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Distinction Between Realism and Naturalism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2909 words Published: 28th Sep 2017

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1. Is the distinction between realism and naturalism worth preserving in discussion of film and/or television drama?

To argue that the distinction between naturalism and realism is worth preserving the intention in this case is to explore classic and contemporary texts and attempt to make clear that naturalism alone is insufficient when discussing key themes and elements.

To first examine the work of la novelle vague at first glance this film and cultural movement does not seem to be in keeping with the theory and approaches to cinematic realism. Critics would perhaps argue that The French new wave is a stylistic movement born from a frustration to the mainstream “Hollywood” conventions or “cinema du papa”. Although on the surface this may indeed be true, but it can be argued, that many of the texts coming out of the French new wave movement were indeed the height of realism. To first examine jean luc Godard’s classic film a bout de suffle or “breathless” this to some epitomises the stylistic new wave movement that was happening in France, and soon after Britain. Layered with superfluous stylistic techniques and dislocated continuity, watching breathless is undeniably a challenge. But breathless certainly meets the criteria of being a film entrenched in social realism. Godard uses real interior and exterior locations here, naturalistic performances, improvised dialogue (although cinematographer raul cautard refutes this), natural lighting and action is not a constant motivator of the editing. Perhaps from a first viewing one would think that breathless is film with all the codes of naturalism at work. However, breathless deals with many societal and cultural issues which are generic conventions of a realist text

Firstly breathless’ cinematic approach is certainly stylised but Godard fuses realistic camera techniques with stylistic flair, although the spectator is often jostled and at a loss at times with breathless as Godard subverts many traditional filmic conventions, but:

“It is usually a “revolt” against previous conventions which characterises a break towards realism in the arts”. Raymond Williams.

For example, Michel drives to Marseilles, the cinematography is a mix between the car’s passenger seat as it jostles with the bumps of the road and right on top of the cars bonnet, bringing the spectator in the thick of the action, instead of at a distance from it, much like a naturalist approach. Michel sings and talks to himself in the car and shockingly looks directly into the camera and states “if you don’t like the sea, if u don’t like the mountains, if u don’t like the big city, then get stuffed”. This acknowledgement by Michel is important as it alludes to him acting in a role, breaking the hermetic barrier between film and viewer, and reminds the viewer that this is actually a film, and this is one of many direct address shots within the film. This is a break of the “suspension of disbelief” and this is important because this is an act of defiance, normally associated with current affairs, fact based programming and Godard fuses this into a work of fiction. This fusion further makes claims of realism. Moreover, Godard here and elsewhere utilizes the theory of Bertolt Brecht, wherein this instant of direct address reminds the viewer that this is a “representation of reality” and not reality in itself, the viewer is not left passively complacent, but challenged to engage through the very nature if it being unfamiliar and startling. A further shock in this scene is Michel’s imitation of a pistol firing, and the noise is disturbingly loud compared to the soundtrack, and the spectator is given a visceral shock out of passivity.

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Although somewhat confusingly; on the whole the audience is never far from the characters, their world and their lives. to reinforce this claim Godard is a an exponent of continuous action and deep focus, for instance the scene in which Michel and Patricia walk along the champs Elsie Godard follows the couple in a continuous tracking shot, this level of deep focus and the way in which the audience stays with the couple allows the audience insight into the filmic world because of our proximity to the characters. Furthermore in a continuous sequence whereby Michel goes to retrieve a check from his friend tolmatchoff, they meet and are followed walking through the foyer, tolmatchoff is called out of the shot, leaving Michel on his own, yet still there is no cutaway until Michel leaves the agency and the police arrive, this may seem peculiar but it allows the audience choice on what or who to focus their attention on; either one of the men or the surroundings. This is in effect an unmediated, unbiased presentation, and a similar convention is again seen in Scorsese’s Goodfellas. A notorious scene within breathless is interesting in particular, as it continues for thirty minutes without a cutaway or change of scene, Patricia and Michel sit in Patricia’s bedroom, talking about very little, the dialogue provides no insight to further character development nor plot, but it could be deemed that this extraneous dialogue instead of being the usual enunciator of genre and / or narrative progress, that it is the enunciation of realism. By contrast within a naturalism text the cinematography would be dealt with subtly i.e, establishing and wide shot, eyeline matches, and sequences of shot / reverse shots, this is important as this is a classic continuity editing, with its purpose to be submissive to narrative action.

