Posted in: by James Monaco, Contributors, Film Reviews

The Realist Renaissance

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Ever since the Lumière brothers first fascinated audiences with cinematic recreations of trains entering stations, waves breaking on shores, and street traffic in Paris, theories of Realism have been the aesthetic engines of the film medium. A language with an almost mystical capacity to replicate reality, film has for three-quarters of a century created and recreated its own aesthetics and, although the spectrum of approaches to film art is vast and various, nearly all of the critical theories that have been functionally important have been in some intimate way connected to that primal mimetic power of the medium. Even Expressionist theories, for 75 years opposed in dialectical tension to the Realist theories, have substance simply because the language of film is so highly replicative: if film did not have the innate power to capture reality, it certainly would not hold much interest for those whose desire is to distort it. Forty years ago Rudolf Arnheim warned against the rapid technological development of the medium which would of course only increase the power of replication and therefore limit the freedom of the artist to create “art” and relegate the camera “to the position of a mere mechanical recording machine.”

The history of film is marked by Realist mileposts: French poetic realism in the 1930s; Italian neorealism in the late Forties; the British documentary tradition; the Eastern European humanist heritage; and finally the New Wave of the last 15 years, so thoroughly rooted in the thought of André Bazin, whose influence is still central even now almost 20 years after his death. In our own country theories of realism have had a much more muted effect, especially if we judge our own film traditions against those of France or Italy or England. Yet, within its limited context, much of the best of American film shows the force of realism, from King Vidor and Raoul Walsh to John Cassavetes, from Scarface to On the Waterfront, the styles and subjects of Realism have provided American films with vitality and relevance. During the brightest period of American film—the Thirties and Forties—Warner Brothers, the studio most closely associated with the Realist tradition, is now increasingly seen to have been the major force in the studio system. The gritty and direct Warner Brothers style marked a body of films which surpass in many ways the slicker output of MGM and Paramount and give us a much more exciting and intriguing image of that past America. If the witch-hunts and Blacklists of the late Forties and early Fifties purged the studios of much of the talent that had created that emerging realist tradition, nevertheless we still had the films of Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan during the period that followed. The American film tradition, moribund in the Fifties, was near death in the Sixties and the focus of attention turned, even for most American cinephiles, to European cinema.

In the last five years, however, the renaissance of American Realism has begun. 1968 marked an important watershed and 1973 has shown that that rebirth, if not quite an organized movement, is nevertheless much more than just a hope. During these past five years, a disparate group of young Americans has begun producing films which are united by nothing else except a shared love of the subjects and styles that have always been associated with film Realism. John Cassavetes pointed the way with the much too early Shadows in 1959 and Faces in 1968. Richard Lester, in exile for 15 years, came home to make one of the best American films of the decade, Petulia, in 1967. In 1969, Haskell Wexler’s superb Medium Cool was released—a document on American politics which gains added value with each passing year. Beginning in 1970, the BBS group gave shelter first to Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens) and then to Monte Hellman (Two Lane Blacktop). During the past few years Paul Mazursky’s witty studies of California lifestyles (Alex in Wonderland, Blume in Love) have assured his position, Paul Williams (The Revolutionary, Dealing) has provided incisive studies of the values of the new generation, and Melvin Van Peebles, standing on the shoulders of Ossie Davis and Gordon Parks Sr., has with priapic self-confidence created the first truly and singularly Black film, Sweet Sweetback. Add to this list Michael Ritchie’s fresh and perspicacious studies of professions (Downhill Racer, The Candidate) and Francis Ford Coppola’s more personal films (The Rain People, You’re a Big Boy Now) and the list becomes even more impressive. Include filmmakers like Barbara Loden, Floyd Mutrux, Charles Eastman, Carol Eastman, Jerry Schatzberg, Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna, Nell Cox, Noel Black, John Korty, Ivan Passer, Milos Forman and Ralph Bakshi, and it begins to become evident that the tone and theory of American film during the next decade or so will clearly organize themselves around realist tenets.

