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Obtrusive Realism

New Realism in Film


If the great critic André Bazin in his What Is Cinema? books insisted that realism was about looking long and hard at the world so it would reveal to us all its cruelty and wonder, and thus defined the central moral tenet of a realist aesthetic, then he also believed that this morality would come out of the unobtrusiveness of the camera and of the form. Whether describing Citizen Kane thus: “Orson Welles started a revolution by systematically employing a depth of focus that had so far not been used” in the essay an ‘Aesthetic of Reality’, or noting in Bicycle Thief in an essay of that name, that “…the thesis of the film is hidden behind an objective social reality which in turn moves into the background of the moral and psychological drama which could of itself justify the film”, this is a realism of clarity and invisibility. Has recent realism not come chiefly through the very presence of the camera and the obtrusiveness of some aspect of the form? Whatever the ten tight rules of Dogme, the overriding sense we have of this mini-movement is the very mobility of the camera. And when we think more generally of realistic films in recent years, doesn’t the camera’s presence announce itself as realism rather than its opposite?

Yet if we think of many of the modernist films of the sixties, from Godard’s A bout de Souffle, Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad and Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, the presence of the camera seemed less a realist device than a formalist option. And yet now the long take Bazin so believed was vital to realism has been absorbed often into the virtuoso (The Player, Absolute Beginners, Mission to Mars and Boogie Nights), or the metaphysical (Nostalgia, Satantango, Ulysses’ Gaze). But the obtrusiveness of the camera in today’s realist films shouldn’t necessarily be seen as merely a gesture of realism to allude to the texture of realism; it’s also about freeing up the mise en scene so that the actor can work much more freely with movement and gesture. Numerous films over the last decade – Festen, Nil by Mouth, The Idiots, Rosetta and Keane – capture this ‘obtrusive realism’ (as opposed to Bazin’s unobtrusive realism). We do not expect, as Ken Loach once proposed, that the filmmakers would, if they could, film without a camera; it is closer to the opposite: that, if they could, they would become the camera. Talking about using video cameras in The Idiots, Lars von Trier says “It’s the best way to make a film. Especially in this case, where the camera is inquisitive, invasive…the camera movements we ended up with are the result of my own curiosity.” “I, and my camera eye,” he says in Trier on Von Trier, could move from one situation and the people in that situation to something taking place outside my field of vision. I was a sort of listening camera.” We can contrast this with Loach’s insistence in Loach on Loach that the camera “mustn’t be too close to the actor’s eyeline all the time so he or she can relate to the other people in the scene without the camera pushing or prodding.” If von Trier is all about pushing and prodding, Loach’s approach is based on slightly removed observation.

Maybe to help make sense of this shift it is useful to take a backward glance and look at Cassavetes’ work, and in particular a scene from 1970’s Husbands. Here as Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and John Cassavetes attend a friend’s funeral, they all drunkenly insist that a woman who’s singing can’t actually sing. As they all talk and shout over each other, the image is constantly being partially blocked by heads, hands and objects in the foreground. However we shouldn’t see this as necessarily countering Bazin’s claims. While on the one hand Bazin was proclaiming the significance of cold hard looks at reality, on the other he was quoting Jean Renoir: “The more I learn about my trade the more I incline to direction in depth relative to the screen. The better it works, the less I use the kind of set-ups that shows two actors facing the camera, like two well-behaved subjects posing for a still portrait.” Could we have a better description than this for what’s going on in Cassavetes’ film; that they were both filmmakers interested in disruptive subjects? But where we still feel there is a strong element of theatricality in Renoir – in terms of the mise-en-scene being almost a theatrical space – in Cassavetes the space feels much more domesticated. If Renoir would often show us what was in the frame unobtrusively, this lay in a blocking style that could work with nevertheless a very mobile sense of framing. Although Renoir in a film like Rules of the Game will offer us a feeling of chaos as he utilises the six possibilities in entrances and exits within the frame, he possesses within that a sense of what we’ll call blocked clarity – a paradoxical term considering the general definition of the word, but we’ll use it here in a strictly cinematic sense: the way a scene is staged. Here Renoir will occasionally show a partially obscured frame, but this will be because there are various characters in the scene that will be relevant to it if and when the camera moves position. For example, in The Rules of the Game there is a moment when a character stands with his back to the camera in the foreground and the two talkers in the scene are in the medium distance. But this seems less about somebody obstructing the frame; more a case of someone very much in the scene who could be mobilised to say something in it at any moment. In Cassavetes’ Husbands this really isn’t the case, with the person intruding in the shot almost as superfluous to requirements as the head in front of us at the cinema. When Ray Carney in his book Cassavetes on Cassavetes draws comparisons between Renoir and Cassavetes, saying the spaghetti breakfast in A Woman Under the Influence bears similarities with the servant’s meal in The Rules of the Game, we might invoke this post-funeral drinking session at a long table also, but with the proviso that the form is very different: that Renoir looks for the unobtrusive realism Bazin so admires; while Cassavetes is looking for the obtrusive realism that has proved so influential in many contemporary forms invoking the real.

