What is Cinephilosophy? A Bazinian Paradigm, Part 2
~ André Bazin or, the Cinephilosophical Heritage of Film Studies ~
In the first part of this essay I attempted to show how reflection on films could itself be a form of fundamental reflection. I based this attempt on an unpedigreed phenomenological experiment in the hopes of being able to establish the credibility of certain assumptions through a dialogue with the reader that actually put them into play.  But if my elaboration of the passage from Simone Weil offered a more-or-less expedient analogy for the cinephilosophic conjunction, it deferred any consideration of the historical evidence for this conjunction; we did not properly examine the theoretical basis for using the “real life” example of our experiment as a model for aesthetic experience in the cinema. In this section of the two-part essay I will bring the paradigm I have outlined down to earth by locating it in the history of Film Studies.
Since my model presents philosophy as a possibility intrinsic to any reflection on film we should start (once again) by noting that cinephilosophy must be assumed to already exist dispersed and implicit within the historical record of reflection on film; in one sense it is already incipient in any discussion of film aesthetics. My proposal of the term is designed to activate this potential, to re-orient existing practices and turn them from the equivocal eroticism of traditional aesthetics towards the ethical and political intervention proper to philosophy. The first step in making this turn is to recognize the extent to which it has already been made and in this context I now need to acknowledge that the preceding was only an attempt to restate and extend what I have learned from André Bazin; though the general misunderstanding of Bazin’s work has served to obscure the fact, as I understand it that work has already turned Film Studies in the desired direction. For this reason I believe the most efficient way of recognizing the cinephilosophical heritage of the discipline is to simply correct certain misunderstandings of Bazin’s achievement; once these “smallest details” are properly understood, I believe the entire history of Film Studies springs back into view differently. In this section I will identify some unacknowledged aspects of Bazin’s historical legacy and then show how a correct understanding of Bazin’s ontological argument reveals the cinephilosophical dimension of that legacy.
I will begin by highlighting a problem that emerges as soon as one abandons the conventional distinction between Bazin the Theorist and Bazin the Critic, i.e. the implicit but unjustifiable assumption that divides his work into a “theoretical core” based in the first three essays of What is Cinema? and a largely-unknown “periphery” containing the great bulk of his writings.  Even if one confines one’s exploration of this periphery to the fraction available in English translation, one soon discovers a figure whose diverse contributions to the discipline cannot be reconciled with the abstract “theory of realism” attributed to him based on a certain reading of the “core”.
There is the Bazin whose essays “The Western” and “The Evolution of the Western” were among the first historical treatments of film genre and identified key issues that continue to be addressed today.  There is the Bazin of “On the politique des auteurs”, whose prescient recognition of “the genius of the [classical Hollywood studio] system” stands at the origin of the examination of that system in the work of Bordwell, Thompson and Staiger, Schatz, Maltby and numerous others.  There is the Bazin of “The Death of Humphrey Bogart,” “The Myth of Monsieur Verdoux” and “Entomology of the Pin-Up Girl,” whose bold phenomenological analyses of star images, eroticism and other modes of myth and attraction preceded Roland Barthes’s Mythologies by more than a decade, and Richard Dyer’s Stars by more than three decades.  There is the Bazin of “Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest” and “The Cinema and Popular Art,” who identified the cinema as “an artistic form to complement the accession of the masses to power” and who critiqued bourgeois and romantic notions of the work, authorship and originality long before such Foucaudian and Benjaminian strategies became common currency.  Finally, we have the Bazin who created dialogical auteurism, whose monographs on Welles and Renoir and seminal analyses (of Bresson, Chaplin, Rosselini, De Sica, Fellini, Ford, Mann, von Stroheim, Dreyer, Sturges, Bunuel, Wyler, Hitchcock, Kurosawa and many others) established the breadth and flexibility of this approach to the cinema.  There are many other aspects of Bazin’s work, but noting the unparalleled range of major achievements above should, I hope, be sufficient to illuminate the basic problem created by the core-periphery schema. Against the backdrop of this manufactured and unnecessary contradiction, I offer a reading of “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” capable of reconciling its argument with the totality of Bazin’s work.
