Nate’s Rants: Distinction between “realistic” and “naturalistic”

A distinction between “realistic” and “naturalistic”

When evaluating a film, a viewer often will say something like “It wasn’t realistic” or as a compliment, “it felt so real.” The term “realistic” is often misused and so I want to try to offer a clear definition.

For a film to be realistic, it has to establish certain rules about it’s universe and character behaviors and then adhere to these rules in every event. So although elves are not real, their appearance halfway through “The Lord of the Rings” is a realistic event, because we’re already immersed in a story where we would expect these types of creatures. If elves were to show up halfway through “Terms of Endearment,” this would be an unrealistic event. Another example could be “Goodfellas” when Joe Pesci’s character shoots Spider halfway through the story. This is a realistic event because Joe Pesci’s character has already proven to be a character prone to impetuous and violent behavior. If Rhett Butler were to say “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn.” and then shoot Scarlet O’hara, this would be an unrealistic event, because he has demonstrated no such tendencies (although that would be a pretty awesome ending). According to this definition, pretty much every film will try to be “realistic,” unless the filmmaker violates his established reality for a reason (see “Breaking the waves,” “Discreeet Charm of the Bourgeouise”).

So criticisms like “A woman wouldn’t do that,” or “That doesn’t happen in real life,” are often silly because these comments are not evaluating events within the context of the film’s reality, but instead comparing the events to the viewer’s own experience. What the critic often means to say is “That isn’t naturalistic.” Naturalism is a style or aesthetic preference. The criterion for a naturalistic film is that every event, image, sound, and character mirrors your personal living experience. So how do you describe your life experience? Well, the days of my life kind of meander from hour to hour. The days are filled with mundane events like brushing my teeth, biking to work, checking email, buying a sandwich. There are lots of bland looking things. When I see, my head can dart around quickly and when I walk my vision slightly shifts side to side because of my feet. The movement of my vision never starts eight feet on the ground and then sails ninety feet in the air. Some sounds are too loud, some sounds are too quiet. People mumble. People have erratic speech patterns filled with revised comments and stutters. Most people are pretty plain looking. When I experience an event of emotional significance, there is no musical score playing. In my vision, I don’t perceive a certain image as designed, instead I see myself immersed with the other objects in the image.  People don’t really say clever things very often, they usually say very boring things like “Hey, what’s up?” “Nothin.” The light in different rooms or outside may be harsh, bland, blinding, sickly, but rarely beautiful. People wear pretty boring clothes most of the time. There doesn’t seem to be an objective value system governing the elements in life. Life happens in chronological order. There is no narrator. There are no big explosions. When an explosion has happened in real life, it’s not a fiery orange, but like an underwhelming brown that’s over before it happened. There is no ending of any real consequence. Emotions are complex and qualified. Car accidents don’t really look that cool. And no elves.

So formally, what you find from naturalistic filmmaking is a lot of linear, meandering narratives (road movies), muted colors, very little music (when there is music, it usually involves an acoustic guitar, because it’s the kind of instrument that you could just hear some guy playing on the street or around a campfire, never an orchestra). People mumble. A lot of handheld camera work. Boring clothes. Bland lines. No overriding themes or allegories.

If this is still confusing, here is a list of movies that I think qualify as “naturalistic.”

“Savages,” “Once,” “Man push cart,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Summer Hours,” “The Puffy Chair,” “The Celebration,” (pretty much any dogme 95 film)  “North,” “Humpday,” “Ballast,”

This aesthetic is also somewhat applied to many comedies like “Borat,” and “Knocked Up.”

It has also found it’s way into the action genre with movies like “The Bourne Ultimatum”

And horror like “Paranormal Activity”

In conclusion, the “reality” of a film describes how much a film adheres to it’s own established rules. The term “naturalism” refers to an aesthetic style. A movie can be “naturalistic” but not realistic and the converse is also true. I certainly try to adhere to previously established rules in my films, but I hate the naturalistic aesthetic. More on this later.


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