Archive for the ‘Neorealism’ Category
On January 20, 1952, Vittorio De Sica released his masterpiece Umberto D., and God saw that it was good. It still is. Something more than just another “great film”, it’s one of the loftiest peaks in Italian neorealism, the postwar film movement that tried to draw the shortest possible line between movies and everyday life. To this day, watching Umberto D. remains a full-body experience: what’s at stake for its unlikely protagonist is communicated in such clear and concrete terms that we come to register the minutest adjustments in his emotional coloring. But it’s the film’s conclusion, which manages to be both definitively devastating and hypnotically sphinx-like, that concerns me here.
For those who never saw the film, it’s about the retired civil servant Umberto Domenico Ferrari, who lives in a rented room in Rome not long after World War II—a terrible time and place to be alone in the world. Umberto’s station in life has been drifting downwards for some time, we are made to understand. When we meet him, his only friend is a naïve young housemaid who’s saddled with her own problems; he lags so far behind on his rent that his landlady allows hookers to turn tricks in his bed; and the one thing standing between him and a self-administered mercy killing is his constant companion, a personable but utterly dependent terrier named Flike, who’d be doomed without his master.
The film takes place over the handful of days in which Umberto loses his last toehold on life, and his final descent from have-not to have-nothing takes us into situations that we normally see only in nightmares. De Sica spells out in exacting detail just how much work it takes to be poor: whether he’s trying to sell an old watch that nobody wants to buy or scamming a bowlful of food from a soup kitchen for Flike, Umberto is constantly fighting just to reach the next moment in his existence. When at last he’s reduced to pauper status, he has to force himself to extend his hand for alms, making Umberto D. perhaps the only movie to notice how unnatural the act of begging is.
For the most part De Sica and the great Marxist screenwriter Cesare Zavattini successfully avoid sentimentalizing their baggage-laden hero. For starters, they present Umberto as something of an asshole: it’s implied that he’s partly responsible for his predicament, and he’s much better at asking for favors than he is at performing them. (Carlo Battisti, the linguistics professor whom De Sica chose for the part, projects the dour and hissy personality of an unlovable grandparent.) Likewise, De Sica doesn’t overplay the Flike card, mainly by refusing to acknowledge the canine point of view. In the one instance that he slips up—Flike flinches as a human would at the sight of another mutt being abused—we get a glimpse of the different, more ordinary movie that Umberto D. might have been.
Umberto D. observes the daily life of its characters with the intensity of a jeweler’s loupe. A famous scene, played out in something close to real time, merely watches the housemaid go through her morning routine; in one fragrant shot, still in bed and only half-awake, she watches a cat picking its way across the skylight above her head, in one of those mysterious, ineffably right moments of cinema. De Sica pulls so many of these details together that by the end we seem to be inside Umberto’s world; the critic André Bazin put it best when he said that Umberto D. “makes us aware of what it is to be a man. (And also, for that matter, of what it is to be a dog.)”
Near the end of the film Umberto, now out of options, leaves his house for the last time, intent on finding a home for Flike—in effect, clearing the decks for his own suicide—but the world thwarts both this humble effort and, even more appallingly, his subsequent attempt to kill himself.
Now, anyone who’s sat through the film has to concede that man and dog will soon be dead—in a week perhaps, or perhaps in an hour—and yet if you didn’t know better, you’d think that master and pet don’t have a care in the world as they frolic along that pathway. Even the impact of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, one of the most celebrated downers in the history of art, is cushioned by our knowledge that at the movie’s end Antonio Ricci still has a home, a wife, and his son’s undying love. Umberto, though, is left facing the abyss, and yet in that final shot he displays a vitality, even a joy, that’s visible in no other part of the movie. How can this be? Acceptance is a virtue, God knows, but when you’re on the bricks like Umberto is, acceptance and two-bits won’t even buy you bubble-gum. Umberto and Flike disappear from view, some rowdy schoolboys sail past the camera, and suddenly it’s time to get on with our lives again. But what exactly did we just see? I’ve discussed the subject with friends and read what wise men have to say on the matter, but the most satisfactory answer came from an entirely different movie.
Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man appeared in 1957, and to this day it remains my favorite ’50s sci-fi flick, largely because of its graceful, enlightened ending. Richard Matheson’s story stars another abrasive hero, Scott Carey, who is enveloped in a radioactive mist that causes his body to begin shrinking—first to laughably childish, and finally atomic, proportions. A lot of Shrinking Man’s entertainment value springs from its parade of Brobdingnagian props: straight-pins that double as spears, a mousetrap the size of a minivan, kitchen matches that look like saguaro cactuses. (One of the movie’s biggest jolts comes in a shot of Carey unexpectedly sitting in a chair that fits him, topped by our realization that he’s moved into a dollhouse.)
