Artifice VS Realism

Reading & Writing, The Arts

This is something that has interested me for a while. A very well-known writer who is a friend (and therefore I won’t name him here) is a brilliant observer of the everyday, and writes about it beautifully – but his plots stink. What you get is brilliant natural observation – and then when you get to the bit where the guns come out, cliche after TV cliche follows. It’s because he can make the realistic observations himself, but has no experience of the dramatic.

Readers often want the roman a clef, the book that reveals the author, but even confessional memoirs must be something of a construct, because the random must be marshalled into order. I’m bugged when people talk about the ‘realism’ of ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ or ‘The Killing’ – there is no plot realism in these tales at all, simply recognition of character – they are fictions told well, that’s all.

If we looked for realism in a crime story we’d see inarticulate desk cops sitting in meetings and dealing with drunk teenagers. Drama is artifice, but there’s ‘real’ artifice (ie giving the appearance of reality) and ‘artificial’ artifice (where no attempt is made to disguise the construct.)

In his later career, Federico Fellini favoured the artificial and lost the critics who had championed his realism. His film ‘And The Ship Sails On’ ends his career with an astonishing shot. The camera pulls back to reveal a ship in a studio, and waves made of fluttering silk, and the director behind his camera. He looks up, turns and smiles to his audience in complicity. What an exit.

But a lot of people detest this conceit. For them, it breaks the spell. Many people I know have a hatred of such books and films, but I love them. A classic example would be the movie ‘8 Women’, an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery set in a snow-beseiged mansion, with eight women, no men, a murder, and eight pop songs. Ozon’s film is an outrageous construct that sorts the lovers from the haters – I watched in amazement as people stormed out in the first 5 minutes.

Lars Von Trier went a step further by doing away with scenery and having only chalk-lines representing sets. The key lies in creating a suspension of disbelief via good writing.

When there is nothing but artifice in film – say, in the secondhand pop cultures of ‘The Last Airbender’ or ‘Kick-Ass’, the whole film falls apart faster than Greek lamb. Realistic characters can make the artificial work, but it doesn’t operate the other way around.

Moral: Get the characters right and everything else follows.

2 comments on “Artifice VS Realism”

  1. J F Norris says:

    I think some of the best movies are those that are utterly artificial. MARNIE is a great example of this. Most of Hitchcock’s movies are exercises in cinema as artifice if you really study them. I have begun to resent this nonsensical demand for realism in all forms of art and entertainment. I have always said to people who crave realism from movies (one of the most artificial, manufactured, manipulative forms of art) that they should damn well stay at home, sit on their porch or balcony, and simply watch the street life if they want realism.

    BTW, and not surprisingly after what I’ve just written above, I was mesmerized by 8 Women. Isabelle Huppert’s performance was my favorite of the lot. So utterly different from what you usually expect from her.

  2. Vickie Farrar says:

    A possible intellectual difference between you and the average movie-goer is that you also devoutly attend plays, where your own (silent) input and imagination is required to “fill out” the story, and the lines/language (nad, therefore, concentration) is vital. This may be a shallow observation, but I believe people who attend plays are interested in investing brain cells in the absorption of same, and the bulk of movie-goers are oft opting for a delirious and brainless release from reality.

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