After reflecting on my recent narrative ideas (which I spoke about in my last blog) I have started to have a few doubts about my current neorealist film trajectory. It’s hard to say at the moment exactly why that is  but something about the unremitting realism of such a mode of filmmaking  suddenly seems as limiting as the mainstream filmmaking formula I have been critiquing.  With this is in mind I wanted to dedicate this blog to my recent thoughts  on realism vs. formalism…
To begin that debate here is a very appropriate quote from avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren (1960)
“If cinema is to take its place beside the others as a full-fledged art form…  It must relinquish the narrative disciplines it has borrowed from literature and its timid imitation of the casual logic of narrative plots, a form which flowered as a celebration of the earthbound, step-by-step concept of time, space and relationship which was part of the primitive materialism of the nineteenth century. Instead, it must develop the vocabulary of the filmic images and evolve the syntax of filmic techniques which relate those… It must determine the disciplines inherent in the medium”
What Derren seems to be suggesting here is that cinema can never assume it’s full status as a distinct artform – with its own specific qualities and aptitudes – while it remains a prisoner to literary conventions; especially those of causal narrative structures. Her thoughts resonating with the ideas of B. Brecht which I posted in my earlier blog (see here) and his attempts to free theatre from the bourgeois influence of the 19th century novel.
What is film? 
For when I think about film in its barest and most essential form, stripped of all these narrative conventions, it could be argued that it amounts to not much more than moving images and sound. It could also be said that, in its purest state, there need be no coherence or sequential relationship between any of these images or sounds. Obviously, a film of random sounds and images would be impossible to watch but it is worth conducting this thought experiment as a way of catching a glimpse of all the narrative conventions and expectations that we may be unconsciously projecting onto this medium.
To test my theory I made a short film that has absolutely no narrative and consists of an almost random sequence of images and sounds which, apart from being synchronised together, have no connections.
“Apropos Of Nothing”  

 (I intend to keep making such short films as I find it to be liberating…)

Watching it is quite telling as it seems to highlight some of the demands we expect films to meet; demands for meaning and narrative; for logical sequencing; for sounds and images to have synchronous connection; for  our thinking done for us and for there to be no room for ambiguity.

A film I saw recently which does manage to rethink some of these conventions is  “La Jetee” (Marker, C – 1962).  The film contains no moving images and is instead made up of a series of still black and white images over which can be heard music and a voice-over; this formalist device, allowing Marker’s narrative to have a degree of opacity and obliqueness that is very rarely seen in cinema .

With regard to my own filmmaking practice I can see now that as well as rethinking my approaches to improvisation and acting, that I should also be using my time to question one of the unquestioned assumptions most film makers and audiences continue to hold on to –   which is the tendency to see film as a ‘transparent’ medium.

Transparency in Art… 

What do I mean by transparent?

Well, by way of example (this helps me think) if I compare the  following painting… by Courbet (1854) entitled “ Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet, 1854.”

And ask myself a few questions… Such as –

What is Courbet’s intention…?

Does he want me to see the painting? or does he instead want me to see the subject matter of the painting?  – three guys and a dog meeting on a pathway somewhere…

Surely, its the latter, he doesn’t want me to think about the painting at all… The painting, to Courbet is a window we look through into another world. It is NOT to be seen as thing in itself and AS SUCH it is transparent…

So, what’s wrong with that? It’s a nice painting…

Well, if we go back to filmmaking for a second, the efforts to maintain the illusion of reality seriously restricts the possibilities the medium offers us. For, if film needs to be transparent then nothing can, or should,  break this illusion. No ambiguities between image and sound – or  image and image – no jarring editing conventions – no sense of abstraction that breaks the spell of the illusion we are under – no ambiguity that might alienate the audience. In short, it must give up a whole range of its own unique artistic characteristics and abilities in order to maintain this illusion of transparency – never hoping, as Maya Deren urges, to  ‘determine the disciplines inherent” within itself.

Realism vs. Formalism in filmmaking…

This tendency towards a transparent medium that objectively records and documents reality is especially apparent in some of the neorealist films I have been praising in my recent blogs – such as the films of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Andrea Arnold etc. Films in which transparency and the illusion of reality are paramount,  where the camera is used to give the impression that the viewer is witnessing the events of life as they are lived – often in real settings,  with minimal lighting or manipulation.


  1. 1:  the practice or the doctrine of strict adherence to prescribed or external forms (as in religion or art); also:  an instance of this

  2. 2:  marked attention to arrangement, style, or artistic means (as in art or literature) usually with corresponding de-emphasis of content

In contrast to realism’s favouritism of content, a formalistic film would not try to hide the fact that the viewer is watching a film. For In such a formalist film – the language, the mise en scene, the editing, the jump cuts, the sets,  the plot and the character would not pretend to be real (or transparent) but instead would draw attention to their own artificiality.

A prime exponent of this formalist style being filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman, both of whom never fall into the trap of aiming for the illusion of transparency, by so doing giving themselves all manner of artistic freedoms not available to anyone enslaved to realism.

I won’t go into what these possibilities are now but do intend to explore the work of filmmakers such as – Godard, Pasolini and Bergman, and how they extend the language of cinema beyond a mere adherence to realism, in my later blogs.

Will conclude by showing some favourite moments from Godard’s formalistic filmmaking –

(if you want to see more – see here)


Deren, M. (1960). Cinematography: The creative use of reality. Daedalus89(1), 150-167

Marker, C. (1962).  La Jetée.

A Bout De Souffle =. Dir. Jean Godard. Fox Lorber Films :, 1960. Film


Bande à Part. Dir. Jean Godard. Anouchka Films Orsay Films, 1964. Film.

Pierrot Le Fou. Dir. Ge Beytout. Société Nouvelle De Cinématographie, 1965. Film.

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