Critical Analysis of Bazin’s Argument of Achieving Realism in Cinema

In the article “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” Andre Bazin discusses the use of the long take and the deep focus techniques in order to portray a sense of realism to the audience. To illustrate his point, he examines directors Orson Welles and William Wyler’s use of both as tools in their films. Although Bazin’s claims that long take and deep focus use helps to promote realism seem legitimate and well thought out on the surface, these techniques often leave the viewer with the opposite feeling, surreal rather than real.

Examining another director’s use illustrates this point. Gregg Toland’s direction style highlights the uncomfortable tension and unfamiliarity that is created by this supposed “realism.” Though long takes and deep focus might represent what viewers experience in their daily lives, the same effect does not translate to a screen because the viewer is not able to absorb everything represented on screen. In a sense, they are not “all knowing” and do not experience film scenes holistically in the same way they might in their daily lives where they engage with all of their senses as participants. Contrary to Bazin’s opinion, the deep focus and long shot techniques do not portray a sense of realism to viewers; however, using opposing techniques such as analytical editing and shallow focus are more effective in tricking the viewer’s brain into creating a sense of realism for themselves.

Over the last 120 years, the style of film has changed, developed, and become more sophisticated. The same thing can also be said about the viewer’s ability to understand and connect with film. However, even though this may be true, the fact is that stories have been around for as long as humanity has and so has the ability of an audience to connect with those stories. In daily life, people absorb information and process it continuously. The human brain can feel, hear, taste, see, and smell things in incredible ways, and although these senses are so normal that people do not spend much thought on them, they are what drives one’s way of understanding. With any story—novel, radio show, or even film—major components of these senses are taken away. With any portrayal of a story, adaptations must be made so that the audience is capable of understanding what the auteur is trying to present

. For example, books are not able to tap into a person’s ability to see; therefore, an author instead must adequately describe something so that the reader visualizes the scene in their mind. The same is true of understanding multiple characters’ feelings or thoughts. The same principals apply in film. Since the viewer is not actually a participant in the story, it is incumbent upon the director to portray all of the senses the best that they can using different shots and editing styles.

Bazin argues that a large “depth of focus brings the spectator in closer relation with the image…its structure is more realistic;” yet, even if the viewer were able to be physically inside the frame, this sort of comprehensive viewing of an image would not be possible (Bazin 35). For example, in Wyler’s The Little Foxes deep focus is used in numerous scenes such as when Leo approaches his uncle about in the bank (The Little Foxes 01:20:29). The audience can clearly see all three characters in the scene: Horace, Leo, and Sam. Bazin’s argument would say that being able to see everything is a more real effect than select focus or closer framed shots, but despite this broad image for the viewer to consider, the human eye/brain will naturally compartmentalize the scene into smaller frames naturally. Even though indiscernible to the person, their eyes, and therefore their brain, chooses what to focus on each moment. Which face, which voice, what direction to look in vary viewer to viewer, despite the long view and deep focus techniques’ best intentions. In order to portray realism within a non-real setting, the cinematographer must fabricate the choices the brain would make naturally given the chance.

Deep focus and long takes go hand-in-hand. The same argument applies. If Bazin is trying to argue that these techniques make the scene more realistic in the sense that the viewer is participating within the story, then he must recognize that eye does not normally allow itself to capture “long takes.” The eye quickly shifts focus multiple times per minute if not per second. Though Bordwell does comment on mentioning that critics “claimed that [deep focus] allowed the spectator freedom to scan the frame for significant information” (Bordwell 59), but revisiting the subject of fabricating senses, viewing a 2-dimesional plane (screen) in a 3-dimentional (as opposed to being present in the scene) manner cannot be handled in the same way real life is. The auteur must choose to decide for the brain what to focus on to give the viewer a sense of participating in the moment—analytical editing.

Taking a scene from Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, the confrontation between Al and Fred starts off using an over the shoulder, single character shot, but it transitions to a very long shot of the two of them at a booth (The Best Years 02:06:00). Although this really could not be considered “deep focus” because of the shallow set, still everything is in focus, mainly the two characters. While the viewer may not pay attention to the shot changes between the two characters, the tension that is created from the length of a shot of them both in the frame is unnatural. If the intention is to make the viewer uncomfortable then the goal was achieved. If, though, the goal was to portray realism, then the long shot actually makes the viewer feel like they are no longer an active part of the story while as even with the decoupage of shots, the viewer feels like he/she is playing an active role in each of the character’s lives.

Using analytical cutting to guide the viewer’s attention may not initially seem like the better way to portray realism, but without the unnatural tension that is produced from long shots, the mind of a viewer is very forgiving and will simply forget that it is an editor doing the cutting instead of their own brain. They will absorb the information in a similar manner that they would in a natural setting making each carefully calculated decision by the editor their own. Then the viewer can focus on the story while also participating in a fabricated reality. This is what most cinematographers and directors strive to achieve.

Ultimately, Bazin’s idea of filming—using long takes and deep focus—is not wrong, but it is not a style that portrays a sense of realism to the audience. It may produce tension, highlight certain aspects of a scene, or even define a film by creating an artistic style, but it will remind the viewer that they are in a room, watching a film instead of actively participating in it. In order to portray the sense of realism that Bazin talks about, using analytical editing and shallow depths of field is the more successful option.