As a quarrelsome discussion about the merits of Joe Swanberg was dying down on Glenn Kenny's Some Came Running site, I put my two cents in, and in the process made the following, perhaps excessively ambitious claim:
"…on the subject of the beauty or ugliness of compositions, I'd like to point out that "beauty" and "realism" are opposed concepts, that they will always be defined by their relationship to each other. Realism is always relative to prevailing practices, and the energy and newness that it aspires to, the ability to revivify the mystery of the photographic image, is totally dependent upon tearing down or neglecting or violating something that we've come to expect. When Rossellini or de Toth decided to let the camera shake, they were a) consciously or unconsciously evoking the newsreel footage that came out of WWII; and b) inviting criticism for undermining the beauty of the composed image. Ditto Cassavetes finding inspiration in cutting that evoked the tension of live TV when the control room punches up the wrong camera for a second; ditto Kubrick shining lights at the camera as if he were a street photographer unable to control light sources; ditto countless other attempts to make the image seem alive again. In each case something nice-looking was destroyed; in each case a new generation of filmgoers learned to find the innovation nice-looking."
The point, which I left as an implication, was that comparing Swanberg's visuals to YouTube uploads was not necessarily an insult. This subject is interesting enough that I didn't want it to get lost in a busy comments section, though I'd like to dial down that authoritative tone, which seems inappropriate on subjects as elusive as "beauty" and "realism."
The idea that realism is relative to prevailing practices is pretty well established, at least in my mind. In this longish 2003 post from a_film_by, I summarized my thoughts about the relativism of realism, during an attempt to establish a baseline for a difficult discussion I was having with Tag Gallagher.
(Apropos the examples from that post, here's a brief excerpt from André Bazin's article "Will CinemaScope Save the Film Industry?" published in Esprit in 1953 and translated in Bazin at Work: "It would be equally naïve to believe that the filmic image tends toward total identification with the universe that it copies, through the successive addition of supplementary qualities from that universe. Perception, on the part of the artist as well as the audience of art, is a synthesis - an artificial process - each of whose elements acts on all the others. And, for example, it is not true that color, in the way that we are able to reproduce it - as an addition to the image framed by the narrow window of the screen - is an aspect of pure realism. On the contrary, color brings with it a whole set of new conventions that, all things considered, may make film look more like painting than reality.")
The motion in the opposite direction, from realism (based as it is on a renunciation of expressive possibilities) to beauty, is difficult to nail down. If one considers beauty as relative to anything at all, one is cast adrift on a sea of subjectivity. I tried to get around this issue in that comment on Swanberg by making an appeal to consensus, giving only examples of visual ploys that are widely regarded as attractive.
If I move away from consensus, and risk irrelevance by permitting unqualified subjectivity, the example that is most on my mind lately has to do with the limitations of the recording process. Very often, when an image strikes me as uncommonly beautiful, I note that the filmmaker has challenged the ability of celluloid or tape to register a full range of light or color values. This idea first occurred to me ten or fifteen years ago, when filmmakers began using faster stock that could record twilight landscapes without supplementary lighting while still avoiding an excessively grainy look. These images necessarily hover on the black side of the black-white continuum; but I have an immediate emotional reaction to crepuscular displays of contrasting colors, and I think I have the reaction precisely because the colors cannot be brought into the middle-range sweet spot of exposure.
I was reminded of the "beauty via exposure crisis" theory after a recent screening of Jacques Rozier's wonderful, too-little-seen Du côté d'Orouët (which has recently become available on English-subtitled Region 2 DVD as part of a Rozier box set). In one scene, Rozier uses a subjective shot through the windshield of a car to show his protagonists driving to a remote rural tavern, with the wooded terrain barely illuminated (perhaps only by the car's real headlights). I didn't immediately realize why the darkness in this image felt so primal and threatening. Easier to process was a later, stunning scene of a day-long sailing trip, where Rozier did not (or could not) adjust his 16mm exposure to prevent his characters' faces from glowing an unnatural red as the sun went down over the water behind them.
Shortly afterwards, I saw Raymond Depardon's Une femme en Afrique, in which the filmmaker lets the detail in sunlit images vanish into white to convey an unusually vivid sense of desert light and heat.
Other countries are generally more willing to flirt with exposure problems than the US, but the remarkable oneness of the interior and exterior scenes in last year's Ballast is largely due to the exclusive use of "God's own natural light," as Lance Hammer put it.