Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A Quick Note on Rossellini and Realism

There are certain techniques in late Rossellini that seem to be indicators of his late, didactic style--the zooms and long takes, the usually spare settings & props, the use of matte painting. But some of the earlier films, like Giovanna d'arco al rogo, eschew any conventional sense of "realism" for a kind of "kino-literalism" that gets at the reality of Truth, which is I think the object Rossellini chased his whole career. Look also at La Macchina ammazzacattivi, which opens and closes with narration and a hand of God (or the narrator) placing matte models of the island setting out for us--mountains, buildings, townspeople.

Sometimes I think that Rossellini--in general--took on the challenge of the cinematic real not in the same vein as his colleagues and compatriots of postwar Neorealism, but in a way somewhat closer to avant-garde animator Robert Breer: the 'truth' in a false image, the film frame not as a window onto the world but a true window onto "lies" or "constructions."

5 comments:

Dan Sallitt said...

Bill Krohn and I were writing recently about how Rossellini's camera movements, which can be quite beautiful in the way they balance figure and ground, don't really seem to be primarily about space. And you point out that he doesn't seem unduly attached to naturalism. I guess he sees cinema as a kind of synthetic process, where he reconstructs his subject matter along his own conceptual lines.

Of course, there's always the option for the critic of deciding that Giovanna, La Machina, etc. are failures, and therefore should be eliminated from consideration when we try to decide what Rossellini is really about.

Daniel said...

Tantalizing! I know it's that-time-of-the-year for you, but do you mind expanding a bit on kino-literalism? I agree 100% that Rossellini fairly quickly revealed that the kind of realism he was after had little in common with the Neorealist movement he initially accompanied, but I have yet to read a satisfying description of analysis of what this kind of realism was like (in ideal form or in actual form, in his films). Of course, I haven't reach much, if any, Rossellini criticism, nor Gallagher's book.

Zach Campbell said...

Dan & Daniel, I don't have as much time to devote to this as I would like--at the moment. But it's a question I will come back to very soon. And until then, two quick points to address--

If in fact Giovanna, etc. are failures, how viable an option is it to disregard failures? Can't failures be very much part of what an artist is about? And indeed aren't artists we dislike at least sometimes defined by our judgments of these 'failures'? (I got the sense that you were opening a rhetorical path here, not necessarily pushing this view yourself, am I correct, Dan?)

Daniel, 'kino-literalism' is a shorthand term I threw out there for a kind of photographic realism that retains its definite indexical aspect but isn't necessarily a reflection (or "reportage," as was the neorealist bent according to some, back in the days) of social life, a la Ladri di biciclette. This doesn't mean social reality, and real, material history are unimportant to the art--only that a simple reflective correlation isn't "what's happening" ... more later.

(Oh, and Gallagher's book, which I've still only read parts of, is invaluable. Sometimes maddening. Maybe too big. But worth it.)

Dan Sallitt said...

Zach - I wasn't being rhetorical, but I wasn't necessarily making a recommendation, either. When I try to understand a director I like, I always start from the stuff I think is good, and try to find commonality among the good moments or aspects. But I certainly want to incorporate things that don't work into my view of the filmmaker, especially if there are patterns of failure.

Maybe success and failure aren't symmetrical outcomes for art. Maybe success is a fight against the incoherent, discordant elements that exist both inside and outside the filmmaker. In which case success would be hard-won and intelligible, and failure might be akin to the place where the car was stopped by hitting a tree. It's important to analyze all the data, especially when the car keeps hitting the same tree. But my sense is that a director's failures don't necessarily cohere in the way that his or her successes usually do.

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