Worlding Realisms: Closing Roundtable Rob Rushing, "Otherworlding Realisms"

Monday, February 17, 2014

posted under by Unit for Criticism
[On February 7, 2014 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory held the symposium “Worlding Realisms.” Below are the remarks by closing roundtable participant, Rob Rushing (Italian/CWL)]

"Otherworlding Realisms"

Written by Rob Rushing (Italian/CWL)

This conference has explored both the ways that realism creates a world around its characters, situating them in the totality of social and economic forces that determine their lives, as well as “the world of realisms,” the different forms and problems that realism takes on around the world. So I thought I might end by taking us, as it were, one step farther, and asking about the “other worlds” of realism, the worlds above and beyond the horizon of the realist world.

I’ll begin, however, in Italy, where the narrative of a “rediscovery of realism” is more difficult, since realism has long been prized there both for political reasons as well as the postwar importance of Italian neorealism. Italian neorealism, for those who are not familiar with it, is in many respects the paradigmatic case of cinematic realism. Sean O’Sullivan helpfully gave us a list of the traits that are commonly associated with realism in film, and Italian neorealism has most of them—nonprofessional actors, natural lighting, real locations rather than built sets, documentary or documentary-like footage—as well as a persistent focus on the poor, marginalized and oppressed. In films like Bicycle ThievesOpen City, or Umberto D, we see the totality of the social and economic forces that shape the protagonists. These films were opposed not only to glossy Hollywood sets and romantic lighting, but also the notion of the heroic and exceptional individual—in almost every case, the principal character is to be understood instead as one of many who are just like him. Nowhere is this more evident than at the end of Bicycle Thieves where Antonio Ricci and his son Bruno, miserable and hopeless, too poor even to take the tram, slowly blend into the crowd of other workers who are in the same situation. This is a world of poverty and hopelessness, like that of the destitute and aged professor in Umberto D, or the two young boys in Sciuscià, or the young Edmund Kohler in Germany, Year Zero or the Sicilian fishermen in La terra trema

The problem with neorealism, as this list suggests, is that there didn’t seem to be any way out of this world. The effect was as much melodrama as realism--the characters were always stuck in what Linda Williams has identified as the temporality of melodrama: “too late.” This was particularly true for the young protagonists who populate most of the films associated with neorealism, who we are given to understand are effectively lost to history. At times this is explicit, as when Germany, Year Zero ends with the suicide of its 13 year old protagonist, and at times implicit—the real tragedy of Bicycle Thieves is not Antonio Ricci losing his bicycle and his chance at a better life, but his son’s loss of a future and a father he can look up to. (There is, as you can see, something of a competition in Italian neorealism—which film is the bleakest, most hopeless, most depressing?) Arguably, this is true of many of our contemporary forms of realism as well, such as the much-beloved US television series The Wire. Although some characters die and some are saved, the ending montage of the series suggests a broadly static, “stuck” temporality in which the more things change, the more they stay the same. Bubbles moves up (literally, is allowed upstairs), as Dukie descends into heroin. The future will be like the past.

Miracle in Milan (1951) by Vittorio De Sica
One Italian neorealist film is different, however. In De Sica's “magical neorealist” film Miracle in Milan, something extraordinary happens in the film’s final scene. Our hero, the orphan Totò, leads the homeless of Milan into the city’s central piazza, which is being swept by dozens of sanitation worker. He grabs one of their brooms and climbs aloft with his girlfriend—and they fly. Moments later, the rest of the homeless follow suit, and dozens of brooms soar above the duomo of Milan, the city’s most recognizable landmark. The only way out of the closed box of neorealism is to break the neorealist aesthetic, in other words (and it’s not clear that even this manages to escape neorealism’s underlying melodramatic temporality of “too late!”—the brooms fly into heaven, suggesting that while there may be a space for the poor and downtrodden, it can’t be found in this life).

Now I want to turn to mass culture, and look at a curious case of realism that requires us to go above even the clouds of the ending of Miracle in Milan to actual “other worlds"—the effect of the real in science fiction. Starting with Firefly, but continuing in District 9 and the re-booted Battlestar Galactica, we find a curious ensemble of “realist techniques” at work, particularly the use of the snap zoom (the rapid zoom in on an object of interest that has just been “discovered” by the person filming) and a shaky, handheld camera. (Click here for an example; the first 30 seconds suffice.) These are not so much “techniques” as hallmarks of journalistic video work, and more so, of amateur footage, the sort that appears on the news in absence of professionally shot video. While there is some diegetic motivation for this in District 9, in most cases, it is extremely strange: are we supposed to think that there just happens to be, floating in space just as the Galactica is passing by, an amateur photographer with a video camera? Although these techniques activate a realist aesthetic, they are completely nonsensical, utterly unrealistic—and yet they appear widely in science fiction today (see, for instance, the snap zooms in Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel).

We might, however, return to Jed Esty's talk this morning, and suggest that the wobbly camera and snap zooms of Firefly and BSG function as something like a formal or technical acknowledgement of geopolitical decline (a recognition of decline that might begin with the appearance of dirt in science fiction, such as the dirty droids that opened Star Wars, released in the midst of American stalemate and stagnation). This idea of realism as a marker of decline could be said to culminate in the meticulous verisimilitude of relentless disintegration in Cuarón’s Gravity. The world in that film is present and visible in a vision of realist totality that is perhaps only possible from space, even as the world of the viewer and the protagonist is being shredded by shrapnel moving at 18,000 miles per hour. This narrative of disintegration—which is, after all, the disintegration of the Cold War space race, and the dreams of American domination that it embodied—is relieved and made bearable only by the perfunctory and rather superfluous narrative of loss and rebirth of Dr. Ryan Stone, whose weighty last name would be enough, even if the film weren’t titled Gravity, to bring us out of the other world of possibility and back to Earth. 


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