Television as a Medium of Culture
On the occasion of Éditions Macula’s recent edition of the collected works of André Bazin (1918-1958), Sabzian will publish nine texts written by the French film critic between 1947 and 1957, both in the original French version and the Dutch and English translations. Bazin is sometimes called “the inventor of film criticism”. Entire generations of film critics and filmmakers, especially those associated with the Nouvelle Vague, are indebted to his writings on film. Bazin wasn’t a critic in the classical sense. François Truffaut regarded him as an “écrivain de cinéma” [“cinema writer”], who sought to describe films rather than judge them. For Jean-Luc Godard, Bazin was a “filmmaker who did not make films but who made cinema by talking about it, like a pedlar”. In the preface to Bazin’s What Is Cinema?, Jean Renoir went one step further by describing Bazin as the one who “gave the patent or royalty to the cinema just as the poets of the past had crowned their kings”. Bazin began writing about film in 1943 and founded the legendary film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma in 1951, alongside Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca. He was known for his plea for realism as a crucial cinema operator. Film opens a “window on the world”, according to Bazin. His writings would also be important for the development of the auteur theory. He was an editor of Cahiers until his death.
The statistical services of French television break down the weekly broadcasts as follows: Out of 44 hours and 45 minutes per week, 11 hours and 55 minutes of “news and magazines”, 7 hours and 30 minutes of “variety”, 5 hours and 30 minutes of commercial film broadcasts, 3 hours of “Télé́-Paris”, 2 hours and 35 minutes of sports programmes, 2 hours of educational programmes, 2 hours of opera, 2 hours of religious programmes (Protestant and Catholic), 1 hour and 45 minutes of youth programmes on Thursday, 1 hour and 30 minutes of drama, 1 hour of music, and 2 hours and 15 minutes of unclassifiable miscellaneous.
This classification does not correspond to the one I admittedly arbitrarily proposed at the outset of this series of articles. After talking about the group of news programmes, which I called “the world at home”, I had come to the programmes grouped under the heading of culture and that indeed included several of the programmes that were part of the official statistics’ 11 hours and 55 minutes of news and magazines. In particular, I am thinking of Pierre Sabbagh’s Magazine des explorateurs, Jean-Marie Drot’s various art programmes and Étienne Lalou’s or Roger Louis’s scientific programmes, to which I will of course add the literary (Lectures pour tous) and music programmes, leaving aside the educational programmes.
A wonderful means of cultural dissemination
It has always seemed to me that one of the main arguments against the denigrators of the mechanical arts that have invaded modern life lay in the fact that they are both a tremendous means of cultural dissemination and a form of entertainment. No doubt the radio’s track record is extraordinarily positive in this respect. Probably not for those who tune in to Radio-Luxembourg’s bland music all day long; but if this background sound offers them some psychological relief, what’s the harm? On the other hand, I cannot stop marvelling at what I learn while having a wash under the influence of French culture. Of course, those who don’t want anything, won’t get anything; but you can't take anything away from them either. The vaguest desire for artistic or intellectual curiosity, however, will discover something on the radio to be satisfied with or even to distend. Thanks to radio, we are immersed in culture.
Television, the way it is practised in France, does not even come with the disadvantages of radio (though, admittedly, it does not come with all of its advantages either), because, except in a few limited areas, the single channel imposes one single programme on the viewer, which, in its diversity, extensively covers cultural values. We can be critical of our programmes, and we do not fail to do so, but hardly, with a few rare exceptions, for being stupefying and vulgar.
It is true that the current single channel forces the programming department to limit explicitly cultural programmes. Under this honourable alibi, there have unfortunately been pretentious, boring and poorly made programmes that don’t tend to last. Incidentally, the same can be said, alas, of certain variety shows. But there are, on the other hand, successful examples of the opposite, and I would just like to mention three programmes whose apparent austerity is refuted by their realization. They prove that a programme’s intellectual quality and cultural value can go hand in hand with its relevance as a spectacle. I would like to discuss Lectures pour tous, Magazine des explorateurs and Sciences d’aujourd’hui.
Television is personal testimony
At first sight, it might seem that literary criticism is the least visual process possible. Pierre Dumayet and Pierre Desgraupes have managed to put a face to it. It’s just that, and we will have to return to this as a leitmotiv, television is first and foremost an art of personal testimony. By asking authors to come and talk about their books in front of the camera, Dumayet and Desgraupes did not reinvent the wheel but focused on the essential. Rather than a show, television is a conversation. Television is worth what the people speaking are worth and what they have to tell us. One of last year’s best shows, whose disappearance we will never regret enough, was the kind of public confession of a prominent figure initiated by Jean Thévenot in Trois objets, une vie. But the fact remains that, based on the same principle, Lectures pour tous could be a mediocre programme and that it is what it is thanks to the intelligence and good taste of its makers. Pleasing to both the eye and the mind, Lectures pour tous proves that one can both be intellectual and remain public.
There is not much to say about Magazine des explorateurs. Again, the relevance of the programme is based on the relevance of the testimony. Pierre Sabbagh is sitting pretty. He does it with kindness and finesse, but perhaps the show would benefit from a greater effort in terms of mise-en-scène.
The miracle of live broadcasting
But above all, I would like to use Sciences d'aujourd’hui as an example, as it happens to have offered us some of the purest television highlights that this new art boasts: I am referring in particular to the programmes in which Jean Painlevé has managed to renew the aesthetics of scientific cinema through television. Indeed, Painlevé’s merit is, as everyone knows, not only to have resolved the supposed contradiction between art and science, but rather to have based an aesthetic and a poetics of cinema on its scientific value. On television, this aesthetic could only be based on the scientific advantages of live broadcasting. This is what Painlevé demonstrated in the course of several programmes, the last of which, on bronchoscopy, represented the sensational highlight.
These films (in colour, by the way) on endoscopy in general and bronchoscopy in particular are no longer a rarity in terms of scientific cinema. Those who have seen these films know that they are a deeply moving spectacle. But how much more moving was this forty-centimetre descent into a man’s lungs, recorded live on the television screen. Of course, theoretically, it was about demonstrating the value of television’s scientific and above all didactic investigations, but at the same time it was a most fascinating spectacle.
In the same vein, I remember a visit to the observatory where we saw the moon “live”, magnified by the telescope. There was obviously no noticeable difference between this image and the simple reproduction of a photograph, but we knew that it was the same moon that we could see through the window at that very moment, and that assurance was enough to change the quality of the image. Nothing but the moon, but if I may say so: alive!
This text was originally published as ‘La Télévision moyen de culture’ in France Observateur, 297 (19 January 1956) and recently in Hervé Joubert-Laurencin, ed., André Bazin. Écrits complets (Paris: Macula, 2018).
With thanks to Yan Le Borgne.
© Éditions Macula, 2018