Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge: What is Cinema? Vol. 1 by André Bazin


This post is part of the Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. This particular title pertains to the blogathon by being a work of film criticism that discusses some classic films and then-new approaches to adaptation of stage plays and novels and other developments in the early history of film.

What is Cinema? Vol. 1

What is Cinema? Vol. 1 (All Rights Reserve)

With the recent shutdown of The Dissolve, one of the most celebrated and well-respected film criticism sites in the past two years; a site created in part as a response to the closing of Cinematical; it’s not unusual that the discussion of “Is film criticism dead?” firing back up. When you pair that with the fact that I recently took to reading What is Cinema? Vol. 1 by André Bazin, and I started to give this some serious thought; seeing as how Bazin’s essay collection encompasses five volumes and only two of them exist with modern English translation. Usually, I leapfrog from one film thinker to another based on having read one and heard them talk of another. However, the last two names I came across I were met with similar lack-of-translation issues. René Tabard being the last one prior to Bazin. Tabard practically invented film history, and jumped to mind again after he was featured in Hugo.

I think this collection from Bazin proves there is still a relevance if we are willing to engage and seek out such writing, as will be detailed to follow. So “Who is André Bazin?” you may be asking. André Bazin was a film critic and theorist who founded one of the most influential film publications of all time, Cahiers du Cinema. It was Cahiers where the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, among others, got their start. It was Truffaut’s references and admiration that lead me to him.

The contents of the book are as follows:

Ontology of the Photographic Image
The Myth of Total Cinema
The Evolution of the Language of Cinema
The Virtues and Limitations of Montage
In Defense of Mixed Cinema
Theater and Cinema: Part one and Two
Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) and the Stylistics of Robert Bresson
Charlie Chaplin
Cinema and Exploration
Painting and Cinema

The title seems simplistic but bear in mind that when Bazin was working cinema was about 60 years old. Synchronized sound much younger still and many things were being addressed for the first times on film. Furthermore, to establish a foundation of what the study of an artform is defining and delineating it is a necessity. Furthermore, when aesthetic precepts and styles change, or are challenged, chronicling the process and debating the pros and cons of said approaches has much validity. In trying to define the then-youngest artform it mattered to compare and contrast it to those arts that came first.

Bazin breaks down many things specifically: the frame itself, the incorporation of multiple disciplines, film grammar, editing with a different approach that Eisenstein had, as well as tackling specific performers (encapsulating Chaplin’s genius) discussing specific titles and subgenres. Further some of these essays have slight overlap which make the order make sense, and give you the sense of an ongoing dialogue that developed over time.

Those essays are followed by notes inserted by the translated for further contextualization. These are vital. For while Bazin was not shy about writing lengthy, at times multiple page, footnotes to make elliptical tangential points there are times where there is no clarification that you wish were there. On a few occasions they occur in the final line of the essay and the point is obfuscated if not lost entirely.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951, Criterion)

I, as a reader, am not shy about doing searches or seeking definitions extemporaneously. However, some of them only made sense with the notes; hence their vitality. I usually consider the introduction optional but Jean Renoir sets the stage very well and gets you in the mood and proper frame of mind to start this book so I’d recommend it though it’s not as vital as the notes.

Online I found some reader reviews that cited excessive liberties in editing, re-arranging essays. However, those changes are cited in the back and it does not say if it’s unique to the English translation. As for the arguments I saw about reading the original French text, clearly if you have a level of fluency in the original language of the text that’s alway preferable, but a translation is better than not ever having read a text at all. I have experimented with reading in French but cannot claim proficiency, and translation is imprecise, which is why new translations happen, and I have read multiple versions of a work when interested enough. It’s just always something to keep in mind.

Regardless of the transcriptive liberties either taken or not, I found the ideas communicated clearly, even through their complexities, and the compact, polysyllabic style Bazin appeared to have is evident without being so dense it reads as if its intended for academics only. It’s certainly challenging but a foundation in film makes it accessible. It’d have been further illuminating if I had the level of exposure to French literature and theatre he did, the other works of art, but even without the specific contextual framework what he’s saying is clear. Furthermore, reading always begets reading so it’s good to have some ideas of what to look for.

André Bazin

I wouldn’t say its introductory level stuff, nor does it supplant film history supplements, but Bazin’s work is a foundation that is still relevant for film is in a constant state of evolution. Therefore, to question what makes a work cinematic, and what the form entails, is critical food for thought for all those who love the seventh art.

Film Thought: Critical Buzzwords in Need of Banishment

A recent comment, which for the purposes of this piece will remain unnamed and unspecified, brought to my attention that when critiquing a movie whether positively or negatively there are certain buzzwords and catch phrases that are bandied about haphazardly and in essence they are meaningless. The reason the words are meaningless can be repetition or lack of serious thought about the connotations that such words carry.

I will list below some of the words and phrases I have come to loathe and will refrain from using from hereon in and I welcome suggestions of others as I’m sure I’ll forget some.

1. Manipulative

Why: When we go to see a movie we are going wanting to be moved, asking to feel. In our attendance at the auditorium or in our rental of the film is an implicit understanding that we are subjecting ourselves to a piece of fiction which will make us feel emotions we otherwise wouldn’t be feeling, therefore, any and all cinema is manipulative by nature and to call something manipulative is not only redundant but an ineffectual rebuff of the work.

