"Just as we stand equal before death, all men are equal before television."
This week I have read Dudley Andrew's new collection of articles by Bazin, André Bazin's New Media (2014), about TV, radio and recent (i.e. early 1950s) technical developments within cinema. It is as always very inspiring material and here are some brief observations about Bazin's thoughts on TV, the fifth instalment in my "Reading Bazin" series.
Bazin looks at TV from several different angles. He talks about technical issues, ethical problems, artistic innovations, censorship and medium specificity. But mostly he writes about French television, as this is primarily what he was able to watch. And he seems to like it. Except for serials, especially those aimed for children.
"TV poses a problem of household psychology, indeed of psychology period. Most serious is not so much the serial in itself as the fact that it is addressed foremost to children, just by the choice of films shown." he says. "They confuse the spirit of childhood with sociological cretinism." (p. 134)
But on the whole he is positive, even if a bit backhanded. "We shouldn't expect only marvels from [TV]. In fact, the amount of rubbish will have to be proportionally greater than in commercial cinema, but the sheer quantity of production ought to allow for a good number of successes." (p. 181)
What he likes is primarily the immediacy and intimacy of TV, and how it brings ordinary people into focus. He writes a lot about a program in which farmers are interviewed about their lives for example. ("The cinema will never film a biography of my concierge or my grocer, but on my TV set they can be admirable and astounding." (p. 46)). TVs approach to live drama is something he finds interesting too and here he thinks that TV has something to teach cinema.
Television reminds cinema of something it has long forgotten: the advantages of semi-improvisation, of working off the cuff. Between television and cinema there can be more than mere collaboration; there can be genuine symbiosis. In not selfishly trying to take any more from cinema than may be useful to it, television could inject new lifeblood back into cinema. (p. 173)He wrote that in 1951, and he felt the same way in 1958: "With TV, cinema can be rejuvenated."(p. 178), although, since this was seven years after his first such proclamation you might have expected this rejuvenation to have happened so that he could write that cinema "is being rejuvenated" rather than "can be rejuvenated". I think though that he was right, and that especially in the 1960s this is what had happened.
At one point he brings the theatre into the equation. "We have often opposed cinema to theater on the notion of the physical and temporal presence of the actor. But television is the presence of theater with the ubiquity of cinema." (p. 80) For Bazin, films like Marty (Delbert Mann 1955), 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet 1957) and The Bachelor Party (Delbert Mann 1957), are examples of how TV has enriched cinema, although he finds Marty to be too sentimental. The Bachelor Party on the other hand he think is "extremely rich" and "brilliantly directed". (p. 169) Both Marty and The Bachelor Party were written by Paddy Chayefsky and first done live on TV, in 1953 and 1954, and 12 Angry Men as well, written by Reginald Rose. (An earlier example of the same kind of "new social realism" which Bazin might have mentioned is Come Back, Little Sheba (Daniel Mann 1952), which was based on William Inge's play although not done for TV.)
Bazin also talks about directors and directing, and there is a long interview with Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini, two of Bazin's favourites who were then both directing for TV. ("[I]f you and I, Roberto, are turning toward television, it is because television is in a technically primitive state that may restore to artists that fighting spirit of the early cinema, when everything that was made was good." Renoir says at the end of the discussion. (p. 203)). Bazin also writes about Hitchcock's TV productions and he wonders why so many American filmmakers are making films for TV whereas hardly any French directors are doing it. Why John Ford and Leo McCarey but not Marcel Carné and Jacques Becker?
So what interests Bazin in cinema is also what interests him in TV, and reading this collection with his more famous work, such as the two collections of What is Cinema?, is to be recommended.
This was my fifth post about Bazin. The earlier ones are here:
This intimacy can even become troubling, to the point of implying reciprocity. As for me, each time I meet one of the presenters of the TV news or even a TV actor in the street, I have to suppress a spontaneous urge to shake their hand, as though they knew me from having seen me daily in front of my screen. (p. 40)