Film Theory: Realism

Research in progress, Sep 19, 2022–520

See Kracauer

Jean-Louis Comolli, “Machines of the Visible” p. 760

“The cinematic image grasps only a small part of the visible, and it is a grasp which–provisional, contracted, fragmentary–bears in it its impossibility.”

“We tend to overestimate film’s ability to make the real world visible.”

Even the seemingly more realistic films afford only a fragmentary grasp of our world, and that partial vision depends on a kind of  narrative paradox.

Thye appear to make the world newly visible, render its reality transparent, they manage this feat by straddling film’s limits, disguising the very blindness which is at the heart of this visible.”

Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Case of Identity”

“A certain selection and discretion must be used in producing a realistic effect.”

Giannetti, p. 37

Realism is an artistic style.

There’s difference between reality and cinematic realism

Filmmakers still have to select materials from the chaotic sprawl of reality.

Realistic filmmakers necessarily eliminates some details, while emphasizing others.

They construct a structural hierarchy of visual significance

Photo of The Emigrants (1972)

Bordwell, 170

Realism is a standard of value

We all have biased conception of what realism is.

It’s a problematic issue in the philosophy of art

Notions of realism vary cross cultures, though time, and among individuals

The insistence on realism for al films is blinding and limiting (the range of mise en scene)

Critics condemn films for lacking realism

The effectiveness of expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Tenets of Realism

Elements that create the impression or seamless realism

Intimacy: a small, private moment, little things (like stolen kiss, glance, incongruous detail)

Realism as celebration of the poetry of everyday life.

Hollywood’s pride in concealing artistry and artificiality

The illusion that what we see is a dependable, truthful view of our world

Continuity editing

Shot-reverse shot sequences

Third-person POV

Practices that allow traditional narratives to invoke what Colin McCabe calls “dominant discourse of reality.”

Realism is not a static form, but one that constantly changes vis-a-vis socio-cultural perceptions of truth.

Realism relentless search for renewed truth and authentication (it was stylistic innovation).

In the sound era, realism was enhanced by the psychological particularization of silent archetypes through speech.

Actors like James Cagney made dialogue a dynamic component if film art.


Hollywood’s goal is that we take the reality of what we see on screen for granted, as real.

That we assume that a film’s POV is objective.

That we accept unequivocally what we see as natural

McCabe (Tracking the Signifier, p. 390 has called it “Dominant Discourses of Reality,” wherein the relationship between the viewing/reading subject and the real is placed as one of “pure” specularity. The real is not articulated–it is.”

Italian neo-realism

Jean Renoir

Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali)

Ermano Olmi’s Tree of Wooden Clogs

Poetic realism

Czech: Closely Watched Trains

Holly tries to hide the cinematic apparatus/mechanism

They play the cinematic game of transparency and disguise thu:

voice-over; flashback

location shooting

archival footage

factual story lines

These elements create elaborate armature of realism, but it’s tenuous realism

They never really avoid the limitations.

Comolli observes about the constraints of the (realistic) image.

See Kracauer.