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(Response Paper) The Essence of Realism Through the Photographic Image with Andre Bazin

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In response to: “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” from the book “What is Cinema?” by Andre Bazin

A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class

Reading “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” from the book “What is Cinema?” by realist film theorist Andre Bazin reminded me how a film makes a character immortal, and to a large degree, makes an actor immortal as well. One’s physicality, which eventually gets lost in time with aging, will always remain as is, frozen and preserved in that moment in time, as the scene on the film is shown.In the case of a person in his or her prime, that recording of how he or she looks like will forever remain as that very age, that very point in time. Through cinema, a former child star who is now a centenarian will always be that wonder child filled with that wide-eyed curiosity of the world. An acclaimed actor who just passed away in real life turns out very much alive in a film currently showing in theaters. As the reading said, in film, there is “preservation of life by a representation of life.”

Studying the ontology of the photographic image allows thorough analysis of cinema, alongside its properties and relationships. The first crucial term I encountered in this reading was “ontology,” which apparently refers to the “philosophical study of the nature of being.” I realized, this provides a significant means for both filmmakers and film scholars to dig deeper in their pursuit of further understanding cinema’s roots.

Ironically, this reading, which is primarily concerned about satisfying the essence of realism through the photographic image, started with a discussion of death – describing the embalming process and the religious traces in the ancient Egyptians’ preservation of the dead through mummification. In no time, I learned about the term “mummy complex,” which pertains to the “human desire to preserve things beyond the physical.” At this point, I remembered the Tom Tykwer film “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” (its main character, a man with superior olfactory sense, became obsessed in searching for the ultimate scent and preserving scent), as Bazin continued discussing mummification, embalming, and preservation in relation to cinema.

Moving on, I also encountered the term “plastic arts,” pertaining to the “art forms involving modeling or molding of representation of solid objects with three-dimensional effects,” such as sculpture, painting, and film, which has its own discipline compared to art forms that are written such as poetry and music. Once again, this reminded me of humanity’s urge to preserve the appearance, alongside that constant desire to freeze time and that urge to duplicate things in reality in order to find reality closer to people – or find a representation of an existing reality as “complete” as possible. Bazin expressed how “the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death.”

Bazin took the case of painting saying that this art form was “torn between two ambitions: one, primarily aesthetic, namely the expression of spiritual reality wherein the symbol transcended its model; the other, purely psychological, namely the duplication of the world outside. The satisfaction of this appetite for illusion merely served to increase it till, bit by bit, it consumed the plastic arts. However, since perspective had only solved the problem of form and not of movement, realism was forced to continue the search for some way of giving dramatic expression to the moment, a kind of psychic fourth dimension that could suggest life in the tortured immobility of baroque art.” He also explained, “If the history of the plastic arts is less a matter of their aesthetic than of their psychology then it will be seen to be essentially the story of resemblance, or, if you will, of realism.” I believe that the aesthetic and psychological tendencies don’t need to clash, as artists, regardless of the medium, should be able to utilize them in their artistic expressions without necessarily having to pick just one. Instead, these two tendencies should work hand in hand because the nature of art calls for both, in one way or another. In bringing up the word “realism,” it is worth noting how Bazin mentioned Andre Malraux, describing cinema as “the furthermost evolution to date of plastic realism, the beginnings of which were first manifest at the Renaissance and which found its completest expression in baroque painting.” In relation to this, Bazin explained how the need for illusion did not cease to trouble the heart of painting as early as the sixteenth century. By the late 1800s to early 1900s, a clear rivalry between photographic reporting and the use of drawings emerged. During that time, drawings “satisfied the baroque need for the dramatic.” Meanwhile, the photographic document developed slowly but surely. As the transition from the baroque to photography progressed, he reflected on how photography was not meant to perfect the physical process, believing that “photography will long remain the inferior of painting in the reproduction of color.” If he could only see now how much of a “painting” can be done with film’s technological progress on lighting, filters, colorgrading, DI, visual effects, and even make-up and prosthetics, I wonder what he would say.

Bazin explained that “the quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological” – between the true realism giving justice to the significant expression of the world in its essence and the pseudorealism aimed at deceiving the eye. From here, I found myself going back to the many discussions on form vs. content, as well as formalism vs. realism. As Bazin described the conflict between style and likeness as a relatively modern phenomenon, he discussed the so-called “crisis in realism” that began during the nineteenth century when Picasso became a central mythical figure,” examining the formal existence of the plastic arts and the sociological roots that sprung from this school of thought. For him, painting was forced to offer the spectator an illusion, while photography and film satisfied humans’ obsession with realism. In talking about the objective character of photography compared to painting, he believed that objects are in their ideal form closest to reality with photography. There is wonder in automatically reproducing an image of an object in reality by clicking an equipment without the creative intervention of a person during the process of image-making. Right after that click on the camera’s shoot button, the mechanical process would already be dependent on the film stock and the camera without any more tampering or manipulation coming from the artist. For him, the objective nature of photography provides it credibility, which is not available in other forms of visual arts, because people are forced to accept the automated reproduction of the image. There is said to be that “transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction.” It was quite interesting how he related this to the psychology of relics and souvenirs where there is a transfer of reality stemming from the mummy complex. However, I don’t agree with his conviction on photography becoming an automated process that the touch of the artist gets halted during the act of duplication. This is especially true in the case of modern cinema as technological progress continues to provide relatively unlimited creative tools for the artist to use before, during, and after shooting an object for various artistic purposes – from traditional photography and filmmaking to virtual reality, augmented reality, motion-capture technology, or even 3D printing and video games.

Bazin expressed how photography “has the power to lay bare realities” and how a photograph and a real object “share a common being.” He added, “it contributes something to the order of natural creation instead of providing a substitute for it,” meaning photography goes beyond a mere technical duplication of reality. Photography is a means to record “artistic fact.” He further defended realism with that of surrealism, which he said has no consideration to the aesthetic purpose and the mechanical effect of the image – there is no logical distinction between what is imaginary and what is real. For him, “photography is clearly the most important event in the history of plastic arts.” He further imposed how “photography ranks high in the order of surrealist creativity because it produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely, an hallucination that is also a fact. The fact that surrealist painting combines tricks of visual deception with meticulous attention to detail substantiates this.” These ideas are worthwhile in advanced film studies because they open more doors in examining the continuing evolution of cinema both technically and creatively.

Work Cited:

Bazin, Andre. What Is Cinema?, University of California Press, California, 2005.

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Rianne Hill I. Soriano
Rianne Hill Soriano is a freelance production artist working as a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. 
https://www.riannehillsoriano.com
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