One reason why we’ve chosen to differentiate between unobtrusive and obtrusive realism is so that we can take realism out of the realm of anecdote and into the area of perceptual observation. Cassavetes needs to matter not because he may or not have been a master of improvisation (he said initially that his first feature Shadows was completely improvised, and then later admitted that he said this just for the PR), but that he’s undeniably a master of a chaotic realism that we can perceive unequivocally within the frame. If we have the unobtrusive realist genealogy that includes Renoir, De Sica and Loach; then on the other we have Cassavetes and Pialat and the newer filmmakers whose work we’ve already mentioned – directors like Gary Oldman, Lodge Kerrigan and Thomas Vinterberg – with the latter group looking not for the clarity of the shot, but the messiness of the framing. They bring to mind David Thomson’s comment on Robert Altman in A Biographical Dictionary of Film: that he was so slippery with the zoom that his films had no sense of composition. Whatever the ‘messiness’ of the diegetic mise-en-scene, the dilapidated world on show in front of Loach’s lens, the visual framing is usually quite conventional. His is not a pushing and prodding camera.

However, above all else what we want to explore is how this obtrusive realism manifest itself, in what ways does a filmmaker arrive at a style that makes the camera not felt (in the Pasolini sense of the term present in Antonioni et al who if anything make the camera even more removed than in a mainstream film, as he argues in an essay called ‘A Cinema of Poetry’), but immediate, there? Several things come to mind: one is the constant shift in lighting levels, another is the shakiness of the camera, and the third, though aural, is both the sense of dialogue that isn’t continuous but overlaps, and sound that isn’t only produced by events within the frame but out of frame also. What we have is a constant sense of obtrusion from various different sources: of light, sound and image. Anthony Dod Mantle, in Richard Kelly’s The Name of this Book is Dogme 95, insists, for example, that what he was looking for when shooting Festen was basically a camera that would sit in his fist. Choosing a Sony PC7-E he realised that he could “fit one in each hand”. What he gained was “agility, mobility, accessibility – what I call ‘emotional movement’”. Now of course we’re again in danger of slipping into the anecdotal; yet when we watch Festen we notice a certain sort of cinematic energy that seems entirely consistent with Mantle’s idea of emotional movement, and yet this is nevertheless an emotional movement very different from the emotional movements in mainstream Hollywood, and its exaggeration explored by Bordwell in his book The Way Hollywood Tells It. When Bordwell uses such terms as creeping zooms and push-ins to describe the way many newer films are intensifying our emotional response to scenes, then this is, if you like, an intensification of norms rather than a deviation from them that would express a fresh way of approaching reality. In fact Bordwell more or less says as much, insisting that this ‘intensified continuity’ is just really that: an intensification of the traditional approach to filmmaking. Even though Bordwell may suggest that in films like Hulk, the director will utilise anti-norm devices (like breaking the hundred and eighty degree rule, which deviates from our expectations of screen space) most of the time the devices are intensified but still normalized, still consistent with the continuity system.

