André Bazin or the Grace of the Gaze

29 April, 2022

Before entering through the gates of the University and, thus, being mutilated by the sociological scalpel, cinema was an opportunity, an encounter, a chance to be amazed. It was a world still uncontrolled by the spectator – who couldn’t slow it down, stop it or play it in reverse, and who couldn’t use a DVD player to start all over again, but who had to take the path that led them to the cinema once more. Amongst those who transformed films into what they are today – reputable objects, worthy of being studied, of being ranked amongst the arts –, André Bazin must have been both the most tireless and the most innocent of them all. He never even thought about having to legitimize cinema, rather, he aimed for the heights since the very beginning (thus conferring it with a clear role within the cause of furthering humanity) as well as for the lows (sharing a passion for this still-young form with anybody, from cinephiles to workers, and from communists to Hollywood maniacs). Absolute and popular – these two intensities are always part of Bazin’s generous writings, whose unspoken goal was to reconcile the extremes, bringing them to reason by taking the path of patient argumentation.

Polirom Publishing, in collaboration with UNATC, has recently published the first volume of What is cinema?, his (four-part) anthology of texts that Bazin managed to compile shortly before his early death, at the age of just 40. Its title questions us: with a hard, essential question indeed, which arrived to us bearing the aura of a long-gone era. Since there was a time in which people truly preoccupied themselves with a given essence of cinema. Some saw an art of montage in it, while others, such as Bazin, saw it as an art of reality. The fact that we now knows that film can be – and even is, oftentimes – the one and the other at the same time, and so many others too, doesn’t invalidate these strenuous battles of old; to regard them condescendingly is nothing more than the symptom of a regression in our capacity of confronting the artistic medium, akin to a lowering of our expectations in regards to it. But who could ever claim that the question posed by Bazin, reflected în the texts that comprise his oeuvre, is no longer relevant, in this age of audiovisual mutations in which cinema, fortress of duress, is surrounded and decentralized by so many other types of images, which resemble it, yet without being the same? Who could reject this question with such arrogance, when the Internet and streaming giants are destabilizing the privileged locus and modus of experiencing film – that is, the cinema hall, with its collective of spectators?

In this volume, supervised by Andrei Gorzo, one can discover 35 Bazinian articles: the first part discusses the “ontology” of cinema as an art capable of recording the real through minimal human intervention, and the second one preoccupied itself with the existing enmeshment of cinema, literature and painting. Bazin’s texts – a Bible to anyone claiming to have any sort of relationship to image – are always surprising. Even his most famous, upon revisiting them, seem to revel in an unimaginable richness of both idea and style. First, a few words on the idea, since Bazin constructed a vision that, even if scattered across dozens of pieces, remains whole:  his belief in photography as an irrefutable trace of reality, and in cinema as a method of perfecting this trace, now recorded in its duration, as well as his preference for filmmakers that sought  out this belief, operating with the depth of field and long single sgits, is remarkably constant. Bazin was, at the same time, a maestro of style, maybe the greatest ever to have worked in the field of film criticism (theoretician Noël Herpe recently told me about his disappointment that Hervé Joubert-Laurencin, the main specialist and editor of the Bazinian oeuvre, didn’t propose his works to be published in Pléiade, France’s most prestigious literary collection, where he thinks these works should have doubtlessly been at home). In the book, we find a plentiful palette of Bazin’s typical arsenal of discoveries, from the vastness of the fields which he uses as a source of inspiration – chemistry, geography, history… – to the very phrases which he seemed to know the secret of. Even the one which, according to Joubert-Laurencin, was the most beautiful across his entire works: in his short review of Paris, 1900 by Nicole Vedrès, mixing words such as “fossilized”, “ortochromatic”, “dusk” and “phantastic” in an alchemical composition. Bazin was able to interrupt the flow of his argumentation in order to create a paradoxical opening for mineralogy or biology: speaking of the cvazi-incestuous relationship between theater and cinema, he begins to discuss salamanders. And so on: a conceptual continent separates this fantasy of the verb from the standardized essays so often written inside the walls of contemporary universities.

After all, why is Bazin so surprising? Because, driven by a solid credo, he simultaneously manages to avoid being dogmatic: fair measures are beyond characteristic for him. There is little doubt that his system of thought led him more than once towards partisan beliefs that were rendered null by the passage of time. It’s at least touching to see how Bazin dedicated pages upon pages (of otherwise very sharp thoughts) to a modest director such as William Wyler, initially preferring him to names such as John Ford or Fritz Lang, solely on the basis of his preference for a profound depth of field. But it’s striking to read his post-scriptum, in which he criticizes himself ten years after penning it, admitting, with disarming honesty, that “no matter where one decides to place John Ford, one must place Wyler beneath him”. It would have been easy for Bazin to live his last years of his career as a critic riding on the glory of his great articles written between 1945 and 1950, wherein he elaborated his main theories. On the contrary: his perseverance in sticking to the consistent activity of inverting the prejudices of time – a discourse operated on foreign lands, one could say, which set itself in favor of theater adaptations, still retains its vigor, intact, just as his decryptions of Stalinist hagiography – transform Bazin into more than just a tutelary figure, but also in a welcome counterpoint, which opened the possibility of many ulterior theoretical discussions.

There is also a given risk when it comes to Bazin, I believe, and that is truly the risk of “Bazinism”, as Joubert-Laurencin called it. And I am indeed quite afraid that this time, far from dissipating it, as expected, will emphasize it, but not of its own fault. Because this translation, arriving late from every possible point of view, still arrives on a field of reflection that is still almost bare. Bazinism happens when, instead of the extremely complex discursive framework that Bazin himself showcased, we start to simply parrot the words that have become synonymous to the vain usage of his name: “forbidden montage”, “ambiguity of the real”, “directors that believe in image” vs. “directors that believe in reality”. Bazinism is the result of lazy reading, if even that much, but just a mere takeover of passe partout clichés. Let’s be clear: in little over 15 years, Bazin published around 2700 articles. It’s hard to think that we might see an integral edition of his works anytime soon (there’s more pressing manners in the field, right now): but these imposing texts, restored here in a reasonable translation by a collective from the UNATC – minus a few slips, such as the grating recurrence of this completely non-Bazinian “no doubt” („fără îndoială”) instead of the necessary “probably” („sans aucun doute” versus „sans doute”) –, shouldn’t abscond the wealth of Bazinian meanings and discoveries that are less likely to “create a system”, but that are much more willing to create a world. I, for one, was surprised to find myself avidly reading his fascinating considerations of filmed death, or on war, in pieces dedicated to Bullfight and the Why We Fight series. They can lie but at the periphery of his theoretical summation – but even so, they indicate a vital thinker of the image, in all of his avatars of yesterday and today alike.

Film critic and journalist; writes regularly for Dilema Veche and Scena9. Doing a MA film theory programme in Paris. At Films in Frame Victor presents Kinostalgia - a monthly column about repertoire cinema.