Thoughts on Italian Neorealism

Like most great cinematic movements, that of Italian Neorealism is not without its share of controversy and conflicting definitions and designations. Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 film Roma, città aperta stands as a preeminent example of the approach to filmmaking, and perhaps is its first true filmic representation. Yet, one could just as easily ascribe the adjective “neorealist” to a preceding work such as Ossessione (1943) by Luchino Visconti. And then there is the discussion of when did this very time- and location-specific movement come to an end. Of the three major directors of the era—Visconti, Rossellini, and Vittorio De Sica—certainly their Senso (1954), Viaggio in Italia (1954), and Stazione Termini (1953), respectively, signal clear departures. Curiously, De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano (1951), which in many ways is a major deviation from neorealist aesthetics, actually came before his Umberto D. (1952), the neorealist work that perhaps comes the closest to André Bazin and Cesare Zavattini’s ideal of a pure, in many places uneventful, real-time duration, and authentic film realism. Additionally, prior to Viaggio in Italia, with pictures such Stromboli (1950), Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950), and Europa '51 (1952) Rossellini already seemed to be setting his cinematic sights elsewhere; a strong case could be made for Stromboli being still largely in the neorealist vein however.

Nevertheless, within this typically accepted 1944/45-1952 timeline, enough works were created to firmly establish, albeit with some debate, a stylistic and thematic consistency that provides a guiding set of characteristics to signify an Italian Neorealist work. Like starting and ending dates, some of these traits are open to contention, but most are constant and are the basis for the judgments of films previous and following, as well as their relation to Italian Neorealism.

If the arguments for Visconti’s Ossessione as the initial neorealist work hold up, they are largely due to the fact that the film does contain several features that would remain through the duration of the movement, by its customary identification. Though certainly with an extra dose of melodrama, the film contains scenes of notable rawness, of a genuine authenticity that exposes the views of its main characters Giovanna, Gino, and Giuseppe. “Ossessione avoids conventional beauty and grandeur in its representation of the Po valley, presenting instead a haunting and windswept terrain whose unromanticised (sic) bleakness reinforces the sense of doom which pervades the narrative from the outset,” writes Mark Shiel. (38) This representation of often harsh realities, in this case those faced by a young couple, their affair, an ensuing death, and their subsequent guilt, would become staples of neorealist work. With Ossessione, Visconti would heighten the emotional pull of these scenes, keeping the realism but adding a sense of exaggerated passion, but the unglamorous individuals and locations pointed towards a style of film clearly distinct from those made in Hollywood (seemingly the consistent barometer for how far a film strays from a “typical” movie), but also those dubbed the “white telephone” films made in Italy previously.

Visconti’s next feature, La terra trema (1948), would more adequately come to be exemplary of the characters and lives neorealism would come to exhibit. Here, Visconti, much less melodramatically than Ossessione, quite objectively and more naturally, shows a group of hard-working and impoverished Sicilian fishermen and their family. Filmed on location in the genuine Sicilian dialect of the people, the film is minus all artifice and emerges as the ultimate in realistic characters and stories that would become, though in a normally different locale, a key ingredient in neorealistic works. These two films by Visconti would stand as his only two real contributions to the Italian Neorealist movement, but they would quite noticeably have a profound impact on films throughout the world, let alone Italy.

The thematic elements of a genuine world portrayed, of characters true-to-life and unaltered from their real-world basis, would permeate the key neorealist works of De Sica and Rossellini as well. Aside from some outstanding episodes from Rossellini’s Paisà (1946), shot along the Po delta as one is for example, the major neorealist pictures would now turn their focus to war-ravaged urban hubs, locations devastated by World War II, and it would be through this scope that much of what we consider to be an Italian Neorealist work would be viewed.

Paradoxically aided by the bombed out structures and streets, films like Roma, città aperta, Paisà, Germania anno zero (1948), Il Miracolo (1948), Sciuscià (1946), Ladri di biciclette (1948), and Umberto D. received considerable impact from the areas in which they were shot. Indeed, location shooting, frequently in areas of rubble, filth, claustrophobia, and war-torn devastation, would become major elements of neorealism’s makeup. While sets were occasionally used, the power of this location shooting gave neorealism its distinction and would pave the way for other film movements like the French Nouvelle Vague or later types of filmmaking like Cinema Novo in South America and the independent film in North American cinema. Location shooting on these Italian pictures gave a sense of urgency with regards to the characters and their struggle to adapt to life after World War II. Audiences were “in the now.” The sense of “this is happening,” “this is how it is,” gave these films an emotional resonance without the aide of artificial manipulation. The locations, while certainly prominent, were not metaphoric in any way; they didn’t reflect the characters, they informed them.