The earliest threats to Carey come from such common domestic sources—a sour-faced tabby cat, a burst water heater—that it’s like being terrorized by a ficus tree. The scenes in which he’s reduced to the size of a Ken doll and juxtaposed against his strapping, buxom wife discreetly pick at the male dread of impotence, but like Umberto D. it’s ultimately about what happens to a person when lonesomeness becomes a way of life, and Carey’s description of his existence as “a gray friendless area of space and time” could serve as a tagline for De Sica’s movie. It’s only after he’s vanquished a towering tarantula (it straddles the camera in repulsive close-up) that Carey recognizes a deeper enemy, and realizes that he’s already licked it.
“The infinitesimal and the infinite…this vast majesty of creation…to God there is no zero….” As Jack Benny would put it: Well. But while that language may be a little bit gamey, the typical 1950s sci-fi flick was so intent on easing the age’s anxieties that it felt it had done its job once it dropped an A-bomb on its mole men or leech women and blown them back to kingdom come. For Richard Matheson to actually think through the implications of his original idea was an act of artistic largesse, and the image of Carey stepping off into the cosmos with this micro/macro Möbius strip swirling around inside his head only made it that much more generous. Under a title bad enough to make us wither from sight, Matheson would later concoct a sequel to The Incredible Shrinking Man. In it Scott Carey’s wife begins to shrink, too, and joins him in his tiny adventures until, thanks to exactly the type of miracle which the first movie so forcibly rejected, both Careys return to their normal height and retake their place in the world. It’s as if Matheson had set out to prove that the best endings are the ones which open themselves outward to the largest possibilities.
The Incredible Shrinking Man came into the world five years after Umberto D., and in the decades since the two movies’ fortunes have done a dosey-do. Shrinking Man, an instant hit in ’57, was still playing in crowded theaters when I saw it three or four years later, whereas De Sica’s movie, coming at the tail-end of the neorealist cycle, was a notorious flop in Italy. The Minister of Culture, with one eye glued firmly to the wrong end of the telescope, accused it of national slander while the Italian Communist party rejected its pessimism. Today, of course, Umberto D. is one of cinema’s most hallowed titles while Shrinking Man barely rates as a cult movie.
Say what you will about The Incredible Shrinking Man, it helped me to appreciate Umberto D. on a level beyond trite miracles or easy despair. Once he’s regained Flike’s trust with that pinecone, Umberto has done everything that he needs to do in this world. His bags are packed. And like Scott Carey, he recedes into “the infinitesimal”, an invisible world in which the ties that bind man and beast can never be erased—a place where dogs and men bear the same sized souls, and there are no zeroes.
Let’s start with the fact that not all of these pictures are real. Though they all purport to show the roundup of collaborators near the end of World War II, the one I’ve labeled “Florence 1945” was actually staged by Roberto Rossellini for his movie Paisà. The film appeared in December 1946, before fashions had had time to change, and while the thoughts and feelings of the Occupation were still fresh in people’s minds. But the photo blends in with the others for more basic reasons. The unhindered energy, the random postures and groupings, and the idiosyncratic touches—those improbably glamorous sunglasses, the men whose backs are turned to the camera, the medial distance that doesn’t allow any one person to swamp out the others—together create a quality which James Agee nailed down as “the illusion of the present tense”.
It’s a concept which movies are tailor-made for, but practically all of them, including the ones which want to say something about the real world, live in fear of it, preferring instead to exist four feet off the ground. The Army of Crime, Robert Guédiguia’s docudrama about a group of Resistance fighters in Paris, spends serious time stroking its chin and pondering the morality of violence, a question that’s already rigged when your enemies are freaking Nazis. Must you make your bloody grenade attack look like Ring-Around-the-Rosie, too?
In a commercial movie it’s a dead cinch that the character standing apart from a hundred others will be the star. It’s not enough that Ben Kingsley, playing a character we know to be important in the story, is made the focus of the scene. No, he has to have his own space, a force-field separating him from all those union-scale mannequins.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Why make a movie about mortal men and then do everything you can to segregate and deify them? It’s not so hard to make a famous face—or even two—melt into a scene.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
This is democracy in action. The extras here—made up of real Bruins fans watching a real hockey game—are also, by no coincidence, real looking. Your eyes don’t get bored once you’ve taken in the leads; on the contrary, it’s impossible not to notice that a couple of the faces look even more lived-in than Bob Mitchum’s mug.
Schindler’s List, which does some important things right, does even more important things wrong. It treats its minor Jewish characters as Polish Ewoks who gather in photogenic clusters, speak in adorable Yiddish accents, and yelp “Oy!” whenever Ralph Fiennes shoots one of them—a “Jewish street” which Spielberg tunes into whenever the audience might be wondering what “the Jews” are thinking. Below, giving off a single, unified, easy-to-scan vibe, they register as nothing more than statuary.
Schindler’s List (1993)
This despite the fact that human beings never stop being themselves, not even in the direst of circumstances. Realism is always in the details, and details are always wild-cards.
