Wednesday, March 11, 2009

André Bazin & caboose

I first became aware of Montreal-based publisher caboose when they approached me last year to pen a volume in their Kino-Agora series. (Series details can be found here.)

Today, some momentous news for film culture: caboose is releasing a brand new translation, by Timothy Barnard, of André Bazin's What is Cinema?

In a recent Film Quarterly, Dudley Andrew pointed out that less than 7% of Bazin's writings are available in English translation. Spurred by this startling observation, I put up a post on Bazin's writings a few months ago that sparked a lively and informative discussion.

Bazin's Qu'est-ce que le cinéma? originally appeared in French in 4 volumes beginning in 1958, soon after his death at age 40. The 2-volume English-language What is Cinema?, translated by Hugh Gray, came out about a decade later. It included a selection of essays from Bazin's original, and was put out by the University of California Press.

The new Barnard translation collects several key essays from Bazin's original volumes, and includes three pieces that don't appear in Gray's translation: on Wyler, Tati and Painlevé, the last of these never before translated into English. Samples from all 13 essays in the book are available to read online. The publisher promises: "This is the only corrected and annotated edition of Bazin in any language [...] Rarely does a new translation radically alter our understanding of a thinker's work. This is that book."

Gray's rendering of Bazin has remained invaluable but has also provoked mixed feelings and controversy. Richard Roud wrote a scathing critique of it in Sight and Sound in 1967. Adrian Martin remarked in the comments to the previously mentioned post: "Gray's Bazin is the rather cosmic/mystic/Catholic/realist Bazin that many (most) Anglos think of, which is why Cardullo's Bazin at Work is such a crucial corrective to it."

We are in the midst of a Bazin revival, evident from the recent twin-venue conference held in Paris and at Yale to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. Further, recent writing like Daniel Morgan's well-regarded essay "Rethinking Bazin: Ontology and Realist Aesthetics" (Critical Inquiry, 2006) has served to enlarge and complicate our view of this versatile theorist.

Despite the strong resurgence of interest in Bazin, why has it taken so long--over 40 years--for an alternate translation of his key work to appear in English? The answer has to do with copyright issues. In many countries--including Canada, Japan, China, New Zealand, and others--copyright is retained for 50 years after an author's death before works enter the public domain. In fact, this used to be the international norm until the U.S. and France moved to a 70-year rule. Today the U.S. stipulates this as an explicit part of bilateral trade deals, and has persuaded Australia and South Korea, and more recently, Argentina and Chile, to move from 50 to 70 years. Canada has been lobbied by the U.S. on this issue but has passed no legislation yet to alter the 50-year rule. Since Bazin died in 1958, his writings passed into the public domain last year in Canada; this has made the new translation possible. (For more on copyright: here's the Wikipedia entry on public domain.)

The new issue of Offscreen is titled "Bazin Renewed." It includes an interview with Timothy Barnard about the new translation and a piece by Donato Totaro called "What is a Good Translation? Bazin Revisited".

There is also an essay at the caboose site that makes for particularly stimulating scholarly reading: Barnard's translator note on the word "découpage." It runs to over 20 printed pages and carefully traces the uses and meanings of the word over the course of the last one hundred years. Also of interest: Barnard's foreword (not available online) details the "meticulous research into Bazin's sources which has led him to a connection between the ideas of Bazin and Bertolt Brecht and to a pseudonymous article believed to have been written by Siegfried Kracauer."

The book can be ordered online through the caboose site but for shipping only to Japan, China (including Hong Kong), New Zealand, and other countries who follow the 50-year rule. Pages is selling the book online and at their store on Queen Street in Toronto. Apparently, it doesn't matter where the order originates--Pages will ship only to Canadian addresses. The book will also be on sale at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Tokyo in May.

Your thoughts on Bazin, film-writing translations, or copyright issues? All are welcome!

cover pic: "Sharlo Takes a Bow," a woodcut of Charlie Chaplin created by the Soviet artist, book designer and illustrator Varvara Stepanova for issue #3 of the journal Kino-Fot in 1922.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Around & About

First, there's a new issue of Rouge, titled "Teenage Wildlife," devoted to accounts of youth in cinema. Helen Bandis, Adrian Martin and Grant Mcdonald begin their introduction thus:

There are many ways, in cinema, to tell the story of youth. One can tell it as a reassuring ‘rite of passage’ that takes us safely (with a few thrills and tears along the way) from childhood innocence to adult maturity. One can tell it nostalgically, as an adult reminiscence of the ‘days gone by’, the world as a simpler place back then ... One can show teenagers slowly integrating themselves, becoming part of a family, a community, a nation, a world.

Or we can tell another story: the story of Teenage Wildlife. The story of teenagers living in an eternal present moment, like a savage, roaming pack of animals. Living violently, impulsively, on their wits and instincts. Without ties to family, to adults, to any kind of civilised society. Teenagers in a world apart, their own, separate universe which is incomprehensible to the concerned adults (parents, police, social workers, politicians) who look on, aghast. Teenagers who (in the immortal words of the Surrealist Robert Benayoun) exhibit all the ‘normal qualities of youth: naiveté, idealism, humour, hatred of tradition, erotomania, and a sense of injustice’.

