The opposite of realism is not fantasy, but disappointment
When the Lumieres publicly screened their first films in 1895, it was surely a very big event, though more in its form (the social space of the screening room) than its content (the actions of the films). Still, when we characterize this beginning as an event, we should not — as Brownlow advises in The Parade’s Gone By — smugly reiterate legends of spectators momentarily convinced that pouncing filmic tigers were about to plunge through the screen and maul their god-fearing husbands, even if new technologies are often christened with floundering faith. The fantasies of the earliest magic lanterns, invented around 1640, and the innumerable ‘scopes of the late 19th century — if not Plato’s Republic — had surely given audiences centuries worth of preparation for interpreting projected illusions. Yet the masses needed an opiate to deliver them from the starched, arch theatricalism of the Victorian stage, and quickly accepted the paradoxical opiate of “two-dimensional realism” the cinema would sell. This opiate was quite literally present in Edison’s Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894), whose title character stuffs some snuff into his flickering beak, causing it to twitch momentarily, and then sneezes it out in one involuntary yet definitive spasm, returning the hallucinogen to the ether as the film concludes. This, one of cinema’s very first events, recognized the medium itself as a drug, probably the first time the cinema’s narcotic form and its content were used, if unintentionally, to mutually admire one another, long before the narcoses of the cinema became the Hollywood imperialism Europeans have so much difficulty resisting.
In the cinema’s infancy, the eventfulness of film was doubled by its novelty. Not only was the new technology an event in itself, as Benjamin recognized, but the act of spectatorship also became a self-conscious event, especially because the transparent contents of early films could not provide a substantial enough drama in which to lose oneself — the unconstructed cinematic motion of Workers Leaving the Factory (1895) could not entrance forever. Almost instantly, actors became aware of this eventfulness, too. In his analysis of the early Lumiere films, Bertrand Tavernier distinguishes between the original version of Workers Leaving the Factory, in which the workers are unaware of the camera, and a second version filmed the following season of the same year, and only discovered in 1985, wherein the workers look self-consciously into the camera filming them, thus becoming actors1 But it was Melies, of course, who raised the event from the medium itself to the powers within the medium, specifically the self-evident cut which made the magician coyly disappear behind an interposed smokepuff. By 1914, when the narrative structure to which we are still enslaved had firmly established itself, poor Melies had desisted his dreams altogether,2 for his ephemeral lunar pavilions and smiling cardboard whales still smacked of the dying stage, and his once-innovative manipulations of form now seemed quaint compared to the lifelike “Cabiria movements” of Pastrone and Griffith.3
But before narrative became fully institutionalized, some films, curiously, could not decide on the difference between narrative realism and the spectacular fantasies of primitive silents. Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience (1914) is actually more “primitive” than his first full-length feature, the Biblical epic Judith of Bethulia (1913), insofar as its pre-institutionally decorative qualities overshadow any semblance of linear narrative. Conscience, one of cinema’s earliest examples of psychological “realism,” is incongruously capped by a ten-minute fantasy sequence of nymphs prancing about a sylvan prairie — precisely the sort of self-enclosed spectacle that would have served as a stand-alone one-reeler circa 1905 or so. If this silliness ruins the film, it is because the expectations of realism manufactured earlier in the film have been disappointed; here, we realize our first axiom: the antonym of realism is not fantasy, but disappointment.
We will being our discussion of antirealism in the cinema by talking about musical expressionism, but I’ll need to explain my terms, since everyone has their own ideas of what expressionism should be. First, I stubbornly define music as innately unrealistic. The closest approximations to nature music can create are, as Carl Dahlhaus notes in Realism in Nineteenth Century Music, found in attempts to imitate rising space with a crescendo, or speeding time with an accelerando, or (vocalized) human emotions with mimicking tonalities and inflections. Realism in music might be seen as synonymous with narrativization, but little more: in a formalized sense, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin or Gliere’s programmatic symphony Ilya Murometz might conflate narrativity in music with the “real” and innate human propensity for understanding everything in terms of temporal narrative and life cycles, but hardly can their two-dimensional emotionalisms evince recognizably human psychologies. Otherwise, as nature’s timbres do not strictly abide by those of the piano, accordion, bassoon, or kazoo,4 music may at best strive to produce imagistic, anthropomorphic, or onomatopoeic realities, as in Peter and the Wolf, or re-produce nature with technological assistance, as with the tape-recorded whale songs looped into Hovannhes’s And God Created Great Whales (1970).
The “realism” underlying even a quasi-programmatic piece such as Honneger’s rhythmique yet bourgeois Pacific 231 (1924) or Mosolov’s ballet Zavod, which respectively imitate a locomotive and a factory, is linguistic realism. Were these pieces divorced from their language-based programs — the very title of Pacific 231 constitutes a de facto program5 — they might be delivered from linguistic realism to the free play of impressionism, where their musics might conjure a greater variety of associations. Musical impressionism, divorced from image or language, should evince not a single essence but a full palette of mental associations — if one is unaware of Mallarmé’s source poem, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun will conjure not necessary a lounging faun, or even the natural erotic longing it represents, but a free-floating sphere of shapes, colors, and self-reflective sensations that broadens and makes multifaceted one’s perceptions of truth — unlike expressionism, which seeks to penetrate to a singular, greater truth.
In contrast to musical realism and impressionism, expressionism, seeking its singular truth, focuses on the immediate, unmediated self-expression of the artist’s interiority, and uses antirealist distortions, distancing devices, and other techniques that make the audience critically self-conscious of artifice and skeptical of “scientific” reality. But there are practical problems in applying these expressionist criteria, as originated in painting, to music: how well is the interiority of Berg’s “expressionistic” Violin Concerto (or the interiority of Berg himself) being expressed if it must be mediated through the various wills and desires of numerous members of an orchestra? Secondly, Bergian atonality is intrinsically no less “real” than a Haydn symphony — atonality is neither antirealist nor more expressive than conventional tonality. We are more inclined to say a programmatic work such as Berg’s Lulu is expressionistic, however, because the music rubs so violently against the libretto that we are distracted from any pretense of realist performance and quickly understand that otherwise hidden or subtextual elements of the libretto are being outwardly expressed through the score (whereas in Tchaikovsky’s Onegin there is no subtext for the music to decrypt).
But we cannot really understand what it means for the interiority of Berg himself to be “expressed” in a non-programmatic work like the Concerto when someone other than Berg himself is performing. Unlike an expressionist painting, which forever retains its originality, the endless and varied performability of music negates the idea of the singular artist conveying unmediated truths, and when music is recorded as background to a film, it is a second degree removed from originality. Therefore, I define musical expressionism (in film) as neither unmediated original expression nor as antirealist qualities in the music itself — because all music is unrealistic, whether intentionally or not — but as the meaningful tension that exists between the music and a second element, such as a film image or dramatic action.
