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Nothing is real(ism), and nothing to get hung about

Australian film critic Adrian Martin has sparked a discussion about the term "realism" with a short piece he wrote for the Dutch publication "Filmkrant," titled "Make Me Feel Mighty Real." Martin contends that the critical success of David Fincher's "Zodiac" (though it was a commercial disappointment) "kick-started a minor trend" -- he includes Steven Soderberg's "Che," Olivier Assayas's "Carlos" and Fincher's own "The Social Network" -- toward a kind of historical realism he describes as "a low-key realistic soap-opera of guns, sex, death, wealth, power... sticking as far as possible to the exact, wayward contours of the original events."

The term "realism" is one I've always had trouble with, because it's so vague and relative. Is cinéma vérité (or, for that matter, a surveillance camera recording) any more "real" than a Stanley Kubrick film? Not necessarily -- all show the results of decisions that have to do with photography: camera placement, lighting, sound recording, editing, etc. How much of the action is taking place because of the presence of the camera(s)? How aware of the camera(s) are the subjects, or the audience? Timestamps, black-and-white video, handheld camerawork -- they're all storytelling devices available to filmmakers. So, isn't so-called "realism" really more a choice of technology, functionality, technique, style?

Martin writes:

These directors fervently believe they are breaking new ground with this exploration -- and so do their critical champions. But the appeal to realism must surely be making a few of us groan. Didn't we spend at least 30 years, after the 1960s, decrying the illusion of realism in cinema, and its pernicious ideological effects? Didn't we drill into our students and readers that no film is real, that it is a construction? Didn't we ferret out the ever-changing tricks and veils of what Roland Barthes called the 'effects of reality', which reached a frenzied peak in the 'quality' TV productions of HBO (like "The Wire") before leaping back into cinema?

Reality, realism: impossible words to define in cinema, but a trap that never ceases to lure filmmakers and cinephiles. The problem comes from rigidly associating everything that is conventional and generic in film with unreality and fakeness -- and then, conversely, valuing everything that deviates from these norms as the eruption of an impression or trace of reality.

What confuses me here is the question of who, besides Martin himself, has been making these associations between the Fincher, Soderberg and Assayas films and "realism" -- and what does it mean? Martin mentions "filmmakers and cinephiles" as the culprits, then goes on to re-fashion a definition of "realism" :

All these films have key elements in common: they have lengthy running-times (the longer the better); they are full of repetitious talk-sessions and nothing-much-happening; although there may nominally be a central character, in fact many people swirl in and out of the narrative; they fill in an entire social backdrop of places and times -- even if, as in Fincher's case, the mundane past needs to be skilfully recreated via digital technology.

In fact, all of these directors have, in these works, grandly transformed themselves into historians -- historians of the real, rather than imaginary, world. And realism is indeed the thing they seek. Not some fancy postmodern realism, and not an old-fashioned neo-realism, either.

I'm not sure any of this is necessary because, as Martin says, no film is "real"; they are all constructions. I question whether the "illusion of reality" is any more persuasive (or accurate) in a period piece like Kubrick's fictional 18th century "Barry Lyndon" (shot with sensitive lenses and available light!) than in Uli Edell's nonfictional 20th century "The Baader-Meinhof Complex." And didn't we used to employ the term "docudrama" for long-form, "based on a true story" pictures that claimed to pay attention to the historical facts?

"Zodiac," of course, was about epistemology, and the story concentrated on the discovery and collection of evidence -- though I don't know (or much care) whether, as Martin says, Fincher showed "absolute fidelity to the meandering facts of this real-life investigation into the Zodiac killings -- even though, ultimately, it results in no clear-cut, satisfying resolution." That the case was not solved is a given. It hasn't been, and it would have been pointless to claim that the killer had been identified. But in shaping his film, Fincher chose to include to some pre-existing facts (including locations, characters, period details) and leave out others -- like any filmmaker adapting a book or a play (fiction or nonfiction).

Quite a few critics of "The Social Network" questioned Fincher's sense of verisimilitude. If this was supposed to be the real story of Mark Zuckerberg (who said it was, or that such a thing was possible?), why did Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin supposedly pay so much attention to the brand of beer the characters were drinking in a particular pub and leave out the fact that the actual Zuckerberg had a steady girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, a Chinese-American he met at a fraternity party in his sophomore year at Harvard? The answer, I would think, is obvious: One detail was something they wanted to include in the film and the other was something they chose to leave out. The first and last scenes should make that fairly clear.

Anyway, this reminds me of the legend of Erich von Stroheim insisting that all the Royal Guard soldiers in "The Wedding March" wear properly monogrammed silk underwear, even though none of it would be visible on camera. Why? To help the actors/extras know what it felt like? To help the audience or the director believe more fully in the world he was creating? Does it matter? It's part of the texture of the film, and part of the legend. And it made a good promotional story -- not unlike the one about how Jason Reitman hired actual unemployed people to play termination interviewees in "Up in the Air," incorporating their stories into the film itself.

I don't see any of this adds up to a particularly notable fad or trend toward some newly imagined form of realism, however. But it does present another opportunity to reiterate, as Martin says, "that no film is real, that it is a construction."

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