Yet can we not say the same of Festen? Does all the freshness lie just in a distinct approach to the image, and that the story is yet another example of the bourgeois family with secrets to hide – a cat on a hot tin Danish roof? But there is something in the approach that is very different from mainstream Hollywood, and it resides in the difference between layering a story and finding a truth. If Hollywood is looking to create ever more technical elaborations around fairly standard stories, are the films of obtrusive realism not searching out a truth that can’t be quantified but must be found? We may see it as a variation on that famous Picasso maxim: “I do not seek, I find”. But now it becomes I don’t show; I reveal. Where critic Todd McCarthy can suggest in Variety that a film like The Gladiator, “with its fast flurries of action and jump cuts, emphasizes the ferocious speed and urgency of every move in the arena, to the slight detriment of spatial unity and action continuity”; Dod Mantle would seem to echo such claims by saying that when Festen premiered in the south of France, that it “looked just abstract gorgeous in Cannes, bubbling away up there.” (The Name of this Book is Dogme 95) However, while this abstraction might suggest similarities with McCarthy’s claims for lost spatial unity, we should keep in mind Dod Mantle’s comments on a film essayist he so admired who “made an amazing piece about foreign workers coming to Germany and working illegally: all the corruption…he shot with a hidden camera, very primitively but with such energy – you felt you were right there in the suitcase where the camera was placed.” (The Name of this Book is Dogme 95) This approach seems very different from The Gladiator style loss of continuity, and this is because where Gladiator seeks to affect us non-diegetically by the pace of the cutting in the tradition, really, of Hitchcock and the Psycho shower scene, where editing becomes performative, in Dogme films the editing and the camera work serves much more to capture reality pragmatically and thus truthfully.

Now of course many will snort at this idea of truth in art as simply vague and amorphous, but just because it happens to be so doesn’t mean we can’t attempt to define it, attempt to get closer to what we mean by it. After all was it not Martin Heidegger who astutely claimed in his essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ that “the essence of art would then be this: the truth of beings setting itself to work. But until now art presumably has had to do with the beautiful and beauty, and not with truth.” Thus when he says there is the common notion that the job of fine art was to bring out the beauty of a thing that exists, and to capture the representational aspect of it, this representational beauty can be easy to understand, but truth as essence is a much vaguer, impermeable element that needs to be found rather than shown, searched for rather than re-presented. It is closer to being revealed. Now unobtrusive realism, the sort of realism proposed by Bazin, and also of course the great screenwriter of neo-realism, Cesare Zavattini, certainly respects this notion of revelation, but do both Bazin and Zavattini expect to find it well within the realm of representational givens? “…Depth of focus brings the spectator into a relation with an image closer to that which he enjoys with reality”, Bazin claims in the essay “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema’, but this suggests the transparency of the image over its obfuscation. Zavattini, quoted in Mira Liehm’s Passion and Defiance, meanwhile, insists “imagination is allowed, but only on the condition that it exercise itself within reality and not on the periphery.” This isn’t to over-simplify their position. Bazin, in another article in What is Cinema Vol 1., writing on Bresson, believes, in relation to the non-realistic or ‘bad’ aspects of The Diary of a Country Priest “naturally Bresson, like Dreyer, is only concerned with the countenance as flesh which, when not involved in playing a role, is a man’s true imprint, the most visible mark of his soul”. Zavattini, meanwhile, adds that his notion of realism does not mean only “news items”.

