Monday, April 13, 2009

Why Treeless Montain is different from One Tree Hill, coming to terms with the Neo-neo Realists and the Holden Caulfield School of Cinema.

OK, the title alone is too long to tweet, but hang in there. If you read this post you will be able to comment on A.O. Scott's recent NY Times piece Neo-neo Realism and the subsequent exchange between Richard Brody of The New Yorker and Scott. You will not necessarily be able to comment intelligently (since you will know only what I tell you), but when the subject comes up (and it will) you shall name relevant names to the wonderment of those around you who had you pegged as an unemployed beer taster on a busman's holiday.

Why should you come to As Good As News for a neo-neo realism primer? Because we'll cover it all in the form of FAQs. Take that Times and New Yorker.

FAQs sound too good to be true, does As Good As News actually know anything about neo-neo realism - most of your reviews seem to revolve around the question of whether Joe Sixpack will like a movie or not? Fear not. Through an unlikely chain of events, yours truly saw Treeless Mountain tonight, attended a Harvard Film Archive presentation of Goodbye Solo featuring a post screening discussion with director Ramin Bahrani on Saturday and watched The Little Fugitive on Wednesday. All three films play a role in the neo-neo realist debate, as do Wendy and Lucy, reviewed here, and Man Push Cart and Frozen River, viewed fairly recently thanks to the wonder of Netflix and my ever vigilant spouse. True, As Good As News takes Transformers (a dreadful movie with Megan Fox) over Truffaut, thinks Rossellini is a guy who married Ingrid Bergman and is not intimately familiar with the works of legendary Iranian indie filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (does Iran even have studios). Unlike the rest of the Harvard archive audience, As Good As News has not taken the Boston University course on Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (confused here, but only momentarily, with ouzo). BUT, with a writing class at the New School and a session at the Manhattan Comedy School under my belt (not to mention three dusty diplomas in the attic) I have the credentials to prove I can bs when necessary, so I can and will provide enough information to help you out in that potentially embarrassing bar room discussion.

I'll bite, what's neo-neo realism? That question may be the core of the Scott-Brody debate and it's too complex for comprehensive coverage here (1). One thing Ramin Bahrani said on Friday (he said it more eloquently, this is not a quote) goes to the heart of the question. His goal is to avoid any artifice in story or production that would be noticeable to the viewer. The movie might be set in an unusual corner of the world, but within the context of that setting everything should occur just as it would in real life. No plot twists. No against the odds happy endings. No special effects. No "acting". The writer, director, even the cast in a way, must be an invisible hand, guiding the story while rigorously avoiding anything that feels phony. The neo-neo movies that Scott and Brody have put into focus are blue collar (or underclass), character driven indies, but is there any theoretical reason why a neo- neo could not be a carefully crafted studio pic set on the polo fields of Saratoga Springs - rarefied, but real nonetheless? Maybe, there are no rules on defining neo-neo realism, but there is a tendency to include an element of social realism, limiting the field to the everyday lives of the proletariat.

Nothing phony - OK, now we get that Holden Caulfield reference in the title, but is MTV Road Rules neo-neo reality TV? A million monkeys banging on a million keyboards might MTV might..NO, NO, NO. Neo-neo realism is a narrative form. Character development and story exist under very complete, careful control (2). In fact, the directors tend to extreme control. Many use non-professional actors, keep the scripts (which are detailed) in high security lock-up, feed the actors their lines just before a take and then shoot take after take- until the actor is just too worn down to attempt anything phony.

So the neo-neo directors are in complete control of every detail in something that's supposed to be "natural", isn't that phony? Every storyteller has a point of view. Even Holden Caulfield was deciding subjectively who was phony and who wasn't, all the while establishing his own personae (and we won't even mention Salinger and the whole anti-Hollywood thing, it just gets too complicated). The point of neo-neo realism is not to achieve some abstract nirvana of anti-phoniness, the point is to never, ever seem phony to the viewer.

Nothing that SEEMS phony, got it. But are you telling me Michelle Williams didn't even get to see a script for Wendy and Lucey? No. Don't know for sure, but As Good As News is betting she read a script before she agreed to do the picture. Her performance was a bright spot in a dismal swamp. Similarly, Ramin Bahrani used professional actors (Red West and Souleymane Sy Savane) for the first time as the leads in Goodbye Solo. They got scripts and the results were two very strong performances. The whole avoiding "acting" by using amateurs and keeping the script secret schtick (3)may be more budget side effect than control issue. Let's see what happens when more of the neo-neo directors can afford to hire expert, established experienced (4) actors who expect to be partners in a creative process.