New American Realism is, obviously, not a movement with a clear direction. Nothing unites the filmmakers I have listed except a common but vague attitude. If Realism is judged solely as a stylistic denominator, then the sense of the group ceases to exist—what could possibly connect the gritty, involuted, downbeat style of Barbara Loden’s Wanda with the gleaming, showy melodrama of Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow? But, of course, film Realism is much more than simply the name we give to films in which, say, deep focus replaces complex montage. (The popular connotation of the word “realistic” probably makes it nearly synonymous with “boring” or “unentertaining.”) For André Bazin, Realism was (and also, I think, is for American filmmakers of the Seventies) much more a matter of ethics and psychology than of aesthetics: form did not dictate, but rather followed, function. What sets a Realist film apart from its cousins is the filmmaker’s passionate interest in the people in front of his camera and, equally, in their relationship to his audiences. The great desire is to shorten as much as possible the psychological distance between the reality that is photographed and the people who sit in front of the screen on which it is displayed. It is this attitude which I suppose is best described as a kind of love that unites the complicated, almost cryptic style of Richard Lester’s Petulia with the languorous, simple clarity of John Cassavetes’s Faces, for example. No matter how great the range of techniques among this group of new American directors, their films share the vital bond of common premises: people first, camera second. In this regard, Realism is, then, more a way of life than a pure aesthetic.

All of this is by way of introduction to two recent films which seem to summarize the movement in American film during the last five years. New American Realism is not, like the New Wave before it, a united movement, based on theory. It is, rather, disparate, eclectic, and empirical. If it is true that George Lucas and Martin Scorsese are both about the same age (30) and both products of film schools, nothing else unites them. Lucas is a born and bred Californian, Scorsese a denizen of Mulberry Street; Lucas’s background is middle-class, Scorsese’s lower-middle working-class; Lucas draws on a widely shared, integrated and almost archetypally American background, while Scorsese’s heritage is very specifically Italian, Catholic, and urban. Lucas’s first film, THX-1138, was an objective genre study; Scorsese’s first film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, was subjective and evocatively personal. Lucas’s camera keeps a respectful distance while Scorsese’s lens actively ferrets out the relevant information in a scene, closing in on his characters and confronting them. Yet both filmmakers have recently created classic documents of growing up absurd in the America of the early Sixties, and Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Lucas’s American Graffiti—while neither of them is the kind of evident masterpiece we might like to herald a new beginning—both clearly indicate that the New American Realism has become the dominant mood of the Seventies.


Neither Mean Streets nor American Graffiti bothers much with plot; both films are designed more to evoke a particular time and place and attitude than to tell a story, for the subject of both films is itself the kind of stasis or paralysis that has been the central fact of adolescence in the U.S. for the last 20 years. (Nicholas Ray described it very well in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955.) Lucas gives us 12 hours of the last night that a group of boys will spend together before one of them is liberated from smalltown America to go off to college. Curt leaves the next morning, and the titles at the end of the film tell us he has become a writer living in Canada. Of the friends he leaves behind, Terry dies several years later in Vietnam, John is killed in a highway accident, and Steve marries Laurie to settle down as an insurance salesman. Lucas is trying for archetypes throughout American Graffiti and the fates of his five major characters, one must admit, are certainly archetypal for America in the Sixties.

‘American Graffiti’

Where Lucas is archetypal, Scorsese is specific: his characters represent no one but themselves. They are Italian-Americans, but their experiences are relevant only to a very small number of Italian-Americans. They are generally five to eight years older than Lucas’s people, and that is as it should be, for Italian-Americans maintain close family ties well past adolescence. Charlie aspires to run a mob-owned restaurant uptown. Tony runs a bar, Michael is a penny-ante loan shark, Johnny Boy blows up an occasional mailbox and gambles, and Teresa has only the hope of marrying Charlie. Scorsese’s world is very much in the present tense while Lucas phrases his film in the past perfect. The organizing principle for the scenarios of both films is the business of passing time, whether the 12 hours of American Graffiti or the several weeks of Mean Streets, and scenes of one of the films would fit, the necessary changes being made, quite easily into the other. Scorsese’s people hang out in a bar, Lucas’s at a burger joint. In the California town, the action takes place mainly in cars, while on the mean streets of Little Italy people spend as little time as possible out of doors. Both films are set mainly at night, but Lucas’s film is lit by outdoor neon while Scorsese’s is darker, more interior, more cramped: a cold, fluorescent environment.

