Readings: The Evolution of the Language of Cinema
Bazin, Andre. 1997, The evolution of the language of cinema, Defining cinema, Lehman, Peter (ed). p 59-72, London: Athlone Press
This article explores the evolution of cinema, editing techniques, namely montage vs deep focus long shots through the transition of silent cinema into talkies. Bazin indicates that rather than being viewed as cinematic values operating in direct opposition to each other, we view the two as different concepts of cinematographic expression that are free to employ stylistic influence but are ultimately different “families of styles”.
Bazin highlights two opposing trends within cinema of the 192os-40s. That being the directors who’s artistic influence is felt through the “image” versus those who capture reality and inflict their influence through the editing process and the effects allowed by montage.
Bazin defines the school of IMAGE as “everything that the representation on the screen adds to the object there represented.” where as the school of REALITY directors relate to the “resources of montage, which after all, is simply the ordering of images in time.” pp 60.
Bazin argues that it was “montage that gave birth to film as an art, setting it apart from mere animated photography, in short, creating a language.” pp60
Three processes of Montage:
Parallel montage – conveying a sense of the simultaneity of two actions.
Accelerated montage – depicting change in pace/time – accelerating speed by a multiplicity of shots of ever-decreasing length.
Montage by attraction – reenforcing the meaning of one image by association with another image not necessarily part of the same episode. “Montage as used by Kuleshov, Eisenstein, or Gance did not show us the event, it alluded to it.” pp 61
Bazin suggests that “expressionism of montage and image constitute the essence of cinema.” However notes that several directors of the silent era refute this by engaging in no way with montage, and in fact the strength of their work in fact relies on its absence.
“We would undoubtedly find scattered among the works of others elements of nonexpressionistic cinema in which montage plays no part – even including Griffith. But these examples suffice to reveal, at the very heart of the silent film, a cinematographic art the very opposite of that which has been identified as cinema par excellence, a language the semantic and syntactical unit of which is in no sense the Shot; in which the image is evaluated not according to what it adds to reality but what it reveals of it.” pp. 62
Bazin explores the cinematic language that emerged between 1930 – 1940, largely driven by the american hollywood system which consisted of major film types:
1. The American comedy
2. The burlesque film
3. The dance and vaudeville film
4. The crime and gangster film
5. psychological and social dramas
6. Horror or fantasy films
7. The Western
Then Bazin comments that the real driver of cinematic language’s development came in the 1940s-1950s when new blood and new themes were explored; that “the real revolution took place more on the level of subject matter than of style.” pp63
The three contributing factors to the classical perfection were 1. the maturing of different kinds of drama, 2. the drama inherited from the silent film and 3. the stabilization of technical progress.
THE EVOLUTION OF EDITING SINCE THE ADVENT OF SOUND
From the era of Image vs Reality came the artifice of montage “expressionist” and “symbolistic”, in the modern era we can describe the new kind of storytelling as “analytic” and “dramatic”.
In the era of image vs reality “the changes of point of view provided by the camera would add nothing. They would present the reality a little more forcefully.” pp 65
When moving forward into the modern era Bazin explores directors like Orson Wells in particular and the influence of Citizen Kane on bringing to life the method of single take, deep focus shots. “whole scenes are covered in one take, the camera remaining motionless. Dramatic effects for which we had formerly relied on montage were created out of the movements of the actors within a fixed framework.” pp66
“The soft focus of the background confirms therefore the effect of montage, that is to say, while it is of the essence of the storytelling, it is only an accessory of the style of the photography.” pp 66
Welles’ composition in depth is partially a replacement of montage…”It is based on a respect for the continuity of dramatic space and, of course, of its duration.” pp67
Rather than viewing the lack of edit points as an element of cinema missing, Bazin argues that Welles’ long shots “[refuse] to break up the action, to analyse the dramatic field in time” pp67 which is a positive action.
AFFECTING THE RELATIONSHIPS OF THE MINDS OF THE SPECTATORS TO THE IMAGE
1. Depth of focus brings the spectator into a relation with the image closer to that which he enjoys with reality.
2. 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 progress.
3. in analyzing reality, montage presupposes of its very nature the unity of meaning of the dramatic event. – montage by its very nature rules out ambiguity of expression.
“Through the contents of the image and the resources of montage, the cinema has at its disposal a whole arsenal of means whereby to impose its interpretation of an event on the spectator.” pp61
“The framing in the 1910 film is intended, for all intents and purposes, as a substitute for the missing fourth wall of the theatrical stage… [whereas the cinema of Welles or Wyler] the setting, the lighting, and the camera angles give an entirely different reading. Between them, director and cameraman have converted the screen into a dramatic checkerboard, planned down to the last detail.” pp67
“What we are saying then is that the sequence of shots “in depth” of the contemporary director does not exclude the use of montage – how could he, without reverting to a primitive babbling? – he makes it an integral part of his “plastic.” pp67
“This is why depth of field is not just a stock in trade of the cameraman… it is a capital gain in the field of direction – a dialectical step forward in the history of film language.” pp67
“neorealism tends to give back to the cinema a sense of the ambiguity of reality” pp69
“The sound film nevertheless did preserve the essentials of montage, namely, discontinuous description and the dramatic analysis of action. What it turned its back on was metaphor and symbol in exchange for the illusion of objective presentation.”pg70
“it draws from it the secret of the regeneration of realism in storytelling and thus of becoming capable once more of bringing together real time, in which things exist, along with the duration of the action, for which classical editing had insidiously substituted mental and abstract time.” pp70
“In other words, in the silent days, montage evoked what the director wanted to say; in the editing of the 1938, it described it. Today we can say that at last the director writes in film.” pg 71