The characters of these films, from the children so often featured in films like Sciuscià and Germania anno zero, to the elderly in pictures like Roma, città aperta and Umberto D., to middle-aged people just trying to get by (as in Paisà and Ladri di biciclette as two examples), were also aspects of what is considered to be the most paramount of Italian Neorealist films. These were not Hollywood-type characters, living lives of luxury and comfort, dealing with trivial matters, and these were not Hollywood-style actors. These performers, even the professionals (the great Anna Magnani, for instance), were selected based not necessarily on how well they could act—though they could certainly act—but on their looks, how well they fit into these worlds, how believable they were doing the things they were directed to do. De Sica has said that the non-professional actor is “raw material that can be molded at will,” and that it was “much easier to achieve a sense of authenticity and spontaneity with a nonprofessional than with a fully trained actor who must ‘forget his profession’ when working on a neorealist film.” (Shiel, 56) Also looking at character representation, Bazin writes, comparing characters in De Sica’s films with those of Rossellini, that, “Rossellini’s love for his characters envelops them in a desperate awareness of man’s inability to communicate; De Sica’s love, on the contrary, radiates from the people themselves.” (62) Either way, there was nothing about these characters to in any way lift them above the audience, no matter who the audience is. Spectator/character relation was critical.

In terms of narrative and themes, these films existed in a world void of events out of the ordinary, sometimes tragically so (as in searches by occupying Germans being routine). Plots of these neorealist works were typically episodic in form, Paisà itself is a series of six vignettes, but they were not without cohesion; they were simply showing life as it is—women really do tinker around the kitchen as Maria-Pia Casilio’s character does in Umberto D., young children have to, by any means necessary, make a living, honestly (shining shoes and working at a gas station) or cunningly (selling black market blankets and delivering Hitler speeches). These lives are a series of episodes. The action is frequently anything but action-packed. There are exceptions, of course, but more often than not Italian Neorealism is a cinema of normal life, of genuine emotions.

The juxtaposition of horrific events with comedy, of national issues and personal ones, is also a hallmark of neorealist film. With Roma, città aperta, there is, on one hand, a priest hitting a man over the head with a frying pan, followed by a brutal murder on the other; within a city brewing with resistance fighting, a young couple can still plan their marriage. Neorealism was, in many ways, a cinema of conflict and contrast. History collides with the present, society collides with the self. Additionally, plots were not tightly constructed; they were free-flowing, as seen in La terra trema, Ladri di biciclette, and Umberto D. There was an obvious forward narrative progression, but the stories were told without the use of heightening devices.

Thematically, Italian Neorealism, as already alluded to above, is basically about the individual struggle within a society torn by economic and political strife. These films deal with the ways in which people interact and how they begin to heal after years of violence and upheaval. They are characters, most often of a lower- or working-class, trying to find their place in a world that is unlike what they had known before. Even if the details of World War II are not explicitly dealt with the atmosphere of conflict, disquiet, and despair are.

Aside from the location shooting, stylistically Italian Neorealist films also contain several additional elements that endure throughout the period. Yet, it is still crucial to keep in mind that, like anything else already discussed, these aesthetic features are not without exception. For example, the dominant idea of neorealist camera work is one of a documentary-like visual style, where hand-held cameras are utilized and a consciously composed mise-en-scéne is of unimportance. Millicent Marcus, of Roma, città aperta, writes that it “is not only antirhetorical in its technical simplicity, but in its subject matter as well. … Though the events of the narrative are certainly fictionalized, the term chronicle is not misapplied, for the story is a pastiche of actual occurrences fused into a coherent whole whose general fidelity to the historical record far outweighs its recourses to any formal or aestheticizing effects.” (36) To be sure, much of Rossellini’s work during this time would be categorized as such. Separating the actual footage from the fictional is, in many cases, rather difficult. Even what is not real at least looks it.

But, conversely, when one looks at especially the films of De Sica during this time, one can see (probably a result of his past in more sensational films as an actor) a more controlled and polished style. For all of his superb use of real locations, and his amazingly effective talent for directing unprofessional actors, De Sica, in Ladri di biciclette as one example, equally uses smooth tracking shots following young Bruno and father Antonio, lower angles taking the point of view of the child’s trepidation, pans and dollies to clearly signal where our attention and emotions should go, and framings that keep all necessary details (a bike just off center in the background) clearly in view. Still, as André Bazin puts it, “If Ladri di biciclette is a true masterpiece, comparable in rigor to Paisà, it is for certain precise reasons, none of which emerge either from a simple outline of the scenario or from a superficial disquisition on the technique of mise-en-scéne.” (51) He also writes that, with regards to De Sica, “the natural setting is to the artificial set what the amateur actor is to the professional. It has, however, the effect of at least partly limiting the opportunity for plastic compositions available with artificial studio lighting.” (65) I would argue that, stylistically, De Sica quite effectively maneuvers beyond this limit, bridging the gap and presenting the best of both worlds. Visconti, with his penchant for long takes and deep-focus, was the most overtly stylish of the three, his work from the 50s onward being especially so. Of La terra trema, Bazin wrote that, “The images … achieve what is at once a paradox and tour de force in integrating the aesthetic realism of Citizen Kane with the documentary realism of Farrebique.”(43)

Editing was kept to a minimum, or, at least, was not expressively used. Actually much like Hollywood films, an invisible style of editing was favored, opting for focus on plot (such as it sometimes was) and character, as opposed to self-conscious, distancing effects like those of the Soviets in the 1920s or the avant-garde previously, and Nouvelle Vague later. A less-stylized lighting was also preferred, using natural illumination in many cases. This would not only affect the drama of certain scenes, some taking place almost in total darkness, but it would also add stylistically in the form of a varying and erratic depth of field.

