Have We Pushed Movie Realism Too Far?

Gerald Schiller has written feature film scripts and written and directed documentaries, educational films and promotional videos. He lives in Newbury Park, where he is working on his second mystery novel

Kenneth Turan's recent comment on the reissue of "Easy Rider" and "Dr. Strangelove" justly praises these two films as quintessential representatives of the 1960s ("How We've Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Reissue," Calendar, June 10). Though each film, in its own way, takes a rather stylized view of its subject matter (one the omnipresent fear of the bomb, the other a view of an independent subculture), there remains in each a basic realism that effectively touched audiences of the time--and still does today.

Unfortunately, these reissues also serve to remind us of how different movies used to be. Watch a Los Angeles Times promo film shown in movie theaters that demonstrates the work of the film industry's Foley Artists. In the brief clip we watch them add sound effects to films--not trying to duplicate what something really sounds like, but using a variety of materials and devices to heighten the effect--to go beyond mere realism.

This little segment seems to illustrate exactly what our films have become. In the almost 50 years that I've been an avid moviegoer, I've seen an evolution of films from the romantic, stylized views of reality depicted in the '40s and '50s, through the brief flirting with realism that came in the '60s and '70s, and now to what I call the hyper-realism of the '80s and '90s.

Think back to the action films of the past and the bloodless deaths in the Westerns and war films made in the '40s and '50s. Even so-called "message" pictures ("The Big Carnival," "The Snake Pit," "Gentleman's Agreement") pulled their punches, followed the strictures of the Production Code and, generally, punished the bad and rewarded the just.

The advent of the realistic pictures of the '60s broke down the barriers of the restrictive code that had held the film world in check for so many years. This was the decade of "The Wild Bunch" and "Midnight Cowboy"--as well as "Dr. Strangelove" and "Easy Rider." Then we saw the blood, were introduced to the anti-hero, the prostitute and witnessed the violence. But apparently it wasn't enough.


Film ratings came into being but even the ratings changed with the times. Twenty years ago the "F" word meant an automatic "R." Not today. So did nudity and so did excessive violence. No more.

But now we've gone far beyond realism. Special effects experts, skillful sound designers and the magic of computer technology all work toward pushing the bounds of realism. Every car that crashes has to explode (real cars rarely explode), movie gunshots resonate far beyond the real sound of a bullet, explosions dramatically roar with smoke and fire that far exceeds the real thing, and blood spurts from wounds with the projectile force of Old Faithful.

Have our films now created a hyper-realism that mere reality can no longer compete with? Is reality too tame for the youth of today? Audiences have always responded to what they saw on the screen. When Gable took off his shirt in "It Happened One Night" and revealed no undershirt, sales of underwear dropped. When Superman leaped from a window, several children--disastrously--tried to emulate this feat.

Is this new hyper-realism making our young people drive faster, aspire to greater thrills, push the bounds of excitement, even (perhaps) desire to get their hands on an automatic weapon? What will be the next step in film evolution? And--perhaps more important--how will this next step affect future generations?

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