André Bazin’s New Media book review

A glance at the title of André Bazin’s New Media might make us think that the writer has been resurrected, but the truth is that, since his death in 1958, this most important of French critics and theorists has never gone away. Here Dudley Andrew gathers together numerous short essays Bazin wrote as a jobbing journalist for Radio-Cinéma-Télévison, France-Observateur, Cahiers du cinéma and others. Though these pieces are often too short, journalistically inclined and even repetitive, as Bazin finds himself having to say the same thing in different places, important questions that we are asking now are those Bazin was asking sixty years ago.

The very last essay in the book, for example, possesses the title “Is Cinema Mortal?”, a question asked long before that millennial and post-millennial fascination with the death of cinema explored by Susan Sontag, David Denby, David Thomson and others. Bazin wonders if cinema can claim the sort of immortality he credits to theatre, saying “the fact is that cinema is not an Art plus an industry, it is an Industrial Art. And so we should not imagine for it the types of survival mechanisms the theatre enjoys.” (p. 315) This is partly because of the enthusiasm of an ongoing small number of people who support it, and the notion that the State will finance it as well, aware “that a nation without theatre would be like a dead country. In this sense theatre cannot die, for it will always be reborn everywhere, in children’s games, at country festivals, out of the irrepressible need of certain young men and women to ‘play’ for their assembled fellows.” But Bazin feels “cinema does not enjoy this immunity. It was born not of man but of technology; it depends completely on the latter and on its evolution.” (idem.)

However, what happens if the evolution of technology leads not to the greater realism Bazin so famously sought, but to the proliferation of inattentive media? As Sontag says in “The Decay of Cinema”:

“The reduction of cinema to assaultive images, and the unprincipled manipulation of images (faster and faster cutting) to make them more attention-grabbing, has produced a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn’t demand anyone’s full attention. Images now appear in any size and on a variety of surfaces: on a screen in a theater, on disco walls and on megascreens hanging above sports arenas.” (1)

David Thomson reckons:

“Suppose you watched two movies a week in 1950: that was three or four hours in the dark of a cinema. Very quickly, as the decade set in, it became apparent that people who liked watching (kids especially) might be sofa’d up six or seven hours a day. That comes to over twenty movies a week. If parents ever worked out the horror of those numbers, they said, “Oh, it’s all right. They’re not really watching. It’s just that the television is on.” A revolution was hiding in that homily. It condoned inattention.” (2)

Bazin was writing at a time when the attentive and inattentive were in conjunction. Television was competing with film, and cinema was meeting this competition with developments in widescreen technology. Yet Bazin refuses to see the smaller screen generating inattention and the larger necessarily expanding our perceptual consciousness. It all depends on the given experience and the given creativity. What Bazin found wonderful about television was its live capacity, its instant transmission. “The only real superiority of TV over cinema, and a fortiori over every other means of expression, resides in the live transmission of the image.” (p. 50) This does not only mean covering football games, coronations and interviews with people; it could also incorporate a different approach to fiction drama than that found in the cinema. Interviewing writer and director Marcel Moussy about television, Bazin quotes Moussy as saying, “I believe in the virtues of live shooting for the simple reason that it allows one to ‘stage’ a show, that is, to give the actors that feeling that they belong to a sort of dramatic line that is lost when one shoots in bits and pieces.” (p. 210) This is slightly different from the live transmission of a football match, but not contrary to it, and still consistent with Bazin’s interest in liveness. “As I’ve often underscored regarding dramatic programs, most of the time it is the continuity of shooting that gives the play the sort of tension associated with “live” broadcasts, not veritable simultaneity (what is before the camera reaching our antennas at the same moment).” (p. 51)

If this was TV at its best, what was cinema at its worst? Widescreen films were often suffering compromises greater than TV works. Bazin notes that many theatres in Paris were showing widescreen films in their appropriate format: 1.66:1, 1.75:1, 1.85:1, but doing this led to “a grotesque absurdity when, to lengthen the image, exhibitors simply set about chopping its height.” Thus, when a standard ratio film was shown in the theatre, the “height would be sliced by nearly a third.” (p. 302) Even directors working with the widescreen image were caught in a state of compromise, knowing that many theatres were not offering widescreens but the standard ones: “in the most audacious cases, they make use of a transparent grid while shooting that enables them to leave sufficient space both top and bottom.” (p. 306)

In such instances as we’ve thus far explored, TV achieves its ontological purpose; cinema fails in its status as an art. Television, after all is not, Bazin insists, an art form. “We do not ask that the image be beautiful, but simply that it be legible, and for this to be possible TV has to get rid of tiny details and characters framed from too far away.” (p. 39) It is hard to talk of planes of action on television, and even if numerous people now have TVs much larger than they would have had in the 1950s, nevertheless its ontological status is still that of the small screen. There might be plenty people with gigantic widescreen TVs, but many are surely watching television on smaller screens rather than bigger ones: often on their laptop. As Ben Sachs says in the Chicago Reader, “Nothing can wash over you when you see it on a laptop (though if you have a good set of headphones, you can still appreciate a well-designed soundtrack).” (3) TV directors generally can not assume the size of the television and tailor it accordingly: they have to presume they are working on the small screen. But when a filmmaker reckons they should attend to the small screen while working with the luxury of the large one, it can seem like a dereliction of duty.

