A Broad Family of Images: André Bazin on the New Media of His Time

Dudley Andrew (ed.)
André Bazin’s New Media
University of California Press, 2014.
ISBN: 9780520283572

André Bazin plays a central role in the history of film and media studies. Initially praised by modernist filmmakers and proponents of French film criticism of the 1950s, Bazin shortly after became one of the most denounced thinkers in an academic film studies informed by Althusserian Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, structuralism and, later, post-structuralism. Yet only a handful of canonical essays from a much wider corpus of Bazin’s work were referenced by many of his critics, which meant that there was a limited understanding of Bazin’s ideas in the field of film studies for more than thirty years. Therefore, one should not be overly surprised that in the 21st century, a time of archival excavation and unexpected theoretical encounters, the Bazinian line of thought has reappeared in a new light. A tide of academic essays and collections of articles on Bazin’s legacy in combination with ongoing translations of his dispersed texts have given rise to what Richard Allen recently described as the “moment of Bazin Studies.” [1]

André Bazin’s New Media is an original and solid contribution to this “moment.” [2] The book features fifty-seven of Bazin’s essays that were selected and translated by Dudley Andrew. In the introduction, Andrew reveals Bazin’s concern with a broad “family of images,” including films, photos, television and moving image technologies. By expressing his primary interest in the unexplored archive of Bazin’s writings, Andrew sets forth the main intention of the book: “to look beyond André Bazin’s film theory to see what kind of media critic he might have been.” (1) Therefore, it contains essays that either focus on television (204 pages of the 319-page book are devoted to television criticism), or addresses technological innovations of cinema of the 1950s. The collection is structured into six primary parts and a ‘Finale.’ Each part consists of Bazin’s essays written between 1952 and 1958 that were published in various French periodicals.

The first part of the book, ‘The Ontology and Language of Television,’ demonstrates Bazin’s captivating insights into the question of the nature of television. In these essays Bazin admits that TV is more a technology of reproduction and transmission than an artistic medium. Thereafter, Bazin identifies a psychological feeling of the intimacy of television image that, from his point of view, has the strongest effect on the viewer. For him, intimacy is generated by “live transmission,” one of the most important ontological qualities of the new medium. Believing that TV should not prefer the recorded image, Bazin writes that “the aesthetic morality of the television … is one of frankness and risk” (41). Subsequently, in some other essays the concept of ‘Telegénie’ is repeatedly pinpointed by stressing that an appearance on the small screen is no longer a question of beauty (as it is in case of ‘Photogénie’, a term coined by French impressionists in the 1920s), but of “human authenticity” (42). Bazin’s fascination with TV’s ability to present ordinary people in real time and space – for instance, in social dramas that were shot in a single non-studio location during a short period of time – is comparable to his admiration of neorealist aesthetics in cinema.

In the second part, ‘Television among the Arts,’ positing television in connection to different arts of the time allows Bazin to delineate an exceptionality of the conditions of television production and its spectatorship. Yet, while acknowledging the technological innovativeness of television, Bazin advocates a respect for “the fundamental laws” of older arts, arguing that these laws can be modified but should be not destroyed. In fact Bazin described television as “the presence of the theater with the ubiquity of cinema” (80).

In the third part, ‘Television and Society,’ Bazin’s fervent thoughts about the ubiquity of the emerging small screen media evoke the once lively but unfulfilled promise of TV as a social medium able to spread culture and create a wide community of responsible viewers. However, Bazin’s generally positive attitude towards the expansion of television does not stop him from a critical evaluation of the content of TV programs and their impact on the viewer. Essay titles such as ‘Do We really Need Those Serials?’ or ‘TV Can Popularize Without Boredom and Betrayal,’ signal his irritation with some television programs of his time. Accordingly, the French critic rhetorically asks about the possibility of the new medium to entice the viewers not by automatising their daily habits (“intoxicating the imagination of the mass viewer” and functioning as “narcotics of the mind,” as Bazin puts it (133-134)), but by liberating them from their mundane fixations and turning them into attentive spectators. Bazin’s discontent with the stupefying nature of television serials and other solely entertaining shows points to his concern with the broader issue of the social mission of television.

Despite his disappointment with some of the content of French television, Bazin remains, as the fourth part of the book titled ‘Television and Cinema’ demonstrates, quite positive about the future of television and especially about its significance for cinema. “With TV cinema can be rejuvenated” (178) Bazin believes, encouraged by seeing American auteur directors (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock) producing exceptional work for television. Feeling a regret that none of the well-known European film directors had yet substantially contributed to the new medium of the small screen, Bazin held high hopes for the projects Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini were starting to produce specifically for TV. In the interview with Renoir and Rossellini, Bazin again expresses his hopes for the future of television as an impetus for cinema.

As the fifth (‘Cinemarama and 3D’) and sixth (‘CinemaScope’) parts of the book demonstrate, despite his hopes for television’s future, Bazin does not see any other medium capable of reaching cinema’s artistic status at the time. Therefore, the evolution of the technology of the seventh art influenced by the emergence of television and the crisis in Hollywood remains of great interest to him. By taking into account the broad context of the media environment, Bazin foregrounds the interdependence between technological progress, market demands and the aesthetics of visual media. Besides his circumspect insight into the influence of the media industry on the progress of cinematic technology, the French critic also shows an immense interest in the potential implications of screen and projection innovations for the evolution of film aesthetics. In one of his essays on 3D technology, Bazin points out that “The distant future of 3D cinema will see a leap as great as the one from L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat to the train engine sequence in La Bête humaine. . . Let us nimbly take this new and decisive step toward total cinema” (241). However, the more positive and enthusiastic he is about 3D innovations, the more Bazin is disappointed by a majority of 3D screenings he had the opportunity to attend in Paris. Pointing to a series of obstacles – some industrial (frequent choices by managers of Paris theaters to screen 3D films in 2D), perceptual (migraines suffered by the viewers), and aesthetic (the visual impression that “3D characters have shrunk” (252) and, more importantly, the feeling of the contradictory “impression of unreality” (283) produced by a stereoscopic cinema) – Bazin diagnoses that the “3D revolution did not take place” (258). Similarly, he expresses disenchantment with the experience of Cinerama screenings.

