The Bazinian Real
Exposing the Image
What exactly do we mean when we talk of the Bazinian Real? It is an attempt to rescue a vital dimension of the critic Andre Bazin's thought by associating it with a notion most clearly developed by Jacques Lacan. This needn't make us Lacanians, utilising psychoanalysis for the purposes of comprehending cinema. That has already been done, both well and badly, during the glory days of Screen magazine in the UK in the seventies. (It was also done well and badly eslewhere too, including in Cahiers du cinema.) No, our purpose much more is to find a way of giving to Bazin's already-nuanced thought some further nuances, ones that can take the Bazinian into the 21st century as the technology will no longer allow for many of Bazin's tenets and metaphors to hold. What might also be useful however is to incorporate within our position a sort of counter-argument to the Lacanian: the Kantian sublime explored fascinatingly by Gilles Deleuze in an essay on the German philosopher that we will address later.
Bazin predicated the art of cinema on the chemistry of the real: that film was a recording process where the photochemical properties of film left a trace of the things it captured and thus had a direct relationship with reality that other art forms, like painting and literature, did not. It is partly why various contemporary film and cultural theorists feel that film is no longer film. As David Davies note, For [Lev] Manovich, the difference between traditional cinema and digital cinema resides in the former's indexicality. Digital cinema 'redefines the very identity of cinema' because the essentially indexical nature of traditional cinema is lost due to the role that digital cinema accords to "manual" manipulation of the image. Davies adds, [Holly] Wallis follows Manovich in extending [William J.] Mitchell's conclusions from still to moving images: 'Whereas film stock registers an indexical connection to the world through the impact of light striking, and altering, emulsion, thereby forming a physical and ontological connection to the world, [digital video's] transformation of light into digital information severs that connection.' ('Digital Technology, Indexicality and Cinema') Bazin was very much a theorist working within indexicality, believing no matter how skilful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity...all the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence. ('The Ontology of the Photographic Image') While many theorists insisted that cinema needed to escape realism since film so easily would seem to capture it, Bazin believed that it was film's relationship with reality that had to be emphasised not undermined. He never quite approved of Hitchcock or Eisenstein; preferring Renoir, De Sica and Rossellini. As he said of the English master: "[though made up of long single takes] Rope could just as well have been cut in the classic way whatever artistic importance may be correctly attached to the way he actually handled it." ('The Virtues and Limitations of Montage') Admiring the simple verisimilitude of another Italian neo-realist, Luchino Visconti's La Terra Trema, Bazin says, "as staggeringly beautiful as the fishing fleet may be when it leaves the harbor, it is still just the village fleet, not, as in Potemkin, the Enthusiasm and the Support of the people of Odessa..." ('La Terra Trema')
Many of Bazin's remarks can't easily be extricated from their source in photochemical assumption, but Bazin is far too rich a thinker, far too useful a critic of the image, to become obsolete as the image becomes digital. By shifting the emphasis from realism linked to the photochemical process to the real that incorporates within it the digital, we move from the idea that reality is captured, towards the real that is exposed. This is a metaphysical exposure rather than a chemical one - a means by which to see an aspect of existence hitherto inaccessible that film reveals. Indeed, is this not what Bazin is hinting at in his comment on Rope's relative failure: that for all its long-take mastery, the real remains hidden? Speaking of Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North, he says, "it is inconceivable that the famous seal-hunt scene in Nanook should not show us hunter, hole and seal all in the same shot, It is simply a question of respect for the spatial unity of an event at the moment when to split it up and change it from something real into something imaginary." ('The Virtues and Limitations of Montage') In Nanook, Bazin sees the essential nature of the long take; in Rope he does not. This is Bazin using Lacanian language (with its triad of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real) without any reference to Lacan, but we can see that the imaginary in the Bazinian sense shares similarities with Lacan's own. Bazin does not want an imaginary that can give us a false sense of wholeness within ourselves, a false sense of mastery over the image of the event (as we find in Lacan's mirror phase), but to capture an aspect of the real within it. When Lacan talks about the Imaginary he means the degree to which the child finds himself creating a false sense of mastery. Lacan, relying on empirical data from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, posits that very young children, between the ages of six and eighteen months, quickly acquire the ability to identify their own images in reflective surfaces. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) This isn't really the child, it is a reflection, a misrecognition that nevertheless means that they enter a world beyond themselves, seeing themselves as an ego within the world, and thus entering the Symbolic order. The Real is that which cannot be contained by that order: it escapes ready meaning, perhaps can never be apprehended. The Bazinian real can be, even if the long take initself won't achieve this, and it follows that there is no reason why just because one shoots on celluloid the real will get captured either. There are many films that lack Bazinian realism that were shot on film and many that use long takes which we wouldn't, too, call an exploration of the Bazinian real.
