The French film critic André Bazin (1918-1958) is considred by many to be the father of film criticism as it is practiced today.
Immensely influential in his native France and beyond, Bazin transformed film criticism from simple description and evaluation of the film under discussion into an evaluation of film as a serious art form, including detailed analysis of the techniques filmmakers used. Bazin had a strong perspective that was largely rejected by filmmakers and film critics who came of age in the decades after his death, but even that rejection testified to the depth of his influence. His writings on cinematic technique formed a basic vocabulary of film analysis that even his critics employed. Bazin showed, moreover, that criticism could change the course of cinematic history—at a time when American films were not taken seriously in France, his analyses of the realistic style of such directors as Orson Welles kindled a lasting French passion for American cinema, and he directly inspired Franc¸ois Truffaut and other directors who made French films a staple of almost every campus film society in the English-speaking world in the 1960s and beyond.
Collected Animals on Nature Walks
The son of a bank clerk, André Bazin was born on April 18, 1918, in Angers, France, but spent much of his childhood in the town of La Rochelle, near the Atlantic Ocean. He was a voracious reader as a youngster, and in school he was a top student. He displayed no special artistic enthusiasms as a child; his family, living in a small rustic home beside a stream, probably had only intermittent access to a movie theater. But Bazin had a childhood passion that would prove to be indirectly related to the thrust of his film criticism: both as a child wandering the surroundings of La Rochelle and as a mature writer, he was fascinated by nature and by the human power of observing it closely. He turned the balcony of his family home into a miniature jungle and filled it with lizards and other small animals he collected in the woods. When he was old enough to have a girlfriend, he once showed up for a date with her carrying a snake wrapped around his shoulders, and even as an adult he maintained a diverse menagerie of wild animals.
Bazin attended a school connected with a Catholic monastery and excelled in math and science. When he was 12 the family moved to Paris, where he received a strong public education at a high school in the suburb of Courbevoie and won several scholarships. His intention at this stage of his life was to become a teacher, and he moved back to La Rochelle to attend the Ecole Normale d'Institution, a teacher training school there. After graduating, he applied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in St. Cloud, a top education school near Paris. On his second try he was admitted. Bazin seemed headed for a good teaching job or a post in France's government education bureaucracy.
At the school in St. Cloud, Bazin read widely in contemporary French thought. He favored philosophers of an idealistic Catholic tinge, especially Henri Bergson, whose writings often dealt with the topic of creativity and its place in the order of things, and the Catholic “personalist” or existentialist Emmanuel Mounier. Bazin often read the liberal Catholic journal L'esprit and admired the film writing of Roger Leenhardt, an early inspiration. Living near Paris on another scholarship, Bazin enjoyed the life of a top student immersed in the intellectual currents of the day.
Personal and geopolitical events combined to put that happy life to an end. First, the school at St. Cloud and every other aspect of life around Paris were disrupted by the outbreak of World War II and the invasion of France by Nazi Germany in May of 1940. Bazin reported for army duty but failed a physical exam that would have enabled him to pursue officer training. Before any other action could be taken, the French military collapsed after heavy losses, and fighting ceased as a pro-German regime was installed in the city of Vichy. Bazin returned to school in St. Cloud, but in 1941 he failed a key oral exam when he began stuttering during his response to one of the questions. He might have been able to retake the exam, but before he could do so the school mysteriously burned to the ground.
Formed Film Study Group
Despite the harsh life of occupied Paris and the beginnings of what would become a lifetime of poor health, Bazin flourished. He was chosen as one of the organizers of a student cultural group called the Maison des Lettres (House of Literature), offered by the Sorbonne university as a competitor to student groups set up by the pro-Nazi government. Bazin spent much of the war on the fringes of the resistance movement, writing articles that did not oppose fascism directly—that would have been impossible under the circumstances—but that avoided any hint of collaboration with Nazism. He immersed himself in theater, literary theory, and novels, particularly the American epics of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos.
Most important for his future, he (along with a comrade who later joined the armed French resistance) started a cinema club. Although French directors such as Jean Renoir had made classic films during the 1930s, the world of film was disconnected from French intellectual life. “Once the sound film came into use,” noted Bazin biographer Dudley Andrew, “most intellectuals placed the cinema beside the circus as a popular art not warranting reflection.” The few newspapers and magazines still allowed to publish in Paris had no film columns, and Bazin faced an additional problem: getting films to show was difficult. German censors kept close control over the distribution of films, seeking to prevent the showing of American imports like Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, which parodied dictator Adolf Hitler.
Due to all these factors, Bazin's cinema club tapped into a pent-up demand. Not only films but Bazin's lectures were well-attended. He began to write articles on film for newspapers and magazines, and one of them, quoted by Andrew, correctly prophesied that film studies would one day be ensconced in the university curriculum: “We will surely have someday a thesis of eight hundred pages on the function of comedy in American film between 1915 and 1917 or something approaching that. And who will dare maintain that this isn't serious?” After the liberation of Paris, Bazin was a logical choice to head a new Institute des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques (Institute for Advanced Cinema Studies). He began writing regular columns for the newspaper Le Parisien libéré (Liberated Paris), and for the rest of his life he made a living mostly as an independent film critic.
