Okay, to those that don’t know, “healthy realism” was a state defined realism that was favoured by the CMPC (the filmmaking arm of the KMT) in mid 1960’s-late 1970’s in Taiwanese cinema. It was influenced by Italian Neorealism (heavy emphasis on on-location shooting), but instead of showing the dark underbelly of Taiwan (seeing as it was state funded by a sometimes brutal military dictatorship) “healthy realism” emphasized the lack of corruptibility in modern Taiwan and focused on emigres (Chinese Mainlanders) instead of native Taiwanese.
Why link this to Yi Yi? The humanist comedy edge of Yi Yi is somewhat like the ‘healthy realism’ of the 1960’s, though done in a manner only Edward Yang could pull off successfully. It’s merely a manner in which to give a frame of reference (and hopefully generate discussion seeing as Yi Yi is a pretty popular film).
I would like to discuss realism in film (historically, and as an evolutionary art in film), and specifically realism in the films of modern Taiwanese filmmakers. I’ll quote something from Darrell William Davis in relation to both topics:
“In film history there is a critical tradition that prizes certain techniques for their holistic effect. Andre Bazin developed this line of thought most eloquently, arguing that long takes, long shots, and real locations sustained relations between screen and spectator that are perceptually closer to the phenomenological real. The realist foundation of this criticism is ultimately psychological, moral, and even spiritual. It assumes phenomenological wholeness between spectator, filmmaker, and profilmic events. Another phenomenology, predating Bazin’s, is more cognitive and revolutionary, indebted to the historical-materialist agitation of constructivism and Soviet montage. We might call this Vertov-Eisenstein tradition a haptic model, one that catalyzes disorientation as a form of action, sensation, and, ultimately, cognition. Cinema may reveal aspects of psychological and socioeconomic life that usually go unnoticed, but it may also forcefully promote unexpected discovery through discomfort and dis-integrative experience. The commercial imperatives of controlled storytelling make it hard for filmmakers to employ the medium’s potential. Spectators, in turn, habituated to clarity, pace, and expository rhythms of classical narratives, must adjust their viewing practices to accommodate more holistic and haptic styles.
Taiwan directors like [Edward] Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Tsai Ming-liang are masters of the long take-long shot aesthetic. All three challenge habitual viewing practices and are at first disorienting. The holistic experience of their films is both dense and seemingly unstructured. Though spatially diffused, the films seem opaque, hermetic – especially those of Tsai Ming-liang, whose films may produce claustrophobia. Tsai and Yang, the latter especially in A Brighter Summer Day, tend towards a haptic model of perception, while Hou’s style seem more Bazinian. Their films’ structuring principles seem at odds with the needs of efficient storytelling. They have a strong sense of contingency and chance, yet events unfold with a meticulous, fateful quality. Visual composition within the frame and the shot is similarly painstaking, yet indifferent to conventional plays of curiosity and suspense in commercial genres."
Essentially, the contention of those two paragraphs is, realism as outlined by the Soviet silent filmmakers and Andre Bazin should use events on screen to at first distance the audience from the normal ploys of genre filmmaking and, eventually, pull the viewer in further with psychological and socioeconomic (among other) details that are often overlooked and something that cinema has unique ability of exploring further than almost any other art form. How do you feel about this? Should this be the goal of films under the label of ‘realism’? What then would be the most striking differences of the so-called ‘holistic’ and ‘haptic’ models of realism?
How does the history of realism as a genre of filmmaking relate to the films of modern world, art, and even genre filmmakers today? What is the essential difference between the filmmakers coming from a Taiwan New Cinema background from those of an Italian realist background (or French realist, or Soviet/Russian, or German, or Chinese, etc.)?
Nobody’s interested in realism? I’m pretty certain it’s one of the most popular, “genres” of film in, “art cinema”.
I’ll BUMP it for good measure.
Your post was interesting but I am in no way knowledgeable enough to give a half-decent response to the questions.
Not sure how I missed this post the first time around, but I’m glad it’s here.
For the past year I’ve been moving more and more away from genre tropes and manipulative film making and realism has been my safe harbor. It’s the most interesting film making style to me at present because of its ability to allow the spectator to think for themselves.
