Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
There is no realism, but there are realisms – John Ellis
Realism is reality through the eyes of a director, a talented one, therefore there is realism according to Mizoguchi, and according to Kiarostami (among others), as they arrange their shots and sounds, coming to a conception of a world, or an idea of a world - of cinema. In the case of Kiarostami, I think, he works as both a filmmaker and a theorist, by which I mean he raises important questions and explores cinematic limits on the way. He also gives answers. I would say that in Mizoguchi we have a realistic universality, a director perfectly aware of his charm and in sintony with his method and storytelling. And in Kiarostami, a universal realism, the one possible today, answering specific questions, raising new ones. Aside from that, and at a different level, there are also different analytic views on realism, which indeed states that there is no easy answer to the matter, from Bazin to Bordwell, Maccabe, Deleuze, Bresson (why not?).
As I said, I think the approach to realism in film is certainly not an easy endeavor, and maybe that's why I chose Abbas Kiarostami's and Kenji Mizoguchi's films, Close-Up (1990) and Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), for my essay. Their distance to me (geographically, ethically, historically, socially...), and their complete “lack” of familiar faces, without stars or people I could relate to in advance, could be the very reason why I found those films realistic, since I could not verify their truth (or lies) easily. However, that distance was surpassed on the first frames of film, by a discourse I felt was familiar to me: that of Cinema. Rivette himself said about Mizoguchi's films that one need not know japanese to understand them, but know film, know Cinema; mise-en-scène, for that's his language.
Developing this idea, I think those who understand this language better, the “fluent speakers”, are the ones who manage to shorten the barrier between “film” and “viewer”, playing with uncertainty and with the spectator's place, on the way, making him feel unsure if he's watching or being watched. That uncertainty can only be explained by form, certainly not by subject. Subjects, as characters, only relate to us through variation, through nuances in speech, like in a great song, otherwise they're just shots and words, random noise. It takes genius to make something out of images and noises. Something out of nothing.
There has been many approaches to realism as the years went by, from the Hollywood studio system to the italian neo-realism movement. The new cinemas from Iran and Brazil, the futurists and the surrealists. From Griffith, the father of continuity editing, to Rossellini, the father of modern cinema. Modern cinema, or “realistic cinema” became possible thanks to the exploration of the shot, as living force, and as Jean Renoir and Orson Welles utilized the depth of field in their films, time and space in movies started being questioned and analysed.
André Bazin said, in What is Cinema?, that sound was not essential to realism, but rather inevitable, as Murnau and Carl Dreyer made silent movies in which silence (or lack of sound) was a minor detail. What mattered was their inventions (or intentions), their “giving birth” to a language and their picture's statements through image and movement. And it's not hard to understand this as one sees Ugetsu Monogatari, a film whose major messages and points come to us through the image, through the shot; also, it's almost impossible not to think of Murnau and City Girl (or Sunrise and Tabu) as inspiration to Mizoguchi and its whole mise en scène. I do not imply, however, image could survive without sound, in Mizoguchi.
Sound, in Ugetsu Monogatari it's one of the tools at the director's disposal, and never imposes itself, it never stands out, and that's just how it should be. Not just hearing, not just seeing, but feeling. Thinking of an example, in a shot at the middle of the film: when the leaves start breaking, touched by the wind, and we hear that sound, that doesn't move us away from the travelling is being made through the trees, from above, but rather completes it in a subtle, yet poetic, way. There's an harmony between sounds and image whose strength comes not from merely filming it, from being there with a camera, but by placing the shot at a particular time and place in the film, means of an ingenious editing, and by the felt thought of its duration and length. Nature resolved, but not the most impressive achievement on Mizoguchi's most mystical film.
When Genjurõ comes home after leaving his family to the horrors of war and marrying a princess for lust, his mind plays a few tricks on him and he imagines everything as he left it. His wife receives him in her arms and nothing seems to have changed. Nothing real about that, as we soon find out. In a cruel mislead on our (the viewer's) perception this was all done in one shot, through lighting and movement, at a pace and rhythm which makes it hard for anyone not to believe at what they're seeing. We saw it, in one shot, it has to be truth. Well, truth in “one-shots” can also be deceiving, and as we hear someone saying to Genjurõ that his wife is dead, we find out that his hallucination was our hallucination, we too wanted to believe that was true. It was not a twist on our expectations, as in most movies, but a brutal blow on our feelings.
Feeling this for a man who left his family to starvation, is yet another thing one fails to understand, maybe pity and empathy aren't as simple as that, to explain. An act of faith and an act of revelation: us believing and experiencing the supernatural, feeling uneasy with our feelings and believes, so a doubt is casted. Maybe the greatest did a filmmaker can hope for, is play with the audience's humanity, and maybe what's more realistic about such a film is its ability of placing us in someone else's shoes, not sure of what to feel for others, cast aside as in reality. Fairness is not an easy thing to achieve, but that's just what Kenji Mizoguchi is, a fair humanist, a filmmaker of rare qualities.
Perspective and movement were the very things that made the first screenings of the brothers Lumière, frightening, namely the short L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare de la Ciotat, which made people think an actual train was coming at their direction, as Robert Lapsley points out in his book's chapter on realism. So gave Justus D. Barnes the impression he was shooting at the audience in the final shot of Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery.
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Confusing images with reality, however, did not happen again in the following decades, but for this to happen, even if only once or twice, it was because there was certainly something in cinema, in terms of realistic impressions, that other arts didn't have, and that's why it deserved (and deserves) such theoretical emphasis. Images appeared in theatres, in movie screens as men would see them in real life, it was a mimesis of life.