Additional Italian filmmakers would also try their hand at contributing neorealist works—Alessandro Blasetti, Luigi Zampa, Alberto Lattuada, and Giuseppe de Santis all produced works during this period. But it was with the films of Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, and Vittorio De Sica through which the idea and study of Italian Neorealism would be defined. Despite this fact, as already alluded to, each of the three would still depart considerably from these stylistic or thematic concerns, for better or worse. “Rossellini’s personal, spiritual concept of reality and Visconti’s stylized understanding of reality as history and culture long outlived the neorealist period. … De Sica’s humanistic perception of reality, however, was more attached to the postwar cultural and political atmosphere and exhausted its potential as soon as its model—Italian society marked by collective tragedy—became more diversified and complex.” (Liehm, 73)

Nonetheless, as opposed to what some believed, for these filmmakers this was not so much a betrayal, but simply an artistic evolution, one which, in many ways, actually did keep the neorealist roots still reasonably within reach. Take Rossellini for example. While his more cerebral films of the 50s seem to stray from the simple people and the simple stories he dealt with during the 40s, they are actually still concerned to some extent with an individual’s struggle to mesh into a world, to deal with others, to find and understand their place in a changing existence. These are not anti-neorealist themes. Even his historical films, like the great La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966), still thrive on their objectivity, their authenticity of detail, and their avoidance of rapid narrative succession. Only later, in the excellent (and De Sica-starring) Il generale della Rovere (1959) would Rossellini, at least on the surface, return to an overt neorealist world.

So what then is Italian Neorealism? What are its key features? Most agree that it was a massively important and influential moment in cinema history, and most of the above-discussed thematic and stylistic details are widely-accepted, but much else of the movement (if it was indeed even that), is less unquestioned. Federico Fellini, who contributed as a screenwriter for many neorealist works and had a major (and interesting) role in Rossellini’s Il Miracolo, said that neorealism meant, “the liberation of artistic expression, ‘looking at reality with an honest eye—but any kind of reality; not just social reality, but also spiritual reality, metaphysical reality, anything man has inside him.’” (Bondanella, “Fellini,” 70) For Rossellini, neorealism was “simply the artistic form of the truth.” De Sica? “His work, according to him, reflected ‘reality transposed into the realm of poetry.’” (Bondanella, “Italian Cinema,” 32) Whatever definition one places on Italian Neorealism, however one defines its stylistic, thematic, spatial, or temporal parameters, there can be little doubt that the influence of these films, and of these filmmakers, is immense.

Works Cited
Bazin, André. What is Cinema? Volume II.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
Bondanella, Peter. The Cinema of Federico Fellini.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present.
New York: Continuum, 2004.
Liehm, Mira. Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Shiel, Mark. Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City.
London: Wallflower, 2006.


My reaction to D.W. Griffith’s masterwork Intolerance has always been one of wonder, and that feeling increases each time I see the picture and as I discover more about film history, Griffith himself, and the conditions of American filmmaking during this astounding period. Based on budget-to-profit figures, Intolerance may be considered a failure, but as an artistic achievement, it is colossal.

Seen by many as a rebuttal (or apology) for its tumultuous predecessor, The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance does, at the very least, seem to have a clear message; at the most it’s a roundabout plea for understanding. Throughout the picture we are called upon to reflect on the development and consistency of intolerance and ignorance through the ages. Comparisons are drawn and encouraged to see the past in the (then) present. As the non-diagetic joining scene proclaims, “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,” Griffith is suggesting that such views and ideals have always existed and will continue to do so. The film, more than operating as a defense, works as a sociohistorical commentary about the human condition. As with Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980), the film that would sink United Artists, ironically the studio Griffith helped to create, I feel that many of the disparaging remarks about Intolerance, based as they were on either financial attributes, or on the idea that Griffith (like Cimino) was an egocentric, unmanageable, directorial force, have overshadowed the quality of filmmaking displayed in this picture – as has, in Griffith’s case, the controversy over The Birth of a Nation.

It’s difficult to find where to begin when it comes to this picture; it would be easy to go off on a tangent about the film as a historical document or to approach it critically – I’ll try to write by slightly doing both.

“Celluloid Mavericks” author Greg Merritt calls attention to the film’s initial length and its four story structure. Indeed, much has been made, for better or worse, of these elements. I find the structure to work very well. The juxtaposition of scenes, time periods, and locales – even with the so-called “forced convention of Lillian Gish rocking in a chair,” as Merritt puts it (though she’s actually sitting stationary, rocking a cradle) – do not hinder continuity of scene progression nor does it distract from or deter character relations. In fact, granted from a modern view point, I would argue the opposite. By having the four parallel tales, the spectator is to some extent forced, even if subconsciously, to draw comparisons between characters through the periods depicted as well as the varying mise-en-scéne formulations of each segment: What are their similarities? What does it mean? What is Griffith trying to say? A theme is established and Griffith, through cinematic techniques, and the audience, through the already established (even in 1916) modes of filmic comprehension, draw the connections and deduce the relevance and meaning.

