Andre Bazin on Film Technique: Two Seminal Essays.
The impact of Andre Bazin (1918-1958) on film art, as theorist and critic, is widely considered to be greater than that of any single director, actor, or producer. He is credited with almost single-handedly establishing the study of film as an accepted intellectual pursuit, as well as with being the spiritual father of the French New Wave. In 1951 Bazin co-founded and became editor-in-chief of Cahiers du cinema, the most influential critical periodical in the history of cinema. Among the film critics who came under his tutelage there were four who would go on to become the most renowned directors of the postwar French cinema, comprising the first generation of cineastes whose work was thoroughly grounded in film history and theory: Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol. Bazin can also be considered the principal instigator of the equally influential auteur theory: the idea that, since film is an art form, the director of a movie must be perceived as the chief creator of its unique cinematic style.
Unlike nearly all the other authors of major film theories--and Bazin was the realist among them--he was a working or practical critic who wrote regularly about individual films. He never left a systematic book of theory; instead he preferred, as in the following two essays, to have implicit theoretical dialogues with filmmakers and other critics through his writing in a number of French intellectual journals. Bazin based his criticism on the film actually made rather than on any preconceived aesthetic or sociological principles; and for the first time with him, film theory became a matter not of pronouncement or prescription, but of description, analysis, and deduction. Indeed, Bazin can be regarded as the aesthetic link between film critics and film theorists. During his relatively short writing career, his primary concern was not to answer questions but to raise them, not to establish cinema as an art but to ask, "What is art?" and "What is cinema?"
Indeed, the title of his posthumously collected film criticism was Qu'est-ce que le cinema? (in four volumes, appearing from 1958 to 1962), translated selections from which were published in two volumes (1967, 1971) by Hugh Gray under the title What Is Cinema?. Although "The Life and Death of Superimposition" appears in Volume 1 of Qu'est-ce que le cinema (whereas "Will CinemaScope Save the Film Industry?" was excluded from the four-part French collection), Gray did not include this article in either volume of What Is Cinema?. Perhaps his reason--like the possible reasoning behind the exclusion of "Will CinemaScope Save the Film Industry?" from even the later volumes of Qu'est-ce que le cinema?--was that "The Life and Death of Superimposition" appeared impossibly dated by the 1960s, let alone the 1970s.
Yet this essay and the one on CinemaScope seem anything but dated today, except in the literal sense. For technology--particularly digitalized special effects, not to speak of various color processes and assorted light-sensitive lenses--continues to alter the making, viewing, criticism, and format or venue of motion pictures. And Andre Bazin reveals his signature versatility as a critic-theorist below by simultaneously considering questions of technology and art, science and creativity, at a time--the late forties and early fifties--when few writers were even thinking of doing so.
The Life and Death of Superimposition
The opposition that some like to see between a cinema inclined toward the almost documentary representation of reality and a cinema inclined, through reliance on technique, toward escape from reality into fantasy and the world of dreams, is essentially forced. Melies's Trip to the Moon (1902) did not negate Lumiere's Arrival of a Train at the Station (1895). The one is inconceivable without the other. The cries of horror of the crowd at Lumiere's genuine locomotive coming toward them prefigured the exclamations of wonder of the spectators at the Robert Houdin Theater.(1) The fantastic in the cinema is possible only because of the irresistible realism of the photographic image. It is the image that can bring us face to face with the unreal, that can introduce the unreal into the world of the visible.
It is easy enough to give the counter-proof of this proposition. To imagine, for example, The Invisible Man (1933; dir. James Whale) as an animated film is to understand immediately that it would lose all interest. What in fact appeals to the audience about the fantastic in the cinema is its realism--I mean, the contradiction between the irrefutable objectivity of the photographic image and the unbelievable nature of the events that it depicts. It is not by chance that the first to comprehend the artistic potential of film was Georges Melies, a magician.
Three American films released in France right after the war reveal, however, the relativity of realism and the conditional believability of special effects. I'm referring to Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941; dir. Alexander Hall), Tom, Dick and Harry (1941; dir. Garson Kanin), and Our Town (1940; dir. Sam Wood). None of these films presents us with spectacular special effects of the kind found in the classics of the science-fiction genre. It seems that Hollywood is giving up on traditional special effects in favor of creating the supernatural in a more purely psychological manner, as in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, where it is left almost entirely up to the audience to interpret the image on the basis of the action alone, as would be the case in the theater. For example, three characters are on the screen, one of whom is a ghost visible to only one of the other two. The viewer must keep his eye on the relations among these three characters--relations that never depend for their existence on the plasticity of the image.
From Melies's Les Hallucinations du Baron de Munchhausen (1911) to Marcel L'Herbier's La Nuit fantastique (1942), the dream remains the epitome of the fantastic in film. Its recognized form has always included slow motion and superimposition (sometimes shots in negative, too). In Tom, Dick and Harry, Garson Kanin preferred to use accelerated motion to indicate when Ginger Rogers was daydreaming; he also distorts the appearance of certain characters by means of an optical effect that recalls the distorting mirrors of the Grevin Museum.(2) But above all, he built the drama of the dream sequences according to the tenets of modern psychology.
