Reality Transformed

Theorists and critics have long divided over whether film is a medium best suited to record and reproduce reality or whether it shares with other arts a freedom of expression and a responsibility only to be beautiful, emotionally powerful, and imaginative in its formal structure. Irving Singer is unwilling to sacrifice one of these purposes for the other, and suggests that the highest achievements of film come when “realism” and “formalism” are harmonized.

In Reality Transformed: Film as Meaning and Technique Singer envisions cinema as a vehicle for communication, analysis, imaginative construction, and life-enhancement. But to achieve all this, film must utilize all its resources. Singer is particularly critical of those whose strict realism leads them to an art of surfaces rather than depths, or whose fascination for visual beauty alone leads to an art of enchantment rather than understanding. Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) is his prime example of a film that is beautiful but ultimately “problematic and unsatisfying” because of the director’s “unjustifiable faith in the purely visual.”

Far more successful is Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), which charges its visual imagery with “intellectual analysis and synthesis,” and embodies the richness, complexity, and ambiguity often associated with literature. For Singer, the greatness of Renoir’s film derives from the fact that it is not merely a picture but rather a thoughtful consideration of “affective problems in human relations,” a masterful blend of the perceptual and the conceptual.

A detailed analysis of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) further illustrates some of Singer’s key themes. This film about film playfully dramatizes the paradox of cinematic realism—we typically get caught up in films even as we know that they are not “real”—and also reminds us of the sadness as well as the pleasures of film. As in life in general, alienation is built into the experience of film, and for Singer one of the great—and achievable—goals of film is to help us understand that condition and transform and ease it by imaginative creation and artistic communication.