In this text I want to discuss the question of what André Bazin means when he is writing about “facts”. I start with the abstract meaning of the term in Bazin’s work and conclude with his arguments on deep focus shot and Italian neorealism, where his ideas are present in a more concrete form.
At the core of Bazin’s characterization of Rossellin’s Paisà (1946) stands the following argument: “The unit of cinematic narrative in Paisà is not the ‘shot’, an abstract view of a reality which is being analyzed, but the ‘fact’. A fragment of concrete reality in itself multiple and full of ambiguity, whose meaning emerges only after the fact, thanks to other imposed facts between which the mind establishes certain realtionships“ (Bazin 2005a, 37).
This statement and especially its usage of the term “fact” can be easily misunderstood. One could get the impression that Bazin reduces filmmaking to solely capturing the world that is out there. Obviously such a thing is impossible even for documentary films as for example the early discussion on Flaherty’s Nanook of the North has shown, not to mention fictional films like Paisà. If we would follow this understanding of the term “fact” no serious interpretation or critique of the film would be possible, instead it would just present us some undeniable “facts“. In other words it would reduce films to an epistemological dimension, i.e. at their center would stand the question: how can we get knowledge of this facts?
Instead Bazin seems to be interested in the ontological dimension, i.e. the question: What are these facts, what is their nature? For it is clear to him that these “facts” are not given by reality, leaving the director with the simple task to just record them. Bazin respects the work of film directors too much that he could overlook that there is always a process of selection. “Unquestionably, the director chose these ‘facts’ carefully while at the same time respecting their factual integrity” (ibid., 37). So when Bazin is talking about facts it doesn’t mean that he denies that there is a creative process of configuration and arrangement by the director.
This leads us to an interesting question: Are the “facts”, because they are selected and arranged by the director, therefore subjective? Obviously if this was true the term “fact” would be inappropriate in this case because it always refers to an objective dimension. On the contrary it leads us to an important part of Bazin’s theory, namely his conception of the relationship between image and object. When Bazin states that “the photographic image is the object itself” (Bazin 2005b, 14) or speaks of the “ontological identity between the object and its photographic image” (Bazin 2005c, 98) it is exactly this idea that allow him to speak of “facts” in neorealist films.
At first this statement seems obscure if not even contradictory. It would be difficult to deal with it in such a general and abstract way. Luckily we find the same idea elaborated in Bazin’s writings about long deep focus shots and Italian neorealism.
When he talks about long deep focus shots he points out two of its main features: (1) “depth of focus brings the spectator into a relation with the image closer to that which he enjoys in reality” and (2) that “it implies, consequently, both a more active mental attitude on the part of the spectator and a more positive contribution on his part to the action in progess. While analytical montage only calls for him to follow his guide […], here he is called upon to exercise at least a minimum of personal choice” (Bazin 2005d, 36). To summarize, one could say that the long deep focus shot requires less work by the director (at least in terms of editing) but more by the spectator. The task of creating sense in a way is transferred from the process of production to the one of consumtion and reception.
This has the consequence that we as audience are to a greater degree “left alone” in a double sense. On the one hand it means that we are not bothered by the guidance or – as one could even say – manipulation of the director. On the other hand we may experience the feeling that we don’t understand every aspect of the film or that we’ve missed something.
Bazin suggests that what makes this presentation of “facts” special is that it is no means to an end. That doesn’t mean that we can’t make any sense out of the “facts” that are presented to us. But the main purpose of these facts is not to show us anything, instead they have a value in themselves. “Facts are facts, our imagination makes use of them, but they do not exist inherently for this purpose” (Bazin 2005a, 35).
It’s mainly the Italian neorealists – besides Orson Welles – that Bazin admires for their use of this approach. For him they take the value of the reality and the acting individuals so seriously that he sees in it a “fundamental humanism” (ibid., 21). Besides that he makes two strong assumptions: for him one of the characteristics of Italian neorealism is that it does not analyze reality and its parts but instead it presents us a whole. Secondly the meaning we derive from neorealist films is established a posteriori.
In Paisà this approach is realized in a double sense. The stories it consists of are itself “facts” in Bazin’s sense, that means they are presented to us without any obvious pattern or purpose. No storyline is developed that could cumulate in a special message or conclusion in the end. Of course the stories stand in a special relationship to one another and it’s obvious that their arrangment is far from being coincidental. But the point here is that each sequence has a value in itself and the same is true for the scenes of every story. To exemplify this we can contrast it with a different example: Eisenstein’s famous montage of soldiers shooting at protesting workers with a slaughterhouse scene in Strike (1925). There the scene of the slaugtherhouse has no value in itself. Its use is instrumental because it is only the context of the montage that justifies it. The case is totally different in Paisà. The sequence in the monastery f.e. stands totally for itself. Its setting – Christian conservative and resigned – is in no way directly linked to the episodes of the active – and as we can assume at least partly communist – resistance of the partisans. As Bazin said, it is only afterwards that we may think about such connections whereas we easily could think of a montage that would link these two aspects a priori for us in the film.
To conclude, one must keep in mind that Bazin valued montage and the work of Eisenstein. As he stated explictly: “It would obviously be absurd to deny that montage has added considerably to the progress of film language, but this has happened at the cost of other values, no less definitely cinematic” (Bazin 2005d, 35). Instead he thought of the usage of long deep-focus shots by the Italian neorealists and Welles as “a dialectic step forward in the history of film language” (ibid., 35). But it seems unclear what this concept of a dialectical progress means in practice. Are films outdated that follow Eisenstein and heavily use montage? Or are they limited to certain genres and purposes?
Maybe the answer for Bazin lies in the historical approach he sketches out when he writes: “At the moment the Italian cinema is more sociological than political. By that I mean that such concrete social realities as poverty, the black market, the administration, prostitution and unemployment do not seem to have given place in the public conscience to the a priori values of politics” (Bazin 2005a, 21f). So when Bazin here shows us the importance of the relationship between cinema and society maybe we can rephrase the question: What were the social and political circumstances that produced and legitimated montage and did they disappear?
Martin Bartenberger, 2012
Bazin, André. 2005a. “An Aesthetic of Reality: Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation” In What Is Cinema? Volume 2, André Bazin. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. 16-40.
Bazin, André. 2005b. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” In What Is Cinema? Volume 1, André Bazin. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. 9-16.
Bazin, André. 2005c. “In Defense of Rossellini” In What Is Cinema? Volume 2, André Bazin. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. 93-101.
Bazin, André. 2005d. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” In What Is Cinema? Volume 1, André Bazin. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. 23-40.