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Analyzing the Reality Effect in Films

Posted on Sun 19th July 2009 9.04 PM

 


A certain challenge for contemporary film theory is presented by the fact that recent Scandinavian film production, especially the works of those Danish filmmakers associated with the well-known Dogma ’95 manifesto, has attracted considerable attention among cineastes. The fascination with these films cannot be explained simply by their contents, for instance that they show contradictory and often emotional forms of spontaneous behavior. Instead, it seems to rest in the particular appeal, as difficult as it is to define, that emanates from the discovery or renewal of specific cinematic forms that are being used in these films to portray fine nuances in human emotions and actions. Certain distinctive forms of cinematic representation that had long been neglected are now suddenly in the center of attention and demand a more exact explanation. What at first glance seems to be just an unconventional form of filmmaking, characterized by the forced use of handheld cameras, proves on closer inspection to have important consequences for the movies as a whole: the camera does not just tell a story, but rather the actions it captures visually gain a value of their own, without which it is difficult to understand the story.


It is largely by means of  these cinematic methods that viewers are moved emotionally, that they experience the particular excitement of the films. These methods also cause certain moments and details of life as they are shown in the films to appear exceptionally true and genuine. An intensive impression of authenticity is created, which - even if often only for fleeting and transient moments - does cause the viewer to believe the most unlikely things about the characters on the screen and willingly follow them in situations he or she would not accept in everyday life.


This so-called reality effect or impression of authenticity is a peculiarity of film reception, or, more broadly, of the processes of reception of audiovisual media. In general, however, it is nothing really new in theory or practice.


There have often been individual and group styles of film that have attempted to capture parts of life realistically. Interest in the reality effect has been articulated in connection with a concept of realism that seems particularly relevant to cinematic representation, even if it has also been claimed by other forms of art. Siegfried Kracauer's  (1961) concept of the "redemption of physical reality" in film art, seems to confirm the reality effect by having stressed five strong affinities of the medium which describe the essential properties of a realistic filmic expression. The terms Kracauer uses for these affinities are well known: "unposed reality", "coincidence", "endlessness", "uncertainty" and "flow of life". Such characteristics can be identified in the formal aspects of neo-realism, for example. Artistic programs such as those formulated by Rossellini or Zavattini clearly prove this. Furthermore, the fiction films influenced by cinéma vérité, for example the documentary style in Eastern European fiction films in the sixties, tended toward a similar understanding of the reality effect (cf. Wuss 1998).


Jim Lottery, LA