Characteristics of the Phenomenalist-realist Film

by Jose Gutierrez III

Five characteristics of the phenomenalist-realist film were identified by Ian Aitken in The Major Realist Film Theorists: A Critical Anthology (2016) : (1) perceptually realistic; (2) disinterested; (3) nature-like; (4) feeling-oriented; and (5) flowing. In the current essay, I flesh out each of these attributes by expounding on their philosophical influences – particularly Kantian aesthetics – and explicating them through selected works from world cinema.

Note: This is an excerpt from my PhD dissertation, ‘Investigating Kracauerian Cinematic Realism through Film Practice and Criticism: Life-world Series (2017) and Selected Films of Lino Brocka’ (2018), which is available for download via this link.

Perceptually Realistic

Perception is the process of recognising and interpreting sensory stimuli. This process is a major contributor to experience, that is, the present content of consciousness. The experiencing subject perceives data from the senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch – from physical reality, the source of this sort of appearances that present themselves to consciousness. The first characteristic of the phenomenalist-realist film (PRF), given its ‘concern for appearance, experience and phenomena’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 34), is that the overall structure of its images – note the emphasis on the visual – should be ‘perceptually realistic’ (p. 34). The images in Figure 1, except for the last one in the set, that of Trade Tattoo (1937) [1i], are perceptually realistic in a straightforward manner. The human faces shown in figure 1 are perceptually realistic, that is, the film spectator recognises the image as an iteration of his or her own. This applies whether the face is rendered by the camera in close-up [Figs. 1(b), (c), (f) and (g)] and revealing more of the human body in relation to other external objects in medium shot [Figs. 1(d) and (i)], medium long shot [Fig. 1(a) and (h)], or long shot [Fig. 1(e)]. Let me note two things here. First, though the visually recognisable image of the human bodies in Trade Tattoo (Len Lye, 1937) [Fig. 1(i)] is composed of abstract shapes, the overall structure of the image remains perceptually realistic. Second, the camera trick of splitting the perceptually realistic image of the human face does not compromise that characteristic. The overall structure of this image from La coquille et le clergyman/The Seashell and the Clergyman (Germaine Dulac, 1928) [Fig. 1(b)] – a pioneering surrealist film – is perceptually realistic. This also applies to the other avant-garde films such as the Dadaist film, Entr’acte(René Clair, 1924) [Fig. 1(e)], another surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou(Luis Buñuel, 1929) [Fig. 1(f)], and the Soviet montage film, Battleship Potemkin(Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) [Fig. 1(g)].

Avant-garde films: The Fall of the House of Usher (1928); The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928); Ménilmontant (1926); The Wheel (1923); Entr’acte (1924); Un Chien Andalou (1929); Battleship Potemkin (1925); Granton Trawler (1934); Trade Tattoo (1937)
Figure 1. Avant-garde films: The Fall of the House of Usher (1928); The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928); Ménilmontant (1926); The Wheel (1923); Entr’acte (1924); Un Chien Andalou (1929); Battleship Potemkin (1925); Granton Trawler (1934); Trade Tattoo (1937)

We are now ready to discuss the second aspect of the characteristic currently discussed; that is, that the perceptually realistic PRF is also ‘fluid and impressionistic and, therefore also modernist’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 34); thus, included in Figure 1 are other avant-garde films that exhibit these characteristics. These are the French impressionist films – The Fall of the House of Usher/La chute de la maison Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928) [Fig. 1(a)], Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926) [Fig. 1(c)], and The Wheel/La roue (Abel Gance, 1923) [Fig. 1(d)] – and the fluid Griersonian documentary, Granton Trawler (John Grierson, 1934) [Fig. 1(h)]. As previously mentioned, Trade Tattoo (Len Lye, 1937) [Fig. 1(i)], though not straightforwardly realistic, retains its perceptually-realistic character in terms of the overall structure of its composite images. The images in this avant-garde film are not rendered as pure shapes, which is the case of abstract films in Figure 2. Though it is possible for the film spectator to imagine actual objects resembling the shapes in Rhythmus 21 (Hans Richter, 1923) [Fig. 2(a)], Symphonie diaganale (Viking Eggeling, 1924) [Fig. 2(b)], Return to Reason (Man Ray, 1923) [Fig. 2(c)], and Anemic Cinema (Marcel Duchamp, 1926) [Fig. 2(d)], these images do not appear as how the human subject would apprehend them in the phenomenological experience of physical reality. This is where we draw the line between the perceptually realistic image and that which is not.

