Thursday, July 27, 2006

What Is "Realistic"?

When I'm talking movies with someone—let's say it's about a movie I happen to like—the one response I dread more than any other is this: "But the movie was so unrealistic...." The notion of "realistic" is so complex and misunderstood that it's enough to bring a potentially fruitful movie conversation to a grinding standstill. So, I was especially delighted to discover this idea discussed by Robert Kolker in his slim, introductory undergrad text, Film, Form, and Culture. Let me quote a few selected passages:

The worst thing we can say about a film is that it is "unrealistic." "The characters weren't real." "The story didn't strike me as being real." Reality is always our last resort. If someone thinks we’re not being serious, we're told to "face reality." If our ideas are half-baked, overly narcissistic, or even just silly, we're told to "get real!" If we're college teachers or teenagers, we’re told we'll find things different "in the real world." Reality can be a threat, the thing we’re not facing, or not in, or not dealing with. But it can also be a verbal gesture of approbation. "That was so real." And, of course, it’s the greatest compliment we can give a film, even though—and this is the great paradox—in our media-wise world, we know deep down that what we’re seeing has very, very little to do with reality.

The fact is that "reality," like all other aspects of culture, is not something out there, existing apart from us. Reality is an agreement we make with ourselves and between ourselves and the rest of the culture about what we will call real. Maybe, as some people have argued, the only dependable definition of reality is that it is something a lot of people agree upon. This is not to say that there aren’t actual, "real" things in the world.....[but that] they have little meaning without human interpretation, without our speaking about them within the contexts of our lives and our culture, without our giving them names and meanings.

We find films realistic because we have learned certain kinds of responses, gestures, attitudes from them; and when we see these gestures or feel these responses again in a film or television show, we assume they are real, because we’ve felt them and seen them before. We’ve probably even imitated them. (Where do we learn to kiss someone? From the movies.) This is reality as an infinite loop, a recursion through various emotional and visual constructs, culturally approved, indeed culturally mandated, that we assume to be "real" because we see them over and over again, absorb them, and, for better or worse, live them. In an important sense, like films themselves, "reality" is made up of repetition and assent.

....What we call "realistic" in film is, more often than not, only the familiar. The familiar is what we experience often, comfortably, clearly, as if it were always there. When we approve of the reality of a film, we are really affirming our comfort with it, our desire to accept what we see….."reality" is not a given, but chosen.

16 Comments:

Blogger Momo said...

Hey Girish,

Interesting. But Kolker's position is rather postmodernist, don't you think? Reality is "an agreement we make with ourselves and between ourselves and the rest of the culture..." - it's back to that old line, then, of "there's no reality, it's all subjective", which is essentially a very anti-foundationalist perspective.

Not to say he is necessarily wrong, but that means there are counter-positions (the structuralists, the positivists etc). What I think, rather, is that there are, perhaps, multiple realities from which we may view films: Bunuel's early surrealist works, for eg - Un chien Andalou and L'Age d'or - are, let's face it, completely rubbish and incomprehensible and unrealistic (how can you step from your apartment in the city onto the beach?!) unless you shift your perspective from "real world" to psychoanalytic theory/reality, then suddenly they make sense.

You're right that "the notion of 'realistic'" is "complex and misunderstood" but I don't think the solution is to abandon the idea of reality altogether into subjectivity, but perhaps to recognize that there are multiple viewpoints of reality and celebrate. :-)

Peace (echoing you-know-who :-P)
Jenna

July 28, 2006 12:04 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey Jenna ~

Great points!
I've told you this before, but I like how you are both learned and able to comfortably translate that learning into unforbidding, easily-conversable terms. You'd be a good teacher!

I must now admit to being unschooled here in the basic perspectives--foundationalist, structuralist, positivist--although I have a suspicion of where they stand in this case.

I agree: "there are, perhaps, multiple realities from which we may view films." And I wonder if Kolker's position doesn't accommodate that. In the case of the Bunuels, he'd probably agree that when we are talking about the domain of surrealism/psychoanalytic explanations, the dream-logic of those films would not be rubbish, but instead an agreement we make with each other based upon our knowledge and understanding of surrealist/psychoanalytic principles. Just guessing here, not sure....

