that is, as trans-historically valid.

The basic contention of this essay is that both the explicit and implicit critiques responsible for Bazin’s devaluation are based in a received or standard view of his work and that this view reproduces certain fundamental misunderstandings of his basic theoretical argument. While in essential agreement with many of arguments employed by Bazin’s supporters, I believe that when one historicizes Bazin’s position or presents it as itself a form of historicism, one may be understood to be implicitly acknowledging its theoretical limitations, that is, its vulnerability to the critiques referenced above. Though I will myself argue that Bazin’s “historical sense” and awareness of ideological operations were as acute as any in our post-Foucauldian age, my primary purpose will be to recover the theoretical core of his argument and argue that it can be reconciled with current concerns.

My method will involve treating the passage from Bazin quoted above as a substantially meaningful challenge to such a recovery. In its received form, Bazin’s theory of cinematic realism seems to contradict many of his critical affirmations. Thus it is hard to reconcile Bazin’s enthusiasm for The River, a film which by his own description is relatively “classical” in its editing, with his well-known support for the long-take, deep-focus aesthetic epitomized by Renoir’s The Rules of the Game; as he is currently understood, it is unclear how Bazin the Theorist could distinguish The River either formally or ideologically from a conventional Hollywood film. This two-part essay will attempt to recover a version of Bazin’s theoretical position that can account for his claims regarding The River. Through this process I hope to revise the received understanding of the terms and concepts he employs, making them less scandalous and potentially useful to the current practice of film study.

The exercise will take place in three stages. I will begin by outlining the standard representation of Bazin in the discipline of Film Studies and revise this by identifying important aspects of his work that have generally been elided or suppressed. I will then re-read Bazin’s account of “the French Renoir” of the 1930’s in light of this new understanding. Finally, I will place Bazin’s reading of The River within this new set of theoretical and historical contexts and suggest how that reading of the film might serve to address current concerns.

II. Bazin within Film Studies: The Received View

I do not expect to have convinced you my dear Aristarco. In any event, it is never with arguments that one wins over a person.

- Bazin, “In Defense of Rossellini” 7

An obvious task for any revised view of Bazin is to clarify his use of the term “reality”. The fact that he uses this term in a great variety of contexts may indicate a degree of equivocation, but it may also indicate multiple dimensions of the term that reinforce rather than contradict each other. If our ultimate goal is to demonstrate that reality in Bazin’s sense is the result of a process of thinking through ideology, our immediate goal is to clarify the misunderstandings of the term that obscure his presentation of this process. These misunderstandings can be seen to derive from misreadings of his most influential essays, especially “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” and “The Evolution of the Language of the Cinema”. 8 As a consequence perhaps of Bazin’s use of powerful metaphors, his readers often seem to pass over his careful qualifications and clarification of terms. In particular, they fail to take seriously his frequently-reiterated point that reality is only known or experienced via the aesthetic and illusion: “But realism in art can be achieved in only one way – through artifice”. 9 Though the category of the aesthetic will itself require clarification, the essential point to note at the outset is that it is not opposed to that of reality. To understand better exactly what Bazin really means in the passage quoted above it will help to quickly bring to mind and critique two prevailing versions of what he means by reality, versions which both maintain an art-reality opposition. In recognition of the salient methodological “axioms” that each interpretation ascribes to Bazin, I dub these versions the “Ontological Bazin” and the “Phenomenological Bazin”.

If one reads Bazin’s comments on The River literally it may well appear as if Bazin believes that the profilmic objects and beings in the film possess an autonomous existence and meaning which the “invisible” or “transparent” classical Hollywood mode of editing deployed in the film allows them to express. This is the first Bazin one generally meets, the pseudo-scientific mystic who believes that the virtues of any photographically-based medium stem from the extent to which the artist refrains from interfering with or modifying our “direct” contact with photographic reality: “no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model”. 10 The origins of this version emerge from a reading of the “Ontology” essay that fails to appreciate both the crucial distinction Bazin makes there between true realism and pseudo-realism, and his repeated characterization of the latter as irrational and deceptive, a power that affects us despite the promptings of our critical intelligence 11 :

The quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological; between true realism, the need to give significant expression to the world both concretely and its essence, and the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the mind); a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearances. 12

