Monday, 9 April 2012

Reading Bazin (#2)

My first post under the title Reading Bazin was about his article "Will CinemaScope Save the Film Industry". Today I will focus on an essay he wrote in the mid-1950s called "Cabiria: The Voyage to the End of Neorealism" (which is translated by Hugh Gray and reprinted in What is Cinema Volume II).

The piece is one which clearly shows the importance of Bazin on the writings of Gilles Deleuze, and it is also a pre-emptive defence of Nights of Cabiria (Le notti di Cabiria, Federico Fellini 1957), a film Bazin feared would be disliked by the critics. He anticipated that they would find it too well-made, too clever, and so in a sense betraying the neorealist movement. But even though Bazin agreed that the film was a professional piece of work, he also said that rather than betraying or abandoning neorealism, Fellini was still true to the movement, and simply pushed its aims and ambitions further than they had been pushed before. But it depends on ones definition of neorealism and Bazin says here that, "it is to be defined not in terms in ends but in means", that it is 'a "phenomenological" realism which never "adjust" reality to meet the need imposed by psychology of drama".

The key for Bazin, and something he talks about at great length, is the film's (and Fellini's) relationship to time and plot. He begins by making a distinction between what he calls "verticality", which is the theme of the author, and "horizontality" which are "the requirements of narrative". In Nights of Cabiria Bazin thinks that these two are in perfect harmony but events happen not because of any "horizontal" necessity but because of "vertical" gravity, and in the films of Fellini it is "impossible for time ever to serve as an abstract or dynamic support - as an a priori framework for narrative structure". Bazin then adds that "the characters themselves, they exist and change only in reference to a purely internal kind of time" (and he argues that this is different from Henri Bergson's idea of time, since it involves too much psychologism).

This argument about time and characters is central to both what Bazin sees as an essential part of Fellini's work and to what he perceives as something new in cinema. On the one hand, characters are here not defined by their actions but by their appearances, movements and interactions with their environment. On the other hand, Fellini's narrative is not bound by cause-and-effects and conventions. The filmmaker does not make 'the choice in reference to some pre-existing dramatic organization. In this new perspective, the important sequence can just as well be the long scene that "serves no purposes" by traditional screenplay standards.'

So this is a reason for Bazin why Fellini is still true to his neorealist roots. But Fellini also takes it further by including elements of the "supernatural". (Bazin is not sure which word is the best one, so he also suggests "poetry", "surrealism" and "magic".) One such element is the recurring motif of angels, real and metaphorical, in several of Fellini's films, but Fellini still "achieves it [realism] surpassingly in a poetic reordering of the world".

Bazin then ends his essay with some thoughts about the last scene in the film, when Cabiria (played by Giulietta Masina), after being devastated and close to despair, comes across a group of friendly people walking on a road, playing music and singing. She follows them and eventually she starts to smile, still with tear-filled eyes. What for Bazin makes this scene so moving and profound is not that though, but that she glances at the camera. According to him she never looks directly at it, just seemingly by accident glances at it, but I think she does look directly at it (us) at one point. But the importance for Bazin is the way we, the audience, become part of the story, that it "remove us quite finally from our role of spectator".

I am not sure about that though, the very fact that we are unable to intervene or interact still makes us spectators, and when she is looking at us it is with the understanding that we are spectators. In Dial M For Murder (Alfred Hitchcock 1954) Margot Wendice (played by Grace Kelly) is being assaulted in her home, and when she struggles with her attacker she raises her arm towards the audience, as with a desperate urge to get help from us, to make us stop being spectators and instead act (Hitchcock does on several occasions make such demands on the audience) but Cabiria looks at us not for help or support but to share this moment with us, as spectators.

Bazin also says that Chaplin is probably the only other filmmaker who repeatedly has his characters look at the camera "which the books about filmmaking are unanimous in condemning". I would suggest that Raoul Walsh is the one who does this best in the "classical" era. In several of his films, be they comedies, dramas or war films, there are characters who are looking at the camera, in order to share a moment with us. Sometimes because something is funny, but also, as in They Drive By Night (1940) to show defiance. Lana Carlsen (Ida Lupino) looks at us just as she has decided to kill her husband, and then again after the deed is done, as if to say "you can say what you want, I wanted him dead" or perhaps "try and stop me if you can".

What for Bazin is so important (and something that is also essential for Deleuze), the way characters are presented and treated, and how the narrative stops for insignificant things and events, is definitely there in Fellini's films, but I would argue that this is true for many of cinema's great artists, since the early silent days. In for example the films of John Ford, Kenji Mizoguchi, Jean Renoir, F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage you will find such moments, and some of the best sequences in the films of Henry Hathaway are when "nothing" happens other than people just being. It has always been central in comedies as well, whether made by great artists (like Buster Keaton or Leo McCarey) or studio hacks. So this is part of cinema, it is not anything invented by Fellini or Italian post-war cinema. Bazin writes that Fellini's characters do not reveal themselves by "doing something" but rather "by their endless milling around". This is comparable to what David Thomson once wrote about Howard Hawks, how Hawks knew that men are more expressive when rolling a cigarette than when saving the world. Hawks would gladly include scenes that "added nothing" and was not needed for any narrative structure. Scenes that, like with the guys in I vitelloni (Fellini 1953), were just people hanging out, talking and having fun.

The aspect of time in films, which is so important for Bazin and Deleuze, is something I will write more about in a later blog post. There will also be more posts on Bazin of course, all in due time.

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My other posts on Bazin are here: #1, #3, #4.

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