Artificial Reality

To understand this "imagined reality" more deeply, its best to consider the operational choices different filmmakers have used to achieve an imagined reality by pushing artifice. Consider five options as pathways to what I will call artificial reality. These pathways are the use of video rather than film, the use of constructed artifice, the use of the imagined over the observational, the use of spectacle, and the use of special effects. Each of these options is clearly artificial. At times, the director's goal is playful, as it was in the case of Peter Jackson in King Kong. More often, the director has a greater purpose in mind, ranging from a Brechtian intervention in Lars von Trier's Manderlay and Dogville to rescale the story, to making it larger, as Ridley Scott does in Gladiator. I turn now to these options.


The first pathway is the choice of video over film. Film, in its finer grain, has a depth and sharpness that projects realism. Video, on the other hand has a flatness and a tendency to desaturate color, resulting in a pastel quality that projects artifice. Filmmakers sometimes opt for video as a cheaper option to film. In the case of Michael Mann in Collateral and of Coline Serreau in Chaos, the choice was aesthetic—the choice was to use artifice in their conceptualization of the narrative.

Coline Serreau's Chaos (2001), a fable of contemporary life in France, focuses on two women, the Caucasian Hélène and the Algerian Malika. Both are in trouble because they are women. The film opens when Hélène and her husband witness the severe beating of the young prostitute, Malika. The husband insists they do nothing and Hélène complies. But she feels so guilty and outraged that she seeks out the critically ill Malika and stays by her side until she is almost recovered. Hélène has to contend with an indifferent, selfish husband and son. Malika has to contend with the criminal ring that has exploited her and the father who wanted to sell her into marriage with an older man. The two women, with the help of Hélène's mother-in-law, claim justice and revenge against all of the men who have so callously controlled and depreciated their lives.

Serreau's concept is to present the women differently. Hélène has the typical hurried life of the upper middle class. All of the men in her life view her as "serving" them. Husband, son, boss—all see Hélène as in service to them, to be tolerated, rather than as a partner and an equal. Serreau plays on this characterization of Hélène until late in the film, when, as a lawyer, she is helpful to Malika. Until that point, she is presented as the men see her—subservient. Serreau's approach is light and comic, as if Hélène's life is a soap opera, a comedic soap opera. Using video and fast cutting emphasizes the plastic, unreal quality of her life and her life as a wife, mother, and employee. She is clearly capable and living an upper middle-class life. The use of video here trivializes that life, focusing on its hurried and harried qualities. The use of video contributes to the notion of trivialization and also makes light, rather than tragic, her role in the family.

In the case of Malika, her life is anything but light; indeed, it verges on the tragic. When we learn about her life, it begins with the suicide of her mother in Algeria. In France, she is shunned by her father's new wife and in short order is sold into marriage with an elderly Algerian. When she escapes, she is without a passport or resources. She is forced into prostitution by a man who buys her food. As she moves up the prostitution ladder, her intelligence and her ability to exploit her skills bring her into conflict with her "owners." And elderly client wills her his fortune and the mob claims ownership. Malika's refusal to accept this leads to the beating and to their relentless pursuit of her. Hélène saves Malika from the mob's clutches, and Malika and Hélène plan revenge. They also plan to save Malika's younger sister from the fate of loveless marriage and from the same exploitation planned for her as it had been for Malika.

The use of video does not lighten the Malika story. But it does help the audience experience her story as a fable. Serreau uses the story form to present her ideas about contemporary women as a cautionary tale. Malika, as in the case of Hélène, is a modern French woman, albeit from a more traditional culture. Serreau is saying that women from whichever culture they come from must act to save each other. They cannot rely on men. Mothers, wives, and sisters: all women must stand together in a modern war against tradition and a male power structure that will only use them. By using video, Serreau enhances the artifice of the story and emotionally distances us from Hélène and Malika. They become symbols in the battle of women and men. Video helps Serreau move the fable into a representation about modern life, rather than being only a slice of modern life. Artifice and certain story forms, such as the fable, enhance one another. In this sense, video, by making Malika's story as unreal as Hélène's is, moves the film into a stylistic choice that strengthens its message.

