Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Reading Bazin (#1)

There are a handful of writers on cinema that I must have within reach at all times. V.F. Perkins is one, David Bordwell another, and critics like James Agee and A.O. Scott. But none more so than André Bazin, critic, theoretician and poet of cinema (a something of a godfather of François Truffaut). Despite sometimes getting it wrong his ideas are almost always interesting and his sentences almost always beautiful. Therefore I have decided to do a series of posts about Bazin, where each post is about one specific essay, article or review by him. (I was inspired to do this by fellow film scholar Eirik Frisvold Hanssen, an avid Bazin fan.)

Today's post is about the article Will CinemaScope Save the Film Industry, first published in Esprit 1953, and available in English in the anthology Bazin at Work. It is primarily about the way Hollywood is countering the existential threat from TV but it is also filled with Bazin's (usual) musings on the arts, realism, technology and psychology. It is exactly this scope that makes him such a rewarding person to read. In its discussion about the teleological aspects of film, this article is also closely related to his more famous articles The Ontology of the Photographic Image and The Evolution of the Language of Cinema.

1953 was a time of crisis for the cinema, not least Hollywood cinema, since TV had arrived with force. Bazin begins his essay with saying that even though there is a crisis there are still a couple of months left to consider how best to deal with it. At the moment the Hollywood studios themselves are not as threatened as the actors and technicians are, but Bazin suggests that they can work in TV, or move to Europe. That there has been a dramatic decrease in tickets sold Bazin does attribute to the arrival of TV but he also argues that TV only dramatically speeded up a decreasing interest in cinema in general that was already there. (This though was not the case in Sweden I might add, since the early 50s were the most successful years in Swedish cinema history as far as ticket sales were concerned. The peak was in 1956, exactly the year TV arrived in Sweden. I wonder if Sweden was different from the rest of the world or if Bazin is wrong in his argument.)

Then he goes on to introduce CinemaScope. He writes about it from a technical perspective, from an aesthetic perspective and from the perspective of the cinema owners. (Apparently 80% of France's cinema theatres were not fit to show CinemaScope and had to be re-built.) The discussion then changes to film as art and its relationship to technological changes in general. His argument there is that it is never the filmmakers who are agents of changes but instead the industry, the producers. He says that "The filmmaker can profit from innovation but he never determines it." I think that this view is too limited. To an extent it depends on how he defines innovation and technical changes. He says that there were earlier versions of scope formats in the 1920s but that they never caught on due to a lack of interest from the studios, from the money men, and that sound came about only when it was economically relevant for the studios. But I would argue that many filmmakers invent things whilst making films, and perhaps particularly so cinematographers. A lot of famous cinematographers have been awarded many patents due to invention they have made, not because of financial considerations but because it helped them and the directors to tell the story the way they wanted to. The dolly zoom that was first used in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) is one of the more famous examples.

But Bazin goes on to argue that since film is dependent on the industry, the economy, it is different from the other arts. They are eternal, film is mortal. Film is also, according to Bazin "not an art AND an industry, but instead an industrial art that is likely to vanish into thin air as soon as the industry's profit disappear". This is of course also a debatable point. There seems to me to be films that exist outside any industry, and always have been, such as short films, art films and experimental films. But I will leave that for now and instead, like Bazin, turn to TV. For Bazin there is a real danger that TV will kill the cinema, and he argues that TV is "irremediably cruder than the cinema", that "nothing will persuade me to believe, in the spirit of futuristic optimism, that television will take over from an aesthetic point of view". However, Bazin does acknowledge that TV might actually be beneficial for cinema in one way, as it might be used to show films and that this might actually help keep cinema alive.

And on this note Bazin returns to CinemaScope, and now from an aesthetic, and perhaps even moral, point of view. Here the teleological aspect of Bazin's thinking shows itself, as when he says that "the essence of film from the very start (one might even say as early as its seed took root in the inventor's imagination) has been a quest for the realism of the image". (By realism he here means "the greatest number of characteristics in common with natural perception".) CinemaScope will increase this realism, since it will add more depth and width to the images. These new Scope images will lead to "the stripping away of everything extrinsic to the quintessential meaning of the image, of all the expressionism of time and space".

So for Bazin, CinemaScope is similar to the deep focus as used by his heroes William Wyler, Jean Renoir and Orson Welles. It is for him part of the natural evolution of the cinema, of increasing the realism. Cinema will fulfil what for Bazin is its "ultimate aim", which is "not so much to mean as to reveal".

That was Bazin in 1953, looking around in the world, telling the reader what he saw and what he thought it meant. The essay succinctly captures his thinking and is therefore a good introduction, whilst at the same time being a good historical snapshot of cinema at the time of his writing. Next time I will look at another essay, from another year, and see what he saw then, and what he felt it meant.

The other posts about Bazin are here: #2, #3, #4.

Correction 2012-02-01. The name of Bazin's essay is Will CinemaScope Save the Film Industry, not Will CinemaScope Save the Cinema as I had originally written.

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