The Eyes Have It: Cinema and the Reality Effect

The Eyes Have It: Cinema and the Reality Effect

The Eyes Have It: Cinema and the Reality Effect

The Eyes Have It: Cinema and the Reality Effect


The Eyes Have It explores those rarified screen moments when viewers are confronted by sights that seem at once impossible and present, artificial and stimulating, illusory and definitive.

Beginning with a penetrating study of five cornfield sequences--including T he Wizard of Oz, Arizona Dream, and Signs --Murray Pomerance journeys through a vast array of cinematic moments, technical methods, and laborious collaborations from the 1930s to the 2000s to show how the viewer's experience of "reality" is put in context, challenged, and willfully engaged.

Four meditations deal with "reality effects" from different philosophical and technical angles. "Vivid Rivals" assesses active participation and critical judgment in seeing effects with such works as Defiance, Cloverfield, Knowing, Thelma & Louise, and more. "The Two of Us" considers double placement and doubled experience with such films as The Prestige, Niagara, and A Stolen Life. "Being There" discusses cinematic performance and the problems of believability, highlighting such films as Gran Torino, The Manchurian Candidate, In Harm's Way, and other films. "Fairy Land" explores the art of scenic backing, focusing on the fictional world of Brigadoon, which borrows from both hard-edged realism and evocative landscape painting.


“Reality,” no less an expert than Liza Minnelli opined to Vanity Fair in November 2010, “is something you rise above.” In saying this, and without being philosophical, she invokes “reality” as a weight, the humdrum oppression of the everyday. Liza imagines herself — and us — striving to reach some almost-imperial artistic plateau resting “above the clouds,” from which perspective the vulgar, quotidian, and workaday world “down there” looks small and banal and impure. Of course this is a very Romantic view. It embodies, perhaps especially, the artist as an isolated and distinguished figure, subject to different laws of gravity, thus able to fly.

By contrast, Edmund Husserl made bold to disclaim the real existence of “reality”: “We can no longer say that the world is real — a belief that is natural enough in our ordinary experience —; instead, it merely makes a claim to reality” (7). Makes a claim. Even wallowing in the world one might already be capable of escaping it, if only one could share this observation, and acknowledge a transcendence one was called upon to achieve. William James would come to twiddle this same thread, that it is only our convictions that make things real. “Belief, or the sense of reality, is a sort of feeling more allied to the emotions than to anything else” (283). “Reality” onscreen is thus no simple measurement of film’s reproducing the world we live in outside the theater. It is yet one more of the “effects” of cinema, a cultured stylization that must change with the knowledge, desire, and expectations of those who appreciate it. And the terms in which “reality” is manifested will shift with what is technically, materially possible in the means of reproduction. When, broadly as a culture, we took painting . . .

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