If one ignores this distinction and goes on to treat Bazin’s discussion of the apparent lack of intentionality in photography as being an argument for its truth (instead of indicating an automatism that fundamentally qualifies the power of our critical faculties) one arrives at a position where the “independent” truths of things (their ontological “reality”) are pitted in opposition to the “intentional” truths the artist wants to tell (“language”) and the art of the cinema emerges as a sort of anti-art. In this version the artistry of the cinematic artist originates in a reverential renunciation of his/her own intentions that allows the profilmic reality to express itself directly through the medium of the cinema. The most extreme form of this interpretation is that constructed by Carroll, who uses an infelicitously-loose passage in Hugh Gray’s translation of the “Ontology” essay to identify a scientific master concept of “re-presentation” which he then claims grounds the identity of object and image in the causal relation between them (i.e. patterns of light that move from object to film at the moment of exposure constitute a re-presentation of the object). 13 Though other commentators adopt a more complex view of Bazin’s argument, most follow Dudley Andrew in attributing some form of belief in photographic “objectivity” to him. 14

Given this concept of reality, it is possible to categorize films and film-styles according to the degree to which they focus attention on the intrinsic value of the pro-filmic objects and events:

For Bazin the situation was clear: either a filmmaker utilizes empirical reality for his personal ends or else he explores empirical reality for its own sake. In the former case the filmmaker is making of empirical reality a series of signs which point to or create an aesthetic or rhetorical truth, perhaps lofty and noble, perhaps prosaic and debased. In the latter case, however, the filmmaker brings us closer to the events filmed by seeking the significance of a scene somewhere within the unadorned tracings it left on the celluloid. 15

Drawing on Bazin’s historical discussion in the “Evolution” essay, the proponents of this view see him as condemning certain techniques a priori because they impose the producers intentions on the raw material (expressive Russian montage, German expressionist mise-en-scène, analytic Hollywood editing) while others are automatically seen as positive because their “transparence” allows reality to reveal its intrinsic meaning (the use of long-takes, deep-focus and a mobile camera by Stroheim, Murnau, Welles and Renoir). 16

We can pass on to the second prevailing version of Bazinian “reality” because it arises more or less directly out of the attempt to defend Bazin from the absurd charges leveled at him by proponents of the first version. The “Phenomenological” Bazin is well-aware that our sense of reality can be seen to be a function of subjectivity and that the films of his preferred auteurs are as much constructed as any other. Here the term reality does not refer to direct contact with the Being of the profilmic object but rather to the relation between the spectator and the various on-screen claims to his/her attention. A key formula used in this reading of Bazin is that reality – in this case modeled after the “experience” of real life rather than “objects” – is ambiguous. Human beings are always already engaged in the existential task of interpreting and configuring the world around them and a film style that engages us in this process and thus allows us to be co-creators of the on-screen world restores to us a measure of the autonomy that is proper to real life. Because the long-take, deep-focus, mobile-camera style demands a greater measure of interpretive effort on the part of the spectator it is automatically superior to those styles which employ montage:

While analytic montage only calls for him [the spectator] to follow his guide, to let his attention follow along smoothly with that of the director who will choose what he will see, here he is called upon to exercise at least a minimum of personal choice. It is from his attention and his will that the meaning of the image in part derives. 17

This second version of Bazin implicitly acknowledges the distinction between true realism and pseudorealism by virtue of the fact that it implies a process of sorting through the pseudorealistic ambiguity of appearances, a process which logically entails the possibility of a truer or superior understanding. But in its fixation on specific formal qualities as guaranteeing a certain relation with reality it fails to acknowledge the historically-conditioned nature of our reception of form. This critique, very much in accord with current tendencies in film study, would characterize both Bazin and the “political modernists” who came after him during the 1960’s and 1970’s as idealists insofar as they both assume a fixed and a-historical homology between textual form and spectatorial experience. 18 But as any careful reading of Bazin’s texts makes clear, he usually acknowledges the historical context of reception by qualifying statements such as the one above. Rather than “objective statements” such formulations are “working hypotheses” that work backwards to infer certain potentials on the basis of particular aesthetic achievements. 19 Put in terms of his own categories, he is well aware that the pseudorealistic power of appearances “to fool the eye and mind” the power of ideology determines the moment in which a relatively-transcendent or autonomous “form” passes imperceptibly into historically-specific “content” and back again. As Bazin himself points out, the “realist” techniques referenced above dialectically engender new forms of montage that build on their cultural opacity, their having-become-content:

On the other hand, so far from wiping out once and for all the conquests of montage, this reborn realism gives them a body of reference and a meaning. It is only an increased realism of the image that can support the abstraction of the image. The stylistic repertory of a director such as Hitchcock, for example, ranged from the power inherent in the basic document as such, to superimpositions, to large close-ups. But the close-ups of Hitchcock are not the same as those of C.B. de Mille in The Cheat [1915]. They are just one type of figure, among others, of his style … The image – its plastic composition and the way it is set in time, because it is founded on a much higher degree of realism – has at its disposal more means of manipulating reality and modifying it from within. The film-maker is no longer the competitor of the painter and the playwright, he is, at last, the equal of the novelist. 20

Bazin clearly implies that his critical hypotheses with regard to the large-scale “evolutionary” trends of the cinema are themselves logically subordinate to the “natural freedom” of artists and artistic traditions to respond to historical events, and the natural tendency of formal values to evolve over time. 21 With this in mind it is important to stress, against the weight of the received interpretations we have been outlining, that Bazin’s film theory does not entail any commitment to specific techniques or formal qualities, but rather articulates these as the provisional means which allow historical issues to come into view:

Our intention is certainly not to preach the glory of form over content. Art for art’s sake is just as heretical in cinema as elsewhere, probably more so. On the other hand, a new subject matter demands new form, and 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. 22

The fact that Bazin uses the master “manipulator” Hitchcock to exemplify the then-current apex of cinematic “evolution” clearly indicates that “realism” is only a means to aesthetic ends and not in itself a superior substitute for the traditional concept of creative art. It also allows us to recognize that both the “Ontological” and “Phenomenological” Bazins explicitly limit the creative intentionality of the artist in a way that Bazin in fact did not. To the renunciation of creative will and intention that characterizes both of the first two versions (in the first case in favour of the profilmic world of things and beings, in the second in favour of the spectator’s quasi-autonomous relation with that world) one can oppose a third Bazin who measures the value of cinematic art by the degree to which the artist thoroughly penetrates and transfigures pseudorealistic appearance by achieving a more complex dialectical perspective on it. In contrast to the model of reality as an array of quasi-autonomous choices presented to the spectator (“should I look at this or this?”) the spectator of a Hitchcock film is presented with a reality “modified from within”, a created world that has put all the power of conviction proper to pseudorealistic appearances in the service of the artist’s vision and intentionality. Bazin makes a similar point in relation to The River:

The truth is that there is probably no other film which is so completely and precisely controlled by its author. Most of the best films depend to some degree on God, on a lucky or unlucky chance which belongs not to the film maker but to the film, an uncertain and involuntary poetry of the machine. Not a frame of The River gives us this feeling: its images always suggest exactly and only what their creator intended… I cannot imagine what a brilliant painter, novelist, or poet could have added to the kiss Valerie gives to Captain John. 23

Contrary to both “Ontological” and “Phenomenological” versions, Bazin is insisting here that the reality of the artistic image derives from the degree to which the auteur’s intentions have conquered the “involuntary poetry” that was the ideal of the first version and the “ambiguity” that characterized the second.

Re-casting this argument in terms of cultural history, we might say that in Hitchcock the cinema as a historical institution has synthesized a variety of specific traditions (the realist tradition, German expressionism, Soviet montage) to the degree that it is now capable of the range of expression available to a novelist. Like any great writer, Hitchcock draws fully on the powers of expression that have been developed historically within the language and simultaneously modifies it in the process of expressing artistic truth. Though this evolution can be seen as a series of theoretical advances (i.e. one could express the advantage Hitchcock has over de Mille in the rhetoric of a progressive Modernism), it is important to note that the process is fundamentally dependent on the historical development of a increasingly-complex language and culture that overcomes and yet preserves within it all of the previous possibilities of expression (similar to the Hegelian process of aufhebung or sublation but without the same degree of teleological necessity). Viewed from this aesthetic perspective, the irrational yet inescapable credulousness that the “Ontological” Bazin values and the simulacra of autonomy idealized by the “Phenomenological” Bazin both become merely the means by which a creative intelligence makes reality out of appearance. Photography only offers the possibility of reality that Art makes actual through the creative realization of an unalienated understanding or true vision of the world.

Distinguishing this quasi-Hegelian “Aesthetic Bazin” from the received versions of Bazin with which we are familiar constitutes the first step in the task of reconstructing a model of Bazinian theory that engages with the issue of ideology. But to suggest that the “aesthetic” as such directly addresses the issue of ideology may well seem strange, and in this context it may help to make a brief digression to clarify the conception of art to which the category refers.

