Critical Bitchslap: A.O. Scott vs. Richard Brody

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Imagine a war between the New York Times and the New Yorker, and you might think of Walter Burns tossing inkpots at the effete Eustace Tilly. In fact, it appears to be the other way around. A.O. Scott’s elegant consideration of a certain type of American Neo-Realism has been blasted via a pugnacious blog post from Richard Brody. After an initial exchange of fire, both returned for another salvo. The various broadsides can be read here, here, here and here. But for those who would just prefer to fall asleep without moving their mouse, here’s Squally’s scorecard.

It all started when A.O. Scott, as is his wont, looked over a series of forthcoming films and attempted to write a serviceable trend piece colored with his usual thoughtful commentary. In the best New York Sunday Magazine style, he explained to readers something they presumably hadn’t noticed before and gave them a bit of a back scratch as well. That “something” was the adaptation of Neo-realist techniques by filmmakers like Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart) and Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), occasioned by the release of Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden‘s Sugar and So Yong Kim‘s Treeless Mountain in the next few weeks.

These films, he wrote, represented “an urge to escape from escapism,” an alternative to films like Watchmen, Knowing, and whatever else they’re condemned to watch in Greeley, Colorado. Each has several features in common with the classics of the postwar Italian Neo-realist movement, films such as Roma, citta aperta/Open City, La Terra Trema/The Earth Trembles and Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves. They are made during a time of economic and political upheaval. They use non-professionals in fictional roles that are close to their real selves. They are filmed on location and make use of “unadorned, specific” locales (Rome, Winston-Salem, N.C., a mountain village in South Korea). They emphasize work–whether as a profession, at home, or in the school. Although Italian Neo-realism passed mainstream American cinema by, these films look to foreign movies and are intent in showing the “American life that remains off screen.” While subdued in nature, these films can be ultimately inspiring in how they portray strength/resilience in the face of adversity.

All seems innocuous enough. But not so for Brody the firebrand blogger at New Yorker’s Front Row. In a numbered list and with a shaky criteria that recalls the manner of his New Wave heroes (Brody has written the acclaimed Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard), Brody swings at the Old Grey Lady’s oracle … and swings wildly.

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Scott: Postwar Italian Neo-Realism did not take root in the United States.

Brody: It did in the form of film noir. Think movies like Jules Dassin‘s The Naked City, filmed on the streets of New York, as well as Robert Rossen‘s Body and Soul and John Berry‘s He Ran All the Way. Later American Neo-Realism includes outsider films like Jerry Schatzberg’s Panic in Needle Park and the work of John Sayles.

Squally: It can be argued that Italian Neo-Realism in fact grew out of American literary film noir. One of Visconti’s first films was an adaptation of James M. Cain‘s The Postman Always Rings Twice. However, the mythic narrative patterns of film noir–with its detectives, femme fatales, and MacGuffins–don’t seem to accord with Scott’s criteria of films about ordinary people in situations that emphasize the importance of labor. After all, then we could also toss Chinatown and Sin City into the mix. Many of these films also used star actors rather than non-professionals. We can’t argue with Brody’s argument for including films like Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man in an American Neo-realism. But why no love for John Cassavetes, arguably the granddaddy of American Neo-Realism?

Scott: Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles and Charles Burnett‘s Killer of Sheep could be considered rare examples of American Neo-Realism.

Brody: Not so. Mackenzie was a psychologist, Burnett a romantic. Neo-Realism is grounded in “facile materialism.” Both filmmakers reject that.

Squally: Um, okay. Scott includes the two films on the basis of their being about communities (Native American, African-American) not represented with any kind of dignity in Hollywood product. Both films are also rooted in location, strongly enough to feature prominently in Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself. Brody’s points need a bit more illustration to make sense. Neo-realism should not be mistaken for documentary. If anything, it’s closer to French Poetic Realism, ordering the materials of “real life” in a structured manner. That allows room for romantics like Jean Renoir and radicals like Pasolini, too. Rossellini’s later work like Il Miracolo and Stromboli in fact goes beyond “facile materialism” by handling religious themes. Think of Stromboli‘s ingredients: a “real” volcano, a Hollywood star, a sensationally depicted fishing sequence and a pilgrimage towards mountain-top ecstasy.

