Film as the “Skin of History”: André Bazin and the Specter of the Archive and Death in Nicole Védrès’s Paris 1900 (1947)
by Paula Amad
The essay begins:
About two thirds of the way through Nicole Védrès’s Paris 1900 (1947), a feature-length documentary that combines fragments of nonfiction and fiction footage with a view to delivering a new, cinematic type of history, an old newsreel sequence violently interrupts the otherwise sedate, audiovisual chronicle of the Belle Epoque. The six-shot sequence begins with a full shot of a man, whom the voice-over commentator labels a “modern Icarus,” outfitted in a winged parachute-type suit, making a slow full circle for the cameraman, followed by a distant tilt shot that moves up the length of the Eiffel Tower. In the third and longer shot, the birdman, in the company of two other men, spreads the now unfurled, winglike sections of his outfit (fig. 1) and readies himself for what feels like an interminable fifteen seconds on the balcony edge of the tower’s first tier before finally, after a moment’s hesitation, jumping. We then cut to a distant shot aimed at the first level of the tower and tilt down as the second camera follows the birdman’s descent, his flying suit trailing ineffectually before a small puff of dust is released from the Champ de Mars as his body hits the ground. The sequence ends with a close shot of hands measuring the “six-inch” deep impact of the fallen Icarus, followed by a brief final shot of his corpse being carried away.
The birdman footage appears after a long audiovisual roll call of now celebrated turn-of-the-century figures from the fields of politics (Léon Blum, Charles Maurras), theater (Sarah Bernhardt), opera (Nellie Melba, Victor Caruso), art (Auguste Rodin, Pierre Renoir, Claude Monet), and literature (Willy, Colette, André Gide, Paul Valéry, Jean Cocteau). Yet like so much of Paris 1900’s footage, the birdman’s image appears to carry minimal historical import except as macabre evidence of the era’s aviation mania, elsewhere more playfully or soberly documented with footage of a couple performing an aerial dance and Charles Blériot’s record-breaking 1909 Channel crossing. Conscious of the seemingly trivial remains of history then preserved in film archives, Védrès admitted that “scarcely one percent [of the footage she found] referred to important events.” In light of the minor status of the birdman event historically, we might read the fragment as simply more of the dead skin of film sloughed off by the incessantly updated screens of twentieth-century news media, a phenomenon described by André Bazin, arguably the preeminent film critic and theorist of the past century. Or the fragment might be read as the “accidental accumulation” of tabloid-like evidence that Sir Arthur Elton, a key producer-director in the British documentary film movement, feared the newsreels of the early twentieth century bequeathed to later historians. Or, to take an earlier example, it might be read as the “anecdotal” history of the everyday that Bolesław Matuszewski, a Polish newsreel cameraman, claimed the cinema was destined to archive. To be sure, the birdman sequence shifts the tone of the film from a lighthearted nostalgic skip through the Belle Epoque to a bleak forewarning of the abyss of the Great War into which Europe would soon plunge (the commentator clearly provides the 1912 date of the footage). Yet the fragment still retains an uneasy relation to any straightforward attempt to mobilize archival film as historical evidence. Although it feels significant, it’s hard to say what the image of the birdman’s fall at last means. What might this disturbing early example of a subject dying (to be) on film have to do with film’s, and more specifically the archival compilation film’s, peculiar temporal and ethical registers? Continue reading …
In this essay, Paula Amad asks why the notoriously antimontage film theorist André Bazin championed Nicole Védrès’s Paris 1900 (1947), a kaleidoscopic film de montage compiled from scraps of archival film, including footage of a death recorded live. How did archival films and death on film together mediate for Bazin the fatal coupling of “total war” and “total History,” and why were archival films seen by others to raise urgent questions of historical philosophy? She explores here the intensified historical consciousness that developed around archival films and the representability of death after the Second World War. Reinserting documentary as the missing key to Bazin’s so-called realist film theory, she argues that Bazin found in Paris 1900 a new archive-inflected and essayistic model of film’s historicity whose full potential continues to be realized in the explosion of archival filmmaking today.
PAULA AMAD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Cinematic Arts at the University of Iowa. She is currently at work on a book dealing with the history of aerial vision from the perspective of motion pictures shot from above.