The Influence of Bazin’s Ontology of Film on Richard Linklater

 

Context: This essay has dominated my thoughts over the last few months. I began thinking about this topic long before Northeastern, and even Gordon. Incredibly inspired by the video essay by Kogonada (which I highly suggest anyone watch), I got turned on to Linklater and a whole new way of watching and appreciating cinema. I really tried to make this essay accessible by giving more context to some of the films and historical movements. Not everyone’s read up on neorealism, and that’s totally fine. Linklater his definitely one of my greatest influences, and it’s rewarding to try and understand the influences others have made on Linklater.

In the aftermath of World War II, the neorealist movement began in Italy.  Noted for its use of non professional actors, shooting on location, small budgets, and profile of the lower class, the neorealism movement aimed to address the post-war distress felt by disparaging economic conditions and political upheaval. In 1953, director Vittorio De Sica began shooting a new film set in called Terminal Station. While De Sica cut a version of this film, American producer David O. Selznick recut another, entitled Indiscretion of an American Wife. While the films share the same principal photography, they are two drastically different films. Selznick, operating under standard Hollywood continuity protocol, follows the main character, cutting everything that does not progress the story or plot. De Sica, however, holds the shot longer, letting the camera linger on extras, a choice that decentralizes the main character in a sense, a message which would make an American audience uncomfortable.  Sight & Sound’s visual essayist, Kogonada, says that “the act of walking only needs to be implied, not endured,” showing how Selznick uses jump cuts during a restaurant scene, deeming the task  of walking as excessive. De Sica’s cut of the film ran eighty-nine minutes, whereas  Selznick’s recut had a runtime of sixty-four minutes (Bosworth 244). De Sica’s extra twenty-five minutes contain the essence of neorealism. By letting the moment linger, De Sica shows how he values “time and place seem more critical than thought or story” (Kogonada, “What Is Neorealism”).

Meanwhile in France, the left-leaning, Catholic, film theorist Andre Bazin was busy writing. Over the course of his short life, shadowed by leukemia, Bazin produced thousands of essays on cinema, greatly influencing key players within the French New Wave, the spiritual continuation of the neorealist movement that started in Italy. In his essay The Ontology of the Photographic Image, Bazin outlines several important elements  regarding the nature of cinema.

Bazin’s thesis within Ontology begins with the psychology of the pharaohs: “by providing a defense against the passage of time [mummification] satisfied a basic psychological need of man, for death is but the victory over time… It was natural, therefore, to keep up appearances in the face of the reality of death by preserving flesh and bone” (5). Bazin illustrates that man has this desire to conquer time, by imprinting an aspect of reality, therefore freeing it from its fate of death. And so this pattern continues within the “plastic arts” (arts which represent solid objects), kings are satisfied that their legacy live on through a portrait, and our current rulers with a well taken photograph. As technology advanced, man adapted the desire to capture and represent reality with the tools of the time. However, a so-called crisis emerged within the fifteenth century; Bazin writes: “perspective was the original sin of Western painting” (7). Artists we faced with two competing tendencies; a desire to satisfy man’s aim at realism (the defeat of time) and spiritual expression. It is no surprise then, that film during it’s infancy experienced a similar crisis-torn between the, “aesthetic, namely the expression of spiritual reality wherein the symbol transcended its model” and the reproduction of reality (the psychological) (Bazin 6).

This battle can best be seen within the competing forms of Melies, and the Lumiere brothers.  While the Lumiere brothers were concerned only with a recorded presentation of the world, Melies wished to utilize film as an artform. Bazin argues however, that cinema is a gift to all artists who struggle to balance these two tendencies:  “photography and the cinema on the other hand are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and by its very essence, our obsession with realism” (Bazin 7). Using a camera and lens, an image of the world is formed automatically, forcing the viewer to accept the real existence of the object being reproduced. A critique of the reality of film may actually be redirected towards the documentary value of an image, because regardless, process of creation requires an object’s true existence.

Le Corbusier, a French architect passionately wrote about the mechanization of the camera lens, and how it’s impassivity is beautifully contrary to the way humans view the real through their own eyes.  The lens reveals a scientific reality which is unattainable through human vision, therefore, “the cinema appeals ‘to the eyes that see.’ To the men sensitive to truths. Diogenes has found a light for his lantern: no need for him to Embark to Los Angeles” (MacKenzie 43). Diogenes was an ancient Greek Philosopher, and was often said to have wandered with lamp during the daytime, saying he was looking for an honest man, in the same way visual artists have sought to capture reality. Bazin would call a great artist one who could combine the two tendencies (the aesthetic and the spiritual), someone who worked by, “holding reality at their command and molding it at will into the fabric of their art” (Bazin 6). Where painting is torn, cinema is freed. The len’s sees with God’s eyes. Understanding the nature of film as an artform which captures and represents reality, cited by Bazin, was influential on the Italian neorealists and the directors of the French New Wave, who valued his ideas because it placed significance on the present reality of the moment captured. Furthermore, the significance of Bazin’s ontology extends into the far reaches of North America, and the beating alternative heart of the United States.