Music in the talking film, effectively, reshuffles the temporal realism of stage melodrama — if opera presents live music outwardly expressing actors’ thoughts concurrently in time and space, film does the opposite, alienating the actor’s performance from the often unknown, yet-to-be-composed music that will undergird his performance in post-production. (Godard satirized this temporal incongruity in Contempt (1963), where extradiegetic music conspicuously begins each time a character stops talking.) But if we define expressionism as meaningful tension, the standard, meaningless film score cannot be true expressionism: when phallically swollen Korngoldian horns and swooning strings provide an overcompensatory exterior monolog for characters whose interiors are inaccessible, the music simply explains the interiority of the characters without drawing them out expressively through tense intellectual dissonance. The effect is usually a mere redundancy, which is why Satyajit Ray likened extradiegetic music to crude punctuation marks to be used as sparingly as possible. A film with music every five minutes is like a novel with ten exclamation points on every page — yet we, who would be embarrassed by a surfeit of exclamations, accept such musical slop unblinkingly. But literal sound-image incongruity is not necessarily expressionistic, either, for the incongruity of an ordinary, journalistic voice-over does not exist in intellectual tension with the action it narrates.
But as our example of meaningful musical expressionism in film, I will not use the avant-garde films of the 1960s you might expect. Rather, I will use Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours (1948, right), whose use of Rossini’s overtures provides a background of unbroken extradiegetic music lengthier than that of any other non-musical in memory. What makes Unfaithfully remarkable here is that its musical expressionism is not unimaginative, sledgehammer irony in the manner of Kubrick’s use of familiar Rossini selections in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Going beyond irony, Sturges uses music to pierce the interiors of characters to demonstrate moral truths. In Unfaithfully, the maddening music provides a frantic background to a scenario that is rather calm to all of the characters save Rex Harrison’s, whose wife’s infidelity resides only in his artistic mind, like the music he conducts. Yet when his conventionally suspicious mind, that is, the conventional music that runs through it, is laid across the screen, our minds, too, become clouded. In perhaps Sturges’ best speech, Harrison chastises a despicable private eye for liking the music he conducts, and is devastated that music — his music — does not possess certain “antiseptic” qualities that morally cleanse despicability from the listener. But he, of course, is the most despicable and immoral, because he can no longer distinguish between reality and fiction; the conventional and false morality of bourgeois art represented by the romantically confused Rossini fantasies which obsess his thoughts, which we are forced to hear repeatedly, and which expressionistically banana-slip as his madness mounts, eventually overcome his rationality.6 In the end, the deluded musical soundtrack opposes the real, but calls attention to the moral importance of rational behavior in ways that realistic or mimetic representations cannot, for realism, accepting its rationalism on faith, does not even bother to demonstrate why rationalism is important as a mode of representation.7
We can compare Sturges’ “contrapuntal” use of extradiegetic music to Oliviera’s The Convent (1995), which uses an atonal orchestral score to express the devilish impetus lurking beneath a calm, natural exterior. The atonal music may seem incongruous with the seemingly benign, “tonal” visuals, but this incongruity lacks the moral instruction of the musical counterpoint in Unfaithfully. It is merely a sensational device, expressing only what we already lies beneath the surface, and is thus very conservative, even redundant, within the possibilities of expressionism, even though the atonality begs to be perceived as avant-garde.
Because Edison’s early 1900’s sound recording experiments were rejected semi-consciously by a public opting for a pure image accompanied by music and not one realistically accompanied by dialog, the silent film was less lifelike than the unreproduced stage. (In fact, in the early days of film, even projection speed was not standardized, so the allegedly “pure” visuals of the film represented no single referential reality to begin with.) Silent actors would be given voice through a musically mimicking vessel beyond their control, and which varied as the pianist, organist, or bensho varied from theater to theater. In the silent film, allied to the onomatopoeic imitation of sound was the expectation of sound where there was none. The piano glissando of a slapstick pratfall or barking ostinato of a hen-pecking wife became the clear if unfortunate acknowledgements of a limitation unsure of whether its function is to guide or presume. In Robert Israel’s piano score for the 1995 Kino Video reissue of Buster Keaton’s short The Haunted House (1921), the descending scales of the piano actually precede Keaton’s slips and falls, thus cuing not the jokes per se but the split-second anticipation of the jokes, reducing the acrobatics from unique events to a generic sense of expectation, and displacing the humor from the integral image to clockwork patterns of recognition. The content and specific import of the joke become negligible, and one winds up merely responding to the cued perpetuation of conventional formal gestures. This is another example of when sound-image incongruity is actually conformist, not subversive or surrealist.
We should, then, also question the use of any music performed during the projection of a silent surrealist film. Buñuel says he cranked out a recording of an ordinary tango to accompany the first screening of Un Chien Andalou (1928), but does not seem to think that a generic tango’s presumptions on the viewer’s imagination will limit surrealism’s free play. This was long before such musical incongruities self-consciously became their own mode of irony, as in the bridge dance in Carax’s Les Amants du Pont Neuf (1993), or the closing credits to Malle’s Atlantic City (1981), where the genre of background music changes with each crash of a wrecking ball coolly clearing away the debris of architectural history.
Apart from sound’s novelty value, it still remains to be demonstrated exactly why people embraced sound in the late 1920s when they rejected Edison’s turn-of-the-century sound experiments,8 and why at the height of the silent era’s Golden Age they were prepared to bear the static immobility early sound would bring when Karl Freund had liberated the camera only a few years prior. These audiences were justly punished with the least written-about period in film history, circa 1928-29, in which Hollywood foolishly led the world’s experiments in combining silence and sound in a transitional phase of half-silent, half-talkie films such as Curtiz’s legendary spectacle Noah’s Ark (1928) or Lucien Hubbard’s time capsule The Mysterious Island (1929), which abruptly juxtaposed the facility of silent cinema at its technical zenith with talking cinema at the nadir of its toddling childhood.
The promotional ads for Noah’s Ark shouted, “See and hear the spectacle of the ages” — the spectacle being the transhistorical, Intolerance-esque alternation of a WWI story with typically idiotic Biblical scenes, a morally easy juxtaposition Thomas Ince had used a dozen years earlier in Civilization (1916), wherein Jesus actually visits a mustard gas battlefield to short-handedly symbolize some sorely needed humanitarianism. In the silent era, the immaculate unreality of sound seemed to equate everything with the Bible (perhaps why they were so many Biblical adaptations), so it is perhaps appropriate that Noah’s Ark, a film of dual historical contents, should usher in a new talking medium that historicizes its dual technological senses: the absolute morality of the Bible is silent and removed, and the modern, sinful era is squeakily heard. Nevertheless, in Hollywood the negotiation of silence and sound was merely a witless alternation, with no attempt at progressive synthesis. Although Lewis Milestone soon learned how to whip the talkie camera through mud and over trenches, most Hollywood filmmakers deluded on the new “reality” of sound demonstrated none of the audial creativity of, say, the famous scene in Rene Clair’s Le Million (1931), where the realistic audio of a chase scene suddenly becomes the unrealistically dubbed audio of a football match. Even Hollywood’s most flamboyant early talkie, the pioneering sci-fi Just Imagine (1930), is more concerned with decorative futuristic sets in the manner of silents such as Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), with sound, including the requisite horrid songs, clearly subordinate.
