Theories of Realism

Most theories of realism emphasize the documentary aspects of film art. Movies are evaluated primarily in terms of how accurately they reflect external reality.

  • Photography and cinema tend to leave the raw materials of reality more or less intact. Things are left the way they are – this is the motto of neorealism.
  • The five main ideological characteristics of the movement are:
    1. A new democratic spirit, with emphasis on the value of ordinary people such as labourers, peasants, and factory workers.
    2. A compassionate point of view and a refusal to make facile moral judgments.
    3. A preoccupation with Italy’s Fascist past and its aftermath of wartime devastation,
    4. poverty, unemployment, prostitution, and the black market o 4) A blending of Christian and Marxist humanism.
    5. An emphasis on emotions rather than abstract ideas.
  • The stylistic features of neorealism include:
    1. An avoidance of neatly plotted stories in favour of loose, episodic structures that evolve organically from the situations of the characters.
    2. A documentary visual style
    3. The use of actual locations – usually exteriors – rather than studio sets.
    4. The use of nonprofessional actors, sometimes even for principal roles.
    5. An avoidance of literally dialogue in favour of conversational speech, including dialects.
    6. An avoidance of artifice in the editing, camerawork, and lighting in favour of a simple “styleless” style.
  • Things on set have been ‘found’ rather than ‘arranged’
  • Realism movies suggest endlessness (e.g. The Bicycle Thief – he doesn’t find his bike in the end...)

Formalist Film Theories

The formalist filmmaker exploits the limitations of the medium – its two dimensionality, its confining frame, its fragmented time-space, continuum – to produce a world that resembles the real world only in a superficial sense.

  • Directors can manipulate objects and perspectives in the mise en scene; for example, important objects can be placed where they are more likely to be noticed first and unimportant objects can be relegated to inferior positions, at the edges or rear of the image.
  • Through editing, filmmakers can chop up space and time and rearrange them in a more meaningful manner.
  • By juxtaposing these space and time fragments, the filmmaker creates a continuity that does not exist in raw nature.
  • Formalists are always concerned with patterns, with methods of restructuring reality into aesthetically appealing designs.
  • Patterns can be expressed visually, through the photography and mise en scene, or aurally, in stylized dialogue, symbolic sound effects, and musical motifs.
  • Camera movements are often kinetic patterns super-imposed on the visual materials, commenting on them in some heightened manner.

The Auteur Theory

In the mid-1950s, the French journal Cahier du cinema revolutionized film criticism with its concept of la politique des auteurs. This committed policy was put forth by pugnacious young critic Francois Truffaut.

  • Truffaut, Godard, and their critical colleagues proposed that the greatest movies are dominated by the personal vision of the director. A filmmaker’s “signature” can be perceived through an examination of his or her total output, which is characterized by a unity of theme and style.
  • Movies ought to be judged on the basis of how, not what.
  • Like other formalists, the auteur critics claimed that what makes a good film is not the subject matter as such, but its stylistic treatment. The director dominates the treatment, provided he or she is strong director; an auteur.
  • The auteurists argued that the best movies are dialectical, in that the conventions of a genre are held in aesthetic tension with the personality of the artist.
  • To this day, the concept of directorial dominance remains firmly established, and it is now often used by the film itself in publicity campaigns.

Structuralism and Semiology

  • The auteur theory came under attack in the 1970s from film scholars who demanded more rigorous methods.
  • Structuralism and semiology allowed for more systematic and detailed analyses of movies using the ideas from such diverse disciplines as linguistics, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy, concentrated on the development of a more precise analytical terminology.
  • In film, semiology is the study of how movies signify.
  • Semiotics implies a less systematic approach and three different kinds of signs are distinguished by their relations to what they signify.
  • Theory of cinematic communication founded on the concept of signs or codes.
  • Semiology is concerned with the systematic classification of types of codes used in cinema; structuralism is the study of how various codes function to create the structures through which we make sense of the world.
  • Structuralists and semiologists have been fascinated by the concept of a deep structure—an underlying network of symbolic meaning that is related to a movie’s surface structure but is also somewhat independent of it.
  • Depending on the culture analyzed, they can be agricultural, sexual, conceptual, generational, and so on.
  • These structural techniques can be used to analyze a national cinema, a genre, or a specific movie.

Ideology and Culture

  • Semiology and structuralism are essentially formalist theories, centrally concerned about how meaning is created.
  • Theories began to be more concerned why certain structures have become dominant and in whose interests they work.
  • Film studies turned to psychoanalytic theory in an attempt to explain the social impact of the medium.
  • Metz combined semiology and psychoanalysis, arguing that classical cinema is so effective because it provides the spectator with a sense of mastery over the world like that of the infant in front of the mirror. It does so by inviting us to identify with the camera and by concealing the work that went into creating the film.
  • Ideology works beneath the level of the conscious mind and persuades us to accept the value of our culture as if they were produced by nature.
  • We may assume that these identities are personal and private, but they are actually shaped by social institutions and the mass media.
  • An argument was put forward in Canada to explain why Canadian audiences preferred Hollywood films to the work of Canadian filmmakers.


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