Current essay provides a comparative analysis of formalist and realist film theories, based on theoretical approaches, innovations, critical findings and film-making practice of such renowned representatives of both currents of the film theory as Eisenstein, Arnheim and Bazin. Before beginning the analysis of the abovementioned subjects, one should point out that the difference between form and real material in genuine film-making is dialectical. In cinematograph ideas and reality juxtapose to create certain synthesis.
This effect is produced by means of formal processing of real visual content.
Ideas of a director may be realized with the help of formal elements such as montage, focus, as well as additional means like sound and special effects. This means that even those directors that seek to portray objective reality do not merely reproduce it, but put into their films their ideas, thoughts and concepts. As any form of art, cinematograph heavily depends on its technical (instrumental) and artistic (ideal) means, which are realized with the help of the former.
Formal elements are necessary means for every creative director to transmit his/her own ideas and vision of reality. This, however, should not overstate the fact that formal elements may be used to deviate objective reality and help construct ideological and biased vision thereof. The contrary may be also true with respect to pseudo-realist films, which pretend to portray objective reality, while in fact create mere copy of it, devoid of any intellectual content. This can be used for justification of existent reality.
This is the case for the majority of commercial films and contemporary film-making industry in general, which is centered on using different forms and genres in the view of getting profit. These aspects and meaning of form and reality representation in the film theory should be taken in consideration in this comparative analysis of realist and formalist film theory. There is no denying the importance of the fact that Eisenstein was among the founding fathers of formalist film theory, as he was the first to develop the theory of montage and specific usage of film editing.
These elements of cinematograph constitute the first cornerstone of formalist film theory, as it was developed in Eisenstein’s major works Beyond the Shot and Dramaturgy of Film Form. According to Eisenstein, cinema is mainly about montage (Beyond the Shot, p. 13). Using montage is both technical and artistic procedure, since it helps create meanings by means of combination/copulation of different images or situations. Thereby, as Eisenstein constantly states, the artistic effect is created, which is important in the visual type of communication provided by cinema.
Eisenstein, for instance, tried to show this phenomenon referring to Japanese hieroglyphs, which often create new meanings by means of copulation (Beyond the Shot, p. 14). The most important thought Eisenstein tried to communicate was that formal elements of film production are central to realization of artistic greater ideas and the work with various materials ranging from historical scenes to innovative scenarios. Montage, according to Eisenstein, is not independent vis-a-vis objective and ideational representation of reality.
Besides this, it should be noted that in correspondence with formalist film theory, the inability to use formal elements properly leads to degradation of films as the form of art, and moreover, this precludes realization of director’s ideas – that is ‘intellectual’ film-making. Arnheim, another noted representative of realist film theory, claimed that visual representation of reality in film radically differs from physical perception of reality. This difference, according to Arnheim, gives significance to formal elements of cinema, which create artistic effects.
Arnheim’s thorough analysis of these formal features shows that, if properly used, they may produce interesting emotional effects on spectators (Film and Reality, 323). Arnheim claims that creating images in film is neither two-dimensional, nor three-dimensional, but represents golden middle. He provides us with example of the scene from Ruttmann’s film Berlin, where the director creates juxtaposition of the second and the third dimension by making a shot of two trains moving in opposite directions.
Film representation of this movement, according to Arnheim, creates certain impression and that is, what differentiates film images from real ones (Arnheim, 324). This vision of form in the film production was often regarded as manipulative by such representatives of realist film theory as Andre Bazin, who claimed that formal elements preclude real communication between spectators and film’s images and plot (The evolution of the language of the cinema, p. 48). However, even so opposed to each other, formalist and realist tradition both criticize positivist realism in cinematograph for its ideological function and positivism.
According to Arnheim, documentary genre is not the same as pure reproduction of reality; instead, it is difficult artistic work. Bazin’s great love for documentaries as the representations of objective reality should also be understood considering the abovementioned distinction. Eisenstein’s approach to film production unlike realist school represented by Bazin is based on dialectical theory, which sees the collision of opposites, their simultaneous integrity and negation as a cornerstone of every art. Eisenstein said that shot is not an element, but dialectical cell, which rests in organic unity with entire film.
