In this work, Tiago de Luca aims to update the concept of cinematic realism by linking classical accounts of realism, as articulated by André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer (the subtitle of de Luca’s volume echoes Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality), with contemporary iterations of embodiment in the cinematic experience, by discussing the writings of Laura U. Marks and Vivian Sobchack, among others. The author adopts three of today’s most respected filmmakers to help trace this new realism. Thus the book is also a study in auteurism, treating the œuvres of Carlos Reygadas, Tsai Ming-liang, and Gus Van Sant as exemplary instances of “cinemas characterized by a sensory mode of address based on the protracted inspection of reality” (p. 1). The protracted inspection of reality entails the frequent use of depth of field and what de Luca calls the hyperbolic long take, two standard tropes of realism which, for de Luca, aim to elicit sensorial responses for spectators. Yet the similarities between these diverse directors from Mexico, Taiwan, and the US is not limited to realist cinematography and their mode of address. De Luca demonstrates that, while geographically and politically disparate, these directors are kin in numerous ways, such as their directorial methods, their interest in characters’ bodies and geographical landscapes, and their uses of cinematography, sound, and real sex onscreen. These links sufficiently provide coherence to the study as a whole.
The book is composed of three chapters, one for each filmmaker. Each director is given a specific lens, based on their sensory mode(s) of address, through which their films can be approached: metaphysical realism, limit-case auteurism, and visionary realism. These additional lenses propose a respective compendium of contemporary realist aesthetics, and it is the cataloguing of a realist style that is one of the virtues of de Luca’s volume.
The success of these long chapters is due to the numerous points of entry made possible for readers. The author wished to hit on all the major points in a director’s oeuvre, and he is able to do this in an economical fashion, without sacrificing the necessary synopses of films or careful expositions of a particular theory. Furthermore, the employment of a plethora of theoretical writings expands the book’s audience. It is a volume within the discipline of film studies to be sure, but with the consistent adoption of cultural studies theorists, Realism of the Senses in World Cinema could also be categorised within that discipline. It is this latter disciplinary inclination that adds a political dimension to the book; every chapter is rounded out by an analysis of how the director’s aesthetics contains an explicit political viewpoint (with respect to class relations in Mexico; identity politics in Taiwan; and the malaise of modernity in the US).
While a review of de Luca’s book could be written from the disciplines of film studies or cultural studies, I want to do something a little different. I want to write as one affected by the films discussed by the author. This requires a more careful treatment of the theories developed by Marks and Sobchack.
The author explores Reygadas’ œuvre through metaphysical realism. The director has cited his influences as being Roberto Rossellini, Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Andrei Tarkovsky. However, for de Luca, Reygadas does not simply map onto the cinema of his masters – the spiritual dimension of his works are instead cathexed in “a carnal excess encapsulated in the notion of flesh” (p. 38). This argument as to Reygadas’ carnal excess can be observed in the director’s persistent shooting of sexualized bodies, from the octogenarian in Japón (2002), the beautiful and grotesque individuals in Batalla en el cielo (Battle in Heaven, 2005), and the sweaty, post-coital faces in Stellet Licht (Silent Light, 2007). But the author reminds us that flesh need not always be sexual. The flesh that shocks us in a Reygadas film is also erotic in Marks’s sense – that is, as a haptic image.
Marks posits an eroticism of the image, a closeness to what is seen without possessing or mastering it. “Visual erotics,” she claims, “allows the object of vision to remain inscrutable.” (1) In the incomprehensibility of the image we find ourselves implicated because a haptic visuality (touching with one’s eyes) requires a relationship of “mutuality”. (2) Marks thinks of the image as an “other” that cannot be possessed, and therefore this element of mutuality or mutual recognition, as an intersubjective relationship between the “beholder and a work of cinema,” is erotic – the viewer gives herself over to the image and loses herself in it. (3) Haptic visuality is not merely what is seen, the relationship to a narrative or character, or the aura of an actor for that matter; with “co-constitution” spectators arrive at the “surface of the image,” not just that which is represented therein. Marks describes this process as a dialectical movement between the surface and the “depth of the image” (its content). (4) This requires spectatorial passivity and activity, the ability to lose oneself while also willingly giving up a mastery of the image.
For example, after my first viewing of Reygadas’s Silent Light, it was not the miraculous ending that haunted me most, but the long bathing sequence. In this sequence, Johan and Esther’s children splash and swim in a little lake. The camera takes great care in following these children, and much of the time, getting as close as possible to their faces. To my shock, Reygadas allows the children to stare right back at me. As the children of Silent Light wade in the water, the long takes and close-ups of their bathing and play reach out to touch me, and “these images,” de Luca argues, “highlight the sheer literalness of phenomenal reality.” (p. 79) There is a kind of intimacy here between myself and the screen. Reygadas exposes the power of the medium to present reality, thus throughout the volume, de Luca reflects on the documentary qualities of the films under analysis. I was haunted by these documentary images because Reygadas “allows each non-professional actor to bring his or her singularity into play in a more spontaneous fashion” (p. 77). In other words, I was intimately moved by a series of images whose realness registered at the level of my body; my perception engaged with the ontological there-ness of the figures and locations onscreen. Indeed, this reception of the image is precisely the experience Marks discusses: spectatorship as processes of haptic visuality.
