Influential Theorists: Andre Bazin – The Myth of Total Cinema

This article continues my examination of Andre Bazin’s What Is Cinema?


The Myth of Total Cinema

Bazin asserted in ‘Ontology of the Photographic Image’ that, at its purest and most organic, photography and cinema is realist in aesthetic. The innate motivation behind cinema, and therefore also the best style, is realism. Bazin attempts to add to this position by examining the history and emergence of the technology of cinema. Bazin asserts that cinema was not borne from the advances of technology and economy in the late 19th century but from that innate desire to reproduce the world around us in perfect detail. Bazin explains that ‘the basic technical discoveries [are] fortunate accidents… essentially second in importance to the preconceived ideas of the inventors’.(1.) What Bazin is arguing is that the inventors of photography and cinema were not just satisfied with producing technology for sale – though he does concede that some were primarily concerned with this – but were, at the heart of it, striving for the replication and reproduction of the “real” world. The production of technology was derived from that ‘innate’ drive for reproduction of the real, rather than, as G. Sadoul asserted, the desire for realism derived from the production of technology. Bazin explains ‘The cinema is an idealistic phenomenon. The concept men had of it existed so to speak fully armed in their minds’.(2.) Bazin may be correct that before certain technologies are invented there seems to be some idealistic notion embedded in the mind. Bazin goes on to explain that:

Any account of the cinema that was drawn from technical invention that made it possible would be a poor one indeed. On the contrary, an approximate and complicated visualization of an idea invariably precedes the industrial discovery which alone can open the way to its practical use.(3.)

Bazin is arguing that a conception, an understanding of cinema, cannot, or should not, be drawn from the economic and technological development of photography. A correct understanding of cinema, according to Bazin, is to be found in the idea that preceded the industry. As I noted in the article concerning ‘The Ontology of The Photographic Image’, Bazin feels that the innate idea – which preceded the actual technology of photography – was the desire to reproduce reality as it is perceived. Bazin is reaffirming why he asserts that realism is cinema.

Bazin reiterates this point when he states:

The guiding myth, then, inspiring the invention of cinema, is the accomplishment of that which dominated in a more or less vague fashion all the techniques of the mechanical reproduction of reality in the nineteenth century, from photography to phonograph, namely an integral realism, a recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time.(4.)

The myth or guiding impulse of realism, and cinema, is, to Bazin, the reproduction of the world unburdened, uncoloured, by an artist’s interpretation or subjectivity. Realism is the attempt or aim of objectivity – enabled by mechanical reproduction of reality. The realist ideal is the unburdening of subjectivity and a release from the ravages and restrictions of time. Bazin continues ‘The real primitives of the cinema, existing only in the imaginations of a few men of the nineteenth century, are in complete imitation of nature’.(5.) Bazin is again stating that cinema is founded by, established by, those “primitives” who dreamed of cinema as a complete replication of nature. Bazin also indicates a central assumption; namely that those primitives who strive for realism are, in Bazin’s position, ‘in complete imitation of nature’.(6.) Bazin believes the desire for realism is the natural, organic beginning and end point of cinema. In the last paragraph Bazin makes an interesting point, explaining ‘the myth of Icarus had to wait on the internal combustion engine before descending from the platonic heavens. But it had dwelt in the soul of everyman since he first thought about birds’.(7.) Bazin believes that the myth of total cinema – realism – was held in everymans’ heart long before the technology was invented.

Bazin’s position in this short rhetorical article is interesting and fresh, however he confuses the technical development of cinema and the development of cinema as an art form. Cinema is as much a tool of fantasy and dreams than the reproduction of nature or “reality”. Forerunners of the technical side may have desired the replication of the image’s – senses – we perceive but as soon as those developments were made artistically driven minds found the technology to be a perfect tool in the aid of their imagination; their dreams and ideas are as natural as those of the realists. Bazin may be correct that an innate, essential desire of humankind is the replication and production of a cinema which perfectly imitates reality, however this is not the only drive. Nor is it sufficient evidence in establishing that realism as the ontological truth; the ultimate and correct starting and ending point in cinema’s history. Bazin has raised several interesting points yet he has failed to establish realism as the correct aesthetic of cinema. Bazin also fails to explain why an innate drive of cinema produces the best, most complete cinema. It may be that the drive for realism is a natural one, but this does not indicate why it is the most advantageous aesthetic.

 1. Andre Bazin ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’, in Andre Bazin, Hugh Gray (trans), What Is Cinema?, Vol. 1, London: University of California Press Ltd, (1967), pp. 17-22. p. 17.

2. Andre Bazin ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’, p. 17.

3. Andre Bazin ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’, p. 18.

4. Andre Bazin ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’, p. 21.

5. Andre Bazin ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’, p. 21.

6. Andre Bazin ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’, p. 21.

7. Andre Bazin ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’, p. 22.