Realism – Search for Truth or Road to Nowhere?

If it’s the latter then we recently met Laurent Cantet on the off-ramp. The mixed reception of the work of the guest of honour at this year’s Tromsø International Film Festival reflects the continuing strange success-story of the ‘documentary style.’

We love his back catalogue for conforming to its conventions. We hate Return to Ithaca for seeming to flout them. But what is the secret of the popularity of this style, at least among the self-styled cognoscenti? Could it have anything to do with widespread feelings of disempowerment in a civilisation on the brink of collapse? Cantet gave me his view in an interview in January. What follows is mostly mine.

Get real! Isn’t this the definitive clarion call of all film festivals? We come looking for entertainment of course, just as we do – in much larger numbers – to the regular cinema, but here we expect a little more. We expect another level of reflection or, cinematically speaking, a more penetrating gaze. Most festival-goers would be disappointed to come away without at least a little so-called ‘social realism.’ You’re supposed to emerge from a film-festival feeling you’ve learnt something. You should observe the strange, exotic or completely unknown, get acquainted with faraway places or obscure pastimes. You might even appreciate one of those classic ‘art-house’ excursions into the minutiae of our own everyday lives that we might pause to reflect on the nature of our existence, what we in the West usually refer to as the human condition.

Well, this year’s TIFF (12th-18th January) certainly provided what was written on the box – or in the catalogue. The guest of honour was an acknowledged master of social realism, particularly famous for his Palme-d’Or-winning Entre les Murs (The Class) of 2008. His latest work Return to Ithaca (2014) opened the festival. This dramatised meditation on the history of Cuba nevertheless came as something of a surprise. It’s self-consciously an art-film, certainly, but much more My Dinner with Andre (1981) than Vera Drake (2004). Through articulate and sometimes witty repartee, intellectuals reflect on their own existential ennui and relate it to the broader aspirations and disappointments of Latin America’s flagship socialist project.

Return to Ithaca (Laurent Cantet)

Compared to The Class, Return to Ithaca seems less realist, more conventionally theatrical, even stagey. It’s not easy to pinpoint the reason why, however. The comparison raises a difficult question. What is realism in this regard? What makes a particular film seem more true to life than another? Or to put it another way: what gives a work the kind of mark of authenticity that can prompt the sophisticated cinephile to nod with approval and self-satisfaction at being able to appreciate such a difficult but worthwhile film?

Consider what follows as a reflection on the irreducible soul of the film festival, the quest for authenticity or, to use an older, simpler nomenclature, the search for Truth (with a capital ‘T’). Perhaps it will shed life on the ‘discrete charm’ of the festival, what it is that draws some into its orbit just as surely as others are repelled. I believe we can see the soul of the festival, both its essence and its travails, in the work of Cantet, so this will double as a reflection on the qualities of this talented filmmaker. Let’s start with two examples, his much praised debut feature, Human Resources (1999), and The Class, for there is a pretty consistent style and approach spanning these two, reflecting common filmmaking strategies or choices. These are: amateur casting, an exploratory form of scene construction, and the use of hand-held cameras.

First of all, Cantet casts amateurs (mostly) in the major roles, where such roles resemble if not replicate the identities of their players. As far as possible they play themselves. For The Class Cantet and his crew went to school and filmed actual teachers in situ. For Human Resources they descended upon a real factory. We could call this the convention of ‘found humans’ in modern – or postmodern – cinema. Cantet hardly invented it. The ‘found human’ has become almost de rigueur for self-consciously independent film. It’s clearly a win-win strategy, reducing costs and increasing street credibility at a stroke. Interestingly this mimics the proliferation of ‘found objects’ in the visual arts.

Human Resources (Laurent Cantet)

Then there’s the strategy of filming and editing, which slackens the pacing and seems to locate the action in what we might call a kind of ‘organic time.’ More or less loosely-scripted ‘actors’ interact with at least a degree of spontaneity, and the camera just keeps rolling. It’s rolling before the action ‘starts,’ waits out any interruptions or pauses, and lingers beyond the action’s ‘conclusion.’ There are three important potential consequences of this filming strategy. First, the action is slowed down. Second, natural verbal stumbles and unplanned digressions are captured. Finally, interactive dynamics, such as conflict escalation, may work out their logic in relative independence of planning or scripting, taking on, as it were, a life of their own. One wonders if the astonishing outburst of a despairing teacher, for example, could have been captured to such telling effect in any other way. His diatribe against the hopelessness of his students and the futility of any attempt to educate them is compelling viewing. We feel the surprise, confusion and embarrassment of his colleagues as viscerally as though we were there with them in the claustrophobic staffroom. This is one of the most powerful moments of The Class.