Scott: In his response to Brody’s whiff of grapeshot, Scott says that his use of the term “neo-realism” was “loose and expansive.” It’s a broad umbrella with which to huddle films under a “cinematic ethic.” If Brody is going to start tossing around criteria like anti-psychologist, anti-romanticism, and “facile materialism,” then he’s dealing in a definition that is “narrow, precise and [has] almost entirely negative range of meanings.” And even then, where is the “facile materialism” in Goodbye Solo?

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Brody: Realism also found its home in the United States through Method acting.

Squally: Scott’s point seemed to be that American neo-realism used non-professionals, not trained actors. (Although Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler could be considered exceptions to the rule.) According to Brody, the Method allowed actors to present “psychological realism.” But this seems like a false kind of criteria. In what way is, say, Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire more “psychologically real” than Anna Magnani in Roma, citta aperta/Open City or La voix humaine?

Brody also says that the American psychological reality was “far greater than any to be found elsewhere at the time in world cinema.” Nevertheless, the films of the New Wave treated sex—and the fallout of sex—with far greater frankness than American cinema. As to whether Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is more or less “psychologically real” than Persona I’ll leave for others to argue.

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Brody: The Italian Neo-realists like Rossellini outgrew the movement they helped create because they found it put too much emphasis on outer life rather than inner life.

Squally: It will be noted that at this point Brody no longer is dealing with Scott on a point-by-point basis. If “psychological realism” is a criterion by which Neo-Realism is assessed, then Rossellini actually broadened the scope of Neo-Realism rather than abandoning it. The aforementioned Stromboli uses Ingrid Bergman to bring together Hollywood escapist cinema with social concern, documentary technique, religious pageantry, and auteurist autobiography. Viaggio in Italia/Voyage to Italy does the trick again, albeit with two Hollywood stars in Bergman and George Sanders. However, the casting of the star actors makes the realism of their alienation in and from the Italian countryside even more acute. Visconti applied a Neo-realist materialism to historical pageantry. Fellini‘s oeuvre could be interpreted as “psychological realism” taken to its utmost extreme–that is, pure fantasy.

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Brody: The American Neo-realism of the 21st century rejects complexity and ambiguity. He goes on to state that the filmmakers want audiences to sympathize with characterized ciphers because they are working class. Films like Wendy and Lucy and Ballast trade in “downbeat warmth.”

Squally: We assume that if you’re blind to a film’s complexity and ambiguity, then what you can make out will seem like a cipher. On the other hand, if you’re willing to accept these traits, the films might be easier to understand. Reichardt’s Old Joy has psychological complexity and ambiguity to burn–particularly in its final 15 minutes or so. The same could be said of The Wrestler. It is hard, however, to think of an American Neo-realist film which trades in “downbeat warmth” as much as, say, some more obviously jerry-rigged contraption like The Visitor does.

Brody: I’m shocked, shocked that Scott could have left out Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland in his list of “favorites.” The film features “audacious expressive images” and a performance “even braver and more moving than Melissa Leo‘s in Frozen River.”

Squally: So? Last time I looked, expressionism and realism were polarities.

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Brody: Scott’s picks are rooted in the working class.

Squally: What about the emigrant class? And in what way is this a negative thing? Aren’t these films a more accurate portrait of America than Duplicity, in the same way that the multiculti class of Entre les murs/The Class is a bigger picture of present-day France? Brody might be on firmer ground if he attempted to make a case that these American Neo-Realist films are made not so much for their subjects as for an upper middle class audience which frequents film festivals and art house cinemas.

Brody: Scott’s picks all “feature a restrained camera style.”

