PRINT Summer 1968


What is Cinema?

André Bazin, What is Cinema?, ed. Hugh Gray, (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1967.

There things are . . . Why manipulate them?
—Roberto Rossellini

Cinema is a manipulation of reality through image and sound.
—Alain Resnais

OF ALL THE BOOKS on film which have been issued these past two years, in desperate anarchy from the major publishing houses, the selection of essays assembled by Mr. Hugh Gray from the critical writings of André Bazin is, as might have been expected, incomparably the best. It is, in fact, the only book with any claim at all to intellectual distinction, as it alone reflects, however incompletely, a writer’s acquaintance and involvement with the central esthetic issues and intellectual forces of his time.

To say this is merely to define once more, of course, the situation of film criticism as it is practiced in this country. One was, nevertheless, hardly prepared for the silence which has greeted this book’s appearance, a silence broken mainly until now by an observation on the part of a reviewer for The Sunday Times as to its “braincrushing difficulty.” It is the sort of observation which tells us somewhat more of the reviewer than of the book, and yet the remark does have a certain grim and more general significance.

The constraints under which film has evolved in our particular culture have acted so to alienate our intellectuals that the analytic and speculative vigor we encourage in other areas of critical discourse is, for the most part, dismissed, in writing on film, as arrogance or pretension—when not, as in the present case, openly avowed as a threat. Neither the sophistication which has characterized the best literary criticism of our recent past nor the refinement of our current art criticism have begun to inform film criticism. Like art history in the earlier part of this century, it is, for the present, a foreign-language literature. It is, in fact, predominantly French, for Bazin, though exceptionally enterprising and gifted, was by no means unique in his involvement with the advanced thinking in the Paris of his youth.

It was, as well, the Paris of the Liberation and the decade and a half which followed. Bazin was 40 when he died in 1959. Reading these essays, one should remember that they represent a critical enterprise arrested be fore the extraordinary cinematic renewal of the last ten years through the work of a generation intellectually and, in many instances, personally indebted to Bazin, of men whose thinking partly, though by no means entirely, reflected and inflected the development of the Cahiers du Cinéma which Bazin had helped to found.

Though hardly “the Aristotle of Cinema,” as Mr. Gray sees him, this young Normalien developed, with the younger talents around him, a relationship undoubtedly Socratic. His generosity is apparent in every line, his tone is relentlessly sweet and scrupulously reasonable. The intellectual context of his work was a compound of Sartrean categories and the earlier, gestaltist-influenced phenomenological orientation of Merleau-Ponty, grafted upon a deep-rooted Catholicism of the liberal, Gallican kind. He matured, then, in a milieu infinitely richer than that of James Agee, a vastly over-rated writer with whom, in taste and temperament, he does have some affinity.

Bazin’s work, for all its limitations—and these are largely my present concern—did not, like Agee’s, suffer from a constricting intellectual provincialism. The contradictions of his position were more considerable, and more interesting. The syncretic aspect of his thinking reflects, in fact, the intellectual ecumenism, alternately refreshing and exasperating, of the French Catholic Left, as one encounters it in Esprit, the review in which many of his critical pieces were originally published. It suffered—inevitably, in my view—from the strains involved in the accommodation of a religious sensibility to a secular culture, and its peculiar intellectual pathos—the source of its appeal and weakness, alike—originates in a singular dedication to the art form most intimately and inextricably bound to that secularization process.

Bazin’s career was not only characteristic of a certain period and its intellectual style; it was more or less coextensive with it. His work spanned the period of Sartre’s ascendancy. He did not live to see the major films of Resnais and Godard, unquestionably the two most powerful talents of the present generation, nor those of other, more personal protegés. He survived neither long enough to witness the decline of the Cahiers into the conceptual and stylistic mannerism of its Macmahonesque period, nor to greet its recent renewal in a present structuralist climate. The critical re-evaluation and qualification of that Politique des Auteurs with which the Cahiers group continues to be almost wholly identified in the minds of American readers dependent for the most part upon loose and partial translations, was unknown to him. The welcome recently extended to younger critics such as Metz and Bellour, concerned with problems of critical method and with formal, structural and structuralist analysis, is now beginning to produce a very different critical climate altogether.

