Monday, June 21, 2010


Let's have a debate. A couple months ago I wrote a piece on Don't You Forget About Me, a documentary in which a bunch of young Canadian filmmakers travel to Chicago in hopes of getting an interview with John Hughes not long before his death. The piece ultimately ended up a reflection on what constitutes realism in film. Check it out here. Essentially, to repeat myself, film realism is not the same as reality because, since the camera is a recorder of literal events, realism in film comes down to what can be considered believable. In that sense The Dark Knight, despite taking place in a fictitious city with superheros and villains, is a more realistic film than say, a satire like Kick-Ass, which takes place in the real world. The Dark Knight creates a world that is both fully believable as itself and that takes itself seriously as a real place. We don't quite know any place on Earth like Gotham City or anyone quite like Batman or The Joker, but they mimic qualities that we associate with real people. They mirror our beliefs and what they stand for makes sense in a logical human world. That's film realism. To repeat once again, John Hughes' movies aren't so much realistic in that they present a portrait of what being a teenager is really like but that they create an idealized portrait of how teenagers would like to see themselves. They deal with emotions that aren't outside of human grasp even if they are simplified flights of fancy when juxtaposed against the messy, complicated realism of everyday life. As I've said before to the age old question of whether life imitates art or art imitates life: it's a two-way street, we'd like to think we talk like they do in the movies and the movies would like to think they talk like we do in real life. Even a film that appears to be dealing in realism like Gus Van Sant's Elephant with it's unprofessional teen actors, it's basis on real events, it's reliance on anti-climax, etc, is not so much a realistic portrait because of it's deliberate artistry. Elephant is a film that translates the banal into poetic-tragedy. It understand what it is like to exist in a moment when something is occurring that you can't quite grasp, but I suspect it is more a 20/20 hindsight reflection of the inherent meaning of Columbine than a realistic portrayal of what it felt like to be there, in that moment, as these events were occurring. In reality, realism isn't much desired in films. As much as we critics pine for it and accuse filmmakers for not giving it to us, what we really want is believability, even in the face of insurmountable perposterousness. A movie, anyway, doesn't need to be believable to be successful, but it needs to at least believe in itself, which, when you think about it, is kind of the same thing. So what do you think? Is there a successful (or any) film out there that is an honest representation of day-to-day reality? Let's throw some titles around and debate this. I believe I know one film that successfully depicts realism (which is what inspired this) but I'll wait to weigh in in the comments after seeing what people come up with.


  1. I think reality, or rather, believability, is in the hands of the filmmaker. A really good one, if we're going by your opinion, will make you believe the most preposterous situations. And there probably isn't one that fully translates realism, as that would be hopelessly banal and, besides, who wants to watch normal people onscreen for two hours? But, again, if the director can make it captivating, we could see.

  2. I don't think any film can be completely realistic. At the most basic level there is always someone that decides when to turn the camera on and when to turn it off. That decision alone would make the film only 99.9% realistic. I think it's like trying to be objective in journalism. It's an unobtainable goal but ultimately something worth striving for.

  3. This is a tough one. A great article, but tough question nonetheless.

    My first reaction was either Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” or “Polytechnique” but both of those offer more poetic takes on real life events.

    Which leaves me with either Larry Clark’s Kids, or Ozon’s 5 X 2. Though an argument can easily be made against them as well…

  4. Hmm, this post was a good one to chew on.

    I don't think it's realism that viewers want, but a hyper-realism...(not sure if I'm using that word correctly)

    For example, people laud Pulp Fiction for its "realistic dialogue." But, honestly, most people don't talk like the characters in Pulp Fiction. We just want to.

    Kind of like Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. People, myself included, are quick to point out how utterly realistic the dialogue is. But, how often do people actually converse the way that those characters do? We just kind of wish we talked like that.

    Maybe I'm off base..

  5. I mean, there are movies with realistic qualities to them. I think war movies like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and FULL METAL JACKET portray soldiers and their ordeals in a very realistic way.

    If you want a film that portrays normal life in a realistic way, I think HIGH FIDELITY is a good pick, all the breaking of the fourth wall aside.

