REALISM, FORMALISM, AND CLASSICISM
Lumiere Actualities (1895)
Thomas Edison Shorts (1985)
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
The Impossible Voyage (1904)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Birth of a Nation (1915)
Belle et la Bete (1945)
Night of the Hunter (1955)
American Graffiti (1973)
Dick Tracy (1990)
Batman Returns (1992)
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Waiting for Guffman (1998)
The Twilight Samurai (2002)
The Bourne Identity (2002)
Master and Commander (2003)
Batman Begins (2005)
District 9 (2009)
127 Hours (2010)
Winter’s Bone (2010)
The Artist (2011)
Midnight in Paris (2011)
The Tree of Life (2011)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Life of Pi (2012)
Captain Phillips (2013)
In this unit we’ll look at some of the first films ever made and the different traditions that they started. First, we have The Lumiere Brothers who invented a portable camera, took it to the streets, and made the first documentaries. Next, there was George Melies, the magician, who made fantasy films and developed some of the first special effects. Then, there was Edwin Porter, director of the Great Train Robbery, who used actors and sets and effects to try and tell a believable and compelling story on film.
These three filmmakers were each pioneers for traditions that have continued throughout film history. These traditions are known as Realism, Formalism, and Classicism.
Realism, started by the Lumiere documentaries, is all about showing the actual world. It doesn’t mean they do show the actual world, but they try to make it look that way. We rarely notice the style in a realistic movie. The idea is that “if it’s too pretty, it’s false.” (Gianetti, 3) This means there is often a handheld camera or simply a camera on a tripod. They use available light (often just the sun). They use non-professional actors (real people playing themselves). They don't build sets, but instead find existing buildings or outdoor locations. Their films are about everyday people and everyday situations. The films often deal with social issues. For example: a man needs to find a job in order to feed his family. He is offered a job, but it is required that he own a bicycle for transportation. He and his wife pawn everything they can to buy a bike. He gets the bike and goes to work. On his first day of work the bicycle gets stolen. Now he must find the bicycle. This describes the first 10 minutes of Bicycle Thieves. It was shot on the streets of Italy with people who had never acted before, using just a camera on a tripod and a basic light kit.
At the other end of the scale is Formalism. Formalist directors have no desire to show reality. They want to show their personal vision of the world. They are concerned with “spiritual and psychological truths that can best be represented by distorting and exaggerating the image” (Gianetti, 3). When Melies made A Trip to the Moon, he wasn't concerned with what a space-ship or the moon might actually look like. He wanted to be funny and use cool special effects. So he makes a purposefully fake looking bullet which the astronauts climb into and are shot into space, hitting the moon (which does have a face) right in the eyeball. Formalistic films are often dream-like. They have detailed, exaggerated sets and costumes. They have complicated camerawork and symbolic lighting. The style draws attention to itself, as if the director is saying, "Look at me! I am an artist and I made this!" At the extreme end, a formalist will avoid story and characters altogether and instead try to convey a particular mood or emotion by showing abstract images.
Watch Melies' "The Black Imp" or "Trip to the Moon".
In between the two, we have Classicism. This is typified by "The Great Train Robbery" and most hollywood style films that came after it. Classicism is all about ideal storytelling. The goal of a classicist is to tell a story in the best way possible. They want you to get caught up in the characters and their problems, to feel what they feel, but not be distracted by the filmmaking techniques. Classicists will build sets that resemble reality and get them exactly right for the story. They will make polished pictures with the camera, but nothing that will make you say "look at that camerawork!" They will use professional actors who can portray the characters emotions, and who will bring in a big audience. If there are special effects, they will look believable and add to the emotion of the story.
Now imagine there is a continuum with Realism on one end, Formalism on the other, and Classicism in the middle. Any film you see will fit somewhere on that continuum. Here are some examples. Keep in mind these terms only apply to the way the film was made, not the subject. You could easily have a formalistic movie that’s based on a true story (Raging Bull), just like you could have a realistic movie about aliens (District 9). For more detail on these concepts, check out Understanding Movies by Louis Gianetti.
Realism: "Spinal Tap" by Rob Reiner. Even though it's a fictional movie with actors pretending to be in a rock band, they shoot it like a documentary--handheld camera, natural lighting, etc.
Realistic Classicism: Captain Phillips Sure it stars Tom Hanks, and it’s got tense music and is very carefully made. But, they shot and edited this in a way to make it look like someone just happened to be there with some cameras.
Classicism: The Empire Strikes Back It's obviously fictional, taking place on another planet with spaceships and junk. But they try and make it as believable as possible and have calculated the camerawork, editing, music, etc. so that you empathize with Luke and feel his tension. The camerawork is good, but it doesn't call attention to itself.
Formalistic Classicism: Moonrise Kingdom It looks kind of real, but not exactly, right? The formalist look does call attention to itself. In this case, because everything is so symmetrical and matchy matchy. Scout camps don’t normally look like this, but Wes Anderson’s scout camps do.
Formalism: Begone Dull Care by Norman Mclaren. No characters, no story, just abstract pictures with music--all put together to create emotion and a psychological experience.
Download: realism vs formalism handout
Where do these film fit on the continuum?