Yet while hanging out, passing time, cruising, and making out provide the skeletons for both films, they are not the foci. The genius of both American Graffiti and Mean Streets is not at all apparent in their scripts: it is, rather, a matter of the materials out of which both directors have fashioned their films. Light, for example. Lucas, with the invaluable aid of Haskell Wexler, has caught the flatly lit, slightly garish and harsh look of pastel neon which fits perfectly the naïveté of his characters, and which provides a very important element of distantiation to the film. The light of Mean Streets, conversely, is shadowy, molded, and liquescent, if no less harsh than Lucas’s lighting. The deeper hues and the prominence of reds and blacks in the film mark Scorsese’s less distantiated, more guilt-ridden approach to his subject. Light, indeed, is a subject, not simply a technique, in both these films, for both directors know almost as well as Fellini or Resnais that the quality of light is the key to memory and attitude. Like all the structural elements of the films, their light requires a kind of active participation on the part of observers: this is another important aspect of Realist film, which always treats its spectators not as passive vessels to be filled but as active participants in the process. If there is a legitimate reason to call Realist films boring, this is it, since they are always minimally rewarding to those observers who expect the films to do all the work, who don’t want to or don’t know how to participate. If there are times when nothing seems to be happening in Mean Streets and American Graffiti, it may simply mean that one’s attention is too exclusively focused on story and plot while the attention of the filmmakers is directed elsewhere. There is never a moment in either film when tremendous amounts of information are not being telegraphed to the observer, but quite often that information is a matter of light or music, movement or design, or the ironic counterpoint that exists between them.

‘Mean Streets’

Both directors use large doses of popular music as choral commentary for their films. Often this device is only expedient—the filmmaker depends on the music to explain what he can’t. In American Graffiti and Mean Streets, however, the music is integral and essential, for the characters, like many of us, were continuously plugged in to transistors, jukeboxes, car radios. Scorsese’s music, as we might expect, is much more eclectic than Lucas’s. The soundtrack of American Graffiti is a continuous and incessant (and rather sophisticated) survey of the rock’n’roll of the late Fifties and early Sixties, and Lucas gives the music added dimension by weaving the mysterious persona of the legendary disc jockey Wolfman Jack into the fabric of the film. Scorsese, meanwhile, ranges from the Ronettes and Bo Diddley to the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, and Giuseppe di Stefano. It is not, after all, very surprising that films which depend so much on memory must use so much music. Like the filmmakers of the early New Wave, contemporary American directors feel the need to integrate the art that was important to them into their films. While that art was film for the early New Wave, it has to be rock for 30-year-old American filmmakers. During the late Fifties and throughout the Sixties, rock much more consistently and acutely commented on American lifestyle than did film. (That film is rising once again and rock is becoming glitter may signify that film will do for the generations of the Seventies what rock did for those of the Sixties.)

