The Death of Objectivity

Two central points are necessary to understand how the practice of realism in cinema was created, fostered and improved upon endlessly:

  1. Realism is achieved through God-like control over the media’s creation,

  2. There is no such thing as truly realistic media due to intention.

The diametric opposites of creating cinematic realism are founded in paradox. How does complete control create the illusion of natural reality? How do we re-define realism and objectivity in documentary/Journalistic mediums considering intentionality? How does this impact audience’s relationship to factual realism and narrative realism? Realism in non-fiction forms is achieved through the illusion that what is on screen successfully suspends our disbelief to a point where boundaries between reality and fiction blur. Factual realism or news / documentary based media are built upon the premise of sharing and showing exactly what happened, how, and why as accurate evidence.

Key to understanding the parodic nature behind both uses of realism is recognizing artistic / presentational intention. Authorship is a necessary evil in storytelling where, no matter how good the intention is, existence remains subjective. Deliberate attempts to portray reality from an interpretation serves to highlight the constructed representation of realism. Without intention, no one would press record because that decision inherently holds bias- it is of interest to the artist’s portrayal of reality. Relative objectivity is the best any artist can hope to achieve, not including machine learned pieces, because living, experiencing, and growing creates a presupposition of reality[1]. While media creation increasingly becomes democratized in capabilities, the ability to self-identify the veracity of media must grow proportionately[2]. If audiences are flooded with both non-fiction and fiction without the skillset to differentiate between the two, any societal objective truths melt into the chaos of “alternative facts” and “fake news.”

Since the mid-20th century, the ethic of public service in U.S. journalism has been a revered professional standard, whereby journalists ideally functioned as “watchdogs” protecting the public from government and corporate abuses. Yet this ideal has been eroded in recent decades for reasons related to the changing economics of the news industry and major transformations in U.S. culture and politics[3]

Constructed realism would be a more accurate term to referencing media aesthetics, recognizing no moral judgements are inherent in this visual methodology. As any other tool, how it is used is what defines morality behind intention. Without understanding why a piece was made, the realistic nature used to connect with an audience remains suspect to the objectivity of subject matter. Two examples that convey these principals differently, The Bicycle Thieves (1948), and The Sacrifice (2013), both utilize the invisible omnipotence of cinematic direction to effectively dissolve the barriers between reality and fantasy. The fallout of this ever-evolving method leaves behind generations of audience members who are not trained to look for, understand, or then judge the presented reality as factual or fictitious.[4]

A neo-realistic presentation of a father’s journey to save his job, The Bicycle Thieves (1948) manufactures and executes realism flawlessly. Understanding the scale of control necessary to facilitate realistic non-fiction is exposed during the infamous “Rain Scene.” In the middle of a bazaar, the father and son are suddenly caught off guard by a pouring rain, forcing all to take cover. What results is one of the most well executed naturalistic responses a rainstorm. Looking beyond the frame at the actual god-like control exerted over the environment, action, responses, of all involved turns the concept of naturalism on its head. Maintaining throughout the film, a feeling of “DIY” or “Home Video” film-making contrasts the high cost of $133,000, deftly highlighting the dichotomies at play throughout crafting realism. Managing hundreds of gallons of water pumping into the air, tens of non-professional actors, extras and props, ADR replacing on-set dialogue are a few specific tools which contribute to an unflappable sense of watching reality unfold. Each element when contrasted with the presentation requires absolute control and very little room for any actual natural incidents to occur. 65 years later and what was initially a rarity has become almost mainstream, engulfing all mediums. [1]

Building off the past, today's media further blurs lines of reality and fantasy and the consequences of realism’s prominence is beginning to bleed into the real world. Cranking the dial to 11 at the turn of the millennium, The Blair Witch (1999) turned realism in film-making upside down. Viral and mysterious marketing of missing teens (the actors), mixed with the “found-footage” camping trip structure, obliterated the walls between reality and cinema. Over the next 5 years as new media avenues like Vice, The Daily Show, YouTube analysis, Facebook posts, learned that when portrayed “authentically” compared to “traditional[i]” outlets (NYT, WSJ, CNN), opinions could overrule facts in a discussion of reality. Capitalizing on the found-footage film technique, The Sacrament (2013) is a phenomenal mimic based on real source material: structured after Vice News Documentaries and based on the Jones Town cult massacre of 1978. Utilizing the techniques of on-site documentary, a fully realized jungle village, and the constant journalistic structure make the film nearly impossible to distinguish from a real Documentary[2]. This degree of art imitating life can be a massive boon towards relating narratives with audiences, but could just as easily be directed at disinformation. As the technology around cultivating realism has changed and improved, “native advertising” and other methods of sponsored content have begun to damage almost every medium’s credibility[3].

This approach to film realism-and it is, perhaps, the most basic theoretical understanding of film realism- is rooted in the view that photographic images, unlike paintings or line drawings, are indexical signs: they are causally or existentially connected to their referents.[4]

Weaponizing realism to misrepresent the world or misinform the public, circles back to the root of media creation- intentionality. The medium of photography in comparison to all others created the socially accepted idea of “indexical” signs, or as equally authentic as seeing the event live. When pictures began to move, the attempt to cultivate journalistic credibility and ratings led a transition to television- showing the facts instead of merely describing them. As narrative filmmaking’s toolbox for realism has increased, the benefits have trickled down throughout all mediums[5]. Realism as a methodology is only going to become make it more difficult to parse the fictional from the real stories and if “alternative facts” are the current state of audience-media relationships then a world completely absent of general objective reality is a natural extension[6]. With ever-increasing capabilities to camouflage fiction as reality, the need for a media literate audience is needed now more than ever.

[1] Marchi, R. (2012). With Facebook, Blogs, and Fake News, Teens Reject Journalistic "Objectivity." Journal of Communication Inquiry, 36(3), pp.246-262.

[2] Stephen Prince, True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory, FILM QUART, Vol. 49 No. 3, Spring, 1996; (pp. 27-37) DOI: 10.2307/121346

[3] Colin MacCabe, Theory and Film: Principles of Realism and Pleasure, Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, Leo Braudy, Film theory and criticism: introductory readings, 1992, Oxford University Press, New York, 4th ed,0195063988

[4] Stephen Prince, True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory, FILM QUART, Vol. 49 No. 3, Spring, 1996; (pp. 27-37) DOI: 10.2307/1213468

[5] Marchi, R. (2012). With Facebook, Blogs, and Fake News, Teens Reject Journalistic "Objectivity." Journal of Communication Inquiry, 36(3), pp.246-262.

[6] Mesfin Awoke Bekalu, Presupposition in news discourse, DOI: 10.1177/0957926506060248, Discourse Society 2006; 17; 147

[i] Less opinionated more facts- ideally

[1] Mesfin Awoke Bekalu, Presupposition in news discourse, DOI: 10.1177/0957926506060248, Discourse Society 2006; 17; 147

[2] Marchi, R. (2012). With Facebook, Blogs, and Fake News, Teens Reject Journalistic "Objectivity." Journal of Communication Inquiry, 36(3), pp.246-262.

[3] IBID

[4] Colin MacCabe, Theory and Film: Principles of Realism and Pleasure, Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, Leo Braudy, Film theory and criticism: introductory readings, 1992, Oxford University Press, New York, 4th ed,0195063988

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