Earlier this week, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody posted an article online entitled “Camus, Car Crashes, Cinema.” A piece as multivalent and stimulating as its title suggests, Brody uses the recent hypothesis that Albert Camus’ 1960 death was not an accident but a meticulously staged assassination by the KGB as a springboard to ponder the intersection of Camus’ life with the legacy of French cinema (and, tangentially, the prevalence of auto accidents among a lengthy roster of famous French actors and directors, and as a significant motif in landmark French films like Godard’s Weekend). Characteristically, Brody’s writing is light and intuitive, almost stream-of-consciousness, as he jumps (logically, yet unpredictably) from one concept to another.
Especially interesting in Brody’s article, I think, is a lengthy excerpt that he cites from Camus’ 1957 lecture at the University of Uppsala, which Camus delivered shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. Camus was not exactly a devout supporter of the cinema; in fact, Brody makes the point that, when the film magazine La Revue de Cinéma was losing money in 1948, Camus (who was editor at Gallimard, the publishing company responsible for the magazine) shut it down. (Film lovers shouldn’t feel too spurned by Camus’ disinterest, though: out of the ashes of La Revue de Cinéma arose the publication that would soon become Cahiers du Cinéma.) Nonetheless, in Camus’ Uppsala lecture (entitled “The Artist and His Times”), issues of cinema and its ability to convey reality (or, as Camus words it, the life of a man in its totality) were central. Brody cites the following passage from Camus:
What is more real … in our universe than the life of a man, and how could one hope to revive it better than in a realistic film? But under what conditions would such a film be possible? Purely imaginary ones. One would actually have to posit an ideal camera that is fixed, night and day, on this man and ceaselessly records his slightest movement. The result would be a film, the screening of which would last a lifetime and that could be seen only by viewers resigned to losing their life in the exclusive interest of the details of someone else’s. Even then, this unimaginable film wouldn’t be realistic—for the simple reason that the reality of a man’s life isn’t found only where he is. It’s also found in the other lives that shape his—first of all, the lives of those he loves, who would, in turn, have to be filmed; but also the lives of unknown others—powerful or downtrodden—fellow citizens, policemen, professors, invisible companions in mines and factories, diplomats and dictators, religious reformers, artists who create myths that govern our behavior—all told, humble representatives of the sovereign accidents that reign over even the most orderly existence. Thus there’s only one realistic film possible, the one that is endlessly projected for us by an invisible apparatus on the screen of the world. The only realistic artist would be God, if he exists. Other artists are, of necessity, unfaithful to the real.
Of course the cinephiliac debate over what is film’s true “vocation”—portraying reality as doggedly as possible, or embracing the film camera’s transformative, non-realistic capabilities—has persisted basically since the dawn of cinema in the late nineteenth century. And of course, the debate can never be settled because cinema has no true single vocation; as most audiences have recognized (wittingly or not) over the last 120 years, film is necessarily, inherently a blend of the two artistic modes, at once convincing in its realism and markedly expressive in its deviations from reality.
Nonetheless, this old argument is usually worthy of reconsideration, especially when voiced as eloquently as Camus does here. The argument is familiar: no single film can encompass the totality of a life, if only because a movie has to begin and end at some point, and because certain elisions and ellipses are (usually) necessary. What’s more, if one assumes that the cornerstone of a realistic film is a fixed, observational camera that never strays from its human subject, such a rigid perspective would necessarily avoid the numerous other agents and institutions that affect that person’s life.
Just as claims to the cinema’s true vocation are never successful, so, too, are arguments against film’s essence or nature always faulty in some way. (Again, there’s always that middle ground.) What Camus seems to be talking about here is not conveying reality onscreen but the aesthetic and thematic movement of realism as it has developed in film. When he speaks, for example, of a fixed, ideal camera trained on a subject night and day, he seems to be thinking ahead towards the minimalist style of observational realism that would be practiced by European arthouse modernists from the 1960s onward. We may think, for example, of Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973) or Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), two films that seek primarily to observe their main characters through piercing, unwavering stares. Camus was speaking in 1957, around the time when this aesthetic tradition was first coming into play, as it was practiced especially by Carl Theodor Dreyer in 1955’s Ordet and, to a lesser extent, 1943’s Day of Wrath. (Dreyer would carry this unflinching observational style to its fullest expression yet with 1964’s Gertrud). A few years after Camus’ speech, in 1962, Agnès Varda would further develop this style of observational realism with Cleo from 5 to 7.
