Realism is arguably the most important concept within film theory. Since its inception, film has generally been concerned primarily with facsimileing real life events for the audience via photographing and camera techniques. In the process, the aim of film from its early days has been to realise both fictional and non‑fictional events. As Ellis (1998:38) explains, the essence of cinema has always maintained an ongoing and deep‑seated relationship with both visual and aesthetic reality.
“Cinema as a photographic medium instantly poses its images and sounds as recorded phenomena, whose construction occurred in another time and place. Yet though the figures, objects and places represented are absent from the space in which the viewing takes place, they are also (and astoundingly) present.”
It is important not to confuse cinematic realism with the realistic and naturalistic dramatic output of theatres. Though the two have often collaborated and interchanged over the past one hundred years, the reality inherent in plays is inevitably different to the reality inherent in films. Theatre by nature, with its long pauses, set changes and asides to the audience, is inexorably less realistic than cinema where the division of scenes and the pace of the plot are subject to the whim and the taste of the film‑maker. Moreover, whereas realism is a difficult term for theatre analysts to digest – dictated entirely by the skills of the actor (Styan, 1983:1) – the film‑maker is able to use scenery, music, lighting and architectural design in order to re‑create a particular context or feeling.
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For the purpose of analysis, the following account of realism and films must adopt a dualistic approach. One the one hand, the essay must seek to define realism within film theory, especially with regards to conceptualising the different kinds of realism prevalent in cinema. On the other hand, it must necessarily look at examples of realism in action to show how film‑makers are able to apply theory to practice in a seamless transition. A conclusion will be sought that attempts to show that the realism is the most important paradigm in not only in film but in all serious artistic and creative endeavours.
Although realism in film theory would appear to be a straightforward concept, roughly adhering to the Greek idea of memesis (imitation), the history of film has coincided with the history of modern western philosophical tradition, which since the middle of the nineteenth century has sought to rebel against the classical notions of the romantic movement in fiction and in painting (Stam, 2000:15). This signals that realism is a relatively recent phenomenon in western artistic ideology. As such, it would be naïve to presume that it has not been (and will not continue to be) the subject of vast theoretical changes. The following is therefore a brief overview of the variations of realism in film that have been witnessed throughout the past century.
Early films could not hope to achieve realism on camera until the advent of sound. With this development, film was in possession of sight, sound and context to aid its replication of real life. This facilitated the classical era of American film with classical realism used as a staple part of the Hollywood diet in the films of the 1930’s and 1940’s. The aim was to create spatial and temporal continuity. Classical realist films achieved this via the utilisation of conventional devices for denoting the passing of time, editing devices and the adoption of a strict etiquette with regards to changing from scene to scene (such as camera close‑ups.) It is important to note that this classical ideal of film theory did not seek to exactly replicate real‑life scenes so much as present “an optical illusion of truth.” (Stam, 2000:143). This, it was hoped, would result in the production of a transparent kind of film, removing all traces of the physical and technical construction of the movie in the process. Yet, by definition, classical realism in films could not bequeath an overly elaborate plot. Rather, the concept of classical realism is concerned with episodic construction in order to convey the naturalism of the movie.
“The structure of the realist film, one that attempts to look at the world objectively, differs from that of the usual narrative film in either being very simple or episodic… Each episode or sequence of the film suggests random occurrences that are typical and representative of the people or environment portrayed.” (Wead and Lellis, 1981:325)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) is a prime example of this classical early Hollywood realism in action. The movie concentrates on portraying the realism of the American crime era in a way that had not been attempted beforehand. Whereas previous productions had tended to sway towards the stereotypical view of the underworld, Angels with Dirty Faces looks to a depicting a classical realist film with characters that are believable with a plot that rests solely on the human element of the complex world of the American gangster rather than the more idealistic, impressionist view that had hitherto been championed by Hollywood impresarios.
The American model of realism has been applied with equal vitality to European cinema where the depiction of another kind of reality has been achieved, particularly since the end of the Second World War. This is not surprising as artistic realism cannot thrive in a climate of oppression and authoritarianism like that which characterised mainland Europe during the 1930’s and early 1940’s. The life span, for instance, of leftist film‑maker Brecht was directly related to German politics at the time. In addition, it is surely no coincidence that the heyday of French poetic realism in mainstream French cinema (where Jean Renoir stands out as the most prominent realist film‑maker of his day) came in the late 1930’s, just before the collaborationist Vichy regime strangled the creative life out of all of the national arts. It is an important point and one that should be remembered throughout the remainder of the discussion: realism is directly affected by the social and political context in which it is expressed. Moreover, when this expression is denied by law it likewise affects the vision of realism that a film‑maker wishes to convey.
Post‑war incarnations of realism were reflective of the mood (certainly in Europe) in the immediate aftermath of fighting. Indeed, after this point, cinema was increasingly seen as the vehicle through which to transport real life to the viewer. This was a highly significant factor in the realism and neo‑realism of the time. It is worth remembering that cinema was partly responsible for the unprecedented carnage of the previous decades with the fascists in particular using film as a means of propaganda to seduce the people into acquiescence. Thus, neo‑realist film‑makers of the post‑war era such as Orson Welles and Roberto Rossellini wished to seduce the audience back into seeing cinema for the positive medium that it is, not the tool of despotic politics it had hitherto come to represent.
