Bicycle Thieves, like Paisa, Germany Year Zero and Umberto D., is a key work of the Italian neo-realist movement of the late forties that might not entirely pass itself off as realism today. But when Andr Bazin proselytizes for the notion of realism in cinema, in What is Cinema? Vol. 1, one of the key works he used for furthering his argument was Bicycle Thieves. This is because it at least paid lip service to immediate social realities and didn't quickly absorb them into fast-paced narrative filmmaking. It also used non-professional actors, and gave us a reasonably strong sense of place. But of course the sound is dubbed and there is still a relatively strong plot: a man loses his bicycle and desperately tries to get it back; without it he cannot work, and without work his family cannot eat.
But let's not fret too much over which films are more realistic than others, and first and foremost instead propose types of realism. Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves is a great example of situational realism, a realism that creates character possibilities and motivations very much out of the immediate milieu, so that an obstacle in the way of a character isn't a narrative obstacle but a social obstacle, allowing the story to bring out the difficulties of the characters' lives in relation to the problems that beset them. This is emphasized by wide panning shots to give a sense of location. A filmmaker like Ken Loach, for all his limitations, for all his often emphatic use of music, his strong manipulation of sympathy, his political overtness occasionally detrimental to the narrative situation, has taken this situational realism and almost perfected it. Frequently Loach films have the equivalent of the Bicycle Thieves goal: the central character trying to get enough money to buy his daughter a communion dress in Raining Stones, two characters from different ethnic backgrounds trying to have a relationship in Ae Fond Kiss, the boy saving up to buy his mum a caravan in Sweet Sixteen. You feel the situation has developed out of a close look at the milieu, and if the setting was less vividly present, so the story would not have the hold that it has. You have to sense the variables in the characters' lives, the difficult decisions confronting them in the environment in which they live, to understand the weight of an action.
There is a very fine scene for example in Loach's Sweet Sixteen where the fifteen year old boy at its centre has to a make a choice: is he going to chib his wayward and self-destructive friend and move up in the gang world, or is he going to remain true to a friend who will always keep him in a state of poverty? To make this type of dilemma work you really need to create a believable friendship and a believably miserable milieu the character would very much wish to escape. Though Bazin to some degree talked of a realism that would destroy narrative, and saw signs of it in De Sica's work, for Loach this situational realism augments narrative, helps give the story power because the choices and obstacles in relation to the character have been vividly laid out as very real, complex problems.
Many films may not be as true to their situational realism as Loach's, and some would say are better films for it, but often a good genre work benefits from its use. Anything from the Brazilian gang thriller City of God to the French policier La Balance shows its presence. It functions less off hyperbolised narrative and action, than milieu specificity: hence the situational realism.
In numerous scenes from Jean Renoir's famed late thirties film, La Regle du Jeu, as well as in his La Marseillaise and The Crime of Monsieur Lange, we have what we'll call open realism: a sense in the scene that we are watching the complexity of life in front of our eyes, not just a realism that is constructed to bring out, first and foremost, the complexity of one person's existence as we notice in De Sica and Loach's work, or even a plausible milieu: La Regle de Jeu is quite theatrical. As we see characters running in all directions, we feel forced though to make the sort of choices we're expected to make in our own lives when viewing an event unfolding in front of us. Now of course this is not real life, and there are limits imposed upon us by the film's very framing. But Renoir, like Altman years after him, is a great filmmaker of this saturated framing, where there always seems to be more going on than we can immediately follow. For a long time this meant Renoir was less respected than many of his peers - that it was surely the film's very duty to focus the viewer's attention on the specifics of events, and utilise a great deal of editing for this very purpose. But critics like Bazin and Pauline Kael have been great admirers, and he is now regarded as one of cinema's most important directors, with the latter saying, in Projections 13, "you have a feeling that you can breathe and the movie can breathe - it's open air filmmaking." In such work the viewer isn't left with the sort of dilemma choices we talked about in situational realism, but in viewing choices in the very scene. Who should we follow and why?
If we look at Altman's work, at films like M*A*S*H, Nashville, and A Wedding, we notice there is a densely populated image asking for our attention but not demanding it. This isn't just about the long take - though Renoir and Altman are both often long-take filmmakers. For there are other long take filmmakers who nevertheless clearly direct us within the image. We might think here of Paul Thomas Anderson and the opening of Boogie Nights, where he very impressively introduces us to all the leading characters in the first shot, but we're aware as viewers how important the information we're given happens to be. It is really what's been called cutting within the frame: instead of cutting from one shot to the other for emphasis, the filmmaker moves the camera from one important piece of information to the next. The sort of camera movement in Renoir and Altman does not have the same sense of emphasis. Open realism, though, will also often work not just with multiple possibilities in the image, but also multiple levels of sound. Frequently Altman's soundtracks are mixed in such a way that we're hearing several conversations simultaneously and we have to decide which one is the most important.
For all the inventiveness with sound and image, though, what finally is the point of this open realism? After all, situational realism can serve a very important political purpose, and certainly in Loach's films you feel the story is being driven by a left-wing political message asking for greater rights and better opportunities for the poor. Next to situational realism, open realism might look apolitical, even pointless. But as Renoir famously said, 'everybody has his reasons' and it's the filmmakers job to search these reasons out, to democratise not so much society, la De Sica and Loach, so much as democratise the very viewing experience. One reason Kael claimed she admired Renoir so much was because he was such an open, expansive personality, who would allow everybody to have their say. Comparing De Sica's Umberto D. to Renoir's work she says that De Sica "made a mistake when he had the landlady in Umberto D. being deliberately cruel. I don't think Renoir ever would have made that mistake. He would have let us see her reasons too."
This isn't to say that there aren't 'open' moments in De Sica (Kael explains that De Sica was more broadly generous in other films) or in Loach, but certain filmmakers work chiefly in one mode or another, and Renoir and Altman remain perhaps the two great filmmakers of the open form, though there are others who have expanded on its formalist possibilities, including Hou Hsiao Hsien in Taiwan, with Goodbye, South Goodbye, Flowers of Shanghai etc. and even the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami with Through the Olive Trees, The Wind Will Carry Us and who we will talk more about later.
Like some of Lars Von Trier's work, Festen could be defined as radical realism, a type of realism that seems to lack the conscientious edge of a Loach or a De Sica, the openness of form of Renoir and Altman, though it may possess an element of both. Here director Thomas Vinterberg takes a family problem drama and radicalises it chiefly through the technique. If Altman was a great filmmaker of the open form where the camera would capture numerous pieces of information simultaneously, Vinterberg's more likely to capture isolated snippets of information in a hyperactive style that no longer respects the conventions of cinematic time and space because he's too interested in the immediacy of the situation. Frequently Vinterberg will opt for an angle that seems to be looking even for more immediacy than there happens to be in the situation, as we see when the camera positions itself portentously behind the bed, or roams around the room from a perversely high angle.
Vinterberg's radical realism doesn't come out of nowhere. Festen was part of the Dogme movement, a movement cooked up by Lars von Trier and Vinterberg in the mid-nineties and that was looking for a back to basics approach to filmmaking. Here are some of the rules: films must be shot on location, not using sets. The camera must be hand held. The film has to be in colour. Genre films are not acceptable, and the director must not be credited. Now not all the rules were adhered to; but the films did seem to usher in a new type of realism, one that appeared to prioritise the events in front of the screen without a formalism that demanded the film look 'realistic'. Hence in von Trier's The Idiots there are continuity errors, boom-mikes in the shot and cameras reflected in car windows. If a film wants to be realistic, and radically realistic, shouldn't it incorporate the very process of a film being made? If realism generally conforms to aesthetic conventions - the seamlessness of the story, the matching of shots, the absence of the camera and the taboo of looking directly into the lens - then where, finally, is the realism? Is realism no more than a convention like any other?