Also, I snipped a little bit out of his discussion, where he talks about things like "natural" processes (meaning, in the physical natural world) being incontestably objective "reality" and not subjective, although he then says that they end up being interpreted by us.

Cool points, Jenna--you've got the grey cells humming. I posted this just so I could mull it over and figure out my own position vis-a-vis these ideas.

As always, I learn a lot when we chat!

July 28, 2006 7:26 AM  
Blogger CK Dexter said...

This is an interesting passage, though this sort of view is tricky. On the one hand, this pluralistic kind of interpretation of reality can very easily get carried away into foolish, exaggerated, and at times irresponsible forms of relativism--the "it's all subjective" view that momo (Artaud le?) carefully distinguishes from counterpositions. Kolker seems to want to avoid this by qualifying his view ("This is not to say that there aren’t actual, 'real' things"), but there's actual a pretty big logical gap between the plausible idea that things "have little meaning without human interpretation" and the assertion that "Reality is an agreement we make with ourselves and between ourselves and the rest of the culture about what we will call real." There are many possible objections that could still be compatible with the initial premise--is it really a volutary choice about what to call real? is it really a matter of "agreement"? is it completely up to social practice, and if so, what difference does it make that there are "real actual things" out there? Of course, these are issues that philosophy has grappled with throughout its history, though those who hold Kolker's view usually seem to believe that until the pomo's came along everybody was some sort of naive platonist (even Plato wasn't a naive platonist!). Anyway, I guess my point is that we can accept a degree of pluralism in interpreting reality without granting that all interpretations have equal value or claim to truth--that, e.g., "Iraq had weapons of mass destruction" is NOT true on any reasonable interpretation of reality. I don't think Kolker, at least in the passage, has been careful about this.

My other concern is that this sort of view often seems attached to a naive kind of optimism -- it fails to recognize pluralism as a dilemma, not just a source of happy variety. To take an obvious example, part of the bitterness and viciousness of debates about the value and meaning of films is due to the impossibility of any definitive and exclusive interpretation. These conflicts only draw virtual blood, but of course when irresolvable interpretive difference are political, cultural or religious, nobody's in the mood to "celebrate diversity." The problem in this case is the failure to recognize that the criteria that ground an interpretation of reality are not arbitrary: they reflect, e.g., a set of priorities or values. Consequently to affirm one interpretation can _require_ opposing another, since each depends on a different set of priorities and values--even if "epistemologically" they all have an equal claim to some kind of "truth."

Girish, I wonder, do you see Kolker's view as a way of defending as "realistic" films that might seem vulnerable on those grounds (such as Bunuel)? Because when you mentioned the common criticism of "so unrealistic," my first thought was "why on earth should an artwork be 'realistic'?" I suppose there's a sense of realism that's necessary to great art--it must after all have some sort of relevance, thus real connection to reality. But I think it might be better to defend the virtues of non-realismm when it possesses such relevance, rather than redefine "realistic" while granting the imperative of realism. (In this respect, the extreme version of Kolker's position, that grants equivalent value to all interpretations of reality, would seem to remove any sense of valuing "realism" in any way--if it's not opposed to the false, then who cares if a movie is faithful to the criteria of any given interpretation of reality?)

July 28, 2006 9:45 AM  
Anonymous Peet said...

The most rudimentary way of evaluating a work of art is to see if it resembles real life accurately: "Picasso, he can't paint. My five-year-old can do that!"

Unfortunately, this is the kind of criticism that's very popular at the moment, mostly because film is a photorealistic medium. We’ve collectively robbed the filmmaker of his poetic licence and have pushed the artform in a corner where suspension of disbelief, a mere storytelling tool, seems to have become the highest obtainable goal for a filmmaker to achieve. I wrote an article about this, but since I've advertised myself enough on this site recently, I'll leave it at that. :)

July 28, 2006 11:51 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

We’ve collectively robbed the filmmaker of his poetic licence and have pushed the artform in a corner where suspension of disbelief, a mere storytelling tool, seems to have become the highest obtainable goal for a filmmaker to achieve.

Do you think so? I just ask because I love superhero films, but occasionally I'll find myself saying something like "oh come on, that wouldn't happen" ... in a superhero film. Which inevitably causes me to chuckle--I can believe that a man can crawl up buildings and shoot webs out of his wrists, but I can't believe that he can carry a woman with one arm and swing on webs with the other, because he needs to alternate wrists to prevent slamming into buildings.

