Film realism is a slippery thing to define

Film realism is a slippery thing to define, but generally, it could be said to share some of the following traits: an attempt to truthfully depict the ordinary and genuine; to reach logical behavioural conclusions for its characters; to privilege ugly reality over attractive fantasy. Although fictional, these films tend to eschew aesthetic perfection for the rough-hewn messiness of the ‘real’. And as such, realism of this kind is not what you might call the definitive trait of mid-century American cinema. Even if it has its place in the nation’s moviemaking output, other adjectives would seem more apt; bombastic, escapist, colourful. If we associate ‘realism’ to Hollywood at all, it’s in small doses – the on-location shooting of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) or the squalorous backdrop of John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969).

But away from the bright klieg lights of the commercial film business, an alternative style and method of moviemaking could be found. It might not be called a ‘new wave’ per se, as it lacked the homogeneity of approach. It did not come from socially-connected filmmakers as with the French New Wave. Nor did it adhere to Italian neo-realism’s set of strict standards, which insisted on the use of natural light and non-professional actors. Nonetheless, American neo-realism, which could be said to have been born in the late 1950’s and flourish throughout the ‘70s, did merit its own kind of alternative national cinema. It was one of verisimilitude with everyday life, of the frequent use of non-professional actors and loose plotting, and with a fresh interest in the workaday existences of those who had often been barely visible in commercial American film.

Thus, through filmmakers from Curtis Harrington (Night Tide, 1961) to Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, 1978), those on the margins – the rural or urban poor, people of colour, migrant farm workers, even LGBTQ people – began to populate American independent film. And with those changes came a more steadfastly natural manner of filmmaking, relying on the new advances of the late fifties and early sixties.

Low-budget independent features of this kind became newly viable around the late 1950s, when the stranglehold of the Hollywood studio system was forcibly loosened by a monopoly-busting Supreme Court ruling from the decade previous. As studios lost the ability to manage their product from conception to theatrical exhibition, ambitious freelance producers used cheaper, more ad-hoc methods to get their films on cinema screens. Innovative new technology – like the lightweight handheld Arriflex cameras – also allowed film productions to work on the fly, no longer stymied by the lumbering production equipment of the past. Able to go on location and capture of-the-moment sound, a vast, disparate generation of filmmakers began to experiment with the possibilities.

Some of the first American filmmakers to make use of this tech were documentarians, who were able to capture life more naturally. With the ‘Direct Cinema’ movement, luminaries like D.A. Pennebaker (Primary, Don’t Look Back) and the Maysles Brothers (Salesman) worked with jazz-improv style, unassuming central subjects, and an ‘unprofessional’ grainy 16mm stock, highlighted by the jarring shakiness of the hand-held camera.

The same cinematic vocabulary was then used by fiction filmmakers working at the time, trading the rules of classical filmmaking – well-lit spaces, pristinely framed shots, and traditional continuity editing – for their aesthetic antithesis. The perceived roughness of American film realism was a part of its concerted effort to offer a contrast to the polished perfection of studio fare. In 1959, John Cassavetes released his debut feature Shadows, which was shot on the streets of NYC in 16mm.

Cassavetes, regularly cited as the godfather of American indie film and an early adopter of European-style realism, actually scripted and storyboarded his films immaculately. Still, they offered a startlingly unseen and frank picture of contemporary urban life. Perhaps even more tellingly, Shadows featured a cast of actors playing mixed-race characters, presaging American neo-realism’s special interest in the lives of the country’s minority groups.

Whether the American neo-realists were capturing Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill or the rural landscape of the Appalachians, they were doing so with a set of criteria that would be well-described by film scholar Andre Bazin as ‘visible poetry’: the natural, lyrical rhythms of everyday life. These films were made up by small, seemingly quotidian moments – a morose woman with a baby bump, going to see a Western by herself on a Friday night; a man tensely buttering a piece of bread at a quiet family dinner table. American neo-realism was able to locate transcendence in the banal.

A pristine example of this naturalism was captured in The Exiles (1961), a documentary-style fiction film where a group of twentysomething Native American kids move from their reservation to the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles. The main characters drink, argue, and talk among themselves on a hedonistic Friday night, essentially basing their characters on their own in front of the camera. Student filmmaker Kent Mackenzie spent several years getting to know the real Native population of the area, eventually casting pregnant star Yvonne Williams and her real boyfriend Homer Nish in the lead roles.

Mackenzie soundtracks the film with spiky garage rock and follows the boisterous drunken antics of its beatnik crew, but the truth is that their troubles are deeper and older than the typical disaffected youths. As The Guardian’s John Patterson reported in 2010, the average wage for a Native American at the time of filming was a quarter of a white worker’s.

A world away from the squalid urbanism of The Exiles is J.L. Anderson’s Spring Night, Summer Night (1967), a story of hillbilly Americana and small-town malice. With a sense of pervasive hopelessness, two teenaged siblings turn to incestuous romance against the backdrop of their dead-end town. Their father, a coal miner forced to take employment as a farmer, and the whole Southern Ohio landscape around them, seems blighted and scarred by the death of industry.

