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

Sergei Eisenstein, D.W. Griffith & Pudovkin: A Comparative essay

Any student of film studies encounters Eisenstein, Griffith and Pudovkin. This essay explores some of their similarities and differences

The differences between the techniques of Eisenstein and Griffith, both pioneering filmmakers, arise from the fact that they saw different potentials in the same medium and sought to exploit it for different purposes. While Eisenstein spoke of film sometimes as if it were “a powerful vehicle for rhetorical persuasion” and sometimes as if it were an autonomous art, Griffith’s innovations were simply results of trial and error, practical experiences rather than of theorizing.

Eisenstein saw the screen as a frame rather than as a window. It was a space in which the director decomposed reality into usable blocks or neutralised them, and arranged them to construct new meaning through juxtaposition1. His theories follow from his basic definition of raw material, which he found to be the different elements or attractions that constituted the shot and were capable of affecting the spectator’s mind. Each element functioned like a ‘circus attraction’ different from the other attractions but on an equal footage and depended on the rest for its significance2. The principle of montage determined the juxtaposition of these elements in order to create a specific meaning and a desired psychological effect. Without it the attractions were merely disordered stimuli. Unlike Griffith who used montage to involve his viewers into the action, Eisenstein saw film as a totality with the various elements working in it. While the theme or life principle3 determined the elements’ interaction with each other, it was itself determined by them; they were both mutually dependent and inextricable.

In his notion of dialectical montage, Eisenstein established the binaries of thesis and antithesis that were to be resolved in a synthesis by his spectator. As a Constructivist, he wanted to destroy all sense of inherent fullness of meaning and dynamically construct new significance. Through montage, the filmmaker could shape the mental processes of the spectator by bombarding them with ‘a continuous string of shocks’ coming from each of the various elements of the spectacle. Through this collision of attractions, the audience was forced to actively participate in the making of meaning by resolving the conflicting themes and attaining significance through synthesis. Merely juxtaposition was not enough, Eisenstein thus offered the experience of ‘completing the image rather than a completed image’ in “The Formative Tradition.”

Film, for Griffith, was picture stories. At a time when performance was dominated entirely by theatrical techniques, Griffith combined stage narrative with the Victorian novel, which greatly influenced him, to form a cinematic device. Film was nothing but another medium to tell stories and all its technical aspects were only meant to support the dominant plot. With Porter’s discovery of the shot as the basic unit of film, unlike the previous ‘scene’, Griffith further refined the rudiments of continuity editing that were already at his disposal. Although both, Eisenstein and Griffith were concerned with manipulating their audience, while Eisentein sought to enlighten his audience through colliding shots, Griffith merely sought to hypnotize them with all the glamour that later came to be associated with Hollywood. Unlike Eisenstein, Griffith was not interested in film as an art but with making successful and realistic films. In film, he had found a visual equivalent to the novel and perfected the visual inventory of the medium to enhance storytelling in a manner as vivid and engrossing as a novel. He employed shots of varying sizes, spatial and temporal lengths for dramatic effect and used flash back and point of view shots to heighten the cinematic climax. Through all his inventions and experimentation, he played on the audience’s basic perception of reality and their ability to draw on common established meanings through associations and experience. Unlike Eisenstein’ s conception of confusing the viewer through shocks of attraction, it was imperative for Griffith that the audience understood what he presented to them and related to it. Thus while Eisenstein’s film was incomplete without the spectator, Griffith depended on his audience to voluntarily suspend reason.

Pudovkin, on the other hand, differed from Eisenstein in his raw material for film. He saw the shot itself as the basic unit of film. The filmmaker had less power over his raw material and was at the mercy of the shot. The shot was already inherent with reality and that is what the filmmaker began with. His task was then to make the proper choice and organization of these bits of reality, which already had ‘a definite power’. Even though Pudovkin also believed in producing precise reactions in his audience, the filmmaker’s task lay, not in manipulating reality, but in mediating it to his audience. The sense of the world already existed in the reality captured by the shots, but it was proper editing that could operate upon this sense to produce the desired effects in the audience. It was thus even possible for the filmmaker to force the spectator to experience a film event as if it were a natural event. But unlike Eisenstein’s collision of shots, this was acheived by ‘linking’ them. The difference between the two filmmakers is clearly portrayed in these oft-quoted words of the French critic Leon Moussinac: “Pudovkin’s films resemble a song, Eisenstein’s a scream.”