III. The Bazinian Concept of the Aesthetic

The model of the art-work that we have been attributing to Bazin can be defined as an act of communication that eludes the determinations of ideology. In this context the emphasis on the creative autonomy of the producer reflects a concern with the extent to which one of the two subjects involved in this act (the other being the spectator) is free to engage with and express a response to the realities of experience (whether these are conceived historically or otherwise). The possibility of unalienated experience and communication that is the goal of this model requires that one address the paradox that pits this freedom of the artist against the receptivity or openness to determination necessary to apprehend a reality beyond subjectivity. Paul Ricoeur, a thinker with whom Bazin shares important influences, intellectual milieu and historical experience, offers a model of the aesthetic experience that is relevant to our consideration of this paradox and related issues. 24 Ricoeur addresses this paradox by arranging the moment of receptivity and that of the autonomous creative act in a hierarchical sequence of question and answer:

A semantic innovation is a way of responding in a creative fashion to a question presented by things. In a certain discourse situation, in a given social milieu and at a precise moment, something seeks to be said that demands an operation of speech, speech working on language, that brings words and things face to face. The final outcome is a new description of the universe of representations. 25

That a particular configuration of things or a historical reality “presents a question” and “demands” a response from the artist implies that a sense of ethical obligation precedes and orients creative autonomy. Bearing this in mind allows us to recover the important emphasis on receptivity that is misunderstood by the received views of Bazin, while displacing it from the pro-filmic world to the real or historical “things” of concern to the artist (and, in a inevitably different time and place, the spectator). Though the art of the cinema depends on our passage through the pro-filmic diegesis to the realities of experience this should not distract us from the essential fact that the perceived reality of the first hinges on its relevance to the second; the reality of the image is only a potential that art (or the experience of beauty) makes actual. That said, one might nonetheless stress the fact that photography inflects the paradox mentioned above so that the response of the artist to his or her experience (true realism) becomes palpable only to the extent that it modifies the profilmic reality “from within” (i.e. by drawing on the power of pseudo-realism). It is of this paradoxical dependence of truth on illusion that Bazin speaks in one of his most impacted set of formulations:

The aesthetic qualities of photography are to be sought in its power to lay bare the realities. It is not for me to separate off, in the complex fabric of the objective world, here a reflection on a damp sidewalk, there the gesture of child. Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, is able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my love. By the power of photography, the natural image of a world that we neither know nor can see, nature at last does more than imitate art: she imitates the artist. 26

The “world we neither know nor see” is the real world that ideology has obscured. When its aesthetic qualities are realized, photographed nature imitates the artist because its resemblance to this real world turns it into a “natural image”: it is no longer nature at all but simply a powerful means to the revelation of the Real. This dependence of true realism on the pseudo-realistic power of resemblances would of course serve to reproduce ideology were it not for the possibility of structuring language so that the image draws on an invisible configuration of things that the faculties of attention and love bring into a true focus (as the visible flames of a fire draw on invisible oxygen). When this possibility is realized it is for our purposes the very definition of thought. Ricoeur describes this process of structuring with the phrase “seeing as”:

Half thought, half experience, “seeing as” is the intuitive relationship that holds sense and image together. How? Essentially through its selective character: “Seeing as is an intuitive experience-act by which one selects from the quasi-sensory mass of imagery one has on reading metaphor the relevant points of such imagery”. This definition contains the essential points. “Seeing as” is an experience and an act at one and the same time… “seeing as” quite precisely plays the role of the schema that unites the empty concept and the blind impression; thanks to its character as half thought and half experience, it joins the light of sense with the fullness of the image. 27

For Bazin, the innumerable points where selection plays a role in the process of film-making are where the receptive-creative grounding of the image in reality takes place. Selection is the form by which the creative act of thought manifests itself and the autonomy of this creative response is qualified by the relevance of the elements selected to the Whole – the configuration of things – that initiated the process. This ethical-intuitive seeking after relevance indicates or reveals that reality is always more (in both a qualitative and quantitative sense) than it “appears” within the image, and hence characterizes the process as an intrinsically-open one. Though art may be understood to be produced and received in distinct and determinate historical contexts, this model assumes that the gaps between these contexts are potentially-bridged by the openness of the work. Successful communication through art is possible because it is simultaneously focused through a particular configuration of mortal things that ground the ethical relation and yet open to the “infinity” of the ethical claim itself. Mortality provokes a quality of love and attention that seeks to secure the value of the mortal beings in a relatively-transcendent realm; artists seek this realm by opening or de-instrumentalizing their language to allow for the possibility of authentic communication.