constructed artifice

A second pathway to imagined reality is what I will call constructed artifice. Lars von Trier's Dogville and Manderlay provide useful examples of constructed artifice. Dogville is set in an imaginary Appalachian town in the 1930s. Thematically, a city woman, an outsider, comes to town. She is running away from her life and her family. The town is very suspicious of strangers: even a man attracted to the outsider will, in the end, side with his fellow citizens against her. Small-town thinking and its purveyors, the citizens, punish her. Only when her father, a mob boss, arrives to reclaim her, will she act as he would and punish her persecutors. "Like father, like daughter" proves to be the revealing cliché that ends Dogville.

The constructed artifice is created as follows: The film is made on a large set. Houses are demarked by masking tape. Lighting is anti-dramatic. Long takes give the film the appearance of a play being workshopped prior to sets being built for the production. Everything about the film oozes artifice, as opposed to any sort of realism. The result tests our capacity for imagined reality, but eventually we get past the non-houses and enter the lives of the characters. One can see Dogville as another mischievous play from Lars von Trier, or one can see it as an upshot of digital reality, a reaction to it, a film that openly and stylistically states, "it's not real." Constructed artifice is the second pathway to an imagined reality. What I will call the imagined as the observational is the third pathway.

the imagined as the observational

Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005) provides an excellent example of the imagined as the observational. The story is a straightforward tale of survival. A father who has been a so-so parent (Tom Cruise) has his two children for the weekend. The children's tolerance of their father verges on contempt. In short order, Earth is invaded by hostile and otherworldly beings. The focus is Bayonne, New Jersey, but reports allude to a widespread invasion. The fate of father and children is challenged and in the course of their flight, the father will be heroic and restored as a good father.

The artifice of War of the Worlds is to make the invasion and the first attack essentially an observable, credible reality, although in fact it's imagined. No constructed artifice here. Rather, Spielberg attempts to make this invasion as credible as the Normandy landing in Saving Private Ryan. Moving from a lightening storm in the sky, to wind coming in from the Atlantic, the invasion proceeds with rumbling sounds coming from beneath the surface, the appearance of a sink hole, the slow emergence of what appears to be a giant spaceship, and the laser-like attack and the consequent vaporization of humans and the destruction of property. Eventually, the scale of the attack intensifies, and cars, buildings, and even the Bayonne skyway give way under the attack. Each stage threatens the main character and he and his children provide the human guide focus for the action. Each of these actions is presented in a developmental credible fashion, although each is imagined. The slow, incremental development of the threat and the attack makes it more observational. Later in the film, when the creatures from outer space are introduced as giant, worm-like beings, we are in imagined artifice, and the credible observational sense of the first attack is lost. In the first attack, however, we have an excellent example of the imagined and the observational merging to form a very credible sense of the threat to the world.

use of spectacle

A fourth pathway to pushing artifice is to sidestep the observational and to embrace the imagined reality for purposes of creating spectacle. Useful examples here include Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and his Gladiator (2000). Both are epic struggles, the first the Christian-Muslim war for control of Jerusalem, the second the struggle between the Roman General Maximus and the Roman Emperor Commodus. In Gladiator, a dying

Emperor Marcus Aurelius names Maximus to succeed him; Marcus Aurelius' disappointed son, Commodus, kills his father, and orders Maximus killed. Maximus, enslaved, becomes a gladiator, eventually to great fame. When he is invited to fight at the Colosseum in Rome, he confronts the Emperor Commodus. Only one man will triumph. In the end, Maximus, although seriously injured, kills Commodus. He has achieved his goal, vengeance, but dies from his wounds.

