December 30, 2014 / Filmwell
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January 20, 2013
MORE THAN A FEW filmmakers have plotted a career path or artistic journey from documentary to fictional cinema. For some, it’s a fairly straight path. Krzysztof Kieślowski shot a doc on the Polish court system, where he met a lawyer who became his screenwriter and the rest was less history than art. Other journeys are more winding, like the roads beloved of Abbas Kiarostami, a director who has long played both side of the border between “documentary” and more artful shaping of the material. According to their own unique visions, various directors – including the Dardenne brothers and Pedro Costa – have found ways to balance on that thin hyphen between “docu” and “drama.”
Certain border issues remain fascinating, often controversial, not least the question of where the lines should be drawn. Partisans argue, for example, over just how much a documentary can be shaped in artistic ways and still be considered “objective,” whatever that may still mean. There’s also the fact that even in so-called “fictional” film, people might not just be (for example) pretending to kiss, but actually kissing – as the camera documents that fact. The border between fact and fiction has always been blurrier than cops on either side often admit.
A genre, or, rather, a stream of film history famous for leveraging such ambiguities has been known as “neorealism.” Originally an Italian invention (mothered by postwar necessity), neorealism continues to vivify cinema in varieties that have lately included Iranian, Romanian, and recent American examples identified as “neo-neorealism.” That pile-up of prefixes to authenticate what is already supposed to be a more authentic mode of apprehension points up the anxiety of authenticity that motors so many quests. That is to say, especially in an age when reality isn’t what it used to be, what “neorealism” really is must necessarily remain in the eye of the beholder.
Me, I know it when I see it. Or when it raises the hair on the back of my neck. To the list of filmmakers that have passed that test I’ve recently added the duo of Tizza Covi, an Italian, and her Austrian filmmaking partner Rainer Frimmel. Both forty-something, the pair have made their own way into that twilight zone between fact and fiction. Covi and Frimmel’s latest film The Shine of Day caps a kind of docu-drama trilogy, following their acclaimed first fictional feature, La Pivellina, which emerged from Babooska, a documentary featuring individuals who became characters in the subsequent fictions.
Some may find Babooska (2007) a bit demanding: what it demands first of all is that the viewer listen — and when we talk about listening with a visual art, perhaps we mean a kind of apprehension of the heart. The style here is unadorned, fly-on-the-wall observation, mostly wide, static shots. There’s no narration, identifying titles, talking heads, no exposition. It’s not made readily clear the identities, roles, relations or significances of the figures introduced. In fact, the film affirms my instinct that neorealism is, preeminently, a mode of receptivity: a way of listening, an attitude of attention to the world – one required both by audience and artist.
On this topic, I’ve found helpful perspective in listening to psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist:
“The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the very nature of the world we attend to. Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world. If you are my friend, the way in which I attend to you will be different from the way in which I would attend to you if you were my employer, my patient, the suspect in a crime I an investigating. my lover, my aunt, a body waiting to be dissected. In all these circumstances, except the last, you will also have a quite different experience not just of me, but of yourself: you would feel changed if I changed the type of my attention. And yet nothing objectively has changed.”
Attending to Babooska (through the filmmakers’ lens of attention) the first thing one picks up is a mood: the loneliness of traveling life, the sense of isolation among outsiders in a dreary Italian town amid an overcast winter. We meet a group of people who seem to be engaged in some common project, but backstage – cooking, cleaning, watching TV. Gradually, we realize we are indeed behind-the-scenes, at a small, struggling circus.
The type of attention Covi and Frimmel bring to bear here is focused and discreet. We hear, for example, the audio from a sound truck going through town, a recording of bombastic promises of circus thrills. But we ride inside with the frumpy driver. When we finally see anything of any circus performance, it is, characteristically, a fleeting glimpse through a slit in the curtain – from backstage. A big payoff for this stingy exposition is that we never get the chance to file people according to their circus job description – and thereby objectify and/or judge and dismiss them. When we finally do meet some of them in their circus role, we hardly even notice what that is – because we’ve gotten to know them first as individuals: it’s an astonishing, revelatory, humanizing angle of approach.
