Friday, December 12, 2008

Bazin on Documentaries, Real and Imaginary

The welcome recent revival of interest in the writings of André Bazin is already beginning to expand the range of Bazin resources available to English-language readers. Last month saw two fascinating Bazin articles translated into English for the first time and published in well-read magazines.

The more unusual of the two pieces is "Every Film Is a Social Documentary," a relatively early (5 July 1947), short article originally published in Les Lettres françaises, and translated by Paul Fileri in the November-December 2008 issue of Film Comment as part of a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bazin's death. Lying somewhat outside the major currents of Bazinian thought (at least as these currents have been defined for English readers), the piece makes a quick nod to "the realist destiny of cinema – innate in photographic objectivity" that has been the tentpole of Bazinian thought at least as far back as 1944's "The Ontology of the Photographic Image." Then Bazin shifts to a contemplation of the dreamlike quality of cinema on the cultural level, a quality that requires the realism of the image, but perhaps only as a vehicle, a carrier. Bazin's description of the resemblance between cinema and dream recalls the principles of surrealism (a word not mentioned by Bazin here), which embraced the cinema precisely because it could give the stamp of realism to the most fantastic and disconcerting images. Surprisingly, however, Bazin's interest here is the cinema's ability to embody the mythologies of the mass audience, an enterprise of which "the sole objective criterion is success." Pivoting again in his long final paragraph, Bazin reveals his optimism that the ciné-club movement and the mainstreaming of film culture will help audiences resist social agencies who would use the oneiric aspect of cinema to manipulate them. Certainly an odd little item for Bazin, but among other things a reminder that cinema's intrinsic realism was less the endpoint of his thinking than a tool that he deployed to other ends.

Much closer to our conception of Bazinian thought is "The Evolution of the Film of Exploration," a piece published in Monde nouveau sometime in the 50s. Cahiers du cinema, which has been reprinting a Bazin piece in each issue for nearly a year, published the first half of this article in its November 2008 issue (failing to give its original date of publication, unless I'm missing it); the second half will be published next month to conclude the Bazin series. Bill Krohn translated for the English version of Cahiers.

This article is nearly a duplicate of the familiar "Cinema and Exploration," a composite of two France-Observateur pieces that Hugh Gray translated in What Is Cinema? But "Evolution" is perhaps more focused and instructive, and introduces one particularly interesting example of cinema gone wrong.

In "Cinema and Exploration" Bazin cites Charles Frend's 1948 Scott of the Antarctic as an example of a poorly conceived hybrid of fiction and documentary; in "Evolution," he uses as his negative example Howard Hill's 1952 Tembo (without citing it by name), and this time his objections could not be stated more clearly. I quote Bill's translation:

"Here's a typical sequence: Our champion is supposedly advancing at the head of a line of porters in search of big game. In the foreground an enormous python coiled around a limb lets its little triangular head hang over a water hole, while three hundred feet away, upright in a canoe, the unconscious hunter heads straight for him. Happily a negro sees and points the hideous beast out to him. In an instant the monster's head is pierced by an arrow. Another sequence, even more significant. We arrive in the forest village of the Pygmies. The little men, frightened, first flee at the approach of the Whites. The camera shows us their flight – better still, it shows us two or three shots of fearful Pygmies hiding in the brush. I'll pass over the shameful murders of a panther, a lion and an elephant with arrows. The poor animals, captured in advance, were visibly tied up and struggling at the end of their leashes, Saint Sebastians of the animal kingdom. I am still astonished by the absence of any protest from critics of the period against a film that presupposed a contempt for animals and for the honor of the hunt equaled only by its contempt for the audience, but after all, the audiences that accepted it deserved no better. In any case, it's easy to see how this presentation implicitly destroyed its own purpose. Each of these scenes that pretended to be raw documents was in fact elaborated and prepared by the mise en scene, and the trick could be deduced from precisely the elements in the mise en scene that were supposed to prove the spontaneity of the event. It is obvious, for example, that in order to place the camera several feet behind the serpent, so that it would appear huge and menacing to the spectator, it was necessary not only to know of its existence but also, in all likelihood, to carry the poor animal, condemned to death, to the ideal spot for a composition with lots of depth of field. But even if we admit that the obviousness of the fakery partly justifies it in this case, because it is in some sense a documentary reenactment, that could in no way be the case with the Pygmies, because if, as the commentary says, they are frightened of the Whites, they should first of all be frightened by the camera so that it couldn't be there to film their fright, much less to move closer to film (with what lights?) the fear on their faces. These images not only prove that the Pygmies in question did not flee, but that they were so unafraid of the Whites and the cinema that they let themselves be directed for this mise en scene, to the point of simulating fear."