In Gladiator, Ridley Scott uses imagined reality to increase the epic scale of the personal struggle. It's not important to Scott that the settings be believable. The battle against the German barbarians, the arena in the desert, and the Roman Colosseum are each presented in a highly designed artificial visualization. Each is intended to give scale to the personal struggle of Com-modus and Maximus and, in an imagined way, each does precisely that. Scott isn't seeking believability. Rather, his goal is larger than life, epic. By relying on a highly stylized set of extreme long shots of the battle, of the Colosseum, and of the arena in the desert, Scott is allowing imagined reality to contextualize the personal story, making the imagined reality of the battle for Jerusalem more schematic than, and not as effective as, is the use of imagined reality and personal conflict in Gladiator. This illustrates the importance of the linkage of pushing artifice to effective narrative goals. Without the linkage, the artifice proves to be empty rather than effective.

use of special effects

The last pathway we discuss to push artifice is the use of special effects to animate the narrative. Here The Lord of the Rings: The Return of The King provides a useful example. Peter Jackson uses a large palate to pictorialize Tolkien's classic tale. The three films of the Tolkien trilogy tell the story of good vs. evil in a mythical land, Middle Earth. At the wizard level, Gandalf represents good and Sauron represents the forces of darkness. Kings and kingdoms and noblemen focus on the kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan. The commoners are represented by the little people, specifically the hobbits. The humans, kings, and hobbits struggle against the non-human Orcs and their giant vultures and elephants. Serpents abound between human lands. The plot will follow the effort to transport a ring, which has a power that corrupts the men who possess it. The hobbit Frodo, the epitome of good will, is sent on this mission. His friend Sam goes along with Frodo to aid him. En route, they meet Smeagol, a Gollum, formerly a man corrupted by the possession of the ring. Gollum is a now half-man, half-creature, torn between corrupt action and moral action. A group of knights accompany the warrior Aragorn to protect the passage of Frodo. Frodo and Aragorn are separated and only reunite at the end of the journey. Aragorn returns to the kingship of Gondor, and Frodo succeeds in the destruction of the ring. Each man is changed by the journey, but in the end human and humane values overcome the forces of evil and destruction, and Middle Earth survives.

In order to pictorialize such an epic tale of an imagined world, Peter Jackson has used special effects in order to create the imagined reality of Middle Earth. The city Minas Tirith, capitol of Gondor, and Mordor, the dead city, are pictorialized as the center for good and for evil. The armies of Mordor and the armies that fight to save Minas Tirith are presented via special effects and their presentations animate metaphorical visions of good and evil. The giant vultures, the elephants, and the Orcs ooze repellent qualities, while the king of Rohan and the to-be king of Gondor, Aragorn, ooze nobility, the best of human qualities. As for Frodo and the hobbits, they begin as innocents, but increasingly gain a more complex view of the world; short people and ugly monsters—all are pictorialized using special effects technology. What I'm trying to say is that much of the film is artifice.

As in the case of Gladiator, the artifice works because it is linked to personalized dramatic tensions—for example, the relationships of Frodo, Sam, and Smeagol are conflictual and complex. Without the emotions arising out of these relationships, the scale of the special effects would have far less meaning. When linked to effect emotionalized narrative, however, the special effects amplify the characters' struggles. In this case, artifice contributes powerfully to the audience experience.

The other stylistic choice filmmakers have taken up is pushing realism. In their way, they have pursued realism as aggressively as Ridley Scott and Peter Jackson have pursued an imagined realism that openly embraced artifice. The most useful start point for this impulse is to reiterate that cinéma vérité staked a position in narrative film starting in the 1940s, in location shoots such as those of Elia Kazan's Boomerang! and Panic in the Streets, through the late 1950s, as captured in the reality filmmaking of Karel Reisz in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and John Cassavetes' Shadows. In the 1960s, Arthur Penn (Mickey One), John Frankenheimer (Seconds), and Sydney Lumet (The Pawnbroker) favored a cinéma vérité approach to their subjects, and in the 1970s, Michael Ritchie took up the style (Downhill Racer). By the 1990s, appearance of the Danish Dogma films (Docudrama in the U.K.; Ken Loach's Land and Freedom) and the work of Mike Leigh had made cinéma vérité an accepted stylistic tool for dramatic material.