To return to the question of art and ideology that prompted our digression, Ricoeur’s notion of “seeing-as” provides us with the basic axiom that the encounter between thought and appearance takes place at the very roots of the latter. It is at this point that the battle between thought and ideology is fought. If thought wins, it has succeeded in seeing through appearances to the truth of a situation or state of affairs and if ideology wins it is because the opacity of appearances – the received dead-weight of ideological interpellations – have succeeded in overcoming the attention and desire of the artist or spectator to see through them. Bazin’s awareness of this struggle between art and ideology is perhaps expressed most explicitly in a passage from “An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism” a passage that could well serve as the key textual evidence for our “Aesthetic Bazin”:

Reality is not to be taken quantitatively. The same event, the same object, can be represented in various ways. Each representation discards or retains various of the qualities that permit us to recognize the object on the screen. Each introduces, for didactic or aesthetic reasons, abstractions that operate more or less corrosively and thus do not permit the original to subsist in its entirety. At the conclusion of this inevitable and necessary “chemical” action, for the initial reality there has been substituted an illusion of reality composed of a complex of abstraction (black and white, plane surface), of conventions (the rules of montage, for example), and of authentic reality. It is a necessary illusion but it quickly induces a loss of awareness of the reality itself, which becomes identified in the mind of the spectator with its cinematographic reproduction. As for the film maker, the moment he has secured this unwitting complicity of the public, he is increasingly tempted to ignore reality. From habit and laziness he reaches the point when he himself is no longer able to tell where lies begin or end. There could never be any question of calling him a liar because his art consists in lying. He is just no longer in control of his art. He is its dupe, and hence he is held back from any further conquest of reality. 28

In another striking contrast with the position put forth by the “Ontological Bazin”, Bazin here clearly characterizes the tendency to identify reality with its cinematic representation as ideological and opposed to the goals of cinema as an art form. The “unwitting complicity” of ideology tempts both producer and spectator to settle for a pseudorealistic ersatz of art that merely reproduces the clichés and stereotyped meanings that already dominate the language and culture. When an ersatz work of art occurs this is due to a deficit rather than an excess of thoughtful intentionality and control on the part of the producer. Ideally, the aesthetic forms created by the producer function as tools which guide and structure a passage through appearance and allow the spectator to use the work to grasp his or her own experience. The realization of this possibility is precisely what those who conduct ideological critique characterize as the freedom from alienation.

As this model hopefully suggests, art is by this definition the only discourse that turns the spotlight of creative negativity on its own language, and, in principle at least, is the only discourse that purges itself of ideology through the action of thought. As Ricoeur puts it, the reasoning behind this derives from an acute awareness of the rhetorical power of language and a process of open questioning which inevitably transforms the thinking subject himself/herself:

… speculative discourse is possible, because language possesses the reflective capacity to place itself at a distance and to consider itself, as such and in its entirety, as related to the totality of what is. Language designates itself and its other… for it is the knowledge that accompanies the referential function itself, the knowledge of its being-related to being. This reflective knowledge allows language to know that it is installed in being. The usual relationship between language and its referent is reversed: language becomes aware of itself in the self-articulation of the being which it is about. Far from locking language up inside itself, this reflective consciousness is the very consciousness of its openness… . 29

In contrast to the possibility that art in this sense can offer a passage beyond ideology, the model of discourse employed by Bazin’s “ideological” critics itself generally assigns a relatively-fixed significance to linguistic forms and rarely reflects with any degree of seriousness on the premises concealed beneath the appearance of the language it employs. While the “Ontological” and “Phenomenological” versions of Bazin would themselves fall prey to this critique, the concept of reality employed by the “Aesthetic Bazin” would not. Reality can be expressed as the dialectic moment of relation between the free power of thought and an actual configuration of things and beings not present in the work, precisely because they are real or actual. Thus by “the power of photography, the natural image of a world that we neither know nor can see, nature at last does more than imitate art: she imitates the artist” (italics mine). 26 A photography-based art like the cinema is capable of providing us with a powerfully-persuasive image or representation of the real world of experience, a world which without its help we would neither know nor see clearly. It is in this sense that “transparency” is a desirable quality.

