In the Beginning was the War of Words

26 Apr

Film Theory 101


The feud between the Formalism led by Sergei Eisenstein and the Realism championed by Andre Bazin has now become something of a standard hunting ground for new-comers in the field of film theory. Mostly, this has to do with the ease in which the two are often thought of as clear antithesis of one another. In fact, it was Bazin himself who provided such a basis by distinguishing between filmmakers who veered towards the “image” and others who remain faithful to “reality” (“Evolution”, 41-2). Bazin opposed the highly-caffeinated editing style of Formalism, preferring instead to have reality unfold itself before the camera:

Editing that manipulated a found reality or transformed it in order to yield a particular message were suspect to [Bazin], not merely for political reasons but because they violated one of the truly unique aspects of the cinema, precisely the mechanical recording of reality without human intervention. (Elsaesser and Hagener 29)

Put simply, Bazin objected to an uninhibited analysis (i.e. breaking apart) of reality, privileging the automatism of the camera as that which is truly objective and faithful to an immanent reality. Given that Bazin survived World War II and witnessed cinema’s complicity in the horrors of the Holocaust, it is therefore understandable that Bazin stood vehemently opposed to what Walter Benjamin called the “aestheticization of politics” as practiced by fascist regimes (270).

But more importantly, Bazin was also inflicted by a desire to elevate film as art, which explains why he placed such a strong emphasis on the objectivity of the photographic image: “For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man” (“Ontology”, 168). If the tradition arts of painting or literature can be said to nonetheless involve a creative interpretation or analysis of reality, Bazin reserves his highest praise for cinema’s continuity with reality. Put simply, the difference between Formalism and Realism, represented by Eisenstein and Bazin respectively, might be reducible to a preference between cinema as a discretized/modular form and cinema reflecting and maintaining reality’s “integrity”. However, it should be noted that Bazin does not forbid editing; but for him Formalism problematically assumes that meaning only arises in the relational differences between two or more discrete shots, whereas for Bazin there is always already a meaningful presence in “the ontological presence of the [recorded] things themselves” that ought to be at least acknowledged, if not respected (Elsaesser and Hagener 30).

Similarly, Siegfried Kracauer maintains that cinema can both record and reveal to us things that normally beyond our everyday experience. However, Kracauer is much less of a Romantic than Bazin. For instance, he does not advocate a non-interventional stance when it comes to cinema. Rather than simply planting the camera there and waiting, like Bazin, for reality to reveal itself to us, Kracauer opts for a more dynamic approach with cinema. Drawing on Benjamin’s notion of an “optical unconscious” (266), Kracauer posits that cinema is able to present to us the “blind spots of the mind”: “motion picture camera has a way of disintegrating familiar objects and bringing to the fore – often just in moving about – previously invisible interrelationships between parts of them” (309, emphasis added). If Bazin’s position was that of a passive camera allowing reality to unfold itself, Kracauer’s is more of a dynamic camera making surgical incisions into reality and revealing what lies beyond the “blind drive of things” (312). That Kracauer even champions “slow-motion” and “accelerated-motion” as expressive modes of cinema would have drove Bazin livid, since these two techniques clearly manipulated the continuity of reality (or time) that Bazin held dear to a Realist cinema.

Here, I would like to turn to the sequence in F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu when Thomas Hutter first encounters Count Orlok on his coach. In a static long shot that frames Hutter in the corner of the forest, we are treated to an accelerated motion of the coach before cutting to a close-up of Hutter shot at “normal” speed. Today, most of us would be able to recognize that this effect was done simply with an acceleration of the film-rate. But this ability to accelerate time, as it were, is only possible because cinema is always already an analysis of time: the film-rate is quite clearly a testament to the spatialization or discretization of time. The continuity that Bazin so privileges must not be taken for granted. In that sense, this is much closer to Kracauer’s dynamic cinema in that the camera’s discretization of time is already an intervention, if not a surgical incision, into the “flows” of reality. This then reveals an oversight in Bazin’s work: In his diatribe against filmmakers who have a habit of spatializing reality (i.e. those who belong to the “image” camp), Bazin neglects the fact that cinema, even without a supposed human creative intervention, already spatializes time. (This in fact explains why Kracauer begins his essay noting cinema’s intimate relationship with time.)

