I was wondering if anyone would like to discuss the presence of literary realism in films. For those who aren’t too familiar with literary realism, it was a movement in the last half of the nineteenth century in the Americas that was started as a reaction against romantism. It was inspired by the realism of the French authors Honore de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. Such realist authors include: Mark Twain, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, William Dean Howells, Ambrose Bierce, Kate Chopin, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Stephen Crane, among others. Some of the attributes of realism are (you’ll find these points in most textbooks on the movement):
I: An adherence to common everyday life
II: A belief that details are important in and of themselves-details make fiction seem like life
III: A deeemphasizing of literary symbols-symbols in a narrative are limited to ideas within the text, not to larger external truths
IV: A rejection of absolute truths-moral truths are always relativistic
V: Pragmatic attitudes toward life
VI: The need to expose the false and repressive nature of many commonly held beliefs and assumptions
VII: A valuation of toughness and competence and an admiration of “the pro”
VIII: An anti-elitist attitude-a literature about and for the common person
IX: Characters that have mixed motives and are fallible, and whose choices reflect the lives of everyday people
X: Characters that grow and/or decline in the text, and respond to their social contexts-“character” is a process that develops as the text moves along, not an inherent way of being
XI: Characters who are not types, but specific and unique; uniquely personal
XII: An attempt to understand characters, never to judge them-the narrator never intrudes to judge or moralize
I would like to see your thoughts on the existence of literary realism in film, and discuss films that are great examples of these attributes. One film I can think of at the top of my head would be Trainspotting (Yeah, I also linked it to Trainspotting just to garner more interest, but I don’t want to end up discussing just Trainspotting). I ‘d be glad to explain why, if you want to read why. I also started this thread to find out about more films that could follow this form, but I haven’t seen yet, so tell me.
By all means. The ball is in your hands – go ahead and run with it. Tell us about your ideas on “Trainspotting.”
My first thought is that neorealism might be a cinematic correspondent to literary realism. Zavattini got his start working for a book publisher.
OK, I’ll follow the guidelines in adherence to Trainspotting:
I: None of the characters are larger than life people, they are common people, despite their addictions, they can be people we meet in the streets, even enjoy a conversation with
II: The situations and the film itself is detailed, things are three-dimensional, we’re not just watching, other senses come into play when watching Trainspotting
III: With the exception of the tripped out scenes, there was no real symbolism in the film, everything is matter-of-fact.
IV: The people in this film are obviously living with next to no moral or absolute truths
V: The narration is quite pragmatic, everything is matter-of-fact, to the edge cynicism
VI: The film was revealing in many ways the subculture that existed in the eighties in Scotland. It certainly put the subject matter into a more honest perspective than most films do
VII: I don’t really see how this is too important to Trainspotting, seeing as how they’re slackers, however, there is a magnetism toward Mother Superior, he’s definitely a “pro” at what he does
VIII: This film is definitely anti-elitist
IX: These characters are definitely fallible, and they make some pretty earthy choices, just the fact that Renton never really quits heroin is realistic
X: The characters we see at the beginning of the film are not the same people we see at the end. You can tell they’ve lived and their personalities have gone through the process of change.
XI: The characters are unique to themselves, and they don’t stoop to being merely stereotypes. Another point of literary realism is the use of regionalized dialogue, which is heavy in Trainspotting
XII: There is no real moral judgment in the film, people do what they do, and that’s that. There are retributions for actions, but that’s between the characters. As the audience we are never subjected to judge or moralize for ourselves what is happening.
2. You mentioned the tripped-out scenes as an exception but I think there is a lot of other symbolism in the film as well. It’s a very postmodern film. Meaning, there are a lot of signifiers that stand in for intertextual references and other things of a symbolic nature.
I guess the first question we should concern ourselves with is the novel “Trainspotting.” Is this a work of literary realism? I haven’t read it, so I don’t know. If so, then we can test whether the film exhibits the aesthetic qualities of literary realism as reflected in the book.
I guess we’ll both have to retire to read the book. Can you cite a few examples where the symbolism is explicitly used in the film? As for Italian Neorealism, I’ve only seen Bicycle Thieves. This is one film movement I would like to become well-versed in, however I still know very little about it in terms as to the history behind it and the key players involved. As far as literature is concerned, I’ve held the opinion that realism is “the only thing that matters,” I could never stand to read works of the romantic tradition. Now that I’ve spent a few years expanding my knowledge of films, I’ve found for myself a correlation between literary and cinematic movements, and I’m trying to decide for myself whether or not realism is “the only thing that matters” to me when it comes to movies. I already know I favor objective cinema over subjective, and I want to tie in realism to the objectivity. I like films that are one step away from being documentaries, like Battle of Algiers or Zelig; and I want to one day collaborate with a group to try and make a film using these aesthetics. Can you also give a few essential titles for Italian Neorealism, Bobby?
