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New York Film Writers Clash Over “Neo-Neo Realism”

New York Film Writers Clash Over "Neo-Neo Realism"

Two of New York’s most respected film critics had a bit of an online altercation over the weekend, with The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody lashing out on The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott and his extensive Sunday New York Times Magazine article, “Neo-Neo Realism.”

Scott’s piece was posted online Friday, essentially asking, “What kind of movies do we need now?” Emphasizing Ramin Bahrani’s “Goodbye Solo,” Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson,” Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy,” So Yong Kim’s “Treeless Mountain,’ and others, Scott discusses a new trend in American independent filmmaking made on location, about working-class characters, and often using non-professional actors.

Scott introduces his argument:

“…as a new set of worries and fears has crystallized in recent months — lost jobs and homes, corroded values and vanished credit — the dominant cultural oracles have come to pretty much the same conclusions. Remember the ’30s, when we danced through the Depression with Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley and giggled amid the gloom with Lubitsch and the Marx Brothers? (Not many of us do, of course, which makes this kind of selective memory easier to promote.) Then as now, what we wanted most was to forget our troubles. In recession, as in war — and also, conveniently, in times of peace or prosperity — the movies we evidently need are the ones that offer us the possibility, however fanciful or temporary, of escape.

Maybe so. But what if, at least some of the time, we feel an urge to escape from escapism? For most of the past decade, magical thinking has been elevated from a diversion to an ideological principle. The benign faith that dreams will come true can be hard to distinguish from the more sinister seduction of believing in lies. To counter the tyranny of fantasy entrenched on Wall Street and in Washington as well as in Hollywood, it seems possible that engagement with the world as it is might reassert itself as an aesthetic strategy. Perhaps it would be worth considering that what we need from movies, in the face of a dismaying and confusing real world, is realism.”

The day before it was even printed in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (though it had been online), The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody argued that Scott “makes a little too much” of the films. “His ambitious article ranges widely over the history of cinema,” Brody wrote. “I think it rests on questionable premises and reaches dubious conclusions.”

Brody goes on to offer eight arguments against Scott’s work, from erroneous classifications (“Scott mistakenly cites Kent Mackenzie’s ‘The Exiles’ and Charles Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep’ as examples of American neorealism) to better examples (“One of the best movies last year, the truly harsh and disturbing ‘Frownland’… offers the kind of audaciously expressive images, coming through but not staying with realism, that is absent from Scott’s favorites”).

“The contrast between, on the one hand, so-called neo-neorealism and neorealism, and, on the other, movies that depict, with diverse styles and forms, political and social reality even on big budgets with the devices of movie studios, drops away with attentive viewing,” Brody begins to conclude. “It’s only at the most obvious and uninteresting level that, say, ‘The Bicycle Thief’ seems more realistic than ‘Voyage to Italy’ or ‘Europa 51,’ or that ‘Wendy and Lucy’ seems more realistic than James Gray’s brooding, majestic ‘Two Lovers’ or, for that matter, David Fincher’s ‘Benjamin Button’ or ‘Zodiac.'”

Commenters were all over it, including fellow critic Glenn Kenny, who wrote: “I look forward to reading Scott’s piece even as I register your objections to it. I suspect that a lot of what’s problematic about such pieces in the Times stems from an obligatory editorial give-and-take, wherein the writer may have a germ of an idea, whereupon an editor seizes on that germ and compels the writer to shoehorn a lot of non-appropriate examples into the construct. That said, I believe you may be a bit to parochial in rejecting MacKenzie and Burnett’s films as “neo-realist;” I think the term has enough flexibility that the works in question can profitably put under that umbrella. “

This morning on NYT blog The Carpetbagger, Scott himself responded to Brody: “His numbered list of eight objections, running to more than 1,000 words, was meant to demonstrate that my essay “rests on questionable premises and reaches dubious conclusions. This is Mr. Brody’s way of saying that he and I like different movies, and that he wishes I had not paid so much attention to “Wendy and Lucy,” “Ballast” and the films of Ramin Bahrani, director of “Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop” and “Goodbye Solo.” (For some reason, he also twice makes mention of “Frozen River,” which is not discussed in my article)…. My sense is that I’ve inflamed a bee that has been buzzing around in Mr. Brody’s bonnet for quite some time. Whatever neorealism is, he’s against it. In a postscript to an earlier blog post, before my article appeared, he anticipated some of my thoughts (and his own objections to them).”

Brody has yet to counter-argue.

This Article is related to: Features


amy h.

Is it just me, or does this seem like an itty bitty tempest in just about the smallest most obscure teapot on the planet? I mean, we (Milestone Films, the company I own with my husband and partner Dennis Doros) released THE EXILES, KILLER OF SHEEP and Kore-eda’s first feature, and even I don’t really care how critics define “neorealism.” It seems to me that Scott likes small “doc-like” films and Brody doesn’t much… Read More… but all the semantics and vitriol just seem overdone.

BTW, although Charles Burnett cites Basil Wright and British documentary movement as a more immediate inspiration, he was influenced by Italian neorealism. In fact, I think that both critics distinguish too strongly between the neorealist and documentary traditions–filmmakers like Mackenzie, Rogosin, Clarke and others were undoubted influenced both by Visconti and Flaherty–Lorentz and Rossellini.


I’d like to second the appreciation to Tony et al for bringing attention to these films. Particularly well-timed with New Directors opening tm’w, as the vast majority of these films premiered (or are about to) in New York at NDNF. I hope that the debate will continue over the next twelve days at MoMA and FLSC…

Rajendra Roy

Wow. As the distributor of both Charles Burnett’s KILLER OF SHEEP and Kent Mackenzie’s THE EXILES, it’s pretty amazing to see such critical passion and energy devoted to our decades-old films! (And throw in Mr. Kore-eda who we introduced to America with the release of MABOROSI.)

Not wishing to take sides, it’s important to realize that what we call neo-realism is a genre that traces back to 19th century literature — and in cinema traces back to over a century ago to such films as Gustavo Serena’s Assunta Spina and Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration. I consider D.W. Griffith’s Isn’t Life Wonderful, King Vidor’s The Crowd and Paul Fejos’ Lonesome as three masterpieces of this form even though they may not fit all the critical guidelines.

Post-war America did see a tremendous rise of neo-realist influenced films thanks to Sidney Meyers, Lionel Rogosin, John Cassavetes and others. Over the years, there have been many who followed this path and quite a few of them are forgotten today. (It’s a shame that Mackenzie never got his due recognition during his lifetime.) I can say that Milestone has already acquired and will be presenting more discoveries of post-war independents that will hopefully inspire more discussion – and directors – in the years to come.

As for the filmmakers’ own views, there are press kits available at our website for both KILLER OF SHEEP and THE EXILES that go into their influences and artistic beliefs. I honestly think, however, that both filmmakers would just shrug and suggest that they made the best movies they knew how to make and were proud that they remained true to their own beliefs.

So thank you, Mr. Scott and Mr. Brody for bringing attention to filmmakers who by disdaining commercial interests to find inner truths, sometimes lack the mass recognition they deserve.

Dennis Doros (and Amy Heller)
Milestone Film & Video

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