Bazin, realism and Mizoguchi
Sun Apr 9 21:04:14 EDT 2000
With regard to Lewis's question, I'm glad Rosa Marie-Josee brought up the
issue of Bazin, because, for better or for worse, it was in that milieu
that the term realism was applied to Mizoguchi in the West.
While I don't want to give a review of Bazin (though I still think anyone
thinking about film should read him: a marvellous critic who thought
deeply about individual films and the medium as a whole), his
phenomenological approach made him ask why some films seem more realistic
to us. His argument is partially historical, but it is also perceptual.
To take one of his examples, think of one of those old Tarzan films where
a lion comes up to threaten Tarzan. In the days of cheap Hollywood,
you'd often show the two by cutting from one to the other to "build up
tension," refraining from showing the two in the same shot (perhaps for
the obvious reason that to put the actor in the same space as a real lion
is not exactly safe). Bazin feels, however, that most any spectator
(especially the spectators of his age, well versed in movies) would sense
that this scene is fake: the filmmakers are cutting between the two but
they are not really in the same space--the spatial relationship between
the two is constructed. Bazin contrasts this to a Chaplin film in which
CHarlie is actually in the cage with a lion and all of it is shown within
the frame of a single shot. To Bazin, this scene has impact
(incidentally, a comedic impact) precisely because the space shown is the
actual, "real" space.
Bazin used observations like this to argue that a cinema of montage (of
editing) is less realistic than a cinema of mise-en-scene, but we should
always keep in mind that Bazin was rarely as programmatic as his
disciples and was always flexible in his labelling. In calling some
films realistic, he was not using the category "Realism," but rather
trying to come to grips with how some films work with their audiences in
a partically historical context. It is important then that he sees
realism in such varied films as the comedic Chaplin, the fantastic _Red
Balloon_ (Lamorisse), the theatrical _Citizen Kane_, etc. The issue is
less one of an accurate depiction of social reality, than a particular
attitude towards space, time, cinema, and perception.
In this case, calling Mizoguchi realistic can have many valences, but
from a purely Bazinian standpoint, the question is not as much shot
length (remember Bazin praised Italian Neo-realism, which was rarely a
one-shot, one-scene cinema) or accuracy of social vision, than a
particular decision to preserve real space and encourage the audience to
analyze the scene on their own. Using long takes helps, and certainly
Bazin's disciples concentrated on that, but Bazin never, I believe, made
that a prerequisite for a realist style.
Whether all of this helps us in calling Mizoguchi realist or not is
another matter. As another pointed out, labelling itself can be
problematic, especially when the term realism can have so many different
valences over time and in different contexts. While Bazin gives us
powerful tools for appreciating how seeing a Mizoguchi film can differ
from seeing another, we should also keep in mind that in Japan "realism"
(riarizumu, genjitsu shugi, shajitsu shugi, etc.) is a contested concept
(if it can even be considered a singular concept, what with all the terms
available). It would be interesting to see a close study of the history
of discourses within Japan on realism and Mizoguchi.
International Student Center
Yokohama National University
Hodogaya-ku, Yokohama 240-8501
E-mail: gerow at ynu.ac.jp
More information about the KineJapan