Appeals of Reality-Based Moving Images
IN THE 1970S and 1980s, as if in reaction to the strong case for realism set forth by André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer at mid-century, film-studies scholars alternately attacked, ignored, and redefined realism until by the last decade of the twentieth century, filmic realism was considered a non-issue in film studies. It had been shorn of both its earlier purported direct link with physical reality and its special credibility with regard to documentation. But suddenly, at the end of the century, the dead issue of realism reappeared on at least three media fronts. Along with the interest occasioned by special effects for Hollywood motion pictures (see chapter 3), there appeared on television a spate of news shows and reality programs such as hospital shows, police shows, and talk shows. And in documentary, compilations of photographs and personal reports such as Ken Burns' The Civil War drew large audiences.
When the Rodney King incident occurred in 1991, video footage of his being beaten by uniformed policemen shocked the general public, and the special credibility issue was thrust front and center once again. Media scholars “wanted to be as outraged as everyone else, ” reports Noël Carroll, but “theoretically they `had proven' antecedently that film and video could never convey truths, but only fictions. In order to negotiate this embarrassment, ” Carroll says, they “declared the doctrine of `strategic realism.' This seems to be the notion that if it suits your politics, then you can talk with the vulgar and act as if film images and videotape can be evidentiary, even though you know that, theoretically, this is a pipe dream” (pp. 55—56). But, in spite of the best efforts of some in the film studies establishment to belatedly embalm realism, it was back.
Judging from the essays in this section, one would conclude that in the century's final decade, realism returned to life not only in practice but in theory as well. Dirk Eitzen asserts in “Documentary's Peculiar Appeals” that “[s]ignificance is what matters to us at any given moment. It does not originate in the `space between subjects' or the `system of signifiers.' To the contrary, it is grounded in the impact on our body of whatever registers in our senses and our mind.” And in “Reality Programming: Evolutionary Models of Film and Television Viewership, ” William Evans surmises that “[i]ndeed, the realism of television and film content is one of the most relevant factors in explaining why people prefer television and film content and why they consume so much of it.” Realism is, of course, a central concept in ecological theories of perception. However, the issue of realism in all its complexity in the visual culture of our day goes beyond the pale of perception to incorporate questions that traditionally belong to the study of cognition, rhetoric, and narrative. The essays included in this chapter grapple with reality-based moving images in that larger context; their authors are film theorists and communication theorists—media philosophers, if you will. They and others like them