PRINT September 1972

Screen/Surface: The Politics of Illusionism


IN 1952 ANDRÉ BAZIN undertook to chart the course of film’s “New Avant-Garde,” beginning with an endorsement of narrative conventions in cinema that was to produce the orthodoxy of the ’60s and its attendant strategy, la politique des auteurs.

We may use the abandoned concept of the avant-garde if we restore its literal meaning, and, thereby, its relativity. For us avant-garde films are those in the forefront of the cinema. By the cinema we mean of course the product of a particular industry whose fundamental and indisputable law is the winning, by one means or another, of public acceptance. This may seem a paradoxical statement to make, but it carries a corrective provided by the notion of innovation. The avant-garde of 1949 is just as prone to misunderstanding on the part of the mass public as that of 1925. . . . This avant-garde arouses no less hostility. On the contrary, it elicits more, because not soliciting misunderstanding, attempting as it does to work within cinematic norms it runs great risks: both misunderstanding on the part of the public and the immediate withdrawal of the producers’ support. The Patron Saint of this avant-garde is and will remain Eric Von Stroheim.

This manifesto, published in the tenth issue of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, was framed in reply to a short essay by Hans Richter on "THE FILM AS AN ORIGINAL ART FORM”1 which posited a future for a tradition represented by the past work of Eggeling, Léger, Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia, Ruttman, Len Lye, Cocteau, and Richter himself, citing the continuing efforts of Maya Deren, Frank Stauffacher, James Broughton, Curtiss Harrington (to those names one might at that time have added those of Kenneth Anger, Harry Smith, and Sidney Peterson). Neither Bazin nor Richter were then in a position to sense the imminence of a new era initiated by the work of Stan Brakhage and Robert Breer, but Richter had, obviously, some awareness of a possible continuity and rather than accept Bazin’s characteristically tactful description of him as the sole survivor of a noble line, he pointed with discernment and generosity to younger artists then working in obscurity to create options in cinema consistent with the aspirations and achievements of advanced painting and music in this century.

Bazin’s reply, then, laid the foundation for that revision of the canon which was to animate the critical orthodoxy of the postwar period and well into the ’60s. It was quite the natural response of a man overjoyed at the thought that cinema was no longer to be considered the inheritor of painting and music but could take its place as the competitor of the novel—this at a time, of course, when the creative energies at work in the novelistic form were particularly low. For those unconcerned with advanced and innovative art, the position of Bazin was to afford a particular sense of ease regained.

One hears it in the long, public sigh of relief exhaled by Andrew Sarris:

I have always felt a cultural inferiority complex about Hollywood. Just a few years ago, I would have thought it unthinkable to speak in the same breath of a “commercial” director like Hitchcock and a “pure” director like Bresson. Even today, Sight and Sound uses different type sizes for Bresson and Hitchcock films. After years of tortured revaluation, I am now prepared to stake my critical reputation, such as it is, on the proposition that Alfred Hitchcock is artistically superior to Robert Bresson by every criterion of excellence, and further that, film for film, director for director, the American cinema has been consistently superior to that of the rest of the world from 1915 through 1962. Consequently, I now regard the auteur theory primarily as a critical device for recording the history of the American cinema, the only cinema in the world worth exploring in depth beneath the frosting of a few great directors at the top.2

The dramatically confessional tone celebrates a shift of power and perspective. One thinks of Pound’s reevaluation of the classical canon:

I took my critical life in my hand, some years ago, when I suggested that Catullus was in some ways a better writer than Sappho, not for melopoeia, but for economy of words, I don’t in the least know whether this is true. One should start with an open mind. The snobbism of the Renaissance held that all Greek poetry was better than any Latin poetry . . . I doubt if Catullus is inferior to Sappho. I doubt if Propertius is a millimetre inferior to his Greek antecedents; Ovid is for us a storehouse of a vast mass of matter that we cannot NOW get from the Greek. . . . 3

The rhetorical strategies are strikingly similar; the difference lies, of course, in the functional, practical quality of Pound’s criticism, and its sense of the useful, its concern with the future of poetry. And it is significant, too, that by the time Sarris came to his position, that consciousness of an alternate aspiration or tradition which forms the background of Bazin’s statement had been expunged. The American disciple commits himself to a curatorship from which, nevertheless, that dimension of historical awareness which informs the criticism of the Master with a certain exquisite tact, is missing.

Writing in this journal four years ago,4 I examined in some critical detail the basic presuppositions and consequences of Bazin’s position, its fundamentally retrograde implications, and proposed as well some indications of critical tasks ahead. I think it interesting at this point, to reconsider them in the interests of a more generally retrospective view. The past five years have seen, of course, the erosion of the movie industry and the forms generated by it. It has seen, as well, Bazin’s critical position assailed and defeated in the very review he founded, and a resurgence, in the politically radicalized climate of 1968 and after, of a more radical esthetic aspiration.

