The Torch: Modes of representation (part 2) – symbolism versus realism
To resume my two-parts examination of the different modes in which reality can be represented in a film, I’d now like to have a look at the antagonistic approaches to formality in visual narration, commonly referred to as either “realism” or “symbolism”, and all the many value levels to fit into the span so described.
For a start let’s take two examples of contemporary filmmaking which will shed some light on how symbolism can be used to serve a movie’s grip on the theme intended in a story. As a practical means to this end we often encounter a certain kind of exposition in a film’s opening shots: a visual motto crafting a symbol which doesn’t have to be in any way connected to the imagery within the feature proper, but is allowed (and in fact, meant,) to deviate from the prevalent style the rest is presented in. That way the viewer is not really given a clue or a veritable hint as to what is to follow, but rather, find themselves exposed to something which can be likened to an off-beat in a bar in music – a strong and striking first accord which preludes the ensuing slow build-up of narrative pace.
The whole point of such a very particular pickup is to visually stun the audience – to grip them by their eyes, so to speak – even while there is still no story to relate to. Such an opener won’t reveal anything – and it can’t, since we’re still in the film’s ante room, before the plot. What it does instead is to set the tone and “prepare” in a deliberately abstract manner. Occasionally this explicit statement on the film’s meta level also serves as a showcasing of a director’s skills, and some rather not so good cases of silly window-dressing are said to have been sighted as well. But on to the two exemplars I’ve been hinting at; to eventually breed some flesh to all this bare bones theorizing.
Take that famous and wonderfully crafted opening scene of “Ong-Bak” for instance, a film that overall in my opinion fails to be anywhere near convincing, but still, this one scene in itself is a treasure (you can skip the rest). Here, the symbolic value resides not so much in the visual treat of roguish might and the beauty of its physical display, but lies within the fact of it being a ritual. It’s the enactment of exposed competition and the cathartic power that an abstraction brings. To impersonate the raw – that’s what constitutes as the significance of the symbol in this case. But as the film doesn’t realise this layer of import – the deeper substance of its strongest image – its initial momentum is lost and eventually betrayed by being taken at nothing more relevant than its blunt face value. Thus, the whole thing gets rendered into a paired-down and rather primitive version of a much more profound heritage. Confined to its embryonic dimensions, the film accordingly peters off into a cineast puddle of stunning shallowness.
By contrast, “15: The Movie” shows how the same approach can be made functional, and quite rewarding in effect. There you also have a visionary and strong opener: the blue filter scenes shot on a beach, which convincingly serve as a prelude to the following (but not as a lead-up!). These massive and lasting images are not just pretty and nice to look at; rather, they set the tone in a minor key – a picture perfect symbol of a fallen youth that’s also victim to bleak pointlessness – existential archery you might call it.
Symbolism is rather bold by nature to evoke the meaning it refers to, and the nature of its achievement is this: the more powerful it is, the grander the scale of its abstraction comes along. Where a reference is being made to what is universally true as a part of the human condition, all freedom is to be granted to make for the fundamental expression: Love, hate, fear and hope – every primeval force within the human capacity you can imagine is its original theme, and sweepingness in the treating of these has to be seen as its own prerogative above all else.
Take Aleksandr Sokurov, probably the best director of our time, who in his 2005 masterpiece “Solntse” delivered what for now can easily serve as the ideal example – a benchmark and prototype for the use of visual symbolism in contemporary filmmaking. Setting out to create an image liking of the literally unimaginable, and to do so with a picture voice that is distinct, gripping and telling at the same time, he devised nothing short of the ultimate rendition of the final 1945 bombing raids that turned Tokyo to ashes.
By laterally transporting the factual and foregrounding it as an underwater apocalypse, he captures the raw force of that days’ destruction like nothing else would. The air, all matter liquefied and the atavist unearthing of reason’s darkest recesses in fluid display, is simply unforgettable and more than just evocative – it is a figurative power by itself. It’s almost as if he could lay bare by just a single, precise incision with the scalpel of his craft the collective amygdala, that little lump of gray matter at the centre of our brains, close to the brainstem and the most archaic regions of the cerebrum, where he finds that nightmarish symbolist vision of fear and anguish encapsulated, magically turning pure emotion into something visible. With all that endows, he manages by this audacious twist to establish almost boundless connections back and forth between every conceivable layer of import he alludes to in his film, setting your imagination ablaze – just as those bomber squadrons set fire to so many human lives.
Symbolism always is a daring attempt at something visionary. It will risk failure for the sake of making a statement which is apt and has a resonance. Filled with the most personal truth, it wants nothing better than to embrace the general vastness of every single instance that may be touched by an experience; it is inclusive in a noble sense. Films such as “Kwaidan”, “The Seventh Seal” or “2001: A Space Odyssey” achieve greatness in exactly this way, so go, rediscover!
