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Realism

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  • Dan Sallitt
    ... I was made aware of the problems with the word realism when I was young. After a hesitation, I started using it again, because I think there s something
    Message 1 of 6 , Aug 10, 2003
      > I don't expect satisfaction. Simply sentences I can understand. Maybe
      > I'm particularly stupid. But I do not understand. I have been thinking
      > about realism and reality all my life and with each passing year the
      > actual reality is that I recognize I understand much less than I thought
      > I did the year before. Perhaps you are young and have the advantage.

      I was made aware of the problems with the word "realism" when I was
      young. After a hesitation, I started using it again, because I think
      there's something important behind it, and I can't find other words that
      address the same issues.

      I'm not enjoying this conversation, but I think I want to put down a few
      thoughts about realism.

      Any movie relies on many conventions. A filmmaker might, for instance,
      labor mightily to reproduce the exact intonation and phrasing of a
      real-life sentence, and yet not try at all to reproduce the spacing and
      overlapping in most real-life conversations. It doesn't work well to
      talk about a film being realistic or not (assuming one believes in a
      reality outside the film): every film seems to be striving at different
      levels both to approximate reality and to abstract it. I don't believe
      you can isolate any part of a film and say that it's realistic or not -
      some form of abstraction seems to cling to every fragment.

      Imagine two films that adhere pretty much to the same sets of filmmaking
      conventions. Maybe the actors in both make their voice quaver when they
      say "I love you," the way old-style actors sometimes do - we mostly know
      the convention from Groucho making fun of it, but you can see it in 30s
      movies sometimes. The second film does everything like the first except
      that the quaver is gone from big emotional declarations. Both films
      still feature a huge number of abstractions, but a great many audience
      members will think that the second film is more realistic, whether or
      not they like this perceived realism.

      In fact, someone can go out with a tape recorder, get a good statistical
      sample of people talking, quantify the amount of vibrato in people's
      voices, and make a reasonable case that the one film's acting style is
      in fact closer to reality at a certain time and place. In a way that
      person is barking up the wrong tree, but it's very understandable that
      he or she is tempted to resolve the matter by repairing to reality. In
      fact, the impression in an audience member's mind is probably more the
      point.

      This seems to have something to do with our awareness of conventions.
      When the late sixties and early seventies saw a big change in Hollywood
      craft conventions, Westerns started to look browner, dirtier, more
      washed out. It struck people as closer to reality, because they were
      made aware that old Hollywood favored more vibrant color schemes, and
      they all had a sense that the real West is sort of brown. So there was
      talk of a new realism in Westerns. It's possible that the real West was
      more colorful than a lot of these movies, but that didn't matter, in a
      way: we saw a convention being exposed as an abstraction. Eventually
      the new cinematographic style hardened into new conventions, at which
      point a bit of color to break up a sepia production design could begin
      to seem like a blow for reality.

      Auerbach ends MIMESIS with a chapter on Virginia Woolf, and writers like
      Woolf, Joyce, and Proust were sometimes called realistic for their
      attempt to render the complications of consciousness by breaking with
      factual description. Obviously the word needs a lot of context to have
      any force.

      I'm more tempted to use the word to describe something within the
      boundaries of a single movie than I am in most other cases, because
      there is so much context there: usually a filmmaker playing with realism
      will vary only a few elements within a set of style conventions that
      have already been established by the film itself.

      - Dan
    • Zach Campbell
      ... Exactly - context is just what gives the term realism force. Realism denotes a set of formal devices and conventions that give the impression, or intend
      Message 2 of 6 , Aug 10, 2003
        Dan:
        > Auerbach ends MIMESIS with a chapter on Virginia Woolf, and writers
        > like Woolf, Joyce, and Proust were sometimes called realistic for
        > their attempt to render the complications of consciousness by
        > breaking with factual description. Obviously the word needs a lot
        > of context to have any force.

