Ontology and physical portrayal

Bazin's adherence to realism is clearly manifest in his famous essay 'Ontology of the Photographic Image' (Bazin 1967a). The essence of cinema for Bazin lies in its photographic capability, which mechanically (i.e. directly and automatically) records the light reflected from reality (i.e. the pro-filmic events, or subject matter in front of the camera) and fixes it on film. The light itself, rather than the human hand and mind, directly causes the formation of the photographic image. For Bazin, this automatic registration process results in an objective and impartial image of reality, for the image is identical to the reality that caused it (at least in terms of the light they reflect):

In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space. Photography enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of this transference of reality from the thing to the reproduction.

(Bazin 1967a: 13-14)

In sum, cinema is realistic because the photographic image produces an indexical imprint of reality: 'The photograph as such and the object in itself share a common being, after the fashion of a fingerprint' (p. 15).

As an aside, we need to note that the photograph can be'viewed within two different ontological frameworks: 'essentialist realism' and 'phenomenalist naturalism'. Bazin's ontology of the photographic image is limited to 'phenomenalist naturalism', in which the photograph reproduces the singularity and contingency of the surface appearances of reality. By contrast, some photographs, such as Muybridge's multiple photographs and Marey's chronophotographs, represent more than the eye can see. That is, they decentre the eye, or improve upon it. They therefore conform to 'essentialist realism', since they represent dimensions of reality (the stages of a horse's gallop, for example) that the eye cannot see.

Bazin's definition of realism exclusively in terms of film's indexical imprint of reality aligns him to what Monroe Beardsley (1958: ch. 6) calls physical portrayal - to film's recording or documentation of the reality in front of the camera. This may work well for a theory of documentary film, but creates a problem when applied to fiction films. Documentaries are physical portrayals, epitomized in direct cinema, or what Bill Nichols calls observational documentary: 'An observational mode of representation allowed the film maker to record unobtrusively what people did when they were not explicitly addressing the camera____But the observational mode limited the filmmaker to the present moment and required a disciplined detachment from the events themselves' (1989: 33). Practitioners of direct or observational cinema suggest that they transcribe truth and reality on screen - that is, record it directly. Like Bazin, they base their argument on the fact that film and camera record events mechanically and automatically.

But all movie cameras record events automatically by means of optics, mechanics, and photochemistry. When we watch Citizen Kane, we see the actor/director Orson Welles on a RKO set in 1940. The film is first and foremost a document about what a group of actors and technicians did in a studio on a certain day. The camera mechanically and automatically records

Welles in front of the camera, just as Frederick Wiseman - and other observational documentary film-makers - films what is in front of his camera.

The difference between Citizen Kane and observational documentaries is that Citizen Kane (as with all fiction films) attempts to negate or go beyond its direct, automatic, mechanical recording of reality, whereas observational documentaries emphasize the camera's direct recording of reality. To this end, they reduce a number of the fiction film's stages of film-making - the script, professional actors, sets, studio lighting, and staged, rehearsed events. In other words, fiction films negate their physical portrayal of reality in favour of presenting a fictional world. Yet, as Noel Carroll points out, Bazin focuses on physical portrayal even when writing about fiction films:

Bazin's conception of photography ... seems to say that what is important about any photographic image - whether in a fictional context or otherwise - is what it re-presents, that is, documents. Yet what is literally re-presented or documented in a photographic fiction may be irrelevant to what the fiction represents. That is, when confronted with fiction, Bazin's theory implies strange results by ontologically misplacing, so to speak, the focus of our attention.

(Carroll 1988a: 148)

In Beardsley's terms, fiction films can more readily be thought of as depictions or nominal portrayals. In fiction films, the photographic image is simply a means to an end. Depictions and nominal portrayals separate the photographic image from the reality that caused it. When we think of a photographic image as a depiction, we focus on it as a member of a class (the photograph of a particular person such as Orson Welles - the photograph as physical portrayal - also depicts the general term 'man'). A nominal portrayal 'represents a particular object, person, place, or event different from the one that gave rise to the image' (Carroll 1988a: 151). In this sense, in Citizen Kane Orson Welles nominally portrays Charles Foster Kane. More generally, Carroll writes that 'nominal portrayal is the basis of all fiction film' (p. 151). This is because the spectator needs to go beyond the particular physical portrayal and perceive or infer a particular fictional character.

Why, then, does Bazin focus obsessively on physical portrayal, even when' discussing fiction films? He states his reasons in 'Ontology of the Photographic Image' (1967a): from the beginnings of civilization, humanity has attempted to cheat death. The ancient Egyptians attempted to preserve the human body through mummification. But it is only through the invention of photography, Bazin argues, that this desire is realized, for the photographic camera captures, freezes, and embalms reality, for the first time in the history of civilization.

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