25 avril 2009


I like it when critics break out of their ivory tower and engage with each others writings. I don't care who is right, who is wrong, or whether anyone is pertinent (that's a matter of interpretation and partisanship I guess)... What's important is that it proves film criticism is being read by people who try to chew it before swallowing it whole, that it's thought-provoking, that it invites debate, that it feeds a thriving organic Film Discourse. And Film Discourse is not the gospel of whoever has the privilege of being published and get media circulation.

In fact, I agree with most of Brody's rebuttal as well as the entire counter-rebuttal of AO Scott. However I'm not following his "Neo-Neo Realism" catch, which was the main article (NYT, March 17, 2009) at the origin of this mini-polemic.

George Washington (2000/Gordon Green)
Our Song (2000/McKay)
Man Push Cart (2005/Bahrani) Iran
Half Neslon (2006/Fleck)
In Between Days (2006/Kim So Young) Korea
Chop Shop (2007/Bahrani) Iran
Old Joy (2007/Reichardt)
Sugar (2008/Fleck)
Goodbye Solo (2008/Bahrani) Iran
Treeless Mountain (2008/Kim So Young) Korea
Ballast (2008/Hammer)
Wendy and Lucy (2008/Reichardt)
It's tempting indeed to figure out what the cinema of the XXIst century Recession looks like, but all the films AO Scott cites were conceived, written and produced before the stock market crash (Oct 2008) and the official recession (Dec 2008). I also disagree, like Brody, that this "social-realism" trend is so sudden (coinciding with the DVD release of Burnett's film?).
I would also like to point out that some of his examples aren't even American filmmakers... so them making films in the USA doesn't really make them part of a trend that would be typically American.

Brody goes all the way back to Film Noir and the 50ies... which are slightly more genre-coded and stylized than what we would expect in a neorealist manner. It would be a stretch to write in the NYT that nothing happened in America around the realm of realism. (I would hope Jonathan Rosenbaum, for example, would be more precise on this subject than both of them)
Burnett for one, the New York scene with Cassavetes and some of the Underground, or the New Hollywood and the outsider hippy dramas, early Jarmusch, some Altman.
But more recently, we already saw several indie films fitting Scott's description even before 9/11.

I'm thinking of :
Smoke (1995/Wang), Sue (1997/Kollek), Sunday (1997/Nossiter), Buffalo '66 (1998/Gallo), The Straight Story (1999/Lynch), Judy Berlin (1999/Mendelsohn), Bobby G Can't Swim (2000/Montias), Apartment #5C (2002/Nadjari), The Station Agent (2003/McCarthy), Land of Plenty (2004/Wenders), Keane (2004/Kerrigan), Bubble (2005/Soderbergh), Day Night Day Night (2006/Loktev), Quinceañera (2006/Glatzer/Westmoreland), The Princess of Nebraska (2007/Wang), A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2007/Wang) ... just to name a few.
I'm not saying these films are the American Neorealism, but they are as close/far from Italian Neorealism than the ones AO Scott cites, therefore should be incorporated to this reflection on the subject, and its timeline extended.

There I disagree with Brody that it's lame cinema. Most of them are much more interesting than an Eastwood flick. So in a way I agree with AO Scott's general appreciation of this type of realism, but not with the way he simplifies it.

As for the silly name itself "neo-neorealism"... I'll keep that for another post (read here).

And if like me you wonder how long will they keep trumpeting around that the "institutional weight" (sic AO Scott) of the NYT paper press is more reliable than the internets... here is a couple of fact-checking nit picks at what an editor green lights for mass distribution :

AO Scott : "“Chop Shop,” released last winter, is, if anything, even more deeply Iranian in mood and method, in part because its protagonist is a child — something of a hallmark of Kiarostami’s mid-’90s work in particular — and also because it seems at once utterly naturalistic and meticulously composed."
I think he meant to say Kiarostami's 1970-89 work (from The Bread and the Alley, to Where is The Friend's Home? and Homeworks), not mid-90s (Taste of Cherry...) much more adult since Close Up in 1990 (with the exception of one single film : Through the Olive Trees in 1994).