Squally: How is this compatible or incompatible with Neo-Realism?

Brody: Scott’s picks are “granola cinema.” They look good, but are still sweet and have moral messages for their audiences.

Scott: [in reply] One man’s granola is another man’s meat.

Squally: Now might be a good time for a bathroom break. We’ll be here when you get back.

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Squally: Scott does not actually suggest that the American neo-realist films are “message movies.” They are neo-realist in the sense that they present a situation without adorning it with an artificially imposed message. They tend to present characters who are resilient, drawing on an inner strength that often has no real antecedent. (Consider, after all, the depths to which Hammer’s protagonist falls in Ballast.) Wendy and Lucy should not be mistaken for The Grapes of Wrath. There’s no Tom Joad moment going on in these films. As Scott writes:

“Most of the scenes in [Chop Shop] take place outdoors, and while there is a clear, poignant story, it takes shape not through expository dialogue but through gestures, actions and details that the camera absorbs in long, patient shots.”

Another hallmark of Neo-realism past and present was the way it relinquished control on the human eye. The spectator is allowed to roam their eye around the screen. One filmmaker who picked up on this was Brody’s hero Jean-Luc Godard.

Brody’s outburst is a curious thing. We were shocked to see how little his blog seems to attract any kind of commentary, so perhaps he was just making a scene in order to attract some attention. In which case, mission: accomplished. But he also appears to be something of an iconoclast, not least in his conscious effort to identify himself with like-minded critics of the New Wave. For instance, he attempts to make the case that David Fincher‘s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is more “realistic” than Bicycle Thieves. Conversely, perhaps Bicycle Thieves is more “fantastic” than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But if Brody is going to make the case that realism ultimately lies in emotional and intellectual content rather than aesthetic treatment of same, he might as well call ”Guernica” a documentary work.

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But he’s not done yet … In his retort to Scott’s considered reply, Brody continues to grind his axe. Apparently, Scott’s appreciations are suspect because the critic has a political agenda. The Times writer shows his real colors when he states his interest is in movies that ask:

“What are the limits of compassion and solidarity in a world defined by individualism and organized around acquisition and consumption?”

Abruptly shifting gears, Brody says he wants art “to challenge my assumptions, my prejudices, even my deepest humanistic convictions.” Like the best New Wave critics, he diagnoses and then imagines a utopian cure for the malaise. So whereas Benjamin Button should be acclaimed for trafficking in sentiments which Brody recognizes as “real,” and American Neo-realism should be disparaged for dealing in “ciphers,” the true work of art is apparently that which shakes us most to the core. Nothing wrong with such a definition, but who is to say that Neo-realism doesn’t do that? Who is to say that Rome, Open City‘s report from the frontline wasn’t as confrontational as John Pilger reporting from Cambodia or Michael Buerk from Ethiopia? Indeed, Neorealist scriptwriter and theorist Cesare Zavattini expressed his desire to make a film based on a single line item from a newspaper. When he did, it was Bicycle Thieves.

Neo-realism makes it new for the audience by showing them something they have never seen before, whether it’s the man pushing the coffee truck down a New York street or the cathedral of the Northwestern wilderness. A part of the neo-realist world should be as mysterious to us as the final section of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Brody manages to see many things in Scott’s article that were never there in the first place. But if this escapes his notice, then maybe he’s not looking hard enough.

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2 Responses to “Critical Bitchslap: A.O. Scott vs. Richard Brody”

  1. New Directors, New Films, Old Themes « SquallyShowers Says:

    […] writers take a more structural approach. In the New York Times, Stephen Holden wants him some of that A.O. Scott/Richard Brody bloodbath, boldly affirming what he calls “social realism” as “humanistic art with an […]

  2. ND / NF ‘09 Trailers: From Parque Via to We Live in Public « SquallyShowers Says:

    […] in A.O. Scott’s “neo-neo-realism” survey, Kim’s second feature follows two young sisters as they are palmed off from relative to […]

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