THIS IS THE TRUE currency of neorealism: the unexpected vista of a bigger, deeper reality. I’ve wished the experience could be made more stable so I could spend it freely in the rest of life. The next best thing is regular infusions into my account. Iain McGilchrist confirms how important such might be: “Attention also changes who we are, we who are doing the attending… Through the direction and nature of our attention we prove ourselves to be partners in creation, both of the world and of ourselves.” If, as McGilchrist argues, “attention is inescapably bound up with value,” then the experience of certain kinds of attention, even in films, might actually be morally beneficial. I cling to the hope that learning to employ certain kinds of attention can make us better human beings.
Meanwhile, documentary filmmaking of any kind generally requires super-human attention. It’s not hard to see how a filmmaker might occasionally be tempted to step in to help shape the raw facts toward more artful ends. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Covi and Frimmel had already blurred the line in Babooska by, say, shifting around the thunder audio under shots in a rain sequence. That’s a standard sound-editing technique, not considered cheating in a documentary – but illustrative of the wiggle room in the genre and blurriness of the line.
It is with their next film that Covi and Frimmel unequivocally cross that line.
In La Pivellina (2009), the setting is the same circus, featuring the same general extended circus family that we met in Babooska – with one key addition: a two-year old girl. Practically speaking, just keeping la pivellina (the little girl) from looking at the camera seems miracle in itself. But this is no gimmicky kid movie or movie kid. Little Asia Crippa is either a miracle kid or else she’s just an ordinary bright two-year-old who these filmmakers have miraculously captured on film. And you have never seen a child this small so unselfconsciously involved in the action of a film — documentary or otherwise.
The film, on the other hand, is definitely for grown-ups. As in Babooska, the filmmakers avoid spoon-feeding plot points, meanings and sentiment. They’re stingy with back-story and exposition, embedding the action in an network of relations-and-action-in-progress. Viewers of La Pivellina learn slowly that the red-haired woman who finds and cares for the abandoned child “played” by little Asia is Patti, the assistant (that is, the target) of Walter Saabel, the knife-thrower. Viewers who saw Babooska may recall Walter appears briefly in that film as does Patti, who turns out to be the grandmother of the film’s title character.
In La Pivellina, the primary fictional element seems to be the creation of a scenario whereby the little girl is injected into this community. After that, the child’s interactions with the traveling circus amount to a group improvisational exercise (which includes the cast and the crew). Like any improv performance it’s a high-wire act — stretched between documentary and drama — which holds us breathless at the edge of our seats.
It’s worth noting that “the child” may well be the quintessential figure of neorealism. I would include under that designation childlike adults, such as St. Francis (given neorealist treatment by Roberto Rossellini) and Don Quixote (as in Albert Serra’s Honor of the Knights). The wide-eyed wonder of that mode of attention we associate with the child’s point of view is neorealism’s inevitable (even if unconscious) ideal. It is a vividly personalist mode of attention, one that treats the universe not as an It but as a Thou — like St. Francis, praising the moon, stars, fire — even death — as brothers and sisters. “My little sister reality” — to quote Vittorio De Sica, another pioneer practitioner.
A range of filmmakers who’ve staked out territory at the docu-dramatic border have in various ways oriented their visions by a child’s. Kiarostami is content to send a child protagonist on a simple quest and follow along — viewing the action through the child’s eyes. The Dardennes, on the other hand, are disciples of Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero, a film in which the shape of childhood is discerned mostly by its absence: like tracking an invisible heavenly body via the effect of its gravitational pull upon another.
In making Asia the center around which the other characters and film itself orbits, La Pivellina has no trouble paying a particular kind of attention: the power of her perspective saturates the film. And even if the kids in Babooska don’t dominate that film in the same way, the filmmakers nonetheless manifest here a similar childlike humility. It seems significant, then, that in Covi and Frimmel’s latest film, the children are much less central, perhaps even more seen than truly heard.