The distanciation of the long take/static shot style can be at first offputting, but that very sense of discomfort should cause one to realize it’s purposeful and to ponder the purpose. This kind of participation with the film is, I believe, mandatory for film as art to have any impact.
At present I’m interested in film makers who use this style to promote a moral debate, specifically Michael Haneke.
I meant "ethical’, not “moral”.
Still, even those films for which the direct presentation of humanity without an ethical positioning are far more interesting than, say the clever and stylized but ultimately shallow mainstream genre fare like Shutter Island.
Let’s talk about this then. What should be the point of a, “realist” film? Should it have moral, ethical, social, or even political implications? The very presentation of most films gives them an implicit social message even if the filmmaker(s) is(are) not aware of this fact (i.e. militarization in most Hollywood blockbusters). So, it would be almost impossible for a filmmaker making a realist film not to be saying, “this is what life is like,” and use that as either a critique (the neorealist), an idealist viewpoint (the Soviet silent theorists and filmmakers), or to downright obfuscate reality (the healthy realists, and the propaganda filmmakers in China in the 1930’s) (and as an aside: all of those versions of realism have their place).
Moving forward, however, one must decide broader implications. Should a realist film promote debate (as opposed to just contemplation, or internal thought (again one may argue that all have their place))? Should it be inherently controversial (although there is usually a guarantee that some film will offend someone, and therefore be controversial to that someone (and the presentation of reality increases this chance by ten fold))? Should it be a, “message” film, or should this be but one part of the realist tradition?
I’m not quite sure what to make of this, maybe you could explain it a bit more: "Andre Bazin developed this line of thought most eloquently, arguing that long takes, long shots, and real locations sustained relations between screen and spectator that are perceptually closer to the phenomenological real. "
From what I’ve read of Bazin, it seemed to me like he was arguing for the long take style because of this ‘meditative’ state it induces in the viewer, where meaning is supplied more by the viewer than impressed on us by the director who uses a montage style of film-making. In other words, when say Eisenstein cuts shots together quickly, the viewer doesn’t have much say in the meaning of those juxtaposed shots, the meaning is sort of evident.
And there was something I read about the old Cahiers critics discussing the ‘morality of the long take’ but I can’t quite remember. I assume it’s just an extrapolation of Bazin’s line of thought.
One thing that really attracts me to Bresson (sometimes) is that I find he’s found a really good balance between these two styles. You could define his films as ‘realistic’ but he never pushes the lengths of his takes, and though he’s pretty reliant on editing it’s never as heavy-handed those crazy montage Russians. Basically, I feel Bresson creates little ‘realistic montages’ which don’t exactly conform to either camp.
I don’t think there is necessarily a moral/ethical/social imperative to a realist film, but I do agree that it would be difficult for a realist film to avoid at least one of them.
I think a realist film is primarily about illustrating the human condition, but just saying, “this is what it was like” doesn’t necessarily promote a debate, inspire controversy, and so on, though any film that uses distanciation is seeking some sort of conscious participation by the spectator.
I’m thinking of the difference between Hou’s The Puppetmaster and Tsai’s Vive l’Amour, where the former is essentially a biography detailing one man’s life and his place in his society, and the second is a fictional narrative commenting on the isolation of urban societies, where the characters are more easily relatable as “you and me”.
Is one more important than the other? Obviously this is debatable, but I don’t think so—they just have different goals (I also leave open the possibility that I’m missing something in one or both of these films as I’ve only seen each once).
I think this type of film is more important than some others, especially in a global society (to what extent that even exists) where culture clashes are more inevitable and the need to learn about our distinctions and commonalities is imperative.
“I’m not quite sure what to make of this, maybe you could explain it a bit more…”
I think that particular line is flushed out a little more here:
“It assumes phenomenological wholeness between spectator, filmmaker, and profilmic events.”
Meaning: Reality, in cinema, is made between the filmmaker, spectator, and the staged event. Long takes-long shots allow this relationship to be more natural, and thus more realistic. That is Mr. Davis’ argument, and/or reading of the difference between a Bazinian style of realism, and a haptic (Soviet) model.