The early talkie’s new realism resided in the recorded natural sounds of which the live piano and wheezing organ could only provide keyed approximations: the creak of the door, the meow of the pussy, the falling hollow bombshells of Pabst’s Westfront 1918 (1930), which sounded less threatening but somehow more “natural” than the maniacal wail of Milestone’s artillery in the same year’s All’s Quiet on the Western Front. This audial realism is the apparently unmodified, anti-illusory, anti-totalitarian sound recording promulgated by socialist Europe, as distinct from the more clearly phony socialist realism advanced by Stalinism. It is the tangible ambient sound of Eric Rohmer’s Marquise of O (1976) or Margaritte von Trotta’s Rosa Luxemburg (1986), films which nevertheless ironically recreate historical realism through the present-day reality of natural sound recording, thereby conflating two essentially different categories of the real, and thus disclosing the illusion behind their apparent “realism.”
This direct, anti-illusory sound is obviously traceable to neorealism, whose location photography and direct sound signified an expedient vigilantism keeping watch over ravaged streets fallen victim to Nazi illusionism. But the problem with the exhausted yet inaccurate phrase “neorealism” is that the antiquated realism it supposedly replaced was not the feature-length mock-anthropology of In the Land of the War Canoes (1914), or even actuality films such as Grass (1925), but the upholstered, novelistic naturalism of Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and the richly textured populism of Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), films which by today’s standards would be considered late Romantic. In fact, the dogmatic socialist realism of the Soviets was originally intended to carry the more accurate, less cryptic label “socialist romanticism,” which itself speaks volumes.9 Today, far from the cry of naturalism, we suffer the neo-neorealism of the “Dogma” crowd, who suppose that by merely representing mundane minimalism — and charging audiences money for the experience — we can cathartically purge the grand irrationalism of Hollywood decadence.
The recorded ambient sounds — echoing footsteps, creaking archaic wood, etc. — of Herzog’s Heart of Glass (1976) are interesting here because the film’s historical narrative alternates modern direct sound recording with Popul Vuh’s characteristic synthesizer score. The film’s awkward balancing of realism (direct sound) and conventionalized antirealism (a dubbed musical score) may be analogous to the half-silent, half-talkie films of the 1928-29 period. Despite his uncanny, unfiltered use of natural sound recording, Herzog is hardly known as a realist; his turn to making mainly documentaries in recent years may reflect his attempt to reconcile his work’s “double” nature. His documentaries Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1996) and My Best Fiend (1999), notably, recreate history by having their real-life subjects re-enact their pasts in the present day, as if Herzog is admitting that the type of transhistorical realism represented by direct audio in his previous costume pictures was disingenuous.
Yet this convincingly “real” ambient sound can also result from technological accident — exactly the case of Hong Kong filmmakers beginning around 1993, who began to shoot with synchronized sound on a normative basis in an effort to raise production standards and compete with Hollywood. But the sound technicians’ lack of experience in recording direct sound resulted in performances that combined naturalistic facial expression with muffled, echoing, and under-recorded vocal expressions10 — in other words, truly realistic performances, more realistic than any intentional amateurism could willfully manufacture.
As a normative signifier of a culture’s xenophobic inability to deal with cultural invasion, or as a desire not for a friendly Esperanto but an imperialist over-language, the dubbed film should be as despised as it is. As a hegemony of the market place, it also informs social issues: if Americanized Jackie Chan films are dubbed with gangster rap soundtracks, a double racism is created that suggests first, that the films are not “worthy” of being left intact, and, second, that martial arts violence should automatically appeal to gangsterized African-Americans. But dubbing is not always the economic product of bourgeois imperialism; sometimes, it can be its victim. Such is often the case with Doris Wishman, whose films were often shot silent because she could not afford direct sound recording. Thus, in The Amazing Transplant (1970), Wishman utilizes angle/reverse angle scenarios so we only see the back of the speaker’s head, or the person being spoken to while the speaker remains offscreen.11 Never have there been more unintentionally alienating films than Wishman’s: the human voice is a disembodied phantasm roaming from unseen mouths, and you desire to violate the screen, entering it interdimensionally with outstretched arms to twist that turned head and reveal its true face. You want to attach a reality to the illusion, yet you are powerless.12 A true film!
But the purposively dubbed film, like Woody Allen’s What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966), should be a supreme work of art, as it reconstructs filmic building blocks to its own liking, as do musical compositions based on a theme written by a dead composer. Francis Bacon questioned the authenticity of abstract art that merely manipulates preternatural geometries without artistically constructing something from them; likewise, the intentionally dubbed film is, in fact, greater art than the realistic film to the degree that it is more about ingenious, multilayered construction than slavish reproduction or mimesis. Similarly, movie versions of novels should be as unfaithful as possible. Film adaptations are foolishly praised for their faithfulness (i.e., slavishness) to the source, but if one wants faithfulness, just read the source itself — the conservatism of cinema culture values slavishness above original variations, whereas musical variations on another composer’s theme are, contrarily, valued for how far a-field the variations wind up from the source. On a like note, critics excoriated Britisher Hugh Hudson’s Revolution (1984) for its historical inaccuracies and Al Pacino’s anachronistic accent, when they should have fearlessly praised the filmmakers for their Brechtian dismissal of realist acting and flights of expressionistic fantasy (that the inaccuracies are unintentional is irrelevant). Ironically, faithfulness is not “faith” at all, but merely rationalist accuracy (when faith is confused with rationalism, realism will be confused with reality).
However, once a film is dubbed, for any reason, it can no longer retain the same identity, and must be known as a new original work. Therefore, as Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini is not called Paganini’s Twenty-Fourth Caprice for Violin (the thematic inspiration for Rachmaninoff’s piece), the gangster-rap dubbed American release of Daniel Lee’s Black Mask (1996) should be retitled Hollywood’s Variations on a Theme of Daniel Lee, which would save everyone much confusion. But the dubbed film also occurs within industries, not just among them: India and China have long shot silent films to be redubbed into the various languages internal to their countries without the intrusive motive of Western exportation. Cartoons, obviously, have no intrinsic voice — in fact, animation dubbed with convincingly naturalist sound effects can have more profoundly synaesthetic results than naturally recorded live action films. For example, the overexaggerated sounds of the flapping flags in Tomoharu Katsumoto’s elegant yet nationalist animation Arcadia of My Youth (1982) conjure archetypal or neo-Platonic notions of objective “flag-ness,” rather than merely recording a particular flag as would a live action camera. In this way, expressionistically unreal dubbing approaches philosophical truths (not reality) that are in fact more objective than realism’s pretended empiricism.
In his autobiography My Life and My Films, faithful realist Jean Renoir proclaims, “…if we were living in the 12th century…the practitioners of dubbing would be burnt in the marketplace for heresy. Dubbing is equivalent to a belief in the duality of the soul.”13 But, as we no longer live in the 12th century, dubbing, like the blue screen (discussed below), represents not a superstitious belief in the soul’s duality, but a healthy belief in its nonexistence. The multitudes, deluded into thinking that the cinema is innately and soulfully realistic, will laugh at atheistic techniques such as dubbing or the blue screen, perceiving them as sad, incongruously unrealistic comedies. Such is their faith in the religion of realism!
