Understanding Realism
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Understanding Realism

Richard Armstrong

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eBook - ePub

Understanding Realism

Richard Armstrong

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In a world, in which camcorders and CCTV are witness to our every move and Big Brother and The Blair Witch Project are phenomenally popular and widely imitated, the divide between reality and liction has become increasingly blurred.

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This chapter describes cinematic realism emerging from the realist tradition in western philosophy and the arts in which experience and artifice played equal roles. Tracing realist and anti-realist tendencies in cinema, the chapter questions the status of experience and representation in realist films. Notions of 'reality effects' and 'truth effects' are introduced to account for the represented/representation conundrum.
The Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte painted a number of canvases depicting a smoking pipe beneath which ran the statement 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe' ('This is not a pipe'). Above the words is an almost photographic painting of a pipe. These paintings express one of this elusive artist's most accessible ideas because, by playing with the differing natures of images and the words that describe them, Magritte's message is clear. Images of real objects are simply images. We may point at the picture and say 'pipe', yet still it remains not a real pipe, but a representation of a pipe. Magritte's message gets to the bottom of the issue of realism.
'A film is hundreds of moments photographed and joined together to create an illusion of something which did not take place.' (Film director Michael Winner, quoted by Poppy and Stevenson in Realism, Film Education, 1998, p. 1)
Realism seeks to depict real objects and experience. But the term is as much about representation as it is about reality. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines 'representation' as 'an image, likeness, or reproduction of a thing, e.g. a painting or drawing' - or a film or a TV programme. Watching a Los Angeles homicide cop chasing his man in the Hollywood thriller Heat (Michael Mann, 1995), we are actually watching a series of images, pieces of celluloid edited together in a particular way to represent a detective pursuing a suspect somewhere in present-day Los Angeles. When we see Andie MacDowell, a real individual, chatting to a friend in The Player (Robert Altman, 1992), we are watching a series of images - pieces of film - edited together in a certain way to represent a real person's actions. This is an image of a particular individual who genuinely exists, but the image of her is shaped by the way in which the film has been shot and edited. This is not Andie MacDowell. These are images of Andie MacDowell. Even the workers whom we see leaving the factory in the Lumière brothers' film Workers Leaving the Factory (1895) are not real. However 'raw' and 'gritty' we say this footage is - and indeed other realist films are - it is still only a representation of this event. Cinema pioneers widely regarded as having invented moving pictures, the Lumières began their film with the opening of the factory gates and ended it with the closing of the gates, thus framing apparently random experiences so as to lend the film narrative some shape. The bottom line is that when you watch a film or TV programme, you are watching nothing but a representation of reality. This is what films and television programmes are. But what happened to realism? Why Italian neo-realism? Why 'reality TV'? To answer these questions we must begin by going back to well before the cinema was invented.
Heat; Just pieces of celluloid edited together...
‚Ėł Think of films that encourage you to see what goes on in them in a particular way. Why do we see the Lumi√®re employees approaching the camera rather than leaving it in Workers Leaving the Factory! Why do Melanie and Jack in One Fine Day constantly find themselves in close proximity? ‚ÄĘ
The real world and the ideal world
For centuries philosophers have argued about how we know what we know about the world. One faction has argued that there are material things existing in space and time independently of the individual's knowledge of them. I only know that things exist in space and time when evidence reaches me via the data that I perceive through my senses. For example, I know that there is a bird in the tree because I hear its song. I know that I have left the oven switched on without lighting it because I can smell gas. But that bird and that gas leak could exist independently of what I perceive about them. They could exist even though I am not here. The other philosophical faction has argued that things do not in themselves exist in space and time. They exist only as ideas that I have of them. Thus I infer the existence of songbirds and gas leaks from the ideas that I have of these things. Take me away from the birdsong and the smell of gas and they may just as well not exist.
‚Ėł Do you think we still believe in a truth that exists irrespective of what you or I, or a film director or a news reporter, as individuals experience? Relate an experience you have had to a friend, then relate the same experience to another friend in writing. ‚ÄĘ
These two ways of thinking have had major impacts on the arts. The materialist assumption was at the heart of nineteenth-century realism. Reacting against the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which held that ideas govern how we experience the world, the materialist assumption had been translated into a widespread and influential set of aims and methods by the 1850s. Theorists and practitioners in art, fiction and drama developed techniques for the thorough and accurate representation of experience in all its social and domestic variety. Artists Gustave Courbet and Hilaire Degas created a realm of things and experiences in the real world. The work of both of them embodies the essential contradiction found within realism. Courbet and Degas were also influenced by photography, a new art form emerging in the mid nineteenth century, and Degas's work anticipated the era's experiments in motion photography. Yet Degas's paintings were in fact scrupulously composed. This interaction between experience and personal expression is at the heart of artistic, literary and cinematic realism.
Derived from the work of French theatre and film director André Antoine, who insisted on location shooting, multi-camera point-of-view and editing which made the spectator identify with the camera, cinematic naturalism brings the spectator into all-too-human stories. It works to involve us as bystanders much as the audiences of boxing movies such as Ali (Michael Mann, 2001) 'naturalize' the position of bystander by making us identify with the audience at a boxing match. But what values are made to seem natural in Hollywood films?