In reality, the devices that have been in use since Melies to denote dreams are pure conventions. We take them for granted just as much as do the patrons of outdoor screenings at traveling fairs. Slow motion and superimposition have never existed in our nightmares, however. Superimposition on the screen signals: "Attention: unreal world, imaginary characters"; it doesn't portray in any way what hallucinations or dreams are really like, or, for that matter, how a ghost would look. As far as slow motion is concerned, what it may actually signify is the difficulty we often have achieving our ends in dreams. But Freud has entered the picture and the Americans, who are fond of him, know that a dream is characterized far less by the formal quality of its images than by their dynamic sequence, their inner logic, in which the psychoanalyst recognizes the expression of repressed desires. Thus when Ginger Rogers, in Tom, Dick and Harry, tries to please her mother-in-law-to-be by incongruously caressing her face, she is performing an act that social etiquette would have forbidden but that perfectly expresses her will. The comedy that fills Rogers' daydreams doesn't take away at all from the intelligence and the psychological realism of this film, which, in my opinion, outdistances by far many more pretentious films with their falsely aesthetic oneirism.
If a director wants all the same to employ special effects, he must use devices that are much more sophisticated and elaborate than the tricks handed down to us by Melies. All he has to do, really, is find a technique that masks a small advance, but an advance that is nonetheless sufficient to render the usual special effects ineffective and therefore unacceptable. Thus in Our Town, a young woman in a coma, dreaming she is dead, relives in her mind a number of moments from her life in which her ghost appears along with her. One scene takes place in the kitchen at breakfast between mother and daughter (the woman who is now "dead"); the latter, who is already supposed to be in the next world, tries in vain to reenter the event of which she used to be part but on which she can no longer have any influence. The ghost wears a white dress and appears in gauzy superimposition in the foreground of the set, while the other characters appear in the background. Up to this point, everything is normal. But when the ghost happens to walk around the table we feel strangely ill at ease: something abnormal is occurring and we can't quite figure it out. On closer inspection, we discover that our uneasiness resulted from the fact that this strange ghost was for the first time behaving like a real ghost--one that is true to itself. The ghost is transparent to the objects and persons located behind it, but is apt to be hidden like you and me when there is something in front of it, and this ghost does not lose the power of walking in the most natural way through objects and people. Practice has shown that this little finishing touch to the properties of the occult makes traditional superimposition look like a very inadequate approximation of a ghost's appearance.
The Swedes made abundant use of superimposition in their heyday (the period of The Phantom Carriage [a.k.a. The Soul Shall Bear Witness, 1921; dir. Victor Sjostrom]), when they were turning the fantastic into a national specialty. One might have thought that the process that had helped so many films to achieve the status of masterpiece had once and for all gained its patent of nobility and credibility. In fact, though, we lacked points of comparison at the time for criticizing superimposition, and now America has rendered certain uses of it obsolete through the perfection of a process called "dunning."
Up until recently, it was easy enough just to superimpose two images, but they remained reciprocally transparent. Thanks to dunning, to certain improvements due in particular to the use of bipack film (two layers, one orthochromatic and one panchromatic, separated by a layer of red filter),(3) and to an important improvement in the synchronization of sound and image through the use of masking and counter-masking, it is now possible to obtain an opaque superimposition of the two images, or, as in Our Town, a one-way opacity for one of the two images, a device that is even more extraordinary. Thus the ghost in Our Town can be hidden by objects in the foreground without ceasing to be transparent to the objects behind it.
If you think about it, such supernatural phenomena are essential to verisimilitude. There is no reason why a ghost should not occupy an exact place in space, nor why it should blend mindlessly into its surroundings. And the reciprocal transparency of superimposition doesn't permit us to say whether the ghost is behind or in front of the objects on which it is superimposed, or whether in fact the objects themselves become spectral to the degree that they share space with the ghost. This defiance of perspective and common sense becomes most annoying once we are aware of it. Superimposition can, in all logic, only suggest the fantastic in a conventional way; it lacks the ability actually to evoke the supernatural. The Swedish cinema probably couldn't get the same results today as it did twenty years ago. Its superimpositions wouldn't convince anybody anymore.
All notes have been provided by the translator/editor. This essay first appeared in French in Ecran Francais in 1946, then was included in Volume 1 ("Ontologie et langage"), pp. 22-30, of Qu'est-ce que le cinema? (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1958-1962). Translated into English here, for the first time, with the permission of Madame Janine Bazin.
(1) This was Melies's own theater, named in honor of the renowned French magician, with whom he had been acquainted (and who also received a tribute from the American Erich Weiss, whose stage name became Houdini). Before he began making films and showing them in his tiny theater, Melies used the space for fantastic sketches and magical acts, which he performed with the aid of trap doors, mirrors, invisible wires, and all the other trappings of stage illusion.
(2) Famous museum of wax figures in Paris.
(3) Bipack film is another name for integral tripack film, whose three-layer emulsion Bazin describes. Yet another name for this type of film is monopack--called this because the three layers of emulsion are imposed on a single base material.
The dunning process is a method for the combination of separately photographed foreground and background action. The foreground action is lighted with yellow light only in front of a uniform, strongly illuminated blue backing. Panchromatic negative film is used in the camera as the rear component of a bipack in which the front film is a positive yellow dye image of the background scene. This yellow dye image is exposed on the negative by the blue light from the backing areas, but the yellow light from the foreground passes through it and records an image of the foreground action at the same time.
Will CinemaScope Save the Film Industry?