  1. Through the influence of the Kabuki theatre, he saw the breaking up of various aspects of theatre into elements for the director to arrange them according to his wishes so that it is the form of the ensemble that contains the meaning. All events are deformed and altered until they retain only their exterior. All aspects/elements become equal .
  2. Eisenstein’s colour theory is related to this. He talks of colours being significant only in a relational context. Individual colours don’t have any inherent meanings.
  3. In his dilemma to pronounce art and film form as a machine or as an organism, Eisenstein talks of autonomous art being enthused by a governing life principle that dictates the arrangement of montage pieces and thus the cinematic meaning itself. But this notion of organic form endangers the director’s total power to create meaning. To this, Eisenstein gives the filmmaker the task to first discover the theme.


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

A glimpse of the language of film in the 20th century

A brief timeline of the evolution of film as a medium in the Western world in the twentieth century

The evolution of film language in the twentieth century began with the arrival of Edwin Porter who established the shot as the building block of cinematic language unlike the ‘scene’ that was used by George Méliès. Méliès had already seen film as a narrative medium and had innovated several devices like the fade-in, fade-out, overlapping, superimposing shots and dissolves. In his films A Trip to the Moon, he creatively portrayed the smiling face of the moon carved in shaving cream. As a magician, he had discovered that film need not obey the laws of empirical reality, and exploited film to ‘astonish’ viewers. But he nevertheless stayed within the conventions of the theatre and conceived films in terms of dramatic scenes which contained the logical unfolding of an action played out to its end; he even designed and painted backgrounds as was done in a stage backdrop. The film was narrated from a single perspective, the eagle-eye view of the theatre- going spectator, with the shots taken from a motionless camera. The only editing that occurred was between scenes rather than within them.

With all these technical devices at his disposal, Porter experimented with point of view and the way action was portrayed. He realised that he could cut in the middle of action without causing confusion in the viewer and thus laid the foundations of continuity editing in The Great Train Robbery (1903). With inter-cutting between scenes, Porter managed to create the illusion of simultaneous or parallel action accessible to the viewer from simultaneous points of view. Yet the cut was used only to advance the story and not within the shot itself for dramatic effect. But in the Great Train Robbery, Porter for the first time experimented with camera angles- in one of the scenes he shows the action by placing the camera on a moving engine. He also attempted camera moves like panning in the scene where the robbers are fleeing to the woods, yet he nevertheless left shot sizes unexplored as all his scenes are in the long shot. The only transition that he uses is the cut. But his most important contribution to the cinematic language is that film has its own aesthetic, distinct from that of the theatre, which depends not upon the arranged of objects in a scene, but on the interaction of shots with one another.

Griffith, “the Shakespeare of the Screen”, took up the discoveries of Porter and developed the cinematic language to a greater extent. He established cinema as a narrative form with its own set of aesthetics and laws. Through the rise of multi-shot films, he realised the need for shot consistency and a different kind of direction than stage direction. Griffith was a master story teller, thus all his experimentation was driven towards the perfection of dramatic effect. He employed the ‘cut in’ to heighten drama in films like The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908) and broke down the distance between the audience and the action. By 1908 he had made parallel editing more sophisticated and had stumbled upon the beginnings of montage. Various techniques like the ‘object of attentions’ or the motivated point of view shot and functions like the flashback or the ‘switch back’ that interrupted the narrative had also been devised.

Even in other parts of the world cinematic language and the new medium of film were being explored. In Man with the Movie Camera, film was being examined as a distinct and independent entity from theatre or literature. The film sought to establish the aesthetics unique to the medium and form itself as a separate and self-sufficient art, questions about which were to be later taken up by Arnheim and the others.