Austin, Texas, notable for its blue presence in a predominantly red state also serves as the locale of American and auteur filmmaker Richard Linklater. Linklater started the Austin Film Society in 1985, a catalyst for the city’s film culture,  and spiked his flag in Texan soil, building a filmmaking home that still stands (Kohn). Maybe unironically, Linklater’s presence in Hollywood has always been countercultural. His forays into studio filmmaking have been quirky, light-hearted, films for younger audiences, such as Bad News Bears or School of Rock (films which undoubtedly helped Linklater fund other films) or the more subtly serious Dazed and Confused. These films are all unlikely creations when compared the the bread and butter of Linklater’s filmography; philosophic films noted for their loose, youthful, vignettes exploring people, relationships, and the present moment. Linklater’s early career is particularly dominated by this kind of film; almost as if Linklater embodied the early slacker revolt of the 90s, the films themselves defied the norm of the classical Hollywood standard, featuring at times, zero plot, decentralized characters, and long wandering takes. The style of these slacker films, however, is not new, but barrows from the neorealists: non professional actors, shooting on location, the emphasis on time and place rather than plot and protagonist. Film analyst and author Rob Stone in his book on Linklater’s auteurship writes, “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books [Linklater’s first feature film] and Slacker were so pro-Austin that they were only coincidentally anti-Hollywood” (Stone 18). Linklater knows his Bazin.

Standard continuity Hollywood style editing, and the formation of classical Hollywood genres, leaves modern audiences with an oversaturation of literary films which focused on telling stories through dialogue rather than what makes cinema truly unique: the capture and reproduction of time and space. Tarkovsky claims a similar critique when he says, “If art can stimulate emotions and ideas, mass-appeal cinema, because of its easy, irresistible effect, extinguishes all traces of thought and feeling irrevocably. People cease to feel any need for the beautiful or the spiritual and consume films like bottles of Coca-Cola” (Tarkovsky, 179). French film theorist Andre Bazin would articulate that this system of classical continuity editing removes the viewers free will from the matter, instead replacing it with a director’s calculated neurologically induced response. In this way, no communion can take place. Instead of willingly coming to the table, an audience is pushed forward into an understanding they could never have control of (Hughes). When Bazin wrote about the ontology of film, he saw how the crisis of realism was solved through the impassive lens. While Bazin saw this as a reason for victory, allowing artists to focus on artistic and spiritual expression, the tables ironically  turned. With mechanical realism becoming so available, cinema, in Tarkovsky’s opinion, fell prey to consumerism, and the fight for artists became not that against time and the reproduction of reality, but for the more ancient practice of spiritual expression.

For Linklater, the present moment is one of the most spiritual. The power of the moment first strikes in Linklater’s first film It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, which plays as a series of moments strung together-no plot, merely moments. Featuring many shots of trains and travel, Plow shows the transitory nature of the present.  This idea is also present in Slacker. The camera roams the streets of Austin, pausing for a instant, observing the conversation of a passerby, before veering off and following another slacker resident. Plow and Slacker are films built from moments, and contain little plot. The long takes of Slacker let conversations play out and real time. Although the idea film being truly “real time” is an illusion, and one that Linklater plays with in his “Before Trilogy” .

Before Sunrise, Before Sunrise, and Before Midnight: a trilogy of films that came out nine years apart from each other, and featured the same protagonists. When the audience first meets them, Celine and Jesse are a young couple, who, over the years, age alongside the audience (this utilization of the medium to show the passage of time can be seen within Francois Truffaut’s filmography as well, and his character Antoine Doinel). The content of the trilogy also follows its form, and the dialogue is frequently concerning time, life, and the passage of time.  Linklater says, “[time is] the big element of our medium. The manipulation of time, the perception of time, the control of time. It’s the building blocks of cinema” (Koganada, The Long Conversation). Linklater appears to comment on Bazin’s understanding of man’s desire to conquer time, and throughout the “Before Trilogy,”  Celine and Jesse try and find their way through life, and understand their meaning and place within a large, transient universe. While walking the streets of Vienna, Jesse quotes to Celine from the W.H. Auden poem, As I Walked Out One Evening:

But all the clocks in the city
  Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
  You cannot conquer Time.

The “Before Trilogy” is Linklater’s reminder to the audience that even though film may record and re-present reality, time remains unconquered.

Therefore, Linklater’s answer to Bazin’s ontology lies in a different film: Waking Life. Released in Fall of 2001, Waking Life, was certainly not the film everyone had on their minds. The film is rotoscoped, producing a hypnotic, hallucinogenic animated effect, further emphasizing, and not allowing, the audience to forget that the character is experiencing a dream reality, and experience the hazy effect of memory. While many filmmakers would simply animate Waking Life’s dream odyssey, Linklater chose to film it and then create the animation effect in post-production; a spiritual exercise of capturing and representing reality, only to alter it, revealing a deeper truth through the form. Just over halfway through Waking Life’s runtime, the camera flies through the rising “O” of a string of hovering text reading “The Holy Moment.” Settling, the audience finds themselves drifting into a movie theater. The dream walking protagonist sits alone, and the camera pushes in towards the screen, making the audience watch a film within a film.