AO Scott : "That film [Taste of Cherry], which shared the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997, explores the uneasy bond between a driver and passenger, one of whom turns out to want the other’s help in committing suicide."
This is the problem with expeditive encapsulation of a synopsis in a one liner... Why on Earth would you want people who didn't see the film to think it's about a pro-euthanasia hitch-hiker who assists someone's suicide? The guy he's looking for is to bury him, an undertaker, not to help him die. This technical detail might be too subtle, but I do think it will alienate readers (for the wrong reason). The film is a fascinating existential reflection around a metaphysical taboo. It explores the spiritual journey toward suicide, and the various reactions of society to this project; not suicide itself which is relegated to a postscript. People who saw the film know it's not a "suicidal movie".

AO Scott : "AN INTEREST IN MOVIES from other countries is too often, even among people who should know better, taken as a sign of snobbery, an overrefined devotion to the esoteric and the difficult. There may be some commercial benefit as well as creative satisfaction in aspiring to be the next Tarantino or Scorsese — or even the next Spike Lee, Kevin Smith or Wes Anderson. But to set out to be the next Dardenne Brothers, the next Kore-eda or the next Kiarostami is to court stares of incomprehension from your peers and polite demurrals from financial backers."
So the fact that Scorsese borrowed from Italian cinema, Tarantino from Hong Kong and Anderson from Truffaut doesn't make them snob because they became big powerhouse stars? How is the situation any different with the new generation of filmmakers borrowing from Kore-eda, Dardenne bros or Kiarostami ??? What I can see is that the reception of the American public and critics alike to any type of artfilm (i.e. non-Hollywood or non-mainstream) is irrationally anti-intellectual, defensively jingoist, culturally limitative... always draging down cinema to the lowest common denominator to avoid exposing the average crowd to anything culturally challenging. As if it was a demeaning challenge to think outisde the box, to discover the world stage, to expand the scope of individual taste...

7 commentaires:

weepingsam a dit…

This is an interesting topic, though I don't know if they're making the best of it. Brody especially seems to go off the rails pretty quickly. He is right that neorealism made more impact in the states than Scott acknowledges - though much of the impact (on noir, for instance) is indirect, and more stylistic than political. He can't, on the other hand, claim that noir is neorealism and Killer of Sheep is not - that film goes pretty close to the roots. Part of the problem is that Brody is dismissing it for its politics, for its class focus - partly by pretending that the films Scott praises, and even the original neorealist films, were one dimensional polemics. THey aren't and weren't, and Scott is fairly plain about it - what makes them last is their ability to capture the emotional world of their characters.

But that's not what makes them unique. Their class focus is important to that - maybe crucial. They are films about the working class, and they are often films about working - the importance of work, work and money. That probably does mark a distinction between neo-realist influenced indie films, and what Scott (unfortunately) calls neo-neo realism: the focus on work, economic survival, the working class. Looking over some recent films - there does seem to be a bit of a tick in this direction - more of this kind of film in the last 2-3 years, compared to things like coming of age films, individual character studies (like Keane), straighter indie style films (Ira Sachs' 2000s output), etc. Obviously, though, this all applies to indie films, art house films - one thing Scott does fudge is the degree to which this has nothing whatsoever to do with mainstream cinema. (Though you can find minimalism and experimentation in mainstream cinema - Che and There Will Be Blood and Death Proof are closer to High Art Films than neo-realism...)

So - I think Scott overstates his case a bit - but he's on to something. There's a bit of an identifiable movement here. The branding of the movement is an interesting issue though - it's notable that neither Scott nor Brody mention mumblecore in all this - though mumblecore is basically neo-realism for urban hipsters - real locations, low budgets, non/semi-professional actors... For that matter, there's a lot of odd DIY tendencies swirling around American film (some real, some faked) - what about Momma's Man? Be Kind Rewind? Nacho Libre? Borat? even the Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married, etc? There might be more than one way to sort these films.... certainly some more radical influences than neo-realism in there - I think I can spot 2-3 Luc Moullet influences in there...

HarryTuttle a dit…

Keane is the closest to Bicycle Thieves, with the father child relationship and the lost bicycle is a lost daughter. Though there is little interaction with society, while the Italian film involves the whole neighbourhood. But Keane has a strong economic backdrop with unemployment and welfare destroying the mother's nucleus family and Keane's life. There is this psychiatric layer on top, of course, but the socio-political structure is there.

