Real life is boring and unsurprising. Don’t get me wrong—it’s magic and wonderful, too, if you keep your eyes open—but for the most part booooring, and mostly because of the laws of causality and the general predictability of human behavior.
That is a big part of why we like stories. In stories, no one behaves predictably and causality gets flipped. If a man walks across a room and flips a switch and the light comes on, we yawn. But if he does the same thing and the house next door blows up… Wowzah! Something different! A surprise! We humans love that sort of thing.
Hollywood does too, and so in keeping with thousands of years of narrative tradition, our movies become clockwork surprise-machines, twisting and twisting the world we know and expect so that the protagonists (our on-screen avatars) have no choice but to make a choice, and another, which gradually brings them through to a newer, better way of being.
This annoys some people. They look at the plasticity and uniformity of a lot of Hollywood’s offal-ings and they criticize it as the laziness it is. Then they try new, off-the-wall techniques, in an effort to bust things up a bit. When they are through, the critics—who are often also disgusted with creative laziness—come along and snap their fingers in approval, telling everyone else that these new techniques are where it’s at.
Perhaps the most popular of these experimental techniques, currently, is something called “cinema vérité,” which is French for “truthful cinema” (because the best way to legitimate anything in the artsy-fartsy world is to slap it with a French-sounding moniker).
Cinema vérité is not a monolithic endeavor. Filmmaking is a creative field, after all, and creativity cannot abide uniformity. However, roughly speaking it is safe to say that it is a style of filmmaking using techniques like shaky camera work, poor and/or inconsistent lighting, unscripted-sounding dialogue, and confrontational subject matter in order to give the impression that the camera crew just happened to be passing by when the scene occurred (it wasn’t).
What cinema vérité does not have is much that could be confused with a plot, or anything surprising. Which means, I am afraid, that the vast majority of films shot in this style are capital “B” Booooring. The critics don’t mind, of course, and walk around snapping their fingers and congratulating themselves on being more in-the-know than the stupid hoi-polloi, who for some reason do not want to spend their time watching someone else do the sort of things they would themselves be doing, if they hadn’t just coughed up eight bucks to sit in a darkened room with a bunch of strangers.
Needless to say, I’m not a huge fan of the genre. I think it’s self-indulgent and pretentious… for the most part. As with all tributary art forms, however, a lot of the techniques filter down into the Main Stream of film, and the more creative mainstream writers and directors adapt and adopt them to lend an element of authenticity to their more story-like stories. It is a case, however, of knowing when too much of a given spice can spoil a dish.
But while I almost always get annoyed by the use of the style as a guiding principle for an entire film, there are exceptions—particularly, cases where cinema vérité is self-referentially taken up in order to invite the viewer to examine his or her role as a viewer in the more typical forms of Hollywood story-making. In these cases, cinema vérité acts as a mirror to filmmaking itself. This makes the films worth watching, and at times even transcends the choppy technique as the viewer is engaged in the meta-question of the viewing experience. Specifically, this can happen when we are given a more real-to-life view into a world we typically only experience as outsiders.
One excellent example of this is Sofia Coppola’s 2010 drama Somewhere, in which Stephen Dorff plays a wild-man-film-star named Johnny Marco, who after a prolonged and unexpected visit from his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (played by Elle Fanning, of Super 8 fame), is moved to recognize and ultimately abandon the vapidity and meaninglessness of his typically-glamorized existence. Sure, he parties hard and sleeps with countless gorgeous women, the film tells us, but pleasure without significant relationship is meaningless.
In this case, the techniques of cinema vérité are perhaps perfectly apropos, an effective medium for questioning the slick, glamorized veneer of Hollywood celebrity—a process that with typical, mainstream filmmaking methods would be ironic to the point of disingenuousness. We watch this film and are led to think, “hey, how unsurprising and human this guy is… a bit like me, I guess.”
Nonetheless, it is still boring and there are very few surprises to break that boredom, because Johnny Marco’s life plays out just how we’d expect, having ourselves lived with reality for quite some time. Furthermore, because of the self-reflexivity of the form, the symbolic moments tend to be a bit obviously just that. An excellent example of this would be the scene where Marco has to go in and get fitted with a mask that shows him what he may look like as an old, old man. Because Coppola has not taken us out of reality, the obvious symbolism of this tends to feel a little too “on the nose.” Still, within the rules of the genre, it works.
Somewhere is chock-full of pointless sexuality and decidedly un-heightened reality—the sort of boring, surprise-free filmmaking that would usually have me recommending you take a pass. In this case, however, form is perfectly wedded to function. So if you think you might be in need of some de-mythologizing of the Hollywood dream, you’re not likely to do better than looking for Somewhere to help you do it.