THE NECESSITIES OF REALISM
David Denby has a good piece in the New Yorker this week, the rather self-explanatorily titled “The Moviegoer: Susan Sontag’s life in film.” He of course begins by discussing Sontag’s 1995 essay, “A Century of Cinema,” in which the late critic bemoaned not only the decline of international art cinema but the decline of cinephilia as a necessary intellectual and social endeavor in general. From there Denby jumps backwards, tracing the development of Sontag’s thinking with regards to art and politics as it appears through the lens of the movies she championed.
In this passage, Denby hits on what seems to me to be a particularly acute observation about directors in general while discussing the artistic failures of Sontag’s own two features, Duet for Cannibals and Brother Carl:
“Sontag had run afoul of a banal but inescapable problem. A critic-aesthetician may campaign for the dissolution of realism in narrative, but there’s no getting away from the glory and curse of the movies: cinema is a photographic medium in which people appear to be moving through real space in real time. That, of course, is an illusion, but the medium, apart from the genre of poetic experimental films, poses an immediate demand for authoritative representation that no other art is burdened by. The camera remorselessly revealed Sontag’s inadequacy to represent anything at all. Watching Duet for Cannibals, with its clumsy sexual fantasias and its possible dream sequences, one understands that to be a good fantasist one first has to be a good realist.”