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In response to: “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” from the book “What is Cinema?” by Andre Bazin
A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class
Andre Bazin expressed in this reading “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” from his book “What is Cinema?” his conviction that sound is not there to destroy cinema – it is just part of the natural development of the medium. In discussing film as an art and language, he presented how the cinema between 1920 and 1940 offered two broad and opposing trends: “those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality.” When referring to the “image,” he explained how it can be reduced essentially to two categories: “those that relate to the plastics of the image and those that relate to the resources of montage, which, after all, is simply the ordering of images in time.” For him, montage renders the truth of what is seen on screen (expressionistic/symbolist), which means there should be “faith” in the image shown, and with saying faith, he eventually led the discussion towards realism.
Bazin supported Andre Malraux’s statement in his “Psychologie du cinema” saying, “it was montage that gave birth to film as an art, setting it apart from mere animated photography, in short, creating a language.” He presented “the potentialities of montage, which are clearly evident from the three processes generally known as parallel montage, accelerated montage, and montage by attraction.” Indeed, his insights opened a much larger playing field in the use of montage in film language. His convictions on montage, although not totally against the established studies of montage during the height of the silent era, he provided a different lens compared to the Soviet filmmakers. He explained how the use of montage can be rendered “invisible,” which was quite apparent in the pre-World War II classics in the United States. For him, “Scenes were broken down just for one purpose, namely, to analyze an episode according to the material or dramatic logic of the scene. It is this logic which conceals the fact of the analysis, the mind of the spectator quite naturally accepting the viewpoints of the director which are justified by the geography of the action or the shifting emphasis of dramatic interest.” In the case of filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein, montage reinforces meaning of one image by association with another image. Even his fellow filmmaker and theorist Lev Kuleshov showed that “the creation of a sense of meaning is not objectively contained in the images themselves but derived exclusively from their juxtaposition.” Clearly, these key points suggest an idea by means of a metaphor or by an association of ideas. As noted in the reading, “The meaning is not in the image, it is in the shadow of the image projected by montage onto the field of consciousness of the spectator.”
Bazin also shared some early historical accounts on German silent cinema in their practice of montage. He expressed how German Expressionism “did every kind of violence to the plastics of the image by way of sets and lighting.” In such case, he put forward the view that “expressionism of montage and image constitute the essence of cinema.” There were also other milestones and movements in other film industries around the world, but he said that, despite their differences, “it does not appear that the language of cinema was at a loss for ways of saying what it wanted to say.”
Bazin believed that “an image is already completely realistic because meaning emerges without rendering (analytic/dramatic) so there should be faith in reality.” This clearly opened up to his major contribution to film theory – the realist tradition, which developed after the formative tradition that started during the silent film era. He carefully discussed the concept of objective reality and the use of deep focus, which was revolutionized by – although not necessarily discovered by – Orson Welles in his film “Citizen Kane.” For him, “depth of focus brings the spectator into a relation with the image closer to what one enjoys in reality. Therefore it is correct to say that, independently of the contents of the image, its structure is more realisitic.” In using deep focus, the viewer is forced to participate in digging through the meaning of the film “by distinguishing the implicit relations” of what are seen on frame. This makes the spectator more active than passive in watching the film, thus, provoking more thoughts and analysis. The continuous action in the scene doesn’t disrupt the person’s flow of thoughts. Ideally, in a well-crafted film, a person builds a serious relationship with the screen while watching – finding herself or himself inside the very universe where the character dwells. Yet, this spectator is more of an invisible being able to exist in the said character’s world. Inside the story itself, he or she is more able to feel for the characters and finds the characters’ environments as palpable as them. The use of deep focus in scenes supports invisible cutting with matching eyelines in both the filming and the editing. Such leads to effective cutting and splicing, while also offering continuity of space regardless of camera’s distance to the subject. He further explained how deep focus allows the eyes to move around the frame similar to examining a painting. Although the filmmaker would most likely introduce suggested ways to move around the elements in the shot through lights, shadows, and/or colors, the spectator still has the complete control over his or her choices, on what he or she prefers to look at – at any given time.