Bazin argued for the cinema of “transparency,” for a style rooted in mimesis, generating the kind of spatio-temporal continuity which would guarantee the integrity of dramatic action and, above all, of the “ambiguity” of the phenomenal world. Reading his early and major critical pieces, on both the American Cinema and that of the Italian Neo-Realists, one finds him responding to their renewal of energy in the immediate postwar period in a manner exactly parallel—though with infinitely more sophistication and grasp of cinematic form and technique—to that of American critics of the day. Although I have, in the past, compared him with James Agee, the resemblance of basic stance and expectation to those of Robert Warshow is perhaps even more striking. All three men brought to their work a good deal of moral passion, and the pathos of their styles is enhanced, not generated, by the early death that struck them all.

Here is Warshow on Rossellini’s Païsa:5

These images have an autonomy that makes them stronger and more important than any ideas one can attach to them. . . . His scene moves so rapidly that the action is always one moment ahead of the spectator’s understanding. And the camera itself remains neutral, waiting passively for the action to co me toward it and simply recording as much of the action as possible, with no opportunity for the variation of tempo and the active selection of detail that might be used to “interpret” the scene; visually the scene remains on the same level of intensity from beginning to end, except for the increasing size and clarity of the objects as they approach the camera—and this has the effect of a “natural” rather than an interpretative variation; events seem to develop according to their own laws and to take no account of how one might or ”should" feel about them. . . . All that matters is the events themselves in their character as recorded experience, not why these things happen, but the fact that they happen, and above all the particular forms of their happening.

And in a final essay, a reevaluation of Soviet film of the heroic era (written, of course, at the height of the cold war and published in the anticommunist journal which had originated in the John Reed Club), he inveighs against Eisenstein and against that entire generation of radical innovators, echoing, unknowingly and at a distance, Bazin’s criticism of the analytic strategy of montage, though with an accent of philistinism quite foreign to Bazin. Disregarding the manner in which the constantly percussive montage of October renders the rhythm of revolution, the manner in which the process of intellection constantly elicited in the spectator by the dialectic of montage and its metaphorical clusters, is Eisenstein’s strategy for the evocation of the birth of revolutionary consciousness. Warshaw complains that “what we want most, that cinema rarely gives us; some hint of the mere reality of the events it deals with.” Dovjenko, though not exempted from condemnation is granted one redeeming virtue: passivity.

He is most successful in presenting the life of the peasants when he is willing to accept it as something irremediably “given” and devotes himself to recording its meaningful appearances. Whenever he assumes a more active posture—which is to say, whenever he becomes fully an “artist” in the sense in which the Soviet film directors understood that term—his work takes on as glassy and inhuman a brilliance as Eisenstein’s.6

And here is Bazin on Païsa, a film which he, too, considered exemplary and paradigmatic.

The mind has to move from one fact to another, like jumping from rock to rock in order to cross a river. The foot may hesitate in choosing between two stones, or may miss it or slip. So with our mind. Because the essence of the stone lies not in the fact that it permits the traveler to cross the river without getting his feet wet. . . . Facts are facts, our imagination makes use of them, but their primary function is not to be useful. In the standard cinematic script, the fact is attacked by the camera, broken up, analyzed, reconstituted; it retains its nature as fact, of course, but is enveloped in abstraction, like a brick of clay. Facts, in a Rossellini film, take on meaning not in the manner of a tool whose-function is determined in advance like its form. Facts follow each other, and the mind is forced to perceive that they resemble each other and that in resembling each other, they come to mean something which was contained within them. . . . But the nature of the “image-fact” is not only to be involved with other facts in the relationships invented by the mind. . . . Considered in itself, each image being only a fragment of reality preexistent to meaning, the screen should present an equal concrete density.7

Bazin, working in the lively intellectual climate of postwar Paris was able to fuse his theoretical heritage and analytic powers in a critical venture whose quality, breadth, and power are incomparable with that of any American film critic. The manner in which specific insights are generated or supported by a synthesis of phenomenological method and Catholic sensibility by no means free of contradictions, constitutes a still fascinating chapter in the intellectual history of the period.

