Sunday, July 30, 2023

Film History #5 (Gritty Realism)

Some of the changes we can see as filmmaking evolves over time is a shift from highly professionalized films, if a bit artificial, to a style that becomes more real and gritty and closer to everyday reality.

Films like Night Nurse (1931), Ninotchka (1939), Force of Evil (1948), and All That Heaven Allows (1955) show a progression over time about how films became more polished. These are all representative films from their respective eras, and they are well made, but there is an artificial quality that underpins each one of them. Whether that is because of the sets being built and acted out on sound stages or because the style of acting feels more presentational and exaggerated or because the stories follow a predictable track of conflict, rising action and resolution – these films feel distant to the viewer. They are part of making movie magic and thus live in a place that feels beyond real life even though some of the stories tackle serious ideas and themes.

By contrast, films like Rashomon (1950), Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), Chronicle of a Summer (1961), Faces (1968), The French Connection (1971), and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972) seem to strip away the mask of Hollywood magic and reveals something much more visceral. What these films lack in polish and traditional storytelling arcs they make up for in a kind of intimate realism and grit not found in traditional Hollywood films. This must be due, in part, to a response of young filmmakers during that time to make something independent of the traditional studio system so prevalent for many decades. It also is the result of experiencing a world war where the bomb was dropped, taking humanity to a whole new level of existential fear, worrying about how to live day to day in a world where a whole city could be wiped out in seconds. That kind of reality is much different than something artificially created on a sound stage.

We can see the grit up close in films like Chronicle of a Summer and The French Connection. Both have a look and feel that represents real life on the streets.

But even interior shots have an authenticity about them you don’t get in traditional films.

Now, this approach and the stylistic choices that make up the films bring us closer to the action, and that makes sense in a post-war world when the viewer is looking to identify with the people represented on screen, people that they see in their daily life. There is an attraction to this kind of film because we can relate to the people we see, maybe not the anti-hero of Popeye Doyle, but his surroundings that appeared to be filled with real-looking people.

In Chronicle of a Summer, traditional forms of storytelling are discarded for a documentary style of filming that takes the viewer on a scattered journey with different real-life characters who tackle the questions: “Are you happy?” This simple sentence leads to a host of answers and locations and discoveries with people from the street who unpack who they are in front of the camera, like someone being completely vulnerable. This is not acting. This is authenticity.

That type of storytelling and openness, while sprawling, creates a kind of interest for the viewer, which leaves us wanting more. We want to learn what happens to these people. There is a genuine curiosity about them in a way that is not contrived like a three-act plot structure.

In The French Connection, we see something similar even if this is clearly a more mainstream film. While the film is based on a true story, these are actors playing parts and not regular people from the local neighborhood being interviewed. Still, there is a level of authenticity in this crime film that one doesn’t see too often up to this point in film history. Much of this stems from the authentic locations and the director’s staging so many scenes in public places:


Another crucial point to mention is how these films differ from the decades-long censorship of films that came before where happy endings and clean resolutions were the norm. That is not the case in these two modern films.

In Chronicle the film ends with the makers and doers in a screening room talking about what they just saw. Instead of a typical celebratory ending where they all approve and affirm each other’s “performances” what we get is cynicism and people calling each other put for not being authentic or even going over the top during the film or offering too much of themselves:

As viewers, we want tidy endings where all is right in the world, but here, the filmmakers are recorded walking together talking about what just happened. It is just the two of them unpacking their research and questioning if the project succeeded or failed. It is brilliant because to a large extent it puts that choice in the hands of the person (s) watching the film instead of just giving them a pat answer or something already determined. That is honesty you do not see often.

The same impact happens when the Connection ends. Leading up to the final frames, we are being led on the chase to catch the French drug kingpin. As Popeye Doyle chases down his target, the spaces get darker and more dilapidated (realism) and the sense of real urgency kicks in because time is running out (realism) then he kills an FBI agent and instead of feeling remorse, he quickly moves on to the target that eventually gets away (more realism?).

The effect is a film that circumvents audience expectations at the end when a good guy dies, the bad guy gets away, and the anti-hero goes free as well. Shots with text flash before the screen providing information saying no one of real importance was ever held accountable for their actions. This cynical ending in many ways is how real life unfolds.

This is the crux of what has happened as classic filmmaking evolved to modern filmmaking: make believe reality gave way to a gritty, more grounded sense of reality. This was something views could understand as society changed and people became increasingly disillusioned with the world.


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