Realism -- classic debates


This handout offers a guide to reading the MacCabe pieces (in Bennett -- see below) in more depth, should you wish to do so. The first piece (Realism and the Cinema: Notes on Some Brechtian Theses) is especially dense and 'difficult', unless you're really keen on film theory. Try the following as some themes to assist a selective first reading. See also the files on Mulvey and the Screen 'special' on 'difference'.

MacCabe's main article contains references to several films to illustrate his remarks on the 'classic realist text' (CRT) -- like Tout va Bien, Klute, Kuhle Wampe -- and some references to G. Eliot novels, Brecht plays, and Eisenstein's theories of montage

He refers to Rossellini's Germany Year Zero (Bennett et al p. 228) as breaking with realism in his special sense, since it does not offer an organising narrative to deliver some underlying truth. Instead the story acts simply as a 'framework for various scenes', the various elements are not all resolved or integrated but 'stretch outside of the narrative of the film'. Of course, Rossellini's subject matter is 'realist' by the usual criteria -- but MacCabe has already argued that it is narrative structure that makes a film realist for him.

Subject matter does help us define 'progressive' or 'reactionary' versions of a realist film, though, and MacCabe does agree that some realist films can offer some sort of opposition to the 'dominant ideological discourses of the time'. He cites the cinema of Costa-Gavras, or British 'social realism' like Loach (specifically Cathy Come Home, but try later ones too?) as 'progressive' in this sense.

By contrast, MacCabe has no time at all for Lindsay Anderson (specifically O Lucky Man). Here, disruptions to the narrative and other 'alienation techniques' are vulgarised and depoliticised in the name of satire (p. 234), and the resulting little 'tableaux' merely confirm a standard petit-bourgeois worldview -- that progress is evil, capitalists are brutal gangsters, and intellectuals can feel comfortably superior. (Try this on modern satire -- or The Cook, The Thief...?)

MacCabe's main intervention concerns Days of Hope, though (see his two contributions in Bennett. The first of these (Days of Hope -- A Response to Colin McArthur) summarises his position on realist narrative and extends it: here it is clear that contradictions can appear temporarily in texts like Days..., for example, as McArthur argues, but that these temporary contradictions are still resolved in the usual way in the end by the narrative. There are specific problems with the way history and the past are depicted in Days... too -- as 'fixed and immutable' (p.312), just as in any costume drama.

This theme is continued in the second piece on Days...(Memory, Phantasy, Identity...). The working class is treated as a collective subject here, says MacCabe ('the subject' is a problematic category for marxists -- the notion is welded to a bourgeois worldview and lies at the heart of ideology, as we shall see). The collective fixed experience of the working class is to be preserved in Days..., and to appear as the underlying truth of the events of 1926, as in classic realism. The films clearly privilege the views of radical little Ben in another classic manner -- 'what he sees and what we see are the same' (p. 316). Opposing political positions, like Philip's, 'are presented without any visual evidence to explain their origin or form. As such...they are simply unrealistic' (p.316). MacCabe objects to this simplicity on political grounds (although he is no Labour Party supporter) --  it offers an easy position for the viewer which prevents them from re-thinking the past and its articulation with the present. Specifically, instead of offering a 'mythical history of the working class', Days.. should have called for a ' [revolutionary] transformation of institutions and practices', and this means we must understand things like the TUC and the Labour Party, not just 'condemn them as false', or consider them solely in terms of their ability to produce class traitors (p.318). To do this would mean a radical break with both realism and a conventional conception of history.


You will have gathered that MacCabe's discussion of realism is located in a highly developed theoretical and political context (which can make it look very strange to us). The whole intervention was written at the height of a project associated with some theorists who had written several key pieces in Screen trying to  '[elaborate]..theoretical knowledge of film' (p.310). The project became known as 'Screen theory'

Theoretical context

I'll be very brief here. MacCabe and the others wanted to draw on the latest (French) marxist structuralist ('semiological') theories to develop an account of how mainstream film works to produce ideology. The discussion on pp.230-1 argues:

(a) That the notion of the individual subject is the key to ideology. We didn't think of ourselves as individual subjects until the 'rise of the bourgeoisie''., and the concept has always been associated with private property, individual rights, and a denial of the collective social class aspects of society. Another important aspect is the 'imaginary relationship' we are offered to explain our place and position in society.

(b) These notions are maintained by practices -- they are not simple illusions, and they can't be dispelled by some sudden flash of personal insight, or some triumph of the proletariat (or other heroic group -- greens? women?). Only (marxist) science can oppose ideology. However, Brecht is cited throughout as a marxist who holds out some hope for revolutionary cultural politics.

