Film, aesthetics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

2. Realism of method and of style

The idea behind realism of method seems to be that the photographic medium enables us to see things themselves rather than representations of them; in this respect photographs are said to be akin to lenses and mirrors, in contrast to paintings (and, presumably, animated cartoons) which give us mere representations of things see Photography, aesthetics of). Even assuming that realism of method is correct, no theorist has adequately explained how this purely descriptive claim entails the evaluative claim that long-take style is preferable to montage style. And those who sought to justify realist style in terms of realism of method overlooked a crucial distinction between what the camera literally records – actors, props and sets – and the fictional objects and events it presents. Realism of method applies only to the first of these, whereas realism of style is primarily a vehicle for the presentation of the second. Further, if realism of method unequivocally favours realist style, we must endorse what are generally agreed to be rather problematic developments: 3D, smellorama, and the ultra-long-take method of Hitchcock’s Rope.

Some writers have denied that long-take, deep-focus style is realistic. In fact, a defence of the realism of that style is possible. Let us say that a mode of representation is realistic when, or to the degree that, we employ the same capacities in recognizing its representational content that we employ in recognizing the (kind of) objects its represents. A good-quality, well focused, middle-distance photograph of a horse is realistic in this sense: we employ our capacity to recognize horses visually so as to determine that this is, indeed, a photograph of a horse. Many paintings would count as realistic by the same criterion. A linguistic description of a horse, by contrast, is not realistic, for the capacity to recognize horses visually is not sufficient to enable you to recognize this as a representation of a horse; that requires a knowledge of the conventions of language. (There may be other senses in which the description is realistic.) Realism of style is a matter of degree; some aspects of the content of a representation may be recognized by deploying the capacity for object-recognition, while others are not.

By this criterion, long-take, deep-focus style is (relatively) realistic. Watching a film in this style, we judge the spatial and temporal relations between the objects (and their parts) and the events that the image represents by using the capacity visually to judge spatial and temporal relations between real things. We judge the spatial relations between objects visible in the same frame by seeing that they are spatially related thus and so within the visual field; we judge the temporal properties of and relations between events within the take by noting that this event took (roughly) so long to observe, while this one was experienced as occurring later than or earlier than that one. That is just how we perceive the spatial and temporal properties of things and events in the real world. With montage style, by contrast, where there is quick cutting between very distinct spatial (and sometimes temporal) perspectives, these properties and relations have to be judged, with greater frequency, by means of inference from the overall dramatic structure of the film.

It has been said that deep-focus style is unrealistic in that it presents us with an image in which objects at considerably different distances from the camera are simultaneously in sharp focus, whereas objects at comparable distances from the eye could not be seen in focus together (Ogle 1972). This does not seriously detract from the realism of deep focus. Deep focus, particularly when used in conjunction with wide screen, enables us to concentrate our attention on one object, and then to shift our attention at will to another object, just as we are able to do when perceiving the real world. Since we are usually not very conscious of refocusing our eyes, the similarities between viewing deep-focus style and perceiving the real world are more striking than the differences. With montage style, on the other hand, we are severely limited, by shot length and depth of field, in our capacity to shift our attention from one object to another at will – though this feature is not entirely absent in montage style.

Explicating the idea of realism of style in this way helps us to avoid an error that has dogged theorizing about the cinema: that realism in film can be attacked on metaphysical grounds because it postulates a real, observer-independent world, an idea that some theorists then further associate with a politically conservative agenda of submission to prevailing conditions. But realism of style as I have explicated it here appeals to no such postulate of an observer-independent world (though one might argue that such a postulate is both philosophically respectable and politically neutral). The claim of stylistic realism is not the claim that cinema presents objects and events isomorphic to those that exist in an observer-independent world. It is the claim that, in crucial respects, the experience of film-watching is similar to our ordinary perceptual experience of the world, irrespective of whether and to what extent that world is independent of our experience of it.

Citing this article:
Currie, Gregory. Realism of method and of style. Film, aesthetics of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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