Everybody knows by now, even the average moviegoer, that Hollywood is trying to come to terms with one of the most severe economic crises in its history through the introduction of both 3-D, whose avant-garde stereoscopy has already been seen on French screens, and CinemaScope, whose big war machine, The Robe (1953; dir. Henry Koster), has already been shown in New York and is soon going to be exhibited in Europe.(1) Everybody knows, too, that Hollywood is forced to accept the risks of such an endeavor--which totally upsets the norms not only of production, but also of distribution--in view of the acute competition represented by television. At least everybody thinks he knows these things, for the details of the problem are not that simple. The aim of this article, then, is precisely to try to create some order out of all this.
Let's start with some interesting facts of a very general nature. First, we can observe that this time the crisis is not turning into chaos or panic. To be sure, great confusion still reigns, and one can see the "major companies" taking the most contradictory measures; each one has its own strategy--or claims it has, for it is very often the same strategy under a different name. While some big companies almost completely ceased production only a few months ago, one can see a minor company like Monogram double its annual schedule for the production of B-movies for normal screens. Clearly, the heyday of Hollywood is over. But, again, this confusion and decline have not become panic and hysteria, at least not yet. By investing totally in CinemaScope, Fox is not repeating Warner Brothers' gamble with talkies. None of the American companies, in spite of a film-consumption crisis that has become worse and worse over the last five years, are yet on the verge of bankruptcy. They can probably all afford to indulge in a long period of Malthusianism(2) without being threatened with extinction. This means, of course, that the technical experiment(3) will be relatively controlled and that Hollywood will probably be able to draw some conclusions as soon as the moviegoing wind starts blowing one way or another.
The situation will probably be more serious for the unemployed technicians and actors. But it is not that alarming, and it won't get worse for at least a few months, because television needs a lot of small films that can be quickly made and in which there is work for many people. Some stars go over to television; others make the most of their forced holidays and come to Europe to act in a co-production over an eighteen-month period, thus avoiding the paying of income tax--which is well worth the corresponding loss of Hollywood salary. To cut a long story short, the situation could become very disquieting five or six months from now, but perhaps we will be able to see it more clearly then and work will resume, if at a different pace.
These remarks are not aimed at minimizing the importance of the crisis--on the contrary, since it would be impossible to do so in the face of the numerical figures that I'll give later--but only at defining its atmosphere and above all at underscoring the fact that Hollywood is still in control. It is important to know this especially for those who naively believe in some huge crash, in Hollywood's sinking into an economic chaos from which Europeans could benefit. Hollywood won't cast its "three dice" like a desperate gambler. On the contrary, its operation will continue to be mounted with caution and firmness, and that operation will be massively supported by the various publicity departments. The reservations Hollywood has about responding to the challenge of television will be overcome thanks to the temporary financial advantages gained by the attractive transformation of movie screens, for example--thanks, that is, to all the assets of a powerful, conscious, and organized capitalism.
Of course, this doesn't mean that all the obstacles--and we'll see that they are numerous--will be removed. But at least they will be dealt with, with maximum efficiency, in Europe as well as in America, and I don't really see how the American experiment could fail even if the old Continent resists the new developments. The film revolution will be universal or it won't take place at all. Whether we like it or not, Hollywood remains the magnetic pole of the film industry, at least as far as technical proficiency is concerned. We can particularly see it today: Cinerama, which is little more than Abel Gance's triple screen, and CinemaScope, which was invented twenty-five years ago by Professor Chretien,(4) seem viable all of a sudden because of the interest that America has shown in them now that the moviemaking business is in decline.
Such a situation seems to lead to a pessimistic view of the notion of progress in the cinema. I will no doubt have to clarify this aspect of the matter, but only after I've attempted to analyze its sociological and aesthetic aspects. Let's stick with the economic side of things for the moment, and let's briefly recall the causes and proportions of a crisis whose seriousness cannot be denied. The immediate cause is the dramatic reduction of the number of moviegoers since the introduction of television. In the last five or six years, the American film industry has lost approximately half of its national audience; this has meant the closing down of five thousand movie theaters (all of France doesn't have that many) and will mean the bankruptcy in the near future of several thousand others. The simultaneity of the onset of the crisis and of the rise of television naturally doesn't permit any doubt that television is indeed the principal factor in the crisis. Unfortunately, one cannot say that it is the only one.
From various bits of evidence, one can conclude that the twenty million American TV sets have simply crystallized and accelerated a tendency in the moviegoing audience. Indeed, this tendency started to manifest itself even in areas where television had not yet been introduced, and it has continued to get worse and worse in the areas saturated with TV sets. Furthermore, we know that in various European countries, particularly France, where the number of television sets is still insignificant, a disturbing reduction in the number of moviegoers has been observed in the last few years. Everything, then, seems to indicate that a general, deep, and a priori weariness with the cinema on the part of the American public has found in television a visible means of manifesting itself. The viewer statistics are therefore all the more alarming, and they indicate that the hemorrhage cannot be checked through a mere cauterization--a CinemaScoping, as it were--of the wound made by television to the film industry.