The main task of my reading is to recover the crucial distinction outlined in the following quote:
The quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological; between true realism, the need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and in its essence and the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the mind); a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearances. 
Bazin here identifies “two essentially different phenomena that any objective critic must view separately in order to understand the evolution of the pictorial.”  This distinction between the aesthetic and the psychological is crucial to understanding Bazin’s use of the term reality which is here explicitly connected to art and the aesthetic. Though the full sense of this connection has yet to be unpacked, as stated it allows me to preview the basic point at which my account will diverge from the standard views of the ontological argument. Despite their differences, all of Bazin’s most prominent interpreters –from his intellectual biographer Dudley Andrew to his would-be nemesis Noël Carroll– have read his argument as claiming that the photograph has, as such and without regard to its aesthetic qualities, a privileged relation to pro-filmic reality that film-makers are prescribed to maintain.  As Andrew once put it:
For Bazin the situation was clear: either a filmmaker utilizes empirical reality for his personal ends or else he explores empirical reality for its own sake. In the former case the filmmaker is making of empirical reality a series of signs which point to or create an aesthetic or rhetorical truth, perhaps lofty and noble, perhaps prosaic and debased. In the latter case, however, the filmmaker brings us closer to the events filmed by seeking the significance of a scene somewhere within the unadorned tracings it left on the celluloid. 
In a moment we will reconsider some of the textual evidence often produced in support of this position. My immediate concern is simply to observe that nowhere does Bazin argue for the exceptional status of photographic art vis-à-vis the aesthetic/psychological distinction and that, in fact, he deliberately structures the entire Ontology essay around this distinction. Though this feature is not reproduced in Hugh Gray’s translation, Bazin organized the essay into six distinct sections separated by asterixes. Consideration of this structure reveals that he establishes the distinction in the first section of the essay, explores the psychological genealogy of photography in the second, third and fourth sections, examines the aesthetic potentials of photography in the fifth section, and concludes with the famous reversal of the sixth and last section: “On the other hand, the cinema is a language” (my translation of “D’autre part le cinéma est un langage”).  In a loose accord with this structure my own comments will deal first with psychology, next with aesthetics, and will conclude with an examination of the reversal and its implications.
The first section of the essay traces the psychological function of art from the mummies of ancient Egypt up to the present, and closes with the following conclusion:
If the history of the plastic arts is not only a matter of their aesthetic but in the first place a matter of their psychology, it is essentially the story of resemblance, or if you will, of realism (my translation and italics). 
For our purposes it is essential to note that Bazin reaches this conclusion after acknowledging that “the evolution, side by side, of art and civilization, has relieved the plastic arts of their magic role.”  Without denying the processes of desacralization, rationalization and historical understanding that have characterized the development of modern culture, he nonetheless affirms the inescapable role of resemblance in any culture, bluntly asserting that the power of suggestibility we associate with the “primitive” ideologies of the past remains at work in the midst of contemporary illusions of radical human autonomy:
Civilization, cannot, however, entirely cast out the bogy of time. It can only sublimate our concern with it to the level of rational thinking. No one believes any longer in the ontological identity of model and image, but all are agreed that the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death. Today the making of images no longer shares an anthropocentric, utilitarian purpose. It is no longer a question of survival after death, but of a larger concept, the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal destiny. “How vain a thing is painting” if underneath our absurd admiration for all its works we do not discern man’s primitive need to have the last word in the argument with death by means of the form that endures (the portion of this last sentence in quotes is from one of Pascal’s pensées). 
In order to take a full measure of its rhetorical force and intent, I will restate what Bazin is affirming here in a series of polemical propositions:
1. Whether they acknowledge it or not, human beings are attached to mortal things by an erotic or ethical relation.
2. The development of human rationality notwithstanding, this attachment always takes the form of an irrational attraction to the appearances of those things.