<P>Thomas Vinterberg's Festen (The Celebration) launched the Dogma films, exemplified by no artificial lights, no artificial sound, no tripod. Lone Scherfig's Italiensk for begyndere (Italian for Beginners) and Kristian Levring's The King Is Alive consolidated the reputation of cinéma vérité at the turn of the century. At the same time, Belgian filmmakers began to use the docudrama style for a wide variety of story forms, from gangster (Man Bites Dog: It Happened in Your Neighborhood) to melodrama (Rosetta). Cinéma vérité as a style became mainstream when Woody Allen used it in

Husbands and Wives and Steven Spielberg used it in Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.

If spectacle—the epic—underscores imagined realism, it is the human scale, both in inner life and outer life, that is the goal of those styles undertaken to push realism. In Vinterberg's Festen (The Celebration), the jump cutting is used to create the chaotic lives of two of three living siblings. The stillness of the camera and the longer takes illustrate the cold-bloodedness of a patriarch who continually raped his twins when they were children. If the Dogma films have once again popularized realism, particular filmmakers have worked with variants of style to seek out levels of realism. The most orthodox in their goals are the Dardenne brothers, who in a series of films, La Promesse, Rosetta, Le Fils (The Son), and L'Enfant (The Child), have made an art of the observational. Their focus is the smallest of behaviors, actions, and goals.

In each of the Dardenne films, the world is made up of children and adults. In Rosetta, a mother is nothing but an alcoholic barrier to the teenage daughter, Rosetta. In Le Fils (The Son), an adult who works with troubled teenage boys is the main character. Goals and relationships are grounded in small actions—working, preparing a meal, moving from work to home or from home to work. Nothing extreme occurs and yet there is an intensity to these films quite unlike a film grounded in one catastrophe after another—The Poseidon Adventure, for example. The hand-held camera movement, the proximity to the character, the movement, and the jump cutting together produce a heightened sense of each action, each behavior, and each interaction. The cumulative effect of a Dardenne brothers' film is an excruciating level of pain and pathos. We feel we have lived through a human war and are drained by the experience. Here the active observance of character makes the experience participatory for us.

The next level of the observational principle is to strip away the empathic style of the Dardenne brothers and to replace it with an alternative action style that is active without empathy. This approach is best captured by Philippe Grandrieux in his film Sombre (1998). Sombre tells the story of a serial killer in rural France. He kills throughout the film, and neither remorse nor psychological explanation is offered. Instead Grandrieux presents the killings using a hand-held camera. Jump cuts alternately voyeuristically show the action and avoid showing the action, creating the feeling that what is in fact shown is accidental. The result is disturbing.

In between the killings, Grandrieux has long tracking shots from the point of view of the killer. Traveling through the mountains, the rural population selling, working in their recreation, is captured but not understood. No empathy for the population, or for the killer, is evoked: only the sadness of not being connected. The pace, when it changes, implies that the killer needs the excitement of contact, and then of empowerment, and then of domination and destruction. The shot selection and the edit pattern create the feeling of desire and alienation and disturbance of the murderer. Nothing is explained. Psychology is sidestepped. Only the actions are presented, and those actions, habitual desire and destruction, are disturbingly captured by the moving camera by the proximity of its placement, its point of view, and the jump cuts. Here style suggests or implies psychology: I can't help myself. I love it. And I hate it. This is the upshot of the observational aggressive realism of that style. Sombre is well-titled. Pushing realism here is powerful, troubling. The human scale, although not understood, is experienced by the audience. Sombre and action directed represent the second pathway to pushing realism as a style.

The third pathway is to explore the option of heightened realism. By heightened realism I have in mind a sense of inner realism. What if Philippe Grandrieux took us into the mind of the serial killer in Sombre? The recent explosion of biographical films centering on personalities—Howard Hughes (The Aviator, 2003), Ray Charles (Ray, 2004), Johnny Cash (Walk the Line, 2005), and Truman Capote (Capote, 2005)—provides the insight here. In each case, the plot is about a career or a critical phase of a career, the writing of In Cold Blood in Capote, for example. But the sense of heightened realism comes from the inner life of the character: What motivates their behavior, their achievement? For Howard Hughes it's a pathological fear of the hygienic danger of the other. For Ray Charles it's the question of whether blindness is a barrier in life or a motivation. For Johnny Cash it's the guilt and anger he feels about the death of his father's favored son. And in the case of Truman Capote it's a malignant ambition that drives the author to creative heights and to personal depths.

