story © Michael Betancourt, May 26, 1997 all rights reserved.
Realism is something distinct from narrative, from the way the film events develop, but at the same time it is a mode by which they are revealed -- thus, even for films which are not-realist, they will still find themselves following the same hieratical structure of photography/editing/development (action) that realism follows.
The different kinds of realistic photography are what we use to locate the type of film we are watching. We expect different kinds of realism from home movies, direct cinema, and Hollywood features, yet in all cases what we are being presented with is a film where the material photographed more or less reproduces an image of the subject. the focus at this level is on how, rather than what, is being filmed. When seeing a home movie of ‘Uncle Bob’ or watching a Hollywood feature called ALIEN, we accept both as realistic if the photography looks like our experience of reality -- even if what we see is itself (on reflection) not real. This is why science fiction films will often be driven by “special effects.” It is absolutely necessary for them to convince their viewers that what is shown on film is realist for their dramatic action to be convincing since this action itself is doubly false: not just actors performing, but actors performing in an obvious fantasy.
How we differentiate between these films is based upon how the images/sounds are ordered and what is included. Thus, the sequencing of the images/sounds is the next level of film realism. How a film is edited will make the difference between its being within the realist mode or not. Different editing techniques can all fall within the realist mode provided that when viewing the film the audience is willing to accept the film as corresponding to our everyday experience. All realism in film is contingent upon the audience watching the film accepting that the way it is presented is realistic. The degree to which various editing styles “resemble” our everyday experience is debatable since our experience of reality is significantly different from any film presentation, not least because we are acting within the world we see.
Direct Cinema focuses on these first two levels to construct a version of reality that refers to the process of making the film even as it presents its action. The focusing of the audiences attention on the constructed nature of the film is significant since it does not eliminate the third level of film realism, but instead shifts the focus of that realism off the means of its articulation and onto the process of filming. In effect, direct cinema creates a realism where it hides the actual articulation of that realism in plain sight: it is the world presented by the film narrative process itself. This other reality spawned through the editing and photography is distinct from each of these precisely because when it is experienced we do not necessarily recognize these other two aspects of the film; what we see is the way the film action develops through the narrative. This third level is the world which the first two levels act to construct.
Oliver Stone’s film JFK uses the interrelationship between these three levels of realism as a means to establish the film as a documentary, even though it includes many individual sequences that are not realistic. It is through the recreation of the specific ‘look’ of vintage footage from the period in question, the early 1960s, that the film gains its appearance of a document. By reproducing the photographic qualities of the films of this period the perception of this footage as a document from that period is established, then reinforced through the action of the narrative. The intercutting of the very opening sequence of the film establishes the techniques that will be used continuously to mediate the expressionist parts of the film and to establish the validity of the position that the drama takes.
The function of the realism in JFK is much more closely alligned to forgery than to documentary. By recreating the specific photographic qualities of documentary footage, then arranging that footage with the techniques of a documentary, the result is that the film takes on the aspects of a docudrama rather than that of a fiction film. Even if it presents a realistic account of the paranoid fantasies surrounding the Kennedy assassination, it fails to demarcate the difference between these fantasies and the reality outside the film, allowing the paranoia of the film to spill over onto teh audiences conception of reality.
Copyright © Michael Betancourt May 26, 1997 all rights reserved.
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