Whether or not this accelerated motion is expressive isn’t so much my concern here. That being the case, this sequence is crucial to our discussion since it reveals that the camera is hardly a passive or neutral witness; its recording is an incisive sampling of reality, motivated by a (modern) spatialization of time. As Bernard Stiegler writes, the continuity of an image is a “reality effect” that “ought not to conceal the fact that the analog image is always already discrete” (155-6, emphasis in original). Stiegler goes on further to qualify that “framing operations and choice about depth of field” are already evidence that the image recorded by the camera can hardly be said to be continuous with a so-called reality (155). Therefore, Bazin’s claims run the risk of mystifying the camera into a black-box.

In his spirited essay “The Long Take”, Brian Henderson takes to task Bazin’s failure to consider the “expressive possibilities of mise-en-scene” (315, italics in original). For Henderson, Bazin is guilty of “eliminat[ing] mise-en-scene expressivity (in any independent sense) by equating it with the pre-existing structures of reality” (ibid.). In a sense, this is a similar criticism of Bazin that I have attempted to show with Kracauer and through the sequence in Nosferatu. Namely, the image is discrete; it displays a discretion. Therefore, the mise-en-scene chosen by the filmmaker is hardly ever a passive reflection of “reality” as it were. Furthermore, Henderson himself explains that editing cannot simply be assumed, as Bazin had prescribed, to function as “mere connection” between the corresponding shots (317, emphasis in original). To paraphrase Henderson, the question is not so much whether a filmmaker should or should not analyze an event, but how and when should he do it so as to best communicate this sequence with his audience (319).

Consider the last sequence in Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows where the protagonist Antoine escapes from the observation centre he has been placed into. First, it begins with a long shot of the class jogging from the observation centre to the field for their game of football. Then the camera cuts to field and the boys playing, occasionally zooming in for a closer shot centering on Antoine. Antoine escapes through the fence, and we are presented with a tracking shot of Antoine jogging through the outskirts of a town, before finally cutting to a desolate shore. The camera cuts to Antoine walking towards the shoreline, closes up on him. And then a freeze frame.


It is obvious here that Truffaut punctuated this sequence not merely for connection but rather, the intra-sequence cuts serve to differentiate spaces that are increasingly less populated. From the concentrated mass of “delinquents” at the observation center to the outskirts of the town, to the empty shore and finally to Antoine alone. In other words, the cuts here clearly accumulate into a rhythm, if not a logic of spaces increasingly void of human “colonization”. But the freeze-frame is especially brilliant here in that it disrupts this logic, suggesting that no matter where Antoine runs, he cannot escape the colonizing gaze and surveillance of “civilization”. Had there not been these calculated editing, the impact of the ending would probably be lost. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that the use of the freeze-frame also complicates Bazin’s assumed neutrality of the camera. In this sequence, Truffaut is pointing at the camera’s complicity in a surveillance society — hence the observation center in the first place. That the film is set in Paris has its historical significance as well, since it was in 1871 Paris when the state set the precedent of using photographs as objective proofs to identify and round up the Paris Communards (Marien 113-5). Ironically, it had to fall to one of Bazin’s colleague at the Cahiers du Cinema to criticize the assumption of a camera’s objectivity.

To conclude, the Realist camp was never really as homogeneous as some film theorists and historians would insist for the sake of historiographical or pedagogical convenience. To that end, the division between Realism and Formalism must perhaps be constantly probed and opened for a reassessment.    

Works Cited

Bazin, Andre. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 6th ed. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 41-53.

—. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 6th ed. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 166-9.

Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings Volume 4: 1938-1940. Trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Elsaesser, Thomas and Malte Hagener. Film Theory: An Introduction through the Sense. London: Routledge, 2010.

Henderson, Brian. “The Long Take”. Movies and Methods: An Anthology, vol 1. Ed. Bill Nichols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. 314-24.

Kracauer, Siegfried. “The Establishment of Physical Existence”. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 303-13.

Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. London: Laurence King, 2002.

Stiegler, Bernard. “The Discrete Image”. Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews. Trans. Jennifer Bajorek. London: Polity, 2002. 146-63.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: