Realism in Film
The idea of realism in film might seem to make more sense than in the other arts. While painting relies on people usually using their hands to put paint on the canvas, literature demands a similar process by putting words on the page. Theatre has live actors, but they act against very artificial backdrops. For Andre Bazin, "the aesthetic qualities of photography are to be sought in its power to lay bare the realities."('The Ontology of the Photographic Image') But do most viewers go to the cinema to have realities laid bare? If that were the case a Ken Loach film like I, Daniel Blake would be more successful than Jurassic Park. Loach's film made around $260,000 dollars; Spielberg's more than a billion, according to Box Office Mojo. Viewing realism in cinemas is a minority activity, and many films now are so reliant on computer generated imagery (CGI) that some wonder whether cinema can lay claim to its realist roots. Cinematographer Chris Doyle who shot In the Mood for Love, Chunking Express and Days of Being Wild for Wong Kar wai, says now the academy "award is given to the technicians, to the producers, it's not to the cinematographer." Speaking of director of photography Claudio Miranda's work on Life of Pi, he said, "if somebody manipulated my image that much, I wouldn't even turn up. Because sorry, cinematography? Really." (Indiewire)
While we can see that artificiality makes money (Box Office Mojo's biggest hits are almost all special effects focused), Doyle suggests that realism makes art. This was in some way acknowledged when the one-take, two and a half-hour heist film, Victoria, was initially turned down both by Toronto and Sundance film festivals. "It turns out that both Toronto (which ultimately booked the film after the Berlin premiere) and Sundance both turned the movie downand then came crawling back. Why? They didn't believe "Victoria" could possibly be one take." (Indiewire) The artistry for the film festivals lay in authenticity, not artificiality. Whether Doyle would care for the film or not, he wouldn't have a problem with Sturla Brandth Grvlen's cinematography winning awards.
What we want to look at today are three realist movements in film history and also cinema's relationship with documentary, seeing links between the two as both realism and documentary often explore social issues. When Loach says of I, Daniel Blake,"I challenge anyone to find a single word in that film that isn't true," he is announcing realist credentials. However, a job centre manager in Newcastle was also announcing realist credentials of his own when saying, in the same Guardian article, "I, Daniel Blake is a representation ... I hope people don't think the film is a documentary, because it's a story that doesn't represent the reality we work in." Here is the nub, how realistic can realism be? When we look back on the first proper realistic cinema movement, neo-realism we may find the stories contrived, the emotions overblown and the music intrusive. But that is not how Bazin and the directors and writers of these films saw the work they were doing in the forties and fifties. They were "repudiating the categories of acting and dramatic expression in order to force reality to yield up its meaning from the starting-point of its appearance only" (Realism and the Cinema) was how Roberto Rossellini saw it, directing Rome, Open City, Germany Year Zero, and others. The screenwriter of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, Cezare Zavattini says, "I believe the world goes on getting worse because we are not truly aware of reality" (Film: A Montage of Theories).
Neo-realism came out of post-war Italian despair. A movement that wanted to remake Italy in an image quite distinct from the Fascist past. As Shelia Johnston says in The Cinema Book, neo-realism was broadly "the product of the Second World War and the defeat of Italian and German Fascism." Instead of focusing on the might is right ideology of Mussolini, the emphasis was instead on vulnerability and impoverishment, even if the two would come together in brilliant and complex ways in Rossellini's Germany Year Zero. Here a boy wonders whether it makes sense for his ailing father to live when there is so much poverty around, and a Nazi sympathiser telling him that might still may be right. In films like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, though, Vittoria De Sica and Zavvatini emphasise the dignity of man and the indignations expected of them as in the first film the man loses his bike after it is stolen, and in the second an old man looks like he will lose his apartment in a boarding house. Though the films would often use a non-diegtic score and storylines that played up low-key suspense (will a man find his bike; will another lose his home?) the directors would frequently use non-professional actors and film on location. This was not new, as Pasquale Iannone says, "In aesthetic terms virtually nothing in neorealist cinema was new, from de-dramatised narratives to scrupulous use of real locations to the casting of non-professionals." (bfi.org) He quotes Federico Fellini saying, "Neorealism is not about what you show, but how you show it. It's simply a way of looking at the world without preconceptions or prejudices. Some people are still convinced that neorealism should only be used to show a particular type of reality - social reality to be exact. But then it becomes propaganda."
If neo-realism came out of post-Fascist Italy, Kitchen sink realism came in the wake of British post-war austerity. Rationing ended in 1954 - the first kitchen sink realist film, Room at the Top, was released in 1958. We wouldn't want to suggest too causal a link, but there was a sense in which the working class no longer felt obliged to play by the rules, and, if they did, it was for their own gain. Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) in Room at the Top wants to make money and have a big house; Vic (Alan Bates) in A Kind of Loving is frustrated that he is expected to live with his mother-in-law until getting on the housing ladder. In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning the film's central character is the least ambitious of the three. Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) wants money for booze and fags, and also occasionally sleeps with the wife of a work colleague for further pleasure. There is frustration and sometimes arrogance in these men (and they are usually men), but there is also a feeling that Britain needs to be shaken up. As Finney would say at the time, "usually in the theatre and the cinema, you'd get a middle-class style of acting, which means that when people are playing a working-class character they send it up. They don't act it." (An Autobiography of British Cinema) Tom Courtenay who had lead roles in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar, said around the same as Finney: "take all this thing now about working-class actors and writers: it's simply a release of certain talents from that class." (An Autobiography of British Cinema) If neo-realism cast non-professionals to represent the people that they were, kitchen sink realism went further by casting professional actors who were from working-class backgrounds. But like neo-realism they were very interested in realism of milieu too, often setting the films in locations in the north of England, or at least very far from the south. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was mainly shot in Nottingham; Billy Liar in Bradford. Though a movement of the late fifties to early sixties, we can see Kitchen Sink's influence on numerous contemporary British films: from Ken Loach's work, to Mike Leigh's, from Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth to Ratcatcher. Speaking to Graham Fuller in the New York Times in an article about young directors and the influence of kitchen sink, director Lynn Ramsay admitted, "yeah, it is connected to that kitchen sink tradition." But she also insisted Ratcatcher wasn't a social-realist work as Fuller looks at numerous contemporary British films that respect influences but take the realist aesthetic in different directors: Wonderland, TwentyFourSeven, The War Zone.
While neo-realism and kitchen sink realism were chiefly concerned with the socio-political, Dogme 95 was interested in formal problems. The ten rules of Dogme included: "sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa", that "the camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted" "and that the film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera)." Yet Dogme was also a provocation, with the filmmakers determined to look at things differently. As co-signatory Lars von Trier said, "we managed to start a debate about why we make films, about what they should contain and how they should look." Though the films were supposed to be shot on 35mm, this was one of the rules that would be broken. Both The Idiots, by von Trier, and Festen, by the other co-signatory Thomas Vinterbergh, were digital films, made with light cameras that even the cast themselves could use in certain scenes. The most important works produced by the movement would seem to be Festen, The Idiots and also perhaps Julien Donkey-Boy, made by the American director Harmony Korine. Von Trier was happy for any filmmaker too have a go at a Dogme film, saying "I actually sent a copy of our Dogme manifesto to [Ingmar Bergman] and suggested that he make a Dogme film as well." (Trier on Von Trier).
Of course, realism has manifested itself in numerous movements around the world. Our purpose has been to address briefly examples of it that have become synonymous with a realist aesthetic, and to muse very briefly how cinema as a medium of the real, linked to a photochemical process, might be losing its status as a recorder of images towards a manipulation of them. If Dogme is quite different from earlier approaches to realism it rests in this interest in form. If Neo-realism and kitchen sink realism asked us to take the image for granted, Dogme with its grainy texture, its use of digital cameras and its insistence on authenticity which all the time the films themselves call into question (boom mikes evident in the shot, continuity errors that have actors making love with their shirts on, off and back on again), asks us to question such assumptions. But it does so without assuming that cinema is incapable of asking questions that link to truth and authenticity. We cannot, however, take them any longer for granted, if we ever could.
© Tony McKibbin