Defending the Real

I could never really make sense of the idea that one of entertainment’s central values is to offer a diversion from real lifeone that is boring, tedious, and for the most part, predictable. Sure, there are Shakespearean peaks, but for the most part, we spend most of time performing the routine tasks that maintain our existence as self-aware mammals navigating throughout our respective cultures.

For me, the mundane is inclusive where fantasy is mostly exclusive. The boring is relatable whereas the foreign becomes alienating. In other words, the hammering of routine exercise, which may be seen with little significance, can be so defamiliarized that it can indeed become romantic and perhaps even heroic.

Some have argued that verisimilitude in cinema does this kind of reality no favors, but rather, draws far too much attention to the medium’s technique. Consider the jarriness of watching The Blair Witch Project, or the countless found-footage films that was mostly adopted by the horror genre. Even the slight camera shake employed by Soderbergh’s Traffic and a slew of foreign political dramas attempt to bridge the gap between a typically sleek medium and the aesthetic of voyeuristic truth that we’ve come to associate with on-the-ground journalism.

Sling Blade, 1996
Sling Blade, 1996

I’d have to agree that an aggressive visual style can in fact break the fourth wall of illusion. The long takes of a family eating dinner in Sling Blade didn’t need a steadicam to achieve a feeling of voyeurism, nor even the conservative and almost invisible style of American Movie, a documentary that oozes truth merely through its clever editing.

Even beyond stylistic attempts of verisimilitude, I can’t tell you how many films I’ve seen who get so caught up in the mechanics of their far-fetched pseudo fantasy plotting that somewhere along the line, they realize that they are missing a character element needed to just humanize the thing.

To attempt to rectify this, you’ll often find a scene right before the third act that takes a quiet moment to clarify the motivations of the characters, perhaps through a family moment or dimly-lit conversation. This is also the kind of scene you’re most likely to see in a trailer or an Oscar highlight reel.

But here we are in a decade filled to the brim with either expensive boy fantasies or poor attempts at character-driven indie bait often sold with a gimmicky hook to distract from an otherwise totally ordinary and cliched piece of work. With television as it is now, films no longer have a monopoly on violent splatterfests or A-list acting, so just what do they have to offer?

It seems the answer to that is money-on-the-screen spectacles, and little else. The investment pool appears reserved for the huge or the inane, the ten-story-high mutant dragon that fills the IMAX theatre or the socially marginalized outcasts that plagues the film festivals.

American Movie, 1999
American Movie, 1999

There is little room for what feels real, and right, and true to what people live with every day, and certainly nothing in today’s cinema seems to have the ability to challenge our understanding of the status quo or provide the slightest bit of meaning for all of this. The thread of sarcasm, perhaps even cynicism, that many have adopted as armor against a social condition that seems apt to crumble at any moment (and which seems to have driven much of the superior cinema of the 1970’s) is just simply not in style today.

Perhaps the films today are more likable, more congratulatory, more escapist, and more inclusive. But when it comes to offering work that accurately reflects and hopefully elevates the zeitgeist, the cinema of today appears to also prefer denial.