By instinct--an instinct that is deep-rooted and that isn't without value, even from an aesthetic point of view, as we'll see later--Hollywood understood that the defense against television had to be of a spectacular nature. Let's not forget, at the same time, that the evolution of film (even in America) has been toward the interiorization of the mise en scene at the expense of spectacle. Moreover, the conditions of the market demanded such a reduction of spectacle as much as the laws of aesthetic evolution. The remaking of The Birth of a Nation (1915; dir. D.W. Griffith) with the latest cinematic technology would be unthinkable today because the film could no longer pay off (the success of Gone with the Wind [1939; dir. Victor Fleming] was miraculous, and the industry is careful not to try to repeat it). Today, Cecil B. DeMille's Biblical epics (e.g., Samson and Delilah ) are made on ridiculously low budgets compared to his similar productions of thirty years ago (e.g., The King of Kings ). Nowadays, we must go to Russia (and perhaps India) to find a film with an enormous crowd of walk-ons, or a movie that is produced regardless of cost.
And yet ... it is obvious that film owns a lasting superiority over television precisely because of its spectacular resources--indeed, only because of them. Lasting, because the television picture will in all probability remain limited in definition by the 625 scanning lines of the standard American set (just as the cinematographic film is limited by its 35 millimeters, a figure arbitrarily chosen by Edison). Whatever its other technical qualities (including color and 3-D, which will one day be available), the television picture will always retain its mediocre legibility. It will also remain a product essentially consumed in the family circle, and, as such, it will continue to be limited to a small screen. In any case, a big TV screen for collective viewing in movie theaters makes some sense only for live news programs; but the quality of the image of such "telecinema" would be very inferior to that of cinema itself. So it is logical that the counteroffensive of the film industry is being fought on its home turf, in the area of its only superiority: through a return to its potential for the spectacular.
To tell the truth, Hollywood has not chosen its strategy by deduction. Indeed, the impetus came from a New York film attraction (see note 4) whose success has taken on colossal and unforeseeable proportions: Cinerama. After two years of continuous running, seats still have to be booked six months in advance. You know what Cinerama is: the juxtaposition, on a huge, curved support, of three screens upon which three aspects of a single image are simultaneously projected. Abel Gance had done the same thing twenty-five years earlier in Napoleon (1927), and in addition had used every possible combination of images on the three screens in order to create sensational effects in the editing of space. This is also the principle behind panoramic photography. In any event, the effectiveness of the device is not to be measured in terms of its technical originality, for all those who have seen Cinerama agree that it is quite impressive.
But the use of Cinerama does not come without problems that are almost impossible to solve. This wide-screen process demands a theater of the appropriate size and shape, three projectors and three projection rooms, and last but not least a very delicate electronic synchronization of the three projectors. The result is not always perfect, even when all the conditions for Cinerama's use have otherwise been met. In the film industry, however, the fundamental question concerning technological developments remains the following: how are they going to complicate distribution? Thus a device such as Roux-color,(5) which is amazingly simple and cheap, does not stand a chance for the simple reason that it complicates the projection of the film. It will always be wiser and more profitable to invest millions of dollars in laboratories that perfect film processes than to provide owners of movie theaters with flawed prints or prints that cannot be flawlessly projected.
Hence the enormous superiority of CinemaScope over Cinerama. Thanks to the anamorphosis of the image permitted by Professor Chretien's lens, the triple picture of Cinerama finds itself literally compressed to the dimensions of a standard film. A symmetrical lens then expands the image during projection. In fact, the image that is thus expanded is only about two and a half times the length of a conventional screen, but the experiment reveals that such a length--as opposed to that required for Cineramic projection--is absolutely sufficient for maximum effectiveness. Of course, CinemaScope itself is going to complicate rather seriously the issue of distribution. It is easy to comprehend that this wide-screen process demands an appropriate setting. The long and narrow movie theaters do not have a back wall that is wide enough for a CinemaScope screen. In France, for example, the number of theaters that won't have to be transformed is estimated only at twenty percent. Moreover, the CinemaScope equipment, temporarily monopolized by Fox, is rather expensive. Indeed, aside from the special projection lens, a special screen with high and uniform luminosity from all angles is necessary.
Consequently, these serious, if not insurmountable, difficulties have already become the pretext for the appearance of a surrogate CinemaScope, which crudely attempts to solve all problems. Today, for instance, one can see in Paris (and all the other capitals of Europe) a "panoramic screen," which is a rather strange kind of swindle. Its advantage is double: first, the size of the screen is variable within limits that make it adaptable to most normal movie theaters; second, and above all, it transforms any type of standard film into a "wide-screen" one. It is worth explaining through what wonderful geometric slight of hand the "panoramic screen" does this. It's a simple question of fractions: the conventional image is defined by its 4/3 x 2 proportions (I'm rounding off in order to simplify), i.e., 8/3. But in every school, one learns that one can also multiply a fraction by dividing its denominator, which means that, instead of doubling the length of the image, I can divide it into two lengthwise: hence, 8/3 = 4/1.5. This half picture, projected with an appropriate lens, will cover an area of screen that is exactly identical with the area covered by CinemaScope, and the trick is done.
I'm not joking: the very official, very serious, and oh-so-very wise "Technical Commission of the French Film Industry" recommends to all producers that from now on they make their films for potential projection on a panoramic screen, i.e., that they concentrate the "useful" part of the image in the central portion of the frame. The projector of the appropriately equipped movie theater will be fitted with a mask of the same proportions as the screen, and this mask will hide the "useless" part of the image. As matters stand today, since not all films have been made to undergo this surgical operation, the framing is left to the initiative of the projectionist, who is supposed to choose between beheading the characters and cutting off their legs, according to his personal complexes. But already the most serious of filmmakers have come to compose their images in such a way that they can undergo, without too much damage, the removal of one sixth off the top and one sixth from the bottom. More stupid even than the catoblepas,(6) film is eating both its head and its tail, but only, of course, in order to grow larger.
