Pour une critique cinématographique
Toward a Cinematic Criticism
First published in L'Echo des étudiants (11 Dec. 1943); in Le Cinema de l'Occupation et de la Résistance; and in an anthology published by Cahiers, André Bazin : Le Cinéma français de la Libération à la Nouvelle Vague (1983).
Also available in English in French Cinema of the Occupation and Resistance: The Birth of a Critical Aesthetic (1994)
This is an early essay André Bazin wrote in a student journal, giving a remarkably clear-sighted and provocative understanding of the conservative French Film Criticism at the time during WW2. A lose and complacent trade about to be freshened up and thought out, to finally consider Cinema as a proper and honourable art alongside with Theatre and Literature. Therefore requiring an insightful and pertinent criticism, which Bazin will re-invent completely.
At 25 years old, André Bazin boldly calls into question the cinema press, considering the momentum of popular taste, the complacency of film critics, their arguable following among readers and audience, and the snobbism required for a militant critical judgement. He asks for a "criticism of criticism". Reviewing the trends of his contemporary fellow critics, the prominence of popular movies and popular reviewers.
This article is surprisingly still valid today, as if film criticism didn't learn anything and never evolved since the Golden Age. At least the questions raised in 1943 are the same questions coming up among cinephiles and critic circles, by Bordwell recently (Against Insight), or by various bloggers striving to claim the online conversion of print criticism.
It's difficult to quote Bazin out of context, as his texts weave a logic train of thought in a solid construction. However I'll just post snippets that have an uncanny resonance to today's state of film criticism (my titles added in all caps, quotes rearranged thematically, not necessarily chronologically):
"The film market is still controlled by laws of social psychology similar to those that before the war influenced the sale of printed matter."
"Because it is not, like the other arts, aimed at an elite but at several million passive spectators in search of a couple of hours of escape, the cinema cannot realistically be controlled by anything other than production."
"The historical and sociological conditions under which the cinema operates make it vitally important for the movies to address themselves to all public simultaneously"
"The public will always prefer -- if one respects certain psychological conditions -- a good film to a bad one; by this we simply mean that the quality of films cannot be modified by first educating the taste of the public, but that on the contrary it is necessary to first modify the quality of films so that they can educate the public. Everything we know about the social restrictions under which cinema
operates proves that though the other arts are inconceivable without aesthetic liberalism, cinema is absolutely incapable of existing without managerial direction. Indeed, the conditions that allow it to live are not yet those of an art but simply of an image-industry under a liberal capitalist regime."
"Let nobody say that all tastes have to be provided for in a field in which, alas, we are well below any taste. The truth is, on the contrary, that the crisis of cinema is less of an aesthetic than an intellectual order. What film production basically suffers from is stupidity, a stupidity so overwhelming that aesthetic quarrels are relegated to a secondary level. This is no longer a value judgement but a question of positive evidence."
"We are confronted by an art that is popular and a criticism that is not, and face the temptation of raising that art to the social and intellectual level of its criticism."
"Any elite aesthetic is radically incompatible with the basic laws of cinema. Cinema has need of an elite, but that elite will be influential only to the extent that it realistically understands the sociological demands of the Seventh Art."
"We will not only ask of the critic that in his way he be a sociologist of art, but also that he have a minimal technical competence."
"But one sometimes angrily wonders if those who undertake to write of the cinema have even an elementary notion of its means of expression, because if they do, they give no hint of it."
"If these basics were not lost sight of, nine times out of ten we would have critical unanimity at least about the workmanship of a film."
"An indisputable competence in other domains is, therefore, not license enough to write impressionistic criticism of the Seventh Art, no matter how witty and amusing this criticism may be to read. We want a little more respect, first for the cinema and then for the reader. "
"In this universe without grandeur, simple honesty has assumed the proportions of genius in their eyes. When they come across real grandeur, however, they run out of steam and are completely happy and content, after that momentary flood, to get back to the reassuring level of weekly production. Criticism respectful of its art should not lose sight of certain scales of value and should cling to them, perhaps ascending to higher echelons only two or three times a year. But they would have to cling to their severity with a little more perseverance."
"Now, many of our critics are afraid of being severe, and when they cease to be severe they simultaneously cease to be just."
"A good number of pre-war serious critics have therefore given up the struggle and ceded their place to inoffensive and amusing chroniclers."