To compare the grocery store scene in the very first episode of coronation street; to Michel meeting tolmatchoff in breathless. In each a character moves about the environment, in the first a cut is made when dialogue alludes to something important to plot, character or narration, in breathless, no cuts are made but fluid camera work keeps the spectator involved. In coronation street there is obvious care taken towards the mimicry of real life. “Kitchens sink” drama, and relatable content; on the surface should personify notions of naturalism. But the distinction between naturalism and realism in Coronation Street become too interweaved and blurred to maintain any distinction between the two. Cinematographically it is loaded with naturalist techniques, but thematically Coronation Street is infused with cultural and societal issues, the family, community, class frustrations and personal relationships. The transition of these would be none existent if naturalism is a sole approach. Both godard and the television soap: coronation street both employ realist conventions in different but interesting ways. Coronation Street is fuelled with notions of the “invisible observer”, this is indeed mediated but allows the communication of real themes:

“The natural transference of attention of an imaginary observer.”….“an observer ideally mobile in space and time.”. p9

In stark contrast to the brechtian inspired Breathless, the invisible observer nevertheless a form that allows codes of realism to be transmitted. Instead of sneering at the passive spectator utilizes the concept to communicate themes entrenched in realism.

In terms of cinematography breathless employs subversive techniques; from the very start of the film we begin in disequilibrium with the lack of a clear establishing shot, soon after the 180′ rule is also broken, and throughout Godard uses constant close-ups, these halt narrative action. So these and other cinematographic techniques are not motivated by narration, but style. Godard on the whole is disinterested in the pursuit of the overall narrative, but the relationship between Michel and Patricia, this again is a defiance of classical forms of narration as traditionally cinematography are subservient to narrative. Editing is invisible and unobtrusive. But because the cinematography and editing are self conscious….. and editing which must by default further the layers of realism at work within breathless

The characterisation at work within a bout de suffle is certainly not one dimensional, although both Michel could be defined as a sexist or misogynist but he is an outdated stereotype, although he succeeds with his active sexism, stealing from a woman he appears to know etc, he is inevitably punished by the end, although by far this is not activism in breathless, but it does blaze the trail for new thinking between the genders and more importantly these readings are available within the text which further solidify the need to maintain realism and

Furthermore Patricia’s character could be deemed progressive in terms of realism rather than transgressive, she has a clear understanding of her own identity unlike the romanticism of Michel. she understands she must enrol in Sorbonne to study to maintain her life in France, and when she meets her business friend van doude, his lechery seems manipulated by her for her pursuit to further her journalism career, and critically she is indeed Michel’s demise in the end, this is one of the first representations of women that has not been submissive to patriarchy, Michel constantly lusts after Patricia but she constantly thwarts him but has no problem using her own sexuality to further her own cause, Patricia is in complete control of her fortune. Furthermore she does not take a supporting role like perhaps a young woman would in an Ealing Melodrama, nor does Michel conform to a traditional protagonist, for example his hero; bogart in Casablanca, appears in every single shot within the film, he drives the narrative, however, Michel appears in a small fraction, these further the pursuit of realism within breathless, cinematically and ideologically as godard again further subverts cinematic convention, with representation and sporadic use of his protagonist. Also the transgressive character types break the mould

The causality seems bizarre in breathless, Michel is shown going about mundane tasks, irrelevant action is used by Godard instead of a classical mode of narration, i.e action motivates editing and narrative choices. Because Godard subverts this it again falls into a realism category, furthermore as Roland Barthes discusses:

“The narrative process; providing neither narrative information nor character insight, it is, in effect, their function to signify “reality”, to furnish the “effect of the real”.