As a man of the ’40s and ’50s, Bazin’s own polished style and extensive intellectual references are innocent of structuralist preoccupations. Continuity in this critical tradition is insured by an uninterrupted permeability to its cultural context. Mr. Gray’s editing has, most unfortunately however, abstracted Bazin’s work from its intellectual habitat, eliminated its philosophical assumptions and intentions, thereby attenuating its historical importance and its present critical interest. This long-overdue and slimmest of possible volumes (it includes ten essays from the four volumes posthumously published by the Editions du Cerf) does indeed present certain aspects of Bazin’s thinking which are likely to endure—to endure, however, in the Academy. By eliminating as much as possible of the topical and the ideological, Mr. Gray has transformed Bazin into a liberal Sorbonnard, lecturing-with distinction, it is true—in the timeless vacuum of the amphitheater. Who would suspect, upon reading the excellent essays on The Ontology of the Image, the somewhat pietistic exercises in Chaplinerie or even the justly praised essay on Bresson, that Bazin’s critical energy was largely focused on the defense of realism in all its cinematic manifestations? How is one to perceive the ultimately prescriptive nature of his criticism? And how, above all, is one to suspect the drama involved in his attempt to wrest from contemporary philosophy the critical sanction his own deepest commitments could never wholly provide or sustain?

Mr. Gray’s selection, then, suggests an hypothetically analogous edition of Mr. Greenberg’s Art and Culture from which the central points of philosophical reference—a post-Kantian situation and its Hegelian dynamics—have, together with consideration of the work of Pollock and Smith, been expunged. I need hardly stress, for readers of this particular journal, the distortion, the loss, involved in an abstraction of this kind. I am, however, concerned to stress, for those same readers, the interest, both in and beyond the area of film, of Bazin’s effort as set forth in the full range of his writing. It should, one day, be made available in English. Tied to a given historical moment by now transcended, it continues, nevertheless, to set standards for ambitious critical effort. Given the crisis in criticism rehearsed from month to month in these very pages, it may be of interest to examine, if only briefly and at a distance of a decade, a critical performance which still elicits from most serious writers on film, a gesture of self-definition.

BAZIN’S CRITICAL POINT OF DEPARTURE is his appraisal of style and form in post-war film as constituting a break with the work of the classical and heroic period of the ’20s and ’30s. In The Evolution of the Language of Cinema, one key essay wisely preserved in Mr. Gray’s selection, he characterized pre-war film style as deriving from an attitude toward “meaning” or “significance” as inhering not in the image as such or in the “event” filmed, but as articulated through “montage” or editing. Both the relatively invisible editing of the American pre-war film and the more assertive montage of Eisenstein or Cance, as they developed from the Kuleshov experiments of 1920, had placed the burden of ultimate “significance” upon “the ordering of . . . elements rather than on their objective content.” It is this “ordering” and the “shadow” cast by it in the spectator’s mind, the “metaphorical” properties inherent in this process, which Bazin quite rightly distinguishes as the defining features of the masterworks of pre-war film. By the ’30s, with the development of panchromatic film, sensitive emulsions and sound, the technical prerequisites for “modern” cinema had been fulfilled and new conventions—indeed, an entire style and era—could be initiated and developed on the basis of a critical rejection of editing.

The significant change, appearing around 1939, is predicated on the development of the shot-in-depth used by Welles and later by Wyler, among others, although it had been anticipated by Renoir in his masterwork, La Règle du Jeu. Editing had, in Bazin’s view, added considerably to the progress of cinematic language, but “at the cost of other values, no less definitely cinematic.” The advantage of the shot-in-depth and its consequent attenuation of editing lay, presumably, in the manner in which it intensified the spectator’s sense of intimacy with the image, implied a more active role for the spectator and heightened, in its respect for the primal unity and ambiguity of the event filmed, “the essentially realistic” character of cinema.