The television laugh track is currently the most popular (or omnipresent) type of cognitively discontinuous dubbing. Laugh tracks technologically produce unreality — the laughter bad jokes cannot realistically provoke — in the way that musical accompaniment in films, whether bludgeoning or plaintive, presupposes emotional responses that may or may not be warranted. In this way, the laugh track is society’s greatest signifier of conformity not only by its form but by what it signifies. Because, as Henri Bergson insists, laughter is a socio-moral corrective, and because one’s identity is too-easily surrendered to the collective, conventional morality of group laughter, the laugh track is the perfect antirealist device to reinforce ideas of what audiences should and should not consider normative behavior, directing, and, over time, conditioning the audience’s allegiances and scorns by the placement and degree of mechanical laughter. When there is a canned laugh scheduled every eight seconds, what ironically becomes “meaningful” are those tender moments when the laugh track chokes and falls dead, kindly telling us when we shouldn’t laugh (we had forgotten we had a choice in the matter). These are the 22-minute sitcom’s “serious” interludes, usually signified by fifteen seconds unbroken by a counterfeit laugh. If more than six or eight lines of dialog transpire without a laugh, we immediately realize this episode is getting very ambitious. It is thus telling that the average American sitcom’s jokes involve one character mechanistically insulting another. Formally, the arrival of the insult signifies the presumption of a laugh-response, while the content reflects the simple sadisms of American pop culture, the bettering of the self over the other (here, via insult). If we accept the Bergsonian idea of laughter as a moral critique of mechanization and dehumanization, the laugh track, without irony, irrationally tells us the opposite, that humanity is bettered when it revels in Pavlovian mechanization.
My ironic defense of dubbing, however, does not mean films cannot be butchered. The experience of cinematic reality necessitates, paradoxically, the unselfconscious experience of losing oneself — the cropping on butchered videotapes, however, make this impossible, because one is continually distracted by the parts of the film itself that have become literally and quite consciously “lost.” Those excruciatingly squared Shaw Brothers videotapes, for example, do not even pan-and-scan the original Shawscope frame but cripplingly fix the viewer dead center as did the stagy, immobile camera of Edison. Amusingly, in the cropped videotape of Ho Meng-hua’s The Flying Guillotine (1974), most of the film’s signature head-severing is itself severed by the cropping, and as the frame sadistically withholds the satisfaction of our bloodthirst, we must, in reader-response fashion, imaginatively (re)construct the arcana missing from the work’s bleeding physical ruins. Perversely, Hong Kong films became popular in the West, I believe, because the poorly cropped tapes originally available — with often unreadable subtitles — forced normally lazy viewers to actively work their imaginations to fill in the missing information on screen, pushing them into the challenging position of not only creating meaning from the text, but being constantly and tantalizingly aware of both the fact of their creation and its inherent limitations.14
In the depressing context of cropping, it is also interesting to note the trend in TV commercials which parody movie trailers: the movie-trailer parody will be presented letterboxed, to signify it is supposed to be “cinematic.” It can be nothing other than a crushing irony that one of the most conspicuous examples of letterboxing on TV is but a sign that cropping, i.e. the destruction of the integral, has been a normative experience that can now only be parodied and played upon without fully redressing the original problem.
Integral to cinematic realism is the mobile camera — we believe the free will of the camera could, like the swiveling politic of the human eye, pan in any direction and reveal any part of the world if placed on wheels, if allowed the same flight enjoyed by a “real” human. This is what Olivier demonstrated in Henry V (1945), when the doors of the theatrical first act literally open themselves up to a boundless panorama, the diegesis of the whole earth and not the altar of the stage. Yet this realism was rendered unreal again by the camera’s multiple subjectivities and that romantic Technicolor of the 1940’s. Black and white films, from the primeval grains of Edwin S. Porter to the solid brush strokes of film noir, are, it is said, “expressionistically” unreal. Yet all the world’s color processes until the 1960’s were a candied carnival of iconic colors, hardly an improvement in terms of realism on the pasty two-strip faces of DeMille’s original The Ten Commandments (1923). The classical theorists of realism, writing in the 1940’s or earlier, sneakily avoid talking about how the phoniness of early Technicolor utterly failed to improve upon, in terms of realism, the abstractions of black-and-white. Thus, we can conveniently overlook the unrealistically pretty, Madame Butterflyish orientalism of the Toll of the Sea (1923), the first two-strip color feature, the ghoulish purples of Curtiz’s Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), and the crypto-Bavarian rainbow spectrum of The Wizard of Oz (1939), which pulled the illusions of German authoritarianism from behind their velvet curtain, and argued that we must reject expressionistically colorful fantasy and return “home” to the uncomplicated “reality” represented by black-and-white film stock.
Certain cinema techniques are innately unrealistic, such as the blue screen and zoom lens. No one dares use the blue screen today for the purpose it once served, to project a street scene behind a stationary, studio-bound car whose driver’s hair miraculously stays glued in position despite a rear-projected world whizzing by, all in risible violation of Newtonian principles. Hitchcock, whose use of the blue screen in Lifeboat (1944) is perhaps the most extensive use of the device ever, defended this frugal technique, which was ridiculed even in his era; yet it may be that ninety full minutes of exposure to the illusion, combined with an overintense acting style that distracts from it, are required for the technique to take hold. (If you recenter the characters in the phony lifeboat in the midst of the studio and not the sea, the effect is heartbreaking.) If in Hitchcock’s eyes films were intrinsically fantastic anyway, why not extend that suspension to the most unrealistic type of representation, one that pretends a two-dimensional world is three-dimensional? In this sense, the two-dimensional blue screen is like the theater screen itself, so if we are willing to believe the two-dimensionality of the theatrical screen is three-dimensional, we should also extend that courtesy to the blue screen. Today, this inherently expressionistic rear projection is used only for Brechtian irony and mise en abyme avant-gardism (in Syberberg, for example), as it only calls attention to the cinema’s failure to accurately represent multidimensional reality. But we, fools, cannot even define our own parameters: when a wigwearing television newscaster pontificates in front of an oversized photograph of the capitol building — as if he were live on the spot — we rarely pause to ponder the geographical expressionism of this living three-dimensional creature artistically positioned before a two-dimensional representation, and dumbly accept the image as a convention of “news reality.”15
The zoom lens is an exclamation whose function is similar to the music score. If not merely cinematic punctuation, the zoom symbolizes contemplation (Robert Altman always does this), an introspection paradoxically made from without. As the camera calls attention to itself through its zooming, it is though the camera itself, with self-satisfaction or revelation, is thinking about the object of its zoom. When the frame zooms in on someone’s face, the intensification of the frame conventionally signifies the character’s intensification of thought, discernable only to the camera’s special insight.16 But because film cannot represent an interior monologue without recourse to language (the intimately whispered voice-over is a French specialty), the zoom lens, which strives to puncture interiorities, signifies only the existence of thought processes without divulging their contents (let alone providing a moral, expressionistic commentary). In this way, film can be pretend to signify more than it does, as form conveniently stands in for content.