Abstract films: Rhythmus 21 (1923); Symphonie diaganale (1924); Return to Reason (1923); Anemic Cinema (1926)
Figure 2. Abstract films: Rhythmus 21 (1923); Symphonie diaganale (1924); Return to Reason (1923); Anemic Cinema (1926)


The next characteristic to be considered is that ‘film should also be mainly free from interest, not linked to purpose or intent’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 34) yet engage in a ‘form of purposiveness’ (p. 34). Kant, in The Critique of Judgement (1986), stated, ‘A judgement upon an object of our delight may be wholly disinterested but withal very interesting’ (pp. 43-4). What does disinterested judgment mean? Let us begin with a basic element of experience: sensation. Kant referred to ‘sensation’ specifically in terms of pleasures and displeasures brought about by the five senses (Wicks, 2007, p. 23). The ‘agreeableness of the sensation’ (p. 24) is determined by how one subjectively feels about ‘some raw sensory experience’ (p. 24), say, the sweetness of an apple. Aesthetic judgments of sensation are ‘combined with a gratifying intent and, strictly speaking, do not directly relate to beauty; on the other hand, ‘judgments of pure beauty are disinterested’ (p. 25) and even ‘do not involve knowing what the object is for’ (p. 28). When we ‘appreciate something in a manner devoid of interest’ (Pillow, 2011, p. 161), that is, in a disinterested way, ‘we judge it without reference to concepts of utility or of the moral good’ (p. 161).

Let us rephrase the PRF characteristic stated above: film should be disinterested yet manifest a form of purposiveness. What does it take for something to be purposive? For Kant, to refer to something as purposive is to assume that the acknowledgement of ‘a background intelligence is compelling, psychologically unavoidable, and impossible to remove from consideration’ (Wicks, 2007, p. 48). Kant’s ‘essential idea is that in beautiful things imagination discerns an indefinite orderedness or designedness, a well-formedness that is pleasing’ (Pillow, 2011, p. 162). Let us consider the images in Figure 3. The cinematic meditation in A Study in Choreography for Camera (1946) [Fig. 3(a)], in the form of the echoing of the figure of the human body – contemplating the movement of the limbs – with that formed by the branches and stems of the trees enveloping the frame stands ‘outside instrumental purpose and need’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 21).

A Study in Choreography for Camera (1946); Sleep (1964); Berlin Horse (1970)
Figure 3. A Study in Choreography for Camera (1946); Sleep (1964); Berlin Horse (1970)

This cinematic study undertaken by Deren is clearly not an instructional video on ballet or modern jazz. This work fosters the spectator, who may not even apprehend what this configuration of objects of pure beauty is for, to engage in a disinterested judgment of the visual appearances set along the running length of the film. What draws the spectator into this cinematic experience is how the objects of pure cinematic beauty that appear before him engage in a form of purposiveness; indeed, ‘beautiful things seem to be wrought by an intentionality shaping them to some purpose, even though we do not know what that purpose might be’ (Pillow, 2011, p. 162). The film leads the spectator to intuitively wonder about the background intelligence – goes beyond the intentions of the auteur – that interweaves the realms of appearances and sensory gratifications to make possible a cinematic experience that could spontaneously be interjected as ‘beautiful’! For Kant, the judging of the object – like the image in Deren’s film – is the very experience of the ‘harmony of the cognitive faculties’ (Wicks, 2007, p. 43). What are cognitive faculties? Kant describes the mind as having ‘a storehouse of mental images (the imagination)’ and associated with this, the storehouse of concepts (the understanding)’ (Wicks, 2007, p. 41). These two parts of the mind work together in judging the object: ‘imagination for the composition of the manifold of intuition and understanding for the unity of the concept that unifies the representation’ (Wicks, 2007, p. 41). Specifically, the faculty of Imagination ‘unites the sense impressions which human beings experience into various evolving structures and patterns while the faculty of Understanding then applies higher-level regulative concepts and classifications to these’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 20). It is important to note, however, that this harmony between the cognitive faculties of Imagination and Understanding is ‘instantiated to a degree of intensity that matches the intelligible quality of the object’s purposive form’ (Wicks, 2007, p. 43). In Kant’s ‘account of the free harmony of cognitive powers in aesthetic judgment, what imagination produces in its free aesthetic play with something is an appreciation of how, in multiple ways, the beautiful thing intimates a suitability for a purpose, or suggests a designing intention in its exquisite form’ (Pillow, 2011, p. 162). The key here is how our encounter with the ‘object’s purposive form makes us feel’ (Wicks, 2007, p. 114), and Kant considers it ‘unimportant whether we happen to be contemplating a dream object or an actual object, natural object or a work of art’ (p. 114).