        Exactly - context is just what gives the term 'realism' force.
        Realism denotes a set of formal devices and conventions that give the
        impression, or intend to give the impression, of reality: it's not
        that one image is ever "more real" than another image, but in certain
        situations it is necessary, even, to discuss which image might go in
        a more realist vein, or the ways in which each image utilizes
        realism. (The concept is heavily dependent on cultural and
        historical context.) This doesn't make the concept of realism
        instantly palatable and beyond reproach - we can still argue about
        all its problematic aspects - but the term quite simply does (or at
        least can) have definite and useful meaning.

        --Zach
      • Tag Gallagher
        Dan, if you re not enjoying this, there s no reason to drag it out. We re not getting anywhere, because I keep telling you that I don t know what YOU mean when
        Message 3 of 6 , Aug 10, 2003
          Dan, if you're not enjoying this, there's no reason to drag it out.

          We're not getting anywhere, because I keep telling you that I don't know
          what YOU mean when you use realism, and you don't tell me. Now, for
          myself, I spent fifteen years writing about Rossellini, which was in
          many ways fifteen years researching notions of "realism," not to mention
          reality. And the fifteen years included a lot of collateral
          considerations, chiefly the notion of realism/convention within art
          (medieval; renaissance in particular). No I am aware that what is
          thought of as realism is often absolutely not realism; and that a nose
          that looks "real" in 1250 did not not look "real" (to some people) in 1350.

          Since people don't agree, even this notion of realism becomes rather
          meaningless.

          Those of us who go around showing "old" movies to college-age people --
          meaning any movie made before 1990 or so -- are well aware that the
          inevitable response of students, even of most "film students," to "old"
          movies is that they don't like them as much as "new" movies, because the
          old ones aren't "realistic." And by this they mean simply that they are
          aware of artifice, whereas with current films they aren't -- no matter
          how many ostentatious camera/editing tricks there are.

          I don't think these are meaningful responses in terms of defining
          "realism," because the very same students will, most of them, reverse
          their opinion after seeing a few "old" movies.

          I said last time that when you use the phrase "using realism," I have no
          idea what you mean. You did not favor me with a response to this
          question. Some directors like to switch from studio to location, maybe
          just once in a movie, in order to shock. But I don't think they would
          say this is "using realism," because there is nothing inevitably
          realistic about a location.

          Maybe you mean that "realism" means you're not conscious of watching a
          movie. Well, I myself have never had this experience and have never
          meant anyone else who has.

          So I honestly do not know what you mean by realism. If you wish to
          suggest that I am being difficult, that's your right. But I am being
          honest. I do understand what people like Rossellini, De Sica, Fellini
          and Visconti meant, even though they each of them used it in ways that
          flatly contradicted the other three. I can understand them because they
          go to the trouble of explaining what they mean. You do not.

          If nonetheless you personally find it useful to use this term, fine.
          But I do not understand you.




          Dan Sallitt wrote:

          > > I don't expect satisfaction. Simply sentences I can understand. Maybe
          > > I'm particularly stupid. But I do not understand. I have been
          > thinking
          > > about realism and reality all my life and with each passing year the
          > > actual reality is that I recognize I understand much less than I
          > thought
          > > I did the year before. Perhaps you are young and have the advantage.
          >
          > I was made aware of the problems with the word "realism" when I was
          > young. After a hesitation, I started using it again, because I think
          > there's something important behind it, and I can't find other words that
          > address the same issues.
          >
          > I'm not enjoying this conversation, but I think I want to put down a few
          > thoughts about realism.
          >
          > Any movie relies on many conventions. A filmmaker might, for instance,
          > labor mightily to reproduce the exact intonation and phrasing of a
          > real-life sentence, and yet not try at all to reproduce the spacing and
          > overlapping in most real-life conversations. It doesn't work well to
          > talk about a film being realistic or not (assuming one believes in a
          > reality outside the film): every film seems to be striving at different
          > levels both to approximate reality and to abstract it. I don't believe
          > you can isolate any part of a film and say that it's realistic or not -
          > some form of abstraction seems to cling to every fragment.
          >
          > Imagine two films that adhere pretty much to the same sets of filmmaking
          > conventions. Maybe the actors in both make their voice quaver when they
          > say "I love you," the way old-style actors sometimes do - we mostly know
          > the convention from Groucho making fun of it, but you can see it in 30s
          > movies sometimes. The second film does everything like the first except
          > that the quaver is gone from big emotional declarations. Both films
          > still feature a huge number of abstractions, but a great many audience
          > members will think that the second film is more realistic, whether or
          > not they like this perceived realism.
          >
          > In fact, someone can go out with a tape recorder, get a good statistical
          > sample of people talking, quantify the amount of vibrato in people's
          > voices, and make a reasonable case that the one film's acting style is
          > in fact closer to reality at a certain time and place. In a way that
          > person is barking up the wrong tree, but it's very understandable that
          > he or she is tempted to resolve the matter by repairing to reality. In
          > fact, the impression in an audience member's mind is probably more the
          > point.
          >
          > This seems to have something to do with our awareness of conventions.
          > When the late sixties and early seventies saw a big change in Hollywood
          > craft conventions, Westerns started to look browner, dirtier, more
          > washed out. It struck people as closer to reality, because they were
          > made aware that old Hollywood favored more vibrant color schemes, and
          > they all had a sense that the real West is sort of brown. So there was
          > talk of a new realism in Westerns. It's possible that the real West was
          > more colorful than a lot of these movies, but that didn't matter, in a
          > way: we saw a convention being exposed as an abstraction. Eventually
          > the new cinematographic style hardened into new conventions, at which
          > point a bit of color to break up a sepia production design could begin
          > to seem like a blow for reality.
          >
          > Auerbach ends MIMESIS with a chapter on Virginia Woolf, and writers like
          > Woolf, Joyce, and Proust were sometimes called realistic for their
          > attempt to render the complications of consciousness by breaking with
          > factual description. Obviously the word needs a lot of context to have
          > any force.
          >
          > I'm more tempted to use the word to describe something within the
          > boundaries of a single movie than I am in most other cases, because
          > there is so much context there: usually a filmmaker playing with realism
          > will vary only a few elements within a set of style conventions that
          > have already been established by the film itself.
          >
          > - Dan
          >
          >
          >
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          [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
        • Dan Sallitt
          ... Geez, I was trying. Those last few paragraphs were an attempt to get at how and when I thought the term might have meaning, with examples. I might be
          Message 4 of 6 , Aug 10, 2003
            > We're not getting anywhere, because I keep telling you that I don't know
            > what YOU mean when you use realism, and you don't tell me.

            Geez, I was trying. Those last few paragraphs were an attempt to get at
            how and when I thought the term might have meaning, with examples. I
            might be able to go back, rip some sections out, and rearrange them in
            some approximation of a definition, but I have a feeling that's not the
            way to go.

            Your definition of art - "when the cloud dissipates" - is not the kind
            of definition that dictionaries use. I presume that behind that
            sentence is a philosophy of definition. Would you like to talk about
            this? - Dan
          • Jaime N. Christley
            ... don t know ... Tag, is it possible that Dan s exploration of the terms at hand ( realism, western ) are unsatisfactory to you because he isn t allowing
            Message 5 of 6 , Aug 10, 2003
              --- In a_film_by@yahoogroups.com, Dan Sallitt <sallitt@p...> wrote:
              > > We're not getting anywhere, because I keep telling you that I
              don't know
              > > what YOU mean when you use realism, and you don't tell me.
              >
              > Geez, I was trying.

              Tag, is it possible that Dan's exploration of the terms at hand
              ("realism," "western") are unsatisfactory to you because he isn't
              allowing you to play the Socrates-gadfly role, wherein you would
              catch him giving concrete (deified, fascist) definitions of the words
              and proceed to Method him towards your argument? Because, god love
              you, your reputation precedes you, etc., but Dan's as good as almost
              anybody I know at carrying on a productive discussion using tricky,
              goes-back-and-bites-you-on-the-ass terms and conceptual matters.

              Also this isn't a board where people call themselves stupid, if I can
              be so bold as to speak for the founding members...besides, I don't
              think Dan would sound so exasperated if you were stupid.