What difference is there, then, between the wide screen and the standard, abbreviated one? Isn't the viewer's angle of vision the same? Perhaps, but here we must specify more what CinemaScope in fact is. The optics of cinema is defined not only by the proportions of the image, but also by what one can introduce into the frame. Unlike the eye, which has a single optical system, the camera has at its disposal a wide variety of lenses covering more or less unlimited angles. In the case of wide angles, the use of short focal lengths partly compensates for the narrowness of the screen. This system has its drawbacks, though, for the more one moves away from the physical properties of the eye, the more obvious are the distortions in perspective. The indisputable advantage of Professor Chretien's Hypergonar(7) is its multiplication by two of the angle of its specially developed lens, without modifying the lens's other optical characteristics. What happens when the image is projected onto a wide screen, then, is not only that the viewer's angle of vision gets widened--an angle, moreover, that depends on where he is seated in the theater--but also that the depth of his perception of photographed reality is genuinely increased.
By way of comparison, imagine that I have cut a flat rectangular window into a piece of cardboard, and that I have placed behind the frame thus defined a photograph that must come into contact with the cardboard. The angle formed by my eye and the sides of the picture varies with the distance at which I place the cardboard, but the image itself does not vary: it is still defined by the optical nature of this particular viewing. Let me now remove the photograph and consider as a "picture" what I see behind the "mask" of the cardboard. This time, whether I step back or get closer to the frame will indeed make a difference, for the true angle of vision really increases together with that of the triangle whose upper corner is my eye and whose base is the length of the "mask." It is this angle of view that matters first and foremost, before the one formed by the screen and my chair. In substituting for CinemaScope, the "panoramic screen" widens the latter angle only by making the picture shrink vertically. The true content of the image, then, is divided by two (relative to the conventional image as defined by its 4/3 proportions) or by four, if we compare it with the CinemaScopic picture.
Thanks to this sad example of the "panoramic screen," one can see what purely commercial vicissitudes the evolution of cinema must undergo. This leads me to a meditation on what the notion of progress in film thereby becomes. Of course, in all the arts progress depends on the development of technique or technology. We know what the evolution of painting owes to the discovery of perspective, on the one hand, and to the invention of siccatives, on the other. However, one couldn't say that the history of harmony is totally dependent upon the history of musical instruments, and one well understands that, since the discovery of the grinding of powders in oil, the art of painting on an easel has evolved independently of any technical or technological innovation. Conversely, it is true that, at least roughly speaking, the evolution of architecture is determined almost completely by the materials used, or in any event by the hypothetical control one is able to achieve over them. Thus the Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals are built with the same stones, but the architect of the latter has arranged them in a far more efficient way.
Must we therefore contrast the evolution of the so-called "abstract" arts, such as music or literature, with that of the so-called "concrete" arts, in which the materials are predominant? Probably not, for in both cases the aesthetician would discern a logic, a system of laws, inherent in each art form, and would define, at least a posteriori, the possible evolutions and involutions of that form. The quarrels among architects are not essentially different from those between traditionalist and twelve-tone musicians. In these fields, it is the mind that ultimately makes artistic decisions. Its decisions may later be altered or even misrepresented by the constraints of history, but the evolution of the art, even if it is thwarted, will still retain a theoretical integrity and a definable sense.
There are some who would say that this is not true for film as well. However, if we examine the history of cinema, we are permitted to doubt whether the artist's critical sensibility and will matter so little in its destiny. Certainly, film has had no shortage of creators, even creators of genius, who have contributed considerably to its progress: this is as irrefutable for the cinema as it is for the traditional arts. We need not be shocked by the fact that these filmic artists generally bowed to the demands of mass consumption. Such constraints also make for the greatness of film, and it has derived from them some excellent aesthetic benefits. Although these constraints are perhaps more numerous and heavy than anywhere else, essentially they still don't represent a condition peculiar to, and restrictive of, filmmaking. But normal aesthetic progress in the cinema is difficult, for this art form is at the mercy of technological disturbances that may interrupt its course for purely economic reasons.
Thus silent film had reached an admirable point in its evolution when sound came along to challenge everything. It is obvious that not a single filmmaker had asked for this technological innovation, not even the ones whose personal style could only have benefited from it. The producers, and the producers alone, were responsible for the creation of this new attraction. In fact, talking pictures had already been possible for a number of years, and we would have had to wait several more years for the implementation of sound had the financial problems of Warner Brothers not prompted this studio to gamble everything on the new discovery. It is not at all absurd to imagine that, if the introduction of sound had been conducted in a slightly different way and had not been successful with the viewers, films would have remained silent. Indeed, it is always the initial response that determines the destiny of important changes in the processes of production and distribution. In 1927, Abel Gance made a film to be shown on a wide triple screen (Napoleon) and Claude Autant-Lara made another one with Chretien's Hypergonar (To Build a Fire).(8) But the conditions under which these films were projected and the general industry context (attention was already focusing on the talkies) caused this potential revolution to fail at the time. The only difference today resides in the fact that a long and well-orchestrated publicity campaign, together with enormous financial reserves, may prime the commercial pump and determine the success of an endeavor that had failed twenty-five years earlier.
