Andre Bazin wrote “The Myth Of Total Cinema” before film studies became an academic field, and so, before it became a strong source of reasoning about “media.” In the 1970s, a revival of Lessing’s children, Hugo Münsterburg and Rudolf Arnhiem, would lead to a theory of “media specificity” based upon a series of errors, starting with blessings assumption that Greek statues were unpainted.
Originally a book review of Georges Sadoul’s General History Of Cinema, “The Myth Of Total Cinema” claims Sadoul undermines his own Marxist materialism by presenting cinema as a phenomenon driven by a myth rather than material conditions. It is easy to see that Bazin’s a mistake about materialism, more of a rhetorical flourish than an argument. Materialism seeks to discover the social relations in stuff, and which can easily show how myths and ideals emerged from economic conditions.
Bazin’s article allows one to understand cinema as a developing praxis. Bazin shows that the project of developing moving images into a complete reproduction of the world antedates the technical capacity to create photographic films, and concludes that the will to develop a total simulation guides the development of cinematic technology throughout its history. In other words, wrote “The Myth Of Total Cinema” implies that media don’t exist and can’t function as the physical basis for the specificity of certain “Arts” or cultural practices. Even if one could distinguish media from praxis, in any “medium,” an ideal always guides the use of material toward the limits of that material.
If the ideal of total reproduction of reality precedes the technology that makes it possible, it does so as a productive desire that defines the unity we call “cinema.” The myth of a reproduction of the world came before transparent, flexible, strong base, and dry emulsion necessary to film stock. Bazin recognize that cinema is a complex, some elements of which had to wait the invention of others, and as such it corresponds to no pre-given unity other than that of its ideal. After discovering the persistence of vision, Joseph A. F. Plateau had to wait for Niepces to invent chemistry of image fixation, before developing the Phanakisticope. What makes an Art recognizable lies beyond the material the cultural practice uses as a contingent means of expression. An earlier essay “The Ontology Of The Photographic Image,” uses the same reasoning: there, Bazin holds that photography and film realize the human desire to put time beyond “the reach of its own decay” (8.) In both essays, cultural practices essentially attempts to actualize a complete realism, but the means by which they do, the materials work and the techniques, are accidental. Practices often modify the desire for realism, changing it into, for example, a certain mode of abstraction, but realism, the desire to reproduce the world, guides technical development.
The urge to reproduce the world, the desire for a second life, comes before and how it lasts any particular, physically defined, medium. It passes through tools and supports, discarding them when it has reached their limits. Desire for a second life remains the same across various means, only changing when the economic base changes, when the mode of production is altered.
The notion of medium doesn’t come up in the myth of total cinema, and more importantly its reasoning implies that the elements that make it possible to physically create moving images exist as limits to be overcome. The impetus for cinema’s technical development comes from a desire for a comprehensive simulation of reality. When one understands cinema as a praxis, one can understand digital productions, for example, as cinematic. Interactive or not, their technical development follows the same impetus to perfect simulation. Inventors of cinema sought “the perfect illusion of the outside world through sounds, color, and three dimensionality” (16) … to which one could easily add “interactivity.” Cinema’s inventors and contemporaneous fictions imagined the complete illusion of life.
Bazin Identifies reproducing reality as the guiding myth of the 19th century. He finds the origin of cinema in this myth, one that continues to guide practice with enough force to allow us to see that the new media are new, they are cinema by other means. In this sense, new media brings cinema closer to its origins, not because as some suggested, it’s texts resemble early films. Although we have seen the cinema definitionally abandons older technologies and techniques for those that can make more accurate allusions, one can still say, with Bazin,that “cinema has yet to be invented” (17.)
Long before Badouvian “formalization” came into fashion, Eric Rohmer remarked that “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” and “The Myth of Total Cinema” put the axioms of buzz as criticism in place. Starting with a radical reading of “The Myth of Total Cinema’s” basic premises one might eventually arrive at the following conclusions:
1) According to Bazin, cinema produces simulacra, not indices.
2) We call cinema the real praxis that abolishes media and their history. Cinema isn’t the medium, it’s the idea that media limits to simulation.
3) Cinema grows by attempting to simulate the reality capital works hardest to occlude: the life that flees both exchange and production.
4) The notion of “automatisms” mistakes praxis for unconsciousness and thereby disguises the ways that cinema, like all cultural production, takes the imprint of a struggle. The critic who accepts “automatisms” becomes pacified and only capable of a liberal politics with respect to creation and its display.