The Screen of Fantasy (Bazin and Animals)
By Serge Daney
Translated by Mark A. Cohen
When André Bazin is asking questions about cinema, he often finds his answers in marginal films. Documentaries, newsreels, “poetic” films, or “live-record” films allow him to formulate precisely what for him is a fundamental law: whenever it is possible to enclose two heterogeneous objects in the same frame, editing is prohibited. In that sense, we shall see that the essence of cinema becomes a story about animals. Judge for yourself: “It is true that other devices such as process shots make it possible to have two objects, say the star and the tiger, in the same shot, a proximity which might cause some problems in real life.” Or again, “Here, to our surprise, we see the director abandon the series of close shots, which serve to isolate the protagonists from the dramatic action, and offer us simultaneously, in the same long shot, parents, child, and animal.” And last, “on the other hand in the same film [Louisana Story] the sequence shot of the crocodile attacking the heron filmed in a single pan is simply wonderful.”
We can see that what justifies the prohibition of editing, of fragmentation, is not only, as has often been said, the exploitation of depth of filed, the birth of cinemascope, or the ever-greater mobility of the camera in an increasingly homogeneous space but also, and above all, the nature of what is being filmed, the status of the protagonists (in this case men and animals) who are forced to share the screen, sometimes at the risk of their lives. The ban on editing is a function of this risk. There is no question for Bazin on calling for the cinema to be completely free of editing – such an extreme point of view is foreign to him – only that “there are cases where far from being the essence of cinema, editing is its negation.” For the coexistence of crocodile and heron, tiger and star, in front of the camera, is not without its problems (particularly for the heron and the star), and to talk of “heterogeneous” elements is a euphemism when it is a question of violent incompatibility, a fight to the death.
It is therefore the possibility of filming death that “in certain cases” prohibits editing, or at least the editing secretly hated by Bazin, a sort of generalized death, abstract, facile, automatically creating meaning, operating in the blank spaces of the text. If it is forbidden, it is because it does not let us read “what is said in between” because by moving in qualitative leaps it deprives the obsessive-compulsive of his or her fantasy, to apprehend the passage of something not through a back and forth movement from past to future but as an eternal present. Difference, rupture, discontinuity – they are not absent from Bazin’s discourse not from the cinema he defends; they are in fact so present that they “burst the screen”. A cinema seeking continuity and transparency at all costs is identical to a cinema that dreams of filming discontinuity and difference as such. And it can only do it by reintroducing them as objects of representation.
We should not split up the screen but show the split occurring on it (“In L’Afrique vous parle , a Negro gets eaten by a crocodile”), not break continuity but make a rupture stand out on the conveyor belt of presence, “deny by elevating, by idealizing, by sublimating in an amnesiac interiority, by interning difference in self-presence” (Derrida). Bring the forbidden fruit inside the frame and assign editing a demoted role: a practice of making a “good connecting shot,” meaning invisible editing, which in extremis , lets things speak of themselves. “To reveal the hidden meaning of beings and things without disturbing their temporal unity.” In such a sentence it is the second part that is imperative (unity), for the meaning itself can remain hidden or suspended with no harm done (things are chatterboxes but the talk drivel). This unity is never anything but that of the spatio-temporal continuum of representation. To intern difference means saving representation .
For Bazin, the horizon of cinema’s history is cinema’s disappearance. Until then, this history is indistinguishable from that of a small difference that is the object of a constant negation: I know (that the image is not real) but al the same…. With each technical change, the transparency grows, the difference seems to get smaller, the celluloid becomes the skin of History and the screen a window open to the world. Sometimes he declares the limit has been reached: “no more actors, no moer story, no more mise-en-scène, that is to say finally the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality: no more cinema.” Whoever passes through the screen and meets reality on the other side has gone beyond jouissance . If he makes it back (but in what sate? obsessional for sure) and if he is still speaking, it will be to talk at length about what he has missed the most: the prohibited.
Also this cinema of transparency only desires whatever limits it, impedes it. It only worships transparency because it knows that – all the same – there is no such thing. That is the price of fetishism. Certain proponents of this ideology of direct cinema, so widespread these days and to whose emergence Bazin contributed on the level of theory, are prisoners of this fetishism. Bazin, more savvy, always oscillated between “I know it” and “but all the same.” At times, he clearly sees the realization of cinema’s essence – aided by technique – in its move toward greater and greater realism: this is his famous “gain in reality.” At other times, when he is reader to acknowledge his own fantasy, he points out that for every gain in reality there is a corresponding “loss of reality” in which abstraction insidiously returns. In volume 4 of Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? He admits that “it will always be necessary to sacrifice something of reality to reality”.
