Today's movies deliver more realistic, gritty everyday scenes

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 12:00 AM

In "Blue Valentine," a jiggling camera follows Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams trotting backward on a Pennsylvania street, jostling against each other with the giddy exhilaration of love's new bloom. Their characters, Dean and Cindy, begin their courtship over the course of a night's walk through a nearly deserted downtown. The scene is pure fiction, but "Blue Valentine" writer-director Derek Cianfrance recalls that filming the sequence - during which Gosling delivered an off-the-cuff performance on the ukulele and Williams broke into an unexpected singsong recitation of the American presidents - "felt like making a documentary of two people falling in love."

In "Alamar," also opening Friday, Jorge and his son, Natan, spend a summer retreat on the Banco Chinchorro in the Mexican Caribbean. "Alamar's" story of their impending separation is largely invented (in real life, father and son don't live that far away from each other), but "Alamar" unfolds like a gentle, dreamy home movie, as the two characters fish, wrestle, watch the sea and learn from each other.

"Blue Valentine" and "Alamar" represent yet two more films we're seeing more of these days, which prefer vernacular that isn't the high-polish, confected characterizations and neat three-act structures of mainstream Hollywood. Instead, they follow the far messier and mundane contours of real life. The kitchens aren't copper-pot perfect but cluttered with dirty dishes. Hair isn't coiffed but bed-headed. Dialogue isn't a zingy string of one-liners but stammers, interruptions and ragged thoughts that end in . . . like, I don't know, just . . . whatever.

Informed by prose but infused with poetry, they join a recent wave of films that, no matter what they're called, have suggested a promising direction in global and American cinema. Variously identified as "mumblecore," "indie," "neorealist" or even "neo-neorealist," these are movies that have almost nothing in common with Hollywood spectacles and escapist star vehicles. Instead, they deliver a level of authenticity, immediacy and emotional transparency that are instantly recognizable to an audience that increasingly lives on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

"I feel like audiences are very sharp right now," Cianfrance said recently. "People know honest moments now. There are things you can't fake, whether it's that Iranian girl getting murdered or 'David after the dentist.' To me, it's a huge challenge to . . . create moments in a movie that have that kind of life to them."

Realism as responsive

No matter how many "neos" you put in front of it, realism is hardly new.

Since its creation in the 19th century, film has always been a medium for capturing daily life on the fly, whether scenes of a baby eating her lunch or a gardener wrestling with a garden hose. Indeed, it's no surprise that, as filmmaking technology has become more portable and affordable over the years, artists have used it to capture life unfolding around them. The styles and social settings have varied from such post-World War II Italian films as "Rome, Open City" to the work of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes. But the impulse has remained the same: to reject artifice and embrace true moments at their most unvarnished. (Or, as the Italian neorealist screenwriter Cesare Zavattini put it, "Today, today, today." As it happens, Zavattini and his fellow pioneers will be featured in "Neorealismo 1941-1954: Days of Glory" at the National Gallery of Art this month and next.)

Still, with the arrival of "Blue Valentine" - on the heels of Lena Dunham's spare, observantly witty domestic comedy "Tiny Furniture" - there's no doubt that a resurgence is underway. Just in the past few years, some star writer-directors have emerged: Kelly Reichardt ("Old Joy," "Wendy and Lucy"), Ramin Bahrani ("Chop Shop," "Goodbye Solo"), Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski ("Funny Ha Ha," "Mutual Appreciation") and Azazel Jacobs ("Momma's Man").

Alex Orlovsky, who co-produced "Blue Valentine," as well as "Momma's Man" and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson," chalks up the recent spate of realist films to financial hard times. With less money at their disposal than even 10 years ago, emerging directors have needed to be more resourceful than even their scrappiest forebears. "In this day and age, they may not be able to afford to create a reality until they discover realities with validity of their own," he said.

More than realist, neorealist or neo-neorealist, perhaps the way to describe these filmmakers is responsive - to their social context, to their environment, to the media they use every day and to a movie audience that, like them, is in the process of changing its own aesthetic expectations.

Where mainstream movies hew to predictable formulas, responsive films take viewers on quirky, revelatory journeys: In Bahrani's "Man Push Cart," the film simply follows a Pakistani food cart vendor through the canyons of Manhattan over the course of a night, with no discernible plot twists or payoff.

And where mainstream movies depend on recognizable stars to lure investors (and, theoretically, viewers), responsive films feature unknowns or maybe non-professionals: Both "Blue Valentine" and "Tiny Furniture" mix actors and amateurs in their casts, creating a reckless, let's-put-on-a-show spontaneity. "Momma's Man" features Jacobs's real-life mother and father as the parents of a character played by an actor; in "Terri," his upcoming coming-of-age comedy, he has cast such recognizable actors as John C. Reilly and "The Office's" Creed Bratton.)

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