This suggests that film is not a technology that results in cinema, but that technology is simply the means by which to allow for cinema. In very different ways, both Jean-Louis Baudry and Stanley Cavell have shown that there was the potential for film long before its technological manifestation, indicating that it resides in a certain intent, more than in a technological means, (and Bazin himself invoked Plato and the roots of cinema in 'The Myth of Total Cinema'). Cavell talks in The World Viewed "...of film as satisfying the wish for the magical reproduction of the world by enabling us to view it unseen", seeing in philosophers from Kant to Locke, Kierkegaard to Hegel, a relationship with this problem that film makes vivid. "We do not so much look at the world as look out at it, from behind the self...viewing a movie makes this condition automatic, takes the responsibility for it out of our hands. Hence movies seem more natural than reality." For Cavell this isn't because of fantasy (and this is where he is far removed from the Screen theorists who emphasized the fantasy element and cinema's links to false consciousness), it is the condition of film. Cavell sees that rather than cinema playing up our fantasies, it allows us to escape the privacy of our own consciousness. "Not because they are escapes into fantasy and its responsibilities, but because they are reliefs from private fantasy and its responsibilities..." Cavell's love for classic Hollywood rests on a sort of fantastic maieutics - the film form can give birth to the fantasy that before was merely private. Cavell links the limitation of our own self that wants to imagine ourselves in our absence, to the possibility of our absence on the screen where nevertheless our fantasy world is being played out by others. It is our world and yet not our world. This is a complicated problematic, but what we chiefly want to rescue from it is the idea of film as resolving an ontological problem others have addressed long before film was technologically possible. This Cavell shares with Baudry when the latter says that "Plato constructs an apparatus very much like sound cinema." Baudry sees the birth of film here rather than in various technological means as he notes "from the magic lantern to praxinoscope and the optical theater up to the camera obscura, as the booty piles up...but if cinema was really the answer to our psychical structure, how can we date its first beginnings?" ('The Apparatus')This means that cinema isn't an art form that eschews the trivial and the fantastic because it has its technological base in recording and thus realism, but that cinema is a marvellous machine of exposure, of showing us what could not easily have been shown before its creation.
It is this notion of exposure that we wish to explore, seeing the Bazinian real less in the Lacanian notion of the real in the context of the Imaginary, the Real and the Symbolic, than through Deleuze's Kantian triptych of common sense, moral sense and the aesthetic sense. To differentiate, let us first briefly explain Lacan's notion and see how it differs from Deleuze's. Lacan sees the Real as something that cannot be either revealed by either by the Imaginary or the Symbolic: either by the perceived unity of the self or by the order in which this self is placed: the institutions. "The Symbolic Order functions as the way in which the subject is organized and, to a certain extent, how the psyche becomes accessible." (Theories of Media: University of Chicago) This is how we are placed within the institutional codes that define our existence. A Lacanian would say: we don't speak language, language speaks us." The Imaginary and the Symbolic shield us from the inaccessible Real, from this primordial existence that we cannot it seems reach.
This is very different from Deleuze's approach to Kant. The very point of it is that great artists do access a realm beyond our ready perceptual faculties, and this is why we have the idea of genius. As Deleuze says, "genius is the exemplary originality of the natural endowments of an individual in the free employment of the cognitive faculties. On this showing, the product of a genius is an example, not for imitation, but to be followed by another genius - one whom it arouses to a sense of his own originality in putting freedom from the constraint of rules into force in his art that for art itself a new rule is won. Genius is one of nature's elect - a type that must be regarded as but a rare phenomenon." ('The Idea of Genesis in Kan't Esthetics') Through Kant, Deleuze manages to convey a sense of genius that has little to do with admiration and much more exploration. The genius is one who exposes, who find the means by which to find meaning out of what appears to go beyond reason and sense. This would be the equivalent of the sublime in aesthetic form. In the sublime "reason and the imagination accord with each other only within a tension, a contradiction, a painful laceration. There is an accord, but a discordant accord, a harmony in pain. And it is only this pain that makes the pleasure possible. Kant insists on this point: the imagination submits to a violence." ('The Idea of Genesis in Kant's Esthetics') Deleuze adds, "since the feeling of the sublime is experienced before the formless or the deformed in nature (immensity or power). The imagination can no longer reflect upon the form of an object." Many years later, Deleuze (with Felix Guattari) would formulate this quite differently but the point would appear to remain the same. "In a violently poetic text, Lawrence describes what produces poetry: people are constantly putting up the umbrella that shelters them and on the underside of which they draw a firmament and write their conventions and opinions. But poets, artists, make a slit in the umbrella, they tear open the firmament itself, to let in a bit of free and windy chaos and to frame in a sudden light a vision that appears through the rent - Wordsworth's spring or Cezanne's apple, the silhouettes of Macbeth of Ahab." (What is Philosophy?) The cinematic real, a Bazinian real, is the sudden light, a vision that can appear through the rent.
