8th December 2008

 

It was only when I started preliminary work on my biography of Godard in the early nineties that I recognized that Bazin was unsurpassed as a writer on cinema. Still as Hegel remarked somewhere, if you’re thinking something then there’s a high probability that a lot of other people are thinking it too and I was pleasantly surprised even 15 years ago how many people were beginning to read and re-read the founder of Cahiers du cinema. At that time, my role as Head of Research at the British Film Institute included the task of raising the academic profile of the study of film and it occurred to me that a complete works of Bazin was a professional duty as well as a personal desire.
It is often said that a prophet is without honour in his own country but I was surprised that Cahiers du cinema, when I approached them, regarded such a thought as a product of a pedantic university spirit, un projet des cuistres. Indeed so shocked was I, that I dared to ask Godard the kind of stupidly direct question which normally produced a savage bite at the ankles. “Tell me Jean-Luc are you working on new film? Long Pause “Yes” Nervously and stupidly “Is it a fiction or a documentary?” Even longer pause. “My dear Colin, what is the difference?”
However, a little shocked by Cahiers’s response and fearing that perhaps in my dotage I had become a Causabon with Bazin becoming the tenant-lieu for a key to all the mythologies, I summoned up the courage to ask JLG whether he thought such an academic Complete Works replete with variants, sustained by detailed biographical and institutional readings worth the immense expenditure of effort . He paused even longer. But this was the pause of someone who has been asked a difficult and interesting question which required reflection ( one of the very rare times question I asked him received such a response) and so his reply of ‘yes’ carried great weight. It certainly determined that I found some small pittance for a researcher to toil back through the archives of the Parisien Libere and Telerama and dig out the short reviews of recently released films and even shorter previews of films about to appear on television. However, I was not persuaded that the game was worth the candle until all the papers had been collated and dipping into them I found , to my slight surprise and complete delight, that every review and preview , however short, brought the whole weight of Bazin’s experience and thought about the cinema to bear in luminous sentence after luminous sentence. Here I must pay tribute to Dudley Andrew. If we look at the contemptibly dismissive attitude of the seventies, it was Dudley who saved our honour with a biography that still repays reading. When I began to look for collaborators in the early nineties, Dudley was the most enthusiastic, the most hardworking, the most generous of co-workers. The jettisoning of the Complete Works of Bazin in 1998 was merely a very minor part of New Labour’s comprehensive destruction of the British Film Institute as a centre for thinking about the cinema. However, I was sure that the project was in good hands with Dudley.
Ten years later I sit in a lecture theatre at Yale flabbergasted by the incredible quality of the work that Dudley has stimulated and encouraged. A whole range of scholars, both French and American hace been invited to investigate the archive of Bazin’s writings and a two legged conference has been organized between Paris and New Haven. I’m attending the second leg in New Haven and am astonished as speaker after speaker comes forward to give papers which are not only brilliant but which draw on Dudley’s archive and genuinely address the questions of the conference. There is no doubt, for me, that Bazin is one of the towering intellectual figures of the twentieth century and that will become clear in the next decade particularly when the complete works finally are available. One of the astonishing discoveries of the early nineties, as we took the first steps towards that goal, is that there were no ‘foul papers’, that Bazin had printed every word that he had ever written, and if like a good journalist he had sometimes printed them 3 or 4 times, the problem of variation is relatively limited. More important this empty bottom drawer gave further force to the experience of dipping into the occasional journalism: here was a writer who at every moment and on every occasion that he set down to write brought with him the entire history and theory of the cinema in a continuous reflection, whose writing and re-writing really does find its place with the great modernists.

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