The Baffling Concatenation of the Real

From Herodotus to Mumblecore, a history of realism

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seemed particularly smitten with the concept of based on real events this past award season. Of the nine nominees for Best Picture, six owed their loglines to the real world, and a seventh (Gravity) owed much of its artistic raison d’être to its rigorous depiction of conditions in outer space. (Several films not nominated, most notably Lone Survivor, practically genuflected, as many war films do, before the harsh realities of our dangerous world.)

This seems to suggest a trend—this year’s films follow in the footsteps of Argo and Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, among dozens of others—or at least the critics would have it that way, if only because it provides a ripe opportunity to take pot shots as those films not deemed real enough. The old saw Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story took a beating in some quarters, with several films chided for playing fast and loose with the “real events” they were supposedly based on.

Preston Sturges long ago (1941 to be exact, in Sullivan’s Travel) neatly and savagely debunked the idea that a director’s job is to deliver a masterpiece of laudable gravitas based in the nitty-gritty of real life. People facing real hardship or living in squalor don’t need to revisit their misfortunes in the theater. Leave that to the snoots and artistes. People in real trouble could use a laugh or two.

It’s a neat argument, perhaps a bit too easy going down. Because people facing hardship every now and then need something besides a hearty chuckle. They need to know that someone else understands. Like people everywhere they want to be seen, honestly and fairly, because invisibility is a living death. Demagogues understand this quite well. But, every once in awhile, so does a filmmaker or two.

The current trend in “commercial realism,” this legacy of films based on real events, feels less than convincing not because the resulting films fail to hone to verifiable facts closely enough—or not merely because of that. It’s because, in the wiggle room they provide themselves—that insidious little phrase, “based on…”—they reveal their real intent, not to honor or express what is true so much as to exploit it.

The underlying real events serve the same purpose as the danger suggested by the distance between the high wire and the ground. And make no mistake, commercial realism is just another form of circus. It provides a view into the drama of real life for those whose daily reality is anything but dramatic.

These films remind their viewers that somewhere out in the universe there are indeed people who do things. Navy SEALs and Wall Street con men and AIDs-afflicted bull riders are the high-wire artists of present-day entertainment. In a world numbed by monotonous tedium, they remind viewers that there remain people who set out to accomplish difficult things, meaningful things, and with luck and pluck and a can-do attitude, actually achieve some kind of success. They don’t just sit there, remote in hand, watching other people do it.

This isn’t the traditional purpose of realism, though it might be argued it doesn’t stray far from what storytelling’s been all about since the time of caves and campfires. As any good storyteller knows, a story doesn’t need to be real. It needs to be believed. And to that end realism’s just another trick in the bag. It’s a way to conjure the illusion of truth.

Storytellers are salesmen. The way you can tell they’re lying is because their lips are moving.

Pay no attention to the man behind the screen.

What this gets to is the unsettling awareness that 99 percent of daily life is comprised of avoidance, denial, compromise, or some other form of delusion—self-created or otherwise. This is what creates the audience’s hunger for something genuine. It also explains why the trick to great storytelling is not to get caught lying.

This is harder than it sounds, especially the more sophisticated one’s audience. And by sophisticated I don’t necessarily mean educated or worldly, though those are hardly negatives. I mean wise to the ways of storytellers.

H.L. Mencken may be right that “no one has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people,” but Robert McKee’s onto something as well when he counters that once an audience “settles into a darkened theater its collective IQ jumps 25 points.”

Of course, if the audience’s baseline IQ hovers somewhere near seventy, that’s not such a bold claim. But McKee’s right in this respect: The definition of an idiot is someone who banks on his audience being dumber than he is. It’s precisely because people get lied to all the time that, given the chance, they’re not half bad at sniffing out bullshit. Not always, of course. You really can fool all the people some of the time.

The average filmgoer is smarter than you think precisely because of the simple, obvious fact that he’s seen a lot of movies. And anyone who’s seen a lot of movies has experienced that deflating moment when the dreamlike state of suspended disbelief plows head-on into: WTF?