Refocusing our discussion of realism, we now turn to cinematic asceticism and minimalism, which, despite their frequent appeals to transcendentalism in the style of a Bresson or Ozu, can easily be confused with realism. While there is good reason to be suspicious of the monastically ascetic minimalism favored by the Japanese, from Hirokazu Koreeda’s Maborosi (1995) to volleys of sluggish pink films, we now need to pay attention to modes of hybrid realist-minimalism that haven’t even the excuse of Ozu-like transcendentalism or S/M spiritualism. For now I will focus on French-language examples, for in the American imagination the superiority of Francophone cinema is still taken on faith. Minimalist films such as Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Rosetta (1999) — and sometimes just self-impressed ones, like Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991) — are guilty of having what I call the “bon mot” ending — that is, an ending which is the visual or dialogic equivalent of a small cleverness, a smirking gesture, a pensive glance, even a breeze blowing through a curtain, all fattened to undeserved, supposedly transcendental meanings by dint of their placement at the climax of the film.17 A mere wink at the camera is supposed to be a clever profundity, and one more on the behalf of the filmmakers than their characters.
In the Dardennes’ previous pseudo-meaningful award-winner, La Promesse (1995), the story of a death kept secret is climaxed by the death’s disclosure to the woman to whom it means the most. What is her reaction, for which we have been agonizingly waiting over an hour? She simply walks away — roll credits. Profound! The bon mot-ism of a generic, universal gesture is supposed to cleverly universalize a nonuniversal story. We may then respond to this ending only in generic ways, and our experience of this “walking event” also becomes generic. She is walking away! A bold existential gesture! In this cue-based formula, a gesture first becomes uneventfulness, then is perceived as vagueness, then as universalism, and finally profundity. In the manner of the “emperor’s new clothes,” awards are won, and judges recognize their own abilities to recognize cues pretending to meaning. But I, the unfaithful, am not fooled by a non-event like “walking away.” The character is not walking away from us — she, and the filmmakers, abandon meaning itself.
In the more egregious Rosetta, the Dardennes disingenuously wed a hegemonically realist style to a content so unrealistic that if filmed in any other way would never be mistaken for profundity, even by politically correct film festival judges. This combination of realistic style and nonrealistic content is not new — Eric Rohmer has built his career on this. In Rohmer’s ever-pleasing Summer (1986), the improvisatory dialog and direct-sound naturalism rub against the grain of a content that includes its heroine fatedly discovering mystic playing cards in her path. Yet while Rohmer subversively interposes a realist style with fantastic content, Rosetta, conversely, attempts to covertly transform an unrealistic narrative into “high” realism by drenching it in the realist style cues afforded by an insistent hand-held camera and an absence of extradiegetic music. Most offensive is the film’s embarrassingly miscalculated critique of classism: Rosetta presumes anything dealing with the underclass’s trailer-park drudgery should be praised for its Zola-esque investigative realism, and thinks its class analysis must be valid simply because its vaguely anticapitalist theme is laudable, even if its psychology (the ostensible basis for realism) is entirely unconvincing.
Rosetta‘s plot accounts for a few weeks in the life of its pariah title character as she desperately tries to be a conformist and thus lead a normative (happy) life. Her attempts at normativity include ogling the waffle-frying job of her only, tenuous male friend and moralistically reprimanding her boozing, whoring mom. One is leery of the overused label “pretentious”; luckily, the film is not pretentious but simply stupid. In the film’s unrealistic solution, Rosetta snitches on her only friend in the hopes that she will usurp his waffle-frying position. But why would she automatically get his job — is his the only job in the city? Earlier, Rosetta had hesitated in saving the friend from drowning because, should he expire, that waffle gig would be all hers. Is this convincing psychologically? No; to the drastic degree that it engages the either/or fallacy of absolutely being or not being employed as a waffle-fryer, it is hyperbolic, overdetermined, and thus allegorical, yet the directors’ whitewashed style and socialist good intentions attempt to exorcise the difference between content and form, between humanist naturalism and allegory. In the end of Rosetta, the waffle-frying friend whom Rosetta betrayed, after mercilessly tormenting her by revving with machismo his motor scooter in her presence, finally comes to see Rosetta as the poor victim of capital society she is when she breaks down crying in her trailer village. She glances up at him, and while the bulk of his body is offscreen, he places his hand comfortingly on her shoulder: the bon mot ending! What might be a pleasing scene in the film’s middle is infuriatingly misguided at the end, as we are insultingly encouraged to extract giant symbolic meanings from trivial actions. But this is perhaps the inevitable result of a paucity of content trapped within an excess of style.
Before we continue, we must pause to discuss the handheld camera, the bread and butter of the realist cues films such as Rosetta conventionally engage. Of course, the hand-held, before it became a neurotically conventional signifier of realism, was long used to represent violence, from Eisenstein’s Battle on the Ice to its use in early Godard or Oshima to allegorize through insurrectionary technique the anxious political instabilities new wave movements were attempting to further destabilize. In Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth (1960), the use of the jittery handheld is most conspicuous during the political demonstration sequence, an arguably reductive equation of political and cinematic liberations. But for our purposes, the handheld camera has come to denote for the average spectator “realism,” the liberation of our subjectivity from its tripodic shackles and the phony spaces of movie sets alienated from street reality.18 The handheld camera liberates us from the monastery of the movie set, and returns to the subject his motor feet and ability to mingle and experience the outside, modern world in ways that the closeted monk never can. But we know too well that the handheld’s caffeinated hyperactivity, the style which records poor Rosetta for minutes on end and in close-up scrambling like a wounded raccoon from her numerous tormentors, cannot be a realistic approximation of our walking field of vision.
We should consider the seeming omniscience of the “objective” steadicam, also a liberation, but one whose Godlike glide appears the opposite of the handheld’s narcotic subjectivity. The steadicam’s confident, unbothered vision — so often used in post-Halloween (1978) horror films to represent the greater subjectivity of a killer possessing a Godlike view — is, however, no less realistic than the approximated and metaphorical chaos of the handheld; in fact, its steadiness may be slightly more like our biological vision than the handheld’s overeager mobility. This overeagerness also tends to call attention to the fact that a human being is wielding the camera, and thus to human limitation itself, especially since the handheld has so long been the sign of the economically disenfranchised Super-8 filmmaker. Therefore, the handheld humanizes the camera and the more expensive steadycam dehumanizes it, but only as a matter of social significations.
These neoprimitive techniques of realism — no music, a handheld camera, etc. — have, of course, been most recently and notoriously adopted by the Scandinavian ‘Dogma’ collective. The one interesting thing the Dogmatics have added to the realist-style formula is that only realistically possible (or probabilistic) events should be filmed. Therefore, even the kitchen-sink realism of Loach’s Family Life (1971), which holds forth its poverty-level depression as an illuminating lamp of Truth, would be disqualified for its “novelistic” use of the voiceover and discontinuous sound. But firstly, for true realism to transpire, all editing should be disallowed theoretically, for any cutting will artificially intrude upon the Pythagorean progression of mathematically linear time. (Jean Rouch’s one-take, unedited Railroad of the North, one of the episodes in the omnibus Six in Paris (1965), attempts this, yet its gimmickry only reveals that such filmmaking is not viable, either practically or philosophically.) Secondly, filming what could happen does not necessarily mean filming what is convincing. For example, the actions of Rosetta are “possible” and quite within Dogmatic philosophy, but are in no way convincing to anyone who has a cursory understanding of sociology or psychology. So we must then catechize: “If you are serious about humanist realism, shouldn’t you abandon naively neoprimitive aesthetics and study sociology, psychology, biology, physics, and so forth, to ensure true realism not just in appearance but also in motivation and causality? Or is realism just what you think could happen, and if so, wouldn’t that destroy your purported disinterested objectivity? So isn’t it really the case that you are only interested in appearances after all?”