Griffith’s attention to detail, his obsession over “historical minutia,” to quote Merritt, from the realistic street scenes of the contemporary story to the textured set pieces of the Babylonian tale, is a marvel. Each segment has a realism that gives the film an additional depth, certainly compared to other films being done at the time. I find Intolerance to also be an interesting example of the merging of pre-existing genres and styles of film, most of which Griffith had done before, together into one. There is the urban melodrama, the Biblical tale, the historical action/drama, in this case based around the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, and the massive set-driven, Italian spectacle-influenced B.C. tale, here revolving around Belshazzar's Babylon. Griffith takes the normative generic conventions of each and works them as a back-drop in which to paint the larger picture of intolerance’s progressions and manifestations. It’s a way of signaling that not only have these themes crossed time periods, countries, and continents, but they too have appeared throughout cinema’s (albeit brief) history.

Intolerance is also worthy of note in the ways in which it references those films done previously and points the way towards pictures to come. The rapid cutting, especially towards the end, was clearly an authority on French Impressionist directors like Abel Gance with La roué (1923) and on the editing of Soviets such as Eisenstein and Dovzhenko (with different intentions and results in this case however). Through a horizontal masking method, emphasizing the grandeur and expansiveness of the sets and actions, Griffith also alludes to widescreen techniques to come, including the triptych sequences in Napoleon (1927), again directed by Gance. The melodramatic aspects of the contemporary story hint at features to come, as in Griffith’s Broken Blossoms for example. Looking back, we see allusions to Griffith’s own The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) and Mario Caserini’s The Last days of Pompeii (1913), as well as the most obvious – Pastrone’s film Cabiria (1914).

While Griffith did not actually invent the filmic techniques he so exhaustively liked to proclaim (intercutting, a mobile camera, and close ups, for example, had been done before, particularly by the so-called Brighton School in England and Edwin S. Porter here in America), he did utilize said techniques, and more, in ways and to degrees unprecedented at that time. Like Orson Welles with Citizen Kane (1941) after him, Griffith not so much created the language of film, as he constructed it in astonishingly innovative forms.

The lighting in Intolerance, for example, aided in large part by hugely crucial cinematographer G.W. (Billy) Bitzer, adds dimension and richness to the scenes shot from a distance and highlights emotions and expressions in the closer set-ups. Griffith’s employment of rhythmic editing, pacing the film in accordance to audience emotion and character action, keeps the picture dynamic despite its length.

Emotionally powerful is one key scene in the modern story, after the mother has her baby taken away from the “uplifters.” She reaches for a swatch of fabric (the baby’s sock?) and grasps it in her hand – it’s a fantastically powerful shot, in close up, notably without a human face, the normal object of focus for emotional attraction. This particular scene is also a unique one in that after this close up, we get a title card reading “suffer little children,” and then an isolated image of Jesus surrounded by kids. This stands out because we are seeing a scene from another one of the tales, but it’s done in such a way that it appears to be unrelated in terms of story progression (for either segment) and emerges more as narrative-delaying authorial commentary.

One other scene of note (out of many possibilities), here of fantastic technical relevance, is near the end, in act II, when, through a crane contraption (a mobile elevator device), we see the bustling hall in which Belshazzar is hosting the noblemen, the camera slowly pushes in and moves down, getting closer and closer to ground level. This set, this maneuver, is breathtaking. Maybe not the “single greatest jaw-dropping sight on celluloid,” as proposed by Merritt, this moment is, to be sure, sensational. While the crane/track is slower than that which we are accustomed to today, the gradual pace actually works quite nicely in allowing time to soak in the immense detail of the location.

It is staggering to think of Intolerance as a sort of independent film. While the colossal sets, copious extras, star employment, and technical traits make the film appear to be more in the vein of a massive studio production, where I think Intolerance gains most prominently its “independent” stature (using a variation of the term’s multifaceted definition) is through the single-mindedness, the drive, and the passion displayed by Griffith. So much of independent cinema is driven by one person’s enthusiasm for their subject matter (indeed, for the medium itself) and in this is where Griffith achieves so much. While it may have conceivably ended up being unbearably long, it is most certainly a shame that a full, eight-hour cut of the picture does not exist. Whether or not the film could have maintained its pace, regardless of if the stories could have supported such a length, as a text of a filmmaker’s vision the total film would have been invaluable.

