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...