The disinterested judgement of the image that intertwines nature and man in Figure 3(a) results in it being characterised as beautiful because it is intuitively intelligible for the spectator – using the harmony between Imagination and Understanding – that a background intelligence is behind the designs of the trees and the dancing man and our cinematic experience of both. The images in Figures 3(b) and (c) are also disinterested, but as Kant would put it, quite interesting. Sleep (Andy Warhol, 1964), a five-hour film that features footage of a man sleeping, manifests the disinterested character – it is ‘mainly free from interest, not linked to purpose or intent’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 34) aside from the inclination to partake of a form of purposiveness (p. 34). The bare image of the sleeping man in Figure 3(b) intuitively invites the spectator to look for patterns and evolving structures created by his or her encounter with the background intelligence that renders intelligible its purposive form in physical terms as apprehended by the camera. Kant believed that living organisms are, in this strong sense, purposive, ‘owing to the mysterious nature of life’ (Wicks, 2007, p. 49); indeed, their ‘indefinite designedness’ (Pillow, 2011, p. 162) is ‘an aspect of the beautiful’ (p. 162). Kant regarded ‘individual organisms in nature as internally purposive systems that are the apparent products of intelligent design’ (Guyer, 2006, p. 349). Such is also the case in Berlin Horse (Malcolm le Grice, 1970) [Fig. 3(c)] wherein the spectator uses his or her Imagination to open webs of intuitive possibilities sparked by the beautiful footage of the moving horse – enhanced by a special impressionistic colour film technique made by the filmmaker – as Understanding dances with its partner to judge the cinematic object. The disinterestedness achieved by the free experience of the cinematic objects of contemplation in Figure 3, that is, dancing man vis-à-vis trees, sleeping man in real time, and impressionistic rendering of the galloping horse, are judged as aesthetically valuable within Kant’s idea of ‘judgment of taste’ because they are ‘not related to any interest on the part of the perceiver’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 21). This disinterested aesthetic experience is what Kant called ‘free liking’ and ‘pleasurable liking’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 22). The idea of contemplation that springs from the state of disinterestedness is critical in the experience of the phenomenalist-realist film (PRF). As succinctly expressed by Aitken, ‘The idea of “contemplation” here also means something like an act of deep and long consideration, observation or admiration, and can involve both thoughtfulness and simply “looking at” something’ (2016, p. 22).


As the foregoing examples suggest, the disinterested PRF has a special affinity with nature, which provides a ‘richer and more indeterminate encounter than any art object could establish’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 21). This brings us to the next Kantian idea that is closely related to disinterestedness, that is, Naturschöne, ‘natural beauty’ or the ‘beauty of nature’, which refers to ‘meaningful formations and a sense of wholeness found when the Imagination and Understanding contemplate nature’ (p. 20). The third PRF characteristic to be considered in our discussion is that ‘film should be ‘nature-like’ that is, empirically dense and ‘largely indeterminate’ (p. 34) – thus stimulating the Imagination – while leaving some space open for ‘ordering activity’ by Understanding (p. 21).

The drive for the phenomenalist-realist film theory’s emphasis on natural beauty– with its empirical density and indeterminacy – is its ability to engage the film spectator to actively discover meaningful formations within the cinematic experience. In the phenomenological experience of appearances of the beauty of nature, we encounter the sublime. This completes Kant’s notion of ‘aesthetic judgments of reflection (that is, not sensory)’ (Wicks, 2007, p. 94), which include judgments of pure beauty (as exemplified by our illustrations on disinterestedness) and judgments of the sublime (Naturschöne) (p. 94). Kant avowed that in the case of the sublime, a given object ‘stimulates a tension between the Imagination and Reason’ (Wicks, 2007, p. 96), which is the ‘storehouse of indeterminate concepts’ (p. 95) – this is the other side of Understanding, the ‘storehouse of determinate concepts’ (p. 95). Reason is the storehouse of ideas such as those of ‘morality, God, freedom, the world, and the immortal soul’ (p. 96). This is an important aspect of phenomenological experience of the human being; indeed, ‘Phenomenology is reason’s self-discovery in the presence of intelligible objects’ (Sokolowski, 2000, p. 4).

