Friday, September 14, 2012

Book Review: What is Cinema?: Volume 2

What is Cinema?: Volume 2 is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor.  This second book, itself another collection of essays, moves away from the wider theoretical framework of volume 1 and looks more at specific movies, film movements and genres.  He begins by looking at Italian neorealism, its qualities, and its direction.  The works of Luchino Visconti, Vittorio DeSica and Roberto Rosellini are explored among others.  Next, some of the sound era work of Charlie Chaplin is explored, mostly in contrast to his ealier work.  Lastly, American cinema and especially the Western are explored.  A few short essays of less interest are interspersed throughout.

In Bazin's view of neorealism, its most important element is the primacy of reality.  This, to me, is a metaphysical viewpoint.  This avoids, on a certain level, the poetic and certainly the expressionistic note.  Very existence, in and of itself, precedes story, message or ideology.  As Bazin notes, the neorealists know better than to "treat...reality as a means to an end."  As to their approach with characters, "Nobody is reduced to the condition of an object or a symbol that would allow one to hate them in comfort without having first to leap the hurdle of their humanity."

He goes on to look at two types of realism, aesthetic and documentary.  Aesthetic realism deals with long takes and the continuity of reality and documentary realism deals with real settings, objects, etc. as content.  Both of these types merge in the film La Terra Trema, directed by Luchino Visconti, which Bazin devotes a short essay to.  La Terra Trema is the story of poor fishermen at the mercy of greedy merchants.  One of the fishermen attempts to strike out on his own.  Bazin promotes an ascetic aesthetic and claims that the art is in the cinematography.  La Terra Trema's images are praised for their beauty and their knowledge of their own subject matter.  Every event is played out in its fullness and not reduced to dramatic beats.  Every shot is full of life and action.  The actors, all non-professionals, are amazing.  I definitely agree with him there.  Bazin notes one problem in that Visconti shows a "disinclination to sacrifice anything to drama."  This bores the public which limits the future of Visconti's aesthetic if it can't be used to more commercial ends.  I personally liked the movie and found it dramatically tighter than I would have guessed.

In the next essay, Bazin discusses what is arguably the greatest of the neorealist films, Vittorio DeSica's The Bicycle Thief.  He first looks at the mundane surface of the story.  A man has a bike, which he needed for his job, stolen.  He goes out looking for it.  Bazin hails it as the best communist film of the decade.  This is because the ideology of the movie is not clearly on display.  It doesn't go out of its way contriving the story to prove any thesis.  The "events" of the movie are mostly accidental, having no explicit meaning.  As Bazin puts it, "events and people are never introduced in support of a social thesis-- but the thesis emerges fully armed and all the more irrefutable because it is presented as something thrown in into the bargain.  It is our intelligence that discerns and shapes it, not the film."  Bazin goes on to praise the use of the son who technically doesn't change the story, but gives it a depth.  He also praises the use of non-actors and the elimination of the very idea of "acting."  The Bicycle Thief is a series of "accidents" that loosely resembles drama and is more powerful for its lack of melodrama.  It commands our attention by its reality.  It is nearly an immediate fact to be reckoned with.  A couple more essays on DeSica follow this chapter.

The essays on the later work of Charlie Chaplin interested me much less than anything else in the book.  Chaplin strikes me as very "Hollywood" in comparison to the other films discussed and mostly praised here.  Chaplin's later work is looked at as a response to his earlier work as the Tramp in the 1920's and before.  The essays should be at least somewhat interesting to those, like myself who have seen many of Chaplin's works, especially the ones cited in the book.

It is neat to read a highbrow French film critic so in love with the American Western.  He considers it the "American film par excellence."  After listing off the most obvious semantic signifiers of the Western and noting its universal, timeless appeal, he looks at the Western as myth and some of the ideas in it.  One of these is the ultimate purity of women and their worthiness of a pedestal.  This leads to the feats of the man in pursuit of her.  He also looks at law, morality and might within the Western.  As a final observation, he notes, "The Civil War is a part of nineteenth century history, the Western has turned it into the Trojan War of the most modern of epics.  The migration to the West is our odyssey."  In his next essay, Bazin compares the classic Western to the self-aware revisionist Western and sees how examples of both are working simultaneously.

What is Cinema?: Volume 2 is a fantastic book of essays from a great writer.  I highly recommend it to those who enjoyed volume 1.

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