If we are to rescue cinema from the idea of multi-media, from it being seen as just an ingredient in the audio-visual soup, then we can do one of two things. Acknowledge technologically that cinema is all but dead apart from the occasional forays now available on celluloid and live chiefly in cinema's past, or accept that cinema is a medium beyond its technology and where comments by Cavell and Baudry can help us. This doesn't mean we cannot have immense respect for filmmakers still determined to work in celluloid, these Luddites of the image who insist on the ethos of chemistry over the pragmatism of the digital. The great, wonderfully insular French filmmaker Philippe Garrel recently talked of his own insistent need to work on celluloid. "I'm like this group of Hollywood directors who went to see Kodak in Manchester and said, 'We're still going to shoot film. Even if our films are distributed on digital, we're going to shoot on 35mm.' And I was one of the first in Paris to say, 'I'm going to stop shooting if there's no more 35mm.'" (Filmmaker Magazine)
Garrel is a director now approaching seventy: he can make such a claim as a young filmaker cannot. While we can admire the ethical resistance involved, and perhaps yearn for a notion of the image that would only be made on celluloid as a means by which to separate the cinematic wheat from the audio-visual chaff, we need less a return to celluloid than an awareness of how celluloid fits into an ontology of film, a means of thinking of cinema which doesn't insist on the essentialism of film, nor accept that film is just another medium of the image. Various thinkers and theorists from Ranciere to Manovich, Bellour to Rodowick, are useful here, but our own interest rests chiefly in thinking Bazin through Baudry and Cavell's remarks and Deleuze's essay on Kant.
Perhaps the most telling of Bazin's many remarks on cinema is his notion of "the ontological ambiguity of reality." Cinema achieves its purpose not in holding onto the chemical process, but by accepting film has the marvellous opportunity to get close to the imitation of life. This needn't be the recording of reality consistent with realism, one that suggests a likeness between the world filmed and the world that we see as complete, but one that finds within realism the real that cannot be contained and readily understood. As Bazin says, "thus, the most realistic arts share the common lot. It cannot make reality entirely its own because reality must inevitably elude it at some point. Undoubtedly an improved technique, skilfully applied, may narrow the holes of the net, but one is compelled to choose between one kind reality and another." ('An Aesthetic of Reality') But the reality the filmmaker seeks if cinema continues to be an art form does not rest on the means used but the aesthetic applied. Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan are using celluloid, while Lav Diaz and Pedro Costa shoot digitally: in Costa's case using "a camera you can buy in a supermarket", according to an article on the director in Quietus. Yet we might believe cinema is more evident in the latter examples than the former, or at least no less so. Certainly, if we find the ontological arguments of Cavell and Baudry more fruitful than the technological claims, and especially if we marry Cavell's idea of the missing self with Deleuze's notion of the sublime exposure. To explore further what we mean by this we can take two traditionally celluloid filmmakers (Godard and Antonioni - though both worked in digital too), and two Middle Eastern directors who moved from celluloid to digital, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Abbas Kiarostami. All four are interested in the question of what is absent in the image and what can be explored with it. This had very little to do with the necessary and sufficient conditions of film as a medium, which assumes what the form is and what it cannot achieve, like smell or touch, for example, or 360-degree vision. It is not a question of constraints evident in the technology, but constraints within aesthetic form. It is not because Antonioni doesn't have access to 360-degree vision that he offers partial framing. Other filmmakers are under the same technological constraint, but there is no sense of anything missing from their shots as there often happens to be in Antonioni's films. The givens of technology are for all intents and purposes the same for Antonioni as they would be for Steven Spielberg. The difference lies in an aesthetic, and this will be the same whether making a film on celluloid or digital.