(c) Mainstream cinema engages in ideological practices -- eg the passive spectator in classic realism is constructed as a unified subject outside of all contradiction (both 'producer' of the story and consumer of it for Brecht, offered little puzzles and problems only to have them resolved in a nice conservative way for MacCabe, we have seen).

Political context

What can be done about the grip of ideology? What can film-makers and critics do about it? Some films try to break out of dominant ideological discourses by offering 'progressive' alternatives. As we have seen, however, such films do not go far enough -- they still offer conventional views of history, they preserve the idea of a knowing subject (albeit a collective one for Days), they use the same old narrative tricks to try to deliver some simple truth to viewers, even though they have the best intentions.

Real alternatives have to reconsider the whole issue of signification. They have to make viewers aware of the very processes which the cinema uses to make sense of events, and they have to be actively engaged in making sense of reality, the past, and the future for themselves.

MacCabe draws upon (French, marxist/structuralist) Freudian theory here. For Lacan especially, Freudian theory develops into an account of how our sense of ourselves as a thinking individual subject arises from our participation in a system of language. This famous Lacanian argument is summarised superbly on pp. 226-7.

Briefly, most of us preserve our sense of self, our unity as a subject by a desperate attempt to signify, to fix meanings in the endless possibilities offered by language -- and then we repress this effort. We have to make ourselves aware of it again, and allude to it in film, not increase the phoney fixity of meaning by self-confirming, simplistic narratives. If we get it right, a new awareness of the powers of signification can help us grasp new possibilities for political action -- and help us bust this false view of ourselves as subjects (and so break out of ideology).

OK -- what films help us do this? MacCabe urges us to resist the tendency to disrupt all discourses (as the avant-garde sometimes did -- like Godard at his most obscure). Better are those that show us how our practices of representation, our normal discourses are 'caught up in certain modes of life..linked to the place of the agent in the productive process' (p.233). The best example is Tout va Bien (also by Godard -- we have it in Media -- basically, it offers a number of perspectives or discourses about politics in France in the 1960s, focused on a workers' takeover of a factory, and the various dilemmas faced by a film-maker and his assistant in covering the event): 'This film does not provide...knowledge ready-made in a dominant discourse but in the contradictions offered, the reader has to produce a meaning for the film...[thus the film offers]... a different set of relations to both the fictional material and "reality"' (p.233). Even here, though, films like this offer only a possibility for politics, with no guarantees that there will be politics.


To end, it is clear that things have moved on a good deal since 'Screen theory', and the whole marxist project associated with Althusser, Lacan and Brecht (and Barthes and Freud) has become suspect. It wasn't even that popular in Britain, outside of Screen (most Brit intellectuals preferred nicer, soggier, warmer marxism like 'Gramscianism', and normal Freud).

'Postmodernism' (also a French intellectuals' creation) has also raised doubts about the whole thing, by asking questions that might have occurred to you too:

Why should we try to make everything fit marxist or Freudian readings of films? MacCabe wants to -- but must everyone? What's so superior about such readings? Do marxist critics really speak for everyone, somehow, or just for themselves? What alternative readings have been suppressed?

Once we abandon such privileged or 'centred' readings, we open up possibilities of much more subjective, playful, creative ways to read films instead of 'serious' or 'scientific' ones -- and this in turn means we must shift attention away from what the film is trying to do (with its narrative strategies) to what the audience(s) are doing (with their reading strategies).

And now for a major alternative approach...


This section is a reading guide to Williams C (1994) ‘After the classic, the classical and ideology: the differences of realism’ in Screen vol 35, 3: 275--92. Mostly, I summarise Williams, but when I can’t hold back any longer, I have added comments in square brackets.

Williams refers to an earlier piece too, by Corner (1992) in Screen vol.33,1.

The targets of Williams’ critique include Bordwell et al. as well as MacCabe, the whole of 1970s’ film theory, and the concept of ‘ideology’. In essence, these approaches are formalist (too concerned with form rather than content or reference) , they have exaggerated the extent to which there ever was a ‘classic Hollywood cinematic form’, and they have been obsessed with a secondary political issue -- the ideological effects of such a form. In what follows, I focus on the attack on MacCabe, though. In essence, the charge is a familiar one -- MacCabe’s analysis is reductionist sacrificing complexity in exchange for simple theoretical or political insights.


1. It ‘ignores the emotional, pragmatic, philosophical and scientific notions of the real’ (277), which have been as important as the purely aesthetic aspects (of narrative etc). CRT is a ‘fantasy’ (278).

2. The narrative structure even of the C19th novel was never able to pose as simply naturalist or realist -- the ‘signs and practice of writing [were] always noticeable...[and]... these signs vary, overlap and differ’ (278), rather than taking a common form. Films do this even more noticeably. Using the single concept of ‘metalanguage’ will never exhaust the possibilities. We need more flexible concepts (such as ‘convention, articulation, combination, discourse, multiplicity of viewpoint, structure and genre’) (278).