In order for the sense of heightened realism to be credible, the complexity of two relationships needs to be explored. In Capote, those relationships are between Truman and one of the killers, Perry, and between Truman and Harper Lee, his old friend. In the case of Harper Lee, she accepts Truman, his strengths and his weaknesses. She represents, in her acceptance, the option of Capote's creative potential. Perry, the killer who Capote befriends in order to exploit for career purposes, represents the personal depth Capote reaches in order to further his ambition. Both relationships help create an inner complexity to an outwardly clever, vain writer. It is the inner complexity that gives Capote a heightened realism.

The other biographies are equally adept at providing the relationships to explore the inner life of their creative, driven subjects. Without this sense of an inner life, these films wouldn't resonate as emotionally with their audiences. Heightened realism is the critical pathway to creating output of each of these accomplished characters.

Another pathway to pushing realism is to opt for the docudrama as the story form. Here Steven Spielberg's Munich provides a good example. The template for the film is the terrorist massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The attack on the athletic residence and the consequent murders are presented in a fragmented sequential series of scenes, with the massacre itself in the final sequence of the film. The more contemporary plot is the commissioning of a team of Israeli assassins to hunt down and kill the perpetrators. The leader of the team is Avner (Eric Bana), and his Mossad handler is Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush). From the commissioning of the killings by Prime Minister Golda Meir, together with the Army and Intelligence chiefs, through the creation of the team, the film unfolds through a series of killings until Avner, having lost half-his team, loses his will to kill and begins to question the eye-for-an-eye philosophy that initiated the revenge killings. In the last scene of the film, a paranoid Avner has joined his family in Brooklyn. Against a New York skyline that includes the Twin Towers (which we, the audience, know will be destroyed in the future, on September 11, 2001), Ephraim tries to convince Avner to return to Israel. Avner refuses and the film ends inconclusively: among those Palestinians responsible for the Munich attacks, a number have survived; among the Israelis, a number of the assassins have died.

In Munich Spielberg is exploring the case for an eye for an eye and is suggesting that an eye for an eye is not the answer. Implicitly, he is making the case for political rather than quasi-military action as the only path to peace. In the film, Spielberg pushes a sense of realism that is credible and complex. Avner may be a killer but he's also a family man who cares deeply about his wife and baby daughter. He also cares about the daughter of a Palestinian he plans to kill. Avner is also presented in a number of scenes with his mother. Those scenes imply the difficulty of growing up as the son of a military hero. His complexity as a character is attuned to the complexity of his victims as well as of his accomplices, inside and outside Mossad. Being a son, being a father, being a husband, and being a man, each layer of Avner contributes to the complexity of our response to the film.

In War of the Worlds, Spielberg made imagined reality and artifice observational, credible. In Munich, he's trying to make real events and real people credible. I've already mentioned the complexity of character. Killing is also complex. Spielberg's made every effort to portray the killing of the athletes in Munich realistic. Because it was a real turning point in global terrorism, he spreads the murders out through the entire film. By doing so he makes the event inevitable and iconic, more important than it would have seemed if the killings had simply opened the film. In the same sense, by presenting the conclusion of the film against the backdrop of the Twin Towers, again Spielberg is making the conversation more important and iconic. It's a reminder to current audiences that the Munich killings and the attack on the Twin Towers are a continuum. We all are linked, Israelis, Americans, and citizens of the world, by these attacks. Whether they occur in Munich or in New York, they form phases in a struggle that has been ongoing for more than 40 years. Spielberg wants us to consider that continuum and to reflect upon the eye-for-an-eye response: it hasn't worked all these years—time for a different response. This is the upshot of the use of the docudrama in Munich. Its pushes realism and it strengthens the voice of the writers and of its director.


Film Making

Film Making

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