“I think a realist film is primarily about illustrating the human condition…”
I think that’s a pretty decent definition. The only reason to begin a discussion like this is to nail down what a film that follows the guidelines of this genre of filmmaking (if one can call it that) should, and more often than not does, do.
“…any film that uses distanciation is seeking some sort of conscious participation by the spectator.”
Earlier today I watched a Spanish film called, Birdsong. I remember not being captured by the film until about half-an-hour into it. There was this single shot of the three leads walking across this vast empty sand dunes (almost reminiscent of Woman in the Dunes). A single static long shot (shooting with a very wide-angle lens). We see vast bleakness, and clouds up above (which is in-and-of-itself a pretty gorgeous sight… clouds over a desert). The film is in black-and-white, and the leads are wearing dark colours (the come out as black, obviously), and have white underneath it.
The leads walk into frame already in long shot, and spend about five minutes walking away from the camera. The dip up and below the dunes, in and out of the camera’s framing. The walk and walk until they become dots. And eventually it becomes difficult to distinguish person, from sand, from clouds. The black-and-white cinematography makes everything mesh together. The heavens themselves are descending upon the earth, as it were, and this single shot essentially becomes representative of the entire film. The entire idea behind the film is there in this shot, and the rest of the film only serves to ameliorate, and add layering to these ideas.
That’s only halfway through, though. They walk back (and the film contains many scenes of these three men arguing over which way to go… two steps forward, one step back). And when they dip up and down you have a difficult time even recognizing if they’re coming towards the camera or moving further away. Eventually it becomes evident they’re walking back towards it. They walk to essentially the same place where the entered and leave off-screen. We are then left with this vast, opaque, dreary, bleak, and above all beautiful landscape.
This film is, as far as I’m concerned, something new I’ve seen in realist cinema. The director, Albert Serra, is telling probably the single most recognizable story on the face of the earth (which I have tried not to reveal), but he’s doing it completely through visual means. This is, to me, the ultimate point of a great realist film. Not to get rid of narrative, or story elements, but, instead, to tell the story in a visual manner. This is why I feel realism is the most important form of filmmaking, it is the utmost realization of film as a visual art form, not film as a filmed play, or book, or what have you.
I think through that means one can eschew ideology (ethical, psychological, political, even social messages) in favour of film grammar. One can test the very nature of reality as it is depicted in film (which is what Tsai Ming-liang does, and also what is occurring in Ben Russell’s recent masterpiece Let Each One Go Where He May), and either strengthen our understanding of film and reality, or destroy the bonds altogether.
Very well put (and I’m looking for Birdsong immediately—I hope it’s readily available). [EDIT: Ah, I found it in the saved section of my queue. Not yet available. If you know where I can watch it I’d appreciate it.]
“…to tell the story in a visual manner.”
I think we agree but maybe I would put it differently, or clarify it in this way: that realist film should tell the story with the image, not with the editing, score, plot devices, melodrama, or other gimmicks. When I think of my favorite realist films it’s the image that conveys everything—especially that long-take where the camera just sits there, immobile, allowing the image alone to tell the story.
I’m thinking of the scene in A Time to Live a Time to Die where the father is discovered having died sitting up in his chair. Within the frame of this long, static shot is everything you need—the entire family and their reactions, the entirety of human emotion that occurs at such a time—but more importantly, because you are forced to watch it unblinkingly, your own experiences of death, which makes the film transcend its medium and become a part of you.
They are the kinds of films you don’t need to explain, or have explained to you, because you get them at a base level. You understand them because they are humanity, and you are human. That’s it.
Let’s talk about this then. What should be the point of a, “realist” film? Should it have moral, ethical, social, or even political implications?
Isn’t that getting things backwards in assuming that a film is made to fit in a certain category? The films are going to be there whatever categories you have; you task, as the critic, is to develop categories and tools that illuminate the films. So my question is how useful are these various types of “realism”?
I’d like to see you flesh out what you are saying about Yi Yi. Did Yang steer his film away from some potential implications on the basis of social and political expediency? And is this similar to what other Taiwanese filmmakers have done?