All of these points had been argued from a diametrically opposed position by Eisenstein in his elaboration of the montage esthetic.1 Those familiar with the dominant trends of postwar French film criticism will, however, recognize in Bazin’s observations the basis of the critical re-evaluation of Murnau, the rehabilitation of the Hollywood tradition and, ultimately, the esthetic of Neo-Realism. They will discern, in short, the premises of Cahiers film esthetics in its early, heroic period, the roots of its critical and, ultimately, its political commitments. The elevation of realism to the status of the “essential” cinematic style involved . . . a correlative disenchament with, and neglect of, many of the early masters—of Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, among the Russians. One could read Bazin quit e regularly in L’Observateur or Esprit, subscribe for years on end to the Cahiers with out confronting, except peripherally, the areas of achievement not deriving from the tradition of Realism. Both Surrealism and Constructivism were largely excluded from Bazin’s concern. And the neglect of the French “avant-garde” of the ’20s—Epstein, L’Herbier, Dulac—established, for the younger critics, a precedent for a present antipathy to the notion of an Independent cinema, divorced from industry and the mass audience, as it has developed in this country.

Though pre-Structuralist in his thinking, as I have indicated, Bazin’s rejection of the “metaphorical” properties of mont age does obviously rest upon a partial acknowledgment of the brilliantly articulated intimation of cinema as language, which informs the entire corpus of Eisenstein’s theoretical writings. One would say now, taking one’s cue from a celebrated essay by Roman Jakobson,2 that Bazin was committed to the “metonymic pole” of language.

“The primacy of the metaphoric process in the literary schools of romanticism and symbolism has been repeatedly acknow ledged, but it is still insufficiently realized that it is the predominance of metonymy which underlies and actually predetermines the so-called realistic trend, which belongs to an intermediary stage between the decline of romanticism and the rise of symbolism and is opposed to both. Following the path of contiguous relationships, the realistic author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time. He is fond of synecdochic details.”

In rejecting the visual tropes of editing and thereby elevating the metonymic mode to the status of an absolute esthetic Bazin recoiled from the full implications of Eisenstein’s insight. He retreated to a definition of cinematic possibility in altogether looser and less fruitful terms: those of cinema which “manipulates” reality and a cinema predicated on “the respect for the global unity of the reality presented.” Both this “unity” and the “ambiguity fundamental to reality” were presumably restored to film through the Realism and Neo-Realism of post-war Italian and American film. “Until that time, Renoir alone in his searchings as a director prior to La Règle du Jeu had forced himself to look back beyond the resources provided by montage and so uncovered the secret of a film form that would permit everything to be said without chopping the world up into little fragments, that would reveal the hidden meanings in people and things without disturbing the unity natural to them.

THE PHRASE IS CENTRAL to an understanding of Bazin. It establishes the range of his assumptions and goals. With it he begins his attempt to legislate a given style as “ontologically” cinematic. That attempt ended, however, in an apotheosis of Neo-Realism as something far more than a style, as the privileged mode of ontological consciousness itself.

The shift required the ultimate and catastrophic disavowal of a modernist tradition grounded in Symbolism. It entailed, more immediately, the critical error which confuses illusionist means with realist ends.

If the “drowning” or clutching gestures of the figures in baroque art do, as Malraux had once pointed out, seem to demand or evoke a cinematic space, film has responded by further extending and intensifying the illusionism brought to an unprecedented height in the baroque convergence of painting, sculpture, architecture and theater. To confuse the possibilities cinema with the prescriptive perpetuation of a realism rooted in the baroque style, however, is not fully to sense the manner in which film, even as it assumed the burden of illusionism relinquished by other arts, necessarily developed in such a manner as to undermine and transform the very spatio-temporal “reality” pre-supposed by traditional pictorial and narrative modes. It is this fact, and this fact alone which impels us to remember, though with a start of surprise, that Griffith is, in one sense, and despite the century of Victorian provincialism which seems to stretch between them, the contemporary of Picasso.

More fundamentally, however, Bazin was unable to accept the modernist questioning of an external “reality” or “order” as such and their restitution within the framework of the work of art itself. Prompted, no doubt, by Sartre’s rejection of the artist-as-God, developed in the essay on Mauriac, he proposes as models of cinematic “authenticity” both Murnau, “who composed his image without montage, revealing its structural depth without in any way cheating” and von Stroheim, who rejected “photographic expressionism and the tricks of montage.” In a phrase which takes on a singularly amusing intonation for the filmgoer of the ’60s familiar with Warhol’s early work, he imagines the ultimate Stroheim film as composed of “a single shot as long-lasting and as close-up as you like.” With this statement, a heavy wheel comes full circle and grinds to a stop. Bazin’s “ontology of cinema” has dissolved into a vision of “reality” present in its infinite density and extension, as to a Divine Voyeur.