“In spite of conflicts of style, neo-realism tends to give back to the cinema a sense of the ambiguity of reality.” (Bazin, 1997:69)
In the UK, the concept of realism has been applied to film with arguably greater frequency and arguably a more accurate result than in any other comparable western country. British cinematic realism differs from the American and European models of realism in its strict representation of social reality, bequeathing the cinematic concept of social realism. Certainly, with its bleak architecture and temperamental weather, Britain provides the realist film‑maker with the raw materials for accurately depicting the social realties of modern life. These films are consequently oppressive with a strong focus on the human element. In this sense, British social realism can be seen to be apolitical, though it can also be argued that this can never really be the case. Regardless of such theories, social realism is a highly useful means of understanding the value of realism in movies.
The late 1950’s and early 1960’s witnessed a spate of such social‑realist films. Room at the Top (1959), Look back in Anger (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) are all testimony to the introspective path that British film had taken in the post‑war years. Part of the impetus behind this change in direction can be attributed to the domestic artistic world being opened up to younger film‑makers of varying degrees of social class who wished to portray British life as they saw it as opposed to British life as viewed through the eyes of the traditional socio‑political elite. This ‘kitchen sink’ realism was superseded by a more urbanised, radical realism in British film in the last decade of the twentieth century. The major difference between the two is the way in which the realism of the 1990’s was so much more pessimistic in its outlook than the realism of the middle of the century. No one film‑maker better represents this slip into melodrama than Ken Loach – the architect of “documentary realism”. (Hill, 2000:182)
At this point, mention must be made of the alternatives to realism as a dominant film theory. While European and North American cinema continues to view realism in all of its forms as a highly useful means of social and cultural expressionism, the movies that tend to make by far the most money at the box office continue to be the typical Hollywood blockbuster. These films are defined as cinematic escapism: the diametric opposite to films that rely on depicting realism to tell a story. Blockbusters are increasingly divorced from the social realties of the day with science fiction movies being a luminous example of the way in which cinema and realism are often at odds with one another; an uneasy alliance between make‑believe and the movies that has served to make Hollywood cinema the most profitable industry in the USA. In terms of consumption, it would appear to be that it is not the films of realism that are the most important partners in film; rather it is the non‑realism, escapist films that appeal to the most broad‑based conception of the public audience.
Indeed, focusing on the viewer and the audience asks further questions as to the ultimate validity of realism in films. Although the actor, the director and the producer may all feel that they have collaborated in making a truly realistic film, their judgement is in the end irrelevant. Movies may be made by film‑makers, but the final verdict on its artistic (as well as commercial) success always resides with the audience. As such, it is surely the viewer and the audience who must state whether or not a film is realistic. This, of course, “involves readerly or spectatorial belief, a realism of subjective response, rooted less in mimic accuracy than in a strong desire to believe on the spectator’s part.” (Stam, Burgoyne and Flitterman‑Lewis, 1998:185)
Therefore, in the final analysis, each and every viewer will have a different opinion with regards to whether a film was on the whole realistic or not. No two viewpoints are ever likely to be the same. This is surely the defining reason why films are made: to encourage divisions of opinion and cultural debate on matters that are of relevance to the society in which the audience lives. Only films that are rooted in the concept of realism are able to achieve this kind of debate, which is in itself testimony to their ultimate value to the artistic community. Those films which seek to transport the audience away from reality are generally more concerned with the enormous commercial impact of films in the modern era, not with inciting intellectual debate. Serious film‑makers, on the other hand, will always tend to be attracted to the inherent realism afforded by the technology of film and it is for this reason that it is surely the most fundamental paradigm not only of film‑making but also of any artistic endeavour that truly seeks to engage its audience in any meaningful way.
Braudy, L. and Cohen, M. (Eds.) (1999) Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings Oxford: Oxford University Press
Ellis, J. (1998) Visible Fictions: Cinema: Television: Video London: Routledge
Lay, S. (2002) British Social Realism: from Documentary to Brit Grit London: Wallflower
Lehman, P. (Ed.) (1997) Defining Cinema London: Athlone
Murphy, R. (Ed.) (2000) British Cinema of the 90s London: BFI
Stam, R., Burgoyne, R. and Flitterman‑Lewis, S. (1998) New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post‑Structuralism and Beyond London: Routledge
Stam, R. (2000) Film Theory: An Introduction London: Blackwell
Styan, J.L. (1983) Modern Drama in Theory and Practice, Volume 1: Realism and Naturalism Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wead, G. and Lellis, G. (1981) Film: Form and Function Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Bazin, A. (1997) The Evolution of the Language of Cinema, in, Lehman, P. (Ed.) Defining Cinema London: Athlone
Hill, J. (2000) Representations of the Working Class, in, Murphy, R. (Ed.) British Cinema of the 90s London: BFI
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