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Just the Facts – A New Realist Cinema?

Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

In his controversial ‘manifesto’, Reality Hunger (2010) (read it here), a book made up of 618 aphorisms, more than half drawn from other sources, author David Shields, also a professor of English at the University of Washington, starts from the assumption that the novel has outlived its use, which is, to recreate the world as fiction. ‘The world exists,’ Shields writes, ‘Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it.’ Even if the world exists, reality, as such, doesn’t; fiction is all around us, most of all in reality television formats, or in memoirs that turn out to be fake: everything and everybody lies. But that doesn’t make our appetite, nay our hunger for reality any less acute. The way into reality, Shields proposes, involves precisely embracing the fictional truth of nonfiction: instead of condemning a memoirist like James Frey for having lied in A Million LittlePieces, his ‘autobiographical’ tale of drug addiction, we should applaud him as a prime practitioner of a new literary form, the personal, lyrical essay. The essay is more open-ended, more flexible in its rhetorical strategies than the novel, specifically it allows its author, in the case of Shields a self-confessed ‘knowledge junkie,’ to bring aboard ‘raw material’, ‘seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored and unprofessional,’ to sample, collage, or generally play around with.

Of course, Shields isn’t saying or proposing anything really new. Is he? A long time ago (‘Not that distant in calendar time but galactically remote from where we’ve journeyed since,’ as the cover text of the new Pynchon novel puts it), in the late 1970s, Fredric Jameson detected ‘an appetite for the documentary fact, for the anecdotal, the vécu, the fait divers, the true story in all its sociological freshness and unpredictability,’ that he saw reflected both in the primacy of non-fiction over fiction on the bestseller lists, in the new genre of the fictional television documentary (reenactments of trials or sensational crimes) and in the non-fiction novels of Mailer, Doctorow and Capote. At the same time, notions of truth and reality were under attack from anti-realist, non-essentialist philosophies, new historicisms and (post-)structuralist theories. Shields is most clearly influenced by Roland Barthes, whose conception of a ‘novelesque’ type of critical essay, drawing on fictional resources (stories, images, details), he actually reverses; the literary form that comes closest to Shields’ ideal is probably the idiosyncratic autobiographical stance, marginalia and numbered or alphabetized fragments of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and  A Lover’s Discourse. On the other hand, the crucial importance of Barthes’ ‘third meaning’ as metonymic research procedure for the current discourse on cinephilia seems to indicate not only a comeback of Barthesian Post-Structuralism, and a related revival of ontological film theory, but a veritable return of ‘realism’ that seems more than just another postmodern case of nostalgia for the present or the real. Recent books by Dudley Andrew, Ian Aitken, Philip Rosen, Laura Mulvey, Ivone Margulies, Malcolm Turvey, Lúcia Nagib, and many others, have put realism high on the film-theoretical agenda again.

This observation is supported by the return of a Seventies-type Hollywood political cinema (from Syriana to Argo), by ‘mutations’ of (post-)Neorealist strategies of dedramatization in award-winning, trendsetting new world cinemas from East Asia and the Middle East, and by the commercial and critical impact of self-reflexive documentaries by Werner Herzog, Raoúl Ruiz, Erroll Morris, Ross McElwee, and, well, Banksy. The self-reflexive documentary is the type of cinema Shields prefers, so he will be pleased to find in Adrian Martin’s lead-in essay to this issue, “Sixteen Ways to Pronounce Potato, or: The Adventure of Materials”, a reflection on the ontology of the genre and its ‘truth effects’. Martin traces the genre’s lineage back to Jean Rouch, who steered the documentary and cinema vérité in exceedingly creative and stimulating ways by confounding ‘all the categorical distinctions between documentary and fiction, representation and presentation.’ The “Potato” essay is a ‘fragment from 1987,’ ‘a historical snapshot of the currents in film culture that gave rise to it,’and its author wonders if its ‘paths of thought and theoretical experiment that might still be taken, by someone, somewhere.’ Both Michael Guarneri and Christophe Van Eecke have answered his call. In a well-researched essay, Van Eecke sheds light on Ken Russell’s approach to the genre of the artist’s biographical documentary, and how his views clashed with the aesthetic policy of the BBC in the 1960s. In his essay, “Between documentary, fiction and appropriation art: A case report on the ‘language game’ Public Hearing”, Guarneri investigates a highly unusual case of self-reflexive documentary. In his New York Times review of Reality Hunger, writer Luc Sante finds comfort in the fact that, even if the death of the novel has (once again) been pronounced, ‘only an artificial dualism would treat every non-novel as if it were reportage or court testimony.’ In Public Hearing, filmmaker James Kienitz Wilkins has crafted a hybrid piece out of the reenactment of a legal hearing based on legal transcript, a medial ground between the actual event and its institutionally-approved written account. Similarly, Guarneri proposes we drop the theoretical call for documentary purity and opt for ‘meticulous phenomenology’ instead. Whatever he might feel about Guarneri’s argument, by the time the author has repositioned Public Hearing as a form of appropriation art, as a well-crafted ‘objet trouvé,’ Shields is sure to be the movie’s biggest fan.

