The Reality of Motion Pictures
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The Reality of Motion Pictures*


The puzzle of the reality of movies has existed since the pictures began moving. Few things seem to cause more trouble than the attempt to capture the reality of something which appears, stays for a while, and then vanishes. If there is any reality in a motion picture, then where was it before and where will it be afterwards? This article does not claim to have any answers to this question. Instead, it shifts the problem to the level of communication, asking how reality is communicated by pictures which are moving. It therefore follows the recommendation of second-order cybernetics to apply Heinz von Foerster’s razor whenever ontological questions no longer seem helpful. 1 The razor demands that we refrain from asking what something is, asking instead how it is reproduced. The approach can be called ontogenetic. 2 The reality communicated by movies is a reality reproduced. There are presumably limitations as to which reality can be communicated by movies. It is with these limitations that this article is concerned. They are limitations which produce a reality of a certain type.

There is a “certain impression of reality” 3 in movies, even if everybody knows, or learns, that they are nothing more than fiction. This impression is reinforced rather than jeopardized by the fact that the [End Page 560] movie also reflectively shows its own rhythm of temporal and spatial arrangement of images when showing the milieus, situations, stories, and characters it features. 4 Indeed, one of the most distinguished film theories, that of Siegfried Kracauer, takes the film camera to be a vehicle of both a registration and a revelation of realities hitherto out of focus. 5 The film camera delves into the microcosm and the macrocosm, into the color, structure, and sound of things, into the images of movements that were impossible to study before, into the observation of involuntary human gestures that tell other things about people than their spoken words do, and into the reality of the human face that nobody had ever watched so closely. Movies make people visible, Béla Balázs claims. 6 They move people around and let them experience reality from angles they were never able to take up before. 7

Yet these and other theories of film and the cinema never forget that the registration and revelation of reality make a difference to reality. It becomes a different reality, consisting of itself plus its registration and revelation. Indeed, there is ample opportunity for this reality to change into another one once “it” has been registered and revealed. Thus, Kracauer watched the German movies of the twenties as a kind of performative act which not only describes, but also creates the state of mind of a people. 8

One of the realities which the movies register and reveal is the reality of communication. It is a reality out of focus as well, or so one is led to realize when watching a movie. The movie revels in trying to find out how human emotion, which the novel and its corresponding psychologies had related back to conscious and unconscious thought, translates into, and is evoked by, mere behavior, thus triggering a different, behavioral and cognitive, psychology. 9 The movie rarely, if ever, distinguishes between behavior, communication, consciousness, and situation. Yet one can observe how movies employ these distinctions in order to create the puzzles which motivate the story. Their blurring [End Page 561] of the distinctions in one sequence of pictures leads them to make a distinction that solves the puzzle in the next sequence, which, however, blurs some other distinction. It is, indeed, a Dangerous Game (1993, USA, dir. Abel Ferrara) the movies are playing, never quite knowing how situations created by letting communication fade into consciousness, or the unconscious into behavior, might be untangled. But it is a game that attests to the reality of the movies, even if this reality spells trouble for the reality of communication.

This article proposes to analyze the relationship between reality and communication in order to find out how movies both create an impression of reality and convey their own doing so. It is...