Up to a point even the Dogmatists would agree it is, but with the ten rules they're at least trying to create their own conventions rather than just conforming to or reacting against the rules of the Institutional Mode of Representation, a term used by Noel Burch that explores what these norms are seen to be. There is a nice Godard comment quoted at the beginning of Richard Kelly's The Name of this Book is Dogme 95 where Godard compares his approach to Hollywood filmmaking. "I'm older than he is, but my cinema is younger just because there are no rules, and he has lots of rules. For the first time in twenty years, I have a feeling that rules have to be discovered; one should neither obey nor revolt automatically. It's better to discover what can be yours in the system. And accept or change it. But work it, and discover the unknown."
Dogme is basically a set of rules to be broken, but they're breaking their own conventions and not just those of hegemonic American cinema. This needn't necessarily have been a realist movement - why not a surrealist, a situationist or a politically cinematic wave, though it perhaps contains all three? - but that is how they decided to couch it, as if, ironically, to buck the conventions of Hollywood cinema again, which is seen as a huge industrial, artificial complex next to the low-budget Danes. We see this radical realism also in Larry Clark's Kids and Bully, aspects of it in Ma vie sexuelle by Arnaud Desplechin, strongly present Erick Zonca's La vie revee des anges.
Around the same time the Danes and others were looking for a more realistic aesthetic, Iranian film was doing likewise, though less bombastically. This is a quiet realism, a loosely realist movement that unlike neo-realism, the nouvelle vague (the French New Wave of the late fifties), or Dogme didn't really announce itself, but just worked steadily on capturing the minutiae of life. Though many of the films did in fact offer a profound questioning of the realism presented (especially the work of the great Abbas Kiarostami whose Close-Up and Taste of Cherry push into asking philosophical questions), the emphasis lay in a quiet observational approach that would not call attention to the aesthetic presentation, unless for the purposes of a greater realism. Hence in Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple she reenacts scenes from a family's life: a couple of girls wander the streets of Tehran after twelve years of being locked in the house by their father. The very fact of its reenactment might suggest some of the fancy developments in contemporary film, and it has been described as a para-documentary, a film caught between fictional and factual form. But Makhmalbaf's approach seems less an aesthetic complication, than a documentative simplification: that the director wanted to return to the story of two girls who've been locked up, and wanted to use the very family for the telling. Why complicate things, the eighteen year old director might have said, when you have the characters in front of your eyes?
A similar approach was used in her father's film, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence, based on an incident in his life where he ended up imprisoned for accidentally stabbing a policeman, and Makhmalbaf decides, when meeting the cop again many years later, to collaborate on a film with the now ex-cop, where they would both decide who to cast to play their younger selves in the re-enactment. In Gabbeh, meanwhile, he offers a sort of ethnographic fiction: a film exploring the lives of carpet weavers, while also investigating the nature of storytelling through the carpet weaving. In many Iranian films there is a strange blend of simplicity and subtle representational complication as we wonder how much is fictional; how much documentary fact.
The Circle has a similar flavour, though is perhaps less self-reflexive: we feel the director Jafar Panahi wants the story to tell itself, wants the Bazinian realism to show us the cruelty of the world without too many intrusive elements. Thus this story of three women in Iran who are on parole, negotiating the clearly masculine world of Tehran, has an intense political purpose almost by virtue of the very framing, and the situations the three women get into. One can't get on a bus without the aid of a male relative, and the women are constantly questioned, harassed and getting looked at on the city streets. This isn't to say the film isn't loaded, that it doesn't have scenes that suggest the film has a clear focus and a message that indicates women's rights should be greatly improved. The opening and closing scenes in the film make it clear the world on offer in Iran for women is a horribly vicious circle. But it does seem fair to say many Iranian films give off an air of aesthetic indeterminateness, as if they're looking for an aesthetics of least resistance to tell their stories.
In recent interviews Kiarostami has talked about the opportunities in small digital video cameras and the way the filmmaker can remove ever more elements from the production process to get closer to the truth. This might at first seem a nave position, but Kiarostami is well aware of the arguments involved in the idea that the truth is altered by the very nature of the filming of it: Close-Up, a para-documentary ostensibly similar to The Apple, weaves into its 'true' story of a man tried for impersonating Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the self-conscious reenactment of the case. There may be post-modern elements to Iranian cinema, but we should not confuse them with the self-reflexive irony on show in, say, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich or Coffee and Cigarettes. The filmmakers appear to want to incorporate the puzzling problem of the truth within a quiet realism, not an overt and knowing post-modernism.