Audiences lose faith in the authority of anyone they can tell is bluffing—“hand waving,” as we called it in mathematics, bloviating, waxing poetic—throwing camera angles or costumes or special effects or a car chase at a void where a genuine emotion, observation, or idea should be. Creating plot puppets instead of characters. Thinking formulaic submission to three-act structure can redeem a fatuous plot.

Stories have to make sense. No matter how fantastic, they must cohere to some intrinsic logic, and that logic must in some way reflect—like an analogy, or metaphor—life as the audience knows it, or at least can imagine it. This accounts for whatever truth stories possess.

For some reason, however, this often translates into a belief that the best, most compelling stories must, in some sense, be predicated on the real.

The current trend in commercial realism buys into that premise, but for curious reasons. Commercial realism reveals a suspicion that the image-saturated, life-numbed viewer is too jaded to just want a story, so it conjures a frisson of real life to spice up the stew. Returning to the high-wire metaphor, it’s like taking the net away.

Non-commercial realism buys into the reality-trumps-imagination premise as well, but from a different angle. Its acolytes toss overboard the slick tricks that once comprised film school’s secret knowledge, convinced that a raw, naturalistic technique can spare a film from seeming facile, trivial, slick—in other words, commercial.


A Bit of History

In truth (he says cagily), realism is a pretty late arrival on the scene in the history of western art, and that’s instructive. It wasn’t as though no one understood the difference between the histories of Herodotus or Thucydides and the Homeric epics or Athenian tragedies—though the former were hardly rigorously factual, nor the latter purely inventive. And though Greek sculptors and painters had a devout commitment to capturing the human form, few would confuse their idealized subjects with flesh-and-blood human beings.

The point wasn’t realism but truth, and Plato set the standard for scrutiny on that front in the 4th century BCE. What we think of as real life is in actuality a corruption or mere shadow of a far more ineluctable truth, mathematical in its purity and eternal in nature. With some variation this perspective was shared by Biblical writers—the sin of Adam divided man from God, and that separation rendered earthly existence inferior, unworthy of serious souls.

Small surprise, then, that realism had little purchase with ancient and medieval minds. Even as exacting a biographer as Plutarch understood that the actual lives of the men he chronicled were secondary to the moral purpose they embodied, and it was that moral telos that made their lives worthy of examination.

Things don’t materially change until the late Middle Ages with the Decameron and Canterbury Tales, and don’t take off until the Renaissance. With the rediscovery of Aristotle and his devotion to observation of the natural world, as well as a return to Classical art’s devotion to the human form, artists and writers gradually but methodically reclaimed the so-called real world from the realm of shadow and corruption, eventually placing it center stage. Humanism took hold. The Enlightenment ensued.

However, actual hardcore realism—devotion to real world subjects told from ground level in a style that values both observational rigor and stylistic simplicity—didn’t truly appear until the eighteenth century, specifically with Daniel Defoe, whose realism, in conjunction with William Blake’s symbolism, formed the two foundational pillars of English literature (at least according to James Joyce).

Defoe had a background as a journalist and pamphleteer, and as works like A Political History of the Devil suggest, he was part of a broad movement over several centuries and across all of Europe to sweep away the cobwebs of superstition and received piety so that nature could assume preëminence as the touchstone of human knowledge.

Unfortunately, crushing the impulse toward formalism, mannerism, idealism and pietism—and a few other isms I’m sure I’m forgetting—proved far trickier than the heirs of the Enlightenment anticipated.

The first great counter-revolution in the arts appeared in the form of Romanticism, which found in the Enlightenment’s Newtonian analytics and scientism a dry, clockwork view of the human enterprise. Intuition pushed reason aside as foremost among human faculties. What resulted were big themes, grand effects, ennobling spectacles. Man writ large, at least until the Revolution of 1848 humbled him.