But is this brand of minimalism really the fullest embodiment of reality onscreen? This train of thought, it seems, has persisted to this day, as modern examples of “realism” onscreen might bring to mind the films of the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta, L’Enfant) or the visceral immediacy of Kelly Reichardt (Wendy & Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff). At the time of Camus’ lecture in 1957, though, critics such as Andre Bazin and James Agee were espousing a different kind of realism (or, maybe more precisely, reality) onscreen: one that operated via the linear editing and narrative style of more traditional films but that adopted new aesthetic techniques in order to suggest the individuals and institutions that heavily affected the lives of characters. For both Bazin and Agee, Jean Renoir and William Wyler were among the most accomplished practitioners of this form of cinematic reality: films like Rules of the Game (1939) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) adopted deep-focus cinematography, on-location shooting, and ensemble casts of characters emblematic of different strata of society in order to encompass the turbulent changes then influencing French and American society, respectively. Maybe the high point of this brand of cinematic reality was Italian postwar neo-realism, embodied by Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945) and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), which began casting nonprofessional actors—real people selected from the streets of Italian cities—in order to lend these films a greater semblance of gritty reality. If we adopt these films’ strategies (and Bazin’s and Agee’s theories), the most convincing and thorough form of cinematic reality is not unwavering minimalism but a polyphonic and visually complex style that would, as Camus might say, point towards the “humble representatives of the sovereign accidents that reign over even the most orderly existence.”
Again, this style is in marked contrast to the fixed, observational camera of, say, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a film that doesn’t seem like it’s trying to be realistic (or at least, not in the literal stylistic way that we might assume that to mean). Some have called Akerman’s film hyperrealistic: its strict aesthetic conceit forces us to go beyond observation, to dig beneath the surface. The long takes and constrained perspective of the film force us to analyze what we’re seeing, to process the deceptively simple information; the style of the film aims for psychological complexity, not an observable reality. The same might be said of Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó, a seven-and-a-half hour behemoth that offers such gruelingly long takes and narrative circumvention that its minimalism becomes a form of abstract self-commentary, forcing us to question the very nature of cinematic looking (and, perhaps, to ponder the misery undergone by the characters onscreen). Even though a rigid observational style is often seen as the embodiment of cinematic realism, these telling examples aren’t necessarily trying to portray reality onscreen—they’re trying to go beyond it.
All of this is a way of saying that the “best” (most convincing, most powerful) portrayals of reality onscreen have nothing to do with their aesthetic strictures. Realism is an aesthetic category; reality, or an impression of reality, may be conveyed through a wide variety of stylistic choices. Camus may be right that the most realistic “film” possible is the one “endlessly projected for us by an invisible apparatus on the screen of the world” (an appraisal which succinctly conveys the power of cinematic looking and spectatorial identification), but he’s wrong when he claims that artists (other than God) are, “of necessity, unfaithful to the real.” The real is something to be experienced, not portrayed absolutely.
The Walker Art Center’s upcoming retrospective of Richard Linklater films may shed some unexpected light on this debate. Few would think to label Linklater a “realist” director; he does not typically employ the stylistic or thematic traits we usually associate with realism. But look at his body of work again, and it seems, in a way, that almost all of his movies try to convey reality in their own way. Slacker jumps between an eclectic assortment of realistically flighty Austinites; Before Sunrise and Before Sunset use long takes and a gracefully observational camera to bear witness to endearingly awkward conversation (and, by being released about a decade apart, also bear witness to the passing of time and how aging changes us in small but significant ways); Tape uses raw digital video to give expression to its characters’ hostilities and desperation; subUrbia, with its heavily-scripted pronouncements of suburban ennui, tries to give urgent voice to a specific time and place; Dazed and Confused, maybe Linklater’s most pleasurable and sheerest comedy, nails the singular joys, alienations, friendships, and bright sense of expectation of the high school (and immediate post-high school existence) in 1976; and Waking Life, seemingly the most unrealistic selection in our retrospective, hyperbolically illustrates the most nagging, unanswerable questions we face as individuals going through everyday lives. (Linklater’s other films display an even further interest in tackling the mysteries and difficulties of human life—not least of them Boyhood, which Linklater has been filming periodically since 2001, and which is set to be completed in 2015. By filming certain intervals of the first fourteen years of a young boy’s life, Boyhood offers maybe the clearest example yet of Linklater’s striving for an impressionistic portrayal of the fullness and unpredictability of human life.) These Linklater films employ a wide array of aesthetic, narrative, and conceptual tricks in order to reflect, intuitively and vibrantly, the astounding richness of the human experience. (No wonder Linklater is sometimes labeled as the most humane director currently working in American movies.) As films as widely varied as Jeanne Dielman and Waking Life suggest, reality (as opposed to realism) onscreen takes on a vast number of forms—something which, considering the hugeness and extraordinary polyvalence of human life, only seems appropriate.