In response to: “The Myth of Total Cinema” from the book “What is Cinema?” by Andre Bazin
A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class
The Andre Bazin reading “The Myth of Total Cinema” from his book “What is Cinema?” focused on the desire of humans to find a representation of reality as complete as possible, rooted from the innovations in cinema, by discussing techniques of mechanical reproduction of reality. This started in the nineteenth century, then carefully moved on as film technology progressed through the years and decades. In discussing ontogenetic realism, the reading provided significant details about the early stages of photography and cinematography until the maturity of motion picture as an art form just before the war years of the 1940s.
According to Bazin, “The cinema is an idealistic phenomenon.” In discussing the invention of cinema, cinema’s practical and economic uses, and cinema becoming a form of art, he mentioned the accidental discoveries leading to film’s milestones. He introduced this reading with historical details and coincidences involving the ingenious industrialists including the likes of the Lumiere Brothers and Thomas Edison and how the turn of events of their times paved the way to cinema’s natural development. He also presented the economic and business aspects impacting the development of film technology in the hands of these industrialists. Each of them had their own personal agenda and they geared their use of film technology towards what will best benefit them. Some even found themselves obsessing over what film could offer them. According to Bazin, “cinema was born from the converging of these various obsessions, that is to say, out of a myth, the myth of total cinema.”
In his discussion of the silent film, he said that “it would be absurd to take the silent film as a state of primal perfection which has gradually been forsaken by the realism of sound and color. The primacy of the image is both historically and technically accidental. The nostalgia that some still feel for the silent screen does not go far enough back into the childhood of the seventh art. The real primitives of the cinema, existing only in the imaginations of a few men of the nineteenth century, are in complete imitation of nature.” He also discussed what is called “integral realism,” referring to the recreation of the world in its image, unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time. He explained the guiding myth, inspiring the invention of cinema, being “the accomplishment of that which dominated in a more or less vague fashion all the techniques of the mechanical reproduction of reality in the nineteenth century, from photography to the phonograph.” He added, “In their imaginations they saw the cinema as a total and complete representation of reality; they saw in a trice the reconstruction of a perfect illusion of the outside world in sound, color, and belief.”
From the development of still photographs to the synthesis of movement in moving picture, from the concept of persistence of vision to the advancements in the silent and sound films, it is quite clear that economics, cultural undertakings, and current state of affairs all have crucial impacts on the progress of cinema as a language and an art form. Bazin claimed, “If the origins of an art reveal something of its nature, then one may legitimately consider the silent and the sound film as stages of a technical development that little by little made a reality out of the original myth.” Indeed, inventions and technological innovations in cinema continue to evolve up to this day and in the far future. It is always exciting to discover how film’s progress lead to exploring diverse avenues of storytelling, while more discussions and debates focused on the artistic and technical power of the medium and how they clash at times also find their way on the spotlight.
Bazin, Andre. What Is Cinema?, University of California Press, California, 2005.