Yet this has been long since practised. Geoff King in New Hollywood Cinema looks at what was called in the early 1960s, the “safe action area”: “that portion of the picture area inside the camera aperture borders within which all significant action should take place for “safe” or full reproduction on the majority of black-and-white and colour home receivers.” (4) King also quotes theorist Steve Neale who looked at 1970s widescreen films Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973), with Neale noticing, King says, that “these are films that look both ways. They extend images and motifs of thematic relevance into the peripheries of the frame while keeping the principle characters and narrative actions within the proportions of ‘safe action’.” (5)

This might not be ideal, but it does at least suggest film can still be a connotative art form within denotative demands. The very fact that so much can go into the film beyond quite literally the story suggests why Bazin sees film as an art and TV as a medium. “TV seems to me, like radio, to be an acquisition of great importance as a technology of reproduction and transmission, and it is in these that its principal vocation lies. […] The image’s small size [does] not allow us to consider TV as a plastic art.” (p. 39)

Bazin does wonder, however, if television allows for what he calls télégénie, a variation of the 1920s notion of photogénie. Are certain people made for television as others are made for the silver screen? Just as there are events ideally suited to the televisual medium; what about personalities? “For three years now, Roger Louis has brought before his TV camera dozens of such people [farmers] from all corners of France.” (p. 45) Another example he gives is of a writer. “This time we found ourselves in the realm of poetry and fantasy personified. Even if we were familiar with the writings of Louise de Vilmorin, we couldn’t possibly imagine that there had been a time when we loved this work without knowing the author.”  (p. 46)

André Bazin’s New Media book review

Chronique d’un été (Rouch/Morin, 1961)

Television, Bazin believed, brought a new type of character to the screen, even if cinema shortly afterwards indicated a photogénie of its own within the telegenic: direct cinema and cinéma verité were two movements that suggested more interest in the everyday individual. Between the cinematic star and the television personality, documentary, we could say, found the subject. It wasn’t that documentary ignored people before these two documentary movements; more that it expected from the subject often the epic and the grand, exemplified in Flaherty documentaries like Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934). The subject (as self) was secondary to subject matter. In Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, 1961), Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967), Salesman (Albert and David Maysles, 1968), Grey Gardens (Albert and David Maysles, 1975) and others, the documentary subject became a figure of immense scrutiny. Dudley Andrew in his fine introduction writes that Bazin believed “television could rejuvenate French cinema” (p. 19), and we see traces of television’s intimacy in many a new wave film as well as the documentaries from the 1960s and 1970s just mentioned.

If television when Bazin was writing could not quite be an art form, it nevertheless gave energy to cinema as an art. Whether it happened to be the French new wave, British kitchen sink realism, cinéma vérite or direct cinema, film could take from the small screen and invigorate the big one. In Bazin’s interview with Moussy for Cahiers, the writer and director reckoned television was the neo-realist medium par excellence, and it made sense that the first new wave success, Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), would be co-written by Moussy. Moussy had written a series of programmes on teenage delinquency (If It Were You), and the influence of TV on some of the new wave films (their low-budget, on the hoof nature) was then met with the cinematically very sophisticated. The jump cuts, split screens, radical transitions and other innovations wouldn’t have been easy to offer on television, but cinema of the sixties managed to have the best of both worlds. Low-budget freedom would often meet highly original form. If filmmakers working in widescreen happened to be derelict in their craft by cramping the frame; the new wave filmmakers were influenced by TV but were aesthetically expanding their art form.

André Bazin’s New Media book review

56 Up (Apted, 2012)

It is something we might usefully keep in mind today. Rather than seeing TV as the place where artists go, we could more usefully see it as the place where directors get by financially and aesthetically. Henry K. Miller opens a Sight & Sound piece on filmmakers working in TV with a series of quotes. James Walcott in Vanity Fair says “TV is where the action is.” (6) James Meek in London Review of Books talked of novelists putting aside their fictional work to concentrate on script work for TV shows. Steven Soderbergh insists “TV is taking control of a conversation that used to be sort of the exclusive domain of the movies.” (7) Yet, allowing ourselves the briefest of historical rewrites, can we imagine if Godard, Resnais, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Oshima, Buñuel, Pasolini and Bergman had all thought TV was where the action happened to be, would we have had the innovations in form and the radical content, or would we have no more than slightly more interesting television? Taking into account Andrew’s claims in his introduction, television reinvigorated cinema rather than absorbed its finest filmmakers.