Quoting Kuleshov, David Bordwell talks of a perspectival eye for cinema, an invisible observer, moving around for different perspectives and angles – that's montage – and making a creative assumption based on what he sees. Throughout the years, and as film dialectics evolved, these realistic and aesthetic relations became more complex, cinema started being self-reflexive, as did its heroes. Higher ambitions arised, telling good stories was no longer enough, and cinema started dealing with man and his place in the world, with all the implications that such thing brings. Philosophically, ethically, aesthetically and artistically. Characters started observing their surroundings, cinematic ideas were no longer literal, but subject to interpretation, an envisioned world with rich, and also envisioned, complexity. An image could not stand for itself, bur be seen and experienced by association to others.
The Cahiers du Cinéma helped seeing this change through. First, with their writings, focused on Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, Otto Preminger, Howard Hawks and Mizoguchi, they began developing the auteur theory, which, even if misunderstood today, brought new ways (or tools) of criticizing and studying film. Then, made directors, they continued exploring dialectics (realisms, that is) managing also to cast the world on a spell. Rohmer and his moral tales are perhaps a case-study for the realism matter, much could be said about his use of long shots (both in duration and distance) and direct sound, a realism according to Rohmer.
The long shot is a realistic shot. By filming people in the way we usually see them, the spectator can't relate in any unnecessary way to a character, he´s not told what to do and what to feel. He decides on his own, at some extent. When we see a Hollywood film, a major Hollywood film, we know exactly how to feel, as the shots tell us exactly what we need to know. I'm not saying mainstream movies are without interest, but most of them work that way. On the other hand, we have Dreyer and Bergman, whose realism relies almost entirely on close-ups. Maybe they're more intimate, maybe they're filming psychological face-offs, maybe there's also realism to close-ups, one is led instantly to think, it all depends on how the material his handled and of what our sensibility is. From close-ups to Close-Up:
Cinema was said to be realistic because of its ability to involve the spectator, making him have an active role on the experience. Sometimes through interpretation and realistic dramatization, and other times through the factual veracity of the events – like Frederick Wiseman or Pedro Costa, for instance – using real people and filming their “truth”, they get to have a story by being slaves to reality, opened and dependent on what people and their lives have to give them. This method of directing, of which Kiarostami is no stranger to, is difficult to comprehend fully, as we are not sure of what is genuine and what is reenacted. Close-Up is a seminal work to analyse and try to understand this.
Hossain Sabzian is Hossain Sabzian, as just about anyone in that film is himself, and that trial was real, we are presented with real and raw emotions, and not with someone's interpretation. The tears in Hossain's face at the end of the movie - his happiness - is something a studio or a director, for all his talent, couldn't create and reenact. The uneasiness we feel throughout the movie is explained by this, but not fully; as a storyteller, Kiarostami, liberates himself from any chains reality could tie him to. There are non-diegetic sounds, there are reenactments, too, and veracity comes to us from his talent to combine many devices and artifices, those of cinema. Dialectics play as big a role as truth, because without it, we wouldn't perceive any truth at all. But going back to Hossain Sabzian, and making matters worse, we don't know for sure when he acts and he doesn't act, because he's trialed in a court of law exactly for putting an act, for impersonating a famous iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He's on trial because he's a good actor, for lying and deceiving. We are completely unaware of what to feel for Hossain, and maybe we trust Kiarostami and his final judgement more than ourselves. Here lies his genius, at some extent.
At a key scene in the film, Hossain meets Makhmalbaf, and Kiarostami (as he also appears in the film), follows them with a microphone without them knowing, or so we are led to believe. The sound is poor and we fail to understand most of what is said, but we get the feeling we're receiving something in the making, something pure and primitive, a raw and true encounter filmed in the distance.
This had to set a new standard on realism in film, for we feel it is too much, we feel too close to them, we feel we shouldn't hear and yet we stay there, amazed and bewildered. Guilty, too. Empathy, here, works on another level, we feel “that could well be me”, we think of the implications of filming, of placing a camera, of facing reality, at a whole new extent. At its core, Close-Up, as most of Kiarostami's work, deserved to be tested (put aside to) by all of realism theories around. We could profit a lot from trying to decode Kiarostami's code, no doubt. For it is in the presence of true genius that we are told the most valuable lessons.
Going back, revising, realism is not possible without a considerable amount of talent, it's not something one can aspire to, easily, even if it's cinema what we're talking about. Filmmakers know what they have at their disposal and through infinite combination of devices, result multiple realisms. In Mizoguchi, we experience reality at an almost spiritual level, due to a beautiful and wonderfully orchestrated mise en scène, that makes us believe in characters and destiny. It is a realistic effort, because everything seems to us an act of revelation, of sacred revelation. We believe at what we see because of an almost secret and enigmatic direction. Kiarostami, on the other hand, plays with reality, constructs a tale of lies and deceit based on true facts, reenacting at some extent, but balancing it with moments of now anthological purity, truth and reality. It is by struggling with ourselves that we apprehend any given reality, by not being sure of our place in all of it, reevaluating our role as viewer and participant. It's not just fantasy that lives in the mind, but also reality.
Bazin, André, What is Cinema
Bordwell, David, Film Art: an Introduction
Bordwell, David, Narration in the Fiction Film
Lapsley, Robert, Film theory: an Introduction
Rivette, Jacques, Mizoguchi Viewed from Here