Realism in the Digital Age


For Bazin, realism is the aesthetic basis for talking about cinema, for both the visual and the narrative style. Many have taken Bazin’s argument to be that of the indexical, meaning that a photograph is a substitute for the real thing. Tom Gunning notes in his essay Moving Away from the Index that Peirce’s triad of signs (the icon, the index, and the symbol) interact in the process of signification. They don’t work in opposition to each other, but operate in varying degrees within specific signs. By narrowing our focus on just one aspect of the index, we limit our understanding of what a photograph, and by extension a moving picture, is or can be. I think Bazin understood this, which is why Daniel Morgan, Tom Gunning, and others consider the indexical argument to only partially represent Bazin’s ideas.

To understand cinema, we must move beyond this narrow definition of the index to account for what makes cinema a unique art form while keeping in mind cinema’s relationship to the indexical.

So what is cinema then? As Germaine Dulac said, “Cinema is the art of movement and light.” (p. 260)

What is so significant about movement though? Movement was the novelty of the moving picture when it was first introduced. But what made people jump from their seats as they watched a train move across the screen? To quote Tom Gunning, “We do not just see motion and we are not simply affected emotionally by its role within a plot; we feel it in our guts or throughout our bodies.” (p. 261) Cinematic motion is what absorbs us into those suspenseful plots and dramatic scenes. Compare a film, for instance, to a painting. While there is a “sense of motion” in a painting, nothing is actually moving. Motion in cinema asks us to participate with the film, we must watch these moving pictures unfold sequentially in time in order for any meaning to be created from them, much like watching events unfold in reality. (“The nature of cinematic motion, its continuous progress, its unfolding nature, would seem to demand the participation of a perceiver.” (p. 263)). How might the opening scene of Scorsese’s film adaptation of Hugo compare to a set of still shots of landmarks in Paris?

It places us in Hugo’s present, in Hugo’s world, rather than a static past, while still photography is past tense. Spectator participation and investment in a film keeps it in the present. Therefore, movement creates a participatory effect, in turn adding to the realist effect of the film. (p. 263). As a visual experience, there is no difference between watching a film of a train moving down the tracks and seeing an actual train arriving at the station. (p. 264)

If cinematic motion (created by movement on the screen as well as camera movement) can “[thrust] viewers into unfamiliar explorations of flexible coordinates of space and time,” then what happens with digital cinema? Can digital cinema emphasize the diegetic absorption created by movement in films? In other words, if movement via the camera is so essential to what cinema is, what happens when a computer replaces the camera? Can it work in the same way?

Let’s consider for a moment what the computer does. In “Digital Cinema and the History of a Moving Image,” Lev Manovich asserts that with the computer, “…it is now possible to generate photorealistic scenes entirely on a computer using 3-D computer animation; modify individual frames or whole scenes with the help of a digital paint program; cut, bend, stretch, and stitch digitized film images into something with perfect photographic credibility, even though it was never actually filmed [.]” (p.246). Reality therefore becomes plastic. Digital cinema is made up of many elements now, with live-action footage being just one of them. What is realism then, if the indexical nature of photography is lost? Or is it lost? Is this new elastic reality a new form of realism? As Manovich points out, CGI creates “something which looks exactly as if it could have happened although it really could not.” (p. 249). Think of the opening sequence of Hugo for example. That long tracking shot, Scorsese’s signature zoom in close up from outside the Gare Montparnasse into the bustling crowds at the boarding platforms and up to the clock through which Hugo gazes. We are literally thrust into his world through the movement of the camera, accentuated by the movement of the city and the trains and the crowds of people within the train station. This shot also recreates 1930s Paris, a difficult feat if you simply recorded present Paris.

Cinema is no longer a new phenomenon. It has evolved quite a bit since its creation, and will continue to evolve as new inventions are introduced and incorporated into the medium. I will leave you with this to consider: “In what way has the impression of reality been attenuated by new technology, and in what ways is it actually still functioning (or even intensified)?” (p. 258)


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