Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Neo-Neo Realism

I realize I am coming to this a little late, but A.O. Scott, the long-time NY Times film critic, wrote a provocative essay some months ago with the title, "Neo Neo Realism" that I thought warranted a brief discussion. In it, Scott describes a new movement in American film in recent years that is taking haphazard, almost accidental shape. Exemplified by films like Wendy and Lucy and Goodbye Solo (two films which I believe rank among the most affecting and culturally relevant of the past few years), and also by Sugar, Ballast and Treeless Mountain (films I haven't seen but plan to, stat), this brand of American realism, which often takes on working class and/or marginalized character subjects, has roots, Scott believes, in the Italian neo-realism of the late nineteen forties.

"Methods [of Italian neo-realism]," Scott writes, "included the casting of nonprofessional actors, often portraying characters close to their real selves; the use of unadorned, specific locations, and an absorption in the ordinary details of work, school and domesticity."

All of which sounds familiar if you've seen any of the movies listed above, as well as Reichardt's Old Joy, or Bahrani's Chop Shop or Man Push Cart, or even Half Nelson. Scott also points out that there are similarities between Italian society post-World War II and American society post 9/11--namely, the enormous economic challenges and political tensions.

American film studios,
in the years since 9/11, have countered mass uncertainty by pumping out massive amounts of fantastical filth--swooping superheroes, et al. But, Scott argues, perhaps what American audiences really crave is an "escape from escapism."

"These local, intimate narratives," Scott writes, "remind you that, in spite of the abundance of American movies, there is an awful lot of American life that remains off screen."

This is precisely why these "neo neo realist" movies register as such a shock. They remind us that movies can capture and represent and speak to our realities--and they also remind us how infrequently studio movies manage to do so.

Finally, in what I read as a specific commentary on Slumdog Millionaire (a film for which I reserve a special loathing), Scott quotes Goodbye Solo director Rahman Bahrani: "[These certain kinds of studio movies] just don't make any sense. They create massive confusion."

Continues Scott: "To which [Bahrani's] own films (and films like “Ballast,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Sugar” and “Treeless Mountain”) might serve, in their very different ways, as an antidote. Not because they offer grim counsels of despair or paint lurid tableaux of desperation but rather because they take what has always seemed seductively easy about moviemaking — the camera can show us the world — and make it look hard. Their characters undergo a painful process of disillusionment, and then keep going."

1 comment:

  1. “Can’t go on; must go on,” muses the protagonist in Samuel Beckett’s ‘The Unnameable,’ voicing the existentialist dilemma.