I’ve recently been having a debate with a fellow writer over the merits of The Tree of Life (written by Terrence Malick). (I’m of the opinion that it’s a bunch of trite nonsense dressed up in pretention.) During the course of this rousing debate, the topic of realism came up.
Leaving aside the hot button The Tree of Life, I’d like to muse a little bit on realism. Personally, I do not see the capturing of realism on film to be a particularly valuable goal in and of itself. I see reality every minute of every day. I don’t need to pay to see it in a theater. That is, unless it’s a reality that I don’t see every day and that is inherently interesting – the kind of reality captured in movies like The Kite Runner (screenplay by David Benioff), Paradise Now (written by Hany Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer) or City of God (screenplay by Braulio Mantovani).
Except none of those movies are simply about capturing reality. They are realistic, but they have strong stories as well. They are not simply “slice of life” movies.
Margot at the Wedding (written by Noah Baumbach) was a slice of life movie. It had interesting characters who felt extremely real, and a situation rife with conflict… but then nothing very significant happened. By the end (which was more of a stopping point than an ending) I was both bored and frustrated. Where was the story?
On the other hand there's The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy). It too has a sense of verisimilitude and is set in a world I know, but it tells a gripping story. And here the realism heightens the impact of the story. The movie is about powerful societal forces that can disrupt lives – lives of people like those we know.
Which brings me to Elephant (written by Gus Van Sant). I have pondered Elephant a lot. The movie is pretty clearly “inspired by” the events of the Columbine school shooting. For the first half of the movie, we watch the intersecting lives of a group of teenagers at school. And these are very realistic teenagers – they’re insipid and banal. Watching their mundane lives play out is dull indeed.
And because of that, when the shooting starts halfway through, it creates some of the most horrific moments I’ve ever seen on screen. Because it feels like real kids are dying, not some pithy characters.
But I wonder about that first hour. I saw Elephant at a film festival. I was pretty much in for the whole screening no matter how bad it was. And I was bored stiff in the first half. Would I have stuck it out if it was on DVD? The boring beginning was necessary to create the power of the ending, but it was still boring. So was that good filmmaking?
Truth is not the same as verisimilitude, of course. Often genres like comedy or science fiction allows us to discuss bigger, more profound themes because they can do it in an allegorical way. And The Tree of Life is only partly a slice of life film, for that matter. It also includes sections with some pretty surreal imagery.
Ultimately there’s a sliding scale of realism in film – on one end we have a movie like Elephant, on the other movies like Star Wars (written by George Lucas). I don’t think any section of that scale is necessarily better or worse than any other. And that means that capturing reality does not excuse you from telling an interesting and compelling story.