3. Its stated motives and historical justifications notwithstanding, all art derives its initial motive and orientation from this irrational attachment to appearances.
It is essential to emphasize the skeptical aspect of Bazin’s affirmations about psychology, his manifest awareness of human vulnerability to illusion and ideology. For Bazin, our receptivity to the world in which we live is inevitably conditioned by the desire we carry with us and by the ideologies that have shaped that desire. This vulnerability is presented as an inescapable constant relevant to the consideration of all art including photography and the cinema. Though Bazin’s interpreters are correct in recognizing his affirmation of the photograph’s relation with Appearance, they mistake his emphasis on the power of Appearance over human credulousness for some form of naive faith. Instead, this emphasis should be seen to reflect a skepticism far more radical than that of any of his critics, for to Bazin the photograph is in the first instance a powerful and ambiguous illusion that defies the critical power of the modern rationality that created it:
… the essential factor in the transition from the baroque to photography is not the perfecting of a physical process […]; rather does it lie in a psychological fact, to wit, in completely satisfying our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part. […] This production by automatic means has radically affected our psychology of the image. The objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making. 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. […] A very faithful drawing may actually tell us more about the model, but despite the promptings of our critical intelligence it will never have the irrational power of the photograph to bear away our faith (my italics). 
In these quotes and many others we might consider, Bazin’s point is to recapitulate with regard to the photograph the general argument about the psychological basis of art that he made in the essay’s first section; his discussion of the photograph extends his general point that the irrational power of resemblance persists within our enlightened and disenchanted modern civilization. Far from disclosing a pseudo-scientific or mystical “axiom of objectivity,” Bazin’s argument in the first four sections of the essay assumes that all the theoretical edifices of our knowledge – all “the promptings of our critical intelligence” -are as powerless to discriminate between truth and illusion in the photograph as they are in everyday life. 
Thus, though it may satisfy our immediate appetite for illusion the photograph does not, in itself, satisfy our deeper appetite for reality. If, for example, we were to imagine that our unfortunate husband finds a certain genre of amateur videotape, we can immediately recognize the hold its images and sounds would have on him: their essential effect would be no different than if he had encountered them “in the flesh”. They would “completely satisfy his appetite for illusion” (unless he is sick he wouldn’t want any more of them) but would not in themselves satisfy his desire for the truth; they might be sufficient to “bear away his faith” (in his wife, himself, the world as he knows it, God, etc.) but would not in themselves produce the process of reflection capable of restoring that faith. This example underlines the impossibility of recovering knowledge of historical experience on the same level as one first encounters its truth; as with any example of cinephilia, the husband could point to the patterns of contingency that concern him, but would find that they mutate or vanish, like sand between his fingers, when he presses them for some truth or certainty.  In Bazin’s theory only art can provide us with this, though, as we have already noted, the reality revealed by art paradoxically depends on the more primary psychological fact of illusion. 
To understand this paradox we need to retrace its articulation in the essay’s first section. The section closes with the adaptation of a quote from Pascal, the original of which reads: “How vain is painting, which attracts admiration by the resemblance of things, the originals of which we do not admire!”  This polemical reference serves to return us to the point earlier in the section where Bazin defines the paradoxical function of art as “sauver l’être par l’apparence” or “to save Being by means of Appearances” (my translation).  If the task of art is to fundamentally satisfy our erotic or ethical attachment to the mortal beings that inhabit our world, the quote from Pascal underlines the ambiguous value of resemblance in allowing us to accomplish this task. For Pascal this ambiguity is an inescapable determinant of the human imagination and like Bazin he recognizes the extent to which it defies rationality. As he puts it in another pensée:
It is that deceitful part in man, that mistress of error and falsity, the more deceptive that she is not always so; for she would be an infallible rule of truth, if she were an infallible rule of falsehood. But being most generally false, she gives no sign of her nature, impressing the same character on the true and the false. I do not speak of fools, I speak of the wisest men; it is among them that the imagination has the greatest gift of persuasion. Reason protests in vain; it cannot set a true value on things. 