Like any proper artist, the Dogmatics may take pride in a yellow journalist’s bad review, figuring they are doing something correct (if not subversive) if they are being chided by the bourgeoisie. But this is the rarest of all cases: the chides are valid not because they are from the bourgeoisie, but because the Dogmatics’ claims are so obviously wrong that the chides will come even from the bourgeoisie! As the product of a formulaic manifesto, Dogmatic films are predictable in their misguided attempt to somehow subvert decadent bourgeois individualism with a realism that is, in fact, equally decadent and conventionalized. Do they not see realism is the most bourgeois mode of all, and that the true evil is the institutionalized narrativity to which we have faithfully clung since the days of Griffith? In the grandest of ironies, these Realists do not want the cinema to be as organically polymorphous and adaptable as are “real,” lifelike organisms, but stubborn, stoic, and dead. There is a certain absurd nobility to their manifesto that ironically reflects the times: can you imagine the modernists or Dadaists every thinking that realism would require a manifesto!
Throughout the history of naïve, misleading realism, there has been a countercurrent of pseudorealism, which has satirized the shortcomings of this mode we have been conditioned to unquestioningly accept. Yet so strong has been realism’s conviction that it can with a wink and tooth-hidden grin homogenize its lampooners, rendering all criticism academic. Realism is too well established to be threatened and, as we know, the anti-bodies of the culture industry where realism thrives can absorb any and all threats to its sovereignty.
The silent-era term “actuality” — what we now call “documentary” because we are too sophisticated to believe in the “actual” — implied that the uncorrupted reception of film images can somehow magically leap over the intrusion of the medium itself to invest viewers with actual experience: the illusion of realism. But even in earliest cinema, the actuality film was as phony as is present-day reality television. Documentary footage was regularly faked at least as early as 1899, when Edison manufactured propagandistic “newsreels” for the Boer War. While he was shooting a fake Boer newsreel in the mountains of New Jersey, the premature discharge of a cannon really injured the two star actors, prompting the British Journal of Photography to remark that the injuries, captured on film, would invest the sham production with much-needed realism.19
One of the first admitted documentary parodies was Chaplin’s Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914). This impromptu, on-the-spot film features Chaplin’s Tramp, engaging in the play-for-its-own sake that is the clown’s forte, intruding uninvited into the frame of the documentarian camera as it attempts to film a children’s auto race, a curio of the time. The auto race transpiring behind Chaplin is indeed a genuine event, but the Tramp challenges history as his subversive art repeatedly annoys the camera’s pretense at truthful, documentarian intention. Let’s return, as we all must do, to Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”:
But the clown is not “any man;” nor would he wish to be either a Vertovian communist or a film extra. He must intrude upon the camera and destroy its control over him. Yet the Tramp, ever a symbol of the socio-economically marginalized, is here literally cut off by the frame’s margins when the camera reprimands him by panning away whenever he attempts to sneak into its view like a mischievous child waving behind the on-the-spot newscaster’s camera. What is enacted before the camera is at once the contrived comedy Chaplin performs and a pseudodocument of the actual event20 into which his clown has unconsciously wandered. As we would not know how the camera would behave had he not intruded upon its vision, we also do not know how the auto race would behave without the camera intruding upon it, and we realize our perception of the actual event is compromised by the camera’s presence, just as the mere presence of sociologists influences the behaviors of their human subjects. And then we realize Chaplin is a metaphor for the camera itself, who clowns with our vision and then tells us it is truth, as does the licensed, soothsaying Shakespearean fool.
Buñuel, too, subverted verite in his alleged “documentary” Land Without Bread (1932), which, as Gilberto Perez has noted, uses the cues of realist filmmaking to subversively mask unrealistic content, specifically that poor goat whose fall from the cliff could not have been recorded without some outside “assistance” from the cameraman. The goat’s involuntary death gesture, that mortal extreme which should be the summit of realism, is rendered suspicious itself, for it is too coincidental that cameramen would happen upon the animal at the very moment of its death. The pseudodocumentary’s point is to reveal shivering and bony the self-conscious illusions of the camera such that its lens does not wink at the audience but is momentarily blinded, bringing it from a posture of masterful pride to one of blushing humility. If some slow-witted audiences should ever be fooled into thinking an especially realistic pseudodocumentary is authentic — some reports claim early audiences of This is Spinal Tap (1984) were fooled — we should not blame them or make them objects of ridicule, for they are objects already. Because the difference between parody and mimesis can be thin, and because our criterion of parody’s value is not merely accuracy but subtlety, such confusions are but eventualities. The same logic applies to allegory: if one abides by the law of subtlety, the cold war politics of William Klein’s allegorical satire Mr. Freedom (1969) are embarrassing; but if one discards subtlety, the film may be perfect.
McBride’s David Holzman’s Dairy (1968) is exemplary of antirealism because it satirizes not only realism’s physical techniques, but its very ideology. The film tells of a filmmaker attempting to achieve reality by filming it, but quickly realizing Godard’s glib claim of “truth-at-24-frames-per-second” is disastrously wrongheaded. As his obsessive filming, newly acquired fish-eye lenses, and nocturnal sleuthing do nothing to further his cause of realizing either nuomenal or Platonic truths, we see that his solipsistic character’s existential distress is that of cinematic technique itself, forever alienated from the three-dimensional reality that is capable of making truth claims.
In the pseudodocumentary, the insistently handheld camera mimics the documentary camera’s intrusive prowling. However, the handheld’s journalistic inquisition and guerilla scopophilia — which allegedly stand for the democratic, public-domain knowledge of the world when it is projected onscreen — still remain the privately sadistic voyeurism of the original cameraman, who is as invulnerable behind the camera as the screen is itself. Peter Watkin’s debut Culloden (1964), a made-for-British-TV parody of the “new” 1960’s British realism, provides as effective a critique of this hypocrisy as we have yet to see. The Battle of Culloden is filmed in the style of a grainy black-and-white BBC documentary, replete with a self-righteous, offscreen interviewer time-traveled, with cameraman, back to 18th century England.21 The film pretends that because the action seems to be recorded by only a single camera, and not by a safely organized troop of cameramen, we should ally ourselves with the unprotected edginess of this filmic thrill-seeker, who sticks his nose into danger on our behalf, to disclose titillating secrets.22
The interviewer insensitively questions the doomed Clansmen of Bonnie Prince Charlie, seen here as the doltish product of legitimated incest, before they suicidally face Cumberland’s forces, which massively outnumber their own. Whereas the normal British TV interviewer is an Oxfordized twit who patronizes the lower-classes he interviews, here the interviewer has not only the advantages of class but the knowledge of history on his side. Yet, although he surely knows what will be the battle’s outcome, his ethical objectivity makes him impotent to do anything beyond straightforwardly yet moralistically asking the soldiers how much they own (“this one has 2 cows”… “this one owns nothing”), as if they were on the British welfare rolls, as if to shame us viewers two centuries later. As the camera zooms in on each interviewee, initiating a Q&A between the 20th century announcer and the inbred response of broken-toothed history, the cameraman, unlike the meddling cinematographer of Buñuel’s Land Without Bread, stands idly by recording the ensuing carnage without changing the course of history at all — a good demonstration of the difference between satire and (Buñuelian) surrealism.