              Jaime
            • hotlove666
              I m way behind on replying to all the interesting posts. Let me just make one point to Yoel. Quite apart from the philosophical issue of what we know about the
              Message 6 of 6 , Aug 19, 2003
                I'm way behind on replying to all the interesting posts. Let me
                just make one point to Yoel. Quite apart from the philosophical
                issue of what we know about the world, there's a confusion of
                two critical terms in your post: "realism" and "mimesis" or
                "imitation." Long before the advent of realistic painting and
                literature, mimesis was the term used to define, praise or villify
                art. Aristotle uses it in his Poetics when he defines tragedy as
                the imitation of an action; Plato uses it in The Republic when he
                condemns art as imitation of the world of the senses, a mere
                copy of a copy (since the world was supposed to be a copy of
                the world of Ideas).

                Neither was talking about realistic art - Oedipux Rex is certainly
                not that. Neither is the story of Abraham and Isaac or the episode
                from The Odyssey that Auerbach uses at the beginning of his
                book Mimesis to distinguish two different styles of imitation. The
                ideal of mimesis did eventually turn into the idea of realism or
                naturalism, which happened at a defined point in time and
                produced worlds that everyone calls realistic with no problems,
                even though we know that monocular perspective in painting, for
                example, is a convention.

                The next step in this very old and oft-told history is what Yoel
                cites Brakhage and Mondrian for - imitation of the artist's
                emotions, or more generally, inner world. You can date the
                "revolt against mimesis" from all sorts of things. For me an
                obvious key moment is Wordsworth's Intimations Ode, where a
                child is born or reborn into the natural world, taken in hand by the
                "kindly foster nurse," Nature, who does all she can to make him
                feel at home in her realm; and then gradually, through imitating
                what he sees and hears - including behavior - "as if all his
                vocation/Were endless imitation," he becomes trapped in a
                lower existence than the one he came from, and the frost lies
                over him "deep almost as life'"- buried alive, in other words.

                This blatantly Gnostic view of human life includes an even more
                radical attack on mimesis than The Republic, where the Myth of
                the Cave is already an import from Eastern Gnosticism before
                Plato, and it leads in Wordsworth to the writing of lyric poetry
                which can all be summed up by the title of his magnum opus,
                The Prelude, a 14-book Miltonic epic whose subtitle designates
                it as a "History of the Poet's Mind." (One 18th Century
                predecessor of Wordsworth's reinvention of the lyric was the
                essay poem, which imitates thought, or the verse epistle, which
                does the same by imitating the natural medium of thought, the
                voice, according to Lucan's much-quoted formula that the
                alphabet "paints the voice.") That is the beginning of a new
                mimesis (which Auerbach certainly takes into account: his last
                chapter is about a free-association passage from The Waves),
                but calling it "realism" is using that term in a way that most
                people wouldn't understand.

                A lot of the arguments I've been reading which presume that no
                one knows what realism means, and that there are many
                definitions of it, are conflating realism and mimesis. Realism is
                a historically defined style of literature and painting that carries
                over into photography and cinema - Baziin even claimed that
                cinema is "ontologically realistic," a debatable but certainly
                comprhensible statement. Mimesis is a much more flexible term
                with a much longer history that certainly includes Yoel's
                examples from Brakhage and Mondrian. "Abstract
                expressionism," going in the door, was conceived as a form of
                inner mimesis, according to my skimpy knowledge of the
                subject. But let's keep "realism" as "the representation in art of
                objects as they actually are, without idealization or presentation
                in abstract form." That definition is big enough to include many
                sub-realisms--neo-, poetic, social and so on - without swelling it
                into a synonym for the much ampler idea of mimesis.

                Re: The Wrong Man - Hitchcock sure thought he was doing
                realism. He even regretted when he spoke to Truffaut that he had
                strayed in any way from the precise facts. Of course, what he did
                was more complex than that, and that certainly goes for the
                subway. That complexity can work, or not work. In Cold Blood,
                which literally "returned to the scene of the crime" to reenact the
                Cutter murders, was trying hard, too, but Brooks' polemic and
                corny writing ideas (all those pie-in-theface associative cuts)
                introduced abstraction at a level that seems ludicrous when we
                see the film today. In the Hitchcock, the stylization and dramatic
                shaping of the documentary material worked.
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