In a 1977 essay on Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, Fredric Jameson addressed a perceived appetite for documentary fact in American culture, a distinct longing for “the anecdotal, the vécu, the fait divers, the true story in all its sociological freshness and unpredictability.” This appetite he saw expressed in the rise and prominence of non-fiction and historical novels, the primacy of non-fiction over fiction on the bestseller lists, the prominence of fictional documentaries or ‘docudramas’ [drama based on real events but re-enacted] on television, and the popularity of both procedural cop drama and political-conspiracy thrillers on the big screen. Over the years, this appetite has become only more pronounced: reality-based TV is complemented by both HBO realism and Youtube vérité, while docudrama has dominated the Oscars (if not the box office). Filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher have shown a particular fondness not only for fact-based narrative but for absolute fidelity to historical fact in their dramaturgy and mise en scène.
These filmmakers’ transforming themselves into ‘historians of the real’ has prompted a heated exchange between Kent Jones and Adrian Martin in the pages of De Filmkrant. Martin bemoans an ideological naiveté on both the filmmaker and the critic’s part when a return to realism is perceived as a way of breaking new ground, and genre conventions, by implication, are again seen as ideologically suspect. Jones replies that adherence to ‘meandering fact’ is, in these cases, purely functional, depending on the story at hand; as such, ‘realism’ must be seen as no more than a suitable response to ‘meditations on time’ like Fincher’s Zodiac or Assayas’s Carlos, films that are structured around “the lulls and disappointments and setbacks and frustrations instead of the peaks of an actual police investigation or an actual terrorist operation.” Still, Martin is not so far off the mark in identifying a trend (possibly kick-started by Zodiac’s critical reception), although the seeds of that trend lie with the films and culture Jameson was discussing, films like All the President’s Men, certainly an acknowledged influence on Fincher. In their strict adherence to historical fact movies like Zodiac, Carlos, Che – to name the most important disseminators of the trend – and more recently Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty or even Steven Spielberg’s ‘anecdotal’ Lincoln – seem to have been created as if to reprove Jameson’s dictum about docudrama that, “[n]ot even the most concrete visuality in detail and reconstruction, nor the historical accuracy and ‘truth’ of the re-enactment,” can remove these films from the realm of the imaginary. Although most of these films feature a ‘mediating consciousness’, a privileged witness character, who reshapes collective historical drama as personal psychological trauma, their dramaturgy is still largely constructed around the anecdotal, the ‘raw’ material of history. Martin notes that these movies are full of repetitious talk-sessions and ‘nothing-much-happening,’ a temps mort aesthetic that brings to mind both nouvelle vague and talky incarnations of slow cinema, the resemblance to the latter heightened by their lengthy running times.
The aim of this issue is to look at these movies and the perceived return of realism from a variety of angles:
- from the viewpoint of postmodern historiography and the discourse surrounding docudrama, reflecting on the difference between movies – like Argo, The King’s Speech etc. – in which historical events and characters which serve as the story’s referents in history are clearly ‘fictionalized,’ and new realist films that seem to want to restore the historical logic that the ‘facts’ about a specific ‘event’ are taken to be the ‘meaning’ of that event. The controversy surrounding movies portraying what Hayden White calls “holocaustal traumatic events” – like 9/11 – will be considered in this light
- in the context of the debate surrounding ‘slow cinema’ and the aesthetics of the everyday
- by framing the appetite for fact in the context of a distinctly modern fascination with the ‘mechanical,’ with the way things work, what historian Neil Harris has called the “operational aesthetic.” In this case, the operational aesthetic relates less to entertainment strategies exploiting audience delight in observing the technical working of the machine – as in the tradition of American entertainers like P.T. Barnum, Harris’s subject, or in the case of the pre-classical ‘cinema of attractions’ – than in the taste for detail, presented, quite literally, as the dramaturgy of an operation, investigation or forensic procedure, the ‘machine’ of planning, execution or detection
- as related to the distinct pleasure Roland Barthes describes in Le Plaisir du Texte, taking into account that the questions he raises become doubly resonant in the photographic medium of cinema: “Why do some people, including myself, enjoy in certain novels, biographies, and historical works the representation of the ‘daily life’ of an epoch, of a character? Why this curiosity about petty details: schedules, habits, meals, lodging, clothing, etc.? Is it the hallucinatory relish of ‘reality’ (the very materiality of ‘that once existed’)? And is it not the fantasy itself which invokes the ‘detail,’ the tiny private scene, in which I can easily take my place?”
Read the essays below.