In continuing his discussion on objective reality and deep focus, he also accounted how “film grew a common form of cinematic language from 1930 to 1940, primarily in the United States,” with the pre-war films that were considered a triumph of Hollywood. He presented “the kinds of film that gave it its overwhelming superiority: (1) American comedy (Mr. Smith Goes to Washing-ton, 1936); (2) The burlesque film (The Marx Brothers); (3) The dance and vaudeville film (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the Ziegfield Follies); ( 4) The crime and gangster film (Scarface, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, The Informer); (5) Psychological and social dramas (Back Street, Jezebel); (6) Horror or fantasy films (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein); (7) The western (Stagecoach, 1939). During that time the French cinema undoubtedly ranked next.” He moved on further saying, “American and French production sufficiently clearly indicate that the sound film, prior to World War II, had reached a well-balanced stage of maturity.” As expected, the film language further prospered and more diverse content found much appreciation by different audiences, while film form rightfully evolved with well-defined styles of shooting and editing that provide harmony of image and sound. As film technology further improved, movie studios also opened up to more radical possibilities in storytelling – with the filmmaker enjoying more tools at his or her disposal. By late 1930s, the use of the shot-reverse shot in most dialogue scenes were widely utilized. Interestingly, this was greatly challenged by the shot in depth approach established by Welles and William Wyler. In films like “Citizen Kane,” whole scenes were covered in a single take. Certain dramatic effects that used to rely on montage turned out capitalizing on the movements of the actors within a fixed framework. Like the human eyes, the camera may not see everything at once, but the wide coverage made sure not to lose any part of what the spectator chooses to see. At this stage of film language’s development, the use of deep focus was “not a mere stock in trade,” it became “a capital gain” in the field of direction. It is said to be “a dialectical step forward in the history of film language.” Beyond just offering a more economical way of getting the most out of a scene, the use of deep focus to cover scenes and sequences greatly affected the relationships of the minds of the spectators. It influenced the structure, as well as the interpretation of the story.
Another worthwhile contribution of “Citizen Kane” as a revolutionizing motion picture for its time was its use of a series of superimpositions contrasted with a scene presented in a single take, which provided another deliberately abstract mode of storytelling. The sequence’s accelerated montage played tricks with time and space without providing any form of deception.This rediscovered the potential of temporal realism in telling a story. Indeed, as Bazin reiterated, “Citizen Kane” is “a part of a general movement, of a vast stirring of the geological bed of cinema, confirming that everywhere up to a point there had been a revolution in the language of the screen.”
Bazin also discussed the use of neorealism in Italian cinema to open up more facets of the realist film theory, including how this film movement allowed the transfer to the screen of the continuum of reality. He said, “Italian neorealism contrasts with previous forms of film realism in its stripping away of all expressionism and in particular in the total absence of the effects of montage. As in the films of Welles and in spite of conflicts of style, neorealism tends to give back to the cinema a sense of the ambiguity of reality.” Bazin continued with how “the decade from the 1940 to 1950 marked a decisive step forward in the development of the language of the film.”
This reading allowed me to examine the development of the language of cinema using a relatively linear progress of historical accounts. I agree with Bazin when he said that “a new subject matter demands new form.” I also concur with his declaration of “exhausting all possibilities” in order to effectively express one’s vision for the film using applicable tools and fitting devices available to the medium. These insights support my own conviction on how shots, scenes, and sequences are all about relationships. The entire film works because of the relationships of its very elements coming together accordingly. With the significant discoveries on using the language of cinema, filmmakers are better equipped in mounting their stories for the screen, whether going the formalist or realist route, or essentially combining them. Filmmakers have “more means of manipulating reality and even modifying it from within” at their disposal.In the case of the realist film theory, filmmakers can tell their stories without chopping the world up into little fragments, without disturbing the unity of the narrative flow playing on screen. As Bazin noted, “imageis evaluated not according to what it adds to reality but what it reveals of it.” It is also worth mentioning from Bazin’s own words, “The filmmaker is no longer the competitor of the painter and the playwright, be is, at last, the equal of the novelist.” This perspective made quite an impact on me, especially after looking into the definition of a novel: “a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.” Clearly, Bazin was pertaining to the realism in novels and how this applies to the realism in cinema.
Bazin, Andre. What Is Cinema?, University of California Press, California, 2005.
“Plastic arts.” Def. N. 1.1. Merriam WebsterDictionary, 2019, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plastic%20art. Accessed 20 September 2019.
“Ontology.” Merriam WebsterDictionary, 2019, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ontology.Accessed 23 September 2019.
“Novel.” Def. N. 1.1. Lexico, 2019, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/novel. Accessed 23 September 2019.