Friday, 5 October 2012

Reading Bazin (#3)

It is time for the third post in my series Reading Bazin. Today's post is about Death Every Afternoon, a perhaps lesser known piece. It is not included in the translated What is Cinema books (although it was in the French original) but is to be found for example in the anthology Rites of Realism: Essays in Corporeal Cinema, translated by Mark A. Cohen. (The title of Bazin's text is of course a reference to Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon.)

Death Every Afternoon is about a French documentary called The Bullfight (La course de taureaux 1951). The piece is not very long but it is of interest for two reasons. First because it is a celebration of the art of editing, relevant since Bazin is often thought of as being against editing, and second because it is a formulation of Bazin’s ideas about death’s relationship with cinema.

The review begins with an appreciation of Myriam Borsoutsky’s skills as an editor. Among the films on which she worked Bazin mentions another documentary, Paris 1900 (1947) and The Story of a Cheat (Sacha Guitry 1936). She also worked on a number of other films by Guitry. After emphasising the brilliance of the editing, Bazin declares that “[w]hen it is good, the art of the editor goes well beyond its usual function – it is an essential element in the film’s creation”, but he makes the distinction between the Russian form of montage and his own preference for découpage. Whereas montage is based on the idea of symbolism and, as Bazin puts it, “the collision of images”, in The Bullfight the aim of the editing is realism and to “fulfil both the physical verisimilitude of the découpage and its logical malleability.” Here it is not a case of contrasting images to create new effects out of the very collision but instead of having complementary editing, where one image grows naturally out of its predecessor and in turn grows naturally into its successor, and the technique is based on “precision and clarity”.

As is only to be expected from Bazin, what he praises here is the way realism is heightened by way of editing. Although he has primarily written about the long take and deep focus, seamless editing is also shown to be able to serve the same master, the much vaunted realism. It is worth pointing out that Bazin's heroes, such as Wyler, Renoir, Welles and Fellini, cut more frequently than you might think, or that Bazin seems to remember. While he is right to argue that editing is "an essential element in the film’s creation" I think he is wrong in suggesting that it is only when it is particularly good. Editing is always an essential part, good or bad.

Bazin then goes on to discuss death and its relation with cinema, even its profound centrality in the medium’s being. He suggests that death “is surely one of those rare events that justifies the term /…/ cinematic specificity.” This is partly because cinema is the “[a]rt of time”, and not only “aesthetic time” but “lived time”, and he refers to Henri Bergson’s concept of la durée. The point he wants to make is that on film, death, unlike in the real world, is not a unique, once-in-a-life-time event. As soon as a death is captured on film, in moving images, it can be repeated over and over again. For Bazin, death, and sex, is something unique and special, and something which can never be represented, only experienced. With cinema having the capacity to show death, and then also resurrect the dead, as well as show the same person dying again and again, our treatment of death, and perhaps relationship to it, has changed because “nowadays we can desecrate and show at will the only one of our possessions that is temporally inalienable: dead without a requiem, the eternal dead-again of the cinema!”

And of course, it is only natural that such a discussion should arise from a film about bullfighting, where not only bulls but matadors are killed, and death, perhaps the art of death, is what the game is about. Bazin ends the article with the following statement: “On the screen, the toreador dies every afternoon.”

Reading Bazin #1 is here.
Reading Bazin #2 is here.
Reading Bazin #4 is here.

A companion piece to Bazin's article is Pier Paolo Pasolini's Observations of the Long Take from 1967.

Henri Decaë, who would later be cinematographer on several of the most important films if the French New Wave was also cinematographer on The Bullfight, together with Jimmy Berliet.

The exact meaning of the word découpage has been elusive, and frequently misunderstood, but it can be said to mean the organic relationship of all shots, how they all contribute to the overall effect, which should be the "physical verisimilitude". Hence to equate découpage with editing, as has often been done, is missing the larger picture (literally). Découpage can exist already in the filmmaker's head prior to shooting, and can be written into the script.

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