Which just brings me back to a pet theory that any work of fiction establishes the rules of its universe early on, and that the rules are violated later at great peril. So you can go to X-Men and not doubt that someone can turn his skin to steel to deflect bullets, but if it happened in the middle of Goodfellas the film would be ruined.

July 28, 2006 3:05 PM  
Anonymous Jim Emerson said...

I feel the way Peet does. When I'm writing or talking about a film, I try to be careful with words like "realistic" -- or "naturalistic" or "believable" or "verisimilitude"... All that matters, of course, is how the movie creates its subjective world. Movies are about seeing through someone else's eyes and any decent film is stylized, because that's how its particular vision is expressed. I think it's mostly about tone. Which Vietnam movie is "more realistic": "Apocalypse Now," "The Deer Hunter," "Platoon," or "Casualties of War"? Answer: None. Each is a distinctive personal vision that, in part, tries to convey a subjective experience of combat.

Reminds me of a big argument I got into with some critics (and the audience) after a film festival screening of "American Psycho." People instinctively tried to separate what was "real" in the movie from what was "not real" -- what "actually happened" from what was just imagined or dreamed or hallucinated. I thought it was absolutely the wrong way of looking at a movie, since the movie itself -- whatever's up there on the screen -- is all that matters. It's ALL "real" -- and "unreal" at the same time.

Peet's painting analogy is a good one. I was just examining Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" triptich (in connection with something I'm writing about the excellent horror-thriller "The Descent," which opens in the US next week). Some of the figures in it are recognizably human. Others are phantasmagorical creatures composed of bird, insect, rodent and/or human parts. There are mutant musical instruments and rotting fruit -- more than 1,000 figures in all. Some seem to be part organic and part inorganic -- like the hollow structure with a human face. And although the work is presented in three separate but conjoined panels, each has bizarre, proto-surrealistic elements, so Eden is hardly more real (or less disturbing) than hell. Given the world Bosch creates, does it make any sense at all to go through it and say "This is realistic" and "This is not"? I don't think so. It's all one canvas. In fact, it's not even canvas at all, but wood! So, there you go...

(P.S. I wrote about the more extreme forms of "reality" vs. "unreality" in a rogerebert.com piece on Mind Games & Head Trips -- as different as "Fight Club," "Citizen Kane," "Taxi Driver," "Eyes Wide Shut," "American Psycho" and "Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.")

July 28, 2006 3:06 PM  
Blogger CK Dexter said...

Which just brings me back to a pet theory that any work of fiction establishes the rules of its universe early on, and that the rules are violated later at great peril.

Tuwa, this is a good point, but can we also allow for a kind of "meta" standard of realism--a distinction between realistic or unrealistic universes? What I mean is that even if you're watching a movie about superheroes, it's easier to suspend belief in some cases. Likewise, in sci-fi, there are things which may be unrealistic in a sense, but plausible, while others are plain ridiculous, even if they carefully observe the established rules of their imagined universe.

People instinctively tried to separate what was "real" in the movie from what was "not real" -- what "actually happened" from what was just imagined or dreamed or hallucinated.

Jim, I really sympathize with this point. It particularly reminds me of many of the responses people had to Mulholland Dr.

July 28, 2006 3:30 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Some thoughts on the Kolker quote and on what others have said here:

1) I've always thought (and I think everyone here probably agrees on this -- but feel free to correct me) that when viewers complain about a film being unrealistic, in most cases they mean that the film lacks verismilitude; the behavior of the characters and the events of the plot do not faithfully correspond to the way viewers believe people behave and events occur in real life. To them, there's a cognitive dissonance between what they see on screen and to what Kolker calls their level of comfort -- their understanding of the world based on how they've been taught to interpret it. Films that are faithfully realistic or that are brazenly unrealistic are rarely a problem; the films in between are those that cause the most trouble, and often it can be something as little as a line of dialogue or a single decision made by a character.

This is a dissonance between the viewer and the work of art; I suspect that the issue is as much one of representation as it is one of logic -- some viewers want a film that represents "reality" and that works according to the same unwritten "rules of logic" that seem to dictate things in that reality. This raises all sorts of questions about the expectations of viewers, but personally I wouldn't blame the viewers for this; we live in a culture in which "realistic" expectations are codified by television and Hollywood, and there are levels at which culture works that go beyond our own abilities to filter out such expectations and "forms of viewing and thinking," so to speak.

