Week Four: What Is Real, Anyway?

October 17, 2010

Kracauer’s approach to film is that it exists to expose the raw material of reality. But his theory is simplistic, whereas Bazin is more thoughtful. Bazin said, “Cinema attains its fullness in being the art of the real.” In contrast with Kracauer, he clarified the meaning of reality. Kracauer believed in material aesthetics of realism techniques to aesthetics of space. They both felt that brute reality is the draw of films. Kracauer wanted filmmakers to create realistic films.

“Unlike Kracauer, Bazin views the film’s realism as an expression of the mythic, not the scientific, spirit and believes that its function is not to redeem physical reality but to exempt us from our physical destiny. The magical aim finds expression in… a complete recreation of the world in its own image.” (Greald Mast, Marshall Cohen, Leo Braudy. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 4th Edition, pg. 5. (1992 Oxford University Press)

I will examine Andre Bazin’s theories of film and realism with Orson Welle’s film Citizen Kane. Bazin saw film as an art form to replicate sacred reality and that realism was both a starting point and end goal. He believed that directors had their own personal vision in the films.
In “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” Andre Bazin examines how film technology influences filmmaking, symbolism, and editing histories. His ultimate point is that cinema should objectively present reality. Bazin says that photography is the essence of filmmaking. He said, “Cinema attains its fullness in being the art of the real” (1976:137). Bazin felt that brute reality is the draw of films. Filmmakers don’t tamper with the film’s brute representation; Bazin saw this representation similar to American freedom and democracy (Bazin xiii). In other words, it allows the viewer to subjectively decide how to interpret reality. With this newfound freedom, they could also determine what was important.

“Bazin views the film’s realism as an expression of the mythic, not the scientific, spirit and believes that its function is not to redeem physical reality but to exempt us from our physical destiny. The magical aim finds expression in… a complete recreation of the world in its own image.”[1]

There were two categories of filmmakers: the imagists and the realists. The imagists emphasized montage editing, which Bazin wrote was “everything that the representation on the screen adds to the object there represented”. Bazin’s film theories were subjective since he respects physical objects in the real world whether films were good or bad. These directors added “real-world objects: by means of ‘plastics’ (lighting, sets, makeup, framing, and son on).”[2] The realists believed in long take and objectivity. In other words, the camera is recreating reality or “an imprint of the duration of the object” which is untainted by humans. Bazin said editing in Nanook of the North would have ruined the impact of the seal-hunting scene (ironically, this documentary was staged, a mere illusion of reality). It is the duty of the filmmaker not to tamper with the reality that the camera presents. Contemporary commercial filmmakers are imagists- many using complex special effects and CGI in their cinematography and production technologies, putting faith in the image. There is contemporary realist film directors such as Chen Kaige, who use long shots in Yellow Earth to take account everything in the frame, a “continuum of reality”. Bazin says humans are driven by realism – but one could argue that many watch films as a recreational form of escapism.
Bazin argues that depth of focus is “a dialectical step forward in the history of film language,” and that it “brings the spectator in closer relation with the image than he is with the reality… structure is more realistic” (35). He goes on to say that montage rules out ambiguity while depth of focus introduces it. Bazin favored Citizen Kane because “it abandoned the usual invisible style of editing in favor of what at times was an elaborate reliance on extremely long held shots with… entire scenes constructed out of a few such shots” (Lehman 338). Citizen Kane uses depth of focus, which challenges montage editing. “Depth of field… forces the spectator to make use of the freedom of his attention and demands, at the same time, that he feel the ambivalence of reality” (Orson Welles, 58-59). Ambiguity is a good thing – it evokes an audience’s response, keeping them curious and intrigued throughout the film. For Citizen Kane, Bazin focuses on film style which “places the very nature of the story in question”. Bazin said that the director’s long take and deep focus breaks the norm of cinema and viewing habits, and minimal cutting was more neorealist than the predictable style of Hollywood conventional editing. The audience had a choice of where to look in the frame or within a scene. Bazin said, “Montage by its very nature rules out ambiguity of expression… Citizen Kane is unthinkable shot in any other way but in depth. The uncertainty in which we find ourselves as to the spiritual key or the interpretation we should put on the film is built into the very design of the image (36).” He believed that editing was a false way in filmmaking and argued that montage isn’t important, but one device among many. He says montage is deceiving and untruthful in its portrayal, lacking integrity and faithfulness (which is the duty of the good filmmaker), and ultimately destroying reality. Instead, Bazin said there was no need to use flashy and showy techniques unless you need to convey an idea. He considered montage manipulative since it changed reality and the audience’s perception. For example, The Battleship Potemkin uses montage (or MTV cutting) in the staircase scene, where the stroller rolls down many steps (exaggerated editing to covey a message). This expressionist scene was intentionally fabricated for propagandist purposes, working on the audience’s emotions.