The first artistic movement consciously considered “realist” grew out of the disaffection with Romanticism’s self-serving grandiosity. Real people engaged with real life rendered without sentiment or idealism—this became the proper subject of art, as evidenced by painters such as Courbet, Millet, Corot, and writers such as Flaubert, Stendhal, Balzac, de Maupassant.

When realism became too bourgeois, Naturalism emerged as the corrective, focusing all the more obsessively on political hypocrisy, the plight of the poor, the marginalized, the shunned, and doing so in a rigorously straightforward style.

When Naturalism rigidified into cliché, Poetic Realism emerged. And in 1960s Hollywood, when the studios dissolved into a tar pit of self-aggrandizing excess, epitomized by Cleopatra, it opened the door to a new wave of realistic filmmaking.

It’s a dialectical pattern, not a unified movement. Realism historically corrects for the excesses of idealism, pomposity, superstition, conformity, sentiment. Whenever it hoists its banner it’s been in service of shedding artifice in order to return to some fundamental connection with unvarnished existence—life as it’s lived, not imagined—men and women stripped bare in stark light without the comfort of style to prettify, idealize, or sentimentalize their lives.

The problem is that realism, like any other ideology, easily falls prey to its own preconceptions. At that point, what once was daring and shocking becomes just another kind of style.


The Representational Problem

At the risk of wandering into the weeds, let’s consider for a bit the philosophical angle.

If it’s realism you’re after, why bother with art at all? Nothing could be more immediate than real life. Stop what you’re doing, look around: If that ain’t real, what is?

Of course it’s not that simple—I hear the brainer, Frenchier among you say. Experience isn’t immediate, it’s mediated, representational. The world is rendered intelligible by sense impressions and their cognitive interpretations. That means, as far as we can tell, that reality is comprised of signs.

Bishop Berkeley was right (ironically, for all the wrong reasons). There’s no way to know if you’re not just a brain in a jar—or Neo in The Matrix.

Or, to use another metaphor, we’re all trapped in the labyrinth, hoping for a ladder so we can climb out. But who provides the ladder? And how do we know we don’t just end up in another labyrinth?

The mind comes preconditioned with a thousand cognitive assumptions and traps, comforting pieties, wishful hopes, which only get compounded by socialization and education—or, as the Berlin anarchist in Stew’s Passing Strange decrees, “What’s inside is just a lie.”

Reality is a construct, not a thing-in-itself out there. The true, the real—they’re as illusory, as invented, as anything else. Reality is social. Reality is a convention.

Serious bummer for realists. Because once you step inside that funhouse, all bets are off. Realism won’t help, can’t help.

And yet those pesky, plucky realists have proved incredibly adept at bouncing back, if only by establishing their reputation as iconoclastic hardliners in a world of phonies.

Realism’s appeal has always relied on the suspicion that something goes wrong at exactly the point when everybody seems to agree on something. Nothing makes a realist more restless than the fact everyone else seems comfortable.

But discomfort doesn’t pave the way to authenticity, either, no matter how many monks or Marines tell you otherwise.

Realism’s no better at trumping the phonies—or shooing away daydreams—than any other narrative mode. It isn’t just soggy romantics or wooly abstract formalists who get fooled by their own baloney. Rock-ribbed realists get hoodwinked, too.

And that, as they say, is the thing. Anti-realist movements in the arts—Cubism, Fauvism, primitivism, Surrealism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism—are no less committed to a rejection of conventional thinking and feeling than realist ones. Both seek to get behind the blinding habits of accepted perception and response to plumb something deeper, richer, more honest: True.

Conservatives, of course, consider this faith in novelty as a path to truth a particularly insidious form of liberal gibberish. The flaw lies in its obsession with the atypical at the expense of the normal, a perspective they see not only as an error but a kind of hustle—artists and academics always ginning up some new, bizarre, counter-intuitive, “revolutionary” theory simply to stay ahead of the pack and claim exalted status in the faculty lounge.

