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Author: Alejandro Adams
Title: The Cult of Naturalism
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
Winter 2007

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Source: The Cult of Naturalism
Alejandro Adams

vol. 5, no. 1, Winter 2007
Article Type: Essay

The Cult of Naturalism

Alejandro Adams

“It is justly considered as the greatest excellency of art, to imitate nature; but it is necessary to distinguish those parts of nature, which are most proper for imitation: greater care is still required in representing life...If the world be promiscuously described, I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account; or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon mankind, as upon a mirror which shows all that presents itself without discrimination.” – Samuel Johnson

I am opposed to the current vogue of naturalism in the American independent film movement because at this cultural moment, naturalism is beside the point, having been appropriated so thoroughly and preposterously by Reality TV. The fallacy of naturalness is nowhere more evident than in television shows which allege to be presenting what “just happens” in front of the camera (in fact, as I write this, Reality TV “writers” are lobbying to be recognized by the writers’ union).

In a recent batch of celebrated festival features, the naturalistic techniques are at times indistinguishable from the mind-numbing anti-aesthetics of Reality TV. How can “indies” pride themselves on subverting Hollywood when they increasingly rely on shot-for-shot replication of network television’s least imaginative programming? The New Naturalism is a style in which actors and dialogue and camera techniques are de-refined or counter-refined until they revert to their most “natural” state, appearing as if they had simply occurred in nature without the orchestrating presence of a single governing consciousness—the auteur, or God, or whatever. New Naturalism appears to be a cinema of spontaneous generation.

The production values of New Naturalism have already been codified: someone braces the camera under an arm like a sack of groceries, while someone else in the same room, more or less, mumbles predetermined words at nearly inaudible volume, inserting expletives such as “you know” and “um” and “like” so that the actual communicative value of the remaining words is reduced by a minimum of seventy-five percent. If these rarefied naturalistic techniques are implemented properly, the viewer will never suspect that a camera is being “operated” or that dialogue is being “performed.” Any reasonably intelligent and perceptive critic will swoon: “Performances so natural, you’ll think you’re watching a documentary.”

A precocious, recalcitrant kid in the back row will raise his hand and ask, “Why would I want to think I’m watching a documentary if I’m not watching a documentary?”

The critic ignores the question as he continues to rave: “Camerawork so jittery, you’ll think a four-year-old shot it.” “Dialogue so garbled, you’ll think the actors had the language centers of their brains removed.”

We are suffering under the hegemony of a vogue in film criticism which promotes the anti-picturesque as a cinematic value of some inherent worth. As a result, we are burdened with this current “reality” of etiolated, undernourished, largely vacuous faces dominating the screen in wobbly close-ups. While Terrence Malick warrants guardedly positive reviews (longwinded, desultory, philosophically muddled...but beautiful), adherents of New Naturalism are eligible for unequivocal praise, presumably because they resist the temptations of the picturesque and show life as it truly is.

Shabby chic is in.

The cult of naturalism is concentric with the most liberating and, simultaneously, most oppressive cult of our era: the cult of the amateur—that is, the cult of the talented non-professional whose impressive array of moderate ambitions replaces the single consummate ambition which has defined significant artists of past centuries (including most of the twentieth). The new artist, who may erroneously invoke the phrase “Renaissance man” to describe himself, dabbles his way through various media, having nothing to say but saying it reasonably well. The current apotheosis of the unprofessional in all things is not a matter of conscious decisions made by individual practitioners in any particular medium, but a matter of cultural momentum. These days everyone is a musician, everyone is a web designer, everyone is a journalist, everyone is a filmmaker.

New Naturalism glorifies removal, subtraction. The director tells the actor to do less, as close to nothing as possible. The director assumes the viewer wants less, as close to nothing as possible. It is a matter of amateurizing, roughening: deadpan acting, clumsy camerawork. Naturalism is, compulsorily, about being natural, and in nature dynamic actors and tripods don’t occur as they do in Hollywood movies. New Naturalism rejects tripods and trained actors because tripods and trained actors are inextricably bound to the Hollywood conspiracy.

The actress performing the role of the maid in The Rules of the Game let out a sigh of relief after shooting a certain scene—but before the camera had stopped rolling. Jean Renoir used the take, including the sigh, because he relished the accidental naturalism of this quick leap out of character. The value of catching actors off-guard in this way is proportional to the actors’ sense of “performance.” To expunge an actor’s sense of performance—“just be yourself”—and then attempt to catch that actor “out of character” is redundant. The tiny, nearly microscopic detail in which Renoir took so much delight is a “natural” counter-point to a “performed” role. He was delighting in the exception, the accident; whereas directors adhering to the tenets of New Naturalism attempt to construct entire films of these details and accidents, leading to an overall effect which is painfully mannered and artificial. New Naturalism seems so caught up in accumulating these quasi-natural moments that it seems to forget to be about anything. If your work is merely an attempt to reproduce what is “natural” in human behavior and speech today, let me turn my eye on mankind, as Dr. Johnson suggested.

Aboutness is relative, but a good rule of thumb is that movies which are about something are easy to describe:

“A woman accused of killing her husband must prove herself innocent during a trial which tests the loyalty and affection of her adolescent children.”

“A young man ventures into the wilderness to discover himself and has a life-changing encounter with a woman who can see the divine in everyday occurrences.”

The first plot sounds melodramatic, the second pretentious.

New Naturalism operates with the understanding that too much aboutness will inevitably lead to melodrama or pretentiousness, whereas a story which isn’t decisively about anything will be subtle and perceptive and sensitive and intelligent. A naturalistic director might earnestly say of his work, “It’s hard to describe” or “It’s just about life” or “It’s about modern relationships” or “It’s about people like you and me.” Are these descriptions really superior to the ones above? Or do they sound specious and self-satisfied? I’ll take my chances with the guy in the desert and the woman on trial.

