“I don’t like musicals” a friend of mine said.
“Well, they’re not very realistic, are they?” they replied, in what they believe to be the definitive word on the subject.
Realism in cinema is important to people.
Or is it?
Coming out of a film like Avatar and complaining “It wasn’t very realistic, was it?” seems to be somehow missing the point.
When people complain about musicals “not being realistic”, what they really mean is that they can’t buy into a world where people sing and dance in unison at will.
It’s not so much that films need to be ‘realistic,’ it’s more that they need to be ‘believable’. By that I mean we believe in the world and the rules by which it abides.
As well as the rules, differences in style can also allow us to really believe in a film’s world.
Think of films like Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, or Paranormal Activity. All these films use a home video/documentary style to make it much easier to believe in the entirely fantastical events the stories depict. Combining this realistic style with such an unrealistic tale can give the film an emotional depth such genre films rarely achieve otherwise.
It should also be pointed out that ‘realism’ in cinema means entirely different things to entirely different people.
For some it might be the relationships between characters that allows them to describe “Sex and the City” as realistic. For others, it might characters’ constant references to pop culture that allows “Clerks” to fit the bill. For others still it might be the depiction of poverty and suffering that allows us to describe “City of God” as a very realistic film.
Films are made up of many different elements, and the truth at the centre of them that ‘fits’ into our own lives and experiences is often the thing we describe as being the most realistic.
Realism is something we desire in theory. However, equally we often want to be taken to worlds and given experiences we could otherwise never have. The balance between the two is something film makers must carefully consider: often the best films are the ones that manage to reach a level of emotional truth despite being in entirely fabricated mythical universe.