Intolerance is not without it faults through. The Biblical story, and especially the French story, ends up as slightly extraneous segments only just supported by the benchmark Babylonian tale and the more relatable modern section. The themes are there, and in that they prove worthwhile for comparison’s sake, but as stand-alone moments there is just not the same degree of excitement or quality; no doubt about it, none of the segments match the Babylonian one for sheer visceral reaction and spectacle. Certain scenes, however here mostly in the modern and Babylonian parts, seem so obviously designed for reaction that they, in effect, lose some of their impact. The modern story, in particular, is rather heavy-handed in its approach to intolerance and societal influences. In a similar vein, though surely a wonder, the already much-lauded Babylonian set appears to be so overly-expansive and elaborate, the techniques so noticeably intricate, that one can’t help but think that Griffith was simply trying to out-do other films, attempting to capture the audience through mere form. The end of the film, too, in keeping with Griffith’s penchant, is perhaps overly sentimental; though as a whole it is nonetheless satisfying.

Intolerance is, any way you look at it, a great film, one of silent cinema’s best, and it stands, if nothing else, as a tremendous example of directorial work and as a testament to the capabilities of early filmmakers. To think that this film was made within the first 20 years of cinema’s existence is to appreciate how far along the medium had so rapidly come. Independent or studio, it is almost unfathomable to think that anyone involved in films who saw this picture at the time of its release was not thoroughly influenced and bowled over. Griffith would continue to make films, some very good – Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921) are among his finest – and as if he wasn’t already, Intolerance did firmly cement his role as a figure (like Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jean-Luc Godard) who would change cinema forever. The biggest tragedy of Griffith’s career is that it, like many others, did not adjust adequately to sound.

Finally, in watching Intolerance again, the one thought that this time kept running through my head, on the heels of having recently watched Terminator: Salvation and Up in theaters, is to imagine what such an innovator and visionary as Griffith could have done with today’s technology. It is, of course, sheer imaginative speculation, but it is definitely an enjoyable thought.

Clint Eastwood: the “Morally Conflicted Poet of Masculine Despair”

Since he made his presence known on the television series Rawhide in the late 1960s, up through his last released directorial effort and last (for good?) starring role in 2008’s Gran Tornio, Clint Eastwood has firmly established himself as a major figure in American (and beyond) cinema and as a prominent figure of masculinity. Taking the macho reigns from figures like John Wayne of years previous, Eastwood, through his acting and, beginning in 1971, directing, embodies an idealized, often romanticized, and frequently complex sense of masculine identity and a man’s role in society. His stoic and restrained veneer have caused some to look at his films as being simplistic and literal. But, upon closer inspection, one sees that within and beneath his most famous pictures, as actor and/or director, lays a more intricate meaning, a more elaborate choice of character, story, and style. “His better films as a director have a richness to then,” writes Andrew Tudor, “not just stylistically … but also a moral complexity which belies the one-dimensionality of the Eastwood image” (Sarris, 149). In his crime films, which encompass everything from tales of political corruption (Absolute Power) to western classics (The Outlaw Josey Wales) to the prison break picture (Escape from Alcatraz), Eastwood finds repeated ways in which to explore aspects of the filmic hero and the male disposition.

Akiva Gottlieb, in his article “Last Man Standing: On Clint Eastwood,” writes that the filmmaker is “a full-time curator of the pesky, ever resurfacing ‘Clint Eastwood, cowboy hero’ mythology ... In his desire to be both the uncomplicated hero and the morally conflicted poet of masculine despair, Eastwood has sacrificed some of his work's potential power.” Gottlieb here, first of all, seems to be suggesting that the “‘Clint Eastwood, cowboy hero’ mythology” implies a straightforwardness and simplicity and that by having a “body of work to be reckoned with” (which he does, as actor and director) it gives him the rather enigmatic title of “poet of masculine despair.” While certainly both are rather ambiguous oversimplifications, if anything, Eastwood’s work in any credit falls more to the latter category. The depth of his work, his aesthetic (“poetic”) sensibilities, all point towards a style and cannon of films that are anything but “uncomplicated.”

In Dirty Harry (1971), directed by Don Siegel, Eastwood took on one of his most iconic roles, that of Harry Callahan. Upon first glance, it’s easy to see how some, like Gottlieb, could brush off the role as an “uncomplicated hero.” Indeed, Harry doesn’t give us much to work with, on the surface. But as the film progresses, and with an open mind, one can quite reasonably see that there is more to Harry than meets the eye. He is not just an idealized, overly aggressive and violent masculine figure, he a walking commentary on masculinity. Critic and historian David Thomson has noted that even by the point of Play Misty For Me (also 1971), his first major film as director, “Eastwood had wit and humor enough to undermine the very male supremacy that had made him famous. It is in the area of self-education that Eastwood is most liberal” (270).

Harry is aware, first and foremost, that he has a job to do, and, albeit with some complaining, he does it. That is not as simple as it seems though. There is a certain masculine ideal of just doing one’s job, somebody’s gotta do it. But Eastwood as Harry Callahan is vocally more displeased with his work than most. He “hates everyone,” according to a fellow officer, and he seems to have pure distain for the city and its inhabitants, which and whom is continually risking his life for. So then, what drives this man? He’s not just an “uncomplicated hero;” instead he epitomizes the predominantly yet stereotypically male notion of having a job to do and just doing it, and, what’s more, he continues on, continues to do it well, and continues even knowing his job and life are at stake. It takes someone rather complex to face these consequences and to move forward, despite his apparent dislike for the system and society.