Conversely, a filmmaker couldn't possibly cause, through the sole power of his art, any kind of disturbance in the technological framework within which filmmaking is carried on. Of course, he can benefit tremendously from technological progress (the sensitivity of emulsions, the outfitting of the studios, etc.), but he never determines it. Let's go one step farther. Not only do the external or technological conditions of filmmaking exclude the filmmaker, but also the destiny of cinema as an art form does as well. No doubt, what fundamentally distinguishes the mechanical arts that have appeared since the nineteenth century from the traditional arts is the mortality of the former. The danger that television represents for the film industry is not at all like the threat that film had presented to theater. Although, at the very worst, a reduction in the number of theatergoers might force the theater to switch to more unusual or more modest dramatic forms, the disappearance of theater as an art form is unthinkable: it will necessarily and eternally be reborn in children's games, in social liturgies, or simply in the need that some people have to play-act in front of their peers, be it only in the catacombs. The traditional arts were born at the same time as man and will disappear only if he does. In this respect, film is not an art form, it is not the fulfillment of an eternal need or a newly created one (are there any radically new needs?); rather, it is the result of the happy conjunction between a virtual need and the technological-economic state of civilization. In other words, film is not an art AND an industry, but instead an industrial art that is likely to vanish into thin air as soon as the industry's profits disappear. So if tomorrow television robs the film industry of the portion of its audience that was still making it a profitable exercise, producers will invest their capital elsewhere and the cinema will vanish from the scene as quickly as it came onto the scene. And nothing will persuade me to believe, in the spirit of futuristic optimism, that television will take over from an aesthetic point of view, just as film has taken over (at least partially) from the novel and the theater. For, aside from the fact that television is an industrial form in whose evolution aesthetic logic plays only a very small part, the art of television is probably much narrower than that of film. It is superior to film only in the field of documentary reportage. For the rest, television is a means of communication and expression that is irremediably cruder than the cinema.
So, unlike the traditional arts, which can merely decline or suffer, film in principle is mortal. And it's better to know from the start if one truly cares about its continued existence. I myself have underlined the danger to film's survival only to reaffirm my faith in its future. Up to now, the threat to the cinema has concerned only Hollywood, although, of course no one would think of taking any pleasure from that. Even if we did, Hollywood remains, in all senses of the word, the capital of world cinema. I won't go so far as to say that filmmaking would be crippled without Hollywood, but it would lack an essential gland whose secretions influence all other glands. Nonetheless, film would survive and would probably end up by compensating for the loss of its American capital. Certainly television is going to develop in Europe as it did in America, but nothing proves that French, English, or Italian viewers will so persuasively fall under its sway as the Americans have.
One conceivable strategy for the cinema's survival would be a greater differentiation on the part of producers between the market for cheap B-movies and the market for reasonably cheap quality movies. The former would continue to be made for, say, fifty percent of today's filmgoers, while the latter would be aimed at precisely that international fringe of the audience capable of escaping the grip of television in order to go and see a good film. In fact, there is a certain audience that goes to the theater and the movies alike solely on the basis of the quality of the play or film presented. To be sure, this group of people is relatively small, but, on an international scale, it may be big enough to ensure the financial viability of the films that we like, such as those of Renoir, Rossellini, Bresson, and De Sica. One may also hope that television will later help the film industry by playing the role of a distribution network, for whose products customers will have to pay and which will be a source of additional income, beyond the profits made by the movie theaters themselves.
More still: not only does the death of the film industry seem improbable to me, but also the attempt to solve its economic crisis through spectacular developments seems to point in the direction of substantial and desirable evolutionary progress. It is significant that this industrial art form, which is dependent upon economic factors, should have had its aesthetic progress ensured exclusively by technological developments. That is, if one can really speak about progress in the arts, for, in a way, it will always be absurd to think of da Vinci's work as superior to the art of the caveman. From this point of view, progress never depends on material technique or technology, or, more accurately, each technique has its own evolution whose peak is as high as that of the technique, or the technology, which replaces it. There does tend to be agreement, however, that from murals to oil painting one can indeed see progress, as one can from the epic to the novel or from melody to counterpoint. My purpose is not to defend this thesis, which I think the reader will easily accept if only he considers the opposite one. Refusing the evolution of technique or technology amounts to condemning the life of civilization itself, to refusing to be modern--i.e., to refusing to exist. It remains tree that not all technical-technological developments are ipso facto evidence of progress: they must in the end be brought into harmony with the internal laws of the art form, with its specific physiology. Thus, conversely, modern art strives to return (even if through some very sophisticated techniques or technology) to fundamental or primitive laws that have been buried under the brash of a false, or falsely prized, historical evolution: see Lurcat(9) and tapestry, for example, or Le Corbusier and architecture.
So I won't say that sound, by itself and through the mere fact that it added one element to the picture, has meant progress for film. If this is indeed so, it is because film is not at all in essence an art form of exclusively visual images. It is paradoxically tree that its initial infirmity, by forcing filmmakers to create a silent language, contributed to the evolution of an art form that, as early as 1925, had already reached a kind of classical stage; it is equally true that speech challenged this language of silence and caused the temporary regression of cinema. But these accidents do nothing to controvert the fact that the essence of film from the very start (one might even say as early as its seed took root in the inventors' imagination) has been a quest for the realism of the image. One could say that this realism is implied by the automatic genesis of the cinematographic image, and that it aims at giving this image the greatest number of characteristics in common with natural perception.