Sam Fuller once said that to make a realistic war film one would have to fire a rifle into the audience from behind the screen, a line pointing up the differences between two very different styles of filmmaking. Movies have the power to terrify, but even the sharpest movie shock lags far behind our real-life traumas. The bathhouse scene in Schindler’s List is objectionable for any number of reasons—a naif such as Steven Spielberg positioning himself as our historical and moral tutor; the camera’s doting on nude actresses who, unlike those in the earlier Selektion scene, remain unavoidably fetching despite their supposed plight; or the fact that, in the movie’s most thoroughly Spielbergian touch, these women survive, a decision reducing their ordeal to the level of Indiana Jones’ flight from the giant boulder. Had Spielberg really wanted his audience to experience the Holocaust, he would’ve chained the exit doors and pumped the theater full of Zyklon B; instead he gave us a thrill-ride and pretended it was something more, because that’s the way he thinks that movies work. And everybody’s fine with it.
There was a lot of open snickering when Thomas Kinkade died a few weeks ago, but I bet a lot of the snickerers unabashedly ascribe to a film aesthetic which Kinkade himself would have applauded. Who believes that the basic elements in any Nolan-Fincher-Cameron-Scott-Jackson (and, sadly, perhaps Scorsese, too, now) shot have not been digitally prettified? By contrast the young Terrence Malick, who hated both shot-lists and striking sets, often veered from his daily planner and let his eyes dictate his next move, an attitude that filled his movies with found moments, and found moods, some of which celebrated nothing more than the time of day. I’ve always preferred the shot plucked from Nature’s pocket
to Kinkadian fantasias
(Star Wars 1977)
but today—when movies are formed as much on the keyboard as in the lens, and when either of these images could be generated by a computer—it feels like an imperative.
Oddly, realism doesn’t need to look or sound totally realistic to do its job. The exquisite little tracking shot that opens The Public Enemy may not be convincing in all its details, but its choreography of bustling urban movement is thoroughly credible while painting in a few fleet seconds the immigrant, lower income world that Tom Powers springs from. The final episode of Paisà follows a band of resistance fighters who are cornered in a marshy river delta during the last days of the Occupation. The acting by the amateurs is so provisional that there’s scarcely an acceptable line-reading between them, and yet the sequence shines with the immediacy of reality. Andre Bazin said that Rossellini was simply “directing the facts”.
In Pina’s death scene in Rome Open City Rossellini accumulates a flood-tide of disparate actions until they reach critical mass. Things move so quickly we can barely register the humanly amused German masher or Marcello kicking the guard’s shins; the details keep piling up even after Pina falls to the street. Our knowledge that she would’ve hated for the world to see the tops of her nylons is a part of the scene. Even the fact that we don’t see which guard actually shoots her is a part of the scene.
People say they don’t want reality in movies, that they go to movies to escape. First, an escape from what, I’d like to know—we live in Disneyland, for crying out loud. Second, I’m not even sure it’s true. We’re too quick to complain about obvious fakery, too ready to take sustenance from realistic details, whether it’s the dust beating off Indy’s pants as he runs to the seaplane or the unsimulated distress of Cassavetes’ daughter at the end of Husbands.
Character motivations, and the effect of our desires on reality, suffer as badly as visual details. What we want and why we do things simply don’t have the stranglehold on the world’s concern that the movies or our egos (though we may be splitting hairs here) suggest they do. That’s the grandest illusion of them all. For every concrete cause and effect we detect in our lives there’s a greater web of circumstance and coincidence guiding, retarding, muddying and igniting things, which is only to say, yet again, that it’s all about context. “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul” makes a wonderful credo for trust-fund babies, but the rest of us know better.
Movies may thrive on clear-cut conflict, but real-life problems are nebulous things made up of contradictory parts, taking root over years and mutating as our situations change. Even odder is the idea that anybody’s internal strife can be reduced to some single tagline—“a fear of letting strangers in”, “a longing for something new”—or that these problems, no matter how vast and crippling they seem at the outset, can be solved like a mystery come the last act. Lasting victories in life are rare enough, and the idea that they arrive just as we’re winning a prizefight, performing “Swan Lake”, facing down a hooligan, or running a marathon on one leg beggars all belief. (And of course it’s the last major life-challenge we’ll ever be asked to face.) What is it we pine for in these fairy tales? Why do we long to be carried around on the shoulders of strangers? Why do we pretend to ourselves that our lives are awful? Why can’t we be free?
I’m not arguing for movies to be perfect mirrors of life, as if they ever could be; any attempt to capture every inchoate grunt and groan that forms living conversation could only result in a fake vérité. What does work, though—and that still from Eddie Coyle is the perfect example—is to begin with a documentary surface and then let your fiction melt out upon it, like a pat of butter on hot toast.
What does realism add? Well, for starters it can construct a three-dimensional environment—the house in Gosford Park, the town in Deadwood—which we can mentally explore to to our heart’s content. It adds atmosphere and texture, and an enlivening randomness which grounds the action while serving as Kevlar against the hoary and predictable. It gives a work heft, an authority denied to fantasy, because it’s bound to sights and sounds, feelings and places, that we all recognize. And if nothing else, it keeps us from trivializing the world we live in—which is the same thing as trivializing ourselves.