André Bazin was a French movie critic who argued for movies that depict “objective reality”, and critiqued movies that manipulated reality. Something opposite to the existing film theory at the time, which emphasized the power of manipulating reality. In André Bazin’s essay “the evolution of the language of cinema”, he argued that there wasn’t an especially significant evolution in film language between 1928 to 1930, with the introduction of sound to cinema. While there was a technical innovation, it didn’t change the language of film compared to the coming of continuity editing or Soviet montage. He argues that there was a bigger change to film language from the 1940’s to 1950’s.
Image and Reality
Between 1920 and 1940 two broadly opposing trends emerged. Those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality. By image we mean everything that the representation on screen adds to the object it represents. For example an object being a pine tree and the image the added Christmas decorations for the pine tree. This image can be divided to two categories: those who relate to the plastic of the image and those which relate to the resource of montage. By plastic Bazin means anything in frame, from decor and costumes to performances and lighting, we normally call this the mise-en-scène. Montage, meaning in this context editing, derived from experimenting with spatial and temporal continuity. Montage was well established after the creation of D.W. Griffiths movies, such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) or Intolerance (1916). The blueprints for continuity editing, André Bazin calls it “invisible editing” in his essay. André Bazin quotes Malraux, who called montage the birth to film; creation of a language. But qualities of “invisible” editing alone, he argued, fail to make full potential of montage.
Three particular montage techniques do show the potential. Lets consider these three montage techniques: parallel montage, accelerated montage and montage by attraction. With parallel montage, directors like D.W. Griffith could convey the sense of two simultaneous events taking place at the same time, in different places. By cross-cutting between shots of the two events. In La Roue (1923), Gance conveys the sense of an accelerating train, by the use of accelerated montage. With the shortening of time in every next shot. The last one montage by attraction is created by S.M. Eisenstein. It derived from the Soviet Montage movement, it uses the association between two or multiple shots to reinforce meaning. A good example of this is the Kuleshov experiment (1.1). The experiment alternates the same shot of someone looking with three different shots. The first one of soup, together with the shot of the man, it conveys hunger. The second of a little girl in a coffin, it conveys grief when looking back at the man. The last one is of a woman, it conveys lust. While there is no real meaning in the shots themselves, it can be derived from their juxtaposition.
The meaning is not in the image, it is in the shadow of the image projected by montage onto the field of consciousness of the spectator.André Bazin
So far we have looked at the expressionistic parts of cinema, they concern themselves more with expressing or directing towards specific emotions through the use of the plastic and montage, than show realism; it adds and dramatizes reality instead of revealing it. And we looked at some directors who put their faith in the image? But what about directors who put their faith in reality. André Bazin highlights four directors in his essay of the time period 1930 to 1940, Jacques Feyder, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné and Julien Duvivier. All these directors were poetic realist filmmakers. This would further develop into Italian neo-realism after 1940.
Poetic Realism was a trend in France developing in the 1930’s. It was not really a film movement, it was not as unified compared with Soviet Montage, Expressionism or Impressionism. The trend consisted of individual filmmakers who made lyrical films. Poetic Realism filmmakers put their faith in reality. The most notable of these directors was Jean Renoir, who made Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion) and The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu). These two movies are good examples to get a better understanding of what differentiates poetic realism from classical Hollywood. Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game are both films that examine the relationships between different social classes; their differences, similarities and prejudgments. Grand Illusion is about a group of French people, from different social classes, who are in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. The Rules of the Game is about a group of bourgeois and their servants who have a gathering in their luxurious chateau. I will not spoil the films in any way, but we will look at a scene for clarification that contains no major plot points.
One of the key features of poetic realism is the “long take”. The films use cutting in some places, but don’t rely on this for dramatic effect. So this means fewer cuts compared with Hollywood films and barely any close-ups or POV (point of view) shots. The world is not bound to what’s in the frame, and the camera moves freely through space. The camera seems to be aware of its surroundings and will often pan 180 degrees or 360 degrees in some cases. It is not only interested in the surrounding itself, but also the relationships of the characters with their surroundings. It shows us the world in all its complexity without taking away any of that complexity by trying to derive meaning with the use of montage. Like the example of Kuleshov, that gives the exact meaning of the shots, removing all ambiguity. The shot maintains ambiguity in poetic realism, the camera seems to come alive and look around; it is humanized and no longer expressionistic. Though the camera can not see everything at once, it ensures no loss of any part of what it chooses to see.
An example of this is the Marseillaise scene (1.2) from Grand Illusion. The French prisoners have just heard that the French recaptured a city and they start to sing the Marseillaise. This is all filmed in a shot of exactly one minute. The complex camera movement connects all the characters in space and suggests for example patriotism and solidarity. I say “suggests” because its meaning is derived by the spectator themselves through their own interpretation. Montage would have guided our attention and juxtaposed with a shot of a French flag for example, conveying patriotism; taking away ambiguity.
Another property of poetic realism is the use of deep focus and deep-space staging. Deep-space staging consists of multiple planes in the composition, giving the illusion of depth. These planes are two-dimensional planes that have different distances from the camera. Some are close to the camera and some are far away. When one plane is in focus and the others are out of focus, you have a selective focus or shallow focus. When all the planes are in focus you have a so called deep focus. Things close and far from the camera and everything in between are going to be in focus. This connects with the theme again, that poetic realist filmmakers don’t want to lose ambiguity and complexity. They don’t want to guide (manipulate) the spectator. They want to show the reality as truthfully as possible; the shot mimics how we perceive reality with our own eyes.
The word “realism” in poetic realism, can be found back in the form and style of these films. This realistic form and style are going to be complex, because life is complex; It isn’t simplified. All the characters in the stories are very complex, in their characteristics and relationships. This complexity is reinforced by the style, which tries to be as objective as possible. This is achieved through long shots and deep focus, but also the use of natural lighting, location filming and diegetic sounds. There seems to be a tension between the realism and the underlying poetic or lyrical impulses. The realistic depiction and the absence of expressionistic styles seems to create a picture that becomes deeply complex, ambiguous and poetic. The camera wants to follow the story, but can’t help subtly looking around and revealing the world to us. We are going to examine the influence of poetic realism on Italian neorealism in Part 2.
- Thompson, K., & Bordwell, D. (2018). Film History. McGraw-Hill Education
- Andre bazin, what is cinema vol 1
- Andre bazin, what is cinema vol 2