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The View From My Windshield

Very much on the sidelines, I’ve waited a couple of weeks to write anything about my pal A.O. Scott’s passionate and wide-ranging New York Times Magazine essay heralding a “Neo-Neorealism” — a piece undermined, I think, by its immodest headline, which Richard Brody had a jolly time dismantling in a New Yorker blog post. Brody, his ire roused, scored points when it came to A.O.’s lack of rigor in defining neorealism, which in its postwar Italian incarnation was a specific (and short-lived) aesthetic. (When I am tempted to create new labels or invoke old ones, I find useful such constructions as: “noir-ish,” verité-like,” and, in this case, “quasi dialectical neo-realism-esque.”). Brody had me until, out of left field, he lauded David Fincher and Clint Eastwood, and so aligned himself with a particular species of formalist critic with whom I have too many differences to enumerate. But his writing is valuable and I hope to read more of it.

My differences with A.O. have a different foundation. I remember my first visit to the Sundance festival in the late eighties, which at the time was dominated by the extinct production entity American Playhouse. Its earnest, regionally based, Redford-esque humanism was dubbed “deadbeat realism,” and a film called Stacking came in for special ridicule — not because it was that bad, but because its feminist epiphanies were triggered amid bales of Midwestern hay. What pretty much killed off deadbeat realism was (a) the general mediocrity of the films and (b) the commercial breakthroughs of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino.

The new brand of deadbeat realism is clearly informed by the longeurs of Iranian cinema, but once you get past the arty mannerisms it's just as reductive as its predecessors. Ballast is an example of what I call windshield realism, in which the camera stares out through a smudged car window (sometimes the wipers are going) as the barren landscape goes by — meant to convey the barrenness of the working-class characters’ lives. This should not be confused with stalled windshield realism, which defined the plight of Wendy in Wendy and Lucy; windshield transcendentalism, which Gus Van Sant employed in the endless overture to Gerry; or windshield blowhard egotism, which you’ll find in Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny. (The most compelling aspect of Gallo’s drive is the number of insects that splatter against the glass … one can pass the time counting every new splotch.) Although much of Goodbye, Solo is set in a moving vehicle, I’d like to exempt Ramin Bahrani from the windshield realism genre — partly because his camera rests on the faces of the passengers. Bahrani’s Man Push Cart suffered from Rosetta envy (the Dardennes, as A.O. points out, are another strong influence), and the fatalism smacked of anti-capitalist self-pity. But Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo are more ambiguous and open-ended.

If I haven’t made it clear, I think this kind of debate — and the boldness of the A.O. Scott essay that inspired it — is something we need more of. Too few critics (myself included) put themselves out this way, preoccupied as we are with pronouncing on the many dishes served up to us week after week.

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