Culloden‘s overrealist style (which includes moderately strong violence for 1964) reveals the limitations of what such an investigation can feasibly do — the documentary’s probing objectivity is in fact worthless and politically impotent. We learn how much are the sad soldier’s salaries, the dimensions of their facial sores and dragoon pistols, and their clump collision speed converted into the 20th century rhythm of miles per hour. This incongruity, however, is sentimentally tragic, not comic, and negates the essential parody of the pseudodocumentary mode. We have said earlier that musical expressionism occurs when there is a moral element between the music and image. Culloden, through its visuals and without recourse to music, now also achieves that level of expressionism, for the tension existing between the camera and what it records is invested with a moral element that abruptly reveals the sentimental truths of history far more than can slavish historical accuracy, all the while questioning the very medium that brings those truths into being.
Now let us compare Culloden‘s “realist humor” to Rosetta‘s only successful scene — its one comic scene — wherein Rosetta is having her first dinner with the male friend she will betray. The friend, in an awkward attempt at ingratiation, plays for her a tape of him amateurishly playing the drums with his band. The camera then records them eating a meager dinner while his tinny music provides bracingly ridiculous counterpoint; the humor is derived from the “isn’t-this-how-real-life-is?” absurdity we recognize in the scene.23 We are delighted that, for once, Rosetta‘s style is finally paying off, and relieved that it is possible for this style to allow the actors to demonstrate expert timing and, in effect, demonstrate there has been some plan to what has often appeared arbitrary. Yet as effective as this single moment is, we must reject its humor, for when we consentingly laugh we weakly submit ourselves to this unself-critical mode of representation (whereas Culloden expressionistically challenges its own form).
But because clever pseudodocumentaries such as Zelig (1984) and Forgotten Silver (1996) pay inherent, if unintentional, homage to the genuine object they parody, the most stinging attack on realism will not be a parody of its form or technique, but of a content as uneventful as Godot. In Fassbinder’s Why Has Herr R Run Amok? (1969), we eavesdrop on the horrifically bureaucratic life of an architect, who must endure an enervating desk job, browbeating wife, and the mundane coffee-table chatter of a neighbor who cannot resist sharing her uninteresting vacations plans in excruciating detail. According to the verisimilitudinous dictates of handheld realism, the camera must record these banalities precisely and without embellishment, and in excruciatingly long, unbrokenly “real” takes that test the patience. We must endure this boredom as does Herr R; realism is for our own good, the noblest medicine despite its bitter taste. Likewise, Herr R must endure the uneventfulness of his bourgeois lifestyle, which also is allegedly a great benefit to capitalism. So healthy is his lifestyle that near the end of the film’s brief running time Herr R, in the midst of a coffee-table chat, suddenly murders his wife and neighbor with a middlebrow candlestick for no apparent reason, and then hangs himself in the bathroom of his workplace. When a coworker discovers his swinging corpse, the title finally appears onscreen: “Why Has Herr R Run Amok?” We know why too well — the only question is why we don’t behave thusly ourselves. The “R” of Herr R is the R of Realism: Realismus Run Amok. As the film equates realism with the uneventful life of the bourgeoisie and in turn with death, we see that the bourgeois demands of realism are not as sane as they appear. Herr R, that is Realism, is craziness itself, the illusions of the real psychotically unaware of its false consciousness.24
The mystique of uneventfulness can also be defrocked by revealing how much better things would be if films were eventful. Andy Kaufman’s satire of uneventfulness My Breakfast with Blassie (1983) hides this thesis by choosing as its parodic model a film many would consider the most uneventful of all films, Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981). Yet that film’s endless intellection in fact makes it exhaustingly eventful, and only those children who have been conditioned to equate eventfulness with sadistic action and physical movement will miss the point. Kaufman’s shot-on-video-tape parody uses as extradiegetic music the familiar Satie Gymnopedie that marks Malle’s film. When the cheaply recorded, stupidly “natural” dialog comes to a lull, the beautiful music immediately enters as a sarcastic exclamation point drawing attention to the dialog’s vapidity, and further revealing that the emptily “hip” realist dialog more recently promulgated by post-Tarantino indie film directors is no more eventful than an action scene in which there is no physical movement.
Takeshi Kitano’s A Scene By the Sea (1997) is notable because the camera’s disinterested observation of social networks is far more sociologically realistic than most mimetic realism ever hopes to be. The plot — an unpopular surfer slowly attracts followers and imitators as he simply goes about his business oblivious to the changing public opinion about him — is so carefully yet unassumingly observed in its minute detail that its insight into patterns of group socialization is far ahead of Rosetta‘s award-winning pseudosociology. When the insecure, ridiculed surfer suddenly sets a new trend which others silently follow suit, disinterested yet secretly bemused long shots record the tacit nature of social coercion perfectly. Indeed, the camera records everything almost exclusively (and prettily) in long shot; reactions and responses are traded among characters shyly, awkwardly, with human attachments developing as tacitly as they do in real life. The microcosmic, or “sociological,” minimalism of Scene is also more “realistic” in its comedy than the deadpan minimalism of Kitano’s yakuza satire Boiling Point (1990) because, unlike that film, Scene exists wholly outside of genre. Scene is neither satire nor allegory, and although its chosen style may be minimalism its avoidance of genre delivers its minimalism from Rosetta-esque antiphilosophy to a “real realism,” one realistic in its ideas and not its appearances. And this from a film whose very title allies it with painterly uneventfulness.25
Most film theorists pick apart the spectator’s apparatus for experiencing pleasure; some contemplate his passive masochism. But in a deadened age when a film is little more (and often less) than the sum of its diverse, demographically cunning advertisements, there remains for me little pleasure left in watching films, an activity that seems less a perverse masochism than simply a pain without secret pleasures. Realism, surely, is not the only culprit, yet it is the most oppressive, for it infects not the children’s product we avoid anyway, but the “alternative” films allegedly above them. We forget that realist aesthetics directly affect our whole perceptions of the world — the “modernity” of film even demands that gender must be “realistically” performed, unlike theatrical traditions that have used transvestism as an integral and self-reflective part of their artifice. I can be sympathetic to uneventfulness (nonvitality is a legitimate parts of human experience), and Ferruccio Busoni insightfully knew that you a judge composer not by his show-stopping climaxes, which any breast-beating Hollywood hack can toss together, but by the connective tissue and “filler” that reflects his genuine personality and unaffected, everyday character. Indeed, in film, you do need some filler, else you wind up with Oliver Stone and a migraine; but filler must be as carefully measured as a palette-cleansing sorbet served before a roasted goose — it must not connive to become the goose.
Phony realism has always been the province of dictators and propagandists like Andrei Zhdanov, the Stalinist cultural czar who oddly defined realism as distinct from “formalism,” as if the formalistic demands of realism itself came to us naturally, without any evilly intellectualized affectations. I do consent there exists a much-needed and more valuable (if not more authentic) realism: we desperately need more Frederick Wisemans, more films like Welfare (1975) and Public Housing (1997)26 — and fewer films like Rosetta. There also are films that passionately believe in their realism, but have their self-reflective wits about them, such as William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968), a realist film-within-a film that is redeemed when one of the actors self-criticizingly comments, “Human life is not necessarily well-written.” But this, too, is American realism’s way of excusing its proud illiteracy.