Throughout, however, we get a sense of clarity, that the image remains transparent, and when it is questionably un-transparent, it is because a deeper self is being revealed – like the soul in The Diary of the Country Priest. The camera does not become, if you like, a camera-being the way von Trier describes it. But in Cassavetes’ work, in Nil by Mouth, Rosetta, Keane, Festen and others, the camera bumps, jostles and obscures. As Vinterberg says in Kelly’s book, of one of his actors, “Henning Moritzen was shocked by the [tiny] size of the camera. But he was very loyal to the project, and he adapted very quickly. And suddenly something happened – they [the actors] started reacting to each other, rather than the camera.” (The Name of this Book is Dogme 95) And though Vinterberg goes on to say Dod Mantle was like a fly on the wall, he also says he “was climbing over the furniture”, suggesting the filming is closer to being in a scrum than watching from the sidelines. Now this might be anectdotal, but when we look at the film itself we know this must have been inevitably the case: there would be no other way of filming it.

Out of such involvement how could the film be anything but intruding, how when the camera happens to be in the event, and the actors reacting to each other rather than an observant camera, could it be anything but obtrusive realism? If Bazin believed that perhaps a different approach than the simply realistic might be necessary for capturing the soul, in Keane, Festen and Rosetta (though it could be argued all are films interested in the soul too), there is a sort of every-day ontology that seems the priority; as opposed to Bresson’s ontology of the other-worldly. The truth we’ve invoked in relation to Heidegger, when beauty of form gives way to truth of being, is, in relation to the obtrusive realism we’ve been talking about, an integrated truth that can’t even guarantee image clarity. It is as though the camera has become existential; that it is willing to sacrifice the beauty of form and the precision of framing for what Raymond Durgnat and Richard Combs have called in an article in Film Comment, a decomposition of the image.

This is a truth that can of course superficially resemble the very dynamic ‘truths’ that some might find in NYPD Blue or The Blair Witch Project, but are these not examples of, if you like, intensified normalization; are they simply utilising the camera to stylistically propose the ‘true’? If we’ve said that careful and exact framing suggest the beautiful, then it’s as if numerous films and TV shows haven’t so much questioned the crisis in relation to truth and beauty, but simply adopted the trope of truth, as opposed to the trope of the beautiful. We’re obviously once again back into grey areas, but let’s compare a film like Keane with The Blair Witch Project to try and understand the ambitiousness of Lodge Kerrigan’s truth, as opposed to the horror film’s trope of truth. In Keane, the film wants to explore the subjectivity of an unstable man who’s lost on the streets of New York and relying on incapacity benefit, and wants to do so without correlative effect, without relying on subjective devices like dream sequences, cracks opening up in the pavements, or multiple voices on the soundtrack representing the voices in his head. What Kerrigan seems to want to do is try to find a way into the character’s head not subjectively but empathically or, perhaps more appropriately ethically.

Now the film could have adopted two approaches. It could have used the subjective realism of going into the character’s mind, or resolutely staying outside of the character’s mind and utilised an unobtrusive realism that would use medium long-shots, occasional snatches of music and a disconsolate body language that would constantly suggest our sympathy for the man, in the manner of Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. But neither subjective realism nor removed sympathy would allow for this empathic ethics. As Kerrigan said in Sight and Sound, “I put the audience not in his position…but right in the room with him…In my interaction with the mentally ill I’ve heard many stories and often had to question whether they’re true…So with Keane I put the audience in a position where they have to decide what his story is.” This is a position of epistemological indiscernibility, as we have to decide for ourselves how much empathy we’re going to have for Keane, and what the basis for that empathy will be. There is one scene for example where Keane goes into a bar and insists that the music be played ever louder as he starts singing to the lyrics. From one perspective this is obnoxious behaviour in a bar; on another it seems Keane’s trying to drown out the noises he’s hearing in his head. But these are voices we’re not privy to, and so we’re caught between the barman’s irritation and Keane’s desperation. When Kerrigan says “it’s not that I try to be ambiguous; I just want to make it feel real,” it gets close to our notion of truth as more than a stylistic device. It becomes instead an issue of perceptual problematics, as ethically we must decide how much empathy we care to give a character who’s certainly obnoxious, often selfish, and yet mentally unbalanced by a devastating apparent loss.