In his bitter and cynical dialogue, his restrained tone, and his rigid poise, Eastwood presents issues of masculine despair also in his life dissatisfaction, his confusion of his self and his societal role, and his clear disregard for procedure and constraints, for injustices and hypocrisy; these all indicate a rather deep sense of anguish. Additionally, Harry’s gruff demeanor doesn’t come out of nowhere. There is a reason for why he is why he is. There are hints that it may have something to do with the death of his wife. Most probably he wasn’t like this while married; his wife would surely have had a hard time, no doubt, putting up with him. How would she have, in all likelihood, found him personally attractive at that? So, what did it? What changed Harry or made Harry “dirty?” How did he reach this level of despair which he has, where he is an unflinching, independent, private individual? The fact that there are all these questions to be asked (indeed there are more) just goes to illustrate that Harry, that is, Eastwood, is more than just an “uncomplicated hero.”

Years later, in what I consider to be his best film, Unforgiven (1992), as director and star Eastwood offers up a treatise on not only masculine myths and suppositions but also on the nature—its causes and consequences—of crime and violence. Apparently falling prey to the, according to Gottlieb “‘Clint Eastwood, cowboy hero’ mythology,” Eastwood in this western (one of the best of recent years), more brazenly attacks this mythology than encourages it.

His William Munny has led a wickedly brutal life of violence, killing women and children, as is frequently noted. He was a man’s man, to be reckoned with. There was, following Gottlieb’s line of thinking, not much to his behavior or his personality. However, upon marrying, having children, and settling down (his wife later dies), Munny has reformed himself and has given up these ways. In doing so, crucially, he becomes more complex in his “masculine despair.” The traces of this sordid past remain with him; the images of the dead at his hand haunt him. When, though an act of revenge brought on by an act of violence for pure monetary gain, Munny must resurrect his old self, we see just how deep this man goes.

Throughout the picture, Munny remain morally conflicted when it comes to violence. He know the damage it can do, to the killer and the victim, he knows the realities of crime (as opposed to the writer in the picture who knows only the myths). “The protagonists in his better films, like Josey Wales in The Outlaw Josey Wales, Highway in Heartbreak Ridge, Munny in Unforgiven, even Charlie Parker in the flawed Bird, are not simple men in either their virtues or their failings,” comments Andrew Tudor (Sarris, 149). Despite the questions and insinuations about his checkered past, Munny downplays his deeds. He doesn’t want to encourage the kid who rides with him. Munny embodies the hypocrisy and contradictions that violence entails.

With all of this in mind, Eastwood here, in a most traditional of American film genres, crafts a truly poetic, that is sensitive and lyrical, discourse on violence and the male’s role in a society, and a type of film, which strongly fosters and supports crime and aggression. Eastwood as director, while showing considerable interior contemplation towards these issues, does not make the film elaborately showy in its exterior form. What Gottlieb might consider uncomplicated, Eastwood’s treatment of the film stylistically is actually more meditative. He doesn’t glamorize nor oversimplify the western myths of masculinity and violence; instead he presents the story in a balance of melancholy and despair (achieved most greatly through lighting and staging) and harshness (again the lighting, but also the graphic brutality). This is a thinking man’s crime film, a conscious western that is analytical of its myths and itself. How does one, especially a man of this time, who is burdened with duties of masculinity, function in a world where such duties are continually questioned and provoked? The answer for some: in despair.

The thread of despair runs through another major crime film from Eastwood, 2003’s Mystic River. In Unforgiven, Munny says that he is “just a fella, no different than anyone else.” This inclination towards the common man, towards a world of manly modesty, comes back in Mystic River. Here, in a blue collar Boston neighborhood, the surface of monotony and peacefulness is severely cracked as crime threatens to destroy built up worlds of masculine solidarity, exposing, like Unforgiven and Dirty Harry, a troubling past which is at the heart of a hidden despair.

Following an opening sequence which combats issues of masculine despair in any number of disturbing ways, we are brought to years later when the three boys shown in this prologue are grown up. They are representative of various forms of masculine roles: Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) is a store owner—thus a provider to his family and his community—but, like Munny, has a dark past; there is Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), a meek man who, as we saw in the film’s opening, has had his masculinity despairingly thwarted by being molested as a child; and there is Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon), a cop (a very masculine and familiar Eastwood trope), who is struggling not only with solving a murder, but also attempting to patch back together his hapless marriage. In these three characters, aided by fine actors and restrained, raw direction, Eastwood, as director, presents exemplary despair-laden masculine individuals.

As the film progresses, following the murder of Jimmy’s daughter, moral ambiguity ascends to the top of these characters and the film. Solutions for these men aren’t simple. The bonds they’ve created as children and adults are tried and tested. For Jimmy, his family conflicts with friendship; for Dave, his disturbed mentality interrupts his logical thinking; and Sean must overcome his personal issues to focus on his job (again we see that having a job to do is a theme), despite the friendly ties to those involved. Mystic River, then, continues with that very Clint Eastwood examination of men, complex men, existing in a morally challenging world, one filled with external and internal despair.