Recasting this ambiguity in terms of the aesthetic/psychological distinction, we might say that in itself the psychological power of resemblance leads us to imaginative relations with both truth and illusion, and that the aesthetic is that faculty which allows us to discriminate between these relations. But when viewed in the context of their common root in desire and the inability of reason to discriminate between them, Bazin’s repeated distinction between the aesthetic and the psychological forces us to track it into another dimension: we are led to posit a qualitative difference in the heart of desire –an inscrutable suspension of our will in a moment of lucid attention– that allows us to distinguish aesthetic achievement from gratifying illusions.
This difference is only articulated later in the essay, in the quote with which we began. Unpacking the full sense of this quote, we find that it distinguishes between a base psychological desire that is “content with illusory appearances” and a higher, stronger, more active form of desire that is only satisfied with true realism, defined as a union of “the Concrete” and “the Essential”. Seen as the process of reflecting on and discriminating between true and illusionary relations, Bazin’s model of aesthetic production presupposes a simultaneous double-mimesis that puts the sensual power of contingent Appearances to work in the service of an invisible or off-screen reality that only a higher or purified quality of desire allows access to. Thus, in the history of painting:
The great artists have always been able to combine the two tendencies. They have allotted to each its proper place in the hierarchy of things, holding reality at their command and molding it at will into the fabric of their art. 
It is this process of double-mimesis that is expressed in the phrase “the form that endures” (la pérennité de la forme) which refers at the same time to the persistence of resemblance itself, the formal qualities of art, and the Platonic notion of forms.  The work of art thus fuses together two realms, a realm of sensuous immediacy grounded in the power of resemblance, and a realm of Necessity grounded in Being or Truth. With this model in mind, Bazin’s affirmations concerning the aesthetic potentials of photography lose their hyperbolic appearance and simply acknowledge the paradox that the cinema’s singular capacity to produce reflection is rooted in the irrational power of conviction provided by photographic contingency:
Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-up pre-conceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, is able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my love. By the power of photography, the natural image of a world that we neither know nor can see, nature at last does more than imitate art: she imitates the artist (my italics). 
At the root of Bazin’s ontological argument is the assumption that ethics is always at work in the heart of human life and culture, simultaneously securing the illuminations of art and the skeptical awareness of ideology. As the example of pornography demonstrates, any photographic image has an immediate claim on our desire through the power of resemblance; photographic art effects a qualitative transformation of desire that allows us to discriminate between reality and illusion. This process of discrimination is referenced throughout Bazin’s writings, as in this passage from “An Aesthetic of Reality” which illustrates all the main points we have considered so far:
Reality is not to be taken quantitatively. The same event, the same object, can be represented in various ways. Each representation discards or retains various of the qualities that permit us to recognize the object on the screen. Each introduces, for didactic or aesthetic reasons, abstractions that operate more or less corrosively and thus do not permit the original to subsist in its entirety. At the conclusion of this inevitable and necessary “chemical” action, for the initial reality there has been substituted an illusion of reality composed of a complex of abstraction (black and white, plane surface), of conventions (the rules of montage, for example), and of authentic reality. It is a necessary illusion but it quickly induces a loss of awareness of the reality itself, which becomes identified in the mind of the spectator with its cinematographic reproduction. As for the film maker, the moment he has secured this unwitting complicity of the public, he is increasingly tempted to ignore reality. From habit and laziness he reaches the point when he himself is no longer able to tell where lies begin or end. There could never be any question of calling him a liar because his art consists in lying. He is just no longer in control of his art. He is its dupe, and hence he is held back from any further conquest of reality. 