Bazin wrote about two thousand short articles about film, using sources ranging from philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's serious journal Les Temps modernes (Modern Times) to daily newspapers and magazines as outlets. A selection of these articles, titled Qu'estce que c'est le cinema? (What Is Cinema?), ran to four volumes in French (an English version containing a further-refined selection filled two volumes), and he wrote or co-wrote several books. Part of the reason for Bazin's feverish activity was that he had a family to support. He and his wife, Janine (who was partly responsible for the wide distribution of Bazin's ideas after his death), raised a son, Florent, who became a cinematographer working under such directors as Franc¸ois Truffaut and Roman Polanski.
Championed American Films
Part of what made Bazin's writing innovative was that he was interested in American films. Above all he admired Citizen Kane and the other ambitious creations of director Orson Welles, but also William Wyler's The Little Foxes (1941) and even Westerns—about which he co-wrote a book, Le western; ou, Le cinéma americain par excellence (The Western, or American Cinema at Its Best), which remains untranslated in English. He wrote a book-length study, Orson Welles, in 1950 and revised it in 1958. The book appeared in English as Orson Welles: A Critical Study in 1978.
Welles held particular appeal for Bazin because of the in-depth realism of his films. Bazin's criticism prized realism over experimental cinematic devices such as surreal imagery and montage (rapid editing, often enhanced by special effects). He admired Welles's use of depth of field to direct the viewer's attention to various parts of a scene at different perceived distances from the camera. “Let's take Susan Alexander Kane's suicide attempt,” Bazin wrote in an analysis of Citizen Kane reproduced and translated in his book Bazin at Work. “We get it in a single shot on a level with the bed. In the left-hand corner, on the night table, are the enormous glass and the teaspoon. A little farther back, in shadow, we sense rather than see the woman's face …. Beyond the bed: the empty room, and completely in the background, even farther away because of the receding perspective created by the wide-angle lens: the locked door. Behind the door, we hear on the soundtrack Kane's calls and his shoulder bumping against the wood. This single shot, then, is built in depth around two dramatic centers of gravity, each consisting of sonorous and visual elements.”
Few, if any, writers had analyzed film in this kind of detail before. Bazin applied similar analysis to the works of his favorite European directors, especially Renoir and the realist master of postwar French cinema, Robert Bresson. He also admired the Italian neorealist school, which focused an unsentimental lens on the poverty experienced by the lower classes in Italian cities after the war. Bazin was never particularly politically oriented, however; he believed that the camera should penetrate as deeply as possible into life as it is, leaving the viewer to form his or her own conclusions. The generation of so-called New Wave filmmakers that followed Bazin in the 1960s was both political and experimental, and many disagreed with Bazin on ideological grounds, but they could not escape his influence: he had virtually created a modern vocabulary for talking about film as a serious art form.
That influence was made manifest in several ways. Bazin served as a mentor to New Wave filmmaker Franc¸ois Truffaut, rescuing him twice from detention situations that resulted from acts of lawbreaking during Truffaut's teenage years. One of Truffaut's most famous films, Les quatre cents coups (1959), was dedicated posthumously to Bazin. Perhaps Bazin's most visible legacy was the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma (Cinema Notebook), which he co-founded in 1951 (it evolved from an earlier journal called La revue du cinéma or Cinema Review). The magazine remained central to the French film scene through the 1960s and beyond, and attacks on Bazin frequently used its pages as a medium, “an Oedipal rebellion if ever there was one,” noted Bazin admirer John Lynch on his unofficial Bazin tribute Web site. Cahiers du Cinéma remains in existence today, now under the ownership of the newspaper Le Monde.
Bazin's health, never robust, steadily worsened during the 1950s, and finally he was diagnosed with leukemia. Working frenetically despite what was essentially a death sentence, he collapsed in August of 1958 and was admitted to a hospital. He recovered, and continued to work on what became his final book, Jean Renoir. The book was edited by Truffaut after Bazin's death and appeared in English under the same title in 1973. Bazin died of leukemia on November 11, 1958, in Nogent-sur-Marne, France,. He was widely mourned in the French film community, but his celebrity in the English-speaking world awaited the translation of his writings. What Is Cinema? (two volumes, 1967 and 1971) was followed by various other collections of Bazin's writings on specific topics.
Andrew, Dudley, André Bazin, Oxford University Press, 1978.
Bazin, André, Bazin at Work, trans. by Alain Pierre and Bert Cardullo, Routledge, 1997.
Bazin, André, What Is Cinema?, 2 vols., University of California Press, 1967 and 1971.
“André Bazin: A Brief Biography,” André Bazin and Franc¸ois Truffaut,” Unofficial André Bazin tribute site, http://www.unofficialbaziniantrib.com (November 20, 2007).
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (November 20, 2007).
“The Innovators 1950–1960: Defining the Real,” British Film Institute, http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/176 (November 20, 2007).