I'm not sure what Mumblecore is/was... but from what I understand it seems to be centred around daily life melodrama. So it is low-budget in appearance, but the point is to recreate (cheap) dramatic situations in a couple/family taken from the mainstream tradition.
Italian Neorealism brought a new kind of story with non-psychological, non-bourgeois... with a stronger social conscience. I don't think Mumblecore has a social conscience. The films on AO Scott's list don't portray a bourgeois milieu.
Though I agree with you that AO Scott's trend relates more to the Mumblecore precursor than to Italian Neorealism.

Luc Moullet? what are you thinking of?

weepingsam a dit…

I bring up mumblecore partly because it seems to be last year's model - this year's model is neo-neo realism.... there seems to be a certain impetus to find Next Big Things to write think pieces about... Also because I think it illustrates the different ways of looking at trends: you can look at stories, style, production methods, maybe intellectual lines of descent - in the slightly longer term (the 2000s, say), shared DIY methods might seem more important than the different stories - or maybe minimalist aesthetics will seem more important than how they are created... It puts "neo neo realism" into somewhat different relief - with its urban bourgeois/bohemian characters, it's talkier aesthetic, its closer ties to American urban indie films - Cassavetes, Woody Allen, Hartley, Linklater, etc... It both heightens the continuity between earlier indie films and NNR, and emphasizes what is different - the working class focus; the more deliberately aestheticized surfaces (no escaping the influence in John Ford on neorealism, and everything associated with it) - in some ways, a greater tendency to classicism in general...

Meanwhile: "Luc Moullet? what are you thinking of?"

Specifically - Andrew Bujalski. Partly because he was at the same Luc Moullet films I saw a few years ago - partly because I vaguely remember either an article or someone making a comment about Bujalski watching Moullet when he was in school. (Believable enough - he studied with Chantal Akerman.)

Now - stretching it a bit more - I wonder whether Moullet had any influence on Michel Gondry... I can't find any direct evidence for it, but there are parallels - if Moullet had a big Hollywood budget and decided to try to make his films still look like they do, he'd be pretty close to Gondry... Even more speculative - what about Nacho Libre? It's actually quite a bit like Moullet - a genre film treated with deep affection, but not taken even remotely seriously... there's almost no pretense of trying to create a convincing illusionist world - nothing in it is treated realistically... It looks amateurish, but there's no sense that they tried to make a real movie and failed - they have exactly what they set out to do, and the sense of dressing up and acting out a story is completely dominant. The differences come down to the fact that Moullet, in spite of his treatment of the material, writes fascinating and genuinely subversive - and funny - scripts... and Moullet has a wonderful eye. Jared Hess does neither of those. But I can't help thinking he's trying for something similar to Moullet, and just not quite good enough...

HarryTuttle a dit…

I've seen only a couple of Moullet's, but I see what you mean with the connection to Gondry DIY, awkward irony. That's an interesting connection.
Although we are far from Italian Neorealism and AO Scott's movies now.

I didn't see Nacho Libre or Bujalski either. So I don't know about these.

HarryTuttle a dit…

It's David Bordwell, instead of Rosenbaum, who responded to the Scott-Brody polemic :

Neo-Neo and all that (5-3-2009)

"Here’s my $.02. “Neorealism” isn’t a cinematic essence floating from place to place and settling in when times demand it. The term, like the films it labels, emerged under particular circumstances, and it’s hard to transfer the label to other conditions. Moreover, there are many problems just with applying the term to Italian cinema, since it tends to cover not only the purest cases, like Bicycle Thieves, but also more mixed ones like the historical drama The Mill on the Po.

Still, because postwar Italian cinema had a big influence on other national cinemas, we have a prototype of The Italian Neorealist Movie. The filmmaker focuses on the lives of working people. He emphasizes their daily routines and travails. The film will be shot on location (at least in the exteriors) and may use nonactors in some or all roles. Bazin pointed out that we’re likely to find an elliptical or unresolved plot. It’s also very likely that we’ll see washlines and women in slips.

Why not just call this an Italian variant of that broad tradition of naturalism or verismo or “working-class realism” that we find in many national cinemas?[..]"

HarryTuttle a dit…

I can write anything on my blog, nobody will ever correct me. I'm wondering if it's to save me the embarrassment of being corrected or if it's to enjoys leaving the errors there to amuse my readers...

Either way it's a sad fate for online film culture and blogosphere solidarity. :(

HarryTuttle a dit…

Continued commentary of this polemic on a Turkish blog (translated in English)