Andre Bazin's destiny

by Bill Horrigan

from Jump Cut, no. 19, December 1978, pp.
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

Dudley Andrew, Andre Bazin, New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. 253 pp. $11.95.

Here is a biography offered to those who, along with its author, Dudley Andrew, regard Andre Bazin as having been "in command of a complete, coherent, and thoroughly humanistic view of the cinema." And odd it is, at first, that such a massive claim should be made for Bazin at this date, in this time generally regarded as "post-Bazinian," but interesting, all the same, to have it seen proven. After having read the book, however, there emerges the further oddity that this claim should be repeatedly asserted without once ever acknowledging that since Bazin's death twenty years ago the career of his thought has been being broadly reconsidered, has been cast into some precarious situations. Certainly it could be argued that Bazin rightly deserves the place of supreme centrality to film study that this book awards him, but in this book it is exactly not argued, nor is it even couched as any kind of ultimatum between accepting Bazin or his alternative, because no alternative is recognized.

In other words, the book is styled as a defense, but a defense against an enemy never called by its proper name. Yet absent though it may be from the book, the enemy is known nevertheless to be the variety of theoretical activity critical of Bazin, represented in this country by figures as otherwise diverse as Annette Michelson, Brian Henderson, and James Roy MacBean, and in France by such similarly disparate factions as those represented by Gerard Gozlan and the Cinéthique group, to mention only the more well-known. Among what their activities hold in common in their reading of Bazin is a rejection of his view that there is a transcendental truth to be found in reality. They also reject the notion that such a truth is expressible as such thanks to the recording and presentational properties of photography, which then comes to be seen as an instrument waiting to be deployed in a metaphysically-based campaign to reveal the essence — an essence spiritually instructive and therapeutic — of visible reality. Bazin's attachment to such a conception of reality led to his attendant valorization of the sequence shot opposed to the undemocratic tyranny of Soviet montage.

That reality presumably offered up its reflection to any artist's camera stopping long enough to fix a gaze upon it. This is identified in turn as cinema's true vocation, rather than as a particularly determined defense of a conventionalized realist depiction (a defense happily coincident with the flourishing of Italian neo-realism, whose generous defender Bazin became). But Bazin's real interests seem to side always with the modes of transcendence now available to us via cinematographic representation.  Clearly his fascination with that tends ultimately to deny to the cinema any kind of sufficiency unto itself, so dependent is it on the eternal presence of the real whose truths it is fated to present, or, rather, to present once again to those who have yet to learn them.

Obviously, the range of opinion contre-Bazin is wider and more nuanced by far than the above remarks would indicate. Having said that, it does seem true enough to say that in most instances what is found to be insupportable in his legacy is, first, his typical casting of the cinema as a kind of handmaiden to reality and as such parasitic absolutely on it. Second, he prescribed a corresponding etiquette as to the kinds of filmic practice appropriate to conscientiously carrying out that service.

One of the few indications given by Andrew's book that there night exist out there in the world certain individuals seriously critical of Bazin is a comment he makes in passing to "current articles [left otherwise unidentified] questioning Bazin's politics or chiding his 'aestheticism.'" In recounting the crises and events of Bazin's life, Andrew appears in a single instance only to find Bazin acting "mistakenly." This incident, related by Andrew in the course of explicating Bazin's 1950 essay, "The Myth of Stalin in the Soviet Cinema," had to do with the debate that the essay sparked between Bazin and Georges Sadoul. Briefly, Bazin pointed out the depiction of Stalin in the Soviet cinema tended to divinize Stalin and so remove him from real historical circumstances. Bazin noted that as far as myths were concerned, he himself preferred those of Hollywood, since they at least were more authentically the myths of its audience, as testified to by their continued success at the box-office.

Speaking for the French Communist Party, Sadoul attacked Bazin for aligning himself with Hollywood bourgeois entertainment values and in so doing perpetuating a misapprehension of the Soviet cinema's alternative mandate. On this point Andrew seems to side with Sadoul, but he instantly absolves Bazin's error by remarking,

"Historically, of course, Bazin has been justified. Post-war Soviet cinema has largely been forgotten, even in Russia."

True enough, but Andrew's decision to appeal to some version of historical hindsight only manages to overlook the fact that this debate was not being conducted on the stage of history, but on the stage of that time and place. The recourse to "history" is to have it both ways, to suggest the possibility of political error but at the same time to claim a vindication effected by the passing of time, the dimming of memory, the collapse of certain alliances. It does take a certain ingenuity to transform an action widely regarded in its own time as politically questionable into an instance of politically clairvoyant right-thinking.

For all that, Andrew's book does provide a useful and attentive account of the development of French postwar theory and criticism and Bazin's position within it. The arrangement of the book is generally chronological, though it begins, à la THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA, with the subject's funeral. That funeral was, in fact, a landmark event whose enigma-potential Andrew does see:

"After the initial enthusiasm of the New Wage wore off in 1961, many were to wonder what happened to that simple revolutionary spirit, whet happened to that moral clarity? Was it all buried at Nogent?"

Sometimes anecdotally, sometimes speculatively, Bazin's life is laid out in a line, that line frequently interrupted as Andrew provides descriptions of the philosophical, religious, and political currents formative of this thought and career. Among the influences clarified by Andrew are the Christian activist movement of the 30s and 40s, and the editorial mission of Mounier's Esprit. Profiles, necessarily highly selective, are offered of such individuals as Sartre, Teilhard, Malraux, Roger Leenhardt, and others whose works engaged with much the same historical preoccupations as Bazin's and from whom, Andrew points out, Bazin's own work borrowed.

Laid over these efforts to trace and name the relevant sources — Andrew's diligence in this respect being commendable — is Andrew's intention to demonstrate the enormous catalytic role Bazin played. Both by his critical interventions and by force of personal example, Bazin successfully established the cinema as a zone of rule-bound activity as liable to, and as deserving of, serious analysis as any other. Andrew is undoubtedly correct in implying that Bazin's influence, in this respect among others, can scarcely be underestimated.

Still, it would have been possible to have made this claim and other related ones on Bazin's behalf without having to see forced in the bargain a version of Bazin as a kind of saint for the age, or as what the age has instead of saints. The marks of Bazin's saintliness (e.g., being in harmonious rapport with animals and nature, being attentive to the tensions of the world, believing in the moral weight of action … and being a progressive and unorthodox Catholic) resemble those expressed in the epistles of neorealism according to Rossellini. It's fitting then that the comparisons Andrew draws should be typically between Bazin and Francis of Assisi, Bazin and Socrates, Bazin and Adam. Perhaps those comparisons are entirely appropriate, and if they are then it is just that Bazin's life be honored and imitated. But is his critical legacy best served by taking so reverential a posture before it? Is a canonization really wanted? His life may indeed have been a well-timed and exemplary one, and that it does somehow connect to his criticism is undoubted, but certainly that connection must be more complicated than the homological equations (life beyond reproach, criticism beyond reproach) which Andrew implies and would have the reader believe.

Ironic conceit or no, it was after all none other than Bazin who, during a crisis time at Cahiers du cinéma, pointed out the dangers of fostering aesthetic cults of personality. Thus it is additionally distressing now to see him being forced to perform the miracles expected of him by his acolytes. It's an anxious, unenviable fate. It makes deicide seem to bespeak benevolence.