Sacrifice what? Precisely, the skin, the transparency. The transparent continuum that clings to the real takes its form, the bandages that preserve for us the mummy of reality, its still living corpse, its eternal presentness: that which allows us to see and protects us from what is seen: the screen . What overdetermines the Bazinian fantasy and, in its wake, a whole swath of idealist discourse on the cinema is a comical vision of the screen as the surface of a Teflon saucepan (in glass), capable of “sealing” [in the culinary sense] the signifier. The screen, the skin, the celluloid, the surface of the pan, exposed to the fire of the real and on which is going to be inscribed – metaphorically and figuratively – everything that could burst them. If we have to save the screen so that representation can survive, what better to represent there if not the rescue itself?
That tiny difference, the screen; “Of course,” says Bazin, “a woman who has been raped is still beautiful but she is no longer the same woman.” The obscenity perpetrated by the rape of reality cannot fail to send us back to the rape of the woman and the screen, the hymen. The fundamental ambiguity of the real is the uncertainty regarding virginity. The attachment to representation, the taste for simulacra, a certain love for the cinema (cinephilia), all derive less from ontology than from obsessional neurosis. It is in the very essence o the latter to cloth itself in the former. “The predilection felt by obsessional neurotics for uncertainty and doubt leads them to turn to those subjects which are uncertain for al mankind and upon which our knowledge and judgements must necessarily remain open to doubt” (Freud, The Rat Man ). We think here of Bunuel, not because he is free of such a fetish (more or less the same as the immaculate conception) but because he managed to film the fetish as such. Take the scene in which, one night while his wife is asleep, the hero of El grabs ropes, the blade of a razor, thread, and a hooked needle.
The screen saved, representation brought home, montage humbled: it is from this homogeneous and continuous surface that – in the form of literary themes or contingencies/chance occurrences during shooing – ruptures and differences will be stripped off. They may refer to struggle (battles) or transformation (metamorphosis).
MODEL: THE ONE / THE OTHER, MAN / BEAST
Who – for the sake of the cause and symmetry – is going to come and take this (always slightly questionable) place, to play the dummy part of the “wholly other”? Ethnocentrism – in fact any kind of centrism – would not be viable without collaborating/complicitous opposites. So: “I have no hesitation in stating that the cinema has rarely gone so far in making us aware of what it is to be a man. (And also, for that matter, of what it is to be a dog),” says Bazin, writing about Umberto D. Bazin loved animals and lived with an iguana.
“There is a sublime moment when, after having approached the sperm whales and tried rather brutally to make the contact that would cause two accidents in the herd, we gradually perceive the men starting to feel solidarity with the wounded mammals confronting the shark, which is, after all, nothing but a fish.” Let’s look at that wonderful “after all.” It tells us that out of two animals in a fight one is necessarily close to us and that abstract knowledge – sperm whales (cetaceans) are mammals, like men – can fill in where perceptual evidence is no longer enough. The humans for whom this spectacle was intended will not be interested in it unless they are represented in it: faced with two others there’s still a choice to be made: man / animal .
“In The Circus Chaplin is truly in the lion’s cage and both are enclosed within the frame of the screen.” As Bonitzer points out, the single frame “is very trenchant,” and since it is clearly a question here of castration let us note that what one asks of the other is to confirm it in the certainty of its unity, therefore to castrate it.
Man / man
Or the bringing into play of what Freud has called the “narcissism of tiny differences.” An (often very) minor contradiction becomes the axis around which the protagonists will be divided into two camps, with the frame as the shared space of their “life and death struggle,” real or simulated. So-called classic cinema has rung infinite changes on these axes. In Ford, for example, the contradiction of majority/minorities can be applied (abstractly) to a large number of situations, with the minority represented, depending on the film, by explorers, Indians, the army, the Irish, or women. In Hawks, they are amateurs/professionals, in Renoir, masters/servants. The truth of this cinema and the moment when it begins to topple can be readily seen in the work of Jean Rouch, where it is almost as if the fiction/documentary pair were squared with the refinement of despair, cinematic practice as a game of black and white.
“When a savage headhunter is shown in the foreground watching for the arrival of the whites, this necessarily implies that this person is not a savage because he has not cut the cameraman’s head off.” With this witticism, Bazin indicates the exact spot where the cinema he would not dare dream of becomes a reality and then annuls itself, becomes itself the impossible. This is a limit that is not so distant, whose simple possibility valorizes the most banal image: the risk of death for the cameraman, of impossibility for the film: “occupational hazards.”
When placing himself in danger, the filmmaker is not so far above the fray that he does not risk being swept away by the very real violence of what he films: “The cameraman run as many risks as the soldiers, whose death he is supposed to film even at the cost of his own life (but who cares as long as the reel is saved).” Further on [in volume 1 Qu’est-ce que le cinema?], he considers the first film about polar exploration to be all the more beautiful because its cameraman, H. C. Ponting, “had his hands frostbitten, while reloading without gloves in a temperature of -30°C.”
The trip switch is therefore the death of the filmmaker. In its more anodyne guise, this is also the fetishism of “filming as decisive moment,” of filming as risk and of risk as what justifies the making of the film, which confers on it a certain surplus value. You have to go the point of dying for your images. That’s Bazin’s eroticism. “It is no longer enough to hunt a lion unless it eats the bearers.”