Of course, as the Sight & Sound piece illustrates, numerous great directors have worked in or through television: including Renoir, Rossellini, Fassbinder, Godard and Lynch. But cinema remains (much more than television on the one side and now installation work on the other) the medium of expanded attention par excellence. The size of the screen and the usually one-off durational commitment exercise our faculties more attentively, even if much of what is shown today is big-budget mayhem. When Bazin discusses with Renoir and Rossellini whether television presents “a classic problem in technique ─ that of the quality and small size of the image, [etc.]” and proceeds to ask, “Do all these restrictions frighten you?”, Renoir replies, “by adapting these techniques, one should be able to arrive at a new cinematographic style that could be extremely interesting.” (p. 189)

But what became interesting was how new techniques were applied to the cinema rather than TV. We might say the same today; that some of the innovations in long narrative for example, and the fascination with TV box sets, could put under pressure the convention of the two-hour narrative film. As Andrew says, Bazin was “shocked to be watching two-hour feature films in 1952 just the way his parents had in 1918, the year of his birth.” (p. 10) Is there more space at the moment for films running up to six or eight hours in length? The most obvious practitioner of the long feature, however, Lav Diaz, seems very far away from a television aesthetic that still predicates itself on meeting duration with narration; with the emphasis on staving off viewer boredom rather than cultivating a perceptual approach attached to patience.

These are questions one finds oneself asking on reading Bazin’s essays many years after they were written, and where the two-hour film remains prominent but where the box-set is a new phenomenon. If television really is where it is happening, cinema will have been killed off by a paradox, assuming Bazin is right that television is not an art. This paradox would be in the relative excellence of a small screen aesthetic that failed to renew big screen possibilities, and thus led to the complete ascendancy by the former and to the demise of the latter. We would subsequently lose an art form and gain merely an improved medium. Yet when we think of Diaz, Lucrecia Martel, Carlos Reygadas, Cristi Puiu, José Luis Guerín, Yorgos Lanthimos, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Zeki Demirkubuz, Jia Zhangke and a couple of dozen others, we see that there is a resistant aesthetic at work, a faculty of perception that can’t easily be absorbed into the televisual world. And do we really think that the well-made HBO series can replace the work of Haneke, von Trier, Béla Tarr and Alexander Sokurov?

Of course that some the names just mentioned have worked in TV makes clear the divide is never a clear one, but if we are suspicious of all this talk about television’s present superiority, it might partly lie in the notion that the directors we have mentioned are known for their film work; they haven’t been absorbed into a televisual aesthetic that utilises their talent but ignores their subjectivity. How many people know the work of Dan Attias, Allen Coulter, Alan Taylor, Kim Manners and Tim Van Patten? Van Patten directed 20 episodes of The Sopranos, according to Miller; Manners 52 episodes of the X Files. Alain Resnais might have praised 24, The X-Files, The Sopranos and others, saying that in these series “I find the cinematic syntax more rich and inventive than in the majority of cinema” (8), but it is in the minority of cinema where the image is more often properly renewed.

Perhaps Sontag was right to insist in the mid-1990s that “the love of cinema has waned. People still like going to the movies, and some people still care about and expect something special, necessary from a film. And wonderful films are still being made: Mike Leigh’s Naked, Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica, Fred Kelemen’s Fate. But you hardly find anymore, at least among the young, the distinctive cinephilic love of movies that is not simply love of but a certain taste in films (grounded in a vast appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of cinema’s glorious past).” (9)

We might find Sontag’s tone a little pompous, a bit too enthused by its own high-mindedness, and that she underestimates how many people still feel that cinema really does matter, but she is surely right to believe that cinema is still where the image matters most. Bazin’s writings here, as well as in the justly famous What is Cinema? books, help us to understand why. As he says in his own moment of hyperbole, discussing TV serials and their daily delivery: “must we add the risk of habit and reflex to the enslavement already inherent with TV? The smoker’s tobacco already makes him a slave of pleasure; must we blend it with some opiate that turns him into a drug addict who, at set hours, feels an uncontrollable need for his drug?” This is TV as a form of domestic drudgery; cinema gets us not only out of the house but out of ourselves, and without the aid of opiates. Of course we won’t always be able to watch films in the cinema for various reasons, but it remains the place where we would ideally like to see them, and perhaps film needs this locational ideal to remain the art form it happens to be and that television can never match. Bazin’s essays here help us to formulate that argument.

Dudley Andrew (ed.), André Bazin’s New Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Endnotes 

1. Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema”, in New York Times, February 25, 1996.
2. David Thomson, “American Movies are Not Dead – They’re Dying”, in The New Republic, September 14, 2012.
3. Ben Sachs, “Can Television Be ‘Cinematic’?”, Chicago Reader,  April 11, 2013.
4. Geoff King, New Hollywood Cinema (New York: Wallflower Press, 2002), pp. 234-235.
5. Ibid., p. 235.
6. Henry K. Miller, “Home Cinema”, Sight & Sound 23:9 (2013), pp. 20-32.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema”.