Derek Hill on neo-neo-realism

Back a few weeks ago, when A.O. Scott and Richard Brody were debating “neo-neo-realism,” I asked our resident film historian Derek Hill to put it in perspective for us. His brief essay follows.

With many of the world’s “first world” economies sputtering and grinding down, the need to curb excesses in one’s life seems understandable if not an outright necessity.   Dream factory Hollywood, not exactly the type of place known for cutting back on indulgences of any kind, continues to roll on with one grandiose, bloated B-movie after another.  And while many of them are no doubt fun and occasionally even great, most of us need a little more substance to balance out all the eye candy.  For the adventurous filmgoer, fans of more character-driven, modestly budgeted fare, there are plenty of wonderfully crafted films—Wendy and Lucy being a notable example—among all of the bullying Hollywood blockbusters.

A few weeks ago, Mr. A.O. Scott from The New York Times spotlighted some films he regards as a part of a Neo-Neo Realist movement, and reminds readers that in times of crisis (we have been down these dark roads many times before) we tend to gravitate toward more escapist films and genres.  But what about those of us who want an “escape from escapism”?   Scott highlights the extraordinary post-World War Two Italian Neorealist films as aesthetic forebears to the newer low-budget indie films like Wendy and Lucy and others, seeing a distinct common thread binding the struggling, determined working class “heroes” of the Italian era with the struggling, determined mostly working class heroes from the current films.

I don’t think Scott is entirely off the mark, but writer Richard Brody, in his rebuttal in The New Yorker, isn’t so convinced and brings up some glaring examples of how Scott’s through line isn’t as sharp as he intends.  Film noir immediately came to mind while I read Scott’s piece (although most noir films are in no way realistic), and Brody does pinpoint that equally extraordinary American post-World War Two genre as having utilized many of the same gritty, naturalistic qualities as the Italians, especially in the pre-Hollywood blacklist era films of Jules Dassin.  Brody also contradicts and clarifies that… oh, I’m just going to let you read it for yourselves.

Personally, I love “realism” and “naturalism” in films when done correctly and many of the films from the Neorealist movement are favourites.  But I don’t see films like Bicycle Thieves as inherently more noble or enriching than a film with a surreal, fantastical, or broadly comedic hyper-realistic approach.  All films are trickery and loaded with varying degrees of manipulation.  All films are seductive, lulling us into belief.

Much to ponder.  I think both critics bring up valuable points.  Any thoughts?

Derek Hill is the author of Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers: An Excursion Into the American New Wave.

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