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Andre Bazin’s Conception Of Cinema

The twentieth century can be named the epoch of appearance and further development of the Seventh Art, cinematography. The first films were just combinations of photos that made an illusion of moving pictures, and their main value was the ability to show some process from the past to those who could not be the direct witnesses of it. Cinematography became the instrument which allowed returning to the past and controlling the time and the nature in particular. Then, the art of filmmaking started to show not only things that took place in real life. Films became artificially created situations based on scenarios performed by professional actors. It still remained soundless and had its special features, which divided cinematography from theater as well as from photography. However, with the invention of speaking movies, the situation changed because some thinkers claimed that films always needed voice in order to be more realistic, others – that it is not necessary, because the main goal of cinematography is to express the internal world, feelings of the director, but not to just create a copy of the reality. In such a way, the critics divided into two movements: expressionists (formalists) and realists. Andre Bazin, the famous French movie-critic, defended the position of realism and underlined that the sound is a logically necessary consequence of the process of cinematography development. Some of his articles are dedicated to this problem. In my essay, I will try to understand his position and show my own vision of the issue.

In the article “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, Bazin states, “I will distinguish, in the cinema between 1920 and 1940, between two broad and opposing trends: those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality. By “image” I here mean, very broadly speaking, everything that the representation on the screen adds to the object there represented” (Bazin 1967, p. 24). Bazin here draws the line between formalists and realists, explaining that the best director is the one who can be invisible in his work, and the best film is the one that stays as close to the real world as possible. He also claims that films with voices are more realistic than the silent ones, underlining the progressive character of the sound, which allows showing the situation similar to real life. In Bazin's opinion, the main advantage of photography over sculpture or painting is its objectiveness, due to which photography can copy the reality without that stigma of the author, which always follows other spheres of art. Bazin reveals these thoughts in the article “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Even the fact that this article, in which the movie-critic interprets photography through the realistic prism, is the first in his book What is Cinema shows that cinematography for Bazin is the next step of photography, the art, which he understands as the act of an artist's self-denial in order to create something pure, free from human point of view, prejudices, superstitions, feelings and principles. The next step for such self-denial in the field of cinematography is the invention of movie with parallel voice. Bazin criticized mute movies, because they were too concentrated on the form, but not on the narrative. The voice allowed concentrating on the narrative and diminishing the degree of film's visual expressiveness. “The film-maker is no longer the competitor of the painter and the playwright, he is, at last, the equal of the novelist” (Bazin 1967, p. 39-40) – claims Bazin in “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, comparing directors of the epochs of mute and speaking films.

The main distinction between realism with its self-denial and expressionism with author-centered films is the relation to human talent. When a person appreciates his or her talent and counts that all people are different and everyone has his or her own destiny and abilities, it is traditional relation to society, which can be based on understanding of the world as a structure, which has its form and different details. When someone thinks that all people are equal, and there is no structure in the world, only chaos, it is a nontraditional point of view on the world. Realism is based on the second position because the main value for its adepts is not the expression of master's feelings but just blind, unemotional copying of the reality. The more sculptures, paintings or movies are similar to the object described, the more they are the successful works of the master. Expressionism is based on the person who creates art; thus, the main reason of expressionist art is to express the internal life of the author. Realism tends to simplicity, because it is originally the position of plebs' representative which can work but cannot create. Such type of people even cannot understand that there is no similarity in the natural world, only in the world of artificial culture. Expressionism is the position of elites, because only spiritual aristocrats can create something, which expresses the deep spirituality of the author. Such creator always puts the stigma of his or her personality on his creations; even God created people in accordance with his own personality. Furthermore, the distinction between realists and formalists can be understood as the eternal rivalry between laymen and professionals in the field of cinema. Realists claim that the director has to use unknown actors in order to make the effect of reality, when formalists use for their films professional actors, whose practice in much higher degree can allow them to perform in a way the author of the film sees. Certainly, the rivalry between professionals and amateurs is also derived from the thought of the latter that all people are equal, and there is no reason to learn something because all abilities are naturally possessed by people, and all that everyone needs is to open these abilities and talents. Such position is very dangerous because due to the denial of the world structure, a human first of all loses his or her own place, and then it is very difficult to find it.

It is clear that the main reason of art is to give some emotional experience to the viewer. 

Nonetheless, it is much more difficult to answer the question concerning the essence of the Seventh Art. Does it have to be based on stable traditions or on the impulses of the master's soul? As Bazin turned to Ancient Egypt in his article “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, I should turn to Ancient Greece, where the base of the modern understanding of art was established.