“On the other hand, cinema is a language.” This Janus-faced sentence functions as a crucial mediator between Bazin’s ontological argument and the remainder of the essays in the four volumes of Qu’est-ce que le Cinema?. It serves to remind the reader that the process of spiritual struggle I have just sketched out takes place not in some abstract realm but in the historically-conditioned languages and cultures from which the art of the cinema emerges. In a prospective sense it indicates that in the essays to follow the aesthetic achievements of the cinema will only be registered by attending to the historical changes they effect in cinematic language. In a retrospective sense, its blunt qualification of what preceded it reminds us of the dangerous potential for misunderstanding Bazin’s poetic affirmations, which are in fact nothing more than a set of inferences about cinematic potential drawn from the realized facts of cinematic art. In this context the debates between Bazin’s supporters and detractors about the nature of the reality he is referring to misses the point, for the reality revealed by art is the source of all definition or difference and cannot itself be defined; though they have undoubtedly been the cause of much confusion, words such as “realism” and “reality” are in effect only vanishing points at which Bazin acknowledges his inability to “objectively” distinguish between truth and illusion in any given instance of cinematic art. He is well aware that reality is only what we make of it.
What is unique about Bazin’s approach is that the rigour of his skepticism prevents him from subordinating the radical liberty of art to any fixed theoretical framework. If unique conjunctures of linguistic form and historical circumstance are the crucible in which aesthetic achievement distinguishes itself from ideology, if art is the only form of discourse that actually makes a historical difference, then the prime responsibility of film criticism is to use analysis and inference to reconstruct the contexts of film history that makes these interventions possible, not to arrogate to itself the theoretical ability to distinguish art from ideology. On its own terms, Bazin’s strict subordination of theory to the nomadic itineraries of aesthetic experience can claim to have made a more comprehensive and productive intervention in cultural history than all the traditions of ideological critique that have followed him; from his perspective, approaches to film built on theories of ideology are themselves entangled in an “unwitting complicity” that ignores real difference while manufacturing its ersatz. Thus among other things a re-appraisal of Bazin’s ontological argument provides us with a motive to re-consider our discipline’s history and self-understanding.
Bazin’s ontological argument clarifies the theoretical basis for the model of cinephilosophy I have presented and, when properly understood, reveals the philosophical potential of his unacknowledged legacy to the discipline. On one hand, his concept of reality references the irrational conviction that specific patterns of audiovisual contingency can have, a power that we can only infer to be the product of existential contradictions in the spectator’s experience. Considered in isolation, this conviction is what Bazin calls pseudorealism, the irrational and ephemeral allure that as-yet-unexamined contradictions give the photographic image through the power of resemblance; reality in a basic sense refers to the ground of historical experience that is the root cause of cinephilia and to “the reality of the human condition” as always engaged in the process of discriminating between truth and illusion. On the other hand, Bazin’s use of the term also references the new world that appears after one has responded philosophically to an encounter with truth, a world which remains to other eyes and ears (governed by lazier minds and/or weaker qualities of desire) identical to the first but which has been transfigured from within by the liberating effects of true realism or art. If philosophy is a mysterious movement of eros that carries us between two invisible and unknowable worlds, then the art of the cinema registers that movement in a “natural image” that allows us to see it, hear it, and reflect on what it means.
Defined in this manner, my proposal clearly represents a return to the concern with aesthetics that has played a central role in the development of Film Studies as a discipline. It is, however, a return with a difference, one that aims to recover the critical force of cinematic art and use it to create a strong and messy intervention. The ethical and political vocation of cinephilosophy means that it cannot be a manufacturing of novelties to impress the chosen few, just another of the collective monologues of a discipline: it necessarily entails an awkward and unauthorized meddling in other disciplines and domains, the humbling contamination of a genuine dialogue. Though the specific forms of this dialogue will vary in each instance, at this point I can provide a simple illustration of the process that produces such dialogue and hopefully suggest what its benefits might be. To do this, I need to briefly review and clarify the relationship between the concepts of historical experience and reflection that were introduced in the preceding discussion.