Perception of Simulated Human Motion
BY THE END of the twentieth century, the film-theory establishment had lost its faith in realism. In the waning decades, film theorists became increasingly entrenched in their belief that reality itself is a construct of language and culture. The digital technologies of the 1990s that made possible the synthetic construction of images seemed to render obsolete any notions of a photographable reality. In the end, neither reality nor motion picture realism could be countenanced, and the party oprichniks set out to purge the field of film studies of ideas from writers such as André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer, who in the middle of the century had advanced well-articulated theories of motion- picture realism based upon the processes of photography (Bazin, English trans., 1971; Kracauer, 1960). In the academy, both Bazin and Kracauer, and especially Bazin, were ritually ridiculed.
Bazin fully appreciated the psychological power of the photographic image, which as he noted is etched on the film by rays of light directly connected to objects in the world. Indeed, the very process of photography results in an inescapable realism.
The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.... Only a photographic lens can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation, a kind of decal or transfer.... [F]or photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption. (1971, p. 14)
The basis for Kracauer's theory was less direct, relying more on appearance and function of the image, but he, too, looked to the affinities of the photographic medium for the recording of reality. “Film, in other words, is uniquely equipped to record and reveal physical reality and, hence, gravitates toward it” (1960, p. 32).
Ironically, it was Christian Metz who wrote perhaps the most eloquent homage to the role of motion in creating the impression of reality.
It is movement (one of the greatest differences, doubtless the greatest, between still photography and the movies) that produces the strong impression of reality.... Because movement is never material but is always visual, to reproduce its appearance is to duplicate its reality. (1974, pp. 7, 9)
Ironic, because it was also Metz who with Film Language introduced into film theory a linguistic approach that would lead film studies first into semiotics and then into psychoanalysis and Marxism and beyond, leaving concerns with realism far behind.