Let us consider the images in Figure 4. The fluid movement of the papaya sap set against the texture and colour of the leaf in The Scent of Green Papaya/Mùi du du xanh (Tran Anh Hung, 1993) [Fig. 4(a)], the branch-like vein pattern within the insect wings in Mothlight (Stan Brakhage, 1963) [Fig. 4(b)], and the randomly-composed – through a special contraption for camera movement – landscape as cinematic object of contemplation in La région centrale (Michael Snow, 1971) [Fig. 4(c)], contain a level of empirical density and indeterminacy. These cinematic appearances of natural patterns and arrangements foster an encounter with ‘purposiveness without purpose’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 22); that is, the patterns and arrangements perceived by the spectator seem to be ‘purposes’ though ‘no definite purpose or meaning can be discerned’ (p. 22). This ‘indefinite purposiveness’ (p. 22) is crucial because ‘it makes the Imagination and Understanding interact equivalently, and therefore causes both to engage in an activity which is law-like and free’ (p. 22).

The Scent of Green Papaya (1993); Mothlight (1963); La région centrale (1971)
Figure 4. The Scent of Green Papaya (1993); Mothlight (1963); La région centrale (1971)

The result of the above is a spectatorial encounter with ‘purposiveness without purpose’ (p. 22) that was actualised by the objects of contemplation – tree sap, insect wings and natural landscape – which are part of physical reality. To find ‘beauty in “purposiveness without purpose” is to like the well-shaped form of something so much that it seems it could only be intentional, despite our not really attributing any fixed purpose to it’ (Pillow, 2011, p. 162). Stimulating Imagination and Understanding through this ‘free play’ (Wicks, 2007, p. 24) promotes their harmonious coordination; indeed, ‘the very structure of the mind expresses the general union of intuitions and concepts’ (p. 24). The resulting ‘intuitive awareness’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 14), however, ‘cannot be anchored and set down for scrutiny because it is momentary’ (p. 14) and feeling-oriented – this further enhances the indeterminacy of the visual aspect of the phenomenalist-realist film.


As discussed using the examples above, judgments of pure beauty and judgments of the sublime make up the ‘aesthetic judgments of reflection (that is, not sensory)’ (Wicks, 2007, p. 94). As a rule, Kant reserves ‘the word “sensation” specifically for pleasures and displeasures related to the five senses, and uses the term “feeling” more specifically to refer to aspects of experience that include non-sensory satisfactions’ (p. 23). His notion of Imagination as the part of the mind that deals with the composition of the ‘manifold of intuition’ (p. 41) is concerned with ‘indefinite knowledge which is also comprehended “intuitively”’, that is, with an awareness of something resonantly ‘“grasped” or “felt”’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 14). In partnership with the Imagination, intuitive Understanding relates to ‘feeling rather than intellect, to mood rather than concept’ (p. 14) and ‘generates indefinite meaning grasped intuitively through feeling’ (p. 22). Since phenomenalist-realist film theory avows that ‘film is essentially a non-verbal medium which generates feeling that is intuited’ (p. 34) the phenomenalist-realist film is characterized as predominated by feelings rather than ideas (p. 34). The disinterested aesthetic experience fostered by the harmony of the cognitive faculties is ‘not constrained by the parameters of conceptual reason’ (p. 22); consequently, the ‘disinterested judgment of taste cannot lead to definite knowledge’ (p. 22). In line with this, intuitive understanding is best portrayed through non-verbal forms of art (p. 14) and those wherein our judgment of the cinematic ‘object’s pure beauty ought not to be determined by practical concerns or conceptual definition’ (Wicks, 2007, p. 28). Examples of films that satisfy both categories are A Study in Choreography for Camera (1946) [Fig. 3(a)], Sleep (1964) [Fig. 3(b)], Berlin Horse (1970) [Fig. 3(c)], Mothlight (1963) [Fig. 4(b)], and La région centrale (1971) [Fig. 4(c)]. It is important to note, however, that this goes beyond the avant-garde realm. Next, we shall consider how Tokyo Story/Tôkyô monogatari (Yasujirô Ozu, 1953) – though not necessarily non-verbal like the five examples above – fosters intuitive understanding by taking the feeling-oriented route.