I note in passing the deadpan wit of the writing, largely a function of the ease with which Bazin combines multiple grievances into short phrases; and also the persistence of Bazin's suppressed but angry response to the plight of animals. But what interests me primarily about this passage is that it is the most basic statement that I can recall of Bazin's objection to certain kinds of "fictionalizing" film technique, and that the objection here is couched in terms of the integrity of the documentary format. The techniques that are called on the carpet here include expressionist camera placement, editing, and even lighting; and Bazin's point is that these techniques, as used, betray the spirit as well as the letter of the contract between documentarian and audience.

Especially when placed in the context of the entire piece, the above passage bears a strong resemblance to Bazin's famous argument in support of Albert Lamorisse's refusal to use cutting to show the balloon following the child in Le Ballon rouge. This argument, from "The Virtues and Limitations of Montage" (another composite article from What Is Cinema?) also cites a negative example – Jean Tourane's Une Fée pas comme les autres – which Bazin believes makes inappropriate use of technique to portray spatial relations. And in this case neither of this films under discussion are documentaries: on the contrary, they are both highly fanciful children's films. I quote a key passage from "Virtues and Limitations":

"It is very easy to imagine Ballon Rouge as a literary tale. But no matter how delightfully written, the book could never come up to the film, the charm of which is of another kind. Nevertheless, the same story no matter how well filmed might not have had a greater measure of reality on the screen than in the book, supposing that Lamorisse had had recourse either to the illusions of montage or, failing that, to process work. The film would then be a tale told image by image – as is the story, word by word – instead of being what it is, namely the picture of a story or, if you prefer, an imaginary documentary.

"This expression seems to me once and for all to be the one that best defines what Lamorisse was attempting, namely something like, yet different from, the film that Cocteau created in Le Sang d'un poète, that is to say, a documentary on the imagination, in other words, on the dream. Here we are then, caught up by our thinking in a series of paradoxes. Montage which we are constantly being told is the essence of cinema is, in this situation, the literary and anticinematic process par excellence. Essential cinema, seen for once in its pure state, on the contrary, is to be found in straightforward photographic respect for the unity of space."

The memorable phrase "imaginary documentary" links the two pieces. Bazin is clearly moved to the same objection by a work of fiction as by a documentary. And I believe that the aesthetic preference that I have chosen to highlight is in no way atypical of either Bazin's tastes or of his legacy. The point that I want to emphasize is that the Bazinian aesthetic sees fiction, at least some of the time or in some cases, as having the same obligations to the audience as does documentary.

Of course, I do not mean to imply that Bazin saw a simple equivalence between fiction and documentary, nor that he rejected montage and other fictionalizing techniques across the board. (It's interesting that Bazin's description of the offending shot of the python in Tembo calls to mind the composition of the shot of Susan's suicide attempt in Citizen Kane, which Bazin greatly admired as a demonstration of the qualities of deep-focus photography, and analyzed in detail in his book on Welles.) Indeed, the next few pages of "Virtues and Limitations" immediately attempt to provide context for the Bazinian injunction against montage and to limit its application.

But I wonder whether it might be accurate to say that the Bazinian aesthetic requires that the cinema document something, and that whatever "something" is chosen should be rendered with appropriate stylistic abnegation. An interesting piece to read in this context is "Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation" (collected in What Is Cinema? as "An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism"), and particularly the section "From Citizen Kane to Farrebique," which suggests that comprehensive documentation in cinema is impossible, that "one is compelled to choose between one kind of reality and another."

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