About III: But the tripped-out scenes ARE part of the narration, you can´t make them an exception. Hence, there is symbolism.
About XII: I think the rehab scene could be debatable in that sense. It seems to me the narration makes a clear point in that Renton had it coming. I´m not really sure.
Otherwise, you got yourself a good argument.
About the book: It´s not carried by a single narrator. There are chapters written in first person, others in third. Some are in written in crude slang, others in common enlgish. There are tangencial stories wicht barely have anything to add to the main story. And, of course, there are lots of other characters than those from the film.
I first read the book and when I saw the film I though it was a good film based on the characters, not necesarily as an adaptation. So I guess that even in its postmodern form, the novel it´s at least near literary realism.
Good point on the fact that the scenes can’t be denied, I guess it’s like trying to condense Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to just the scenes when Thompson is slightly sober. However, I just remembered An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce is full of symbolism, and it’s considered one of the great examples of American Realism. Perhaps symbolism is something we can use at our own discretion when it comes to realism. So, would you say the book would be a useful read when it comes to having a fuller understanding of the film?
@ James Montenegro
I: …….. despite their addictions.
A huge exclusion – I: An adherence to common everyday life Being a heroin addict is not a common everyday life.
II: ….other senses come into play
Most films do that…
III: there was no real symbolism in the film
Bobby covered this well.
IV: living with next to no moral or absolute truths
The moral relativism of a dope addict is quite simple: weighing the next fix or a future fix against killing the source. Addicts rarely kill dealers – dealers kill dealers – addicts kill addicts
V: to the edge cynicism
That might have been an affectation?
VI: subject matter into a more honest perspective than most films do
You mean within the addiction genre?
VII: seeing as how they’re slackers
That would be a moral judgment, no?
VIII: This film is definitely anti-elitist.
Would you explain what this means – is the film saying progress or the desire for better life or competition for material gain is wrong?
IX: These characters are definitely fallible,
The problem with Trainspotting as a topic film is that the characters are self-destructive- that is beyond fallible.
X: personalities have gone through the process of change.
Do personalities go through change in romantic stories?
XI: they don’t stoop to being merely stereotypes.
If they weren’t stereotypical, then we weren’t seeing real life dope addicts.
XII: There are retributions for actions,…..the audience we are never subjected to judge or moralize for ourselves what is happening.
See # I and #VII – and yet we do !!!!
I suggest Harmony Korine’s Gummo as a better example of what you are looking for in realism.
Thank you, Robert, I’ll check out Gummo. As for an explanation for VII, I would say one couldn’t judge what is obvious: they’re slackers. I’ll make no moral judgment on them, I’m not saying either way whether being a slaker or not is bad. In fact, if one wanted to be a slacker, more power to them, one less person I have to compete with for classes next semester (just kidding)! Seriously, I try to look at it objectively, however I don’t think anyone has ever been completely objective at the risk of becoming a computer. It’s human nature to discern for ourselves (not judge) what we are seeing as it is happening, we don’t need any help from the filmmakers to decide how we feel about the characters, and I feel as though Danny Boyle did a decent job at letting us decide for ourselves whether we like the characters or whether or not we connect with the characters. As for the bit on anti-elitism, I’m pretty sure the point of realism is not to condemn the elite, it is to simply say who cares about the elite. At the risk of sounding similar to John Torturro on Barton Fink, who cares about the lives of some kings and queens or some duke or some fortune son? We’re already aware of the works of Shakespeare and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Lawrence Olivier and David Lean. What about the lives of everyone else? And anyone with an addiction is definitely a portrayal of life as it is, whether it’s an addiction to heroin or television. Granted, Trainspotting may not be the best example of literary realism, it was just one off the top of my head, but it’s definitely worked as a gateway to a deeper discussion of realism.
To me, Trainspotting is one of the few films that instead of focusing on the adaptation perse, tries to do something cinematic while being true to the escence of the original material. The characters are very well portrayed in the film, but the book (of course) has the whole enchilada: we learn Renton is the middle child of three, get a glimpse where Begbie comes from emotinally, the weigth of the Tommy/Iggy Pop conection and some little stories that are as grosse, fun or shoking as the ones that made it into the film.
So, yes, I believe the book and the film are complementary experience, not a substitutive one. Check it out.
As for the realism in neorealism: I think realism (as most isms) is an arbitrary adjetive to use on any work of art. Whether it´s painting, film or literature, it´s an abstraction from reality itself no matter how much it tries to capture it. Even documentaries are filmed and edited from a particular, an abstract, point of view. Besides, reality itself is questionable: most of the time human beings try not to deal with it, we deny it.