Together with music and light, the two other sets of coordinates which determine the artistic geometry of Mean Streets and American Graffiti involve movement and faces. Like Fellini and Cassavetes, both filmmakers are fascinated by the geography of the human face and by the natural choreography of their characters. Both films stand as examples of the value of portraiture and dance. A gallery of stills of closeups would reveal much more of what the films are about than would plot summaries. In the best tradition of Realist film, Scorsese’s and Lucas’s efforts are ferociously dedicated to catching the precise look, the accurate movement that tell so much about character. Examine closely, for example, the faces of Steve or Terry the Toad in American Graffiti: Steve’s blank but hopeful smile, Terry’s frightened frown and eager grin, succinctly summarize the archetypal characters of the big man on campus and the perennial hanger-on, respectively. Likewise, Robert De Niro’s superb performance in Mean Streets manages to speak volumes about the cockeyed manchild, totally without direction or purpose, who is Johnny Boy. Watch Charlie enter Tony’s bar in slight slowmotion, moving with a kind of grace that only the ghetto owns; the shot communicates wordlessly and powerfully Charlie’s own drug rush of well-being at being home again, being seen and seeing, being on the scene and digging it. Observe as Johnny Boy moves with a kind of disjointed glide that tells us more about the character than could any extended dialogue. And watch carefully the rather strict choreography of the cars (important characters themselves) as they cruise main street in ever-tightening circles in American Graffiti.

‘American Graffiti’

Lucas and Scorsese certainly have mastered the aesthetic tools of light, sound, movement and portraiture as well as any young directors, but that mastery in itself does not make them realists. If I have concentrated on it, it is only because Realist film is so often considered “unartistic.” It may be true that mise-en-scène is more important to Realism than montage, but all the tools that Scorsese and Lucas use so well are tools of mise-en-scène. What is most important, as I indicated earlier, is not the materialist nature of their styles, but rather their attitudes towards their characters and the perceived relationship between filmmaker and audience which we infer from their films. We get a strong sense from American Graffiti and Mean Streets that their authors have a profound regard for the people they portray. Certainly this attitude is inherent in any semi-autobiographical film, yet the clear space of the films is given over to the characters, and there is an understood reticence on the part of both directors to intrude themselves. They never abandon themselves to technical bravado; they concentrate singlemindedly on the much more difficult control of mise-en-scène. They have made films which do not condescend to their audiences, but rather invite participation.

It may be worth noting that both Scorsese and Lucas (as well as many of the filmmakers I mentioned earlier on) belong to that generation which is composed of people now more or less 30 years old, a generation which came of age in the late Fifties and early Sixties, before the first assassination, but after Eisenhowerian complacency, a generation which has already contributed greatly to what we might call the Realist Renaissance in music and politics but which, significantly, has not until recently had any measurable effect on film culture in the U.S. As rock was the great relevant public art of the Sixties, film may turn out to be the most significant and passionate American art of the Seventies. If that does happen, it will be because filmmakers like Lucas and Scorsese, unconnected in any way other than their common experience, will reintroduce to American film art the values of Realism which once helped form the brightest period in the history of American film and which has been so productive an influence in the cinemas of other countries for many years now. The phony sets and stock emotions of Hollywood are thoroughly dead, now; they have ceased to exist, become a memory. It has only been the lingering deleterious economic effects of the death that have prevented American film from being reborn until now. Mean streets are nasty streets, but common, and graffiti are forecasts- the writing on the wall. The future lies in a cinema about ourselves, the way we live, what we think, how we feel, films made with compassion, with irony, and with intelligence and respect-all qualities we’ve seen precious little of in moviehouses since World War Two: in short, a Realist Renaissance.

‘Mean Streets’

Direction: Martin Scorsese. Screenplay: Scorsese, Mardik Martin. Cinematography: Kent Wakeford. Editing: Sid Levin. Production: Jonathan T. Taplin.
The Players: Harvey Keitel, Robert DeNiro, David Proval, Richard Romanus, Amy Robinson, Cesare Danova, George Memmoli, David Carradine, Robert Carradine.

Direction: George Lucas. Screenplay: Lucas, Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz. Visual Consultant: Haskell Wexler. Cinematography: Ron Eveslage, Jan d’Alquen. Art Direction: Dennis Clark. Editing: Verna Fields, Marcia Lucas. Production: Francis Ford Coppola.
The Players: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul LeMat, Charlie Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Wolfman Jack, Bo Hopkins.

Copyright © 1974 James Monaco