The theme of Tokyo Story (1953) is death; true to the spirit of the medium, the film engages the spectators through a phenomenalist-realist experience of the physical body. The death of the elderly mother becomes a turning point in the film which takes a feeling-oriented route in navigating through the series of events. Before we proceed, let me make a distinction between emotions and feelings. I use the term ‘emotions’ to refer to psychological states such as joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust whilst the term ‘feelings’ to refer to our way of phenomenologically experiencing the objects in the world. These feelings go beyond the realm of sensations and perceptions but originate from there. It is through feeling that we break from the confines of the intellect so that we could reach its co-existing plane of intuition. In Tokyo Story, the death of the mother is cinematically rendered through a route of ‘feeling rather than intellect’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 14) and of ‘mood rather than concept’ (p. 14). The shot in Figure 5a is from a scene wherein the doctor had just told the father and the daughter that the elderly woman will likely pass on before sunrise. For certain, there are strong emotions – e.g., grief, despair, guilt – involved here but intertwining with this dramatic through-line is the phenomenalist-realist engagement that takes the feeling-oriented route. Through the cinematic experience of the portrayal of the mother within the narrative timeline, and the corresponding effects, in terms of mood, of her life and death on the other physical bodies (her family) that surround her, the spectators resonantly grasp the core of Tokyo Story, that is, as the life-death cycle happens, time goes on. The upshot of this film is not just the eliciting of emotions as a consequence of a finely crafted drama film; more importantly, the spectators take with them the experience of developing the intuitive understanding of life as transitory. Lastly, let me note that the title, Tokyo Story, drives home an important point in cinematic realism: the film is grounded on the concrete, empirical, and physical setting of Tokyo but through the corresponding cinematic encounter, the spectators – through the phenomenalist-realist engagement of the film – develop insight about the universal, that is, the shared concerns of the human experience which is inseparable from the reality (which includes time) that transcends human concerns.

Tokyo Story (1953) and Regen (1929)
Figure 5. Tokyo Story (1953) and Regen (1929)


The ultimate PRF characteristic to be discussed here asserts that ‘in terms of the Lebenswelt, the film should “flow” and intersect with things in an organic-like manner, emphasizing becoming rather than being’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 34). What is the Lebenswelt and how does the phenomenalist-realist film render it cinematically? The Lebenswelt, or life-world, is the ‘surrounding ever-changing world of our everyday experience and perception’ (p. 15). This ‘conception of human experience as characterised by flux has a lineage within Western philosophy’ (p. 15), particularly ‘found in phenomenology (“surface”) and in vitalistic philosophy (Lebensphilosophie, “flux of life”) (Witte, Correll, & Zipes, 1975, p. 63). Regen (Joris Ivens, 1929) features one cycle of the rain phenomenon. The film portrays the notion of ‘becoming’ in Amsterdam, the setting of the film, using rain as a sort of stimulus in the quotidian flow of city life; city dwellers, like individual cells of a single but complex organism, react to the rain event by adapting to it as they attempt to conduct their daily tasks despite the physical challenges of navigating through the wet surroundings. This is from the human perspective; however, the flow of life includes an array of other non-human and non-living elements. While Regen features shots of the people, it also performs a disinterested contemplation of the non-human objects in the phenomenal world vis-à-vis natural phenomena. Consider the shots in Figure 5b which materialise the flow as motif: in the first frame, the puddle that adds a ‘sheet of liquid’ over solid ground; second, the flapping tarpaulin that echoes the intensification of another element, the wind, that gets stronger and stronger; third, the reflection of a person’s legs on the wet ground; last, the tree shadows that are slightly distorted by the rippling of the waters in the canal. This ‘elemental objects’ thread interweaves with the ‘city subjects’ thread to complete this film’s fabric: cinematic rendition of the ‘flowing interaction between rain and the city’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 34). The cinematic experience results in an intuitive awareness of the multiplicity, fluidity and connectedness of elements in our shared phenomenal world.

The five characteristics of the phenomenalist-realist film, as discussed in this essay, expand the discourse on the creative possibilities of a contemplative form of filmmaking that is ineluctably and deeply rooted in physical existence. These foster fresh understandings of existing genres such as social realism and opens new forms of experimental, documentary, and experimental documentary filmmaking for indeed, the phenomenalist-realist film explores material reality, the flow of life, and, as reflected upon by the spectator, the very nature of reality itself.


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