OK, I’m going to Barnes and Noble tomorrow to get Gummo, so I’ll see if I can pick up the novel of Trainspotting as well. Exactly, in all our attempts to capture reality as it is, we’ll never be perfect. The reason is simple: as humans, we have a hard enough time as it is trying to decipher our realities around us. We also have our perceived self, which may or may not be truly us as we are. That’s no reason for us to give up on realism and take the dive into escapism, we should strive to find reality in everything we do. Here’s a question: is 2001: A Space Odyssey realism for the cold-blooded? I don’t know what your feelings are about the film, but it could be the greatest mainstream piece of objective cinema. Kubrick stated once that he made it for the audience to find their own meaning in the film. It’s objective, and that’s a plus, but would it apply to realism?
Why do you suggest that we look at the novel “Trainspotting” when analyzing whether the film Trainspotting is this kind of realism? I don’t see that it would matter either way since either one or both might fit this notion.
How strict do you intend your category to be? Do any of the works of say, Edith Wharton or Hemingway count? And as for movies, would anything by Renoir count? Say La Bete Humaine?
In literature, is it symbolism or a moral framework that you find objectionable? So you probably don’t like any of the “Magical Realists”? I think we could easily argue that symbolism can be a different critter in film than in writing. I ask these questions to help flesh out where you want to go with this.
Listen to Korine’s comments over the still photos – much of the film and what he says conforms to your initial list.
The problematic one would be X: Characters that grow and/or decline in the text…
Look for that….not sure it happens.
I love Hemigway! You have me at a prejudice there, I’ll throw Hemingway into it, however I would say his work is like a son of literary realism. I’ll include Wharton as well, although I’ve only read a little of her work. I’m not well-versed on Renoir, I just started watching his films, so I’ll leave it up to you. This is collaborative here, I started the thread, but I’m definitely not the authority on literary realism. I would say I find moral framework objectionable. I find the concept of morals to be quite hypocritical. It has a lot to do with my personal beliefs, I don’t believe in the righteous or evil. I don’t believe in any religious perception of God and the Devil as good or bad, I believe if they did exist, “God” simply represents abstinance and Satan represents indulgence, and they’re both essential for the human experience. I’m not against symbolism, I find it’s connect to psychoanalysis to be fascinating. It all ties together historically, while the American Realists were gaining ground, Freud and his colleagues were revolutionizing psychology, and there are significant ties between both movements and symbolism. I want to see which filmmakers have used these concepts (whether intentionally or subconsciously) in their films. I’ll have to check out La Bete Humaine as well! Thanks for all the suggestions so far.
Why do I suggest we consider the novel? Because the original question starts off asking about literary realism in cinema and the example given, conveniently enough, is of a film adapted from a novel. So it seems to me the logical starting point in connecting those dots is first of all investigating whether the book is literary realism or not, then seeing if the film style carries over any of these aesthetic elements we’re looking to discover. In any event, I see no reason to ignore that angle.
There are numerous examples of where symbolism is explicitly used in the film. One that pops to mind first is the shot referencing the Beatles album cover.
“Bicycle Theives” is a great starting point for your education in neorealism. It was written by Cesare Zavattini, who first theorized neorealism. You can then go on to another Zavattini/DeSica collaboration for a master’s class in neorealism: “Umberto D”. And for your doctoral seminar, get the Roberto Rossellini War Trilogy box set from Criterion, paying special attention to “Rome Open City,” which is one of the greatest films ever made anywhere by anyone. If you like films that are one step away from being documentaries, then you definitely need to introduce yourself to that one.
I just saw the War Trilogy on display at B&N, I’ll have to see if my budget will allow me that purchase. Umberto D. should be no problem to attain. I hope the next fifty percent sale comes soon! OK, I see the symbolism there (regarding Trainspotting). I’ve been thinking a lot about symbolism for the past couple hours, and I wonder whether there was a division amongst the realism authors back in the day. Howells was strictly realist, where some of the other authors laid symbolism all over their work. Anyone here read The White Heron? Simply amazing in it’s realism, and it’s full of symbolism.
Robert: I’ll let you know what I think when I see the film. Keep up the suggestions!
I don’t think symbolism and realism are mutually-exclusive. Sometimes symbolism can’t even be helped. It’s there, in forms that might not even be discovered until after the fact.
That’s where the psychology comes handy, because there are several instances of authors not realizing what they’ve done symbolically until the novel or story is done. It happens subconciously. I believe it also happens visually with directors, cinematographers, and editors when they make their films.
Another angle on symbols in film that we might want to consider are those are used as a filming device and are not there for larger cultural or moral reasons. Kurosawa might be a good example here. If I remember right, Donald Richie has an extended discussion of the use of diagonal lines and elements in his commentary on Rashomon. I would think that signals like these would still conform with what you like about realism. Film, after all, has a variety of technical characteristics that writing does not.