“Simplicity need not lack subtly, and Eastwood’s finest work is compassionate, rich in insights, and quietly adventurous,” writes Geoff Andrew (67). Gottlieb himself points to the dual nature (thus complexity) of Eastwood’s work, writing that he is “A lightning rod for cheap moralizing, a starkly ambivalent embodiment of American masculinity, a callous vigilante and a sentimental old fogy.” Yet, he is “A gentle stylist informed by classic Hollywood tropes, obsessed with the interplay between darkness and light, as well as a plain-spoken existentialist who remains fearless in the face of Big Questions, Eastwood makes films that still draw teenagers to drive-ins and elicit weeping at the Museum of Modern Art.”

So surely then, there is much more to Eastwood’s films than just an uncomplicated overview. Accolades, appreciation, and admiration—critically, historically, commercially—must account for something, something far deeper than a simplistic take. As David Thomson has noted, “by 1994, Eastwood was one the very few Americans admired and respected at home and abroad, with qualification or irony” (270). In his films as actor and director, Eastwood, for decades now, with no sign of stopping, has provided the cinema with a wealth of films critically, even poetically, examining, in a way most films do not, the place and role of masculinity, not just in society, but also in typically male-dominated film genres.

Works Cited
Andrew, Geoff. The Director’s Vision: A Concise Guide to the Art of 250 Great Filmmakers. Chicago: A Cappella, 1999.
Gottlieb, Akiva. “Last Man Standing: On Clint Eastwood.” The Nation June 1, 2009 edition. Written May 13, 2009.
Sarris, Andrew. Ed. The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1998.
Thomson, David. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Blood Simple

The directorial certainty and confidence on display in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1984 film Blood Simple, their debut picture, is exceptional. Their command of filmic technique, their control of performances, their intense use of tone and atmosphere to enhance the film, and their knowing pastiche of film noir attributes, results in a first feature rivaled by few others. With a comparatively paltry $1.5 million dollar budget, the duo concocted a devious, amusing, formally inventive, and above all entertaining movie that resoundingly pointed the ways towards their films to come.

Bold strokes are fragrantly displayed by the Coens immediately. In selections of camera placement and maneuvers, sound amplifications, and dialogue, the brothers show no signs of a beginner’s hesitation. Their poise is clear and the film benefits a great deal from their willingness to unhesitatingly have fun with the medium and to use inventive and self-conscious directorial choices. The list is many, but some exceptional moments of technical virtuosity include: lengthy tracking shots, even some that are not always relevant to the films’ plot (Meurice’s walk to the jukebox and back); jarring close-ups of shoes, lighters, dead fish, etc.; a mastery of lighting resulting in an accomplished balance of light and shadow – this would have been a gorgeous black and white film; general camera movements amusingly obvious (the camera dollying along the bar-top, then rising up and over a passed-out drunk, as Celluloid Mavericks author Greg Merritt points to, is fantastic); the Sam Raimi-inspired camera advance in front of Ray’s house; and aural strategies that accentuate the most effective sounds, such as a dog beating his tail against the wall, a violent bug-zapper, and a finger-nails-on-the-chalkboard-type grating of a shovel on asphalt.

The final scene of the picture is a tour-de-force of technical feats with a brilliant combination of graphic violence, taught suspense though sound and image, and an illuminating feature of shafts of light coming though the bullet-ridden wall. In many ways, this lighting aspect reminded me of the window blind effect in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il conformista (1970).

The Coen’s also do a great job in conveying a true (perhaps somewhat mocking) sense of place and ambiance as well. We are clearly aware of the film’s Texas location – those hats, boots, and outfits signify so; and the film’s hot, muggy climate is fully achieved in shots of oscillating fans constantly in motion (moving notably slow, however) and by gleaming beads of sweat consistently of everyone’s face.

As writers, the brothers had already finely tuned their ear to expert word and sentence choices. As with the characters’ gestures, their dialogue is somewhat exaggerated and stylized, but never so much so that it becomes unbelievable. They also successfully employ a repetition of lines that are at once humorous, but also go to show the parallels between the four seedy main characters; examples include references to Ray (John Getz) being/not being a “marriage counselor;” the “less you know the better” line between Marty (Dan Hedaya) and Loren (M. Emmet Walsh), clearly instigating what ensues following the exchange; and Abby (Frances McDormand) saying, “I haven’t done anything funny,” exactly what Marty (in a different context) told Ray she would say.

Along the lines of humor in the film (no Coen brothers film yet has been totally without comedy), Blood Simple also possesses some great moments of comedic samples. Probably my personal favorite is when Ray discovers the (seemingly) dead Marty in the office. He begins to clean up the blood and move Ray. It’s a gruesome scene, with buckets of blood being dripped throughout. But, what raises the scene beyond a mere exercise in bloodletting is the fact that Meurice, unaware of what is going on behind the closed door, begins to play the Four Top’s “It’s the Same Old Song” on the jukebox in the bar. Having this up-beat Motown music playing over this grisly clean-up creates an ironic music/action union only by that point bettered by Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets and paving the way for Quentin Tarantino’s use of a similar juxtapositions in the 1990s.

