Battling Bazin’s basic beliefs

Since I’m presenting this week, I’ll stick to my disagreements with Bazin in his “Defense of Mixed Cinema,” namely: Why is literature necessarily “better” than film? What’s the important distinction of film as a “functional art” (71)?

To “digest” Bazin’s fundamental argument: adaptations up the ante and force film as a medium to improve, evolve, innovate, to rise to the level of literature (66). This is based on the assumption that literature is better than film. “Already much more highly developed, and catering to a relatively cultured and exacting public, the novel offers cinema characters that are much more complex…. Obviously if the material on which the scenarist and the director are working is in itself on an intellectual level higher than usual in the cinema…” [emphasis added] (65-6). However true Bazin’s qualifications of the novel may prove, they neither negate nor explain the corresponding condescension towards film and its mass audience. How and why is literature necessarily better than film? It’s not enough to say that literature is the more mature, the elder of the two arts, which Bazin concedes, yet he falls short of justifying this basic assumption. I grant that it was (and to a certain extent, still is) a common viewpoint, one that must seem so abundantly obvious to some as to escape explicit explanation, but I am reluctant to accept it at face value.

But, to give Bazin the benefit of the doubt: Novels are greater in length than films and therefore have the allowance to expand on a character or situation (the two basic components that Bazin argues are necessary for adaptations) in ways that films cannot. Hence Bazin’s assumption of the novel’s complexity and intellectual value. However, this is a basic difference in the natures of either medium, so it cannot hold as the fulcrum on which literature and film balance; they cannot be compared and evaluated on a fundamental discrepancy. Though Bazin argues that film qualitatively improves by overcoming such fundamental differences, he falls short of establishing the indices by which an adaptation can be judged “successful.” In fact, whenever he praises an adaptation, his assessments read rather subjectively, thus leaving the balance between film and literature on unsteady ground. How and in what comparable, definitive way(s) is literature better than film?

Furthermore, film’s mass audience seems to reduce its quality in Bazin’s opinion, if not at least set it apart from the other arts. “Let us not be misled here by drawing an analogy with the other arts, especially those whose evolution towards an individualistic use has [sic] made virtually independent of the consumer. Lautréamont and Van Gogh produced their creative works while either misunderstood or ignored by their contemporaries. The cinema cannot exist without a minimum number, and it is an immense minimum, of people who frequent the cinema here and now” (71). But all arts, I’d argue, have an audience greater than one person in mind. We can postulate the tortured artist who creates for his or her own satisfaction, singular figures who are present in every branch of art, but I’d argue that artistic creation carries with it an assumption of exhibition, whether or not the artist profits from it. How does film’s mass audience distinguish it from, say, painting or sculpture? Painters and sculptors must know that their work will be seen by others, and the fact that Van Gogh was an artistic failure during his lifetime does not detract from this. Literature, for example, became profitable after the printing press, copyright laws, and the examples set by certain writers who were able to making a living solely out of their work. In this way, literature is as much a “functional art” as film, both aiming to reach people other than its authors. With artistic representation, or externalized expressions, the audience (or Other, if you want to take this philosophically/existentially) is always implied, so why the important distinction with film? Film may have been more commercially driven from the start than the other arts and thus more ambitious in netting a vast audience, but I’d argue that the practice of patronage in the older arts was an equivalent process. Technology has allowed the other arts to aim at a similarly wider audience (see also: Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”), so again, why distinguish film as a “functional art” when the other arts are as equally involved in their audiences as film?

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3 Responses to Battling Bazin’s basic beliefs

  1. Would you say that the phrase “functional art” is pejorative? It almost seems like for Bazin that that–the paying public–was what has allowed cinema in its early days to grow independent. Maybe in the same way that television has become “better” by having to create and satisfy functional demands every week?

    • Marie Mosot says:

      I don’t think “functional art” is a necessarily pejorative term, though it seemed like it to me when he applies it to film (if I were reread the passage/article now, I might not think so anymore); when he applies it to architecture, it doesn’t come with the same depreciating tone. I just don’t understand the distinction because I think the pressure of the “paying public” is present in all art forms, which Bazin even recognizes in his discussion of medieval art and its purposes and conditions, yet he posits this pressure as a unique trait or step in the nature and evolution of film. How so, and why?

      Furthermore, the phrase itself, “functional art,” assumes a purpose, an intention, a use, a telos to fulfill, and Bazin is far from identifying what that telos is for film, much less adaptations.

      As for television, I do think that the audience plays a big part in its evolution, but not in a substantially different way than it does in other art forms. I agree that the quality of television stems from its own structure and nature, the “functional demands” of the medium. But how are these “functional demands” that are unique to television related to the “paying public” that is universal to all mediums? I don’t think the “paying public” figures much, if at all, into an account of an art form’s “independence,” which in itself is a questionable claim (I think all art forms borrow and influence each other mutally and absolutely) and an issue separate from its evolution.

      But perhaps I’m splitting hairs and mixing terms.

    • “But how are these ‘functional demands’ that are unique to television related to the ‘paying public’ that is universal to all mediums? “: I think the example of TV shows how the uniqueness of modes of transmission are becoming blurry–is it still TV (with the same “functional demands”) if you’re downloading an episode of it three days later to watch on your ipad? It seems that to survive in a transitional media period with so many other distractions (video games, cable, web sites, social media)–identifying and courting the paying public becomes crucial to survival. Kind of like cinema breaking from vaudeville and the traveling circus?

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