Something intriguing happened in contemporary cinema a few years ago, with the release of David Fincher's zodiac (2007). It was a moderate commercial success but, more importantly, it was a film that certain influential critics championed: Kent Jones in USA, Thierry Jousse in France... What these writers saw and appreciated in Fincher's film was his 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.
zodiac kick-started a minor trend among ambitious directors. Steven Soderbergh's two-part che (2008) continued along the path, Olivier Assayas took the approach all the way in his television mini-series carlos (2010), and now Fincher himself returns to the fold with the social network (2010). 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. For these are not stories of, for example, the anonymous homeless people that De Sica or Zavattini loved; quite the contrary, they are about celebrity politicians, revolutionaries, inventors or serial killers; they deal with entire social strata in tumult. The result is a low-key realistic soap-opera of guns, sex, death, wealth, power ... sticking, as far is possible, to the exact, wayward contours of the original events.
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. Manny Farber (bless his soul) had a lot to do with popularising this peculiar prejudice: anything angular, off-beat or singular in cinema was translated into a code of scarce, fiercely desired reality. Which is a pretty odd assumption, when you think about it.
I am reminded of the splendid gag provided as a bonus on the DVD of that assiduously unreal comedy dodgeball (2004): a downbeat, unhappy ending in which the heroes lose the big ball game. An ending, we are solemnly told, that the 'studio wouldn't allow' — because it was 'too much like real life'!
Adrian Martin and the realism of ZODIAC, CARLOS and CHE
I asked the editors of Filmkrant if I could respond to Adrian Martin's piece "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real," and they kindly agreed.
Over the years, I have grown increasingly suspicious of all the compulsive polemicizing in film criticism. Suspicious, and weary. I detect an element of nostalgia, and a measure of fear — to stop polemicizing would be tantamount to giving up the ghost and abandoning the spirit of revelation, redescription, and violent realignment that animated film culture during its most heroic intervals.
I was puzzled by Martin's attack on what he takes to be a new realism in cinema. To be more precise, he has looked at a small group of recent films — zodiac, che, the social network, carlos and the television series The Wire — and perceived a depressing trend, the latest in an apparently endless series of returns to realism, that deadly "trap that never ceases to lure filmmakers and cinephiles." The result is a group of films whose creators, along with their critical champions — Thierry and I are the only ones named — "fervently believe they are breaking new ground." But Martin wants us all to know that we are fooling ourselves, since the resulting films are nothing but "low-key realistic soap-opera[s] of guns, sex, death, wealth, power ... sticking, as far is possible, to the exact, wayward contours of the original events." In the case of zodiac, the film that "kick-started" this trend, David Fincher's "absolute fidelity to the meandering facts" was all for naught since it "result[ed] in no clear-cut, satisfying resolution." And the root of the problem? That we rigidly associate "everything that is conventional and generic in film with unreality and fakeness," — and then label every deviation from the conventional and the generic as an "eruption of an impression or trace of reality." And at the base of the root lies Manny Farber, of all people, who "translated" anything "angular, off-beat or singular in cinema" into a "code of scarce, fiercely desired reality." Martin then characterizes this alleged preoccupation of Farber's as "a pretty odd assumption." You're telling me.
This strange brew of extravagant generalizations and mischaracterizations makes sense to me only within the rhetorical framework of the polemic, practiced with impunity in web-based criticism. At the center of it all is that most insulting of all rhetorical devices, the charge of mass delusion. In this case, it's not just Thierry and I who are deluding ourselves, but all the people milling within our spheres of influence, not to mention Assayas, Fincher, Soderbergh and David Simon. Silly us — we forgot that the "pernicious ideological effects" behind the "illusion of realism" had been revealed to us long ago. A ridiculous notion, to swear off realism because ideologically suspect in works have been produced under its cover — we might as well throw out musicals, westerns, gangster movies and, above all, fantasy.
The misshapen characterization of Farber; the extravagant generalizations about the films themselves; the lack of a "satisfying resolution" at the end of a story that didn't have one, at least in a conventional sense (this from a critic who has never exactly made a fetish of satisfying resolutions); the handy reminder that "no film is real, that it is a construction"; the tortured logic (conventional and generic = unreal and fake, therefore every deviation from unreal and fake = an impression of reality, therefore the best narratives = the ones that adhere most closely to the meandering facts); the extremely opportunistic accusation of decadence ("these are not stories of...the anonymous homeless people that De Sica or Zavattini loved"); the complete effacement of any and all stylistic elements in the films in question, the better to stick to the issue of story construction (again, a new wrinkle from this particular critic); the surpassingly odd accusation that the "appeal to realism" is what has gotten everyone so excited in the first place (when it was really these individual stories for the filmmakers, these individual films for the critics) — hidden behind all this finger-pointing is a fairly coherent group of movies.
I can't speak for Thierry, but I do not love zodiac because of its adherence to the meandering facts per se, but because of the use it made of that adherence and what it led to — a very different matter. And, for me, it fed an extraordinarily haunting meditation on time and human effort. Assayas himself is a great admirer of the Fincher film and of che as well, and he in turn made a film whose own adherence to reality led to another haunting meditation on time, albeit from a wholly different, geopolitical angle. Of course these are just opinions, so I can not offer them as any kind of proof. I will say, however, that neither Assayas nor Fincher labored for one moment under the delusion that they had "transformed themselves into historians... of the real." Rather, they were making movies — fictional constructions, as Martin tells us — which bet on the idea that the reality of the depicted events could lead to a different kind of narrative, incorporating the lulls and disappointments and setbacks and frustrations, amidst the peaks, turning points and climaxes of an actual police investigation or a series of actual terrorist operations. For some, myself included, the bet paid off handsomely. For others, like Martin and Jonathan Rosenbaum, it did not. For reasons that escape me, this warranted an unpleasant, attention-getting polemic, intended to address the threat allegedly posed by the films and their admiring critiques.
Critic and chief editor of the American film magazine Film Comment.