The origin of the paradox is obvious in the demand for a “faith in reality” and the expressed distaste for the “cheating” of “fragmentation.” Bazin’s distrust of the analytic technique, of the disjunctive style, of the metaphoric mode is that of the intransigently religious sensibility. This cultivated and discerning man nursed a latent distrust of art itself except as it might implement the revelation of a transcendent reality. His rejection of montage, his opposition to the Eisenstein style and tradition, contests the notion of the esthetic reality or order, created, assembled or synthesized, to which Eisenstein, as a radically modernist sensibility, was committed. We know that for Eisenstein, the 20th century was not, as for Bazin, The Age of the American Novel, but that of Joyce.

(If, for Constructivism, montage could incarnate the Dialectic, for Surrealism it proposed the modalities of the Encounter. It is through their generative esthetic metaphors that Constructivism and Surrealism reach out towards each other, and it is in the area of cinema that they briefly join. We know that the Surrealists, who had not yet made their own films, greeted Potemkin on its appearance in 1925 as the first major achievement in the medium, while the Constructivists had already paid spontaneous homage to the early serials loved by the Surrealists. If each movement imperiously claimed film for its very own, it was because each perceived the manner in which its transforming qualities, esthetic and social, converged with an intimacy and impact that were radically poetic.)

For Bazin, however, as for Rossellini, Poesis had ultimately to be construed as an assault upon a Primal Unity, a sin against Being itself. It was as though the Symbolist proposal of an autonomous, self-justifying and reflexive order, that Esthetic Reformation which engendered modernism, had revived an ancient hubris, substituting for The Creation creative process as the prime and general object of piety, the source of cinematic authenticity. Upon cinema, then, devolved the mission of a Counter-Reformation; Bazin’s emphasis on its “anti-spectacular,” “anti-directional” or “anti-theatrical” quality was directed at defining the strategy and style of a Redemption. Film’s “ontology” consequently required the maintenance of a relationship to “reality as such” which was that of the asymptotic curve; it demanded the effacement of style, of that “shadow” intervening between the eye and an Ultimate Spectacle. It proposed the Artist as Witness.

Now, to the American of the ’60s, this movement of self-effacement will, again, look familiar. It describes in fact, the trajectory of a sensibility investing each moment of history, each esthetic renewal, each critical project with the tension of a spiritual exercise. It tells us why, for the Composer in a culture that produces and re-produces Transcendentalism, Composition, in “acceptance of the Universe,” must tend towards an attentive Composure in the face of Things as They Are. The imperatives of Revelation will, in fact, command a re-definition, a reversal of the Gesammtkunstwerk, and the artist, in contemplation of Totality, “becomes a listener,” absorbed, like The Most Perfect of Wagnerites in the celebration of ritual.

The Filmmaker as Witness, the Composer as Listener. If Bazin’s revocation of the Eisensteinian esthetic lacks the radically challenging, sharpness of Cage’s reversal of the Wagnerian ideal, it is partly because it relied upon a rehabilitation of exhausted—indeed, discredited—presuppositions, those of “realism,” “reality as such.” And, of course its discursive sobriety could hardly match the provocative immediacy of an artist’s strategy. It does, however, constitute another instance of the contempor ary absorption of that spiritual aspiration into esthetic aims which issues, as well, in a poetry of absence and a philosophy of unknowing.

Bazin’s interest for us is assured, however, by the manner in which he reached out for conceptual support to the vivid and subtle developments in philosophy and psychology accessible to him. His indebtedness to Sartre, though immediately and almost everywhere apparent is, however, most strikingly evident in his best work. His realist bias parallels Sartre’s taste for the American novel, and his discussion of spatial “integrity” in fiction and the “documentary” film echoes Sartre’s analysis of style in Faulkner and Dos Passos. At its really concrete best, it is brilliant; the analysis of the use of the horizon line in Paisa has the acuteness of Sartre’s analysis of Camus’ use of verb tenses in L’Etranger.

