BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 01 NOV 12
Featured in
Issue 151

Leaps of Faith

The new wave of social-realist storytelling in American cinema

BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 01 NOV 12

Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2012, film still

There is a hole in the ground in Texas but we don’t know what’s down there. In Kid-Thing (2012), an American independent film, young Annie discovers the hole after she hears voices emanating from it. A woman called Esther claims to be trapped in there, but Annie is not entirely sure what to do about it. She throws a few bananas into the dark hole, and then a walkie-talkie. But time and again she goes away without doing the obvious thing: getting help. Perhaps it’s because Annie has doubts about the hole: is it the entrance to Hell? Is Esther the Devil? Is it a trap, and will Annie unleash something heinous if she allows Esther come to the surface?

If ever there was a parable about what became of the American imperative ‘you gotta do what you gotta do’ over the last 40 years of social decline, it might be Kid-Thing by David Zellner. And it is no coincidence that its (anti-)heroine is a child. Annie is the latest in a long line of teenagers in what, over the last few years, has constituted a strikingly ‘neorealist’ tradition in American independent cinema. Think of Alejandro in Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop (2007) or James in Lance Hammer’s Ballast (2008), Ree in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010) or six-year-old Hushpuppy in Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) – the most recent take on desolate social landscapes mapped by infants who attempt to make up for their parents’ failures in the absence of any meaningful intervention by society’s institutions.

Hushpuppy wouldn’t notice any holes in her world, because what it lacks is steady ground. She lives in the swamps of Southern Louisiana, beyond a levee that separates the ‘dry land’ (i.e. civilized America) from a mythical zone. No cop would ever come to this area; there’s no one to stop anyone from living off cat food and getting drunk on the side. But Hushpuppy, who shares her wild garden with huge pigs, enjoys a precarious free­dom, as we see when she prepares her meals and sets the stove on fire with a propane gas lighter. Instead of running away and crying for help, she hides beneath a cardboard box and draws on the walls of her makeshift cave, like a far-flung descendant of early mankind, a symbolic Eve in a paradise about to be lost forever.

What unites Kid-Thing and Beasts of the Southern Wild – two recent examples of this increasingly flourishing new wave of social-realist storytelling in American cinema – is a certain tendency towards the imaginary. In the traditional view – based on French film theorist André Bazin’s response to Italian Neorealism of the 1940s and early ’50s – this would be against the grain of depicting the social world as it presents itself in its supposed ‘objective reality’, including its tendencies of disintegration. But a lot has happened since Bahrani presented us with Chop Shop, his update on Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948). Filmmakers like Matt Porterfield, who started out as a mythopoet of the suburban lawnmower neighbourhoods of Baltimore, or Kelly Reichardt – who used to follow dropouts through the far Northwest until she came up with the highly conceptual Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010) – have explored the boundaries of observational cinema. In Putty Hill (2010), Porterfield was a voice-over ‘interviewing’ his fictitious characters as a means of telling their stories. The interior monologues of Hushpuppy, by contrast, don’t have a counterpart: she makes everything up as she tries to make sense of what is happening around her. Hushpuppy is the only focal point of a disintegrating world. This is also true for Annie in Kid-Thing; a child who drifts through a world that no longer has any direction – a world disturbingly embodied by Marvin, Annie’s white-trash father. The linear storytelling that has long been a constant of all updates of neorealism is now being intertwined with mythical journeys. It appears as though a younger generation of American filmmakers is trying to make up not only for the fundamental detachment of mainstream cinema from everyday life, but also for its lack of vision. Annie and Hushpuppy are ‘visionaries’, because nobody has ever given them a sense of context, of a common ground, or of reality. It is certainly no coincidence that Bahrani, the trailblazer of American neorealism, has set out to create exactly such common ground with his new feature film At Any Price (2012). This is an attempt at enlightened mainstream cinema, and it couldn’t have come at a more timely moment at the end of this dramatic ‘dustbowl’ summer in the US. Bahrani tells us the story of a white family in Iowa, the Whipples, who have been farmers for generations. Dennis Quaid, as the father, excels in showing the burden of success. He is as much a manager as a salesman for Liberty Seeds – a multi-national, agricultural, bio-technology company much of in the vein of Monsanto – who rigidly contract farmers to grow their genetically modified crop. His son Dean, played by Zac Efron, is an aspiring racing driver, and all he wants is to get away from his father’s demands that he follows in his footsteps.

At Any Price deals with traditions on several levels. It is about a way of rural life in America that only exists in commercials; and it’s about a mode of storytelling that was lost in the evolution of mainstream cinema. Bahrani and his scriptwriting partner, Hallie Elizabeth Newton, aim at a complexity that is rooted in binary mythical clarity: father/son, rich/poor, wife/mistress, artisanal/industrial. Combine these antagonisms and you get a richly layered, yet classical, narration that instantaneously creates a historical lineage: from John Ford’s Great Depression drama The Grapes of Wrath (1940) via Nicholas Ray’s psychological turns in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to Peter Bogdanovich’s small-town chronicle Texasville (1990). What Bahrani does is significant: he assumes the position of the missing link in the otherwise disjointed landscape of American contemporary cinema, which is richer than ever, but has somehow lost its cultural position. For American neorealism, Bahrani has started the long passage from festivals and netflix portals back to the multiplexes.

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.