People are free to understand and interpret movies in their specific ways, relying on personal interests, knowledge, and approaches. During this week, students got a chance to study the perspective about classical film theories and the peculiarities of cinematic art offered by Irving Singer. There are many filmmaking devices that determine the quality and meaning of a movie. The relation between the concepts of reality and formality is frequently discussed. Singer explains reality as “a product of formalist techniques and creative innovations that enable some filmmaker to express what he or she considers real in the apparent world” (xi). Despite the author’s intention to combine realism and formalism, these theories are distinct, and there many supporters of both. La Jetée is one of the movies where the characteristics of the chosen theories are perfectly intertwined. In this report, the analysis of realism and formalism will be developed through the prism of Singer’s book Reality Transformed and Chris Marker’s movie La Jetée.
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Singer’s Role in Film Theory Discussion
Film theory is a complex discipline of film studies, the goal of which is to define appropriate frameworks for understanding movies, their connection to reality, and formalist features. This week’s reading is not an ordinary book with a number of definitions, examples, and evaluations. Singer himself defines his work as an essay that lacks clear methodologies but contains a philosophical perspective on a “harmonizing relevance” the moves “beyond the persisting controversies between realists and formalists” (x). The debates that include the strengths and weaknesses of realism and formalism in film theory are numerous, and each time the worth of each approach is proved. Singer aims to avoid a similar analysis and conclusions and move beyond to introduce a new theory that incorporates technical and meaningful characteristics, calling it the theory of transformation.
The main challenge of filmmaking is the impossibility of creating a work that meets the interests and preferences of all people. Personal preferences in genres, the cast, visual effects, and the plot create a variety of audiences. Therefore, it is expected for moviemakers to combine as many features as possible but keep the balance. In the chosen reading, “all art, and cinematic art in particular, is best understood as life-enhancement (Singer x). It means that it is wrong to consider a movie as a technological advancement or a meaningful message only. Realism and formalism are the two main components of cinema, and Singer is right in his intention to relate both of them and strengthen the film industry and its products.
To understand the distinction between realism and formalism in Singer’s work, it is important to define each concept, focusing on its purposes and uniqueness. According to Singer, realist film theory underlines the importance of recording “properties of the physical world” (1). The most well-known realists of the 20th century were Siegfried Kracauer and André Bazin. They believed that deep-focus shots and sound are authentically cinematic properties that help to duplicate reality in its best way (Singer 1). The task was to capture a real event and express attitudes toward the world around with its variety of beliefs. Similar ideas were supported by neo-realists like Cesare Zavattini and Roberto Rossellini. They precisely defined each element of filmmaking and underlined their potential worth for the audience and the industry. For example, photographic images did not only capture a moment of reality but also analyzed reality transformations through recording, reproducing, and duplicating (Singer 5). These images could create a credible background for a movie in order to dwell upon its moral and social influence on society.
Regarding the goals of realist theory, one should understand that its supporters do not want to focus on a limited scope of its qualities. Singer admitted that films should not be identified as simple reproductions through the prism of realism (7). Although reality may be revealed through photos, additional transformations cannot be ignored. On the one hand, realist movies seemed to be predictable and less interesting because a viewer was aware of what to expect, relying on his or her own experiences and knowledge. On the other hand, the power of realist movies lied in the possibility to identify the moments that can teach, enhance critical thinking, and strengthen imagination. There were no made-up stories, only realistic events performed by actors in real time. Movies that were created from the point of view of realist theory focused on people’s talents and abilities. However, it did not mean that reality was boring or unworthy of attention. There are many aspects of human life that people cannot reach and get, and movies are considered available sources for society to improve their relationships, set clear goals, and discover new means of motivation.
Formalists introduced another strong perspective on how movies should be made and what outcomes must be achieved. Sergei Eisenstein, Rudolf Arnheim, and Béla Balázs were the founders of the formalist theory in the movie industry. They recognized the importance of technical improvements with the help of which directs and the crew could go beyond the real world (Singer 1). The main intention of formalist was to extend the already established boundaries and use all available techniques to introduce a new world with its opportunities, unpredictable situations, and transformations. Someone may find formalists too arrogant because they did not only introduce a new way of interpreting filmmaking but neglect the propositions made by realists. They wanted to stay as creative as possible and use a film as an art form with new images and situations being properly introduced.
The era of making movies according to the formalist theory was also defined as remarkable due to the possibility to cross the line and use a variety of visual effects, approaches, and techniques. If some people wanted to learn something from real life, they were welcome to pay their attention to realist movies. Viewers, who wanted to find a new vision, chose formalist movies that were based on fantasies and illusions. Film directors preferred to include a variety of angles, camera work was unpredictable, and makeup or settings could drive people crazy. Singer admitted that formalists were known due to their “insights into the creativity that makes film an art form” (6). However, their weakness was the inability to use transformations properly, to its full extent. According to Singer, despite its unlimited opportunities, formalism neglected the worth of communication among human beings (6). A language of a movie was defined, but effective transformations were not enough. Therefore, as well as realist movies, formalist works had their strong and weak aspects, distinguishing people into groups according to their expectations and interests.
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Distinction in Theory and the Movie La Jetée
Taking into consideration the main features of realist and formalist movies, their distinctions play a significant role in film theory and supplementary studies. Singer used the ideas of several theorists to conclude that “formalists and realists differ in their ideas about symbolism, dream effects, cutting, educating, choice of subject matter” (1). It was the way of how filmmakers used their inventiveness in their projects that differentiated the two approaches (Singer 1). However, Singer did not want to compare theories just in order to make a final choice.
His goal was to harmonize their divergent attitudes and prove the necessity of a new theory, known as the theory of transformation. Singer used the ideas of several theorists to prove the correctness of his ideas. Mitry and Carroll were initiators of a new movement in the film industry. Bordwell’s Grand Theory was another successful approach that was based on pluralism. The notion of transformation was developed to reconstruct formalism and realism by not denying any of them but reflecting on their worth through a philosophical perspective (Singer 8). It was not easy, but there were many examples in the middle of the 20th century when realistic movies were improved by means of adding some formalistic attributes.
La Jetée is one of the examples of how formal imagination was introduced through the prism of realism. The movie tells the story of France after the events of a post-nuclear war (World War III). People have to live underground and be involved in a variety of scientific experiences with “the only hope for survival lay in time” (La Jetée). It was necessary to find a loophole in time and discover another source from the past or the future to “reach food, medicine, sources of energy” (La Jetée). Today, such a plot is not new, but, in the middle of the 20th century, it was a real breakthrough.
Another distinctive feature of the movie is that it is a photo roman, meaning that the majority of the work was built on printed photos. On the one hand, the fact that Chris Marker, the director, used photomontage determined this film as a realist one. A number of photographic images replaced each other to display factual information about human existence (Singer 7). On the other hand, there were the elements of formalist theory that have to be recognized. The actress’s slow movement, the speed of photo replacement, and the sound background performed by Choir of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral contributed to the creation of new, unusual emotions. It is impossible to consider La Jetée as a purely formalist or realist work. It is based on the distinctions of both theories and demonstrates how Singer’s idea of transformation could be performed in filmmaking.
The debates around the distinction between realism and formalism have solid grounds, and many people use their knowledge and interests to support each approach separately. However, there were also such theorists like Singer who did not find it necessary to make a choice but to combine the best characteristics of both theories and introduce a new theory of transformation. Formalist films vary in their visual presentation, storylines, and exploration of different beliefs and ideas. Realists movies focus on the surface of life and photographic images that serve as evidence. La Jetée is an example of how realistic and formalistic united with the only intention to create a captivating story with real and fantastic elements. Singer was correct in his decision to harmonize the concepts of realism and formalism, and La Jetée turned out to be a successful outcome of his approach.
La Jetée. Directed by Chris Marker, performances by Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich, and Jacques Ledoux, Argos Films, 1962.
Singer, Irving. Reality Transformed: Film as Meaning and Technique. MIT Press, 2000.