My first job out of college was as an assistant editor on a documentary. It was a nightmare job, with crazy characters fighting, sabotaging and locking each other out of the editing room. Obviously, I learned a lot on that job.
But one of the life-changing aspects of watching a documentary come together was that it destroyed an idea that I’d had about film up to that point. I had always assumed that filmmakers should aspire to getting as close to reality as possible. Working on a documentary, where they casually cut different parts of interviews together in order to get them to say something specific, made it fairly obvious that, even in a documentary, that kind of idealistic realism that I was thinking of wasn’t really possible, or, more to the point, wasn’t such a good idea in the first place.
It took me a long time after that to figure out that realism – and in particular, naturalism – does not get you very close to reality. Realism, in it’s ultimate guise, is something like Andy Warhol’s filming the corner of the Empire State Building for 12 hours. Called Empire, it gets screened every few years, but who the hell would sit through that? Maybe that’s the point.
There was surge in realism that came about in the 60’s and 70’s and American cinema has never really recovered from it. If you watch the films that came just before it, the studio films of the early 60’s from Europe and America, you can sense that things needed to be changed. The dialog, which can be excellent, was anything but realistic and it wasn’t meant to be. But even then, the audience was craving more location shooting, more realistic dialog, films about real people. The next generation of filmmakers, starting with the French New Wave, saw how stifled and stale filmmaking had become and worked to change that.
In other words, the realism that became the high point of American 70’s cinema was a reaction to what came before it.
What is our reaction to the current staleness of realism going to be? Surely we can do better than “mumblecore”. Fighting naturalism with more naturalism doesn’t seem like much change to me.
Naturalism dominates nearly every American film today. Even Hollywood fantasies have dialog that walks the line between exposition and naturalism, with naturalism being the goal and exposition being the ball and chain around their leg.
So, whatever the next thing is, after this wave of naturalism, its time has come.