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.