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.