More interesting, however, at this particular juncture, to American readers and even more thoroughly obscured in the present edition, is the manner in which his insistence upon a philosophical foundation for an ontology of cinema led him to the work of Merleau-Ponty. Bazin turned most particularly, it would seem, to the lecture on Cinema and the New Psychology.3

Beginning with a highly condensed recapitulation of the introductory chapters of The Phenomenology of Perception, that text reviews the role of theories of perception in the evolution of the classical philosophical tradition, culminating in the contribution of gestalt psychology to the revision of the categories and conclusions of that tradition. Presenting, then, the view of perception as the experiencing of the configurative system (requiring the discarding of older, intellectualist conceptions), Merleau-Ponty proceeds to the consideration of consciousness as that hori zon of involvement of self with world in which the ancient antinomies of subjectobject, sign and meaning are resolved.

Discussing more directly cinema’s relation to the new psychology, Merleau-Ponty goes on to speak of film as neither object nor knowledge of, something other than itself, but as an entity whose “meaning” inheres in its forms. Films are objects of perception rather than of thought. Like the new psychology, then, film presents men’s actions rather than their thoughts, and its function will consequently be to render not “inner landscapes” but “behavior.” In this somewhat prescriptive view Bazin found support for his rejection of the esthetic heresy, for his “non-manipulative” cinema which, in its “global” projection of “reality” seemed to allow for an isomorphic relation to the structure of consciousness itself. Leaning heavily in his defense of Rossellini on the work of fellow-Catholics like Alfre,4 he is led to identify the phenomenological attentiveness with “love of characters” and of “reality as such,” “unpenetrated artificially by ideas or passions.” Having sought a theoretical sanction for an esthetic or style in the knowledge that the style reflects the structure and dynamics of human consciousness itself, its meaning and significance, he is obliged, ultimately, to look beyond the level of philosophical discourse to the Logos itself. The Neo-Realist, then, will be a “filtering consciousness”; his images are bound by a kind of ontological identity to their object, and the Neo-Realist cinema, establishing the asymptotic relationship to reality, is ultimately, Contemplation in Love. Max Jacob’s vision of Christ upon a Latin Quarter movie screen some twenty years before appears in retrospect as the opening chapter in Catholicism’s characteristic ingestion of the medium of a secular culture. How modest that epiphany now seems, compared with Cinema’s total conversion to a form of hierophancy!

No esthetic and certainly no developing art could easily support the strain of aspirations of this sort. The very notion of a cinematic ontology obscured the range of cinematic possibilities in evolution. The manner in which Bazin ignored the necessarily analytic and synthetic processes operative in any style—even that of Neo-Realism—was secondary to the way in which he consigned modernism, in film and implicitly in every other art form, to oblivion.

We have lived, as Bazin did not, to see his contradictions transcended, his categories modified, not by criticism alone, but—far more importantly—by the development of film itself in the finest work of the past ten years—that of Resnais, Godard and Bresson, himself.

Godard’s work, in particular, most deeply indebted to that of Rossellini, is at present equally unthinkable outside the context and tradition of assertive or critical editing. His most recent films—Deux ou Trois Choses que Je Sais d’Elle—establish their “globally” presented events as units in a complex syntax involving an immense number of fixed shots, edited with a rhythmic sense which relaxes his allegiance to Murnau, Renoir or Rossellini in a style and structure which acknowledge the de-hierarchization, the reflexive framework of older, modernist film, that of Dziga Vertov, for example.5

In retrieving the metaphoric dimension of editing, cinema reopens most of the issues supposedly settled by Bazin, re-establishing, in a renewed acceptance of film-as-language, its bipolarity. Discarding the category of “manipulation,” cinema is free to redefine the nature and possibilities of cinematic “realism” itself.

It seems, then, as though the intensified secularization of sensibility in a structuralist decade has, above all, provided a context for the restoration of the poetic dimension. In this context, phenomenology, no longer requi red to provide, in its mediation between mystical and secular imperatives, a rationale for a given style, should be free to inquire more deeply into the nature of cinematic experience.

