Preface. On December 5, 2012, a Williston Park, Long Island man became overwrought about the problematics of realism on television and in films – specifically the AMC TV series The Walking Dead. Jared Gurman, 26, felt strongly that the series depicted a more-than-plausible zombie apocalypse, that should a zombie apocalypse actually occur – let’s say in Williston Park, Long Island – it would look exactly like the zombie apocalypse depicted on the fictional Walking Dead. His girlfriend disagreed. So he shot her.
Generally, arguments about screen realism do not end in bloodshed. That’s a personal relief to me, because I am going to propose and reiterate some unfashionable ideas about cinematic realism. I confess I’ve done my part in erasing reality from the discussion of films. When I taught college classes in cinema studies (itinerantly from 1983 to 2007), I made a point of telling my students that ascribing the term realistic to a shot or scene was pointless, because no one can define what realistic means with any degree of accuracy, let alone work toward a wide consensus on the definition. Realism, I taught so very respectably, was a subject best avoided.
But as I said these words in seminar rooms and lecture halls, I knew I was lying. In fact, I believe in the real, the authentic, the truth of existence. I use the word believe purposely. It’s a matter of faith, not scientific proof. That’s why it makes cinema studies professors nervous. Unless we are studying specific works of film theory that posit notions of realism (in which case we point out all the flaws and leave the punctured and deflated balloons lying on the floor of the classroom when we leave), we rarely if ever discuss realism in the reflected light of the films we screen. I think we’re afraid we’ll get caught believing in it.
1. I Believe.
My thoughts about films and why they mean so much to me have an underlying – I’ll say it – quasi-religious basis that, until now, I have kept keenly under wraps. One of my mentors, the late Andrew Sarris, felt no such need for avoidance or euphemism and placed his favorite directors in what he called “the pantheon.” They are gods to me as well, if philosophically rather than theologically. I believe that they each had a worldview that was authentic – a worldview that is revealed in and by the totality of their work – and that the revelations their films encourage have to do with the truth of human existence, or perhaps better the many truths of existence. Sarris also believed, as do I, that movies were – or at least could be – transcendental: they reveal to us a higher truth than the story that serves as the film’s ostensible subject.
Bazin is dead, the transcendental authenticity he so beautifully urged us to experience by way of cinema is dead, and film technology has finally succeeded in making the fake look so real that we now believe that everything we see onscreen is a big fat fraud
I have been a closet transcendentalist – until now. The initial blast of revelation came for me the first time I saw Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff, the ending of which is so explicitly transcendental in the very content of the image that one would have to be blind not to see it. This revelatory high was redoubled when I first experienced Godard’s Pierrot le Fou; Godard doubtless loved Sansho and fashioned his final shot as a transcendental echo of Mizoguchi’s: transcendence upon transcendence.
But these representations of transcendence are overt examples; I cite them because transcendence itself is the explicit subject of both films’ final shots. Every shot in every film records both the material fact of the world and its universality. Buster Keaton’s destruction of a train in The General; Bette Davis brushing away a hand that appears from offscreen right and tries to water down her drink in All About Eve; Jack Lemmon sitting alone on an empty park bench in The Apartment…. These are just three of the greatest, most resonant moments of my film-watching life. But all but the most ineptly directed movies reveal the authentic essences of reality – the material facts the camera records and the universals that enable us to comprehend the world we live in.
2. Plato, Descartes, Bazin, and Me.
From Plato, I learned that every particular was the earthly, material manifestation of a universal truth. From Descartes, I learned that thinking and being were, at their core, one and the same. Bazin taught me to believe in movies because movies verified both the particular material and the universal ideal that were simultaneously recorded by the motion picture camera. For Bazin, the Cartesian dictum “I think/I am” became “I watch films/I am.” That’s what Bazin means to me, in a nutshell. Add some Emerson and Thoreau to fortify my Americanism, and a little Joyce so I can hang the word epiphany on the structure, and there you have my transcendentalist philosophy of film.
True, I make of Bazin what I need to make of Bazin. Who doesn’t? “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage” still resonates with me as the most articulate expression of the nature of cinematic realism ever written. For example, this:
All that matters is that the spectator can say at one and the same time that the basic material of the film is authentic while the film is also truly cinema. So the screen reflects the ebb and flow of our imagination which feeds on a reality for which it plans to substitute. That is to say, the tale is born of an experience the imagination transcends.
And this, referring to a sequence in the “otherwise mediocre English film Where No Vultures Fly”:
Then suddenly, to our horror, the director abandons his montage of separate shots that has kept his protagonists apart and gives us instead parents, child, and lioness all in the same full shot. This single frame in which trickery is out of the question gives immediate and retroactive authenticity to the very banal montage that has preceded it.
For Bazin, film audiences have the opportunity – given a halfway competent director and a soul – to encounter reality by way of the extraordinarily complicated technology of the motion picture. Through cinema, we can experience the authentic. Movies enable us to see reality in a way that our own eyes and ears and other senses cannot, having been numbed through overuse, the boredom of quotidian life. That shot of Bette Davis onscreen in All About Eve gives us the potential to experience reality itself, a realism that wouldn’t be possible without cinema – not even if we had had the chance to see the real Bette Davis filming the scene on the soundstage in real life.
Bazin was right. And I believe him.
3. Then What Do We Do with Gollum?
Is there anyone who doesn’t find Peter Jackson’s slimy creature delightful, wondrous, a triumph? If CGI characters were eligible for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Gollum would surely have won at least one for Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, more recently, he’d be nominated for The Hobbit.
By all appearances, this fully rounded, charmingly despicable character interacts with his human counterparts onscreen and moves through real, if highly engineered, space. Countless shots in The Lord of the Rings feature Gollum in the same frame as Frodo (Elijah Wood), and the same is true in The Hobbit, with Gollum appearing in many shots alongside Bilbo (Martin Freeman). Jackson’s mastery of CGI is so exquisite, and the technology itself so advanced, that for the duration of the films we believe that Gollum is real.
Or do we?
I propose that Gollum in particular and CGI in general spur precisely the opposite response: We now don’t believe in the very reality that cinema has, until very recently, revealed to us. We believe in fakery and illusion instead, which is to say we believe in nothing. Bazin is dead, the transcendental authenticity he so beautifully urged us to experience by way of cinema is dead, and film technology has finally succeeded in making the fake look so real that we now believe that everything we see onscreen is a big fat fraud.
 Andre Bazin, “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage,” What Is Cinema? Vol. 1 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), p. 48.
 Bazin, p. 49.