Andre Bazin was an influential French film critic and film theorist who revolutionized the field of film criticism with his works. He lived during a time when a film was considered simply as a medium of entertainment and was not accorded the status of a piece of art. He helped to change the public perspective regarding films through his simple yet strong technique of film criticism. During his days, film criticism was limited to a simple description and evaluation of the film in question. It was Bazin who elevated film criticism to a serious discussion of film as an art form, focusing not just on the content, but also on the techniques of film making used. Understanding cinema as an art form seems to be a peculiar career option he had chosen given that in his young age he had no interest in any form of art whatsoever. As a teenager he was a brilliant student and a voracious reader. He was a big animal lover and had a huge collection of lizards and snakes in his house. Initially he aspired to be a teacher but the outbreak of the World War II shattered his dreams. Fate led him to a totally unrelated vocation, film criticism, which ironically became his area of expertise.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born on 18 April 1918, in Angers, France. His father was a bank clerk. The young Andre primarily grew up in the town of La Rochelle, near the Atlantic Ocean.
His parents sent him to a school connected with a catholic monastery where he performed well and proved to be a bright student. He loved to read and was an intelligent and curious child. He had an idyllic childhood, living in a rustic home beside a stream.
He loved to explore nature and its mysteries. His fascination with animals led him to convert the balcony of his house into a mini zoo which housed snakes, lizards, and other creatures he gathered from the woods.
He moved with his family to Paris where he attended a high school in the suburb of Courbevoie and won several scholarships. As a teenager his aim was to become a teacher and he got admitted into the Ecole Normale Supérieure in St. Cloud, a prestigious education school.
Once again his academic success continued and he read contemporary French thought, becoming familiar with the works of philosophers like Henri Bergson and Emmanuel Mounier. He also read the film writings of Roger Leenhardt, deriving inspiration from him.
He seemed to be headed in the right path to embark on a career as a teacher when the World War II broke out shattering all his hopes and dreams. His school was mysteriously burned to the ground and he was denied entry into the army because of his poor health.
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The Sorbonne University planned a student cultural group called the Maison des Lettres (House of Literature) and Bazin was chosen as one of its organizers. The group was primarily set up to compete against the other student groups established by the pro-Nazi government.
The war was a difficult period for all the citizens of France, Bazin included. He was much interested in the resistance movement and immersed himself in theater, literature, and theory. He spent much of his time reading the works of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos.
Around this time he started a cinema club along with a friend. During that time films were considered as merely a form of entertainment and not much significance was accorded to them. The distribution of films was also strictly controlled by the German censors.
In 1943, he began writing about films. Along with Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca he co-founded the film criticism magazine, ‘Cahiers du cinema’, in 1951, which went on to become a popular publication.
Over his career he wrote about two thousand short articles on films, drawing inspiration from a wide variety of sources including philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘les Temps modernes’. Even though film making was not considered a serious profession during his time, he correctly predicted that a day would come when students would study cinema in college.
Andre Bazin was one of the first individuals to recognize the greatness of Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, and William Wyler who would eventually attain international acclaim as legendary film makers.
In his days, the French were not much interested in American cinema, but he helped to reverse the situation by kindling a passion for American cinema among the French. He had a keen interest in the way Americans made films and was a co-author of the book, ‘Le western; ou, Le cinéma americain par excellence’ (The Western, or American Cinema at Its Best).
He was of the belief that a film should represent a director’s personal vision—a concept known as personalism. This idea played a key role in the development of the auteur theory.
Personal Life & Legacy
Bazin suffered from health problems throughout his life and his health worsened during the 1950s. He was diagnosed with leukemia and died on 11 November 1958. He was just 40 years old and his untimely death shattered the French film community.
French film director, François Truffaut dedicated his film ‘The 400 Blows’ to Bazin; so did Jean Renoir who dedicated the revival of ‘The Rules of the Game’ to Bazin.