Like it or not, film is the basic narrative form of our time, a position it achieved with the establishment of the feature film toward the end of WWI and consolidated in the sound era. Film’s images stimulate our imagination more strongly than words in a book. Today, few people ever get excited about a novel; few people never get excited about a movie. Although film is doubly fictive in that the images aren’t really moving and their substance itself is staged, our brains cannot process the series of still photographs as anything other than real-world movement. In more culturally relevant terms, in comparison to the words of a novel, the authenticity of the film image requires of us less deference to their author. The film auteur chooses his images, but he shows them to us rather than forcing us to reconstruct them from his prose. The unspoken motivation behind the nineteenth-century drive to reproduce sound and image is the desire to liberate representation from the triangular relationship with the Other-Subject.
I proposed in Chronicle 225 to define realism as deviation from–better, deferral of–the Standard Narrative Model (SNM) in whose action the “master” wagers his life. This definition is of historical value in capturing the literary focus on bourgeois characters–ordinary people–that begins in the eighteenth century and becomes dominant in the nineteenth. But the simplest, perhaps the best, definition of realism is simply as looking real. The objects we constitute in our imagination from realistic representations can be counted on–or so we think–to behave like real objects. This constitution is very different when it begins from photographs rather than words. Language becomes realistic by conveying believable information; we give credibility to detailed, apparently coherent descriptions, to specialized jargons recorded by novelists from Balzac to Zola and beyond. For our paleolithically-evolved brains, a photographic image is realistic until proved otherwise.
This mental imperative can be exploited in two ways, giving rise to the Lumière-Méliès dichotomy with which cinema history begins. On the one hand, reconstituting real movement on screen creates the illusion that one is really witnessing it: the train entering the station will crush the movie audience! On the other, by manipulating the series of images, one can create a realistic illusion of traveling to the moon or, more simply, of taking off one’s head and tossing it in the air. (Méliès, we recall, began as a magician.) But because film fantasy is parasitic on the mechanism of perception in a way that literary fantasy is not, I incline to the idea, elaborated most famously by André Bazin, that the vocation of film is realism; regardless of what is done with them afterward, its images are consecrations of a real, and specifically human, world.
Film’s fundamental realism is anterior to our judgment of the plausibility or possibility of the action. A science-fiction film is realistic because our first reaction to what we see on the screen is to accept it as faithful to reality. That this acceptance is historically conditioned–neither rear-projected scenes of the road behind actors driving cars nor New York City scenes shot in a studio’s back lot convince us as they did fifty years ago–only reinforces my point; more sophisticated techniques sensitize us to small clues of unreality (the flatness of the projected image, the lack of open perspectives of city life) that were less noticeable before these techniques evolved. As we grow more sophisticated, we require images ever more indistinguishable from those of real life.
What does film’s realism imply about filmic content? If the novel is an apparently amorphous literary genre whose only obvious quality is a certain length, film would seem to be yet more abstractly determined by its medium alone. Yet for reasons that cannot be dismissed as merely commercial, twenty years after its inception, film had acquired its standard “feature” format of 70-120 minutes, one whose dominance became more definitive with the coming of sound, and all but absolute with television’s relegation to the archives of the serial, the newsreel, and the “short subject.” When one visits a movie theater today, one sees only a feature film and advertisements (“trailers”) for more of same. Film length is more rigorously fixed by a whole degree of magnitude than novel length. Novels range from about 30 K to over 1 M words; a full-length film is too short at an hour and over the limit at four.
The novel’s length, which, however vaguely defined, exceeds that of the (short) story, lets us defer the inevitable death of the story it is telling and to live with the protagonist in a human time that is more than an ultimate moment–Racine’s dernière fois–that reveals his fate. This living-with makes the novel the privileged esthetic vehicle of adaptation to the world of market exchange. Human culture has been focused from the beginning on the deferral of mimetic desire; only in the modern world does my desire, in imitation and contradiction of others’, become the principal motor of my action. The novel supplies a temporal context to the story of desire gained or lost that lets us learn its lessons along with the protagonist. Not all novels end with the renunciation by which Girard defines the form in Mensonge…, but the novel’s length makes it a model of the relationship between lived experience and life as a whole, whose end is willy nilly that of the time that lends desire significance.
After the coming of sound there were, most notably in France (Pagnol, Guitry), energetic defenders of film’s kinship with theater. A novel is normally read alone, whereas film and theater are spectacles. One can make a play into a movie by just filming a performance; both spectacles last about the same amount of time. Nonetheless, Eisenstein–comparing Griffith to Dickens–claimed for film a special affinity with the novel. With the exception of those modernist works–Proust, Joyce, Musil–that test the limits of realism’s extension of time, most novels lend themselves so naturally to film that we consider reading and watching esthetically equivalent experiences. This is all the more curious because we may very well be aware, while watching the film, of exactly how much of the novel has been eliminated. As I recall, Zinnemann’s film of Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal combines two episodes and eliminates one altogether, yet it sticks in one’s mind far better than the book.
A play, precisely because it is performed by real people, cannot be realistic. It is either a tragedy where the principals live on the edge of sacrifice, a melodrama that shortens tragedy’s heroic cloak to accommodate the bourgeois, or a comedy that gets laughs from burlesquing the other genres. To see real people as people other than themselves requires a leap of faith that derives its energy from the sacred roots of drama. This dramatic core explains why, even more than painting has abandoned “photographic” depiction, theatrical decors and costumes in the film era have renounced the attempt at illusion. (This was not so before cinema, when theaters featured live animals on stage and shipwrecks in artificial seas.) Our acquaintance with Oedipus in our two hours with him is identical with the revelation of his fate; this acquaintance is tragedy itself. Yet an even shorter time spent in the movie theater provides an experience of novel-like realism because film looks real. Film concentrates the effet de réel that novels create over time into the same time-frame as a play–the time of spectacle.
This suggests that we may characterize film as realistic spectacle. Movies are full of violence and death; not only westerns, police stories, thrillers, martial arts, sci-fi, but almost every masterpiece. What great French film does not contain a murder?–Grand Illusion, Daybreak, Breathless, Jules et Jim, Hiroshima mon amour… (Yet think of the cinematic illumination of “ordinary lives” in a film like La maman et la putain or the works of Eric Rohmer.) Film realism domesticates the sacrificial ethos of the SNM, just as the fantasy built on this realism devalues it. The characters in film are flesh and blood like you and me; their death, like ours, is inexplicable. But because this death is only an image, we can indulge in fantasies of resuscitation or, alternatively, of the infinite carnage that video games and Schwartzenegger films have made familiar.
Understood as realistic spectacle, film need not and, indeed, cannot seek the suspension of time that is the ideal of the novel. Cinematic time is suspended within time. Film is a series of representations whose content is nonetheless processed by our senses as lived reality. The very impermanence of its images that defines film’s realism is what preserves these images of human time from decay. But after the first flush of novelty, the mere fact of filming is not sufficient to guarantee film’s consecration of reality, whence the early demise of the Lumière 50-second documentary. What a movie shows us cannot be more real than what we see from our window, but unless we have something like Jimmy Stewart’s view in Rear Window, we won’t continue to watch. This suggests why the greatest films, those that capture the form’s foundational tension, are either “spiritual” works that pay homage to the sacrificial reality they display, such as Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Dreyer’s Joan, or Bresson’s Condamné à mort, or “theatrical” ones that play on the discordance that film alone captures between spectacle and its flesh-and-blood basis, as do Renoir’s Rules of the Game and Carné’s Children of Paradise.