Tag Archives: Andre Bazin

Stanley Cavell’s Ontological Philosophy of Film

In his book The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell asks the perplexing philosophical question of just what is the human ‘presence’ that appears on the silver screen.

Cavell suggests, as did the realist Bazin, the photographic image is a captured moment in time. A machine (the camera) captures the image objectively in a way unlike say a painting that always includes human subjectivity in its representation. Cavell (1979, p. 26) argues these objective photographic images of actors are ‘a human something’, not just a look or representation of something human as occurs in painting. Of course, the manipulation of photographic images such as editing and digital special effects abounds in film. Nevertheless, a machine still directly captures the reality of what is present in the moment and at some specific time and place.

But, this presence of the image is also not of something human as well. It is illusionary. It does not exist.

Consider the following scene where Alec Guinness plays Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars (1977).

Guinness obviously exists in these images. He plays the role of the Obi-Wan character that George Lucas shot on some hot Tunisian day back in the mid-1970s. That is Alec Guinness on the screen.

But, Guinness has since passed away, the shooting of the scene occurred a long time ago, and the images do not ‘live’ in any present moment in a biological sense. Therefore, it is not Alec Guinness as well.

Considering this ambiguous ontology, why do we even enjoy films? Cavell (1979, p. 21) suggests humans have become so disassociated from the real world (living inside our own subjectivity) that a deep human need arises to create and view these objective images as a way of seeking an escape from the isolating subjectivity and to ‘reach this world’ again.

In other words, through photographic images, we try to humanise our world again by attempting to reconnect with reality, and photographic images achieve this connection because machines mechanically and objectively capture the images of our real world.

 

Reference Sources

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Stanley Cavell’s Philosophy of Film’, Lectures 14 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Stanley Cavell 1979, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Harvard University Press, London.

Ontologies of the Moving Image: Bazin’s Realism

One way to look at the ontology (the nature of what something is) of the moving image is from a realist perspective.

Founder of the Cahiers du Cinema, influential French film philosopher Andre Bazin paved the way for filmmakers of the nouvelle vague. Bazin also championed cinematic realism: the unity of time and place with authentic realist style that produces aesthetic realism. Furthermore, Bazin claimed the real situations and locations used by the Italian neo-realists such as Rossellini and de Sica best exemplified the aesthetics of cinematic realism.

Some cinematic techniques used to attain aesthetic realism include the use of:

Outdoor Settings & Natural Light

Real People/Non-Professional Actors (provide ‘rawness’)

Long Takes & Minimal Quick Editing/Montages (provide a space to watch time unfold)

Deep Focus (allow spectators to gaze anywhere in the scene)

Unanticipated/Unscripted Footage

Some critics, such as Noel Carroll, disagree with Bazin’s realism, and argue:

  • Photography always requires at least some subjective human intervention (e.g. framing a shot)
  • Bazin’s ‘medium essentialism’ considers technology to dictate style, yet mediums are hard to define and often change
  • Photographs are not prosthetic images: I can’t orient my body towards that which the image depicts

Furthermore, some films question the ontology of cinematic realism:

Is a film made entirely of still photographs still a ‘film’?

Is a documentary film shot in 3D still an example of cinematic realism?

However, in Bazin’s defence, because he claims a human psychological and anthropological desire to preserve cinematic images against time exists; he is not claiming cinematic images are independent of human intervention. Bazin’s realism is aesthetic, psychological and ethical, and therefore not strictly ontological.

 

Reference Source

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Ontologies of the Moving Image’, Lectures 2 & 3 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.