The final element of this new model of Bazin that needs to be considered is how he reconciles the producer’s (ideally) total control of the image with the autonomy of thought one would (ideally) ascribe to the spectator. The quote from Bazin’s letter to Aristarco provides a clue, insofar as it implies that it is not in the final analysis “the argument” of a given work of art that convinces, but rather the extent to which it does in fact open onto a complex of issues that is real for a given spectator. The artist makes an argument that concerns his or her own experience but – logical structure or lack of such notwithstanding – this will not have any power over the spectator until he or she recognizes its connection to his or her own experience. This moment of conviction can either bind one more firmly to a false ideological vision of reality or it can provide one with the increasingly accurate apprehension that characterizes true or realized art. In either case, and as Bazin’s discussion of the “duped” artist makes clear, the battle between art and ideology depends on the degree of the spectator’s “complicity” and critical acuity. In extremis, a spectator whose attention has been focused by love can “see through” the falseness of an ersatz work of art and gain insight into reality while a lazy, uncaring and inattentive spectator can experience a work of true art and remain unconvinced of anything. The success of any process of thinking engendered and/or enabled by art hinges on the degree to which the spectator is already (in the sense of logical priority) erotically or ethically-engaged with the conditions and contradictions of their experience. Bazin’s frequent and confusing use of the term reality to refer equivocally to both pseudorealistic illusion and a true apprehension of reality is based on his assumption – in any case implicit in any act of communication – that the spectator is always already so engaged. It is therefore at this point that we must re-emphasize as central to Bazin the Platonic-Levinasian concepts of erotic receptivity and ethical responsibility that are generally misunderstood in the received versions of this theory. Placed in this new context, they should in no way suggest a slavish hankering after mystical communion or a banal simulacrum of “interactive” subjectivity, but rather should take their place as necessary elements of a model of genuine autonomy, a model in which, in the words of Ricoeur, “invention and discovery cease being opposed” and “creation and revelation coincide” 31 .

Read Part 2 Here.


  1. André Bazin, Jean Renoir, ed. Francois Truffaut (New York: Da Capo Press, 1973) 118-119.
  2. c.f. Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1960’s, ed. Jim Hillier (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1986).
  3. André Bazin, Bazin at Work, ed. Bert Cardullo (New York: Routledge, 1997) xi.
  4. Noel Carroll, Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1988) 171.
  5. Dudley Andrew, ‘André Bazin’s “Evolution”’ Defining Cinema ed. Peter Lehman (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1997) 86.
  6. Carroll,Op Cit, 9-11.
  7. André Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol.II, ed. Hugh Gray (Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 1971) 101.
  8. in André Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. I, ed. Hugh Gray (Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 1967).
  9. Bazin, Op Cit, 26.
  10. Bazin, Op Cit, 14.
  11. Bazin, Ibid, 13.
  12. Bazin, Ibid, 12.
  13. Carroll, Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory, 126.
  14. Dudley Andrew, The Major Film Theories (New York: Oxford UP, 1976) 141.
  15. Andrew, Ibid, 145.
  16. Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. I, 23-41.
  17. Bazin, Ibid, 36.
  18. c.f D.N. Rodowick, The Crisis of Political Modernism (Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 1988).
  19. Bazin, Op Cit, 24.
  20. Bazin, Ibid, 39-41.
  21. Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. II, 95.
  22. Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. I, 30.
  23. Bazin, Jean Renoir, 117.
  24. c.f. Dudley Andrew’s elaboration of their common intellectual roots in Andrew, André Bazin, New York, NY: Columbia UP, 1978).
  25. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor (Toronto: Toronto UP, 1979) 125.
  26. Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol.I, 15.
  27. Ricoeur, Op Cit, 213.
  28. Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol.II, 27.
  29. Ricoeur, Rule of Metaphor, 304.
  30. Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol.I, 15.
  31. Ricoeur, Ibid, 246

Bazin and “The River” as a Problem in the History of Film Theory, Part 1

Though Prakash Younger’s interests range widely across the humanities (including English and world literature, political philosophy, geopolitical history, and art history), his work as a teacher and scholar is grounded by a long-standing engagement with the cinephilic traditions that have shaped Film Studies as a discipline. Though his work is rooted in close attention to aesthetics and the details of cinematic form, Younger’s ultimate goal as both a teacher and scholar is to show how films give us an enhanced purchase on the real world beyond them. By taking advantage of the access films provide to the experience of other times, places, cultures and sensibilities we enhance our ability to connect with the world we live in today; unlikely as it may seem, a French film from the 1930’s or a Bollywood film from the 1970’s may turn out to be the “message in a bottle” we have been waiting for, the magic lens that brings certain facts and possibilities of the present into sharp focus. Studying film is a detour that is justified by the fact that, in the end, it always gets us to the right place, faster.

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