Talking about cinema, especially aspects related to the history of cinema, is a complex task, with the possibility of multiple approaches. However, there are certain inescapable issues that delimit the very field of cinema. Realism is one of those issues. Due to the limited space we will advance in parts in this task and we will privilege in this text an introduction on the question of realism in the period between the first cinema and the classic cinema, taking as reference some symbolic frames of the cinema.
The term realism brings with it a paradox. Realism is the quality of representing the real, but the direct apprehension of the real is impossible, given the intermediation of language. Therefore, the relationship with reality is produced through representations. Reality is a representation, a social construction of reality. Reality is part of the real, although the real cannot be captured aesthetically, it can only be insinuated through the representation of reality, hence the importance of the question of realism in the field of art.
The discussion about aesthetic realism dates back to the end of the 18th century with the criticism of romanticism in literature and took shape in the 19th century when it expanded to painting, theater, until it took on new contours with the development of photography and movie theater. Photography and cinema transformed the world into images, and since then, the images produced by fiction and the media have gradually assumed the role of the main mediation of reality. Therefore, it is possible to understand the contradiction inherent in cinema, an art that, although it seems realistic, ends up configuring itself as an alienation from reality.
Cinema was born at the height of modern industrialization, at a time when cities, in a growing process of urbanization, were witnessing the formation of the proletariat and the incorporation of machines of all kinds into everyday life, changing the pace of life, which accelerated more and more. Cinema emerges as one of these machines, a technical device designed to capture visible reality.
In the early years, a period called "first cinema" and between 1895 and 1910, most films were documentaries, such as the famous recordings of the Lumière brothers in Leaving the Factory and The Arrival of a Train in Ciotat, both screened on December 28, 1895, at the Grand Café, on the Boulevard des Capucines, in Paris, in what some authors consider the first session of paid cinema in history, or films that exhibited everyday scenes, such as crowds circulating through the cities , etc. These films were shown at science fairs or expos along with other technological marvels of the day. However, since the end of the 19th century it was possible to find a different type of film, with varied themes such as magic acts, staging of fairy tales or popular music, and that they were shown in circuses and cheap theaters. French magician and illusionist Georges Méliès is the name that soon comes to mind when approaching this segment.
A theoretical generalization of these two initial models ended up dividing, from the beginning, film production between two types of approach: the formalist and the realist. Georges Sadoul, French writer and journalist, in his History of World Cinema, suggests an aesthetic division in the history of cinema that served as a model in most analyzes throughout the 20th century. It is the attribution of the «invention» of documentary cinema (and therefore with a «realistic» disposition) to the Lumière brothers, and the «invention» of fiction cinema (and therefore with a «formalist» propensity) to Georges Melies. However, if it is obvious to admit that the referential effort of the documentaries of Louis and Auguste Lumière is tributary to an art that illustrates the world and science, to the extent that, as the North American writer Susan Sontag states, "it is restricted to the limits of the notion of cinema as a 'medium' and of the camera as an instrument of 'record'", it must also be recognized that Méliès's films, although with a different proposal , with what we could call an "experimental" orientation, are not intended to be neither anti-realistic nor unnatural, quite the contrary. Movies like Voyage to the Moon (1902) and Voyage through the Impossible (1904) create their fantastic and unusual universes with the model of realist-naturalist theater and literature, maintaining the principles of linear narrative, as well as the stereotyped characters. , the rational description of reality and the acceptance of the moralizing principle of realistic art.
Therefore, the realism/formalism division sounds, from the beginning, like a simplification and does not fit perfectly with the documentary/fiction division. This insufficiency will acquire even clearer contours with the development of the film industry and the preponderance of realistic fiction cinema.
The so-called "transition period" between 1907 and 1915 has two very striking features. On the one hand, the development of the industry together with the attempts to regulate it and, on the other hand, the search for narrative conventions that would help the viewer to understand the story. Cinema emerges as popular entertainment, centered on the proletarian class, and in order to gain legitimacy and conquer the middle-class public, accustomed to theater, cinema oriented its narrative towards realism. The cinema has always proposed to represent other times and other worlds, which did not mean, therefore, to reproduce reality as it is, but it was necessary to give credibility to the represented fantasy. In this way, the naturalistic representation became the standard, and the sets and costumes began to be designed to give authenticity to the world of fiction. Decoupage (segmentation of a sequence into shots) was another structured artifice to guide the viewer's path through the story, imprinting a sense of apprehension of reality. Over time, some codes were established to dialogue with the viewer. Among the most common we can mention the use of the shooting shot and the reverse shot when filming a dialogue, the camera at eye level, in addition to the 180-degree axis "ruler", which draws an imaginary line that the camera does not it must cross in order not to break the continuity. In fact, the concern for the continuity of the actions becomes fundamental so that the movement in the scenes faithfully reproduces the real movement, avoiding the breaking of the illusion. Such conventions have earned the name of classic decoupage and are still widely used today in most audiovisual products, be it movies, series or soap operas.
Like the decoupage, the montage of the shots was structured to make it seem as if events were just being recorded. The so-called "invisible montage" is based on raccords, which are cuts that do not break spatial and/or temporal continuity, so that the viewer is not aware of the cut.
With the classic decoupage and the invisible montage we have an "effect of the real" (paraphrasing the French philosopher and writer Roland Barthes), that is, when language disappears as a construction to appear confused with things, when it is the real itself itself what seems to "speak."
From 1915 the consolidation of the American film industry will take place and, from the sound cinema (sound and image synchronized on the screen) that appears at the end of the twenties (more precisely on October 16, 1927, with the American musical The Jazz Singer), an overwhelming predominance of realistic cinema from the United States will be observed, to the point that it will be called "classic cinema". In classic cinema, the narrative is at the service of the story and the narration is hidden so that the shots of the film are the main engine of understanding, which is possible thanks to the structure of the classic script, which is based on the causal relationship, actions and effects.
This hegemony of realistic cinema, consolidated in the first half of the 20th century through classical cinema, has always had opponents, usually grouped under the label of formalists. The formalists argued that, to be accepted as art, cinema should avoid restricting itself to the mere objective representation of reality, it should free itself from the obligation to tell stories, becoming a sustainable art only because of its formal riches. Several theoreticians and filmmakers were able to frame themselves in the formalist approach throughout the first half of the 20th century, with emphasis on the Russian formalists, who, in addition to film production, left an important theoretical work, full of manifestos, essays and books.
Despite this seemingly binary picture, dividing film history and theory between formalist and realist vectors impoverishes the discussion. Russian formalism, for example, one of the main avant-garde movements in the context of film history, cannot be taken as simply opposed to 'realism'. It would make no sense to attribute the stereotype of "unrealists" to the filmmakers of the Soviet School. In the manifestos and essays of Russian formalism, especially in Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, it is possible to detect a very clear realist indication at the core of the debate on form. Ultimately, we can assume that a realistic intention runs through most of the aesthetic proposals, schools and movements that make up the history of cinema.
Thus, in the early decades of cinema, the question of realism, supported by the distinction between realists and formalists, ranged between the ability of cinema to record the real world or to transform it aesthetically. From the 1940s, thanks to the writings of the French critic André Bazin, this discussion will have important advances.