We can think here of three mirror shots: two from Antonioni's The Passenger, the other from Godard's Vivre sa vie. In the first, Antonioni's camera moves from the pinball machine and in the direction of Jack Nicholson's character, David Locke, at the bar. The camera passes Locke in the mirror and picks him up again while the camera moves in on a glass he plays with on the counter. We could easily miss the initial sighting of Locke as we watch the camera focuses upon him but just as a man in the mirror, someone who is part of the background information. In a moment near the end of the film, in the famous lengthy penultimate shot, Antonioni shows the assassin is in the room. But we don't see him there; we see him reflected in a window as he seems to take something from inside his jacket. We don't want to exaggerate this: most viewers will probably notice very quickly Locke but many might miss the assasin altogether, even though Antonioni moves the camera slightly to the right to gives us a cue to the assassin's presence. However, Antonioni's images are so complex and multifaceted in their framing that we might still miss this detail as we try and pay attention to what is going on not in the room's reflection but to what is outside the window. These moments are clearly examples of impressive filmmaking, partly because Antonioni doesn't so much double the figure, as we often find in great examples of mirror sequences in film; he dilutes it. In the first we pick up Locke in the image after we see him as a figure seen the mirror; in the second we might just glimpse the assassin though such an important detail in another film becomes easily missable in Antonioni's. In a great moment in Kubrick's The Shining, Nicholson is having breakfast in bed and Kubrick offers the film's customary zoom as the camera pulls out and show that we are not watching the 'actual' moment but that we are witnessing a reflection from the mirror. Antonioni turns Locke and assassin into extras rather than doubles, as though in keeping with both the theme and narrative of the film and Antonioni's ongoing preoccupation with removing the person from the centre of the frame. Thematically and narratively The Passenger is about disappearing, about trying to escape one's own sense of self, but rather than seeing this as a question of the double, Antonioni couches it as a question of appearances: appearance, disappearance and reappearances. Locke doesn't want a new life, he wants to get rid of his old life. He doesn't want a better self (he is a very successful television reporter), he wants to rid himself of his previous persona. He would seem to want to blend in with the crowd rather than impose himself upon the world. This becomes all the more pronounced when his wife and a friend go looking for him, and when he realises he is being chased by various people while he becomes aware of his new identity (after taking one from someone else) as a gun runner. If Locke could choose the filmmaker who would film his existence he could not have chosen better than Antonioni, as the filmmaker respects more than most our desire to disappear from the world and appear again in its margins: no longer responsible for the centrality of our existence.
Antonioni made his debut The Story of a Love Affair in 1950 while neo-realism was still being practised and when Bazin was promoting it very fervently. Yet Antonioni's film was truer to some of Bazin's ideas than the films made by de Sica and Rossellini around this time, but not especially for the value that Bazin saw in it, but what he projected onto others films that were more evident in Antonioni's, In a passing remark to The Story of a Love Affair in 'De Sica: Metteur en scene', Bazin says "Antonioni can be described as a neo-realist (in spite of the professional actors, of the detective-story-like arbitrariness of the plot, of expensive settings, and the baroque dress of the heroine) because the director has not relied on an expressionism outside the characters: he builds all his effects on their way of life, their way of crying. Of walking, of laughing." Yet a stronger defense come paradoxically when he writes 'In Defense of Rossellini': "Neorealism, then, is not characterized by a refusal to take a stand vis a vis the world, still less by a refusal to judge it; as a matter of fact, it always presupposes an attitude of mind: it is always reality as it is visible through an artist, as refracted by his consciousness as a whole and not by reason alone or his emotions or his beliefs." The Neorealist artist for Bazin is not someone who expressionistically imposes their vision upon the world but extracts from it a means by which to make their vision manifest. Nobody can deny that Antonioni when he turned to colour with The Red Desert and Blow Up mastered its use, yet if he remains a singular artist it rests on the absences he manages to generate out of presences: his ability to make us wonder about the world as it is and see what it is not. He uses the mirror nd the window precisely for this purpose in The Passenger. He takes Bazin's idea of cinema being a window onto the world and turns it into a mirror that obscures and asks for our vigilance. If Bazin praised deep focus so that we could see what is in the foreground and the background with equal vividness, Antonioni takes this claim and obscures it not by weakening the focus, but by expanding our vigilance. In Citizen Kane we watch both the parents in the foreground discussing Kane's future, and the boy in the background playing in the snow. The boy is present in the centre of the frame and we are unlikely to miss him. In The Passenger we might miss Locke as the camera first captures his reflection in the window; many miss the assassin in the window's reflection. Antonioni agrees with Bazin about film form but wants to expand it further into the epistemological questions such a form addresses.
