“How does a
filmmaker’s choice of subject and form influence the construction
of reality within their films?”
Reality in film is a very debatable subject that many have tried
to explain and define. In view of the fact that, film is nothing
more than an illusion, a recreation of an event or a situation;
it is very difficult to set the boundaries between reality
and fiction - truthfulness and imagination.
Several people state that the movement of
realism not only in film, but also in art, were it was first
applied, literature, science, or even philosophy was something
that existed way before its “official” creation. The need of
telling the truth, and representing reality was always the absolute
need of man. All realists need to express one thing, the truth.
Realism came to capture the truth, by unfolding its meaning,
beauty and sincerity through time and space (Nochlin, 1971).
In Films based on true events or true stories
the ways to construct reality are straightforward since the story
and most of the characters are based on true events and real
people or communities. One must define the period and place that
the story takes place, research the characters enough in order
to portray them as close to reality as possible, and use the
appropriate style and form in order to enhance the reality of
the film. A very good example of this type of filmmaking is the
well known work of Ken Loach, the recent film, ‘City of God’
by Fernando Meirelles, or the film ‘Gummo’, by Harmony Korine,
a film about the after life of a town/community somewhere in
USA hit by a hurricane. The director in this case uses real people,
real places and brings the audience right into the heart of the
problem with its vulgarity, violence and ugliness it truly encloses.
A filmmaker which has used the tools of filmmaking in order
to tell a story as close to ‘real life’ as possible, is the
American director Robert Altman. Director of such films as,
‘M*A*S*H*’ (1970), ‘Brewster McCloud’ (1970), ‘McCabe and Mrs.
Miller’(1971), ‘California Split’ (1974) , ‘Nashville’ (1975),
‘Three Women’ (1977), ‘The Player’ (1992), ‘Ready to Wear’
(1994), ‘Gosford Park’ (2002), ‘The Company’(2003) and many
Robert Altman uses the tools of filmmaking
to “enhance the sense of reality in his films” (Aljean Harmetz,
1971, In: Sterritt, 2000). His films are not all based in true
events, however he usually surrounds his stories with true events,
places and people. Examples are: ‘M*A*S*H*’, a black comedy set
in a community of army doctors and surgeons in the Korean War,
‘Nashville’, a collection of stories that occur during a festival
of country music, in Nashville, USA, ‘The Player’, a satire about
movies and Hollywood, set, in a n actual Hollywood production
office, ‘Ready to Wear’, a murder mystery and satire of the world
of fashion in Paris, etc.
The need to reach reality has led Altman to discard and overrule
some technical devices used by usual directors. As a substitute
to ordinary and clear sound he makes use of overlapping sound,
where characters voices, background noise and dialogue from
the extras, are blended into one another, thus giving the sense
of a real space, with real people having a truthful dialogue.
“That is to give the audience the sense of the dialogue, the
emotional feeling, rather than the literal world. That’s the
way it sounds in real life”. (Aljean Harmetz, 1971, In: Sterritt,
On all of his films he has used multiple cameras
simultaneously as well as the zoom lens, something that other
directors avoid to utilize. This abnormal use of film tools is
employed by the director to enhance the honesty of the acting.
The actors are not always aware who is being filmed when, thus
forcing all actors in the scene to give their best and their
full concentration. The zoom lens, which is used extensively
in Altman’s films, permits the filmmaker to isolate moments and
people throughout the scene, without interfering with the actor’s
performance. The camera lens in Altman’s movies presents more
by showing not as much; it redefines relationships of characters
and permits the audience to gradually identify the space and
it’s surrounding. It simulates the feeling when someone’s focal
point adjusts for a moment or two on an event that he is interested
in, and partially ignores what happens around him.
The foundation of Altman’s effort as a director
comes down to making films ‘more real’. He wants “to grab the
accidents of life and throw them to the audience” (Aljean Harmetz,
1971, In: Sterritt, 2000) in order to surprise and alert them.
He always attaches to his movies authenticity, crudity, pleasure,
pain, viciousness and unanticipated attractiveness. All these
elements are real and everyday people experience them in their
Altman treats his script simply as an instrument
to accomplish the practical ‘making’ of the movie. On set, Altman
allow his actors, which he personally casts and have faith in,
to be creative. He does not hesitate to alter dialogue, add elements
to a scene or even add scenes, when such an opportunity is presented
(Kolker, 1988). An example of that technique or originality happens
extensively in the film ‘M*A*S*H*’, were the script was altered
in such a level, that the writer refused to accept the Academy
Award for Best Screenplay. His movies rarely have a specific
plot with a beginning, middle and end. This might also be the
reason why many people who are not accustomed to watch movies
in such a way are not able to understand his movies and enjoy
them as they should.
Altman believes that “filmmaking is a collaborative
art” (Sterritt, 2000) and that all people involved in the project
should influence the final product. The head collaborators in
the creation of his films are his actors. He explores the situation
and the moment together, with them, adding on some way validity
in the conflicts and problems of the movie.
With the film Nashville, many of his coworkers
state that he stretched out his personal style and at the same
time pressed the conception of collective filmmaking ahead of
the conventional limits. His actors write dialogue based on their
character, they restructure their characters, integrating characteristics
drawn from their own lives. They are encouraged to discuss, debate,
modify and investigate the character with the director and his
other collaborators. “The Altman of ‘Nashville’ could be called
a realist” (Sterritt, 2000). In this film the camera becomes
an extensive, broad observer of reality and events while the
sound is nothing more than a panoramic collection of dialogues
and noises. The audience is provoked to be involved, select what
to hear and what to see.
The most famous trademark is the complex sound
design in Altman’s movies. He uses what is known as the eight-track
system, a method of recording sound on set, on separate tracks.
This system allows the filmmaker to be in command of the balance,
intensity and variety of all the different sounds, which later
on postproduction will work on. Sound is considered by Altman
as a fundamental ingredient of the process of filmmaking. The
director makes sure he captures as much sound, dialogue, and
image possible during production, in order then to work with
on post- production.
The methods used interfere with the ‘reality’
of the moment, since he is altering and manipulating sound later
on. One could debate the level of ‘realism’ that Altman actually
has in his films and how much of it he controls. Nevertheless,
the reason he interferes with the sound and image is for practical
reasons because for example in the film ‘M*A*S*H*’, actors talk
simultaneously in the scene thus forming a sense of chaos and
“His movies are filled with objects and people,
with movement, with talk and sounds and music woven into casual
and loose narratives that create appearance of spontaneity and
improvisation” (Kolker, 1988). The relaxed attitude and comfortable
sense of the films is warily planned. His films try to reinstate
the narrative and subject matter, urging the audience to focus
and cautiously pursue the different dramatic energy that it offers.
In Altman’s films the audience is not allowed to sit down, relax
and passively watch the film. The spectator has to take part
to that assembly of characters, situations, mystery and reality.
Written by Konstantinos Vassilaros
B I B L I O G R A P H Y
Kolker, R. Phillip. (1988). A cinema of loneliness:
Penn, Kubrick, Scorcese, Spielberg, Altman. New York: Oxford
Nochlin, Linda. (1971). Realism, style and
civilization, Chapter: Introduction. Harmondsworth. Penguin Publications.
Sterritt, David (general editor of interviews).
(2000). ‘Conversations with filmmakers’ series: ‘Robert Altman
interviews’. USA: University Press of Mississippi.