The Essence of Cinema 1000 words essay 2.1/1st

Film and Critical Theory – Coursework 1


Using a specific theorist to illustrate your answer, critically discuss classical film theory’s interest in defining the ‘essence’ of cinema


As Stam has argued, the interest in defining cinema by its ‘essence’, or its “unique and distinguishing features” (2000, p.33) has been a concern of film theorists since the beginnings of film itself. Defining the essence of cinema suggests a focus on what film is, however this is variously defined, rather than other modes of definition such as, for example, the social practice of going to the cinema, film as product of historical context, or film as interdisciplinary hybrid. One of the reasons this focus on cinema’s essence was important for classical film theorists was, as Stam points out, the need to distinguish film from other art forms and define it as a specific art form itself, “judged in its own terms, in relation to its own potentials and aesthetics” (2000, p.34). Classical film theorists such as Balázs, Krakauer, Metz and Eisenstein have all, in different ways, made attempts at defining cinema in terms of its essential qualities. The focus here, however, will be on the work of the French film theorist of the 1940’s and 50’s Andre Bazin. His theories on the essential qualities of cinema will be discussed in relation to his focus on cinematic realism. This will be outlined drawing on his work in What is Cinema? (2005), as well as that of recent commentators and critics. Realism was vital for Bazin in allowing a form of democratic spectatorship essential to the cinematic art itself. This will be discussed and critiqued.


Bazin can be situated within the context of late 1940s France, where as Bordwell argues in his history of film, there was an intense rush of debate and interest in cinema as a distinct and specific art (1997, pp.47-48). Bazin himself, as well as being associated with la nouvelle critique that arose from this context (Bordwell, 1997, p.48) is most renowned for his work on cinematic realism. It is through the inherent capacity of cinema to objectively represent ‘reality’ that he finds its essence. Discussing cinematic precursors in his ‘What is Cinema?’, he argues that:


In their imaginations they saw the cinema as a total and complete representation of reality…the reconstruction of a perfect illusion of the outside world in sound, colour and relief. (2005, p.20)


This quote shows some of the ways in which Bazin approached defining an essence of cinema. According to his argument, cinema is unique in its ability to ‘completely’ represent reality, to reconstruct ‘perfectly’ the world around. Realism is the ‘integral guiding myth’ “inspiring the invention of cinema” (2005, p.21). Although Bazin writes and presents this argument as an objective analysis, it actually encodes both a normative theory of what cinema should do – it should be realistic, as well as a specific philosophy of history, which he presents throughout ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’ (2005, pp.17-22). Cinema is progressing, moving forward in a linear manner towards better, more complete and more realistic representations. Bazin advocated, in other words, what Stam describes as the  “triumphal progress” of realism (2000, p.76).


Realism for Bazin was essential to cinema as it relied on the unique capabilities of the cinematic apparatus, “an image of the world is framed automatically without the creative intervention of man” (Bazin, cited in Stam, 2000, p.74). On the other hand, however, his focus on cinematic realism led him to focus not on all cinema, but on a certain type of cinema in particular, and on specific cinematic styles which created the desired realistic effect. In ‘The Evolution of the Language of Cinema’ (2005, pp.23-40), Bazin distinguishes between “those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality” (2005, p.24). By those who put their faith in the image he includes the work of German Expressionists or Soviet Montage directors, who use exaggerated camera angles or editing techniques in order to heavily manipulate and restrict spectator response. In Bazin’s analysis, such techniques impose sense or meaning from without rather than their meaning being “objectively contained in the images themselves” (2005, p.25). In his words, they do not ‘show’ the event, but ‘allude’ to it (2005, p.25). They rely on the existence, in other words, of something outside of their cinematic materiality.  He is critical of this because it can “impose the interpretation of an event on the spectator” (2005, p.26) causing a lack of freedom on behalf of the spectator him/herself. By those who put their faith in reality, on the other hand, Bazin alludes to the long shots, long takes, use of depth of field and everyday ‘unstylised’ settings of directors such as the Italian neo-realists, which, as Aitken argues, contain a wealth of empirical information for the spectator (2002, p.184). In this style of film, according to Bazin, “the image is evaluated not according to what it adds to reality but what it reveals of it” (2005, p.28). Rather than manipulating spectator response then, it offers instead a kind of disengaged window onto the world of reality.


