New American Realism
In spring 2009, film critics A.O. Scott and Richard Brody had a bit of a spat over “realism” in independent cinema. Scott’s argument is that there’s a trend in American Great Recession-era indies of films that:
- “illuminate” the lives of characters “not commonly depicted on screen,”
- in “recognizable” situations “familiar ona basic human level,”
- and this mirrors the “radical and innovative cinematic explorations of ‘actual life’” seen in postwar Italian cinema, namely, Neorealism.
So thus Scott tacks on another Neo to describe what he was seeing, a Neo-Neo Realist cinema. Brody mostly disputes Scott’s history. Key to Brody’s argument are the following points:
- Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is not an example of neorealism – it’s romantic.
- American “method acting” distinguishes the American neorealist tradition – it’s individualist, it breaks from the “limits of the social category” to define psychologically deep characters.
- Scott does not consider the aesthetic conventions of his category (e.g., “a restrained camera style”).
This categorization of cinema seems to have gone dead until Joseph Pomp’s 2017 piece in the LA Review of Books, that names the style linking movies like the Safdie’s Good Time and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight as “Neon-Neo Realism,” films that,
[…] address sociopolitical issues through the prism of place-based character studies, but with a hard-hitting style that feels less akin to the European art-house tradition than to hip-hop music videos.
Since publication, we probably should add Uncut Gems, The Florida Project, maybe Waves, Honey Boy or anything else in the A24 catalog.
This is all well and good, but Neon-Neo Realism borrows as much from Roberto Rossellini as it does from Harmony Korine. That is, the American traditions from which it draws are not the same homespun and naturalistic styles that surface in movies like Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008).
Since the Great Recession, Reichardt has gone on to make several more films, like 2013’s Night Moves. Jeff Nichols has made Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012). Debra Granik had Winter’s Bone (2010) and Leave No Trace (2018). If you permit me to include period pieces: Paul Dano’s Wildlife (2018).
What unites this list of films is that they are not neon-soaked and stylized dramas overflowing with sultry synthesizes and digital cinematography. Instead, what unites them are,
- Aspects of slow cinema: they are naturalistic, observational films with meandering narratives.
- They are romantic, in that they exalt America’s natural beauty, and sometimes veer away from realism to convey powerful emotion.
- They are American; the films have distinct geographies – and often a regional focus across a filmography: Reichardt filming in the Pacific Northwest, Nichols around Arkansas, e.g.. Moreover, they tell American stories, of outlaws on the banks of the Mississippi, hobos along Oregon’s coast, paranoid men obsessed with survival – individualistic stories about life on contemporary “frontiers.”
- They’re white – the casts are almost entirely white, and the stories unfold in rural and suburban places with large white populations.
The late 19th/early 20th century style of American Realism share much in common – the sense of place of Steinbeck, the natural language of Twain, Jacob Riis’ clear and observational photography of the poor, and its echos in Ashcan school painting. Yet here there was also romance, reverence of nature in George Bellow’s paintings and Jack London’s writing, an American pastoralism that we see today in films like Reichardt’s First Cow (2020).
So we find ourselves naming a style through addition: let’s shepherd the works of Reichardt, Granik, and Nichols and others under the name New American Realism.
Letterboxd list of films mentioned.