In the next chapter, de Luca reads Tsai as a limit-case auteur. The author pinpoints key aesthetic and thematic concerns in the director’s oeuvre, such as his spatial realism (long takes and depth of field); the recurring invasion of the camera into characters’ private affairs (characters are frequently shown in the bathroom, masturbating, and eating); the characters’ “grotesque hyperbolism” (heightened displays of corporeality and sexual imagery) (p. 136); and the likening of characters to animals, particularly insects. Together these concerns demand an “intratextual” viewing of Tsai’s oeuvre (p. 101). De Luca lucidly shows that the preoccupations of characters in one film transcends that diegetic world to reappear in new forms in a different film. Tsai accomplishes this through the consistent use of the same locations, casting the same team of actors (Yang Kuei-mei, Lu Yu-ching, Chen Shiang-chyi, and Lee Kang-sheng), and allowing his characters to gesture similarly across the films (pp. 103-110). While Tsai’s hyperbolic long take aims to elicit spectators’ sensorial engagement, this extreme example of auteurism points to what I would call an affective bleed between or amongst films. De Luca poignantly writes, “Tsai’s oeuvre is freighted with narrative and visual cues which, replayed in different films, playfully invite the spectator to engage with his entire body of work as if in a hide-and-seek game.” (p. 110) Tsai’s cinema is for the avid cinephile who is willing to be affected by filmic resonances across a number of works.
For the chapter on Van Sant, de Luca identifies the director’s visionary realism as the most appropriate lens. Visionary realism suggests that the filmmaker adheres to certain staples of realist aesthetics, such as location shooting, long takes, and non-professional actors, but also “contradicts [this] focus on the objective real through experimental strategies that evoke mental processes of perception and cognition, that is to say, altered states of mind.” (pp. 159-160) De Luca looks to the director’s avant-garde influences (Andy Warhol, Chantal Akerman, and Michael Snow) to study his “trilogy of death:” Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005).
To articulate the sense of visionary realism in Gerry, I found myself drawn to the physicality of the actors in relation to the landscapes. The two Gerrys (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck), as they wander the geographically disparate deserts, are often shot from afar or are entirely absent from the frame. These shots of vast desert and skyline are without narrative motivation. For de Luca this cinematography, on the one hand, is a kind of subjective perception emanating from the characters, and on the other, “Gerry seems to answer Stan Brakhage’s famous call for a pure perception, freed from language and automatisms.” (p. 184) Last Days offers something similar through the consistently drugged character Blake. Off-screen sounds and “unsteady corporeal movements”, as well as Van Sant’s repetitious camera setups, trouble the director’s general use of realist tropes. “[S]uch strategies,” de Luca concludes “seem intent on unveiling the durational and material properties of the medium itself, and its power to render reality mysterious and strange.” (p. 229) The feeling generated by Van Sant’s films suggests that the director aims to engage spectators’ senses rather than just their cognitive faculties.
I also see this idea of visionary realism in Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux (2012), a film which does not directly announce itself as a character’s dream, but certainly hints at it. (5) The reality presented in this film is a reality which forces the spectator to consider his bodily relationship to images and sounds onscreen, even if what is presented therein are scenes of dreams, desires, and fantasies. Although the events may not be diegetically real, they are experienced as real by the characters in the film. With their respective bodily engagements with strange modes of reality, I claim the spectator is also offered an experience “as if” in a dream, hallucination, or fantasy. The immanence of the film’s dream or fantasy episodes resonates with Sobchack’s argument that critics and theorists resort to the phrase “the film [shot, scene, or sequence] felt ‘as if’ it were real” because language lacks a better one. In her phenomenology of film experience, it is no longer necessary to posit a hierarchy of the senses. Being “touched” by the film – when not “actually” being touched – is not metaphorical.
Sobchack develops the concept of sensual catachresis in examining our relationship to cinema. Catachresis is a “false or improper metaphor;” “‘it mediates and conflates the metaphoric and the literal’ and is used ‘when no proper, or literal, term is available.’” (6) Sobchack’s examples include the “head” of a pin or the “arm” of a chair. Thus when a film critic contends that a shot felt “as if” it were real, that critic is reflecting upon himself and his body to find the appropriate relationship between his sensuous experience and that which cannot be sufficiently literalized. With sensual catachresis, in “trying to describe this complex reciprocity of body and representation, our phrases turn back on themselves to convey the figural sense of that experience as literally physicalized.” (7) This mode of viewing and criticism speaks to both Reygadas’s recent film and the argument de Luca develops on Van Sant’s work. Reygadas and Van Sant offer viewers an experience of film, and thereby themselves, as if in a dream, hallucination, or fantasy.
The kinship amongst Reygadas, Tsai, and Van Sant consists in the varied uses of realist aesthetics “in their quest to enhance material reality” (p. 235). De Luca argues for this idea with language that is clear, precise, and readable. Realism of the Senses in World Cinema connects film aesthetics to sensation and affect, thus contributing to the proliferating debates on the topic. Further, the volume offers invaluable studies of three highly-praised filmmakers. If this cinema of sensation continues to be prevalent in film festivals, magazine coverage, and scholarly attention, then de Luca’s book will be oft-cited in the fields of art cinema and film theory.
Tiago de Luca, Realism of the Senses in World Cinema: The Experience of Physical Reality (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2014)
- Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 184.
- Ibid., p. 183, 184.
- Ibid., p. 185.
- Due to the publication date of the book, Post Tenebras Lux was not part of de Luca’s study.
- Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), p. 81, quoting Shiff.
- Ibid., p. 82.