2. Pretentious

Why: Very rarely is the word pretentious accompanied by a specific example of what it is that makes the work pretentious. Typically the word is assigned to a film that is intentionally cryptic. Whether or not the film in question is actually good is irrelevant because the dismissive, lazy and facile usage of a word so sloppily applied in and of itself does not condemn a film. If one one can illustrate how the film is bloated or more arcane than it needs to be or in some other way an affront is a much better critique than the flippant use of a trope statement.

3. Self-Indulgent

Why: This is really a film school/film student special for it was there that I really heard it for the first time and it was immediately rebuked by some. Any film, aside from the obvious product or franchise-extenders (though they are not all exempt), is self-indulgent by nature. A director and crew members and then actors are all in essence saying “This story is very important and I’m the one that needs telling it.” While that sounds like an over-simplification that’s some of the essence. That’s the artistic impetus that drives the creation of film. The financing of said films is driven, obviously, by other factors but everyone who wants to either direct a film or start their own production has the same core belief: “My story matters most.” While that’s sincere it is self-indulgent to an extent because what makes that true to an individual is clearly subjective, and yes, you want to entertain an audience but you also want to make your film. No escaping it logically.

4. Instant Classic/Classic

Why: The first is clearly oxy-moronic. We all know what it’s supposed to mean but it’s tired at this point. The case for classic is really one with a caveat. It should not apply to films younger than 25 years old (I’m guilty of using it as such) and, of course, does not replace actual commentary and analysis.

5. Must See

Why: Many of these do come from the realms of blurbs, however, when writing you can try your darndest to avoid writing something that’s blurbable (and occasionally fall ass-backwards into it anyway) or you can pander to it; this phrase is closer to the latter. Must see in my estimation, while a positive (I tried to find balance), is in and of itself meaningless especially depending on your level of film nerdiness.

Certain actors used to trigger a film as a must-see for me, now there are fewer of films that create a lot of chatter (good, bad or mixed) sometimes become “must-sees,” on rare occasions award and/or festival pedigree, however, regardless of what the reason is whose to say what’s a must see? Yes, no film should be dismissed out of hand, we’ve all been surprised but you can’t watch it all. Your criteria has to remain your own and this essentially boils down to the interpretation of critique as consumer advocate. True, that’s less the case than ever before (not that it ever really should’ve been for myriad reasons) but it stems from that and like any over-repeated phrase it’s started to mean nothing. Case in point is the recent The Devil Inside: it caused an internet firestorm because of the vitriolic reactions it got from crowds. I know I went full circle from liking the trailer and anticipating it, to hearing the negative reaction and doubting my interest, to hearing so many negative and angry reactions that I just had to see it for myself. The story illustrates that “must-see” was coined as a ringing endorsement of a film can apply to films that you hope you’ll like but know you likely won’t too, so it’s meaningless.

Those are the few I came up with rather quickly. What are some buzzwords and phrases you feel should be banned?

What My Film Reviews Mean

The Critic (Gracie Pictures)

In many ways it’s more important that people read the following than My Rating Scale for it will allow you to understand my philosophy on film criticism:

Anyone who claims they have nothing else to learn is a liar. Part of why I have found my time film writing valuable is because I am constantly learning and re-learning things because you can never really stop. Similarly, I will never disable commenting (no matter how much I may want to at times) because on occasion there will be a thoughtful reader who will engage you in an actual conversation and make you examine your thought process and have you come to realization. It’s not even a question of being right or wrong about something but just understanding how you reach your conclusions or a truth you couldn’t put into words yet, an epiphany if you will. Recently when discussing my piece on Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close I realized my philosophy on film reviews is as follows:

I just try as accurately as I can to convey what my feelings are and why such that the reader can draw his/her own conclusions. I never presume my opinion to be more “right” I just always try to logically explain it.

That’s as simply as I can put it but I’d add the caveats that I’m not a fan of synopses in reviews (they can be found in many places, I’d go to official film-related sources for those), I am also by the above definition not a consumer advocate in strictest terms. Many times when I read a well-written review someone’s reasons for disliking it will compel me to go for I know I may like it for those same reasons. The key to choosing critiques to read is clarity of opinion and not taking the writer’s word for it. There will be no one in the world who shares all the same thoughts on films as you. We all have slightly different perspectives. Therefore you want to find someone who can accurately convey rather specifically why they liked/disliked a film and read them. No one reviewer’s word is gospel.

Lastly, and this is a little similar to the above, while I apologize for this, I also cannot and do not provide parental advice regarding appropriateness of material. There are myriad reasons: first, each parent has his/her standards; two, the MPAA’s standards may not be yours or mine regarding appropriateness (they may either be too strict or too liberal). Third, it’s not something I often consider in terms of a review. If you ask me in a comment I will do my best to address specific concerns of profanity, nudity, etc. However, for better sources the IMDb usually has a parent’s guide for titles with very detailed explications of things that may be objectionable and also there’s Lights Camera Jackson the “kid critic,” who always comments on family friendliness of titles he sees.

I appreciate your readership and welcome intelligent discourse and just wanted it clear that my aim is to state opinion not shape it.