Exploring the Art of Realism in Cinematography

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Realism is one of the terms that excites a lot of debates in the world of cinema and film-making. Film realism is not a genre, a movement, or a fixed formal criterion (subject matter). Cinematic realism is an illusion used for asking questions regarding the nature of film images (cinematic representations), reality and the role of cinema in creating an understanding of the world.  Bazin’s theory is concerned with knowledge of the cinematic images, and the explication of the same. This paper presents a discussion of the Bazin’s theory of cinematic representation and motivation behind the push for spatial realism in the cinematography.

Realist Tendency as Proposed by Bazin

Realist tendency is a cinematic term that originated from the ideas of realism in painting and literature. After realism had passed through many aesthetic preoccupations, Siegfried Kracauer came up with the concept of ‘realist tendency,' to refer to the application of realism in cinematography (Carrol 1988, p. 94). In most cases, the realist films describe themselves in a manner that opposes the ideals of the commercial cinema. This observation implies that the movie that falls within the boundaries of realist tendency often challenge the rules of plausibility that dominate the realism in the film industry. Under such considerations, realism is sandwiched between the dictates of classical cinema and the avant-garde (Phillips 2012, p. 10). Most realist movies have a common characteristic of including moments of narrative ambiguity that is usually discouraged in the Hollywood narratives.

According to Bazin, the viewer of the mimetic cinematography acts as a witness to the slice of reality (Carrol 1988, p. 94). The viewer regards the image as a representation of a past event or state of affairs. Realist tendency according to Bazin presents the recording or reproductive views regarding the film as the center of the theory that recommends the appropriate composition and camera movement that would allow the movie editors to represent reality in a manner that opposes the silent-film motivation to reconstitute it. The theory is related to the sound transition during the film-making process more so regarding the realistic tradition of sound film whereby the system tends to define itself against the aesthetics of the silent film. Bazin had the belief that movie scenes get quality of authenticity by producing similar, unedited content as opposed to the synthetic space of editing (Carrol 1988, p. 113). In this way, Bazin argues that the respect to spatial unity of an even is upheld because the editing process converts the reality into imaginary things. Indeed, Bazin believes that the unedited content reveals the essence of the cinema.

            Spatial realism in editing could also have moral lessons, and the spectator of a given movie will tend to perceive the action on the screen based on the montage (Phillips 2012, n.p). In situations where there are long-take or medium-shot composition, the spectator gets the freedom to discover the meaning of the action independently. According to Bazin, montage pushes the spectatorship to be passive, while spatial realism, on the other hand, encourages active spectatorship. The spectator can view the image, analyze and get the meaning out of it. For the films of the spatial realism, the spectator is a participant in the film structure.

            Bazin's view on realism in the film-making industry is also commonly referred to as ‘ontology' (Morgan 2014, p.443). Bazin argues that photography and cinema form a pair of inherent media which have liberated the world from the hunger of quest for likeness. The plastic arts played a magic role in the ancient cultures whereby preservation and representation of life were merely considered to be a similar phenomenon (Totaro 2013, n.p). The evolution of the magic role then led to the emergence of the concern for time, implicitly and mortality and the construction of the representation of reality was seen as a way to create a new ideal for the existence of humanity. The Western art emerged from the obsession with the likeness, and this moved towards the direction of absolute realism. On the other hand, the emergence of photography and cinematography motivated the demand of realism, liberating the other media like painting and ideal reality from their temporality attribute.

            Bazin further argues that the realism by which photography lead to liberation was inherent and was not situated in the outcome image but rather the production process (Totaro 2013,  n.p). Bazin refers to a camera lens as an objectif and believes that it is the only way through which human beings can accurately record the reality. Even the human beings are endowed with the freedom to choose and outline what needs to be captured by the camera, and the resulting image is the reality and a representation of the actual being.

By physical creation, the object (camera) transfers reality to the photographic representation irrespective of how grainy the photo may look. In such circumstances, the image from the photograph becomes the object which has achieved liberation from the temporal constraints. Thus, viewing of a picture is an act of creation whereby people construct a concept of the purpose based on the representation of reality (Carrol 1988, p. 118). On the other hand, cinema is merely the objectivity of time according to Bazin. The meaning of this is that films are a representation of things, their duration, and change in a mummified manner. Therefore, considering the process of creating movies, the medium is merely an unprecedented fulfillment of the desire of realism.

Cinematic Representation of Realist Tendency in Contemporary Film

Boyhood is a movie that was produced in 2014, with Richard Linklater as the director. The film attempts to capture the progress in life as experienced in the contemporary society. In the movie, the reality is shown and depicted as part of the flow of life. The script has its center on a boy who experiences life from the age of 6 to 18. The movie is established as a realist from the use of site-specific and location movie-making. There are scenes where the leading actor Mason rides a bicycle with friends, goes camping with the father and even experience break up in a relationship; all these are experiences that every human can quickly identify with. The director also demonstrates the application of realist tendency when he incorporates the non-professional actors in the principal roles. Indeed, many scenes in the film have a setting in domestic spaces like classrooms, backyards, or the inside of cars on a road trip. The movie shows viewers simple moments from the daily life like putting the mustard on a hotdog, and experiencing bullying in the bathroom of the school (Phillips 2012, n.p).

The movie also presents a process of aging over a period of 12 years, and this is meant to make viewers witness the emotional and physical development of Mason and his entire family. Through such a revolutionary approach, Linklater hopes to capture the flow of life as experienced, in the form of a narrative.


            According to Bazin, photography and cinematography are the only kinds of art that derives benefits from the ‘absence' of humanity. Although he appreciates the idea that understanding can be absent when people decide to be subjective by manipulating the representations of the camera, he further reiterates that the cinematic realism is the achievement of the illusion of the objective presentation. Indeed, film and photography allow individuals to be absent from reality and to view it for itself. Regarding the application of realist tendency to the contemporary movies, it is evident that the style entails dramatization of real experiences from action to achieve the engagement of characters.


Carrol, N. (1988). Bazin's position on film theory. In B. Testa, Philosophical Problems of Classical Film (pp. 94-121). New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Morgan, D. (2014). Rethinking Bazin: Ontology and Realist Aesthetics. Critical Inquiry, 32(3), 443-481.

Phillips, J. (2012). The Fates of Flesh: Cinematic realism following Bazin and Mizoguchi. Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 1(4), 9-22.

Totaro, D. (2013, July 2). Introduction to André Bazin: Theory of Film Style in its Historical Context (André Bazin Revisited). Retrieved Aug 11, 2018, from Off Screen: http://offscreen.com/view/bazin4

September 25, 2023




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