3. Any ‘knowledge effect’ in films is likely to arise from similarly complex combinations of these factors, including clashes of emotions, ideas and character. Complex effects like mise-en-scene, or even the ‘various layers of the soundtrack’ (279). Williams makes much of music in films too

4. CRT bypasses the complexities of structuralist or semiotic analyses of narrative (Williams mentions Propp, Russian formalism and Metz here), misses work on the various levels and types of viewer involvement or Barthes’ work on codes (279). All these well-known approaches indicate that narratives do far more than just deliver some ideological truth.

5. Concepts like convention (‘a degree of agreement between a given audience ... and the producers’ (281)) offer more complex analyses. Works commonly include a range of such conventions, sometimes contradictory ones, to broaden the appeal for different audiences. Realist films develop their conventions by building on people’s experience, not just creating it for them.

6. Audiences expect some latitude even with realist conventions, and expect to negotiate and interpret what they see, rather  than being offered ‘pure specularity’. The modern sophisticated audience is not easily fooled by cinema’s tricks -- even the devices of continuity editing in Bordwell are noticed and actively interpreted by the audience. (This critique extends to Bordwell’s work on the so-called ‘classical’ styles of Hollywood too).

7. The concept of ideology has moved on a bit from MacCabe’s work. Writers like Eagleton argue that it no longer means an ‘unscientific’ or flawed knowledge effect (faith in marxist science has collapsed), but merely refers to ‘an overlapping network of "family resemblances" between different styles of signification’ (Eagleton, quoted by Williams 286). MacCabe’s (and Bordwell’s and umpteen others’) emphasis on the notion of the individual subject as the core of ideology was already a reduction. We don’t need the concept now that marxism is dead [and feminism?]. We need a more complex account of the social context of films: we might use terms like ‘ideas and beliefs’ to refer to philosophical contexts; ‘conventions, style, diction’ in linguistic contexts; and various others to refer to historical, political or social contexts too (288). The aim would be to recover complexity and to revive the values of humanism and ethics (much derided by marxists). This effort could be compatible with postmodernism’s rejections of masternarratives [I doubt it myself -- postmodernism would also reject humanism?].


1. Films and TV programmes still operate with conventions of realism which (a) offer a project of truth-telling (often with emotional attachments or social comment), (b) take a ‘positive interest in appearances’ (288) and what we can learn from them, (c) aspire towards a ‘structure of cognition’ which is revealed for us, or constructed, in a ‘deep’ sense or in some combination of ways. Films (TV progs) deploy these conventions in complex ways, and do so self-consciously.

2. Films not only render the real for the spectator, but also play with and reformulate the ‘cognitive aspirations’ of the viewer (288).

3. Films commonly mix and combine realist and non-realist sequences, not in the formal ways suggested by MacCabe , but differently, even playfully. Musicals are the best examples, but Williams also discusses melodramas and British New wave pieces like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning -- there are different realist strands (‘interior, inter-character, sexual, social situational, cultural situational, landscape etc.’), and Finney’s performance as Arthur becomes more like a virtuoso performance than a realist portrayal. Overall, the effect of such pieces is to ‘entertain, tell a story, discuss a state of affairs and to raise questions about it’ (291)

4. TV is even more mixed, as in a ‘free-ranging, self-reflexive and referential show like Sesame Street’ (291) [What would Kinder make of this?]. The concept of flow best describes TV output (a concept used by R.Williams and Fiske [-- and others like Jameson]), rather than any dominating realist style. The concept of CRT was only ever applied to TV very casually, by left-wing analysts who didn’t know much about the content of popular TV but who wanted to condemn it politically.


Williams offers a useful critique, but there are problems:

1. I’m not sure myself that MacCabe (or any of the marxists) ever were that reductionist. They knew there were other elements in realist films, of course, but their interest was always in the dominant trends or elements, the most significant ones.

2. I’m not sure Williams ever really discusses MacCabe -- he simply condemns the work without ever really asking himself whether audiences could ever be dominated, for example (they must negotiate and resist for Williams), or whether their negotiations and resistances ever get them anywhere.

3. Williams’ analysis could be as reductionist and as ‘political’ as MacCabe’s: Williams wants to stress the political values of humanism instead of MacCabe’s marxism, and the necessary pluralism and heterogeneity of films as a kind of liberal picture of Hollywood (which is as selective and as value-laden as MacCabe’s or Bordwell’s).

4. The whole discussion is in danger of descending into the usual banal current received wisdom -- Hollywood films and popular TV programmes are rescued because some critics find some complexity in them, and we can then assume that every viewer must as well!


Bennett T et al. (1981) Popular Television and Film, London: BFI Publications in association with the Open University Press