It is here we see obtrusive realism attaching itself to the true as Heidegger might define it, and where Bazin’s precision of form gives way to imprecision of style, though both Bazin and Kerrigan would seem to believe in the same thing: in saying something real about the world. When we invoke The Blair Witch Project it is because we feel its style is essentially a gimmick, a device to make us believe that these kids really did record their own impending demise. It is not so much a truth the directors are seeking out, so much as a horror conceit that takes off from the development of point of view in films like Halloween, and proposes that if the kids are filming themselves, then the whole film inevitably becomes point of view: the horror lies in that limited filmic perspective.

Now what is interesting, and why we believe Keane, Rosetta and Nil by Mouth pursue the true through obtrusive realism, is that where The Blair Witch Project seems to offer an epistemology absolutely no greater than the film’s own characters’ point of view, Kerrigan, the Dardennes and Oldman, want their realism to match the ambitious truths offered by De Sica and Rossellini in their neo-realist films. When Bazin insists that neo-realism is more an ontological position than an aesthetic one, we realise that the fundamental principles remain the same, only the form has changed. When we invoke The Blair Witch Project, it is to bring out the fact that the underlying principle is very different, no matter if the form is ostensibly similar to the films of Kerrigan and co. This is our attempt to suggest the truthfulness of the work, but this is truth not as categorical, but as suppositional, as the form of a question. It’s as if Nil by Mouth, Keane and the Dardennes are looking at the complexity of a situation; where The Blair Witch Project looks for the generic novelty. Ryan Gilbey puts it quite well in It Don’t Bother Me when he says “much of the delight in any exploitation film arises from the ingenuity with which the standard genre elements are incorporated. It isn’t that the audience wants to see something original, but that it requires familiar elements to be deployed in idiosyncratic, even devious ways…” But what are the devious methods of a Kerrigan or an Oldman? Wouldn’t the word seem somehow inappropriate to a non-generic, non-exploitation film? Don’t we sense that there is a wider truth being explored beyond the frame; and that where in unobtrusive realism the purpose is to find it within a clearly blocked image – to hold onto a little bit of compositional beauty in the search for truth – in obtrusive realism it is as though the frame goes as well. But what doesn’t go is the search for the truthful.

We can see this in both Rosetta and Nil by Mouth. In Oldman’s work for example there are three brief scenes in the middle of the film that utilise the obtrusive frame well. In the first Ray Winstone’s character sits with his wife, played by Kathy Burke, while the TV’s on. But the TV we see only reflected through the glass that is between the placement of the characters and the camera. While Winstone seems more absorbed by his own thoughts than what is on TV as he sips out of his mug, and as Burke lights up a cigarette and then wipes the sleep out of one eye, we sense that what matters in the scene is as much what the mise-en-scene is suggesting as the scene itself – a brief moment in the characters’ lives with no dialogue. Now Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in an article on Ozu in Screen magazine, where they discuss first of all the conventions they believe Ozu counters, reckon in the classical paradigm, “the system or constructing space (the ‘continuity style’) has as its aim the subordination of spatial (and temporal) structures to the logic of the narrative…Negatively the space is presented so as not to distract attention from the dominant actions.” But what would be the dominant action in this scene from Nil by Mouth? It is not so much the realistic backdrop that an arch realist like Loach will use, but closer if you like to a sort of fore-drop that we’ve suggested a Cassavetes would utilise. Ditto the scene where Winstone drinks in the bar, and the bar’s taps partly obscure our vision, and also a moment later when Burke’s brother and mother talk at her workplace, and we view the scene from behind the factory machinery. So just as we can say that in most mainstream films the space is merely a backdrop generally insignificant next to the narrative action (à la Bordwell and Thompson), and in unobtrusive realism the backdrop becomes charged with meaning but remains essentially in the background, there is something in Oldman’s approach that proposes a certain ‘fore-drop’ that allows for the meaning of the scene to be altered by the degree to which the foreground intrudes on the shot and generates a meaning out of that framing. This isn’t at all to say the meaning is ‘symbolic’. It is not to say for example that Oldman’s mise-en-scene proposes that the characters are alienated from each other, or others, though they may well be. It is much more to say these are lives contained by the environments in which they live, and that to show how much a product of an environment one happens to be, better to show that environment not just in the background but by using an obtrusive foreground also.