This is the question of scepticism Cavell finds so fascinating that he picks up on it in various books including Pursuits of Happiness and The World Viewed. In the former, he says "...both Locke and Hume rather suggest that if our powers of understanding were enlarged, we would be in a position to know what we cannot at present know." Invoking Kant, Cavell says "for 'the whole of things' cannot be known by human creatures, not because we are limited in the extent of our experience, but, as we might say, because we are limited to experience, however extensive...But our position is also better than Locke or Hume suggest. Because the discovery of our necessary limitations, our subjection of our experience and our categories, is one of human reason's greatest discoveries, it is the great discovery of reason about itself." Film constantly both generates and assuages this fear, and it usually manifests itself in the form of plot. We have knowledge of a murder but don't know who committed it; we have a couple who seem to like each other but will they get together? This is sequential and consistent with Cavell's claim for knowledge: "all our knowledge, being a function of experience, is sequential, it takes place in time..." (Pursuits of Happiness) But often in Antonioni's work it takes place spatially, so that much of the mystery resides in the shot rather than in the story: we are aware of our limited knowledge perceptually as we miss things we would ordinarily see because Antonioni doesn't give us categorically the information within the shot, but expects us to search for it. Throughout Antonioni's work, we find the figure as the director does not assume its centrality within the frame. As Cavell says, "an innovator will have his own manner of projecting the future. Antonioni gets it, beginning with L'avventura, with his spacing of film time, in particular his fermata over single shots, which enclose an air of pressentiment." (The World Viewed)
Godard again 'disfigures' character in Vivre sa vie, through the use of the mirror. Here in the moments immediately after the credit sequence we watch the back of Nana (Anna Karina's) as she talks to Paul (Andre S. Labarthe) about leaving him. As the camera initially focuses on her back we might also notice that we can see her in the mirror, but unlike seeing Locke reflected back in The Passenger, this is the opposite of a virtuoso shot. There appears to be no additional information available in seeing Nana reflected in the looking glass: it remains a reflection in the distance. When the film then cuts to Paul from behind we don't see him reflected in the mirror at all. Godard casually upends the assumption even Kubrick and Antonioni confirm: that the doubled image contains important information. Godard would seem to be saying that mirrors constantly do the opposite; they duplicate information pointlessly. If Godard's is one of the most distractive styles in cinema, if he approaches film as centripetally determined rather than centrifugally focused, it rests on a Bazinian perversity. While Bazin would talk about the importance of capturing life in the making, Godard asks what is it that is usually left out in this making, since the making is taken so strongly from reality. What if you leave so much of that reality in, and leave one wondering why it is there. By showing Karina in the mirror but without utilising the reflection at all, and then cutting to Paul from behind too and not showing his reflection, there is neither information nor consistency in these moments. Though in other ways Vivre sa vie is very formally precise as it breaks down into twelve chapters on Nana's life, the formal precision of Godard's work is met by a deliberate imprecision that constantly yoyos between life and art. This is not life Godard, would seem to say, as he demands a formal structure; this is not art, he would also seem to say, as he allows for the apparently irrelevant to give a much greater sense of felt life than Bazin usually asked for. Antonioni makes the mirror pertinent as he finds new ways to show the figure small within the frame; Godard makes reality pertinent as he insists the mirror has no purpose there as a means by which to access additional information.
What both scenes achieve is a sense of absence within presence, as there is always more to see than the eye can capture, and Antonioni and Godard insist that the camera eye cannot capture everything either. The idea that cinema can help resolve the problem John Locke and others fretted over, David Locke insists hasn't gone away as Antonioni uses Nicholson's character to call into question the mastery the camera has over what it captures, and Godard shows us by virtue of the 'irrelevant' that the world is always more than we can see. In one scene in The Passenger, an African rebel whom Locke has gone to interview insists that the camera be turned on Locke rather on him, forcing Locke to acknowledge that the knowledge he seeks comes out of the paradigm he has created. How to indicate the space of enquiry is always smaller than one's capacity to capture it? This is central to the Bazinian real, true to a Bazinian notion of ontological ambiguity.
Yet one reason why we have incorporated Deleuze into this essay on Bazin, without feeling obliged to reference the philosopher's cinema books, is because we don't want to offer a contrast between the very different film theories of these two thinkers. However, in thinking about his essay on Kant that he wrote many years before the cinema books, we can see that for Deleuze the real is constantly being broached and comprehended, while Lacan would formulate the means by which the Real remains out of reach. Malcolm Bowie acknowledges this when saying in Lacan, "...a problem arises when we begin to 'apply; Lacan in this way, even if we choose an artist with whom he seems to have a marked affinity. The relevance of Lacan's theory to Frank Stella's art falters as soon as we remind ourselves that for Lacan the labyrinth of desire already exists everywhere in the human sphere and that no ingenious conjoining of metal, fibre and acrylic paint can expect to impose upon it." The difference between Lacan and Deleuze is partly the difference between seeing that artworks on the latter's part don't exemplify the theory, they allow for the existence of it. In other words, while Lacan would see the artwork as a fable indicating the impossibility of the Real; Deleuze would use an artwork to indicate the real's presence. Thus while Bowie says that "Lacan has formidable critical skills, [he] reins them in as soon as they make individual artworks seem disproportionately interesting: the generality of desire needs to be protected." In contrast, we believe that for Deleuze, the specificity of desire needs to be protected: the singularity of the artwork and the artist that he couches in terms of the sublime and the genius. "If apprehension easily moves towards the infinite, comprehension (as aesthetic comprehension independent of any numeric concept) always has a maximum. The sublime puts the imagination face to face with this maximum, forcing it to reach its own limits, making it confront its own limitations. The imagination is pushed to the limits of its power." (The Idea of Genesis in Kant's Esthetics') Yet the genius finds a means by which to go beyond this. "...In the genius, creative intuition as the intuition of another nature and the concepts of reason as rational Ideas are united adequately. The rational Idea contains something inexpressible; but the aesthetic Idea expresses the inexpressible, through the creation of another nature Thus the aesthetic Idea is truly a mode of presentation of Idea, close to symbolism, although it operates differently." ('The Idea of Genesis in Kant's Esthetics')