The only technological advance in cinema that Bazin reveres, both in theory and in practice, is CinemaScope, which substantially widened the surface of cinema’s screen. He sees CinemaScope as a significant move towards what he calls “a cinema of space” (222, 230), which is intended to show rather than signify the real. The enlarged and elongated screen, whose angle in relation to the viewer’s eye gets closer to the angle of normal vision, motivates Bazin to extend his theory of the evolution of the language of cinema – familiar to many from a well-known essay published in What is Cinema? – by adding a technological component of the widened screen to it.

An outstanding ‘Finale,’ the last essay of the book, ‘Is Cinema Mortal?’, shows that Bazin is fully conscious of the aporia intrinsic to his film criticism. Taking into account the evolutionary nature of film technology, he modestly recognises that “perhaps in twenty years the ‘young critics’ of some new form of spectacle that we cannot even imagine, and which can’t be guaranteed to be ‘an art’, will be reading our film criticism from 1953 with a condescending smirk.” (316)

Despite Bazin’s reservations about the relevance of his criticism for future generations, the book proves the opposite. In André Bazin’s New Media, the reader encounters Bazin as a critic who writes about audiovisual technology ranging from radio and television to cinema, and whose interests oscillate between the archaeology and sociology of the different technological incarnations of sound and image as much as their ontologies, aesthetics, and ethics. Yet, the diversity of Bazin’s writing on the media of his time does not lead the reader away from the central concerns of his film theory – namely, a strong belief in the modernist character of industrial arts, an ethical stance for the film viewer’s freedom of choice, an advocacy of cinematic realism beyond representation, an evolutionary approach to the history of art and technology, and a critical analysis of the filmic portrayal of animals – but brings them into renewed focus. This prompts the reader of the book to understand Bazin not as an apologetic believer in cinema par excellence, but as an open-minded media theorist of his time. Thus, André Bazin’s New Media pulls the French critic’s work far beyond the limited interpretations that had criticised him as naïve and illuminates the importance of the wider corpus of Bazin’s texts to the history of film and media studies.


[1] Richard Allen, “There Is Not One Realism, But Several Realisms”: A Review of Opening Bazin”, October, Spring, 2014: 78.

[2] Below is the list of some other recently produced academic publications on Bazinian film theory: Philip Rosen, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2001; Daniel Morgan, “Rethinking Bazin: Ontology and Realist Aesthetics.” Critical Inquiry 32.3, 2006: 443-81; Tom Gunning, “Moving Away from the Index: Cinema and the Impression of Reality.” Differences 18.1, 2007: 29-52; Adam Lowenstein, “The Surrealism of the Photographic Image: Bazin, Barthes, and the Digital Sweet Hereafter.” Cinema Journal 46.3, 2007: 54-82; Seung-Hoon Jeong and Dudley Andrew, “Grizzly ghost: Herzog, Bazin and the cinematic animal.” Screen49 (1), 2008: 1-12; Jennifer Fay, “Seeing/Loving Animals: Andre Bazin’s Posthumanism.” Journal of Visual Culture 7.1, 2008: 41-64; Dudley Andrew, What Cinema Is!: Bazin’s Quest and Its Charge. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010; Opening Bazin: Postwar Film Theory and Its Afterlife, ed. by Dudley Andrew with Hervé Joubert-Laurencin, 2011; Marco Grosoli, “André Bazin: Film as Social Documentary.” New Readings 11, 2011: 1–16; Justin Horton, “Mental Landscapes: Bazin, Deleuze, and Neorealism (Then and Now).” Cinema Journal 52.2, 2013: 23-45; John Mullarkey, “The Tragedy of the Object. Democracy of Vision and the Terrorism of Things in Bazin’s Cinematic Realism”, 2013; Daniel Morgan, “Bazin’s Modernism.” Paragraph 36.1, 2013: 10-30.

About the Author

Lukas Brasiskis

About the Author

Lukas Brasiskis

Lukas Brasiskis is a PhD student in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University. After graduating from The New School (his MA thesis "On Cinematic Realism beyond Representation: From André Bazin to Gilles Deleuze" received the New School's Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award in 2011), from 2011 to 2014 Brasiskis taught courses on film theory and film history in Vilnius Academy of Arts and Lithuanian Academy of Music, Theater and Film. He is a co-author of two books in Lithuanian: the collective monograph Film and Philosophy (Kinas ir Filosofija, ed. by Nerijus Milerius, Vilnius University Press, 2013) and A Short Film History. From the 1940’s till the Beginnings of the 21st Century (Trumpa kino istorija. Nuo XX a. 5-ojo desimtmecio iki XXI a. pradzios, ed. Aukse Kancereviciute, 2013). In his current academic researches Brasiskis critically analyzes spatio-temporal aspects of post-Soviet Baltic cinema, examines various cinematic forms of reenactment and their implications for screen memories, and explores intersections between cinema and contemporary art.View all posts by Lukas Brasiskis →