Bazin had a faith in realism, believing that realists truly portrayed film as reality and respected reality more than imagists (art for art’s sake). He believed that montage could be overused. Bazin welcomed the introduction of sound, since it was a step toward realism—enhancing, saving, and fulfilling his idealism of realist films. He believed that actors no longer had to exaggerate acting as much, moving from theatre to film. “Sound has given proof that it came not to destroy the Old Testament of cinema.” He said that visuals have the ability to psychologically manipulate an audience, but never emphasized this theory with sound. Music and sound have the powerful ability to influence the audience’s mood during a film. Sound montages are used in Citizen Kane to express flashbacks (periods of time) and emotions. Welles is able to “cover whole scenes in one take”, allowing the audience to see whole picture, wandering their attention on the screen with long shots, without any editing. Welles uses deep focus to create highly symbolic meaning by placing a character as a tiny figure on screen, making them insignificant. Classic editing “substituted mental and abstract time for the ambiguity of expression” whereas “depth of focus reintroduced ambiguity into the structure of the image” by transferring “to the screen the continuum of reality (37).” It’s a good thing since ambiguity removes the filmmaker’s interpretation of reality, allowing for different interpretations. Reality is ambiguous. For Bazin, Citizen Kane was “liberated viewing”, containing so much information that the viewer could participate or interpret the film in multiple ways, with a fuller picture of reality. Bazin said that film was an art form, almost like a novel.

Bazin argued, “Realism is only possible through artifice.” There is internal and external artifice. Internal: “The ornate décor of Xanadu, the singing at the picnic excursion, an artifact as humble as the paperweight or one as elaborate as the newsreel (Brill 115).” External “refers to the cinematic representation of… Kane’s death and the obviously painted crowd backdrops during his political speech. The speech itself and the enormous poster of Kane behind the stage are internal artifice (Brill 116).
James Naremore says that Bazin underemphasizes a few points – while Welles avoided using montage, in place, he added “plastics” to Citizen Kane (two or more images were combined to create the illusion of a single shot).[3] In one scene, Kane is typing an opera review and Leland is away from him, but these two separate shots were joined together (which Bazin considered manipulative). Naremore cleverly points out that Citizen Kane uses “makeup artists, set designers, lighting crews,” and that Bazin underemphasized this important fact – that it’s not completely realist in this sense. However, Naremore says in the next paragraph Welles confirmed that he was attempting to create a realist film style.

I don’t believe that neither the technical aspects nor the film development process is considered an art form. Bazin’s argument fails to answer one question: while realism is most natural, why is it the best method and advantageous for filmmaking? Bazin’s theories aren’t perfect, he underemphasizes the use of plastics in Citizen Kane and the potentials of sound in cinema.
While filmmaking can’t truly capture our world with complete accuracy, but rather, it’s an art form used to covey a message. Bazin’s truly realist film would have no symbolism, montage, interpretative editing, or suspension of belief – but what a boring film that would be!

Bazin at work: major essays & reviews from the forties & fifties, André Bazin, Bert Cardullo

Thinking about movies: watching, questioning, enjoying, Peter Lehman, William Luhr

Crowds, power, and transformation in cinema, Lesley Brill


[1] Greald Mast, Marshall Cohen, Leo Braudy. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 4th Edition, pg. 5. (1992 Oxford University Press)

[2] James Naremore, Orson Welle’s citizen kane: a casebook, pg. 128 (2004 Oxford University Press)

[3] James Naremore, Orson Welle’s citizen kane: a casebook, pg. 128 (2004 Oxford University Press)

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