Obviously there have been many filmmakers who have used the foredrop and who haven’t been interested in the sort of realism Oldman searches out here. Wong Kar Wai for example constantly tracks behind and round objects in In the Mood for Love, and many filmmakers simply by utilising the telephoto lens will arrive at a style that allows for images occasionally intruding on the main action, as in Altman’s work. But we’d be unlikely to invoke Cassavetes to explain and explore In the Mood for Love . Wong’s problematic lies elsewhere. Yet Oldman seems very much to come out of Cassavetes, as if in his obtruded framing he wants to find a problem that Cassavetes and Dardennnes address also. He wants to find out what happens when you jam the characters between spaces, so that foreground and background are as important as one’s characters, and yet aren’t quite defined by these spaces metaphysically – in the sort of deframed approach of an Antonioni where the frame might dwarf a character by making him small within it, while making the architectural spaces large.

This is where we return to our idea that the truth a film like Nil By Mouth searches out is not a metaphysical or transcendent truth, but it is still very much a truth. It’s just that the truth isn’t framed (as in Antonioni), nor is it abstractly sought (as in Bresson, taking into account Bazin’s point). The truth is in the verisimilitude of the image, in the filmmaker’s attempt at finding it not so much in the play with the frame (Antonioni) or the figure (Bresson), but in the immediate thereness of the mise-en-scene. In Rosetta for example the opening sequence follows the eponymous character as she finds out she’s no longer needed at the bakery in which she’s been working for a trial period. As she angrily passes through the building, the camera hastily follows her brisk movements: as she slams doors the camera comes right up against the slammed door; as she moves round the bakery equipment the camera finds itself temporarily blocked as it tries to catch up. This isn’t an attempt to define a reality so much as to find it, and even if we’re again in the arena of the unverifiable and of dubious notions of finding reality, few would deny that the Dardennes are looking for the vividness of mise-en-scene where Antonioni so often searches out the disconcertedness of spaces. The Dardennes themselves have talked in The List magazine, when Rosetta came out, about a combat camera, as if trying to give the impression that they have no control over their mise-en-scene; that it’s as indeterminate a space as a battle zone. The character returns to central importance, almost in the sense mentioned by Bordwell and Thompson in their Screen essay, with the backdrop insignificant next to narrative, but she does so not as someone on her best behaviour within the frame. It makes us realise how well behaved figurally are so many of Hollywood’s rebels, no matter the diegetic behavioural rebelliousness; don’t they move within the shot as if thoroughly obedient? Rosetta is instead someone for whom the framing must play catch-me-up, as if the camera wants not to form the performance, but for the performance to form the camera movement.

As a consequence the unobtrusive so admired in neo-realism has no place. How could it accommodate a character who moves through space so rapidly that background and foreground constantly disintegrate in front of our eyes? The answer is that unobtrusive realism can’t accommodate such an approach and the Dardennes prove themselves masters of obtrusive realism without quite owing a debt so large to forebears like Cassavetes they simply ape him. Indeed they do so barely at all, and what might be interesting is to look at how newer directors like Vinterberg, Kerrigan, Oldman and the Dardennes differentiate in their debt to filmmakers who would seem central to an obtrusive sense of milieu: not just Cassavetes, but Altman and Pialat also. This would allow one to bring out the singularity of each filmmaker’s search through the obtruded image, and why the truths they seek owe little to the ostensibly similar ‘meretricious’ realism of much hand-held work in recent years.


©Tony McKibbin