In A Taste of Cherry Kiarostami ends his film in a manner that leaves us unsure whether the central character has committed suicide or not, but in the process throws back at the viewer the pressing question of asking what we might think he will have done given the partial information we have been given. If one person says he is likely to kill himself and another one the opposite, are they saying something about their own attitude to life and death? In such an approach Kiarostami manages to get us to ask not only weighty questions about the film, but also about ourselves - essential, philosophical questions.
In France, the late, great Maurice Pialat has a reputation that hasn't quite travelled. He's best known in Britain for his Van Gogh film, and maybe for Police and Loulou, two films starring Gerard Depardieu. But when working in the realist mode (as he loosely does in Loulou and in Police), we see a filmmaker who knows it's simultaneously an authentic search for truth and an aesthetic style, even though there is a flaw in a scene from Loulouthat students often pick up on. How come the friend manages to go down to the street and get back up several flights of stairs so quickly after buying cigarettes and flowers? But we only notice the flaw because Pialat offers the scene in one take. It's as if he knows what matters in realism isn't the logical coordinates of a scene, first and foremost, but the aesthetic style of it. What he wants to do is emphasise in this sequence the tight, cramped nature of the surroundings, and respect it in the very filming. For even if we accept that realism should be more truthful, say, than, the musical film, or the sci-fi, it still needs to be achieved, and sometimes the achievement is paradoxically to the detriment of verisimilitude. As City of God director Fernando Meirelles, said in New South American Cinema "This is the film with the biggest number of continuity mistakes ever made. Two or three hundred problems. If you watch the film, in every single scene people are changing places when they shouldn't...Who cares?" He wanted us to concentrate on the emotions in the acting. Ditto, John (Faces, Husbands) Cassevetes, who would think nothing of using his own house as a location even if it wasn't quite the sort of house the characters would occupy. As Cassavetes' biographer Ray Carney would say of Love Streams in Cassavetes on Cassavetes, "the important realities are not sociological but emotional." In each instance, though they're certainly very different directors, Pialat, Cassavetes and Meirelles are searching out a certain emotional realism evident in Meirelles' anecdote, Carney's remark and Pialat's scene.
What are the tropes of realism we might ask and how does Pialiat utilise them for his emotionally fraught ends? Often the lighting is low, and reliant on natural light coming in off the window (as we so often see in Loach's work) the language colloquial, often demotic, the camerawork hand-held, the characters' actions not privileged for our attention, but caught by our sense of observation. As Pialat insistently holds on a long two-shot in the scene quoted above, as Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu discuss the idea of a third party moving into what is obviously already a very exacting space, so Pialat holds the shot to emphasise this tightness, and the way that most of the scene's light comes from outside. If he'd moved back and forth between the characters in a shot/counter shot style, and also allowed for a brief transition shot that would have opened up the time span enough for the character to come back into the flat plausibly, then the scene would have worked logically, but might have been less successful in pushing through both its aesthetic and also its emotional thematic. This is in many ways a tale of two apartments, and consequently of class divisions. For Huppert's character has recently left her wealthy beau for the poverty stricken Depardieu. Depardieu is content making ends meet, and muddling through life with the minimal planning and even less luxury. Huppert is used to a much higher standard of living and when we see her arguing in this cramped space and even more cramped framing, we might think back to the scenes where she's in her former apartment and the sheer sense of space available to her.
Certainly Pialat's scene contains a flaw, but if the scene works, it shouldn't be working first and foremost on the basis of its spatio-temporal logic, but on its ability to convey very real feelings about predicaments that are familiar to many. Pialat is a great emotional realist, a fine director of making the viewer understand the specifics of real lives on an emotional rather than a spatio-logical level. Most filmmakers would undeniably have got this scene right spatio-logically, but few would have managed to capture quite so well the tensions in a relationship based on so many differences. When the third character comes back with the flowers and cigarettes, we realise that no matter how generous the gesture of flowers happens to be, that he has to enter the already crowded two shot Pialat has set up, and suggests that there will be more tension to come.
© Tony McKibbin