The description of a society evolving in space and time emerges in French novelist Honoré de Balzac's almost sociological accounts of Parisian social classes in the 1830s and 1840s, through Flaubert's realist milestone Madame Bovary (1857), to the extreme realism, or 'naturalism', of Emile Zola in the 1880s and 1890s. Flaubert's Madame Bovary is a key realist work. That it has been filmed three times reveals something about the cinema's perennial identification with literary realism, and its concern with aesthetics. Detailing the romantic aspirations and disappointments of a young married woman, Flaubert caught both the brute facticity of the fleeting moment and the way in which events reach us in terms of how individuals see them. Madame Bovary seemed to emerge out of life as we tend to experience it, relayed to us not just by our senses, but also by our opinions and prejudices and the opinions and prejudices of others. Theorists have written that realism is never a formless mass of unmediated experience. It must have certain logical structures. As we look at Hollywood, US independent, British cinema, art cinema and documentary, we shall become aware of the structures, techniques and devices with which these distinctive aesthetics shape experience.
Dominant among the 'voices' we hear in Madame Bovary is Emma's own naive and romantic point of view. What distinguishes the various realisms that we will be looking at in chapters 4 and 5 is an issue related to where raw experience can be found, where the director's representation of experience ends, and where a character's viewpoint begins. Many of the decisions made about how experience is represented have to do with whose story is being told. Flaubert wanted to catch the experience as mediated by the individual and to clinically report the unvarnished detail. But are not even Flaubert's most strenuous efforts to be clinical themselves the result of his specific way of seeing, with all the baggage which goes with a point of view? Film directors, too, are constantly caught between levels of representation. The staunchest Italian neo-realist film is torn between the brute facticity of the streets and the attitudes and opinions of those who live there. While Rossellini's very decision to film on the streets of Rome in Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945) brings home the air and atmosphere of a particular place, it also brings with it Rossellini's own assumptions about the nature of experience. Realism is a conundrum.
‚Ėł Pick up a camera and point it at something. Are you 'taking' or 'making' this photograph? ‚ÄĘ
The development of photography from 1839 onwards saw painting drift away from the mimetic, or exact copy of experience, and towards the examination of its own methods, a shift which led eventually to the depiction of light itself in the work of the impressionists. Work such as Pierre Auguste Renoir's Le Déjeuner des canotiers (1881) and Claude Monet's paintings of water lilies (1903-23) is typical of this shift. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see how photography and cinematography could have emerged during an era so preoccupied with realism. While it is true that photography was able to record images of the world with infinitely greater clarity than painting, it was nevertheless quickly recognized that any intervention by the photographer between the camera and the world introduced aesthetics to photography. Did one 'take' a photograph or 'make' a photograph? The nineteenth-century debate surrounding photography as a record and as an art led to differing strands in photographic aesthetics that would resonate in the early development of cinematography. If by 1848 realism had become the most important movement in French art and literature, by 1850 photographers had begun to think about introducing motion into the photographic image. It was only a matter of time before the motion picture camera would capture experience in all its fluid detail. The moving picture would give rise to a whole new set of aesthetics.
Workers Leaving the Factory. The nitty gritty of everyday life
What is cinematic realism?
The history of film aesthetics is often thought of in terms of the evolution and interaction of two tendencies. In December 1895 moving pictures were first shown publicly by photographic entrepreneurs the brothers Lumière (Louis and Auguste) in Paris. These 'actualités (literally, 'current events') were real events filmed as they actually happened. Workers Leaving the Factory and Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (1895) are simply filmed records of employees leaving the Lumière factory at the end of the day and the arrival of a train, respectively. Recording everyday events and shot at eye level with unobtrusive editing and no camera movement, these films are the earliest examples of cinematic realism, and enthralled audiences wherever they were shown. Related to realism in painting and literature through their preoccupation with ordinary experience and unadorned style, the Lumière films embody a key pattern underlying the evolution of film.
Méliès A Trip to the Moon (1904): Turning experience into a trick
‚Ėł Have you ever watched a film in which ordinary people do ordinary things and been riveted by it? Why was this the case? ‚ÄĘ
The other tendency is represented most famously by the work of Georges Méliès. Un Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902) remains the most celebrated example of his work, a fantasy about a rocket journey to the moon. Méliès is considered the inventor of the 'trick film', in which the visual gimmickry of the theatre was augmented with such cinematic trickery as jump cuts, whereby a cut occurs in the middle of an action being shot, creating a 'jump' in the action. Méliès also employed double exposures, in which two images are superimposed on the same piece of film. Unlike the Lumière brothers, Méliès' work relied upon what film aesthetics brought to the representation of experience.
Industry professionals working in film and TV refer to live footage as 'actualities', or 'acts', as in the Acts of the Apostles, which have hod the reputation of being absolutely true for centuries.
'With Lumière, trains entered stations, with Méliès they got off the rails and flew into the clouds.' (Film historian Claude Beylie (1932-2001), quoted by Ginette Vincendeou in the Encyclopedia of European Cinema, Vincendeau (ed.), Cassell, 1995, p. 285)
French film theorist Andre Bazin (1918-58) traced the history of the cinema in terms of its gradual achievement of realism.
It is possible to trace Lumière realism and Méliès trickery throughout film history by examining the degree to which a film reveals real experience and the degree to which it us...

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