The abstraction that is necessary to art must paradoxically emerge here from what is most concrete in the image. Every convention that film retains from drawing, painting, and photography (black and white, the absence of a third dimension, framing itself) contributes to its abstraction, if only temporarily. The worst mistake we could make, however, is to think that these "genes," by their very existence, are exquisite and fecund. One must temper such a belief, which is too general to be true. It would be equally naive to think that the filmic image tends toward total identification with the universe that it copies, through the successive addition of supplementary properties from that universe. Perception, on the part of the artist as well as the audience of art, is a synthesis--an artificial process--each of whose elements acts on all the others. And, for example, it is not true that color, in the way that we are able to reproduce it--as an addition to the image framed by the narrow window of the screen--is an aspect of pure realism. On the contrary, color brings with it a whole set of new conventions that, all things considered, may make film look more like a painting than reality.
The same holds true for stereoscopic relief,(10) which does indeed give the impression that objects exist in space, but in a ghastly or impalpable state. The internal contradiction of this relief is that it creates the impression of an unreal, unapproachable world far more than does the flatness of black-and-white film. This is why one shouldn't count on a victory for stereoscopic relief in the war among 3-D processes. Even if we forget about the inconvenience caused by Polaroid glasses, the unreality of this universe, which seems strangely spun out of a hole on the screen, would be enough to condemn it--except in the genres where the aim is precisely a certain union of fantasy and reality, especially horror films. It is nevertheless possible that, with the advent of the wide screen, one of the major disadvantages of stereoscopic relief will disappear, and certain films, detective stories and musicals in particular, will be shot with this photographic process.
In any event, the real revolutionary innovation will very probably be the CinemaScopic screen, and from now on we must take account of it. Let me say right away that the equation of this screen with stereoscopic relief is incorrect and the result of overzealous publicity. It must also be said that, after a few yards, binocular vision plays only a secondary role in the perception of depth, and that the location of objects in space is the result of a series of factors which could as well be taken in by a one-eyed viewer. The closer the conditions of filmic vision get to natural vision, then, the more the dimension of depth will appear; and, in this respect, the CinemaScopic screen helps in that it gives us, instead of today's narrow window, a widened surface whose angle formed with the viewer's eye is closer to the normal angle of vision. But the impression of depth and perspective cannot be manufactured in all CinemaScopic shots and, even when it is created, it remains rather partial. The genuine contribution of CinemaScope lies elsewhere: in the elongated format of its screen.
Up to now, the only items I have seen in CinemaScope (in Paris or in Venice) are spectaculars, of either a documentary or a dramatic nature (The Robe, for example), all of which employed this new method of framing. Its effect is undoubtedly sensational, especially when combined with stereophonic sound, which is required on account of the huge dimensions of the screen. We can well understand why Clouzot is furious that he made The Wages of Fear (1953) before the appearance of CinemaScope, since the film would have benefited 100 percent from it. CinemaScope has an affinity as well with genres like the Western, whose signature framing is the long shot showing the landscape stretching toward the horizon. The cavalry marches, the stagecoach chases, and the Indian wars will at last find on the wide screen the space where they belong. But one can make some very serious arguments against CinemaScope, despite its partial advantages. What film is going to gain from it in the spectacular genres, isn't it going to lose in the area of psychological complexity and, more generally, in the power of its intellectual expression, precisely the qualities on which the more sophisticated genres depend? Furthermore, what's going to become of the sacrosanct close-up, the keystone of film editing, through this bay window that is being substituted for the old, narrow one?
That's the operative word here: editing. Ever since the filmic work of Abel Gance and Sergei Eisenstein, on the one hand, and a famous critical article by Andre Malraux,(11) on the other hand, it has undoubtedly become the alpha of cinematic language, the omega being framing, which plastically organizes the contents of the image. Well, we must once and for all get rid of this critical prejudice, which in any case has been shown to be untrue by a number of silent masterpieces, such as those of von Stroheim and Chaplin, in which editing plays only a secondary role. It is not true that cutting into shots and augmenting those shots with a whole range of optical effects are the necessary and fundamental elements of filmic expression, however subtle that expression might otherwise be. On the contrary, one can see that the evolution of film in the last fifteen years has tended toward the elimination of editing. Already before the war, we had Jean Renoir's great lesson on this subject.(12) And we have had lessons since then from Citizen Kane (1941; dir. Orson Welles) and from The Best Years of Our Lives (1946; dir. William Wyler), in which most of the shots are exactly as long as the scenes taking place in them.
It is true that framing alone can often create within the image a kind of virtual editing. But isn't this fact of composition itself about to disappear, in that it is a plastic artifice foreign to the essence of the raise en scene? Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1951) owes very little to photographic composition, and I can see in it very few optical effects that are not translatable into CinemaScope. But I do see the additional meaning that the opposition, or rather the place, of the priest in the landscape in some shots would gain from filming in CinemaScope. A motion picture like The River (1951; dir. Jean Renoir), of whose innovative beauty I have sung the praises in Esprit, could also only profit from presentation on a wide screen. I'm still waiting for someone to give me the title of a single film--at least in recent years, and one whose import is not aesthetically reactionary--that couldn't have been shot in CinemaScope. And I won't accept Othello (1952; dir. Orson Welles), whose purpose seems to me to be the final exhaustion of montage in a flurry of artifice.