I have previously8 stressed the manner in which the notion of “ambiguity” derived from the literature of existentialism. (Simone de Beauvoir’s supplement to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness published in this country as The Ethics of Ambiguity, Sartre’s own literary criticism, and Merleau-Ponty’s single essay on film esthetics are the sources to be studied.) I have been, above all, concerned to show how the hierophantic thrust of Bazin’s theory is fundamentally antipoetic and most certainly antimodernist. I should now like to emphasize the manner in which Bazin, seizing upon the work of Renoir and Welles, presented with a really brilliant insight the effect produced by depth of field (as in La Règle du Jeu and Citizen Kane) as working to expand and intensify the possibilities of “ambiguity.” Expanding and intensifying the illusionism of that spatial continuum in which the beholder’s gaze and attention is, to use Bazin’s term, “free” to move, to “choose,” to “miss”—and to “slip,” as well—it permits the beholder to encounter and explore the visual field. The viewer, unguided by an assertive style, proceeds in time to apprehend the données of that field, by implication rehearsing through the experience of film-viewing the existential situation of being-in-the-world.

It is interesting to note Bazin’s use, as an ultimate supporting argument (or rhetorical strategy) of a political metaphor: the depth of field which underwrites this ambiguity guarantees as well the more “democratic” ordering of phenomena presented. Not subjected to the subjective emphases of the more assertively edited footage and the metaphorical thrust of the montage style, the material is not in any way subject to hierarchization (or “distortion”), and the spectator retains his “democratic” right as it were, to the constitution of meaning from within that cinematic manifold, that “reality,” those “facts,” the naked and modest revelation of which, the director in his loving respect for “things” themselves, contents himself with. One can with a certain justice speak of Bazin’s critical and theoretical work as providing an esthetics of postwar Christian Democracy (and of Warshaw, of course, as the product of American liberalism, its native empiricism intact in his sociological bent and uncorrupted by any theoretical impulse).

Eisenstein had, interestingly enough, used the very same metaphor to support his case for the style of montage, antithetical to that of the Realists and neo-Realists. In proposing the “montage of attractions” as isomorphic with respect to the triadic process of the dialectic, he argued, too, for the “democratic” freedom of the spectator, the active quality of his film-viewing experience as involved in the constant apprehension of the dialectic of contrasts and of metaphors extended by Eisenstein to every parameter of film. And in that incessant radicalization process which animates his work from Strike to the Mexican venture, Old and New, the last film made before his departure to Europe and America represents a particular step forward. "In distinction from orthodox montage according to particular dominants, Old and New was edited differently. In place of an ‘artistocracy’ of individualistic dominants we brought a method of ‘democratic’ equality of rights for all provocations or stimuli, regarding them as a summary, a complex.”9

Our two major theoreticians—Europeans both—elevated their chosen cinematic styles into filmic ontologies, proceeding then to hypostatize those filmic ontologies and the experiences afforded by them into paradigms of ontological awareness as such—Bazin positing the response to the spatio-temporal continuity of neo-Realism as that of existential freedom viewed as choosing in ambiguity, Eisenstein offering to his spectators the experience of revolutionary consciousness unfolding in the apprehension of the dialectic. They join, then, in common recognition of the cognitive experience as central to the strategies and ends of art. In this they are not, as we know, alone; they restate each for his time and for the new and rapidly developing medium, the century’s concern with art as an “orphic explanation of the world.” In so doing they proposed, as well—as if in concert, as if united through the magic of a Kulechov effect—the terms of a debate on the politics of illusionism.

For someone like myself, working as an art critic during the late ’50s and early ’60s, Bazin’s taste and theory tended to sever film from the modernist tradition; his allegiance to the notion of film as only and irretrievably a “mass medium” effected a breach between one’s experience and expectations of the work of advanced painters and musicians on the one hand, and of film makers on the other. He had, in his filmic ontology, precluded the interest and development of processes of abstraction, of reflexiveness and the critical examination, by and through the art itself, of the terms of its illusionism. All this was unacceptable.

The disaffection, moreover, with respect to the work of the generation of 1925, the assumption of its inevitable and irreversible decline was offensive to both taste and to one’s sense of history. And there was by 1962 a small body of French film (the early works of Godard and Resnais) and of film work and theory coming from America which argued the bankruptcy of this orthodoxy and its outgrowth, la politique des auteurs.

Central to that sense of renewal in American cinema of independent persuasion was the formal evidence of the manner in which it was nourished and sustained, as in the work of Robert Breer, by a tradition extending from the Bauhaus and Dadaism and, as in the work of Stan Brakhage, by Abstract Expressionism. The guarantee of success seemed, from film to film, to lie in both artists’ attempt to rethink the nature of cinematic illusion, and in doing so to propose new structural modes.

By 1963, Brakhage had, moreover, in Metaphors On Vision, called into question the authority and the stylistic presuppositions of the technological données of the film-making process itself.