But in America itself, one of Griffith’s major contributions in an area that remained largely unexplored in the age of Porter and Méliès, was the variations of shot sizes. The close –up was important for providing detail to the viewer and giving him sudden access to a character or an object, while the long shot estranged him and gave him a panoramic view of the action. In 1909, Griffith attempted multiple parallel actions in The Lonely Villa and explored multiple point of views. He devised another technique of increasing the tempo of inter-cutting between parallel action so that the dramatic climax coincided with the cinematic climax and the way of the telling the story and the story itself became one. The technique of the alternation of simultaneous action as well as the alternation of temporally converging action, known as ‘Griffith’s last minute rescue’, formed the basis for montage; Griffith was aware of the length of a shot and the particular psychological effect that it produced.

Aware of the camera’s exaggerating possibilities, Griffith also trained his actors in naturalness and subtlety of expression unlike theatrical customs. He explored lighting, camera moves and angles and noted the effect that each produced on the audience. The horizontal sweep gave the audience the entire action, while the track involved the viewer. The depth of field broke down the action onto several planes so that the director could create visual metaphors through a combination of all these devices. Even transitions were perfected as dissolves could be carried out within the lens diaphragm itself.

In Germany during the war years, Oskar Messeter, ignorant of Griffith’s inventions, contributed his share to the cinematic language by improving the Maltese cross system for projection; at a time when all films operated within the conventions of the theatre, he used artificial lights on the sets and made short films and actualiteés. The cinematic language sprang to life through the contributions of filmmakers around the world, but it was only through Griffith’s techniques and innovations that it attained its zenith.


  1. Andrew, J. Dudley. The Major Film Theories: An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  2. Cook, Pam. The Cinema Book. California: Pantheon Books, 1986

The Realism Debate in Film Theory: The contributions of Andre Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer

A short note on the formalist and realist strands of filmmaking, taking the case of Alfred Bazin & Siegfried Kracauer, that marked the evolution of film history in the West in the 20th century

The fundamental difference between the realist tradition and the formalist tradition arises from the fact that while one believed in “the naked power of the mechanically recorded image”, the other relied on the “learned power of artistic control over images.” Throughout the history of film, these twin currents have remained inextricably intertwined since their momentous inception in the age of Mélies and the Lumière brothers. Although the formative tradition had initially prevailed as the dominant tradition, realism in film gained importance only when it was tied up with a social function to provide “an absolute alternative [to entertainment films], a cinema with a conscience true both to everyday perception of life and to the social situation.” Thus documentaries and fly-on the wall kind of films came to perpetrate the notion that the real was the visible and that the camera was able to capture that reality. It was thus that the camera established the norms of the ruling ideology. Even though later realism came to be associated with a sense of spontaneity, of life as it is in a moment of contemplation of the world, before such a formulation, it was nevertheless preceded by people like Vertov, Rotha and Vigo who “shriek with a sense of political aspiration.” (Andrew, 104)

But for Kracauer and Bazin, the two giants in the realist tradition, cinema “exists beyond practical political action”. It very much includes politics but is not dominated by it. Even though both bore their allegiance to reality, Bazin unlike Kracauer, tried to define what he meant by reality. While Kracauer simply equated film and reality, with reality as a raw material, Bazin specified the dependence of film on reality and also its distinctness from it. His notion of the tracings of reality on celluloid showed that he recognized a fundamental difference between the object and it representation in a photograph which was then ‘second removed’ from it. These tracings of reality, which were for Bazin the raw material for cinema, were then ‘genetically linked’ to the reality they showed. Also, as they were already comprehensible, they also duplicated the way we see objects in the world or our visual reality. It is this idea that seems to have led Bazin to his notion of cinema as an asymptote of reality, ‘moving closer to it yet forever dependent on it. Cinema ‘stands outside the world and looks just like the world.’ It is this position that allows the cinema then to act as a “sesame” to universes unknown. Yet, even though Kracauer didn’t specify what he meant by reality, except that “empirical reality contains correspondences and interrelationships that the camera can find”, he and Bazin seem to agree on the function that cinema at its highest should turn back to the reality it began with unlike the other arts that transcend their work into a new world of meaning. Thus while Kracauer says that cinema could never be an art, Bazin postulates cinema’s goal in a realm outside the conception of art.

