Friday, May 25, 2007

Andre Bazin in the 21st Century

Reading Andre Bazin today, one is struck by his insistent definition of cinema's function as the recreation of reality (in his famous formulation "cinema is objectivity in time"), a definition seemingly at odds with prevailing contemporary interpretations of the medium's objectives. To this end, he largely decries the use of montage, the various techniques for cutting in between different shots that disturb the spatial unity of a scene and introduce artificiality to a medium designed to capture reality. Needless to say, nobody today thinks of cinema in such pure, organic terms. The artificiality inherent in the medium is frequently embraced and even made the subject of certain films. What value then do Bazin's formulations hold for 21st century cinema, and which filmmakers working today aim to capture Bazin's filmed reality without recourse to such "artifical" methods as montage?

In his 1945 essay "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," Bazin traces the history of the plastic arts which he dates back to the Egyptians' embalming of mummies, art as preservation of life in death's despite. Bazin traces this function of art through painting and sculpture, which aimed to capture their subjects for all time, and finally into photography which allowed for the objective capturing of reality and freed the other arts from their mimetic duties, allowing them to delve into abstraction. The invention of cinema is the next progression in this development of an art of objectivity, an advance over photography since it records the temporal element as well as the visual. Any further development in the technology, Bazin reasons, such as the introduction of sound, automatically improves the medium since it allows for a greater reality to be fixed.

Bazin also offers (in his composite essay "Evolution of the Language of Cinema" written between 1950 and 1955) a historical reading of cinema which begins in the late silent era. He contrasts two strands of filmmaking, that which relies on montage, fancy lighting and other cinematic trickery and that which is more concerned with verisimilitude. Interestingly enough, Bazin includes Murnau and Dreyer in the latter category, despite the fact that each relies on heavily impressionistic elements to achieve his cinematic effects. The highly manipulated images in Murnau, such as the shot of Mephistopheles towering over the town in Faust or the numerous discontinuous cuts in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc would seem to contradict Bazin's assessment. On the whole, however, Bazin's shrewd reading of the divergent strands of filmmaking in the silent era is largely accurate.

Bazin considers the early sound cinema (the films of the 1930s) to be a step backward in the medium's development since it largely relies on a heavily manipulative system of editing which unnaturally alternates a series of close-ups with long and medium shots. Interestingly enough, this system has come to be considered the classic Hollywood method. By the 1940s, however, particularly with the development of such democratizing tools as deep focus photography which eliminated the need for montage, cinema was once again freed from its reliance on dishonest techniques. For Bazin, the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s and 1950s were the pinnacle of this strand of cinematic achievement and the fullest expression to date of the capabilities of the medium in capturing reality. Bazin died in 1958, just before the birth of the French Nouvelle Vague that he inspired. For all his influence on the movement, however, one wonders what he would have made of, for example, the films of Jean-Luc Godard which make a virtue of their own artificiality. Godard was a knowledgable reader of Bazin and adapted some of the older man's theories to fit his own aesthetic, but watching one of Godard's pictures we have the feeling we are a long way from Bazin's objective cinema.

In the time since the Nouvelle Vague, cinema has seemingly moved further away from his ideal. This is especially true of Hollywood cinema which seems to prize superficial effects over any meaningful depiction of reality, but even iconoclastic directors like David Lynch, with his highly impressionistic works, seem to have left Bazin behind. So the question remains: what applications does Bazin's work have in today's cinema? Interestingly enough, many of the best filmmakers working today have gone back to a cinema of spatial unity, though whether or not their methods serve to create increased verisimilitude is debatable. Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Bela Tarr, the Dardenne brothers, Abbas Kiarostami and Tsai Ming-Liang, among the most important directors working today, use extended takes and, in the case of the Taiwanese filmmakers (Hou and Tsai), primarily stationary cameras. Does the seeming objectivity of these techniques serve to heighten the films' reality in the Bazinian sense? The vision of these directors is so distinctive that it is difficult to lump their works under the heading of a single theory. Still, it can be said to some degree that these filmmakers, along with many of their peers, allow for a capturing of a reality unencumbered by cinematic trickery. The reality they capture, however, is largely the subjective reality of the filmmakers' distinct worldview and not Bazin's "objectivity in time". (Which is not to say that Bazin denied his director an individual voice, simply that the filmmaker was required to present his vision without an undue insistence on showing his directorial hand.)

From the haunting black and whites that conjure up a world on the brink of collapse in Tarr's The Werckmeister Harmonies to Hou's masterful intercutting of different time periods (while maintaining temporal and spatial unity within individual scenes) in Good Men, Good Women, the works of these filmmakers expand rather than narrow the possibilities of film. One need not take a formalist approach or fall back on camera trickery to achieve a distinctive and highly personal cinema. While the writings of Andre Bazin may strike the contemporary reader as too limiting (we are unused to prescriptive criticism today) and he undeniably excludes some important works from his filmic worldview, Bazin's vision of cinema is finding new applications among the best filmmakers working in the 21st century. Far from limiting their own directorial voice, these directors are offering their own subjective take on Bazin's cinema of reality.

1 comment:

Amnesiac said...

If Bazin likes objectivity and deep-focus so much, and wants a film to be a transparent window into reality, how does he tolerate the vision of an artist? How can an artist input his subjective vision into a film and still please Bazin?