2) In my reading of Kolker's quote, I don't see him as being relativistic or excessively subjective. I also don't think he's denying that reality exists outside us. To me, he's saying that reality is mediated through us, which it certainly is; in other words, it is not possible not to mediate or filter reality through our senses, our habits, our culture, even if there actually is a reality (objectively speaking) beyond us. I think this sounds relativistic, but what I think he's saying is this: reality might exist apart from us, but it doesn't do us much good to talk about reality outside how we experience it because if we weren't around to experience it, there would only be reality in a technical sense, but not in an existential one. He's not being relativistic so much as he's trying to figure out how we understand reality.

I think that's what he's getting at when he says that "we find films realistic because we have learned certain kinds of responses, gestures, attitudes from them." As cultural subjects ourselves, we inculcate a whole host of expectations that we then use in turn to judge a film and its represantations -- and films that subvert or surpass those expectations get labeled "unrealistic." The challenge for viewers is to get beyond a point where a response to a film is reflexive, instinctual, or based on those inculcated experiences; viewers definitely can get past that point, but it takes time and effort.

So I don't think Kolker is deconstructing film and representation as much as he's actually constructing a case for how we experience film and how our nearly subconscious cultural experiences accumulate to affect how we react to the movies.

July 28, 2006 4:23 PM  
Blogger girish said...

CK, Peet, Tuwa, Jim, Michael ~ Terrific reading. Thank you for generously taking the time to set down your thoughts. So many great points here.

My motivation for this post was this: most of my non-online friends or family are not cinephiles. They know I'm one, and often ask me for recommendations, or bring up films they've seen for discussion. And when they do, this complaint ("unrealistic" and related words like "unconvincing", "unbelievable") comes up every once in a while. It often has to do, as Michael said, with "the behavior of the characters and the events of the plot do not faithfully correspond to the way viewers believe people behave and events occur in real life."

Also, as he said: "Films that are faithfully realistic or that are brazenly unrealistic are rarely a problem; the films in between are those that cause the most trouble, and often it can be something as little as a line of dialogue or a single decision made by a character."
This is also true in my experience of these dicussions.

The problem with calling a film "unrealistic" is that it's often derogatorily (and erroneously) used as a value judgment that the film is "not truthful" and is not "accurately reflective of life," when in fact what it does is, as Kolker says, not conform to what has been culturally agreed-upon as being "realistic."

I would also say that Kolker is not a flag-bearer for rampant subjectivity and relativism (at all). His writing has a strong moral streak. I'm sorry I was only able to reproduce a few passages here, but his wonderful book, The Altering Eye, (alas, out of print) is available in its entirety here.

Again, thank you for all the meaty comments. I'll have to mull this over some more and come back for seconds...

July 28, 2006 4:58 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"Girish, I wonder, do you see Kolker's view as a way of defending as "realistic" films that might seem vulnerable on those grounds (such as Bunuel)? Because when you mentioned the common criticism of "so unrealistic," my first thought was "why on earth should an artwork be 'realistic'?""

CK, good question. I'm not sure Kolker's trying to defend those films (like Bunuel) as being "realistic"; rather he is (1) raising the issue of "realism" itself as a problematic criterion of value for art (as you put it, why on earth does an artwork need to be "realistic"?), and (2) exposing the notion of "realistic" as not being "natural" but instead "cultural." Or that's what I think he is doing...

I think Jenna's notion of "multiple viewpoints of reality" would be broad and robust enough to accommodate blatantly "unrealistic" art like early Bunuel or even the Ab-Ex painters, for that matter....no?

July 28, 2006 5:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh, I should add that the book I took the passages from is not The Altering Eye but instead Film, Form and Culture.

July 28, 2006 5:27 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Funny how the question of realism on film seems parallel to realism in science fiction, where the criteria in the classic '30s and '40s fiction was scientific plausibility--you can posit fantastic concepts or impossible scenarios, but you needed to make it all convincing, back it up with enough science talk or extrapolated techonology or at least the telling literary detail (there are exceptions--Merritt, and Van Vogt had their share of stretchers).