In melodrama, actors contort their faces, speak in purposeful, over-clarified dialogue, and are guided through their emotional crises by a certain kind of music. This is sensationalism, and the point of naturalism is to refute sensationalism, to reject the tropes of melodrama. We gauge intelligence in cinema by a lack of sensationalism, a lack of manipulative tricks. “I thought it was really bold not to use shrieking violins to enhance the suspense. I didn’t feel manipulated at all.” We deem a director smart for avoiding the violins, and we deem ourselves smart for noticing it. Thus, the director’s true mark of intelligence is that he allows us to flatter ourselves.

New Naturalism has its own tropes, its own distinct mannerisms which allow us to recognize it as naturalism—stammered or repetitious dialogue, extended takes of scenes which don’t seem integral to a plot, and an absence of commentative music. The “natural camera” insightfully shows us an actor’s nervous hands as often as it shows us his uncommunicative face—because in nature, hands are as communicative as faces. This sort of mannered naturalism is as gratuitous as a computer-generated effect. It is an exaggerated, hyperreal naturalness which is, ipso facto, unnatural.

Though naturalism may be averse to melodrama, it’s allergic to pretentiousness. I can’t imagine anything more alien to New Naturalism than real writing.

And, my God!, look at us, Louise.
Here we are going through the obli-
gatory middle-of-Act-Two scorned
wife throws peccant husband out scene.
But, no fear, I'll come back home
in the end. All her plot outlines
have me leaving her and returning
to you because the audience won't
buy a rejection of the happy
American family. She does have
one script in which I kill myself,
an adapted for television version
of Anna Karenina in which she's
Count Vronsky and I'm Anna.

Peccant? I had to look it up. Plus, there’s a Tolstoy reference in the same paragraph. I think Paddy Chayefsky was trying a little too hard. People don’t really talk like that.

Marilynne Robinson, that gentlest of literary giants, has lamented the fate of high language: “Language which suggests learning is tainted, the way slang and profanity once were...It is not the kind of speech anyone would think to free because it is considered a language of pretension or asserted advantage. People writing in this country in the last century used a much larger vocabulary than we do, though many fewer of them and their readers were educated” (Robinson 7).

Here’s another line from Network where the characters talk like a page torn from a thesaurus:

And you would describe Mr. Jensen's
position on Beale as inflexible?
Intractable and adamantine.

Two fancy words—so what? Am I saying that all movie characters should speak in strings of over-clarifying synonyms? No. I’m saying that in a time of underwhelming subtlety and nuance, it would be refreshing to be steamrolled by something direct, explicit, convicted, and even temperamental, like Network.

If it’s old-fashioned to write scripts wherein a given character is a mouthpiece for the writer’s roiling ideas, it’s probably because roiling ideas are themselves old-fashioned.

David Hare got my attention with the following conversation-stopper in his film Wetherby: “I only know goodness and anger and revenge and evil and desire. These seem to me far better words than neurosis and psychology and paranoia. These old words—these good old words—have a sort of conviction which all this modern apparatus of language lacks...and all the building-over that constitutes this century will not wish these feelings away.”

There are countless critics and filmmakers for whom cinema is about surfaces, according to which model Roiling Ideas are anathema. Wim Wenders has explained why, as a moviegoer, he turned away from “deep” and “portentous” cinema—as embodied in the work of Ingmar Bergman—and why he turned back:

I see myself as a schoolboy sneaking out to the cinema with my girlfriend (although forbidden or, in fact, because forbidden by school, church and parents) to see The Silence. I see myself coming out of it deeply affected, and avoiding all discussion of it with my schoolfriends on subsequent days, just because in our discussions I couldn't have expressed its effect on me. I see myself a couple of years later, as a medical student, stumbling out of a late double bill of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, and then spending the rest of the night walking in the rain, bewildered and agitated by all these questions of life and death. And then I see myself another couple of years on, a film student now, rejecting Persona and all Bergman's work, arguing instead for a cinema without psychology, where everything should be visible "on the surface of things". I think with some embarrassment of my rather glib speeches against the "depth" and "portentousness" of Bergman's films, as opposed to the "physical quality" of the American cinema. And, after another interval I see myself, by now a film-maker myself and in America, emerging from a cinema in San Francisco having cried buckets at a screening of Cries and Whispers, a film that made the "European cinema of Angst and introversion" that I'd despised ten years ago look like a long-lost home to me, somewhere I would be far happier in than here, in the "promised land" of the cinema where I was now, and where the "surface" that I'd once so admired had in the meantime become so smooth and hard that there was really nothing "behind" it any more. And if as a student I'd inveighed against that "deep" cinema, I now discovered in myself a longing for "depth", and felt more than reconciled to Ingmar Bergman. (243-44)

Years ago, after hours browsing in a used bookstore, I came to the front counter with my selections. “This is serious reading,” the crusty old proprietor said. “I’d even say difficult reading. Are you a writer?” My answer was noncommittal, but the thought had been put into my head: I wanted to be challenged, not entertained.

And at the moment I’m not being challenged.

Works Cited

Robinson, Marilynne. “Introduction,” The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought.

New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Wenders, Wim. “For (Not About) Ingmar Bergman,” On Film: Essays and

Conversations. London: Faber, 2001.

Alejandro Adams divides his time between theory and practice, aspiring to be a contarian in all critical and artistic endeavors. His theory, which is decidedly atavistic, can be seen at BRAINTRUSTdv ( In his latest narrative project, Adams appropriates and critiques the naturalistic techniques discussed in his Post Identity essay.