Conservatives have tradition, which has stood the scrutiny of time, to allay their anxieties and provide meaning. Where tradition fails to provide an answer, there’s virtue to supply a way to conduct oneself in the breach. Beyond that there’s just a lot of preening blather, narcissistic posturing in the name of self-expression, and worry for the sake of worry.

Realism has become a kind of middle ground in this war of ideas. Despite its status as relative newcomer in the realm of aesthetics, it appeals to the conservative’s stoic faith in hard-headed common sense. For liberals, like every other attempt to shed the blinders of convention, realism’s worth has always been relative to what’s come before. It stands in distinct opposition to whatever pieties have preceded it, and its value lasts only as long as its own conventions don’t become sterile, predictable—ossify into a recognizable style.


The Baffling Concatenation of the Real

If the sheer number of movements is any indication, art has suffered a near-continuous need for a cold dose of reality over the past century: the Ashcan School of early 20th century America, the Poetic Realists of 1930s France, the Kitchen Sink Realists of 1950s Britain, the Socialist Realists, the French New Wave, the New Puritans, Stuckism, Aspectism, Pseudorealism, Photorealism, Minimalism, Post-postmodernism, Dogme 95, Mumblecore.

One might think that this provides evidence for a continuing hunger for raw, unvarnished truth—at least among writers, painters and film students. Maybe so. But even more puzzling than the sheer abundance of realist movements is their fascination with manifestos.

Dogme 95’s “Vow of Chastity” is an apt example, 10 rules meant to guide the true believers out of Pharaoh’s Egypt—personified by special effects, post-production hocus-pocus and all other manner of cinematic gimmickry. The punch line, of course, is that no one in the movement every really followed the guidelines. Being real is always crucial until it gets in the way of a great shot.

The New Puritans, inspired by Dogme 95, also created a 10-point manifesto, begging the question: What is it about reality that makes it so conformable to decagonal schematics?

What realist “movements” miss is what David Foster Wallace, in his seminal essay “E Unibus Pluram” and its call for a “New Sincerity,” expressed so well. That the emergence of irony as a dramatic mode in the 1960s, reacting to the hypocritical pomposity of the post-war cultural elite, outlived its purpose and became a habit of mind. Writers raised on television instinctively ingested the double-entendre, the inescapable subtext, and lost the ability to simply state their minds.

The audience, in this view, got too hip for its own good. It couldn’t help but notice the funny little man behind the screen. They’d never known him not to be there. There was even a sneaky suspicion they were him.

But the solution didn’t lie, as traditionalists argued, in a return to the old verities. We couldn’t go back to Dostoyevsky’s impassioned directness and simplicity even if we wanted. That horse left the barn with Kierkegaard. Each generation recognizes the fault lines in its predecessor’s beliefs. And so we’re obliged to admit there is no reliable realist method. All we have is our fumbling attempts to be a bit more honest.

Which is the final testament of realism, commercial, non-commercial, dogmatic, etc. Its worth lies in the tricky, ephemeral transaction between the artist and the viewer, the need on both sides of the bargain for honesty. It can’t be manufactured by basing your story on real events any more than a hand-held camera is a lie detector. DeFoe, Courbet, Jack London, Lars von Trier—they succeeded not because they were card-carrying realists any more than Picasso, Kandinsky, Franz Kafka and Jean-Pierre Jeunet succeeded because they weren’t. They succeeded for the very simple reason that they tried, to the best of their abilities, to get it right. And wanted the other person on the opposite side of the deal not to feel cheated. That’s the best any of us can hope for.


In conclusion, mes enfants

In a New York Times editorial, David Mamet wrote, “All drama is about lies. When the lie is exposed, the play is over.” As with drama, so with artistic movements.

Mamet elsewhere also said, “The actor’s job is to tell the truth.” Frankly, I’d call that everybody’s job—except, maybe, carnival barkers and shoe salesmen.

It sounds so simple: Tell the truth. And yet—to borrow a phrase from another great writer, Jim Harrison—look at the folly whirling in our eyes.


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