Why neo-neo, isn't it all just realism? Not clear. Brody points to The Little Fugitive (American indie pioneers Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley take the first chest mounted cam to Coney Island in 1953 and phoniness is scarce indeed) and asks the same question. Must we divide Less Than Zero, Last Exit to Brooklyn and Red Badge of Courage into neo-neo, neo and realism? If we accept a new label, do we risk limiting the artists working in that genre? Maybe no one will ever shoot that great, and totally realistic, movie about the polo set in Saratoga Springs because neo-neo realism will turn into a blue collar ghetto once the concrete sets around the definition. This is a point Brody makes in a more negative way, but let's view it as a plus. The best efforts of the neo-neos link to older traditions and show a curiosity about the unexplored corners of society, why wall off a new genre. If one accepts the "nothing that seems phony" definition , then a neo-neo picture can still have a big (but very carefully considered) budget, it can use stars, maybe even some (very carefully considered) special effects. So neo-neo is OK by As Good As News, provided it's not a blue collar ghetto (and we mean that in every sense, bigger budget pictures, middle and upper class subjects- all OK if treated properly). As a genre, neo-neo need not be about separation, but about restoration of the no phonies allowed ethic that can be applied with any budget to any subject if the artists are sufficiently dedicated and skilled.

Should I tell my new friends in the bar that I like neo-neo realism? It's your call. The neo-neos are choosing to abjure much of what most movie goers enjoy - the plot twist, the car chase, the leading lady more glamorous than real life, the sudden explosion of stars as the ship goes into hyper drive, the dialog that's just too funny to be true, etc. The neo-neos can and do make great movies that appeal to a fairly wide audience, but including the "phony" greatly expands the movie maker's canvas, the scope of stories and experiences the movie can bring to the audience. Audiences are willing to suspend disbelief and accept the phony, up to a point. The location of that point varies with the quality of the characters, the story and the production. Making the audience accept, even love, the "phony" has long been part of the job for most movie-makers. Making the phony "true", that is consistent with the characters and story the movie has created and thus believable to the audience, is an art too. So, do you want your movies to make you believe the phony or just give that phony up for a permanent Lent? Most will miss their phony, but in that bar room discussion, the neo-neos will be the hot team for the next few months.

Enough already, which movies should I see? Hard core Joe Sixpack should pretty much forget every movie mentioned in this post except Frozen River. Mellisa Leo deserved that Oscar, not just for Frozen River but for putting up with being cut out of the movie, but not the credits, in The Cake Eaters. If you are still reading this post, you are not hard core Joe Sixpack. Try two entries from Ramin Bahrani - Man Push Cart (a character study which has some extra impact in the post 9/11 era), then Goodbye Solo (a Winston-Salem cabbie butts into the life of a gruff passenger on a mission). Bahrani jumps into his stories, builds real characters without visible artifice and controls his narrative sufficiently to add suspense. Still interested? Follow Mr. Brody back to the origins. Revisit New York with Engel and Orkin in The Little Fugitive and (and/or Weddings and Babies, Lovers and Lollipops) while the NYC of Man Push Cart is fresh in your mind. If you are still with the program, try Treeless Mountain - a slow-paced, mostly melancholy story with very real and somewhat likeable main characters (two young Korean girls), a discernible storyline and an ending that will not require you to consider suicide. Under no circumstances should you see Wendy & Lucy. It is a darling of the festival circuit. Michelle Williams does deserve all the praise she has received, but the plot is like watching a turd in a toilet bowl after it has begun circling. If you are hungry for more neo-neo, then try something As Good As News has not seen (yes, you can use the links and actually see what Scott and Brody have to say) or see one of two outliers reviewed here - Canvas or The Black Balloon, both are very realistic stories of families dealing with medical problems. Both are only borderline neo-neo candidates because they show a little bit of artifice in establishing the ability of the family to cope with reality. However, the bright side is a realistic bright side and it's not stretching too far to consider these films, particularly Canvas, for membership in the neo-neo club.

(1)(2)(3)(4) - footnotes? you must be crazy, those numbers were just a feeble effort to get Spiro T. Agnew alliteration credit.

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