Of course, casting the ‘footage net’ so widely makes the editing process more – not less – important. The filmmaker shapes the film in accordance with his vision but adaptively, in response to emerging possibilities. The use of organic time facilitates an inductive approach, sensitive to the chemistry of the ‘empirical material’ or human interactions at hand. In this way the film-set comes to resemble a behavioural laboratory, the ‘story’ nothing more than the broad design of a social experiment.

Finally, relatively open-ended scene construction and on-location sets dovetail naturally with the use of hand-held cameras. These are more flexible and responsive than stationary or mechanically mobilised cameras whose static positions or restricted zones of operation are better suited to the stipulations of relatively fixed dialogue and staging.

Naked (Mike Leigh)
Naked (Mike Leigh)

Clearly Cantet’s work reflects a much broader – albeit alternative – cinematic trend towards documentary-style fiction. This has proved extraordinarily inventive, producing some refreshing new takes on some relatively tired old genres. It has given us, for example, the horror of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the science fiction of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009). It has also spawned a brand new genre, the ‘mocumentary,’ including fictionalised varieties like District 9 itself, as well as the kind of on-location interventions typified by the work of Sacha Baron Cohen.

Methods may vary but the common core is a responsive, exploratory kind of narrative construction. This is observable in the work of all exponents of the ‘style.’ Take Mike Leigh for example. His approach may be slightly different but the visual-narrative effects are palpably similar. Unlike Cantet, he tends to work with professional actors but this element of polished craft is typically counterbalanced by a still more open-ended approach to narrative and script.

Leigh’s scenes are typically provided with no more than a premise, though this includes the fully-formed characters and their motivations. The rest is improvisation – with the camera always rolling of course. One of the most extraordinary, albeit strangely neglected, products of this approach is Naked (1993), thanks largely to the mesmerising performance of its lead, David Thewlis. As it gains momentum, his dark, misanthropic rant becomes a sort of stream-of-consciousness tour-de-force to rival the character Lucky’s famous – and only – speech in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The finished product is reputed to be predominantly scripted, since extended improvisation gradually allowed Leigh to identify the narrative and dialogic elements for final inclusion. Most of the more directly improvisational footage remained unused. Cantet similarly workshops his script construction but the narrative would seem to be more fully formed from the start and improvisation therefore more contained within structural limits.

Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica)
Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica)

Such limits seem to have been decisive in the case of Return to Ithaca. This stages a reunion of old friends, somewhat in the manner of The Big Chill (1983), though Cantet has apparently never seen Lawrence Kasdan’s influential comic drama from 1983. In the striking setting of a Havana rooftop, the reunion soon begins to open up a few old wounds. Though Cantet reports that the approach was essentially unchanged, here he faced a rather different kind of challenge, thanks to the decision to work with experienced actors. On the whole, the dialogue comes across as less naturalistic, more polished and theatrical. Perhaps Cantet would have done well to take a leaf out of Leigh’s book and grant the talented cast more license to exercise their powers of improvisation.

The roots of the documentary style lie in a deeper shift in the literary and expressive arts towards a more naturalistic form of representation. In cinema this found its first sustained expression in successive new-wave movements, first in Italy and later in France and Britain. Films like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), eschewed artful narrative construction and heightened drama, which all too readily degenerate into formulaic predictability, in favour of simpler yet richly textured stories, more reflective of everyday life. Interestingly this increasingly entailed a self-conscious shift of focus towards mass society and especially the working classes in preference to telling the fantastic stories of extraordinary or privileged individuals.