That realism in film exists in many gradations and is not to be confused with truth, doesn’t need to be explained – all image likening is a deceit. But whether it be a basically realist imitation of life, or an outright naturalistic mimicry bordering on documentation, this much is fundamentally the same in both: to put perceptivity before artistry without concession.
Because any artist, and even more so every filmmaker, who decide on putting forth a fable in the mode of something utterly familiar as a realistic depiction of a specific point in time, will have to believe that the way we make it through our days is not entirely contingent. In meticulously observing what is there, they will aim at capturing something else in passing, namely the self-transcendent form of life which may be just a tad less ordinary than we use to think. Of course, such an approach has decidedly philosophical ramifications, religious overtones at times. But in my opinion, all this can easily be entrusted with the artist or director making their own choices. To me, the better ones among them will ultimately give the vote back to the viewer and let them decide on any verdict in the matter.
With the realist way of representation, there is an intrinsic assertion of the validity in everything that meets the eye. But scratch the surface and it will give way to some deeper truth hidden underneath; such is the beauty that it can incorporate, at best. When it comes to taking on a historic event, for example, this latently telling quality may soon become a quite risky affair and is often the reason why a particular film will be slated by critics or touted by the media for either mishandling or fittingly recreating what actually happened. As was the case with Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Der Untergang”/”The Downfall”, which was highly controversial not for the factual in what it brought to the silver screen, but because it also showed Adolf Hitler as a human being, not just a monster or some caricature. Today, it is seen as an impressive achievement, an important film of particular meaning to all Germans to understand their past as from a broader, a more balanced perspective; and all the more frightening for the fact of having been truthfully possible.
One striking observation in this context is the period touch that in our times’ favouring the instantaneous comes with any scrutiny or craftsmanship, like in an echo’s double nature of something that has past and presence all in one. This may be why in so many films, nostalgia and reminiscence often trigger realism and vice versa. Take Hou Hsiao-hsien’s classic “A Time to Live and a Time to Die”, which clearly is not just a film about some idle director’s traipsing down memory lane. In fact, it is a piece of film autobiography, a memory preserved and a document of some historical value, but at the same time it is larger than just portraying this one boy’s life, it is a study in character building. The sheer magnifying force of what a seeing eye can virtually take in, and its captivating ability to show what subtlety comes with true affection, both are qualities to define this one as a veritable masterpiece. Here you see an impressive soul at work that can muster such delicate and humble partiality in looking onto his own, one cannot help but being touched by this film’s realism.
To look reality square in the eye, to confront it head on without prettifying what’s dull or repellent about it however, is not as easy as it may sound, especially in film, where you don’t want to lose your audience’s interest, obviously. Two leading directors of contemporary world cinema, Hallyu exponents both, Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sang-soo pinpoint this difficulty in most exemplary fashion. Each is fabulous in his own right, has delivered pictures of lasting quality without doubt. And yet, their respective approach to filmmaking couldn’t be more different in that they devise the means of the two modes of representation under discussion here almost to the degree of paradigm. While it is easy to assort Kim to the symbolist faction (who at times over-stretches his visuals as is the case with “Hwal”/”The Bow”), Hong Sang-soo creates films that really make reality bite – if you allow them the time to substantiate their topic and slowly but acutely fill up their protagonists to become full size characters whom you will most likely think you know yourself. And it is with an academic’s obsessiveness that he arrives there, not shying away from being enervatingly scrupulous or repetitive even; I cherish his films nonetheless.
Realism will be detailed to ascertain itself with the viewer by way of precise description. This also goes for science-fiction, which certainly is not exactly realistic, but depends heavily on winning credibility with its audience by presenting a believable, detail-rich setting which will be accepted as a pseudo, future reality, saturated with facts and minutiae of everyday. This fact is what accounts for much of the thrill in watching such genre movies.
I for one would opt for realism, were I to choose. That is partly of course, because of its specific telling quality in being positively curious about what our world is like in actual fact – its innate and undeniable love for life in all its strangeness and fleeting. But it is also because I truly believe that as an art form, so to speak, it is getting more important by the day, as layer upon layer of media likings, interpretations and imaginations accumulate and create a multiple past and constantly invent reality, then to consume the intriguing beauty in those representations, which in the end it is impossible to preserve. But the effort needs to be ongoing, or so I think.
Ultimately what it comes down to for any film to really fly is not so much a question of modality, but one of heart and mind working together as one. If love for the work doesn’t permeate the undertaking in every aspect of the endeavor, then, it cannot happen and won’t inspire anyone. And honesty demands to accede that the reverse is also integral to the equation: Inspiration as such will not move a thing, but needs to be coupled with the skills of your profession, just as an outburst of creativity asks to be captured in true form.
So much for Isms, all else is in the making!