Archives For Bazin

The key elements of neorealism / Revolutionary Humanism /

Bazin aligns the Italian school of realism with Soviet montage (Eisenstein). It is to the other end of the aesthetic spectrum from German expressionism and Hollywood star system structures. The opposition is described as ‘aestheticism’ vs ‘realism’

The Italian cinema prior to WW2, during the fascist regime:

“a taste – and a poor taste at that – for sets, idealization of the principle actors, childish emphasis on acting, atrophy of mise-en-scene, the dragging in of the traditional paraphernalia of bel canto and opera, conventional scripts influenced by the theatre, the romantic melodrama, and the chanson de geste reduced to an adventure story.” (Bazin, p 14)

chanson de geste – a medieval narrative, a type of epic poem – appears at the dawn of French literature.

It is worth noting that some of the key Italian purporters of neorealism had careers going back to the pre-war era (Vittorio De Sica). It is worth investigating these films and their tone and aesthetic approach. Realism was taking root in opposition to the ‘fakery’ of the Italian mainstream exports before the war arrived on Italian soil. Bazin states that it was the Liberation that never-the-less ‘sets these aesthetic trends [..] free’.

The key elements to the inner structures of neo realist aesthetics:

Social circumstances and movements (post-Fascist Italy, spread of communism, socialism, post-war poverty and social upheaval).

Historical context (Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, WW2, the character of Italian society)

Economic context (poverty, rebuilding and reparations)

Because of the slow and extended nature of the Liberation for Italy, which came with years of Allied occupation and other circumstantial upheavals in the steps towards rebuilding, the films of the immediate post war period were current – they spoke to very real concerns and very real experiences of the average person, and the collective psyche – day to day events.

What does Bazin mean by “revolutionary Humanism’ ??

The zeitgeist of the time, at an international level, is the fear of, and obsession over, terror and hate:

“reality is scarcely any longer favoured for its own sake but rather is rejected or excluded as a political symbol […]” (p16)

Italian films of this period “reject implicitly or explicitly, with humour, satire, or poetry, the reality they are using, but they know better, no matter how clear the stand taken, than to treat this reality as a medium or a means to an end.” (p17) I take this to mean that the films do not aim affect the audience. If one was to argue that the so-called realism of the Soviet cinema was induced to affect the audience – to convert them into revolutionaries – then reality is being used as a medium. The purpose of the Italian cinema might be closer in this regard to the impressionism of Epstein and his photogenie. That is, the goal of the ‘reality machine’ is to reveal unknowns about reality. The revelation takes place at the hands of the spectator himself, rather than at the direction of the message blasted from the screen to the eye.

In regards to a character (any character) to be found in an Italian film: “Nobody is reduced to the condition of an object or a symbol that would allow one to hate them in comfort without having first to leap the hurdle of their humanity.” (p17) This is the humanism suggested by Bazin.

One of the defining characteristics of Modernism (the post industrial revolution western-world), with regard to art history, is the theory laden-ness of art – art and hermeneutics come together and are inseparable. I like to make the argument that cinema is the most defining art of the modern era for no other reason than it was born out of modernism for modernism. Cinema served to advance the spread of 20th century-defining doctrines (Marxism/Leninism in Soviet Russia – an interesting relationship between the film/propaganda industry and the railroads) and the advancement of art theory and practice itself (the French impressionists). The cinema absorbs the other arts; theatre, literature, the composed and framed image and music. The cinema is impossible without capital and technology. Even the most avant-garde and experimental cinema to stand in the hall of cinematic fame (Stan Brakhage, Jean Epstein for example) was shot on industrially produced film, using technology designed and built by the corporate private sector. This might be obvious to most, but what is not necessarily as obvious is the cinemas habit of not just absorbing and taking place along side the other arts as the new technological art, but super-ceding them. This supercession of the other arts places the cinema in a unique position with regard to that characteristic of modernism to which this article is aimed: interpretation. As the ultra-modern art, that medium through which countless generations to come will be able to assess and learn the peculiar characteristics, dreams and fantasies of those that came before them, one might like to romanticise about film theory as a kind of road map that describes the trajectory of those filmic explorations into collective and individual imagination. But what does film theory really look like?

Robert Ray’s assertion at the outset of his comprehensive-cum-complicated essay “How a Film Theory Got Lost” is that theory exists to break the spell, or perhaps the deadlock, that occurs at the cross roads of magic and positivism. This is further explicated as a dialectic; reason against revelation as represented by Eisenstein (reason) and Epstein (revelation). Alternatively, montage against photogenie; the edit against the image. Breaking the spell that exists at the crossroads surely does not consist of simply disregarding one road in favour of another; that being reason over revelation; but rather a diplomatic evolution of the conflict. The question stands: At the heart of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School is one able to find an account of the revelation of the human imagination? A second and pertinent question would also be: to what extent does the Frankfurt school influence cinema studies in general? This second question is important to those who might wish to pick up the torch left behind, glowing but not extinguished, by those pre-1960’s thinkers; the likes of Epstein and Bazin.

First question; are the two roads as posited by Ray mutually exclusive? The factory style production of capital intensive cinema and seductive style and enchantment. The market demanded entertainment and enchantment and those who could best harness and mobilise all the industries and efforts required to produce large scale films that fulfilled these demands had (and have) success. Is money and enchantment such a diametric opposition as Ray suggests?

Second question; what is Bazin’s notion of ‘realism’ and why for Bazin is it so desirable? Supplimentary question: why does the Frankfurt School influence on theory and theorising so disregard it?

These questions will be the subject of further blog posts and trails of thought.