Contrary to that, realist film theory, represented by Bazin, draws on personalist perspective, which believes that a film should be a representation of auteurship. Bazin is deeply opposed to formalist perspectives, because he thinks that it breaks world in many little pieces and prevents genuine and autonomous perception of reality. Instead, Eisenstein puts particular emphasis on dialectical conflicts between shots, counterpoint of music and shot sequence etc. , which makes his formal approach look integral and all-embracing.
As he claims, the knowledge of these formal dependencies is the core of genuine film production (Beyond the Shot, 16-17). Bazin in his rediscovery of realism in the history of art ends with a statement of great opposition between pseudorealism (which reproduces illusionary appearances) and realism which distributes the truth among spectators. According to Bazin, formalist film-making exemplified by Eisenstein and others extracts meaning from real images and makes it a product of subjective manipulation with reality, rather than its realist representation.
Instead, Bazin claims that realism in film-making is focused on genuine representation of reality, which can be achieved by such technical means as ‘shot-in-depth’, focus or even wide shots (The Evolution of the language of the cinema, p. 49-51). Hence, Bazin does not reject formal elements as such, but transforms them to achieve the purpose of realist representation. The continuity of images and shots should not, however, be interrupted by montage manipulation like in formalist theory; the auteur should follow the unfolding of reality.
This means that time and space should not be artificially separated by montage, which is the case with Eisenstein’s formalism, but instead, artistic truths should be found in the articulation of difficult relations between time and space. (As a result, a spectator has more possibilities of interpretation and autonomous understanding). Deep shot, according to Bazin, helps spectator to get closer to the image, which creates ambiguity of interpretation, which is more artistic than subjective manipulation (Bazin, p. 50).
Moreover, it helps maintain the integrity of the image and specific elements in it, which is according to Bazin, no less important than montage (Bazin, p. 49). These are the basic similarities and differences between formalist and realist film theories. Main approaches of these theories are essentially exemplified by two famous films: Battleship Potemkin by Eisenstein (USSR, 1925) and Red Desert by Antonioni (Italy, 1964). Battleship Potemkin is a silent film by Eisenstein, which may be considered as practical realization of his formal montage theory.
First of all, Eisenstein designed this film to be a propaganda of socialist revolution and, that is why, he put emphasis on emotional messages against repression and for heroism of ordinary people. Eisenstein extensively uses rhythmic and intellectual montage to create certain meaning and emotional effects. This can be best exemplified by famous scene on Odessa steps, where Tsarist forces massacred civil population. Eisenstein uses close-ups and montage juxtapositions of Tsarist’s forces and victims of massacre.
The dramatic close-ups of victim’s faces and cold and brutal faces of the soldiers create deep emotional effects, which is the cornerstone of formalist film theory. Wonderful example of shot juxtaposition in the film is the image of baby carriage falling down the stairs and soldiers’ legs going down after it. The montage sequence of this scene has certain artistic meaning: it portrays the brutality of Tsarist regime and its inhuman character and articulates these features by showing the images of its innocent victims.
The relations between these two shots are intellectual, that is they help spectators interpret separate images and give meaning to them. Opposite realist theory can be best exemplified by Antonioni’s Red Dessert. The film may be characterized by avoiding manipulation with montage. Instead, author’s realist vision of human alienation, loneliness and ugliness of modern civilization is realized through examining continuity of urban life, its relations and contradictions. Such elements of realist film theory as deep focus, wide shots, and color arrangements.
Colors in Antonioni’s film also play formalist function, as he uses different tones and colors for depicting reality. For instance, plants in the film and surrounding objects are represented in red color, which creates certain emotional effects and embeds ambiguity. The result may be described as empathy into the destiny of man in industrial world, which helps poetically describe protagonist’s relations with it. To sum it up, main examples of realist and formalist approach were analyzed, and basic feature of both theories were revealed.