I also consent that pleasure can be derived from the “there-ness” of realism, the losing of our egos in the reality of the screen while our superegos remain safely in theater seats. The opposite happens to Buster Keaton in Sherlock, Jr. (1924): we realize Keaton’s projectionist does not know how to romance his girlfriend at the film’s end because he left his knowledgeable ego inside the screen and came out as a naked superego. But when we sacrifice our egos to the cinema, it takes everything else with it; the artifice of realism may make us lose ourselves, but to what, exactly, is this sacrifice made?
If the antonym of realism is not fantasy, but disappointment, the solution is simple. We must, to borrow Nietzsche’s term, reevaluate all values, or to borrow the verbiage of current politics, enact a regime change in America. To overthrow realism’s regime, we need no tanks or cruise missiles, but only the conviction to not be disappointed.
- The Tavernier-narrated version of Workers is available on Kino Video. [↩]
- I oversimplify for effect; for example, the Russian animator-fantasist Starewicz, whose early animations (The Dragonfly and the Ant, 1913) were rooted in silent primitivism, continued to make films well into the sound era. [↩]
- Peter Bogdonavich, interviewing the title person in This is Orson Welles, cites arcane terms once suggested for the new medium of film: “reeltaux,” “actorgraph,” and “living toned pictures.” These suggestions focus fetishistic attention on the aspects of technology (“reel”), performance/technique (“actor”), and realism (“living”), respectively. The “realistic” suggestion, however, is self-contradictory: since the “tones” presumably refer to tinting effects added after the photographic action, the pictures would be curiously both “living” and illustrated. [↩]
- One instrumental exception, perhaps, is the wind machine, which can physically produce wind. [↩]
- With Pacific 231, Honneger claimed his desire was to give only the impression of an abstract, non-programmatic rhythm — but then we may ask why he titled it so and not “Abstract Rhythm for Orchestra.” [↩]
- The film’s “banana-slipping” slapstick sequences, admittedly, are the film’s Achilles’ heel, for they revert to the type of musical Mickey-Mousing that the film otherwise overcomes and even, arguably, satirizes. [↩]
- Harrison’s character also gives a speech about the night he spent at the movies, one of which (I paraphrase) conventionally questioned the values of matrimony for 8 reels only to conclude its necessity in the 9th. Of course, this is the very pattern that Sturges satirizes. [↩]
- Certainly, sound experiments in the 1900’s were too clumsy to be employed on a large scale, though it is widely accepted that early audiences preferred the “pure” image uncorrupted by dialog. [↩]
- See Carl Dahlhaus’ Realism in Nineteenth Century Music, page 58. [↩]
- See Josephine Siao’s “naturalistic” performance in Always on My Mind (1993). [↩]
- Sometimes Wishman used this angle/reverse angle technique when the original soundtrack was lost; still, this seems consistent with the idea of economic lack. [↩]
- This should be differentiated from the powerlessness the viewer experiences in watching cropped, butchered videotapes, for Wishman’s alienation is financially determined and intrinsic to the text, and not the result of distributors tampering with the text after the fact. [↩]
- In his early days Renoir had experimented with nonrealist devices, such as the interminable and entirely decorative use of a woman dancing in slow-motion in his silent short Charleston (1927). Though Renoir would most likely write off Charleston as a youthful indiscretion, we may wonder if slow-motion is a more “acceptable” distortion of the cinematic soul’s time-space continuum because it does not have a “dualistic” quality. Perhaps the split-screen is the visual equivalent to dubbing’s duality? [↩]
- Since HK film subtitles are poorly translated, viewers must retranslate the subtitles into grammatical English while they are being read, which makes for a second intellectual exercise. [↩]
- Insofar as the news anchor’s hairpiece is a ridiculous, unrealistic costume, we may also think it is expressionistic, too, though what it “expresses” is debatable. [↩]
- The zoom-out, like the dolly out, generally signifies a character or thing’s alienation or discovery, and seems to be an intensification of the zoom, especially as the viewer is painfully aware that the effect results not merely from an adjustment of the lens but from an entire piece of heavy camera equipment being moved around on tracks. [↩]
- I do not mean to suggest a bigotry against the French or the Belgian, who are indeed our cultural superiors. Yet the French do seem the most guilty of this bon mot-ism. For a non-French example, consider Ringo Lam’s Full Alert (1997), a competent policier which ends with the protagonist’s anguished face superimposed over ominously-scored ending titles. Although the hero admittedly has some problems, I was unaware that he was experiencing angst deep enough to warrant his face being equated with the lasting testament of the final credits. But because the film is not terrible, I question my own judgment and wonder if the emperor is partially dressed after all. Percy Adlon’s Bagdad Café (1988) offers a rare successful example of a bon mot ending, for it summarizes the film by building on its themes rather than fearfully abandoning them. [↩]
- That the hand-held camera has become a cliché of MTV and expressionistic music videos seems only to show that MTV producers need to appropriate the handheld camera’s street realism to impress teenage audiences who, assuredly, believe that realism is hip — for realism is all they can understand. [↩]
- See Elizabeth Grottel Strebel’s article “Imperialist Iconography of Anglo-Boer War Film Footage,” in Film Before Griffith, ed. John L. Fell. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1983. [↩]
- The film is thus an early example of filmmakers capitalizing on the appropriated spectacle of a preexisting event. Generally, this is used for the purpose of social verisimilitude, as in the street demonstrations of Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969). This is now also manufactured by computers as a second-generation phony verisimilitude, as in Forrest Gump (1994). So comparatively, Kid Auto is still fairly subversive in its spoofing of social realism. [↩]
- Watkins’ solemn German telefilm Edvard Munch (1975) uses the same time-travel documentary approach to the historicization of the titular artist’s life. [↩]
- A less complicated example of this thrill-seeking subjective camera is Remy Belvaux and Andre Bonzel’s derivative Man Bites Dog (1992), which uses blood squibs as the ironically conventional cues of its outlaw verite. [↩]
- When I saw Rosetta in the theater, this comic scene was the only one that met with audience approval precisely because it is the film’s only scene that is, if not truthful, at least entertaining. [↩]
- Kaurismaki’s apparently similar The Match Factory Girl (1989), a straight-faced comedy about a poor girl who poisons unsuspecting dolts, was admitted by its director to be an attack on Bressonian minimalism. As an attack on minimalism as opposed to realism, it achieves the formal critique of Herr R without that film’s antibourgeois politics. [↩]
- In Kitano’s Getting Any? (1994), a loser goes on one of the cinema’s wildest string of events in order to win a girl with whom to enjoy “car-sex.” He becomes a movie actor, a gangster, an invisible man, and eventually a monster who is killed in the tradition of the kaiju-eiga. In other words, the end result of great cinematic eventfulness is nothingness, a death. [↩]
- Yet it is no accident that Wiseman’s most socially revealing films are the least distributed. [↩]