This is where we feel the Bazinian real resides; that he believes in the presence of genius to apply itself to the world that we exist within and that will bring forth the sublime experience. Bazin's thought was never going to be as complex as Deleuze's, was never going to pass through the history of philosophy to arrive at its insights, but the insights are there nevertheless. This is partly why he has survived attacks on what was often perceived as his naivety - the sort of naivety James Roy MacBean sees in Bazin while writing at the height of anti-Bazinianism, the early seventies. Mentioning Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, McBean sees Bazin's "flagrant abuse of the term 'phenomenology' reaches the height of absurdity in 'a phenomenology of God's grace." (Movies and Methods) Only a very materialist critic with a modest understanding of phenomenology would see contradiction here: with Jacques Maritain, Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel all examples of phenomenologically inclined philosophers interested in religious questions. Bazin was far less naive than MacBean. Also, the notion of genius was often of interest to Bazin as a deeper means by which to understand the auteurism practised by other Cahiers critics and to which Bazin was resistant. There would be many auteurs, even quite a few geniuses as the auteur shaped the world in his and occasionally her own eyes, yet the type of genius who interested Bazin could expose reality. "Film has no shortage of creators, even creators of genius" ('Will Cinemascope Save the Film Industry') "this stroke of directorial genius" ('Cabiria') and so on, but Bazin was interested not in what filmmakers expressed so much as what happened to be exposed. "One knows of course that Fellini is a great director, but he is great director who doesn't cheat on reality. If the camera doesn't see it. It isn't in his film. It wouldn't be in his film, in any case, if he hadn't at first acknowledged the fullness of it being in the world." ('La Strada') If Bazin had such a problem with the Marxist materialists of his time, as the later generation of Marxist materialists would have a problem with Bazin, it lay in the narrowness of this exposure; one that obviously could not incorporate a spiritual dimension. "I don't feel I have the competence necessary to give a clear description of the evolution of neo-realism as seen by these Marxist critics, but I also don't believe that I am distorting matters to call neo-realism, as they define it, a substitute term for 'socialist realism', the theoretical and practical sterility of which, unfortunately, no longer needs to be demonstrated." '(La Strada')
The Lacanian approach to cinema coincided with Marxist or Maoist ideology, with critics often utilising Lacan to comment on the importance of the latter. The Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser drew on Lacan's theories when he attempted to reformulate Marx's concepts of identity and alienation 'into a theory of the subject': the unconscious network of structures which simultaneously holds people in place and produces the illusion of free men." (The Cinema Book) This was wonderfully useful for those who wanted to see cinema as a medium not of consciousness, as Bazin believed, but of false consciousness, creating a false sense of unity. Numerous articles of the period called into question the unity Bazin took for granted: a unity that indicated the spectator as whole and the world as whole. As Christine Gledhill noted, "the article in Camera Obscura by Jean-Louis Baudry and the most recent writings of Claire Johnston cite the reality effect not in techniques of verisimilitude, but in the construction in the spectator of a certain position in relation to the film. This position produces a highly desired state of being termed "plenitude" or "unity," (Film Theory and Criticism) The question, however, is not whether Bazin or Baudry and others were right, but what sort of insights can come out of the position one happens to take. If for example, the Bazinian approach allows the critic to grope for insights that cannot easily be expressed or explored, this is usually more revelatory than an ostensibly less nave position that nevertheless indicates a method that constrains the possibility of revelation. If Bazin remains important despite his apparent naivety, it resides in this capacity to move towards fresh perspectives. Finally, the notion of the genius and the notion of the world become hypothetical means by which to say something about the filmmaker and about the pro-filmic space captured. Speaking of Bicycle Thieves, Bazin says "as for the technique, properly so-called, Ladri di Biciclette, like a lot of other films, was shot in the street with non professional actors but its true merit lies elsewhere: in not betraying the essence of things, in allowing them first of all to exist for their own sakes, freely: it is loving them in their singular individuality." ('De Sica: Metteur en Scene') If many Lacanians wanted to utilise Lacan for the possibilities available in seeing cinema as a means of misrecognition, of keeping us in a suspended state of ignorance that was close to a variation of cradle to grave false consciousness, Bazin we can see was more faithful to a different Lacanian notion in exploring the possibilities in the real. But Bazin in some ways would go further than Lacan because he believed in the possibility of revelation, and this is why we feel there is an affinity between Bazin and Deleuze, a means by which to escape the ferocious tyranny of an ideological approach that necessarily reminds us that cinema is a socially constructed site of power relations, but also endangers the chance of a certain type of insight. If we are interpellated into the culture, and sutured into the text, if we are all merely a construct of cultural forces, and the film put together to emphasise the nature of our entrapment, then we can see why the most important thing would be to escape from that confinement. But what if we aren't quite sure whether or not we are confined, but are much surer about what a revelation happens to be in the moment that we are having it?
