From the beginning of the blog I have always tried my best to ensure that this site was kept free of technical jargon and dense language. This wasn’t out of any desire to dumb down, but rather out of the aim of keeping the blog as available to as many potential readers as possible – you don’t and shouldn’t need any background or expertise in arts criticism to feel like cinema and literature are places where you can contribute and take part in our collective culture. Books and movies are among some of the last cultural arenas that everyone can take part in. On top of this I wanted ThePageBoy to be a blog that helped generate discussion, provoked debate and even started some friendly arguments and that should happen in whatever language you possess. I go into all this detail for a simple reason, which is this isn’t a blog I started lightly. However thanks to things like readers being engaged and full of debate things have reached the point that maybe I need to start being a little more adventurous in what I talk about.
With the release of ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ a few weeks ago and now the first reviews from Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie surfacing there has been a lot talk of how superhero movies have become more ‘realistic.’ The Amazing Spider-Man is different because it is more ‘real’ than the Sam Rami trilogy and the reason this struck me as odd is that these films are about a teenager who is bitten by a spider and then becomes a vigilante to combat his guilt about his uncle being murdered. The Christopher Nolan trilogy starts with a billionaire absconding from university, running away from home and then climbing a mountain to join a ninja death cult. Does this sound like a Ken Loach film? No, not even a little bit – I know of nobody whose life is like this. Real life doesn’t consist of fights on top of skyscrapers with mutated lizard men. Books also get lambasted for not being realistic enough; conversely a lot of young adult fiction has been criticized for being too gritty, or too realistic as if the two words were somehow synonymous
So this leads to an inevitable conclusion – the word realism doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with real life; when a film is described as realistic it is not because it has anything to do with real life but rather the term is an aesthetic choice and the same goes for literature. So let’s start with the film and what makes these recent films qualify as ‘realistic’ and thus we need to go into a little history. The term ‘realism’ first came into the arts gradually during the period 1750-1850 (very approximately) in a variety of artistic fields. In a stereotype that is shockingly on point, the majority of the artistic fields that gave birth to the rise of realism came from the cultural heavyweight of France. In painting it came and thus literature inevitable followed. To put it as simply as I can, these pioneers, painters like Courbet and Chardin along with writers such as Balzac and Zola were attempting to do something special – create art that exists in third person or some sort of objective reality. Their aim was the production of verisimilitude of the real world. It sounds basic but this was an incredible radical decision for these artists to make. When literary realism reached England it provoked huge controversy; for an artist to make someone up that seemed to be real was considered to be ethically dodgy –lies sold as truth in the guise of art.
So, if this was the original aim of the realists, what changed? Well, two things have influenced where art has gone, firstly the artists themselves and secondly the people who view art, i.e. you and me. The first is possible more complex and certainly explains how films like the Amazing Spider-man can claim to be more realistic. As time progressed and artists continued to experiment the rules of ‘realism’ shifted. Through the realist writers different approaches developed, things like kitchen sink realism in British theatre and photography thanks to people like Dickens and his depictions of the life of the poor. The brittle sarcastic exchanges of the middle class English gentry in Austen are a world away from life in the dustbowl of America that Steinbeck wrote on, so literary realism became a form of the art rather than a description. The writer Henry James wrote a famous essay on the ‘Art of Fiction’ at the end of the 1800s that solidified this change – realism was less about the art but was no about the form it took. In literature the key points were close third person narrative and a direct access to the representation of a specific consciousness, and in many ways, regardless of genre this is still the basis of ‘realist’ writing today. I hope that goes some way to explaining how JK Rowling and Jonathan Franzen can both, in a sense, be considered realist writers – with content subsumed to form this also applies to movies. As long as the form is still correct then the content can be as wild or fantastical as you like. From the literary form of realism realistic cinema we still have, (in most films in the mainstream) a three act plot structure, a close group of characters and unless the film is particularly avant-garde, a limited POV. Not in terms of cinematography mind you, just in the perspective the film is told from.
There is another, slightly more abstract reason why the term ‘realistic’ needs to be more carefully defined and this is about the very process of making art. Basically it’s this – my life doesn’t have lens flare. The very act of making a movie or writing a book involves a lot that is NOT real! To keep this term unchallenged and lazily bandied about by critics who want to explain how it can be a superhero movie without Adam West in it is just wrong.
Basically, what I’m trying to argue for is a better application of our shared critical language when we try and describe and engage with culture. From Wuthering Heights to The Dark Knight Rises our cinema and literary life is full of big exciting and often complex things that surely deserve more than just having a simple, fix all term thrown at them. So if we’re going to do that we should at least understand what we’re saying.
At least, that’s what I think.
PS I am well aware that these thoughts on realism in the critical sense are hardly exhaustive and if there is something worth saying that I’ve missed then please join in, in the comments section.
- Christian Bale: There’s realism in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (abclocal.go.com)
- Spidey Deserves Better (ifanboy.com)
- Early Buzz: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ Delivers On Lofty Expectations (slashfilm.com)
- ‘Spider-Man’ (2002) vs ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (2012) (houseofgeekery.com)