Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review: What is Cinema?: Volume 1

What is Cinema?: Volume 1 is one of the most important, and in my opinion best, books on film theory and aesthetics as well as the namesake of this blog.  It is written by Andre Bazin, known as the father of the French New Wave because he was a mentor, in film studies and life, to many of the new waves greatest names.  The book follows certain thematic lines through numerous essays.  The first important line is the ontological identity of the film image.  Secondly, he looks at what sort of aesthetics should flow from this identity.  He then moves on to look at controversies and challenges in the relationship of film to literature.  After that, film and theater are compared through a similar lens.  Challenges of film and painting are also looked at.  Lastly are some essays on Robert Bresson and the biggest film icon of all time, Charlie Chaplin.  The book has some challenges, especially for those who may not have as much background knowledge of his subject matter.  Bazin's theoretical framework, like others, is not universal and absolute, but I do think it is perhaps the greatest path that film can explore.  What is Cinema? is a fantastic book and a great starting point for those looking to have more meaningful thoughts on film. 

Andre Bazin is a great film theorist and is perhaps best known as the father of the French New Wave.  During World War II, Bazin started a cinema club which frequently showed government banned films.  After the war, he became a movie writer.  In 1951, he co-found the famous French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema.  There he was a mentor for other film writers who would go on to be great directors such as Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard.  Truffaut even dedicated his film The 400 Blows to Bazin.  Bazin was not merely a film writer, but a true Renaissance man, a lover of the arts, the sciences and a Catholic Christian no less, all of which comes through in his work.  He was also said to be a generous and friendly man.  He died of leukemia in 1958 at age 40.

The first important subject that Bazin covers is the ontology of the cinematographic image.  He starts by looking at the photographic image.  Centuries of science and invention led to the moment of modern photography in 1822.  The camera represents everything that so many artists had aspired to for centuries: realism.  The chemical, scientific and automatic nature of the camera gives even the most grainy photograph an objectivity that the most perfectly realistic painting can never have.  Photography is the "embalming" of space and time, holding on to its given moment for posterity.  Bazin even praises the fact that photography has freed up painting from the desire to be realistic.  The cinema truly, though, brings time and duration to photography.  The cinema is objectivity in time.  These are the most immediate characteristics of photography and cinema.

The second important idea that Bazin looks into is what sort of aesthetic should flow from the identity of the cinematographic image.  Bazin believes in the aesthetic of the long take over heavy editing.  Bazin looks at the continuity editing more common in pre-World War II American movies and compares it to the long take that was seeing a rise in use after the war.  Deep focus photography was an emerging technique which allowed all spatial depths to be in focus, thus allowing large spaces to be seen in one take and removing the "need" for continuity editing.  The long take also allows for spatio-temporal continuity, thus allowing for more realism.  Also for Bazin, time and duration have meaning and not just the image has meaning.  Time is a content.  Also, long take, without taking us by the hand and showing us exactly what we "need" to see, leaves room for the same ambiguity that accompanies real life.  Bazin praises the movie Citizen Kane for its use of long takes, but also for its using of editing and montage, not as a device for every scene, but used on occasion to explicitly compress time.

On top of Bazin's main theoretical preoccupations which weave in and out of the book, he explores some other topics including the relationship between film and literature and book adaptations on screen.  He goes against the claims of an insular cinema that should be cut off from other arts.  In the history of art, when a new medium arrives, its first products are usually derivative and over time it moves more in its own direction.  Film, on the other hand, initially bucked this trend and found new subject matter for itself from the start, but then later moved to literary adaptions.  This unprecedented beginning led to unprecedented expectation of independence that is somewhat arbitrary and unnecessary.  The world of literature brings a large supply of great characters, stories and ideas.  Granted, original screenplays would be the ideal, but literature has a longer history to choose from.  Literature, in Bazin's estimation, has nothing to lose in the relationship.  If an adaptation is bad, the book is made neither better nor worse.  If an adaptation is good, the book will gain a wider audience.  Bazin seems to have an acute realization of cinema as a mass art and the other arts for the rich and cultured.

                                                                                I only know about this...                          ...because of this.

Bazin moves on to explore adaptation further in looking at film and the theater.  Many of the same objections and refutations are brought up.  So-called "canned theater" is looked at.  Despite its deep failings, Bazin warns against going in the opposite direction and movies becoming arbitrarily cinematic to a fault.  Theatrical elements and mise-en-scene can potentially be useful as long as there is an aesthetic unity.  Desire to be cinematic can garble up the elements of a filmed play.  Bazin goes on to look at the main difference between film and theater, presence and non-presence, essentially saying that the actors in a film are as good as present from the psychological standpoint of an engrossed viewer.  Identification is also dealt with, the hypothesis being that an audience is more likely to vicariously identify with the hero on film than on stage.  The perfect example being when the hero gets the girl.  On film, the male audience desires this, but on stage, there is a certain jealousy.  I like the theater for a sense of decorum and doing something special.

Lastly, Bazin has separate articles on Robert Bresson and Charlie Chaplin among a few other miscellaneous topics.  He looks particularly at Robert Bresson's film Diary of a Country Priest.  He examines the very sparse, "underdone" and "un-cinematic" aesthetics of this work.  He looks at the style of adaptation, the underacting and the metaphysical symbolism of the human face.  In his article on Chaplin, he deftly describes the characteristics of Chaplin's tramp character, giving us a more calculated sense of who the character is and what his motivations are.


This book, while being fantastic, will be challenging to some.  While I hadn't seen every movie cited in the book, I had seen many of the movies within the realist school that Bazin is most commonly talking about.  I did watch Diary of a Country Priest before reading the chapter on Bresson, which is good because the chapter would have made little sense without it.  I would recommend at least watching the most cited movies in the book alongside reading it.  A quick trip to the index can tell you what those movies are.  The theories in the book are impossible to truly grasp without at least a few examples.  

Bazin's approach to cinema, while not universal and absolute, is in my opinion, the best path for cinema.  There are of course many examples of other aesthetic systems producing great movies.  Bazin contrasts those theorists who "put their faith in the image" with those who "put their faith in reality," positing himself as the latter.  Bazin is a Renaissance man of multiple interests, a Catholic Christian and a humanist who realizes that there is a world of import and wonder beyond the screen.  Movies are not a means of escape, but a means of engaging with, even contemplating, reality at large.  Bazin brings out this connection to wider themes of the human existence through contemplation of the material world.  This is, in my opinion, not only a higher, but a more challenging to make, form of cinema.  One of the biggest challenges to Bazin's old theories of photographic realism are special effects in the digital age, thus cutting into but not entirely removing his relevancy.  

I highly recommend this fantastic book to anyone who thinks they might be interested in it. 

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