Already apparent in the work of directors like Godard and Ken Loach (see Kes from 1972, for example), is a more observational approach. This recalls some of the cinema’s earliest and most successful experiments, such as Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and the sadly neglected late-silent masterpiece from 1930, People on Sunday. In both, what passes for a plot takes its structure from something so naturalistic as the passage of a single day. Vertov here seems directly inspired by the breath-taking human panorama James Joyce managed to evoke using a similar premise in Ulysses, the most famous experimental novel of all time. The new wave was thus partly a return to the exploratory efforts of the pioneers of film, putting cinema back in touch with its roots.

The Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov)
Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov)

It was also the rediscovery of personal, idiosyncratic filmmaking, of the inspired individual with a movie camera. Here lies a paradox, however. This was both the zenith and the beginning of the end of the cult of the director – the celebrated auteur, invariably male, who would both pen his story and direct the crew and caste who would bring it to life. The subsequent evolution of the observational style into a kind of documentation lent itself to more collaborative, less didactic forms of storytelling. Wider cultural developments and intellectual movements played their role.

In 1967 the influential literary theorist Roland Barthes pronounced ‘the death of the author’ in his essay by the same name. The act of writing entailed individuals inserting themselves at various junctures in the great interminable flow of symbols and language, modifying or disturbing it in various but always limited ways. Therefore no one individual had any great significance as autonomous agent or author. Every one of us inherits pre-existing structures and media of representation, including particular, identifiable texts. Each reading is itself a reworking. Reading, in other words, elides into writing. Hence either there are no authors or we are all authors. These early postmodernist reflections came to resonate – in some cases literally – with more pluralistic and hence collaborative reinventions of our modes of expression. Recording-artists, for example, more self-consciously referenced – or even sampled – the groundwork of their forebears, while disc-jockeys interpreted and reworked their raw material, blurring the boundary between musician and interlocutor.

Herein lies the postmodern paradox. Viewed in one way, the resistance of ‘authoritative’ texts seems to empower individual agency with a new, pluralist energy, acknowledging difference, giving voice to the silenced. From another perspective, it submits us all to the tyranny of collective documentation and, paradoxically, invisibility, epitomised by the banality and impotence of an incalculable avalanche of ‘selfies.’ The problem goes deeper than this, for authority is loudly invalidated while its mechanisms remain largely untouched. We can see this in, among other things, the work of Cantet.

The Class (Laurent Cantet)
The Class (Laurent Cantet)

Cantet approaches the construction of The Class with sensitivity to difference and engages his cast in collaboration with him in telling his – or is it their – story? Actually it’s his for he retains a decisive element of control. His conception of inner-city teaching and its challenges provides the premise and continues to shape the final product through the selection and editing of his footage. We see similar, subtle forms of authorial work in a variety of settings. Reality TV is an obvious example. A programme like Big Brother creates a premise, in this case a group more or less imprisoned together in a controlled environment, collects huge quantities of raw footage of its human guinea-pigs, and, through careful editing, cobbles together a kind of story from their travails.

The author is not dead; she has only slipped into the background. Her influence is certainly no less insidious for having taken a low profile. Her choices matter. Compare the choices Cantet made regarding Return to Ithaca and his debut feature, Human Resources, for example. In the earlier film he chose to privilege the experiences and perspectives of working people at the featured factory, not the boss or company shareholders. In his most recent work he chose to privilege the experiences and perspectives of Cuba’s intellectual and professional elite. One draws our attention to the plight of factory workers, the other to the disappointments of the bourgeoisie. These ‘editorial’ choices are always in some sense partial and political, and they have important political consequences.

On the other hand, there is no denying that the role of the filmmaker and his self-understanding have changed, and Cantet is no exception. His ‘authority’ is less openly – but also less stridently – asserted. This expresses a groundswell of change in Western society more generally. Compared to other cultures, the West has long had an overblown sense of individual agency, autonomy and freedom. Compare the Western conception of art, with its celebration of the aura of the artist, with the Eastern, Taoist alternative, for example. According to Taoist philosophy the skill of the artist lies primarily, not in the act of creation as conception and application, but as recognition. If true beauty it is to be found in the nature of things, then the skill of the artist lies in being able to distinguish the beautiful as she finds it, and to work with – and within the confines – of, as it were, nature’s bounty. Cantet seemed to express a similar sentiment in describing his own working-methods: ‘Me, I need to feel connected to the world that is all around me, so that the film becomes something that resembles naturalism.’

