What Is Cinema? Volume II
André Bazin (Translated by Hugh Gray)
University of California Press, 1971
The second part of Hugh Gray’s translation of Andre Bazin’s essays is, evidently, more coherent and wholesome and better compiled than its predecessor. It may be either because Bazin has sorted out the ambiguity discernible earlier in his theory, which he presented in the previous book, or because one gets accustomed to Bazin’s style of writing and his huge canvas of references that range from philosophy to science. Whatever the case, those who have persevered to read the second volume will only have a richly rewarding experience and get to know why Bazin was so enthusiastically supporting realism in cinema. The anthology begins, fittingly, with a foreword by Truffaut where he recollects, through many interesting anecdotes about Bazin, how his life was enriched by his godfather and “the most unforgettable character” he has met. He closes the essay with a paragraph from Bazin’s letter that sums up his unassuming and open-minded attitude towards the whole of cinema:
“I’m sorry I couldn’t see Mizoguchi’s films again with you at the Cinémathéque. I rate him as highly as you people do and I claim to love him the more because I love Kurosawa too, who is the other side of the coin: would we know the day any better if there was no night? To dislike Kurosawa because one likes Mizoguchi is only the first step towards understanding. Unquestionably anyone who prefers Kurosawa must be incurably blind but anyone who loves only Mizoguchi is one-eyed. Throughout the arts there runs a vein of the contemplative and the mystical as well as an expressionist vein”
The first essay of the book is the legendary “An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism” in which Bazin traces out the characteristics of this New Italian School in contrast to the existing forms of cinema in Italy and elsewhere (including his views on the use of non-professionals, its advantages and shortcomings). He illustrates why he thinks that realism in cinema more an aesthetic choice than an ontological byproduct and how this “realism” can be controlled to present a world view of the director without being instructive (“But realism in art can only be achieved in one way – through artifice.”). He then proceeds, taking Citizen Kane (1941) and Farrebique (1946) as examples, to elucidate the conflict between using deep focus (which could then be achieved perfectly only in a studio setting) and using real locations (which are cumbersome from the point of view of cinematography) and, hence, proves why every technological advancement that helps bringing cinema closer to reality must be embraced. This is followed by an analysis of Rossellini’s Paisa (1946), arguably the greatest neo-realist film, which studies the episodic narrative of the film, the elliptical nature of its editing and the ambiguity of reality that it offers.
This grand opening is followed by extremely insightful, individual essays on key neorealist films such as Visconti’s The Earth Trembles (1948, “La Terra Trema lacks inner fire… no moving eloquence to bolster its documentary vigor”), Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria (1957, “I even tend to view Fellini as the director who goes the farthest of any to date in this neorealist aesthetic”) and De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1947, “Ladri di Bicyclette is one of the first examples of pure cinema. No more actors, no more story, no more sets, which is to say that in the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality there is no more cinema.”) and Umberto D. (1952 “De Sica and Zavattini are concerned to make cinema the asymptote of reality”), wherein Bazin, step by step, clarifies his championing of realism in cinema and his stance that realism in cinema must be concerned only with appearance and not meaning (“Realism is to be defined not in terms of ends but of means, and neorealism by a specific relation of the means to the ends”). Together, these sets of essays make so much meaning, even today, that one is able to see why the photographic property of cinema (and hence its ability to resort to absolute realism) makes it all the more powerful by providing it with the power to reveal the most abstract of philosophical ideas using the most commonplace of images.
Interspersed between these critiques of neorealist films are two essays that deal with the entire filmographies of two neorealist directors – De Sica and Rossellini. In the first of these, Bazin examines the attitude of De Sica towards the reality of the world in his films (“…in not betraying the essence of things, in allowing them first of all to exist for their own sakes, freely…in loving them in their singular individuality.”). He notes that although De Sica’s cinema is primarily based on love and compassion, his construction of the film’s universe is nevertheless rigorous and meticulous. The second essay is actually a letter that Bazin wrote to Guido Aristarco, the Editor-in-Chief of the Italian film journal Cinema Nuovo, in defense of Rossellini against the claims of Italian critics who slammed the director for betraying his neo-realist roots. This essay is perhaps the central piece of his set of essays on neorealism and illustrates what kind of realism Bazin was looking for and what value it adds to cinema as a medium (“The traditional realist artist – Zola, for example analyzes reality into parts which he then reassembles in a synthesis the final determinant of which is his moral conception of the world, whereas the conciousness of the neorealist director filters the reality.”)
But what’s really the killer piece of the book is the essay called “The Myth of Monsieur Verdoux”. In this section that runs over 20 pages, Bazin explains why he thinks Monsieur Verdoux (1947) is Chaplin’s greatest work by deconstructing the film part by part and taking it into various levels of discussion. He argues that, in Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin absorbs from the myth of the tramp, which was developed by him and lapped up instantly by the world, in order to contrast the mute being with Verdoux. He examines how society has, in fact, killed Charlie and how Verdoux is a revenge of sorts for Chaplin. Bazin takes into consideration the whole of Chaplin’s filmography to explore the significance of Monsieur Verdoux, both to Chaplin and to Hollywood. He makes note of the Chaplin’s casting, which seeks out faces that can not only represent and portray the character in this movie but those which carry with themselves their own cinematic histories and mythologies. In the subsequent two essays on Limelight (1952), in one of which he speaks about the emotional impact that Chaplin’s presence in Paris had on critics during the film’s premiere, he examines how Limelight, in fact, takes the myth of Charlie into the realm of Chaplin, by integrating into itself facets from both Charlie’s persona and Chaplin’s life, and pushes the boundaries of authorship to a point beyond with it is impossible to separate the artist from the person.
Then there are also some pleasant surprises in the form of shorter essays, two of which deal with the Western genre, its evolution, its cinematic and historical exploration, its transformation following World War 2 and authorship of a director within norms of this genre. There is also one about the birth of the “Pin-up girl” wherein Bazin discusses the philosophy between the ways these posters are designed and later reflects on its relation to cinema. This is followed by two articles on eroticism in cinema and censorship, in one of which Bazin, taking up Howard Hughes’ notorious The Outlaw (1943) as the centerpiece, elaborates on the type of censorship that contained within the cinematic image and argues that it is because of Hays that Hughes was able to take cinematic eroticism to the next level by kindling the audience’s imagination using mere hints, unlike his European counterparts. There’s a lot of humour to be found in these essays (and the earlier ones too) that just adds to the effortlessness and confidence that is palpable in Bazin’s arguments. But, in the final analysis, it is Bazin’s inclination to realism in cinema that is the USP of the book and serves to explain why cinema can transcend other arts in some ways. Although this support of Bazin for realism seems to need a revision with the advent of modernist, postmodernist and animation filmmaking, his theories still seem very pertinent and precise as far as conventional narrative cinema is concerned, especially considering the tendency of today’s mainstream filmmakers to move away from realism by imposing a single meaning on the realities of their worlds.
P.S: You can read some part of the book here