The thinkers of those times explored the world through the prism of religion and mythology: as for art, there were two gods, who embodied its idea: Apollo and Dionysus. Both were sons of Zeus, both – Olympian eternal gods. However, the first symbolized light and the Sun; he was a patron of medics, musicians, artists, scientists etc. Apollo, in other words, was the god of reason and logical thinking. His brother Dionysus symbolized darkness and the night, which is eternal in deep caverns. He was the god of senses and nude vitality which has no end. Dionysus was the life itself. Being in such contrast opposition, these brothers had many common features: for example, they gave humans prophecies through their priestesses. Dionysus used maenads – the woman, who could merge together with the god during his ecstatic rites were performed; Apollo spoke through the body of his oracle in Delphi. These gods, so different and so similar, are those sides of art which we are speaking about: Apollo is tradition and Dionysus is rebellion.

Modern world offers people many temptations, and one of them is the one-sided worldview, which turns us to solve such questions as the topic of our essay. In Ancient Greece, where the culture was closely connected with religion and mythology, humans had a more holistic understanding of processes and events they faced during their life. They had no problem with conjunction of Apollo and Dionysus; we may mention the Pythagorean teaching, which was based on the combination of the limited (Apollo) and unlimited (Dionysus). The unlimited essence of rebellious Dionysus was limited by the essence of Apollo – in such a way, according to the Pythagorean philosophy, all things in the world were created. This balance between limited and unlimited they called the Golden mean.

Using the thoughts of Pythagorean philosophers to answer our question, it should be stated say that the one-sided point of view is always distorted and incorrect because nobody can come to the reasonable conclusion without the whole view of the subject. In every case, including the art, it is not appropriate to think that among two or more creative principles, only one can be considered as crucial and other principles can be rejected as insignificant. The personality of the master in art is very important principle, which determines the possibility of an artist to create something new and actual, express himself or herself in his works. Realism, as the second principle of art, concerns those skills of an artist, which allow him or her to base his/her works on the traditions, created during the development of the human society – traditions, established by those who had lesser of talent and more of sedulity. Realism without artist's rebellion will cause the symbolic death of an artist: he or she will lose his inspired soul and creative initiative, so he or she will become only an imitator, who tries to make the copy of ancient artists' style, means of expression, etc. The artist's expression without realism is the death of the art itself: an artist begins to create everything he or she wants without any respect to traditions and even the sense of a good taste. The real art of cinematography has to combine realism with expressionism in such a way that they will be in correlation, which was named by the Pythagorean thinkers the Golden mean. 

In the case of Bazin's denial of the silent films, there must be mentioned the movie The Artist, which was released in 2011 by Michel Hazanavicius. It is black-and-white and silent – this film is an attempt to show that silent and monochrome films are not worse than color films with actors' voices. It is interesting that this film became “the most awarded French film in history” (Leffler 2012). Maybe, such fact must be understood symbolically as the act of acknowledgment of black-and-white silent films as those that can still exist as a field of cinematography, different from the mainstream. This victory of one of the films criticized by Bazin can also show that it is very difficult to judge the contemporaries, because such activity is connected with some degree of engagement which cannot be overcome.

In conclusion, it is necessary to add that Bazin's theory of cinematography is very important and useful for the world theory of the art, but it is too subjective. It is very colorful irony: the critic who claimed that realism and objectiveness are the main dignities of the art always had not enough of objectiveness to accept that realism is much more illusive than formalism. For example, here is a description of a typical formalistic film: “When Melies made A Trip to the Moon he wasn't concerned with what a space ship or the moon might actually look like. He wanted to be funny and use conspicuous special effects. So he makes a purposefully fake looking bullet, which the astronauts climb into and are shot into space, hitting the moon (which does have a face) right in the eyeball. Formalistic films are often dream-like” (Realism, formalism, and classicism n.d.). It is right, Melies' Trip to the Moon or The Black Imp has nothing real, and it is similar to the fantastic dream. However, such kind of films is based on such interpretation of the world: it is an essential feature of expressionism, and there is nothing for a critic to be surprised. Nonetheless, when a director-realist makes his or her film, he or she tries to copy the world around and cannot, because the world is always alive, and the tape is not.

Realists try to preserve the illusion that their film world is unmanipulated, an objective mirror of the actual world. We rarely notice the style in a realistic movie. They often aim for a rough look, with the idea that “if it's too pretty, it's false”. This means there is often handheld camera or simply a camera on a tripod. They use available light (often just the sun). They use non-professional actors (real people playing themselves). They don't build sets but instead find existing buildings or outdoor locations. Their films are about everyday people and everyday situations. Their films often deal with social issues. (Realism, formalism, and classicism n.d.)

One of the typical examples of such a film is The Bicycle Thief, which describes an everyday life of average people, the roles of which are performed by non-professional actors. The illusion of objectiveness is the main motive of realistic films, the main problem, which is the reason of creating such films. Through the prism of relation to the principle of objectiveness, formalists are more specific because they do not pretend that their films are perfect descriptions of the reality. They just create them in order to express their emotions, when their opponents try to be objective or just more objective than formalists.