  6. How about Andy Warhol's Empire? Ha ha.

    I love this post. Believability is much more important than realism. Similar to what Mike K. said about turning the camera on and off, any film is going to naturally be a bit more sensational than regular life, simply because the story being told has to have a uniqueness or irony or some other extraordinary element that makes it worth communicating to an audience in the first place. Otherwise, you could make a movie about literally anything: My two-hour road trip to my grandmother's house, in which the only thing that happens is I stop for gas and change the music? That's a pretty realistic movie. But we don't want to see it. (That's pretty much the plot of The Brown Bunny, actually, with a gratuitous blow job thrown in at the end.)

    Regarding dialogue, I think we call it "realistic" if it displays an absence of obvious exposition and relies on some of the shorthand two acquainted people would naturally use with each other. But at its best it's a screenwriter's creation.

    What about Stephen Soderbergh's Bubble?

  7. Some good comments going on here:

    Simon: is it simplfying matters to give all the credit to the director? Certainly realism also comes at the hands of the actors, writer, cinematographer, editor, no?

    Mike- You're right, especially, as Simon seems to be, you buy into the auteur theory (Truffaut's, not the American one) that every film is the sole reflection of the person who made it, in which case, the entire thing is purely subjective. The journalism comparison is a good one.

    CS- Your choices are good. I think, considering Hunger has a nearly 20 minute unbroken shot in the middle makes it as close a reflection of reality as possible and the dialogue during the scene sounds the way those people would talk. Polytechnique is an interesting one because, unlike Elephant, it does a better job at capturing the confusion of living in such a moment, but doesn't black and white make it inherently filmic by nature? And then the movie goes on a flight of fancy of sorts by dealing with stuff that happened after the shooting which feels contrived.

    Hal- The thing about Pulp Fiction is that all of Tarantino's movies know they exist in a movie universe. I think you are on to something with the Before movies. Whether or not people actually talk like that seems to become second fiddle to the fact that both Hawke and Delpy are so good at not appearing that they are acting that the dialogue sounds believable. It's what I was saying to Simon about the actor's helping to create belivablity.

    Sebastian- I'm not sure about Full Metal Jacket, a war film as artificial as any that comes to mind, but Private Ryan is an interesting one to ponder because it seems as though Speilberg is going for poetry in his battle sequences as opposed to say Platoon, which creates the essence of the danger in every step within a war zone. I guess that's the difference between a filmmaker who has been there and one who hasn't.

    Vance- You can only count Empire if you've seen the entire thing. However, you hit the nail on the head for me. Bubble was the film that inspired this post and one of the two that I think depicts realism as true as it can get on camera (the other is the French film The Son). Soderberg casts real people and even though he is using a plot, even the murder is handled like it really would in a small town: boring, rountine, unsuspenful.

  8. Realism (subjectively defined) - a film shot on location, with non-actors, using a melodrama-at-its-core plot. Editing techniques tend to be very standard, and camera shots tend to be fluid, handheld, and constantly moving. Lighting is natural, score is most likely completely absent.

    You could look at the Dogma 95 films, which I've always rejected as too realistic.

    My personal fave is Salaam Bombay, Mira Nair's first film that is so beautiful, simple, heart-wrenching, and totally gritty.

    By and large, movies that would fall into the classification of "Realism" (or Cinema Verite) tend to be independent and are than likely not American -- as American filmmakers have too much access to money and realism in film has never been commercially viable to American distributors until they're proven over seas.

  9. Red-Is something like Von Trier's The Idiots realistic or just a snotty kid thumbing his nose? I tend to lean toward the latter. Dogma 95 never really worked for me because the filmmakers never really seemed to take it seriously, except maybe Susan Bier, who is my favourite of the Danish filmmakers.

    What about Italian neo-realism, is something like The Bicycle Thief realistic or just melodrama taking place in a real world?

  10. Sweet! Do I win a prize? (Yes, I know you've already moved on to the next phase of the debate, but I have nothing more to add.)

  11. Hmmm, I was just having this argument with myself (yes I argue with myself) and the play "Death of a Salesman" came up which is quite experimental for its time. In crude form it's really as realistic as you can get on stage. We can't have real dialogue on stage (or on screen) because life is really trite. We can get real dialogue on heroin. But more than real dialogue we just want the occurrences in a movie to fit the overall scheme. Hence I'd say Kick Ass AND The Dark Knight achieve realism in the fabric of their respective films because the machinations don't stick out as glaringly unlike what we would anticipate.

    That being said Gosford Park wins for attempting realism (on a larger scale) with the best results for me.