Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Max Weber goes to the movies

In A History of Narrative Film, David A. Cook writes that "On-location shooting, the use of nonprofessional actors, and the improvisation of script, which have all become a part (though not always a large part) of conventional filmmaking today, were techniques almost unknown to the narrative sound film before neorealism." This is hyperbole, both the implication that neorealism was all about this, and also that these things were unknown before neorealism. I won't go into the finer details here, but Jean Renoir, John Ford and King Vidor are three directors who knew a lot about improvisations and on-location. Hawks had a lackadaisical approach to scripts, as had Leo McCarey. Casablanca (1942) is famous for having been written while it was being shot, so that the actors didn't know what would happen. A lot of British cinema was in a realist mindset, with plenty of on-location. And quite a lot of westerns are shot on-location. When the wagons are hauled down over the steep cliffs in The Big Trail (1930) it's not done in a studio, and Monument Valley, extensively used by Ford, is in Utah, not Hollywood.

But this blog post isn't about neorealism, or on-location shooting, or even David A. Cook. And it isn't really about Max Weber either, despite the title. But it is about a concept he is famous for. Weber was a German sociologist, one of the founders of the discipline, together with such luminaries as fellow Germans Georg Simmel and Karl Mannheim and the French Émile Durkheim, around the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century.* The concept I'm thinking about today is Gedankenbilder, Ideal types. This concept can be understood as an abstract model of something, say a phenomenon, that we are studying, but a model which doesn't necessarily exist in reality, it is only a reference point. This is most often used when talking about economics or philosophy or, of course, sociology. But we need to acknowledge that we also use it, perhaps unknowingly, when we're talking about cinema. Art in general. Let's go back to neorealism. Everybody "knows" that neorealist films are shot on location, using nonprofessional actors, and without a strong script or a driven narrative. And yet most neorealist films are partly, sometimes even primarily, shot in studios, and they often use real actors, sometimes even stars, and some have very clear structures and a "classical" storyline. So "neorealism" becomes an ideal type, despite there being very few films that actually match this ideal type (note here that ideal doesn't mean ideal as in best, or perfect, but as in ideas, idealistic). Another example that springs to mind is German Expressionism. Last week I wrote about film noir, which is also a kind of film where people often confuse the ideal type with the actual films.

It is the same with many genres as well (maybe neorealism is a genre?). When I was marking exams recently there was one question where the students were supposed to compare Jim Jarmusch's western Dead Man (1995) with earlier westerns. Almost every student who answered compared it to some mythical, pure western (none in particular were mentioned) which had horses, cowboys and indians and where all cowboys were good and all indians were bad, and everything was black and white, and everything was shiny and pretty, whereas Dead Man was the opposite of that. And while it is true that Dead Man is the opposite of that kind of western, it is also true that very few westerners are so pure, in fact hardly any of the classic westerns are like that. No, these students compared Dead Man to an ideal type, and they didn't seem to be aware of the fact that this is what they were doing. It made Dead Man stand out as a completely new and unique kind of western, but it would only come across as such when compared to this ideal type.

This is not necessarily a problem. Using ideal types are often relevant in order to synthesise and simplify, and it can be a helpful approach. It is also, however, fraught with a lot of problems, because what often happens is that when we're not aware that we are in fact talking about an ideal type, we misunderstand, we get things wrong, and we make claims on behalf of genres, movements, filmmakers, even countries, that are not true, or at least exaggerated.

But couldn't we just say that neorealist films are films made in Italy after the second world war, that deal with the hardships facing the Italian people, most of all the workers and the farmers?That would not be as precise, and perhaps not as historically sexy, but it would be more accurate, and it would not be exaggerated. But at the same time, it will not be enough to say that, because there's something else going on here. Neorealist films were seen as doing all of these things that was being claimed for them, and they had an influence on others, filmmakers, movements and countries. So when speaking about it today, this needs to be acknowledged. (What also needs to be acknowledged is that influence is a muddled concept, but I will write more about that in a later post.)

One solution to this might be to keep two thoughts in mind at the same time. We might say that there are the actual films, and then there's the popular perception of them, and that these two things might not necessarily be the same. And the irony is that sometimes it is this ideal type that influence others, more than the actual films.

*I had originally got the centuries mixed up but now they are correct.

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