"Now we don't ask all that much of a film before qualifying it as "good." We ask that it not be stupid and that it be skilfully shot by making opportune use of the means of expression proper to the cinema. The first judgement is intellectual -- we have said what we think of that -- and the second is technical. After all, two carpenters would agree about the solidity of a table, and we don't really see why our critics, if they knew their profession, couldn't also agree about perfectly objective facts."
"There is no art that is not supported by a culture, and there is no culture without historical judgement. No doubt where cinema is concerned, we are faced with an art whose past productions are still for all practical purposes inaccessible; but this is only another reason for criticism to make every effort to assume the responsibility for the cinematic culture of its readers. As it happens, more than one of these readers has witnessed the development of cinema; in the absence of documents, he would need only to have his memory refreshed. Cinema already has its primitives and its classics, but where most criticism is concerned, it is useless to look for an allusion to this history, for a rapprochement in time or in space, for the recognition of an influence. One would think that, like the intangible shadows on the screen, this unusual art has no past, leaves no traces, has no depth. It is more than time to invent a criticism in relief."
" what it necessary is an aesthetic judgement on the style of a work. But I don't forbid my critic to make such judgements -- I merely doubt his authority when he has been unable to condemn as he should, for its stupidity and bad workmanship, this week's hit. An indisputable competence in other domains is, therefore, not license enough to write impressionistic criticism of the Seventh Art, no matter how witty and amusing this criticism may be to read. We want a little more respect, first for the cinema and then for the reader."
"We are ashamed to have to remind readers of such basic verities, because at bottom we ask nothing more than what is naturally expected of all other criticism: a minimum of intelligence, of culture, and of honesty. But isn't this simply to remind readers that cinema is an art, if only potentially? Though they occasionally proclaim this, some critics feel free to treat it as though it weren't, and they no longer respect the basic laws of criticism. Do they really think they are helping cinema with this philandering or with this somewhat condescending insiders' complicity which presides over the witty reports, the poetic observations, or the kind of accounts of what's going on around town that takes the place of cinematic criticism in a would-be literary press?"
"But this topicality should have a beneficial influence on criticism by emphasizing its militant character. "
"The daily press could provide a synopsis of the film and give a succinct opinion about its technical and artistic merits. In delivering this opinion it could make known the director, the dialoguist, etc, recalling as necessary their previous works. Even as it supplies what the popular public expects above all -- an account of the plot -- it would work to gain acceptance for the idea that a film's worth items from its auteurs and that it is much safer to put one's faith in the director than in the leading man."
"Let us begin by distinguishing -- we will return to this point -- between oral criticism and written criticism. The first is, in any case, more effective than the second because it is more competent, more abundant, tougher and more sincere; but the one cannot do without the other. The press assures a certain flurry of notoriety to the judgments that competent circles have made about a film. These debates must not take place behind closed doors."
"Because the cinema does not have specialized theaters or public, because films necessarily address themselves to the entire public, cinematic works are treated as though they too did not have their genres and their hierarchies. As a result, films that have nothing in common have similar labels applied to them."
"The first hierarchy must therefore initially be established among the genres themselves."
"A film should not only be judged on its absolute value but for the effort that it represents under given production conditions, and for the progress in that production that it makes possible. That is why snobbism must be utilized by the critic."
"There is no longer any need to make an apologia for snobbism. In the modern corporate world, snobbism is initially the patronage of imbeciles. Since the mass of these unconscious Maecenas have no reasons for their opinions, the problem becomes one of an effective politic of snobbism within the more general framework of a politic of cinema."
"lower-grade snobbism: the depraved cult of the star."
"Snobbism is a militant form of taste."
"We don't ask of weekly criticism that it be a comparative history of cinema, we ask only that the critic not be unaware of this history and not limit it to the current season."
"Sacrifices will have to be made to current importance, mundanity, and style. There is something even sadder than a bad critic -- criticism which isn't read."
"This criticism which appears in the weekly press is important: it is the criticism that can recruit a cultivated public for the cinema; it is the criticism that creates movements of opinion. That is why it must be strongly militant; that is also why its lack of rigour strikes us as a betrayal, a squandering of a wonderful opportunity."
" Without ceasing to be militant, this criticism could exactly reflect the oral criticism mentioned above. Comparable on all points to literary, musical, or art criticism, it would cede nothing to them in terms of technical and historical erudition."
p.s. Thanks to Doug cummings for providing the English version of this article.
Continue reading the final essay of Bazin on film criticism : Reflexion sur la Critique (1958)