Bazin’s contribution, animated by that mediation, presents an intense intellectual drama, embodies a moment of intellectual history. Beyond this, however, and with a wealth of analytical insights, it proposes, with an ambition hardly disguised by its modest tone, a range of possible relationships between art and ideas, between ideas and the critical function. It rehearses, as it were, the modes of these relationships: discourse, hypostatization and drama. In the context of Christian piety, lingering undissolved in the existentialist climate, film history tended toward hagiology. Murnau assumed the role of the St. John, his work constituting a pre-figuration. With the advent of Rossellini, piety and authenticity could seem to fuse in the fulfillment of cinematic promise. One must understand the style, tone and direction of Cahiers criticism of the ’40s and ’50s as inflected by an evangelical tradition, straining to adjust to the values and categories of a secular age.

In lesser men, the projection of that strain made for the stridency and hysteria of Cahiers criticism at its worst. In Bazin’s work, thoroughly interiorized, it produced the intellectual pathos of his scrupulous and unflagging effort. One will read Bazin some years hence as one now reads Yvor Winters, one’s affectionate admiration sustained by a willing suspension of disbelief.

Annette Michelson



1. He had also argued (in “The Filmic Fourth Dimension,” Film Form, Meridian Books, New York, 1957) that the dialectical character ot his montage, as seen in The Old and the New (known also under the title of The General Line), proposing the destruction of an “aristocracy of individualistic dominants from orthodox montage,” created a method of “democratic equality of rights for all provocations, or stimuli, regarding them as a summary, as a complex.” Allowing for the obviously faulty quality of the translation, one can compare this with Bazin’s oftenquoted analysis of Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives in which the shot-in-depth is involved in “integrating . . . the maximum of reality with a maximum of neutrality, leaving the spectator free to observe, choose and reach his own conclusions.” Bazin’s contention that Wyler’s “deep focus aims at a liberal and democratic quality corresponding both to that of the American spectator and to that of the film’s heroes” reveals through the political metaphor, his basic esthetic conservatism and his fidelity to the conventions of realism, Eisenstein demonstrates his preoccupation with both the destruction of certain prevailing structures or hierarchies already undermined in modernist literature and music by the revision of syntactical structure, the emergence of atonality, and an eventual re-structuring, as in music, through the activation of the medium’s various parameters.

2. See “Aphasia: The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles,” in Fundamentals of Language by Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle, Moulton and Co., 1956. The passage quoted here is immediately followed by a brief proposal of the polarization principle as applied to painting and cinema. I have preferred not to extend my consideration of the general principle to the implications of these particular remarks, as I consider them to require, in the light of contemporary film, a modification which would amount to a radical revision quite outside the scope of this review.

3. An address delivered in 1945 to students of L’IDHEC, the State Cinema School, and subsequently published in Sens et Non-Sens, Editions Nagel, Paris, 1966.

4. See “Cinéma et Phénoménologie” by Amédée Ayfre, Cahiers du Cinema No. 17, November, 1952, and “La Vérité Cinématographique” by René Michal, Cahiers du Cinéma No. 29, December, 1953. The Abbé Ayfre’s essay is the locus classicus of Catholicism’s inflection of phenomenological method for esthetic purposes. It generated a discussion pursued in other early issues of the Cahiers, with varying degrees of relevance and precision, by Maurice Schérer, Albert Laffay and Hans Lucas (alias Jean-Luc Godard) and by A. de Waelhens in La Revue de Filmologie (See “Mouvement, Mystere et Horizon au Cinéma,” October, 1948). Discussion of the problematic aspects of the framework and pre-suppositions provided by the Merleau-Ponty text is, however, still lacking.

5. Although Dziga Vertov naturally figures in an anthology of interviews entitled Le Cinéma Sovietique par Ceux qui l’ont Fait (Editeurs Français Réunis, Paris, 1966), selected for destruction in the cultural revolution proposed by the adolescent Parisian Maoists of La Chinoise, the implication is, I think, to be taken no more—and no less—seriously than Godard’s uneasy, ambivalent and timid jabs at Structuralism in general or at Michel Foucault, in particular, extended, one feels, as awkward gestures of allegiance to Sartre, an early and faithful supporter of Godard. Questions of current Parisian folklore aside, the time for a re-evaluation of Dziga Vertov’s immensely adventurous oeuvre, of his radicalization of the montage esthetic, is at hand.