In the late 1970s, the late Gérard Legrand — great critic for Positif magazine and collaborator in Surrealist adventures with André Breton — wrote a piece in which he drew a number of disparate but roughly contemporaneous films together. Intuiting a new trend for the fantastique — not as a strict genre, more a looser tonality, as he described it — he referenced Jacques Rivette's duelle, Eduardo de Gregorio's serail, Louis Malle's black moon, André Téchiné's barocco and Claude Chabrol's alice or the last fugue.
Would anyone take exception to Legrand's gesture today, over thirty years later? Would anyone care to object, now, that Rivette and Gregorio should not be lumped in with Malle and Chabrol, that Téchiné is a case apart, that authentic fantastique examples need to be distinguished from inauthentic examples, or that one or other of these projects was dreamt up years before the 'trend' came into vogue? Of course not: because Legrand, as a critic and a viewer, was perfectly in his rights to observe a pattern between these various films. And also because history has proved him to be quite correct.
Last month, World Wide Angle sparked a small but lively international conversation with discussion of a new 'realist' cycle in cinema spanning zodiac, carlos and che. One of the commentators referenced — absolutely without malicious intent on my part — exercised the right of reply on Filmkrant's website. The matter was taken up elsewhere, too: for example, by Jim Emerson on his excellent blog Scanners, who made the unusual but timely move of linking to a Facebook thread on which US pundit Glenn 'anger management' Kenny poured ungentlemanly scorn on this column and its author.
Some strange and inaccurate things were alleged about my piece. Sentences were misread and meanings misconstrued. I was faulted for 'misreading' Roland Barthes and Manny Farber. There was the repeated accusation that I was aiming to torpedo these films and their makers and their fans, that at base I just 'didn't like' them. (Not so: I am, publicly, a big fan of zodiac.) There was the forgivable objection that, in a grand total of 550 words, I didn't account for every kind of screen realism — and there are, indeed, many different kinds. There were insinuations of some bogus war of intellectual positions in global film culture — when, quite simply, I was trying to describe and circumscribe a trend, a trend that Olivier Assayas, at the very least, talks about in almost exactly the same words I used.
Many of these reactions betrayed an extreme defensiveness — not as a personal character trait, but as a collective, cultural phenomenon. What temerity on my part to 'lump together' such highly individual films, artists and critics! Aren't these directors masters of their own work, just as critics are masters of their own thoughts and reactions? Well, as it happens, no.
Nobody (me included) likes to be told they are symptomatic — that some part of what they do escapes their willed control, and unstoppably enters into a broader pattern of cultural-political correspondences that is necessarily beyond them, but in which they become implicated. And this is exactly what happened to Fincher, Soderbergh and Assayas when they plugged into the zeitgeist of a 'new realism' — and it happens when a (rightly) influential critic such as my friend Kent Jones declares in this month's Sight and Sound that zodiac and carlos find their "structural and dramatic inspiration in reality itself".