There Is Nothing Outside the Real: Preston Sturges on André Bazin

Creator's Statement

This is a "desktop documentary" of a paper entitled "There is Nothing Outside the Real: Recent Reappraisals of André Bazin in Film Theory" which I delivered on 25 March 2015 at the University of Edinburgh to the Creation of Reality Group (CRAG), a postgraduate research forum. The original film was 43 minutes long and dictated the length of my talk. This is a reduced and speeded up version of that original film. 

This piece was inspired by seeing Kevin B. Lee’s Transformers: The Premake (2014) which he presented at the Short Film (and) Criticism Symposium on the 14 March 2015 at the Contemporary Arts Centre as part of the Glasgow Short Film Festival.

I started writing the paper on the morning of Monday 23 March 2015 and finished it twenty minutes before I delivered it on the Wednesday. Part of the aim here is to show the actual writing of an academic paper on film. The ambiguity of the end of the previous sentence is unintended but apt – the film is about the process of academic writing and research in general, but is also specifically about the peculiarities of writing and thinking academically about film as such. 

The subject of the paper itself is the way in which recent scholarship around realism in film has provided a reappraisal of the work of the seminal critic André Bazin, the presentation of whose work has become rather reductive and clichéd. The original abstract for my talk – which appears as the starting point of the film here – is:

André Bazin’s critical work on film is often reduced to the clichés that he favoured long takes and championed realism as opposed to montage and artifice in the cinema. This position on Bazin has been the subject of recent critiques by Richard Rushton and Robert Sinnerbrink, building on Daniel Morgan’s “Rethinking Bazin” (2006). In this presentation, I will outline the terms of this new development and show that this “absolute realist” phase of understanding cinema is a return of sorts to Jacques Derrida’s analysis of textuality in the 1960s. For the New Bazinians, fiction film is as much as part of reality as anything else and I will develop this thought in the context of analytic philosophy’s understanding of “fictionalism”. I discuss the films of Preston Sturges in this context. This is part of a broader project in which I explore the work of Derrida in relation to cinema.

Beginning with Derrida’s line from Of Grammatology: “There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il n'y a pas de hors-texte]....” (1967/1997, 158) I argue that if there is nothing outside the text then everything outside the text is text and if we define the “outside the text” as “real”, then the real is text (and text is real). The straightforward point of this is that reality, as such, is never outside of our experience of that reality and this is unsurprising considering Derrida’s long engagement with phenomenology (see Lawlor, 2002). For the phenomenologist, all we have is our experience and our experience of that experience. I try and avoid the trap of what Quentin Meillasoux has called the “correlationist two-step” in which it is impossible to “consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another” (2008, 5), by claiming that the fiction of film is part of our reality and should not, following Rushton, be dismissed as somehow inferior to a supposed “real” reality.

I also propose that Bazin’s work needs to be understood through the prism of Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Imaginary (1940/2004) which, according to Dudley Andrew, played a crucial part in the development of Bazin’s thinking. While this requires fuller development elsewhere, Sartre expresses succinctly the sense in which I am thinking about mental and fictional reality:

We can affirm without fear that, if consciousness is a succession of determined psychical facts, it is totally impossible for it to ever produce anything other than the real. For consciousness to be able to imagine, it must be able to escape from the world by its very nature, it must be able to stand back from the world by its own efforts. In a word, it must be free. (1940/2004, 184)   

The “big idea” of the film essay is that if film itself is really part of the real, then of course writing and thinking about film are also part of the real in the same sort of way. The film literalises the reality of academic work and production. “There is Nothing Outside the Real” enacts the thesis that it proposes. With a little sex in it.

Works Cited

• Andrew, Dudley [1977] (1990) André Bazin. New York: Columbia University Press.

• Derrida, Jacques [1967] (1997) Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

• Lawlor, Leonard (2002) Derrida and Husserl: The Basic Problem of Phenomenology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

• Meillasoux, Quentin [2006] (2008) After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Trans. Ray Brassier. London: Continuum.

