Film, aesthetics of

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

4. The camera, the eye and realism of effect

Many theorists have argued that the mechanism or ‘apparatus’ of cinema encourages and perhaps requires the viewer to think of cinematic images as corresponding to the perceptual states of an observer whose eye is the lens of the camera itself (Aumont 1989: 2). This idea is reinforced by the doctrine of realism of effect, in the following way. If viewers are victims of an illusion created by the film, then presumably they must think that the reality supposedly seen is seen from their point of view, by means of their visual organs. Since film manifestly works by presenting events from another, independent position – that of the camera – illusion-dominated viewers must come to think of themselves as occupying that position.

There are two objections to the idea that film induces the illusion that fictional events are real and that the viewer is directly witnessing them. The first is that there is little evidence that film typically creates, even temporarily or in part, the false beliefs necessary to sustain such an illusion; film watchers do not behave like people who believe, or even suspect, that they are in the presence of axe murderers, world-destroying monsters or nuclear explosions. Second, this theory is at odds with much of the experience of film-watching; identification with the camera would frequently require us to imagine ourselves in peculiar or impossible locations, undertaking movements out of keeping with the natural limitations of our bodies, and peculiarly invisible to the characters. None of this seems to be part of the ordinary experience of film-watching. In the attempt to identify the camera with some observer within the world of the action with whom the viewer can in turn identify, theorists have exaggerated the extent to which shots within a film can be thought of as point-of-view shots, and have sometimes postulated, quite ad hoc, an invisible narrator from whose position the action is displayed. It would be better to acknowledge that cinematic shots are only rarely from a psychological point of view, and abandon the thesis that the viewer identifies with an intelligence whose point of view is the camera.

A variant of illusionism says that the situation of the film watcher approximates to that of a dreamer, in that both situations present us with a strong impression of the reality of that which is actually unreal (Metz 1970). In that case the camera would correspond to a supposed ‘inner eye’ by means of which we perceive the images of dreams. This analogy has been a powerful stimulus to the development of psychoanalytic theories of film and film experience. In fact the analogy with dreaming fails to compare like with like. Dreamers, like film watchers, are usually physically passive while watching or dreaming. But the experience of dreaming is usually one that involves action – sometimes ineffectual – on the dreamer’s part, while the experience of film-watching, our reflex responses aside, rarely involves physical action. And it is the experience of film-watching and the experience of dreaming that are claimed by the advocates of the dream/film analogy to be alike. In dreams, our own actions and sufferings are of central concern to us; the experience of film-watching makes us largely forgetful of ourselves while we concentrate on the fate of the characters.

Citing this article:
Currie, Gregory. The camera, the eye and realism of effect. 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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