In the '60s they threw even plausibility out the window, with the experimental works of Ballard, Moorcock, Disch, Farmer among others. Style was all (or damned near all), and what mattered was the beauty of the prose. Haven't followed the genre from the '80s onwards, so I wouldn't know what's really going on, but I think it's pretty much fragmented into different subgenres...

July 28, 2006 9:43 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

Another fascinating discussion - a topic I brood on sometimes... I wanted to add that I think there is another aspect of realism alongside what we could probably call "verisimilitude" that is very important in some films. I think there is also a particular type of use of elements of the "real world" in some films - often connected to a particularly strong attention to duration, to "real time". I think you might be able to say that "verisimilitude" refers to a depiction of something like "the real world" - while the other type of realism is about using elements of "the real world" in art, as devices (for realistic ends or not.) I had the good fortune this week to see a double bill of Rome: Open City and The Flowers of St. Francis - Rossellini is instructive, because he seems to be working with both types of "realism". He (though definitely Isabella, talking about him, in My Dad is 100 Years Old) said that he wanted to make "probable" films - to show what probably happened. That's what I mean by the first type of realism. The second is especially apparent in Flowers of St. Francis - the use of real monks to play the monks, the type of locations he used, the importance of hills and rocks and tree, etc. But I don't know if you could say these "real" things are necessarily used to make a "realistic" film - obviously not in the conventional sense. There are quite a few films like that - where amateur actors, "found" sets and locations, and so on, are used to create very stylized films - Rossellini, Olmi, sometimes Luc Moullet (though with professional actors) all made films like that... The "real" things work against "realistic" story telling - their connection to "reality" (which is itself hard to define - some kind of correspondence to the physical world, or an existence in the physical world, outside the film) is a device that can have unrealistic goals.

July 29, 2006 7:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Noel and Sam ~ Danke!

I loved Isabella's line about "probable cinema"; I thought to write it down when she introduced the film at a screening last year, but forgot. Thanks for reminding me.

A few more thoughts:

--Could being "realistic" be defined as an "attempt to incorporate some sense of reality"?

--In which case, since there can be said to be so many kinds of reality (not just physical or material reality but also: emotional, psychological, spiritual, imaginative, etc), being "realistic" is a notion that should be construed in a much broader fashion than most people end up doing in actuality.

July 30, 2006 7:41 AM  
Blogger Ed Garrity said...

Hey Girish,
I haven't posted a comment in a long time, and, I don't know if this entry will be picked up by your software, go un-noticed or not, but, ... my two cents, ... the discussion of reality and film is one of the most interesting of your mega-interesting film blog. As a "non-cinephile/but still film lover," I have been guilty of using hastily chosen words including 'realistic' when discussing films. This discussion has really opened up my mind to different viewpoints on film, and seeing film as art; Since this medium is so rich, the artist/film maker can help us to see the world in different ways, and bring out emotional responses. The discussion of reality, what it means, how it relates to film is central to viewing film as art. I won't use such hastily chosen vocabulary again!

September 25, 2006 7:54 AM  
Blogger spymovieguy said...

I have to throw out my two cents. Mind you, I didn't read every post, but I need to get this out. As a previous comment says/implies, shrewd people of experience expect some realism, even in a comic book movie. But I want to talk about spy/crime/action movies. Too often there are sequences which are so improbable, in terms of physics/athleticism, that the movie loses me. Movies like "The Bourne Identity" and "Haywire" epitomize good, realistic movie-making. It's fine to choose crazy circumstances, but let's have the characters do something believable, and at least remotely possible given the context. Hollywood fails so miserably at this, that we have come to expect it, and even tolerate it. I worry that producers think that a good story is not enough, so they have people jumping between vehicles going 100+ mph. Any non-moron knows the skill and reflexes necessary for this are, well, non-existent? I love to watch a spy flick and think, "that's what a double agent would do in that situation". Not that I would know, but I know when a sequence is complete BS, and I have been wasting my time on a film with script that should be bathroom tissue. Anyway, I hope people continue to make smart movies, and that people go see them. I want to reiterate that "The Bourne Identity" had no unrealistic parts that I can remember, and is the standard for a smart action/spy movie.

August 09, 2012 3:20 AM  

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