Reflections on the Formative and Realist traditions of Film Theory

An essay from a film studies class on the different traditions in the evolution of film theory

The cinematic aesthetic for the Formalists was that film is a making. Eisenstein considered the artistic activity to be, more precisely, of “building”. To attain reality one had to destroy realism, break up the appearances of a phenomenon and reconstruct them according to a ‘reality principle’. In contrast, the Realist tradition emphasized looking at life the way it was and to let nature speak for itself. The Formalists were always interested in the question of film as an art and what characterized art in the first place. Art belonged to the aesthetic sphere as an object, which does nothing but exists for our intense perception and contemplation. The Formalists prescribed to art the role of ‘recovering the sensation of life’ and revealing the defining qualities of objects. Thus the technique of art became a means to defamiliarize objects, to make forms difficult and to subordinate objects to the experience of their ‘objectness’. It ‘wrenched objects’ from their normal surroundings and distorted them in a way that called for attention. Technique thus became synonymous with art and deviation was required to stimulate the process of contemplation. With the second wave of Formalism, however, foregrounding required that the technique of art make objects necessarily challenging so that finally, the degree of deviation in an object served as a criterion for art.

Even though both the traditions believed in the process of perception or contemplation of the world, while the Formalist took upon himself to make objects strange in order to force extended attention, the Realist merely offered the viewer the chance for greater contemplation through devices like the long take and multiple plains of action using the depth of field. And it is precisely this continuity of vision that the Formalists, especially Eisenstein strove to break with his theory of montage and shock of attractions. While contrast was important to Eisenstein, Bazin rejected montage, though without discarding editing, in favour of images with depth that offered a fuller image for contemplation.

Although the formalists differ in their ideas of the raw material of film, (Eisenstein with his attractions, Pudovkin with the shot itself, Arnheim with the technical deficiencies that prevent cinema from replicating the visibly real perfectly) the realists more or less agreed that the raw material for film was the visible world around us. It is however interesting to notice the complementary points of views of Arnheim and Kracauer which would amount to saying that while Arnheim sees the glass half empty, Kracauer sees it half full. For Arnheim cinema attains its peculiarities through its technical deficiencies in replicating reality exactly; for Kracauer however, it is precisely the capacity of the medium to record or to photograph reality, although inaccurately, that is its strength and peculiarity. The Formalist theory noted a difference in the visible reality and the capacity to grasp it in various ways, but the Realist theory held that the photographed image was ontologically bound to its object.

Kracauer sees the function of the filmmaker to read reality and his medium justly and employ the proper techniques to find a balance between the two. With the Realists, there is a tendency that not all things in the visible reality are photographable; some things lend themselves to the camera more readily than others. Nature is allowed precedence and it is a pattern in nature that dictates the filmmaker, not his own impulses or desires for self-expression. The fundamental difference between the two traditions also arises from the fact that the Formalists saw film as a tool to convey a particular message. Though Realism was closely tied with social function, film was more a way of seeing the world, a window rather than a frame. The other difference lies in the way both traditions treated their audiences. Eisenstein conceives film as a machine which has predictable results and which is used after a particular end has been envisaged. The Formalist filmmaker designs, constructs, and destroys his elements with his audience in mind. But for the Realist, there is no specific audience, no specific end to achieve except that of showing reality. The Realist’s focus is not on the audience but on the perceived object that is mediated through the medium. Cinema, as Kracauer says, is about the curiosity about reality, not a medium for self expression. Thus, while Formalism uses the medium as a frame to neutralize the world, Realism uses it as a window to see the world.

The limitations with the Formalist tradition as Balazs remarks in the case of Eisenstein, is that it lacked naturalness. Eisenstein and Pudovkin were both engineers and they saw art as a machine with a specific purpose and a precise end. Even though they saw human beings as evolving and devoid of any essences, their notion of constructing meaning by consciously creating, against the naturalism of the mind, an environment for a psychological result supposed that they could control every aspect of the audience’s mind. They defined a specific manner in which they expected the audience to watch the film and interpret the juxtaposition. In his example of the Japanese ideogram, (a picture of a bird and a mouth means to sing, which a picture of a child and a mouth means to cry) Eisenstein knows how to interpret the juxtaposition. But in the case of montage pieces, the viewer is constantly confronted with new and ever-increasing number of alphabets, as it were, in addition to which unlike the static bird and child, the visual content is constantly in motion. In trying to assign a precise role to art, as if it were a work like any other, and in their obsessive fervour to deny realism in a strain similar to surrealists of the same age, the Formalists forgot to leave room for spontaneity.

The usefulness of the Realists on the other hand, lay in the fact that they did not try to manipulate their audience’s reactions. In their belief of naturalism, they hoped to provide a renewed perspective, which aligned the viewer with nature and thus laid the foundation for change. Yet, while Kracauer talks of a balance between Formalist and Realist tendencies, the film could not be the director’s self –expression, he could not exert his imagination. In their belief to see the world as it is, they seem to think of it as given and easily accessible. But the visible reality is not as objective or as obvious a phenomenon as it might seem, as Kracauer realises, because it attains meaning only in a human context as it is finally intercepted and grasped by a human mind. Thus as Balazs finally says, although the two traditions seem opposed to one another, they are ultimately different in emphasis rather than in choice: while the Realists began with reality and the photographic ability of the camera, the Formalists began with cinema’s own language ability, the principle of editing.


Andrew, J. Dudley. The Major Film Theories: An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 1976

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