WHAT IS NEOREALISM (Kogonada)

Curator's Note

What is Neorealism? Kogonada, UK, 2013. First published in 'Video essay: What is neorealism?', Sight & Sound magazine, May 2013. Online at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/comment/video-essay-what-neorealism.

In my essay, “La Caméra-stylo: Notes on video criticism and cinephilia,” I distinguished (very broadly) between two modes in recent videographic work: the explanatory and the poetical. Kogonada’s “What is neorealism?” is exemplary for the way that it balances and integrates the two. Ostensibly offered in the explanatory mode, examining the differences between director Vittorio De Sica’s Terminal Station and producer David Selznick’s recut of the same film, offered in the U.S. as Indiscretion of an American Wife, this videographic piece effectively poeticizes its explanatory elements. The video thus works on two separate but interrelated tracks: the facts it gives us in the explanatory mode, and the atmosphere it creates as it poeticizes that information. Let me focus here on just a few of Kogonada’s strategies.

Voice over – which as Adrian Martin argued can be problematic in videographic works in much the same way it is in feature films – is used here with particular effect. Kogonada’s narration does not strive for neutrality or ‘aural invisibility’. The low, hurried tone of his delivery evokes a quality of contained urgency, as if he’s sharing with us some secret, previously undiscovered, uncanny correspondence between two different films. This narration is not just read; it is performed in a subtle and carefully calibrated way, and this performance sets the tone of mystery, one not similarly achievable in writing, that is maintained throughout the work.

Kogonada’s move in the introductory voice over of ‘fictionalizing’ this historical event – claiming it initially as an imagined ‘experiment’ involving a time machine – establishes a kind of Borgesian atmosphere that persists even after the claim of experiment is retracted. In a variation on Pierre Menard, in which two texts written by two different men in two different centuries are identical, Kogonada offers here two films made by two different men on two different continents that are again identical. Or almost. Kogonada tells us it is not the films’ similarities that are important here, but their slight differences, which are in fact profound. But while the explanatory register emphasizes difference, the poetical register highlights similarity. The effect of the uncanny – of qualities of doubling and repetition – is dizzying. So what we understand this video to be as a historical explication and what we feel it to be as a fiction carry very different qualities of force.

In presenting the results of his non-experiment, Kogonada uses two screens, side-by-side, to present the slight variations between the two films. The intermittent forward or backward scanning on one of the screens – with one moving image falling behind, then catching up with the other – visualizes the spiraling effect of the uncanny. As one image speeds up or freezes, and the two images separate, our attention intensifies in an effort to see; as the two images unify, our attention relaxes. The unification of the two frames appears to us as the ‘answer’ to what we were so intently looking for only a moment earlier, before disorientation settled itself – and not always into clarity, sometimes into hallucination. When the speeding, scanning images of bodies and buses and cars comes suddenly to settle on a doubled image of Jennifer Jones walking slowly up an apartment stairway, the effect is one of the woman floating, ghost-like, toward a fated rendezvous. Elsewhere, in articulating differences between scenes, Kogonada repeats shots of movement multiple times in quick succession, and we not only see those differences but feel the vertiginous effect that his experiment’s discovery seems to have produced in him.

Kogonada compares the introductory sequences of both versions, noting that Selznick always preferred shorter takes – but also showing that the producer who made a reputation adapting literary works is more bound by the word than his Italian auteur. Selznick’s cut uses titles and a handwritten letter to increase narrative clarity and reduce thematic ambiguity. Kogonada, too, uses text on screen (apparently) to clarify and underscore – but usually we get only a single word, often italicized and in brackets and set across the two images. As these words of ‘clarification’ are in fact unnecessary, this text-on-screen appears instead as a redundancy, yet another layer of repetition.

Kogonada’s title here, which baldly states that his video will specify the key feature of neorealism, is something of an error. There is more to neorealism than just one (admittedly relevant) cinematic narrational feature. But Kogonada perhaps focuses on this point because it is what he takes as his model: the neorealist strategy of poeticizing what appears simply to be ‘fact’ or ‘truth’. With this move, he aspires to the ‘third form’ of critical writing imagined by Roland Barthes: one that would “subject the objects of knowledge and discussion – as in any art – no longer to an instance of truth, but to a consideration of effects” (90).

Works cited

  • Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977).
  • Keathley, Christian. “La Caméra-stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia,” in The Language and Style of Film Criticism, ed. Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton (Routledge, 2011).
  • Martin, Adrian. “A Voice Too Much,” Filmkrant 322 (June 2010). http://www.filmkrant.nl/av/org/filmkran/archief/fk322/engls322.html