Yes, that would tie into the technical aspect of film, which can only make a film better when it’s used right. The symbolism I would like to concentrate on would be something like the phallic imagery of swords in a movie like Rashomon. The swordplay is very symbolic of how well they perform in sex, which I would concetrate on if I were in the director’s chair on a story like Rashomon. Tajomaru tells his story and when he tells it, he’s the god of sex. By the time we get to Mifune’s version of the story, Tajomaru would not even be adequate, but horrible at it. The swordplay in each version explains it well when Kurosawa directs it, but in realism, we might’ve shown the actual sex as each character saw it.
Ok, well I took your original post to be an exploration of whether you might like a wider range of approaches in film than you do in literature. So if you think this move with the swords on Kurosawa’s part is effective and appealing, would you not find it so in writing?
I think literature, despite it’s limitations, has had the good fortune of being explicit, graphic, straight to the point. Words are written on a page, and the rest is left to your imagination. If I were to read the story of Rashomon, I would picture the sword fights, the trial, and the meeting of the three at the temple gates. If the sex was skipped, it wouldn’t occur to me as a mental image unless I really thought about the situation outside of what is written down on the page. Films, on the under hand, have the image and the story done for us, so there’s more room to consider what’s happening in the space the filmmakers are omitting. The sword connection to sex is much easier to interpret on film than it is in a written narrative. However, I would like to know how the scene would play out in realism. Would the filmmaker decide to take a documentarian view of it and allow us to see the entire scene, from sex to murder, without too much reliance on the symbolism of the swords?
I think you’re being a little broad with the word “realism.” You use it to mean anything visual and concrete. In other words, the opposite of a novel.
I think realism is a style, that can be used in both novels and films. Maybe an interesting discussion is what is the aesthetic difference between realism in novels and in films?
Yeah, I noticed this is quickly morphing into something else. OK, let’s try to identify a few key attributes that are unique to realism and realism only in literature, such as the regionalized dialogue. That was important in literary realism. If Mark Twain wrote Tom Sawyer from a romantic approach, Tom Sawyer would sound like he went to Cambridge, but luckily Twain was a realist, and Sawyer sounds like he was born on the bayou. Most, if not all, stories written in the realist vein are written that way, sometimes even the narrator displayed a dialect unique to a particular region. I think that can definitely be applied to films, the dialogue of the characters and how the actors deliver it. What other attributes are really important to realism? Let’s try to stick to the stuff that we absolutely cannot do away with when considering realism in both literature and film.
You can do literature, because I know nothing about it. I’ll do film.
I think a lack of special effects are important for a visual realism in film. As naked an image as possible, meaning as natural an image as possible. That would seem to be the key building block for realism in film.
Is there an equivalent in literature?
Yeah, there is a sort of equivalent in literature. Let’s see, we’re talking about computer effects, right? I agree, computer effects shouldn’t exist at all in a realist film. In realist literature, the stories are never so fantastic that they would need special effects when translated to film. The stories are heavily character-driven, even The Red Badge of Courage feels like a minimalist effort because the war action is secondary to the character study. I’ve yet to read a story in realism that relies on spectacle, so realism in film would have very little or no special effects in it. There is the element of violence in some realist stories, however I would think if violence were displayed in a realist picture, one would be creative and use minimalist effects, like what Romero did for Night of the Living Dead in ’68.
Not just CGI. Any sort of optical effects, or any sort of attempt to manipulate reality as the camera sees it. And yes, fantasy and spectacle don’t seem to have a place in realism.
Would you consider “Night of the Living Dead” a realist film, or just a film that uses realist techniques? That brings up the next question: is there a significant difference between the two?
I think the film uses realist techniques. A realist film wouldn’t exist with zombies unless zombies were present in a dream or as a part of someone’s hallucination. Yes, there is a difference. Realist techniques can be used in any sort of film, A Clockwork Orange uses realist dialogue, for example. A Clockwork Orange, however, is far from a realist work. A realist film deals with reality, even when things become fantastic, there is always the reality behind it. An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge is pretty fantastic for the most part, but in the end Bierce makes it clear that the main character was only dreaming before being executed. The Yellow Wallpaper is pretty fantastic as well. The main character believes there is a woman living in her walls, she see’s the patterns change on the wallpaper, but we know she is hallucinating, she’s a paranoid schizophrenic. Night of the Living Dead is not a realist film because zombies exist in the universe of the film, but it uses realist techniques.
“Realism” should always appear within quotation marks.
Yes, because no matter how much we would want it to be, “realism” or “realist” is never reality. Not even in documentary.