In the midst of a passionate rant, experimental filmmaker Caveh Zahedi finally exclaims: “Holy, holy, holy!” (words which mirror those called out in Isaiah 6:3 by the prophet: “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory”). Caveh, in his ramblings, is interpreting the film theories of Andre Bazin conversationally to another man. He goes on to connect that Bazin was Catholic and found God to be manifest in all creation, and within the present moment (Bazin was perhaps inspired by Ephesians 4:6, “One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”). Caveh says “reality and God for [Bazin] are the same, so what film is actually capturing is God incarnate; creating” (Waking Life). Therefore, if film is the creation of a new filmic reality, our experienced reality re-presented, then every image ticking by at twenty-four frames a second bears witness to a reality of the manifested of God in creation.

By rotoscoping Waking Life, Linklater respectfully responds to Bazin, showing that the endgame of cinema is not reality, but dream. In another interview with Sight & Sound, Linklater says: “Cinema has existed for hundreds and thousands of years in the dream state, and people immediately how to watch films because they’ve been doing every night forever. Technological advances met consciousness in a new art form” (Koganada, The Long Conversation). Linklater argues that perhaps films are not captured and freed moment’s of reality, but rather present moments  that can be recorded and experienced as a dream (as seen in Waking Life). Linklater’s films do not intend to conquer time, but rather to become a part of it, and present holy moments, for the experience of watching a film is a holy moment in of itself. “Life is just memories of something,” Celine muses in Before Sunrise. And in Waking Life, while waking up in bed, Jesse responds to Celine,

“You [Celine] often feel like you’re observing your life from the perspective of an old woman about to die.”

“Yeah. I still feel that way sometimes. Like I’m looking back on my life. Like my waking life are her memories.”  (Waking Life)

Life consists of a series of present moments, distinguished through memory, and strung together in order to create a sense of psychological continuity. Film is constructed in a similar way. Linklater claims,

“Time is a really powerful factor-but it is in all of our lives. You look at yourself in a picture of yourself when you’re ten years old, and stare at that for a second, look at yourself in the mirror. That’s a powerful connection, unique to that person, and we all have that” (Koganada, The Long Conversation).

Seeing a reflection of oneself breaks, for a moment, the psychological continuity of memory. For an instant, we are faced with the dream like reality of the present moment, and the reality of our travel through space and time.

The ontology of film, and, due to it’s nature, cinema captures and represents reality, cited by Bazin was influential on the Italian neorealists and the directors of the French New Wave. Furthermore, the significance of Bazin’s ontology extends to Linklater’s cinema; one that shows cinema being life, and life being cinema. Conversations ramble and wind, and moments fade into each other as scenes themselves weave together like a stream of consciousness, and memories of existence; allowing the viewer to experience reality, ushering in notion that perhaps all of “life is but a long, long, chain of dreams” (Gertrud). Linklater suggests that the closer artists move towards realism and truth, the more oneiric their art will become.

 

Works Cited

Auden, W. H. “As I Walked Out One Evening.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Bazin, André, and Hugh Gray. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Film Quarterly, vol. 13,4, 1960, pp. 4–9. www.jstor.org/stable/1210183.

Before Sunrise. Dir. Richard Linklater. Turner Home Entertainment, 1999. DVD.

Before Sunset. Dir. Richard Linklater. Warner Home Video, 2005. DVD.

Bosworth, Patricia. Montgomery Clift: A Biography. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996. Print.

Gertrud. Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer. Film-Centralen-Palladium, 1964. DVD.

Hughes, Darren. “Seeking ‘Holy Moments’ at the Movies.” Seeking ‘Holy Moments’ at the Movies. BreakPoint, Apr. 2003. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

Indiscretion of an American Wife. Recut. David O. Selznick. Perfs. Jennifer Jones, Montgomery Clift. 1953. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2001.

It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. Dir. Richard Linklater. 1988. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2013.

Kogonada. “The Long Conversation: Richard Linklater on Cinema and Time.” British Film Institute. Sight & Sound, 2016. Web. 8 Dec. 2016

Kogonada. “What Is Neorealism?” British Film Institute. Sight & Sound, 2016. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

Kohn, Eric. “Richard Linklater’s 30 Year Vision: An Oral History of the Austin Film Society.” IndieWire. Penske Business Media, LLC., 2015. Web. 28 Nov. 2016

MacKenzie, Scott. Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology. N.p.: U of California, 2014. Print.

Slacker. Dir. Richard Linklater. 1991. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2013.

Tarkovsky, Andrey. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Trans. KittyHunter-Blair. Austin: U of Texas, 1989. Print.

Terminal Station. Dir. Vittorio De Sica. Perfs. Jennifer Jones, Montgomery Clift. 1953.DVD. Criterion Collection, 2001.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984. Print.

Waking Life. Dir. Richard Linklater. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2001. DVD.

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