This is why we use the word exposure to register the twin sense of how an image was traditionally made, and what was possible in the filmic experience. Films may very well imprison us within an image structure, but at the same time (or at least at other times), they also expose us to new possibilities of seeing the world. Certainly Lacanian inflected film critics thought this was possible too, but one of their main reservations about Bazin was that he didn't entertain enough the ideological aspect of realism: didn't see enough that it was a mode of perception amongst others rather than the way in which perceptions came about. While Bazin would see filmmakers from Eisenstein to Hitchcock manipulating the image so that the perception wasn't easily to hand for the viewer because it was too easily in the hands of the filmmaker, those resistant to such realist notions saw a bigger manipulation at work: one far beyond the individual filmmaker and in the hands of the society that generated a structure of reality they called realism. As Colin McCabe says, "this separation bears witness to the real as articulated. The thing represented does not appear in a moment of pure identity as it tears itself out of the world and presents itself, but rather is caught in an articulation in which each object is defined in a set of differences and oppositions." ('Classic Realist Text') McCabe is talking here of literature, but he is quoted in a book Realism and the Cinema. From a certain discursive point of view, this might not make much of a difference: our idea of realism whether in film or literature relies on a set of codes that define what reality happens to be - hence McCabe's claim that the thing "does not appear in a moment of pure identity". But such notions bypass the question of how a discourse is arrived at formally, and risks indicating that there is no difference in realist aims between the most exaggerated Hollywood film and the most nuanced work of socio-political precision. Of course, we don't want to say that because one film uses a sound stage and another a housing estate the latter is a priori more realistic than the former, but the claim that there is no difference because both are made texts seems to require a naivety in another direction. In defining what we regard as realistic we might note that the 'realistic' film not only films in a housing estate, but that it uses only non-professionals from the area, that all the situations in the film are taken from the people's own experiences, and that any dialogue that sounds false in the mouths of the characters will be changed by the people playing the roles. The film might still fail for lots of reasons, and might still be too reliant on narrative tropes that even the people in the film can't see because they have narrativised their lives through traditional story-telling approaches. Perhaps, but few would deny that a Ken Loach film is more realistic than La La Land, whatever contrivances I, Daniel Blake may have. Loach and his screenwriter insist that all events in the film were based on actual cases, and while we might believe within this Paul Laverty's script manipulates our feelings in certain directions, we needn't undermine its realist elements while acknowledging contrivances too.
Our point here rests on making sure we don't underestimate film's realistic aspect; but not because we want a notion of realism; more that we want to explore the idea of exposure. How does a film expose? Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Abbas Kiarostami (like Godard and Antonioni) are directors who have used celluloid and digital cameras but who would seem to be interested in exposure as we have couched it, whether using analogue or the digitised. In Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, there is a moment where a character grabs at an apple tree and dozens fall to the ground. Ceylan follows the trajectory of one of the apples as it rolls down the hill and into the stream. It is a moment indebted to the aerosol can rolling down a side-street in Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up - a film made on celluloid. Commenting on the scene in Kiarostami,'s work Gilberto Perez says the can "may be taken as a witty epitome of the naturalistic approach. It may be seen to represent the detail of everyday life on which naturalism dwells: we thought we were in pursuit of a big story [a man has insinuated himself by pretending to be a famous filmmaker and journalists are in the street investigating] and we find ourselves watching the course of an insignificant can down a suburban street. In the literary context, such a moment would be what Roland Barthes calls the effect of the real, as he discusses Flaubert's attention to apparently irrelevant detail in Madame Bovary. As Dudley Andrew notes, "How was it, Barthes asked, that extraneous objects and acts seem to interrupt the otherwise airtight presentation of the world of Madame Bovary? In a notable example, he pointed to Flaubert's description of a barometer in the drawing room where an important conversation is taking place." Andrew through Barthes notes that "far from operating symbolically (as an index of the stormy relationship the conversationalist suffer through) and far from being an element of the plot (an object about to be hurled on the floor, for instance), this interruptive description serves only to remind the reader that the event takes place in a world which he knows and can assent to. It puts the reader at ease..." (Concepts in Film Theory). Andrew notes the barometer's in-significance: its non-significance. But in a film that barometer's effect of reality would be evident in the scene without the director having to pay it any attention. The writer to achieve realism must set the scene; the director must accept that to attain realism he must fill the scene. An absence of objects in a kitchen, for example, will not go unnoticed by an audience. Many filmmakers will fill the scene to make sure no attention is drawn to it. Thus since filmmakers can show us the effects of reality merely by using deep-focus camerawork and making sure the mise-en scene is a plausible space, what happens when Kiarostami or Ceylan insist on paying such attention to an object? We might see at symbolic, we might see it as an opportunity to stall the plot to keep the viewer in a state of impatience, or we may, more fruitfully, so to speak, see Ceylan's apple and Kiarostami's can as objectful, and whether the film is made on celluloid or digital in this instance the object status remains the same. In literature, objects do not have objectful status as they do in film because in a book there is the signifier on the page (the word apple) and the image in our mind as we read the passage. There is no apple, while in film, even if the apple is recorded it still retains its apple status. We can describe the apple shown on the screen as we cannot but imagine the apple if that is the only word used in a book. Kiarostami and Ceylan both bring to mind once again Bazin and his earlier remark about not betraying the essence of things. Kiarostami and Ceylan expose the can and the apple: they give them objectful significance that we may choose to read various ways; yet that we see, first of all. as an object in the world to which the directors give their undivided attention. Now of course even to talk as we are is to give it a meaning; someone watching the film who has no interest in anything but a story well told would wonder why this needless digression. Is there a bomb inside that aerosol can; will the apple lead to the evidence of a crime that the characters in the film are looking to resolve? Such viewers are common and most images are constructed according to such claims, but what interests us, and what we believe interests Ceylan and Kiarostami, is the need to expose the world.