In contrast to Welles's Shakespearean film, the wide screen will only hasten the adoption of that most modern of tendencies beloved in fine filmmaking: the stripping away of everything extrinsic to the quintessential meaning of the image, of all the expressionism of time and space. Film will thus grow even more apart from the abstractions of music and painting, and will get even nearer to it profound vocation, which is to show before it expresses, or, more accurately, to express through the evidence of the real. Put yet another way: the cinema's ultimate aim should be not so much to mean as to reveal.
All notes have been provided by the translator/editor. This essay first appeared in French in the October-November issue of Esprit, 21 no. 207-208 (1953), pp. 672-683. Translated into English here, for the first time, with the permission of Madame Janine Bazin.
(1) The Robe was the first film shot in CinemaScope; it opened at New York's Roxy Theatre in September of 1953.
(2) A reference to Thomas R. Malthus (1766-1834), the English economist who theorized that population tends to increase at a faster rate than its means of subsistence and that, unless it is checked by moral restraint or by disease, famine, war, or other disaster, widespread poverty and degradation inevitably result.
(3) With 3-D films as well as with CinemaScope, Cinerama, Panavision, and other wide screen processes.
(4) Cinerama. A wide-screen process originally utilizing three cameras and three projectors to record and project a single image. The three 35-mm cameras were set up to record three aspects of a single image simultaneously: one camera facing directly ahead and the other two slightly to the right and left. When projected on a special huge screen, curved to an angle of about 165 degrees, at twenty-six frames per second, the images blended together to produce an illusion of vastness and plasticity. Three electronically synchronized projectors were used, the middle one projecting straight ahead and the other two projecting to the right and left in a crisscross arrangement.
Developed by Fred Waller of Paramount's special-effects department, the system was first introduced at New York's 1939 World's Fair as Vitarama, and at that time the process involved eleven projectors. In 1952 the improved and simplified process described above made its sensational public bow in New York with This Is Cinerama, a thrill-filled travelogue type of film, which featured a roller-coaster ride, a plane flight over the Grand Canyon, and several other spectacular scenes. Other episodic Cinerama films followed until 1962, when the first story feature in the process, How the West Was Won, was released. Although commercially successful, Cinerama left much to be desired technically. The three images did not always match properly, causing an irritatingly jarring effect where the images joined. As a result, the three-lens system was abandoned and a single-lens, 70-mm process, similar to other current wide-screen processes except for its curved screen, was adopted.
Multiple camera-projector systems date back to 1896, when the French inventor Raoul Grimoin-Sanson used ten projectors to show a panoramic picture on a huge circular screen. He called the process Cinerama. Director Abel Gance used a triple-panel screen to project his 1927 Napoleon. He called his system Polyvision. Following the exploitation of Cinerama, other processes were attempted, including Cinemiracle, Thrillerama, Wonderama, Disney's Circarama, Quadravision, and the technically inferior Soviet system, Kinopanorama.
CinemaScope. Trade name copyrighted by Twentieth Century Fox for a wide-screen process based on an Anamorphic system developed by Professor Henri Chretien. The system involves special lenses that compress and distort images during filmmaking and spread them out undistorted during projection, over an area wider than the normal motion-picture screen. In theory the anamorphic effect has been known since the 1860s. Several anamorphic processes have been patented since 1898. The most successful of these was developed and demonstrated by Chretien late in the 1920s. The French director Claude Autant-Lara experimented with Chretien's invention on several short documentaries, but it seemed to have no commercial value and was soon shelved. In the frantic search by Hollywood studios early in the 1950s for widescreen systems to counter the threat of television, Twentieth Century Fox took an option on Chretien's invention and named it CinemaScope. The Robe's commercial success led to the adoption of the system by other major studios and to the rise of rival anamorphic systems, including WarnerScope, TechniScope, PanaScope, and the versatile SuperScope and Panavision. The CinemaScope image, photographed on normal 35-mm film, is about two and a half times as wide as it is high when it is projected, and has an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, as compared with the conventional screen aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The aspect ratio for 70-mm CinemaScope is 2.2:1.
(5) Named after Lucien Roux (1894-1956), who with his brother Armand invented this color process in 1931. It can be seen at work in Marcel Pagnol's La belle Meuniere (The Lovely Mistress of the Mill, 1948).
(6) An unknown, perhaps mythical, African quadraped that has been identified with the gnu.
(7) The original name for the anamorphic lens systems developed by Henri Chretien and later developed into CinemaScope by Twentieth Century Fox.
(8) In 1927, Autant-Lara tackled a wide-screen experiment with the short Construire un feu, an avant-garde adaptation of a Jack London story.
(9) Jean Lurcat (1892-1966) was a French painter who greatly contributed to reviving the art of tapestry.
(10) A stereoscope is an instrument with two eyepieces through which a pair of photographs of the same scene or subject, taken at slightly different angles, are viewed side by side: the two photographs are thus seen as a single picture apparently having depth, or three dimensions.
(11) See Le Cinema Selon Andre Malsaux, ed. Marcel Defosse (Paris: Cahiers du Cinema, 1966).
(12) Bazin could be referring here either to La Grande Illusion (1937) or The Rules of the Game (1939).
BERT CARDULLO is Professor of Theatre and Drama at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the regular film critic for The Hudson Review. His latest book, in two volumes, is Practical Film Criticism: An Enlightened Approach to Moviegoing (Edwin Mellen, 1999).
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|Author:||Cardullo, Robert James|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2000|
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