The ‘poor white trash’ sub-genre of American film

The ‘poor white trash’ sub-genre of American film has often been the source of sneering humour – and in films such as John Boorman’s downriver hellride Deliverance, even outright horror. Spring Night, Summer Night works as a corrective to those broad stereotypes, affording impoverished rural people with the basic dignity they are so often denied onscreen. Anderson and his crew, who largely worked on the project as a labour of love, spent several years researching Appalachian dialects and speech patterns, and hired young locals with backgrounds in community theatre, according to Sight & Sound writer and archivist Ross Lipman.

The result is haunting and full of a fierce ambiguity, transcending the basic ‘kitchen sink’ realism that might be inferred from its rough-hewn black & white look. It also employs a strange, woozy poeticism that harks back to Curtis Harrington’s surreal drama Night Tide (1961) and even the dreamy gothicism of Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). These are films which borrow from the lexicon of neo-realism, but elegantly transcend the banality of the everyday.

Anderson’s film could almost seem like a grimly lyrical antecedent to something like Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010) – another rurally-located indie drama, unafraid to depict the bleak outlook of its low-income inhabitants. The film is set in the meth-infested underworld of the Ozarks, where a teenage girl searching for her missing father learns more than she bargains for about ‘redneck justice’.

Another film that intelligently depicts fiction with the flavour of the real is Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964), a Civil Rights-era drama about an itinerant black worker (Ivan Dixon) from Alabama who marries a respectable preacher’s daughter and struggles to ignore the oppressive racism and disdain he is treated with by the wider white community. Although Roemer employed professional actors and did not come from the community he depicted, he was also a Jewish refugee of the Nazis and felt a deep kinship with the oppressed people of the Jim Crow South.

He and co-writer Robert M. Young spent a considerable amount of time wandering through Mississippi and Alabama in the early ‘60s, and their presence as liberal Jews became a rather unwelcome one among the whites in the region. Yet Nothing But a Man is never overtly political, in spite of being made in the hothouse insanity of the early ‘60s. Instead, like the best of its realist British and Italian predecessors, it allows the political to be cultivated through the personal and human stories of its characters.

As racial tensions increased throughout the sixties, culminating on the West Coast with the deadly Watts Riots of 1965, black filmmakers took on a central role in telling their stories. The UCLA was encouraged to open its culture programme to a more diverse variety of African-American and Chicano filmmakers. Thus began a generation of fertile creativity among young black artists from the Los Angeles area, among them Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, and Billy Woodberry. It later came to be known as the ‘L.A. Rebellion’ movement, and within that label there were pockets of pure neo-realism.

Charles Burnett’s cult classic Killer of Sheep (1978) is an examination of economic hardship and intra-personal conflict set in the Watts area. The protagonist Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) is a slaughterhouse worker, who feels increasingly alienated from home and family life. Told in a string of loosely-connected vignettes, Burnett is fixated on the banal details and ordinary encounters of Stan’s blue-collar life. Yet Killer of Sheep also takes on a curious poignance - merely through its build-up of insightful portions of a man’s life. As Stan slow-dances with his wife in the kitchen, cuts the throats of the animals on his slaughterhouse line, or casually talks to friends about his insomnia, a loose portrait of the man’s frustration and tenderness is painted.

In the 1970’s, some of the more flexible elements of realism began to enter mainstream Hollywood. Although the concept of neo-realism made the case for a focus on the underclass or contemporary social problems, ‘70s American cinema moved beyond the traditional concerns of filmic realism. As the decade went on, genre thrillers like The French Connection (1971) or druggie dramas like The Panic in Needle Park (1972) could remain grounded in the realist lexicon without the burden of being especially socially conscious. Thus, dingy city streets, with the hustlers, cops, and blue-collar folk who populated them, found a new dominance in popular filmmaking.

While it can’t exactly be said that films like Spring Night, Summer Night dominate the look of contemporary U.S. indie fare, their influence has certainly not disappeared. Filmmakers like David Gordon Green (George Washington, 2000) and Lance Hammer (Ballast, 2008) have refocused their efforts on ordinary people, casting first-time actors in their leading roles and employing a gentle, meandering approach that eschews obvious narrative signals. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins also credits Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep as an influence for his Oscar-winning film. It’s true that Moonlight’s combination of authenticity and poeticism call to mind the finest impulses of American neo-realism. If those disparate low-budget filmmakers wished to bring a stylised form of truth to American screens – and if, indeed, a work like Moonlight is the successor of such a wish – it’s fair to say that this movement has made an important and lasting impression.

Christina Newland is a writer on film and culture for VICE, Esquire, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, and others. She’s a displaced New Yorker in love with ’70s Hollywood and boxing movies.

Art by Jason Ngai