The title of the film is, according to the Coen brothers, referring to the state of mind of someone after they have committed a murder, and this meditative quality is an interesting aspect of Blood Simple. For a thriller of this kind, the picture has an unusual amount of scenes and shots simply showing the characters thinking or looking. A good deal of screen time is devoted to the individuals trying to figure out what to do next, what just happened, or, in general, what is going on. These sedentary moments, aside from presenting a surprisingly thoughtful band of otherwise dimwitted misfits, also work to create the tension in which the viewer is similarly wondering about what may happen. That they are so unclear leaves room for spectator doubt as well.

Indeed, the Coens do an extraordinary job of establishing quite early that anything is very well possible in this world. Anyone could possibly get killed. As such, the tension arises out of these possibilities; motives are unclear (why would Ray touch the gun, move the body, clear up the body, etc.?) and thus we are frequently able to question why some of the characters are doing and saying what they are. As Merritt writes, “Untrusting and bewildered, the characters charge through a serpentine story, capable of killing or being killed.” If push comes to shove, as it in fact does, all four of these main individuals show that their capabilities are beyond initial (theirs and ours) expectations.

The suspense of the picture is also supremely evident in the brothers’ compositional choices, for instance when Abby is framed with the open glass window behind her, looking out into the darkness. Our eyes are constantly searching in the shadows, just waiting for something to appear, and when it does, as she lays down, the effect is solid.

In many ways, the film is about a lot of ideas, probably more than most thrillers of the time and now. The picture calls into questions of truth and its representation, conveyed pictorially in the doctored photograph showing Ray and Abby dead, when in fact that aren’t (indeed, it seems that the only things concretely dead in the film are Marty’s fish and the end of Ray’s block). There is also a continual identity confusion; characters aren’t really sure who is doing what, or even who they are really dealing with (this is emphasized at the end when Abby thinks she has killed Marty, who she didn’t even know was dead, when she had actually murdered Loren). And then there is the reoccurring motif of a lack of communication, of unspoken feelings and beliefs that would have most likely alleviated a lot of the crisis presented. Marty and Ray are both noted by Abby and being quiet, and if Ray and Abby had just opened up to each other more, several times in the picture, a lot of disaster could have been averted.

The characters crafted by the Coen duo are rich and dynamic and mostly appalling. Loren Visser, the sleazy, unscrupulous private investigator is the epitome of voraciousness and connivance. He’s also quite funny. Ray overreacts at nearly every turn and is himself a despicable characters (no sooner does he find out that for sure Abby is cheating on him then does he begin to harass and hit on a patron of his bar). But, in some ways, our sympathies are with him. Abby is a bumbling, apparently untrustworthy woman at times oblivious to reality. For this, though, we do occasionally feel sorry for her. And Ray, clearly in over his head, easily manipulated and also slow to comprehend the realities of the situations presented, is, I guess, our protagonist, our hero of sorts. The fact that these four primary characters hold no major redeeming characteristics interestingly enough doesn’t deter our attention or relation. This too is a testament to a finely formulated script and skilled direction.

As an independent feature, Blood Simple is a textbook example. Made with funds raised from private investors, created under the tutelage of the aforementioned Sam Raimi (fresh of the success of his first Evil Dead film), and promoted through its script and, uniquely, by a pre-production trailer – with Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbel – the picture made the festival rounds, appearing in New York, Toronto, and France in 1984. It would go on to win the Grand Jury Prize at 1985’s Sundance Film Festival and Joel Coen was co-winner of the Best Director award at the first-ever Independent Spirit Awards show – he shared the award with Martin Scorsese for After Hours (not bad company for a debut filmmaker). Notable in this independent film methodology though, is the exceptional skill and frame of reference for the picture. The brothers have clearly thought about the picture a great deal, with thorough storyboards, and they are cognizant of classic noir and thriller elements and are therefore able to manipulate and utilize them to great effect.

This Coen brothers neo-noir (a model they would again, and better, return to with Fargo (1996), still to my mind their best film), is a terrific movie that clearly positioned the brothers as a true filmmaking talent, destined for cinematic importance. Certainly, with the exception of only two pictures – Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004) – the filmmakers have never failed to impress and delight. Their distinctive brand of dry humor, their knowing camera maneuvers and set-ups, and their original and memorable characters are hugely noteworthy in the American independent film world (and far beyond as well).

That they have retained the “independent” moniker, even despite studio financing, big stars, and infrequently larger budgets (Intolerable Cruelty with $60,000,000 for example) is attributable in large part to a consistently imaginative style with quirky characters. It also helps that all of their films are quite good. They have never yet followed a mainstream pattern. While some consider their pictures to be condescending to (certain) audiences, they admittedly have maintained a consistency in individual preferences, not those of the movie-going masses. No Country for Old Men (2007) winning the Best Picture Oscar is hopefully a sign of bettering times.