IN THE SHINE OF DAY (2012), self-described “circus artist” Walter Saabel is paired with real-life Austrian actor, Phillip Hochmair. The fictional element here, as in La Pivellina, is mainly a matter of setting the stage for more docu-dramatic action. The action begins with Walter’s arrival to visit Hochmair, in the story his half-brother’s son (who, like Walter, seems estranged from his father). This narrative includes some subplots, including one involving a neighbor whose wife has left the country and whose children Walter ends up babysitting. Even so, the setting seems smartly-designed to facilitate an ongoing contrast of the main characters’ acting styles and perspectives.
No coincidence – those oppositions roughly match those of the docu-dramatic enterprise. Walter’s style is naturalistic and improvisational. Hochmair works in more formal, scripted modes. The setting offers the filmmakers an opportunity to probe the tensions of their own double-faced inclinations. The film title unites these different strokes with a common ideal: Phillip stays busy juggling multiple roles, from classic characters to contemporary dramas. That’s his idea of the best that life has to offer – “the shine of day.” Walter, conversely, finds his fulfillment along more contemplative paths, preferably in nature, fishing or hiking alone – these are Walter’s shine of day.
Taken with the previous two films, a straight documentary followed a docu-drama, the trajectory into this film which knowingly carries on the conversation about the dueling dualities of the filmmakers’ hyphenated interests would seem to make a classic neorealist trilogy. Indeed, the project recalls Kiarostami’s “Koker Trilogy,” nested narratives that drill into the oppositions of artifice and reality with a film, then a film about a film, then a film about a film about a film. Or Kiarostami’s Close Up, an interrogation of reality in a docu-drama involving the re-enactment of a real-life hoax. The Shine of Day, then, has all the ingredients of a fascinating border raid on that space between real life and fiction.
Yet the parts are stronger than the sum. Walter and Phillip are both fine actors and improvisers. Yet the marriage of their styles, embodied in their relationship and in the film itself seem — to this beholder — a bit less-than-happy. In fact, The Shine of Day feels much more weighted by its own artifice and its own sense of that artifice than its more raw and unselfconscious predecessors. The composition, camera movement, lighting and other production values are much more “cinematic,” if that means more calculated and polished; any documentary realism shows up only in random flashes.
The material often feels forced toward predetermined ends. I tend to repeat this example, but it seems worth repeating: Andre Bazin says conventional filmmaking is like building a bridge, while neorealism is more like finding and crossing on rocks already in the water. Covi and Frimmel’s previous two films found the second path; this one imposes its path.
The film’s treatment of children is most telling. I’m thinking of the scene where Walter takes the neighbor kids to a museum. It strikes me that in this scene the filmmakers seem less interested in the children for who they actually are — in listening to them, in treating them as ends in themselves – than in using them as set dressing for a long expository speech by Walter. Perhaps that’s the point, given the presence of stuffed and mounted animals in the scene. But I’m not so sure. In fact, I think the filmmakers, progressing on their journey, stopped paying a certain kind of attention – and lost that elusive balance.
It’s been said that walking a tightrope near the ground or high in the air takes essentially the same skills. Pascal, however, would argue that even the greatest philosopher in the world would have trouble talking him or her self onto a high-wire by simple recitation of this fact. Indeed, the higher one goes, aerialists tell us, the greater the degree of concentration is required. With high-wire mistakes, the best one can hope for is that there’s a net.
For Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, the net might be the possibility of regaining balance in another film – that, plus the invaluable experience of having successfully walked the line between documentary and drama in Babooska and La Pivellina. Covi and Frimmel have proven they have the necessary skills and the instincts. They just need to keep their focus — that is, pay that particular kind of attention — as they take their career to the next level.
Watching breathless as cinematic tightrope-walkers boldly defy gravity again and again — that’s my shine of day.
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ADDENDUM (Feb. 9, 2013):
Just ran across these lines on the topic of attention that demanded to be appended here:
“To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention — on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God – that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying. Choice of attention — to pay attention to this and ignore that — is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be. The primary task of the schoolteacher is to teach children, in a secular context, the technique of prayer.” W. H. AUDEN
Also, from Auden’s commonplace book, two more pertinent quotes:
“Intellectual adherence is never owed to anything whatsoever, for it is never in any degree a voluntary thing. Attention alone is voluntary. It alone forms the subject of an obligation.” SIMONE WEIL
“Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.” ORTEGA Y GASSET