Alluding to Marcos Uzal on Jerzy Skolimowski, they write:

Skolimowski remained fixed, according to Uzal, on ‘awkward adolescents and immature adults, on the insolence of sons and the disillusionment of fathers. What do we gain and what do we lose in leaving our youth?’ There is an intensely physical struggle betrayed by each youthful body, as Skolimowki’s beloved author Gombrowicz put it: a fight between the ‘inconsolable boy’ and the ‘made man’. At stake, at all times, is the difficult – perhaps impossible – entry of youth into the larger ‘social body’, the certified world of maturity and ‘experience’ (as Benjamin mocked it). For many constituent members of the teenage wildlife, that passage will not be achieved at all; the bubble that defines their tumultuous eternal present will be burst only in the instant of death.

The issue also features a couple of cinephile-bloggers including Zach Campbell and Jenna Ng.

* * *

Other recent web reading:

-- David Lowery, whom we have long known as a presence in the film-blogosphere, has made his first feature film. It's called St. Nick, and the trailer looks tantalizing. I wrote a post about David's short films a couple of years ago.

-- Anthony Kaufman has a piece on the demise of VHS at Moving Image Source. Some of the responses to it include: Craig Keller at Cinemasparagus; and a discussion around Peter Martin's post at Cinematical.

-- Do you google up every film you see, new or old? I do, and that's why one-stop collections of links to writings on a film are so invaluable. Here are two recent excellent examples: Michael Guillen's round-up on Chantal Akerman's Je Tu Il Elle; and Kevin Lee's links post with hefty excerpts on Frank Borzage's Moonrise.

-- Chris Fujiwara on Paul Schrader: "It feels cold to write of someone who has been directing for 30 years that his first film is his best, but I have little hesitation in declaring BLUE COLLAR (1978)...Schrader's strongest and sharpest movie to date. One of the few American commercial films to take a sustained, insightful, and informed look at the problems of workers, Blue Collar is stringent in its treatment of the dehumanization and occasional violence of an auto-assembly line, the financial pressures on the middle class, the need to escape through alcohol and cocaine."

-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on the newly released 26-film DVD set Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986: "Movies are among the most fragile of art forms, and avant-garde films are among the most fragile of movies. Usually made on delicate, narrow-gauge stock (16 millimeter, 8 millimeter and Super 8, formats made virtually obsolete by video), printed directly from the original camera materials and distributed informally in a small number of copies, many of the avant-garde films of the 20th century have become difficult to see in anything like their original state."

-- Also on this DVD set: Ed Halter at Moving Image Source. I noticed recently that Halter has put together a most useful webpage of experimental resources.

-- More at Moving Image Source: Jonathan Rosenbaum on Cinéma Cinémas, a French TV series devoted to cinephilia. Also: Jonathan on Molly Haskell's new book, Frankly My Dear: Gone With The Wind Revisited: "I’m glad that Armond White gave this book a favorable review in the New York Times, which it clearly deserves. But I wish he hadn’t muddied his kindness with lazy misinformation and lazier prose."

-- A 'Film Festival Research' bibliography gathered by Skadi Loist and Marijke de Valck for Universität Hamburg. Via Adrian Martin's new column at Filmkrant, which is on web film resources and film festivals.

-- There are hundreds of film essays available to read at the Criterion website.

-- At The Auteurs' Notebook, Danny Kasman, Ry Knight and Andrew Grant interview Film Comment's Gavin Smith.

-- I've been catching up on some great blogosphere reading lately, especially new posts at: Vinyl Is Heavy; Film Studies for Free; Tativille; and Serge Daney in English (new links to two Daney pieces);

-- A 1928 interview with King Vidor from the British film magazine Close Up is reproduced at Man Without A Star.

-- David Bordwell has a terrific piece on documentary:

People tend to think that documentary films are typified by two conditions. First, the events we see are unstaged, or at least unstaged by the filmmaker. If you mount a parade, the way that Coppola staged the Corpus Christi procession in The Godfather Part II, then you aren’t making a documentary. But if you go to a town that is holding such a procession and shoot it, you are making a doc—even though the parade was organized to some extent by others. Fiction films stage their events for the camera, but documentaries, we tend to think, capture spontaneous happenings.

Secondly, in a documentary the camera is seizing those events photographically. The great film theorist André Bazin saw cinema’s defining characteristic as its capacity to record the actual unfolding of events with little human intervention. All the other arts rely on human creation at a basic level: the novelist selects words, the painter chooses colors. But the photographer or filmmaker employs a machine that impassively records what is happening in front of it. “All the arts are based on the presence of man,” Bazin writes; “only photography derives an advantage from his absence.” This isn’t to say that cinema can’t be artful, only that it offers a different sort of creativity than we find in the traditional arts. The filmmaker works not with pure imaginings but obstinate chunks of actual time and space. [...]

Film theorist Noël Carroll defines documentary as the film of “purported fact.” Carl Plantinga makes a similar point in saying that documentaries take “an assertive stance.” Both these writers argue that we take it for granted that a documentary is claiming something to be true about the world. The persons and actions are to be taken as representing states of affairs that exist, or once existed. This is not something that is presumed by The Gold Rush, Magnificent Obsession, or Speed Racer. These films come to us labeled as fictional, and they do not assert that their events and agents ever existed.

pic: From David Lowery's St. Nick (2009).