Although fraught with ideologies, breathless is not an explicitly political text, the only political allusion is the presidential motorcade. For me this is realist convention not based in naturalism, it gives particularly Michel another dimension. It creates juxtaposition between the cultural youth enterprising psyche in France at the time, and disillusionment felt by many of the youth who didn’t adapt to this dogma, but also conforms to the “new wave’ trope of the anti- hero. This leads to an issue of the individuals place within society, the audience learns very little about Michel and the information we do glean is questionable, he seems to have no real roots, but he and Patricia both seem socially alienated, and somewhat disenfranchised with society, others may read these characters as fairly simple, that they respond to and are influenced by just their surrounding etc, which would fit into a naturalist framework but i argue, they are both amoral but and disillusioned stemming from a larger societal problem: that of the cultural void left by world war two. Michel is metonymic for the French youth during the 1950s. For me this can only be qualified by Michel’s lust after Patricia, a young American woman, and the constant mimicry of his idol: Humphrey Bogart, also American. In other words, post WW2 France is a cultural vacuum and American consumerism / capitalism has replaced the “old” France. This reading into a bout de soufflé is based on a realism school of thought, so the distinction between naturalism and realism is a pertinent one to maintain, otherwise the “real life” drama behind social realism texts cannot be found. In contrast to this, coronation street alludes to nothing global, political or religious, in this way it is the height of being secular, but because of this coronation street has “space” to concentrate on the universality of human emotion and dilemma. The lack of a traditional realism category in Coronation Street allows thematic space for “everyday” reality to be conveyed.

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To return to breathless and Michels emulation of Humphrey Bogart is evidence that godard is critically aware of Hollywood iconography and conventions, breathless is peppered with noir / gangster genre tropes, Michel’s trilby, and urban landscape, guns, the police investigation etc. Although this genre does not frame Godard’s text, however it is interweaved with the tradition of realism or rather the representation of the “real”, most importantly as Michel is punished and killed at the films climax. Furthermore, Godard’s use of the jump cut and other unsettling devices, these all disrupt the narrative and genre from doing their “conventional” roles. So the culmination of these must be that Godard is aware of these Hollywood tropes but either subverts them or denies them working at all for me this blazes a trail for social and socially extended realism to show through. But even this is morphed, as the spectator is not thrown into the film world much like the effect of Boyles Trainspotting, but rather the spectator oscillates between consuming narrative action and objectively engaging with it.

It would be easy to mistake Coronation Street for sheer naturalism, or any television soap as a naturalist text, for many reasons. But as discussed below the surface there is a pool of depth that is in keeping with notions of realism. To contrast a assumed naturalist text in Coronation Street to a literal naturalist text in Shakespeare’s King Lear, the differences are stark, although a very old text, the contrast is still interesting, the subject matter is high class monarchy, the characters motivations are clear, money, power, love. And all characters are influenced by each other and their environment, there is little ambiguity nor psychological and philosophical depth. Contrasting Shakespeare’s classic work with Coronation Street where human emotion and interaction is explored this twinned with the ideological presentation of character in Breathless. It becomes clear that naturalism provides very little in terms of exposing any “truth” within an audio visual text.

Continuing with naturalism, although with reference to theatre Jean Jullien (1854-1919) states:

“A play is a slice of life put onstage with art.”

This quote perhaps personifies Shakespeare’s work, in this case. It is a slice of life, a snapshot of the “real”, without the any of the characteristics of either being real i.e. Coronation Street; Or representing reality, I.e. Godard’s Breathless.

To explore naturalism I wish to discuss the television drama: Coronation Street, specifically the very first episode as it is perhaps more suitable of the time period when considering Godard’s breathless, naturalism and its conventions are in stark contrast with regard to the issues previously discussed. Coronation Street is motivated by trying to recreate “real” life. Coronation street is not fraught with economic, political or ideological concepts, its main focus is on individual relationship and the interaction between them, and on there environment, and because of this there is a certain distance between viewer and there are obvious distinctions between these two texts on the exterior coronation street here makes use of indoor naturalist settings, furthermore the use of regionalised specifically northern characters,

Coronation Street begins with an establishing shot of the street accompanied by extra digetic music, setting the particular setting and the regional place, i.e brass music, with its links to northern heritage. The audience enters a small shop, all camera movement and editing is submissive to dialogue and action, although most prominently shown within the dinner table scene with ken Barlow, rapid cuts are utilized to focus on whichever character speaks, this is classic continuity editing, this is an invisible unobtrusive technique and as the performances are naturalistic it forces the audience the focus of the “reality” at work.

Although breathless deals with subversive character types, coronation street deals with existing stereotypes, for association in the audience, the working classes most prominently with “kitchen sink” subject matter. This is a form of socially extended realism. The material in Coronation Street is realistic: Poverty, economy and class are intimated within the drama but it always kept within the boundaries of how these issues effect the individual. For this reason it would be deemed Coronation Street is socially extended realism. For example Ken Barlow’s parents feel he is rejecting his roots, a class issue; dealt with within the confines of the dynamics of family relationships. So the primary focus of this television drama is the mimesis between screen and real life,


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