• Morgan, Daniel (2006) Rethinking Bazin: Ontology and Realist Aesthetics. Critical Inquiry. 32 (3), 443–481.

• Rushton, Richard (2011) The Reality of Film: Theories of Filmic Reality. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 

• Sartre, Jean-Paul [1940] (2004) The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination. Trans. Jonathan Webber. London and New York: Routledge.

• Sinnerbrink, Robert (2012). Cinematic Belief: Bazinian Cinephilia and Malick’s The Tree of Life. Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities. 17 (4), 95–117.

David Sorfa’s audio-visual essay There is Nothing Outside the Real is exploring new modes in the audio-visual essay genre. Formally inspired by Kevin B. Lee’s Transformers: the PremakeSorfa’s choice for the layered approach of desktop cinema is well chosen in light of its topic: Expanding on Bazin’s notion of ‘the real’ Sorfa’s argument is that not only the films that we watch  but also the process of writing about film should be considered as part of reality. And so we can witness in this audio-visual the emergence of a conference paper, including the selection of film clips, on Sorfa’s desktop. 

The clips are all from Preston Sturges’s 1940s films (and Howard Zieff’s 1984’s remake of Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours) and many scenes are selected for their meta-reflexivity on the medium of film itself. At two different film-in-film moments, we see the apparatus, the projector, the filmmakers about what they want film to be (a document, a mirror held to life, a picture of dignity ‘with a little sex’), or the audience sharing collective laughter. So here we have a doubling of the mise-en-abyme structure of different creative processes (making and watching films; writing a conference paper about those films) at work. Again, I think the choice of the clips works very well to support Sorfa’s main argument that everything (creative processes and products included) is part of reality.

The audio-visual essay in its current form is a speeded up and shortened version of the process of writing and delivering the entire argument in a longer lecture. It is a great idea to record all the activities on the desktop and show it during the performance of the full paper. Boiling this down to the 6 minutes of the current essay is quite an endeavor and the editing and layering of the images has a nice rhythm; it is well done. The disadvantage of the speed of the cutting and layering is that it is a little hard to get the points. At certain dense textual moments, I would have liked to have a little more time to read some parts of the text, or some additional information on the conceptual points that are being made, for instance in relating Bazin to Derrida. The speed of the essay in its current form does have the effect of wanting to see the full lecture, or reading the entire paper, as well as seeing some of those wonderful films again. So that is good. But I’d have loved to have some more theoretical anchors in the essay itself.

In short, this essay is innovative in its desktop form related to academic practice. It is well edited and also otherwise well made, and the form fits the main theoretical point that is offered by Sorfa in the rationale. The audiovisual essay itself is perhaps a little too dense to get this without the added commentary. Having said this, I do think the essay could be published as it is for all the positive points mentioned. And for the almost haunting presence of Melancholia that keeps on popping up, not only on Sorfa’s desktop, but also in the poster in his study, bringing in yet another reality. 

I greatly appreciate and admire the radical approach towards videographic scholarship taken by David Sorfa's video. This video exemplifies the kind of brave experimentation and innovative approach towards film studies that makes [in]Transition a vital site for contemporary cinema and media scholarship. It has the potential to generate a lot of interest and discussion on how scholarship can be represented visually not just as a finished work but as a process.

Having said this, I am uncertain if this abridged version of an original presentation is meant to be complemented by a text or meant to stand on its own. If it is the latter, then it entices more than it elucidates. The prioritizing of the Sturges clips is unclear in intention and becomes visually frustrating in the instances when it seems to overlap and compete with the desktop activity. If we want to see a sped up version of the presentation for illustrative purposes, perhaps we should just see that, without the film clips. I think this is especially true if the aim of the video is "to show the actual writing of an academic paper on film" as stated in the video's description. If that's the case, why not just show the desktop?

I am somewhat more inclined to watch the full 43 minute version of the presentation with voiceover of the talk. It would allow a more vivid sense of how the presenter moved through the desktop in real time and utlized it as part of his academic presentation. This would be of true value to academics in radically rethinking their approach to presenting their scholarship, especially in revealing and exploring the process by which scholarship is generated.