Return to Ithaca (Laurent Cantet)
Return to Ithaca (Laurent Cantet)

When we self-consciously document something we emphasise the inscrutable workings of nature or destiny. We document what happened to people rather than tell a story about what they did. Take history as a form of storytelling. There was precious little of that in the Middle Ages but there were plenty of documents. The ancient art of historical narrative only resurfaced in Modern times, in the wake of the Renaissance. Typical medieval ‘history’ came in the form of the annals kept by monasteries, which recorded sporadic, heterogeneous events in list-form against a succession of dates. This work was done with all the resignation of men living in the time of The Fall from Grace. The monks of St. Gall, for example, told no story of agents in the world. They only noted with consummate brevity the vagaries and torments of mortal existence, with entries like Flood everywhere (712) or Saracens came for the first time (725).

Return to Ithaca seemed less realistic to us than The Class or Human Resources for complicated reasons. Most immediately and prosaically it was because Cantet’s earlier oeuvre had led us to expect the ‘documentary style’ and we were thus primed to interpret this latest offering through the paradigm of its conventions. In this way we were bound to find Return to Ithaca lacking. Something much more interesting may be at work here though.

Films in particular and culture in general are certainly changing but what about us? Can we be left untouched by such transformations in the way we convey, process, and share information? Is it possible our personal, subjective ‘worlds’ or, we could say, world-views, have themselves become more documentary and less narrative, more passive and less interpretive? In this regard, the interesting question is not so much why we take to the documentary style and find it realistic, but why we once favoured something else, something more like Return to Ithaca. Once upon a time we would have found this more convincing, more authentic than we do today, for two reasons. One was the faith we once had in the quintessentially Modern and Western ideal of progress. The other was our propensity to accept the convention of what we might call pre-digested dialogue and human interactions.

Laurent Cantet at TIFF.
Laurent Cantet at TIFF.

On the one hand, stories that come to a neat, satisfactory, if not always happy resolution resonate with ‘civilizational’ expectations. We used to believe we lived in a world of successful agents in a benignly evolving civilisation. Such beliefs have been more than a little shaken by some of the fearful cataclysms and reversals of the 20th Century.

On the other hand, though the erudite, varnished dialogue and interactions of such fictionalised agents may not seem true to life when we compare them with close observation of friends and acquaintances, they may nonetheless be true to our memories of the same friends and acquaintances. In the normal course of events we tend, in any case, to perceive our social interactions with a much less analytical or critical eye. We routinely overlook verbal mistakes or hesitations and focus on what seems important and most coherent, and, of course, still more will have been edited out by the time we retrieve whatever we can still recall from our storehouse of memory. This cognitive fact is what allowed the convention of a kind of literary dialogue on stage and screen to work so well for so long.

When we observe the world around us we process and shape what we see. We tend to filter out the unnecessary. We simplify by inserting our raw experiences into the more abstract categories or images they resemble. This sorting tendency is even more pronounced where memory is concerned. It is easier to remember things we were able to place in simple categories or narrative forms for storage. We will remember a table we saw more easily than an undifferentiated obstruction, for example. By the same token, we will remember the coherent form of a story or statement more easily than a painstaking, unsorted record of words and verbal glitches.

We live in a highly organised society, which is another way of saying it is set in its ways: work hard; go shopping; play with your toys. Our society has probably reached its zenith but hence also its point of mature, institutionalised routine. Under such conditions we probably feel less free, less like subjects or agents. This would certainly explain our penchant for a story that documents humans as caught in the web of life and our suspicion of one that presents them as weaving it in accordance with their own design. The sophisticated cinema-goer will therefore respond more positively to The Class or Human Resources than she will to Return to Ithaca. What is real is what speaks to our own experiences, to society as it operates and is lived in the here and now.

I believe we are going through something similar to those ancient Romans who lived in the twilight of their civilisation, as they embraced, for the first time, a more medieval mind-set, with its attitude of fatalism and resignation. The documentary-style film is giving us a little early warning of our own burgeoning medievalism. You may not believe me, but this kind of realism, with its almost forensic capacity for self-examination, is the hallmark of a civilisation on the brink of collapse. Sad but true!

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