In their mise-en-scène of individual battles, of struggles and violent contradictions, the classic fictions have always hesitated between two solutions.
In both of these solutions “two merge into one.”
In relation to its standard Hollywoodian foil, modern cinema, that is to say, postwar European cinema, has changed the terms of the problem somewhat. Its most characteristic feature, its lowest common denominator if you like, is its violent refusal of the dominant factor in American cinema: psychology as the explanation nec plus ultra. That is why modern cinema has sometimes been pulled toward mysticism (dissolution into the oneness of all things: Rossellini), sometimes toward pathology (the one is the other and the two are rift: Bergman). In both cases, what was released on the formal level was an entire logic of permutation and vicariousness, as can already be seen in the late work of Renoir (The River, The golden Coach).
This is a logic whose fulfilment, almost to the point of parody, can be found in another great modern: Jean Rouch. When two groups (blacks and whites) are placed face to face, one mimicking the other, exchanging their positions to preserve rhyme and symmetry, this copresence reduces any struggle to an accelerated transfer of power, a humanist discourse, obviously antiracist, utopian, and contrived, where it is no longer a question of the class struggle but of the “struggle for position.” In other words, the problems of neocolonial black Africa will not be resolved when the Dogons do ethnology in Brittany.
Politics. How to film the class struggle?
MODEL: BEFORE / AFTER, LIFE / DEATH
“All that is necessary is that the spatial unity of an event be respected at the moment when fracturing it would transform the real into something purely imaginary.” The transformation, then, can be reduced to this: how are we to imagine a “change in plain view”? It is a question of magic, hypnotism, directing actors. It can be reduced to this, too: “Now death is one of those rare events that justifies the term, so beloved of Claude Mauriac, of cinematic specificity.”
Death as rupture, passage par excellence. But just as much everything that simulates death: the sexual act, metamorphosis. More generally, the main nodes of a story, the decisive moments when, under the impassive eye of the camera, something is unravelled, someone changes. Irreversibly. It is then that Bazin thinks we must not glide over the precise moment of transformation. It must be see and “apprehended”; it must not be read or let itself be imagined in the back and forth movement of montage. Better still, the obstinate presence of the camera, far from being neutral, can provoke the transformation. At the end of his text on Allégret’s film on Gide, Bazin writes: “time does not flow. It accumulates in the image until it is charged with an overwhelming potential whose discharge we await, almost with anguish. Allégret well understood this when he held back from cutting the last second of the shot in which Gide stares at the camera and lets out the desperate plea ‘Cut!’ Then the whole theatre catches its breath, everyone fidgets in their seats, the storm has passed.” The prohibition of montage is wholly justified when the “Cut!” comes from the side of the filmed reality. Then we can orgasm.
Although the filmmaker sometimes risks death, it can also happen that he may film it without risk or even provoke it by means of his simple presence. Belief in the magic value of the camera, in the film as transformation of its protagonists, and, why not, in the cinema as transformation of society. The exorbitant power of the camera. You can die just to safe face. This is what happened with Valentin, the birdman (in Paris 1900): “This is how it is in this prodigious birdman scene where the poor fool is obviously getting frightened and has finally realized that the bet was idiotic. But the camera is there to capture him for eternity, and he dare not disappoint its soulless eye. If there had only been human witnesses, a wise cowardice would certainly have won out.” The morality-masochism couple corresponds, then, to the aestheticism-sadism couple. Bazin even invents a sort of Freudian concept, the “Nero complex,” the pleasure taken at the sight of urban destruction.
In “classic” cinema, transformation as the result of a quantitative accumulation without a qualitative leap, as a new state always given but never produced, is resolved or rather it does not get resolved.
Here we should turn to Bunuel once more. Bunuel inscribes in the very first shot of his very first film (An Andalousian Dog ) the castration that Bazin, via Chaplin, will seek in the lion’s cage. As a filmmaker, he begins by finishing with sight, by announcing his respect for the hymen, his attachment to the Teflon pan, his fidelity to representation. But this is the fidelity of an impostor, the respect of a blind man. In Bunuel a general and ironic practice of “change in plain view” inscribes itself within the framework of a representation that will never be able to account for the change. Systematically in his last films (Tristana, The Mikly Way ) something is radically transformed within each scene and without any intervention from the outside. The reasons for these transformations are always multiple and undecidable. Representation is no longer the condition of a good exfoliation of the story but a sort of travesty that can say nothing about the nature of things, about their heterogeneity or the laws of their mutations. After all, if Nazarin seems so overwhelmed at the end of the film that bears his name it is perhaps because he loves pineapples.
Politics. How to film the “coming into consciousness”?
Published in Rites of Realism, Edited by Ivone Margulies, Duke University Press, 2002, pp. 32-41. Originally published as “L'écran du fantasme” in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 236-237, March-April 1972.