Traditional realist theory and the views of Kracauer advocated that realist techniques or means were indispensable to make a realistic film, but Bazin without dictating the type of technique that a film is best suited to, simply stops at saying that like in a photograph, reality is inescapable from the raw material but does not dictate it. This notion is again more complex than Kracauer’s simplistic notion in which realist film is the outcome of realist technique. Through various observations and case studies of films of his time, Bazin notices that although the raw material is inherently realistic, the form and means of a film are causally linked in a way that the raw material is made “to signify” through its means and achieves “signification” through its proper form. “Signification is the result of style; significance of form.” Defining realism then as that which is opposed to abstraction, Bazin postulates a means of no style or ‘neutral style’ in realist film as that would mean minimum signification and thus a reduced role of the director in the film project and his tendency to abstraction. Even for cinematic adaptations of plays, he advocated filming the artificiality of the play rather than interpreting it cinematically through stylized décor (while Kracauer supported documentaries on painting and painters). He assigns the filmmaker’s task to “seek the significance of a scene within the unadorned image” so that the style and form result from a balance of the artist’s realist and abstract abilities. “The artist’s vision should be ascertained from the selection he makes of reality, not from his transformation of reality.” Kracauer on the other hand, says that man’s basic tendency is to be realist and that the filmmaker’s goal is to record reality through the camera’s basic property and reveal it to the spectators through its technical properties. Although he admits creative intervention on the part of the filmmaker to optimize the use of the film medium, he nevertheless believes that the camera records some aspects of reality better and that some aspects are better suited to the camera than others so that some transformations of these recorded aspects support the photographic effort and provide insights. It is again for the filmmaker to find this balance.

In his discussion of film language, in the face of “atmospheric” montage and “psychological” montage, both of which were the norms of classical narrative editing in all their manipulative and abstract tendencies and the telling the events, Bazin called for the technique of depth of field which, remaining at the level of recording, “permits an action to develop over a long period of time and on several spatial planes.” While montage creates a mental continuity in the audience’s mind at the expense of perceptual continuity, for Bazin a realist style is that which essentially maintains spatial reality as do the long take and the depth of field technique. On an external level, the realist film follows the criteria of shooting on location, having a script which conforms to its material rather than a prior dramatic logic which shapes the material and finally, an editing style brought by the filmmaker’s attitude of “investigation” rather than of “presentation”. Kracauer saw the realist film not only as a balance between the realist and formalist tendencies in the filmmaker, but also as a balance between the documentary film and the story film which he saw exploited the medium’s potential optimally. The story then, which ideally was the found story, was bound to nature and was “discovered rather than contrived” and served to reveal the visual world to the spectator. Thus while montage and realist techniques like the depth of field and the long take were finally ways of rendering an event, Bazin realised the countless possibilities of film language which had, in the past been reduced to only a few selected techniques that had been institutionalized as the ‘cinema.’

Inherent to the realist tradition, whether it is with Bazin or Kracauer, is a deep wonder for the ambiguity and the mystery of nature and life and a belief in the harmony of man with the world. While classical editing operated with a logic prior to its representation, it nevertheless bound its spectators in an illusion of homogeneous reality, all the while actually fragmenting reality. But through realist cinema, Bazin saw the possibility to preserve the freedom of the spectator to choose his own interpretation of the object of event. As Andrew puts it, “cinema more than any other art is naturally able to capture and suggest the sense of a world which flows around and beyond us.” Bazin, seeing cinema as having come into existence to “serve man’s curiosity” believes in its ability to make man experience greater self-revelations. Even in the existential condition of the thrownness of man in the universe, the realist tradition in Bazin seeks for hope and the “self-creation as the purpose and excitement of existence.” Thus the purpose of cinema in the realist tradition is to cast away signification in order to” recover the sense of the world.”


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