There is a very basic difference between the two shots, however, that we have already noted. Kiarostami's was shot on film; Ceylan's on digital. After shooting his first three films on celluloid, Ceylan moved on to digital filmmaking with Climates, saying, while being interviewed over his next film, Three Monkeys, "film is expensive and there are many disadvantages. For me, this is it. I'll never go back to film for movie-making or photography. I think we should be open and use the advantages of this new technology to express our deeper emotions." (Guardian) The difference is so fundamental it invokes a different discipline at its base: celluloid is rooted in chemistry, digital filmmaking in mathematics. Yet though the process is very different, the differences in the result aren't easy to discern. Both examples expose the object so that though Bazin's privileging of the cinematic image as possessing a direct relationship with reality gets lost, his interest in attending to the object remains. Obviously digital allows for far greater opportunities to falsify what we see, but this is where what we could call the metaphysics of presence manifests itself. When we watch a superhero film that relies on a great deal of blue screen work, when we see the hero jumping from one building to the next, and with the villain plunging to his digital demise from the latter, we take for granted the exaggerated ingenuity involved. But when we see an apple rolling down a hill and into the water we assume that all we are watching is the camera following an action merely filmed. Obviously, Ceylan could have digitised the apple, and the superhero could have jumped from one building to the other with real buildings underneath, but we will assume unless told otherwise that the former is a real apple and the latter a special effect achieved. In the Ceylan example, we believe in our disbelief; in the latter we disbelieve within our disbelief. It is partly why Antoine de Baecque can say in Cinema Historica, "proliferating reproducibility and technological virtuality have both contributed to an increase of violence in images while denying the violence of the image." Here de Baecque makes clear that the shift in technology for many films has led to a shift in the content: in making ever more violent images without very much care for the consequences. The gap between a fifties killing on film and a death in a more recent film is the difference between a life taken seriously but a death shown momentarily, to a life offered jokingly and a death offered slowly: that the life exists to show the spectacle of death. We don't take the death seriously, we take the digitisation seriously, admiring and awed by the quality of the technology. In contrast, whether working on film or on digital, Kiarostami and Ceylan, indicate an interest in exposing the image that means while the new technology makes their work potentially cheaper and more immediate, it doesn't change the nature of that exposure. Many of Bazin's claims for cinema are as valid for a contemporary Turkish filmmaker as for a forties neo-realist. This needn't be seen as a conservative position; more that the director knows that to tease out the real, to give objects their place in a world moving too quickly for their acknowledgement is an ongoing task in itself. "What I want to show can only come out of the slowed-down pace of life" Ceylan says. (Time Out) Most images in films don't expose, they are shown or utilised. The apple and the aerosol can are objectful as they give space for thought without demanding it: we do not see them as a background detail giving the film verisimilitude in mise en scene, we do not wonder how they will be used, like a gun or a grenade, and we don't necessarily turn them into symbols - as we might in a cut to the dying embers of a fire or the rain outside the window indicating the end of a love affair.
Of course, cinema is many things, capable of throwing us into space or into a bunker, making us fear for our lives or allowing us to live our dreams. Not one of these is called into question by the shift from celluloid to digital. What might be questined, however, is the claim that cinema as a chemical form had a given right to attend to the detail, to the objectful because unlike literature and painting, it had a clear existential connection with that reality. Digital does not, so should the image also accept that cinema has lost the right to redeem reality, to show what previously could not easily be shown? We think not, which is why we want to take a word like exposure and allow it to lose its denotative fact in a chemical process and retain its importance as a suggestive aspect of the image that we feel it has no reason to forsake.
© Tony McKibbin