Kracauer's Two Tendencies and the Early History of Film Narrative

Critical Inquiry 6 (3):455-476 (1980)

Abstract
If narrating—the feeling of stories, fictional or otherwise—is an inherent possibility of motion pictures , then Kracauer's distinction between the realist and formative tendencies must be questioned and, in effect, the two must be synthesized. Wasn't the practical problem for the earliest films how to construct a formative sequence of events within an absolutely real-looking visual context? Wasn't the paradox of film narrative the combination of an obviously unreal sequence of events with an obviously real visual and social setting? And isn't that paradox the most intriguing and complex problem of narrative film today, when the visual and social setting have become increasingly real-seeming? And doesn't this paradox have something to do with the fact that narrative film today seems richer and more important than it did a decade ago, at a time when various admirers of both cinéma vérité and cinéma pur had announced the death of fictional filmed narrative? Kracauer's realist aesthetic, concentrating exclusively on the photographic surfaces of things in the material world , overlooks this paradox altogether. It overlooks the fact—extremely relevant to the cinema—that the term "realist" means one thing in its common application to a painting or photograph and quite another thing in its equally common application to a novel or play. A realistic visual image is one that is said to "look like," "resemble," "reproduce," "iconically represent" the surfaces of the visual world. We see—or think we see—in a painting what we see—or think we see—in the real world.1 But a realistic story is one that is said to chronicle "credibly," "probably," and "believably" the way we think people feel, think, or act, the way things happen, and the reasons they happen, all of which are consistent with the reader-audience-society's beliefs about psychology, motivation, and probability. The standard of one sense of realism is primarily visual while the standard of the other is primarily psychological. One might see the early films groping, then, toward a synthesis of the visual realism of late-nineteenth-century painting/photography with the psychological realism of late-nineteenth-century novel/drama. · 1. This equivocation deliberately avoids the question of whether there is anything actually real about what one sees in a painting or photograph. The fact is that a very large number of viewers operate in this assumption because they think there is something real about what they see, despite the theoretical imprecision of their holding such a belief. Gerald Mast is the author of, among other works, A Short History of the Movies, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies, and Film/Cinema/Movie: A Theory of Experience. His previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, "What Isn't Cinema?," appeared in the Winter 1974 issue.
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DOI 10.1086/448059
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