In one of its many inspiring proposals, Adrian Martin’s 1987 deconstruction of documentary purism suggests we think about the notion of the movie as event: ‘What a film performs is an event of a dense and knotted sort – an event on many, simultaneous levels. There are events in the film and the event of the film – and these levels are always modifying each other, playing off each other and creating multiple interrelations.’ Before we can start thinking about the film performing an event of a complex sort, however, we have to presuppose the possibility of an event occurring. Thinkers on postmodernism like Fredric Jameson and Hayden White have argued that the meaning, form, or coherence of events, whether real or imaginary ones, is a function of their narrativization. In other words, you can only think of an event as part of a narrative. I’m not sure how this applies to the tricky ontology of the (documentary) film, but it is a central problematic for theoreticians and historians thinking through the equally knotty genre that is the ‘historical film.’ In my own essay on two films that historicize revolutionary politics of the Sixties and Seventies, Olivier Assayas’ Carlos and Steven Soderbergh’s Che, I propose, however, that we think of these movies’ ‘rough materials,’ their factual-presentational style not in the context of postmodern reflections on the relativity of historical truth and the necessary fictional nature of its representation, but in terms of their (no doubt unconscious) engagement with some of the precepts, notably that of ‘totality’, expounded by Georg Lukács in his The Historical Novel. In this case, Shields would not like. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln in no way aspires to totality, reducing what was once conceived as an epic portrayal of the Great Emancipator’s whole political career to an almost anecdotal rendering of the two months in Lincoln’s life when he was preoccupied with adopting the Thirteenth Amendment. Continuing Spielberg’s deconstruction of a would-be epic, Drehli Robnik, in a, dare we say it, epic close reading, sifts out those chains of motifs, markings and puns that enable moments of true emancipatory potential to shine through.

Che and Carlos were the subject of an inspiring discussion between Adrian Martin and fellow critic Kent Jones in De Filmkrant on whether or not the realist inspiration of these films is breaking any new ground. The debate was never really followed up on – except in these pages! – partly, I think, because the issues it raises are so widespread. One way to go about untangling the argument, is by reducing the tension created between genre cinema and realism. David Fincher’s Zodiac (pictured above), the movie that started off the debate, is a generic police procedural, and most of its strengths derive from the fresh variations it plays on the well-worn genre. At the same time, it’s a peculiar instance in that the movie’s obsession with forensic fact is mirrored both in its relatively open-ended dramaturgy and in Fincher’s own position as a ‘truth junkie.’ In an entertaining tribute to the genre, David Gunzburg traces the genealogy of Zodiac’s ‘operational realism’ and that of its companion piece, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, to the master criminal plot of Feuillade’s Fantômas and Lang’s Mabuse, and to the ‘reality effect’ created in film noir and Seventies paranoid thrillers. Approaching the procedural from a different angle, Pieter-Jan Decoster & Nancy Vansieleghem explore the parallelisms between the detective’s investigation and academic research strategies, drawing on Deleuze’s conceptualization of the ‘forger’ to posit the central character of Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanité as a ‘human researcher’ following different epistemological and hermeneutic principles.

Allow me to come back to Adrian Martin’s contribution to this issue one last time. At the same time that his essay is a much-need remapping of the complex area that is truth in fiction, it is what the author himself identifies as a call for a new type of criticism, ‘a new way of talking, thinking and writing about cinema.’ No manifesto this, it is a call to move away from what is ‘badly seen and said.’ I’m not sure whether media artist and documentary maker Stefaan Decostere’s “Scripting in the Dataverse,” a meta-textual reflection on the questions that came up while he was trying to write a script for his next film, “Love Between the Layers,” is exactly what Adrian had in mind. But the text – as much a “Lover’s Discourse” as Barthes’ original – does fulfill the criteria of interesting writing by being productive, experimental and creative. By highlighting the influence of Jarry’s Pataphysics, it again points to the huge importance of the surrealist tradition for all reflections on truth and reality, specifically those related to the cinema or new image media. Like David Shields, Decostere is ‘hungry for reality,’ recombining unprocessed material in a doggedly unsystematic way. Unlike Shields, though, Decostere is not so sure the world, as we know it, still exists, that there is still a real out there somewhere. And, again unlike Shields, he has a lot of fun writing about it.