His motivation in favouring this type of work is in what Stam describes as the democratisation of spectatorship (2000, pp.76-7), or for Aitken, “autonomous, exploratory spectatorship”  (2002, p.183). In other words, in the type of cinema that Bazin is referring to, the spectator has a certain freedom to focus on whichever element of the frame they choose. The use of long takes and depth of field allow this, in direct contrast with the controlled manipulation of spectator response of montage. It could be argued here that the long take is still framed and presented, constructing reality as much as it reveals, but this runs counter to Bazin’s analysis. This sense of democratic spectator freedom provides Bazin’s theory with a political dimension. As Aitken argues, cinema for Bazin could be a “catalyst for human emancipation” (2002, p.184), where through gazing long and hard at the image, the spectator could escape ideology and achieve a certain form of self-realisation. Bazin’s descriptions of the ‘revelatory’ nature of this movement of spectatorship (Stam, 2000, p.76) also suggest a religious aspect to his theory. Lapsley and Westlake discuss this aspect, arguing that the spectator is free before the image, “to make or not to make an act of faith that could reveal the face of God” (2006, p.160). They go on to point out the influence on Bazin of the mixture of Catholicism and Existentialism inherent to the discourse of Personalism – a doctrine where individual salvation can be reached through an exercise of free will (2006, p.160). The essence of cinema, for Bazin, has a fundamental political and religious, as well as historical and aesthetic aspect.


Bazin then, provides a good example of a classical film theorist interested in defining the ‘essence’ of cinema. This ‘essence’, however, can not really be pinpointed as something objective, fixed and unchanging, and tends to reveal Bazin’s approach and attitudes as much as the films he discusses. His theory is an argument for what cinema should be, motivated by a political and religious desire for the revelatory liberation of the spectator, and supported by a progressive philosophy of history. His arguments can also be critiqued. It could be argued for example, that cinema can never fully represent the real. It is always a framed and edited selection of a scene, presented from a particular perspective, which actively constructs reality as much as it reflects it. The desire for film to not ‘add to’ reality seems an impossible one. This is as true, if not so explicit, in the realist films that Bazin advocates, as it is in the more overt constructions of reality in, say, Soviet Montage films. His binary opposition between these film styles also disallows for the mixing of styles within a director’s work, or within a single film. Further, as Stam points out (2000, p.77), the use of techniques such as long takes can sometimes have the opposite effect that that claimed for them by Bazin, serving for example to denaturalize and distance the spectator, as much as create a realistic representation of reality. As Lapsley and Westlake point out (2006, p.159), codes of realism are constructed historically, modifying over time according to different contexts. It is therefore difficult to define an ‘essence’ of cinema in such terms. Bazin’s work is very useful in considering elements such as the relation between cinematic aesthetics and spectator response. It does not however, allow for an analysis of the ideological investments behind varied and naturalized forms of ‘realism’ (Campbell,  2005,  p.31). It is through a focus on aspects such as post-structuralist constructions of reality that later theory shifted interest away from definitions of cinematic essence, and more into other directions such as, for example, the active ‘readings’ of the film for specific ends.










Aitken, I. (2002) European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.


Bazin, A. (2005) What is Cinema? Volume 1. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Bordwell, D. (1997) On the History of Film Style. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Campbell, J. (2005) Film and Cinema Spectatorship: Melodrama and Mimesis. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Lapsley, R. & Westlake, M. (2006) Film Theory: An Introduction. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


Stam, R. (2000) Film Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.