And here, somewhere, we have an eye (I’ll speak for myself) capable of an imagining (the only reality). And there (right there) we have the camera eye (the limitation the original liar). . . . And here, somewhere, we have an eye capable of an imagining. And then we have the camera eye, its lenses grounded (sic) to achieve 19th-century Western compositional perspective (as best exemplified by the 19th-century architectural conglomeration of details of the “classic” ruin) in bending the light and limiting the frame of the image just so, its standard camera and projector speed for recording movement geared to the feeling of the ideal slow Viennese waltz and even its tripod head, being the neck it swings on, balled with bearings to permit it that Les Sylphides motion ideal for the contemplative romantic and virtually restricted to horizontal and vertical movements (pillars and horizon lines) a diagonal requiring a major adjustment, its lenses coated or provided with filters, its light meters balanced and its color film manufactured, to produce that picture post card effect (salon painting) exemplified by those oh so blue skies and peach skins.10

And this passage, of course, finds its equivalent in the Brakhage style, rhythm, pace of editing, the use of paint upon film, the use of extreme close-up, the various strategies which in their attempt to eradicate the perspective built into that lens, simultaneously produced, as did Breer’s single-frame composition, another kind of filmic temporality, thereby creating the conditions for a critique of filmic illusionism.

Brakhage’s text contested the authority of the perspectival code inscribed within the camera lens, proposing an authority of the Imagination, and it thereby anticipates by almost a decade the revolt which was finally to bring the era of Bazin’s critical dominance in his own milieu to an end. When that revolt came, it spoke, as one had predicted it would, the theoretical idiom of its Parisian milieu; a demotic Marxism, with an admixture of psychoanalytic and structuralist vernacular—the language of the New Synthesis, and of the New Avant-Garde. The impetus to rebellion was quite naturally generated by May ’68, producing the insistence that film must work for the fusion of political and esthetic radicalism requiring a reformulation of its economic and political substructure and its very technology. Thus, “It is interesting to note that it is precisely when Hegel is summing up the history of painting, when painters are beginning to be aware that the scientific perspective which determines its relation to the figure is the product of a specific cultural pattern . . . that it is precisely at that moment that Niepce invents photography. Niepce (1765–1833), a contemporary of Hegel (1770–1881), is called upon to confirm the Hegelian view, to provide a mechanical reproduction of the ideology contained in the perspectival code, its norms and their effects of censorship.”11

And Godard, never to be outdone:

It was invented . . . the day when bankers in the service of Reaction invented the railroad and the telegraph, that is, the mass media. When the bourgeoisie had to find something other than painting and the novel as a means of disguising reality for the masses, when they had to invent the ideology of the new mass medium that was called photography. It’s not the Niepce-Hegel relationship that counts, but the Niepce-Rothschild relationship (or Hegel in the pay of Rothschild).12

With this utterance the wheel has come full circle, and the disciple of Rossellini who had dedicated his first “feature” to Monogram Pictures, has turned the frustrated energy of his radical aspiration back against the illusionistic nature of his instrument. That full turn occupied a decade, producing the gradually evolving critique of cinematic illusionism through which Godard has, as it were, backed into the work and the theoretical positions of the American independents.

In the early ’60s, however, this dialogue had not yet been engaged. One was struck by the manner in which the kind of commitment to the mode and ideology of illusionism inscribed within the style and theory of the time was inconsistent with one’s critical interests and standards with respect to other arts. And if one attended, as I did, to the situation of both cinema and painting, one saw, as one glanced away from the Screen, a curious situation developing within and around the Surface.

Annette Michelson



1. Reprinted in translation in that same issue of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, it had first appeared in an issue of the Art Journal, and somewhat later in Film Culture, January, 1955, and is most easily accessible in The Film Culture Reader, edited and introduction by P. Adams Sitney, New York, 1970.

2. Andrew Sarris, “Notes On the Auteur Theory in 1962,” Film Culture, Winter, 1962–63. Reprinted in The Film Culture Reader.

3. Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading, Norfolk, Connecticut, n.d., p. 48.

4. Annette Michelson, “What is Cinema?,” Artforum, Summer, 1968.

5. Robert Warshaw, The Immediate Experience, New York, 1970, pp. 251–259.

6. Warshaw, “Re-Viewing the Russian Movies,” The Immediate Experience, pp. 269–282.

7. André Bazin, Qu’est-ce que le cinema?, Vol. IV, Paris, 1962, p. 32.

8. Michelson, “What Is Cinema?”

9. Sergei M. Eisenstein, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension,” Film Form, Essays in Film Theory, ed. and trans. Jay Leyda, Cleveland, Ohio, p. 66".

10. Stan Brakhage, Metaphors On Vision, edited and introduction by P. Adams Sitney, Film Culture, Inc., 1963, n.p.

11. Marcelin Pleynet, “Debat: Economique, ldéologique, Formel,” Cinéthique, no. 3.

12. Jean-Luc Godard, “Premier ‘Sons Anglais’,” Cinéthique, no. 5.