Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Art of Not Seeing Films

“The Art of Not Seeing Films”
by André Bazin, May 6, 1944
translated by Stanley Hochman

excerpted without permission from Bazin, André. French Cinema of the Occupation and Resistance: The Birth of a Critical Esthetic. ed. François Truffaut, trans. Stanley Hochman. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc., 1981.

The lean kine succeed one another. I am speaking, alas, figuratively. During the last two weeks, I have been unable to bring myself to go to the movies. Between La Collection Ménard and Le Bals des Passants, there is unfortunately little to choose.

Last year, along with several friends from the cinema group of the Maison des Lettres, I had seen the filming of a shot from La Collection Ménard at the Francois Premier studio. Just one—and not a very significant one—but the entire style of the film was implicit in this wretched shot: the vulgarity of the dialogue, the stupidity of the scenario, the lack of conviction on the part of the actors who had embarked on this commercial galley. So true is it that most films can be judged by very slight elements—sometimes by their titles (though there is Les Anges du Péché) and almost always by a simple still—that the criticism we had made a priori coincides exactly with what is now being said about the film by “the” competent columnists.

A rapid examination of the advertising still outside a movie makes it possible to eliminate many films from consideration. A bad film can almost always be spotted by using this criterion alone. About 75 percent of film production could be judged without appeal this way. Try it. It requires less application than graphology. A basic characterological study of the film showing in your neighborhood theater requires only a little judgment and psychology.

The actual technical quality of the photography provides a first indication. One can use as a point of departure the principle that idiocy is homogeneous (I naturally except Abel Gance, a dazzling proof of the rule). A good photograph is also an intelligent photograph. At least it assures that even if the film is bad, it will not sink into silliness. This was, for examples, true of Serge de Poligny’s Le Baron Fantôme.

The actors are another indication. Beware of the multiplicity of stars; it almost always reveals the poverty of the scenario. The conjunctions of Raimus, Fernandels, Michel Simons, Jules Berrys, Jean Tissiers, etc., is a priori a bad sign. Of course, from time to time there is a Carnet de Bal. But don’t worry; the news about it spreads fairly quickly. Also examine closely what the characters look like. Here too psychological falseness and stupidity are linked. It’s easy to spot if the actors have adopted sentimental stereotypes, or, what is worse, the stereotype of their character as star. The decor too provides information about the taste and honesty of the director, about the style of the film. The pointlessly sumptuous salons, the bedrooms as big as railway stations, the double-winged marble stairways, often reveal, along with other signs, the esthetic demagogy, the inflation of what are intended to be external signs of beauty.

Eventually you will distinguish even more subtle elements. With some film-going experience, you will sense just which family of flop the film whose still you are analyzing belongs to. Naturally, a little intuition doesn’t hurt. This cluster of basic observations, along with information about the credits and the reading of one or two carefully chosen critics, will allow you 75 percent of the time to choose with certainty. There will be disappointments enough in the other 25 percent, but at least you will be spared losing your time with films that are no more worthy of comment than your grocer’s picture calendars or bathing beach chromos are worthy of comparison with what is merely an ordinarily honest painting.

[1] Directed by Bernard Roland from a scenario by Jacques Viot.
[2] Directed by Guillaume Radot.
[3] Le Baron Fantôme (1942). Director: Serge de Poligny Scenario: Serge de Poligy. Adaptation: Serge de Poligny and Louis Chavance. Dialogue: Jean Cocteau. Actors: Alain Cuny, André Lefaur, Alerme, Aimé Clariond, Claude Sainval, Marcel Perez, Jany Holt, Odette Joyeux, Gabrielle Dorziat, and, in the role of the phantom, Jean Cocteau himself.

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