Genuine Class
Andrew Tracy on All the Real Girls and All the Right Moves

What are we talking about when we talk about “authenticity” in American cinema—or, to whittle down the hundreds of iterations of that slippery term to mere dozens, authenticity in regards to social reality? Unsurprising perhaps, but ironic nevertheless that a term bound up in factuality is so often adjudged by feeling or intuition rather than facts. But facts themselves are only one facet of authenticity in film, not its determinant: the director James Gray once told me that a particularly outlandish expression in We Own the Night came verbatim from a conversation with a New York City cop, but this doesn’t stop it from falling like a brick from Robert Duvall’s drooping lips.

Such eccentric instances aside, authenticity takes on a larger, more ideologically charged significance when we apply it to the knowingly false bifurcation in American filmmaking between “Hollywood” and “independent” cinema (“avant-garde” being a distant offshore principality, as “independent,” in our helplessly inescapable shorthand, has come to denote a narrative rather than economic mode of production). At the risk of being absurdly reductive, authenticity takes on two more or less distinct meanings in regard to this division. For “Hollywood,” long accustomed to having viewers condemn its surface fakery while still swallowing whole its ideological premises, authenticity is something of a value-added attraction: location shooting adding “flavor,” grafting some carefully selected slices of reality onto its pre-formulated narrative. In this calculus, authenticity is a commendable but essentially extrinsic quality, on a par (or less than par) with other factors: star performances, narrative interest, etc.

For “independent” cinema, by contrast, authenticity is not only intrinsic but its veritable raison d’être. In that unspoken but omnipresent definition, independent cinema is nominally supposed to venture where Hollywood fears to tread, not only into more complex emotional realities but social realities as well—and indeed, the latter is often regarded as coterminous with the former. Where Hollywood can airlift its stars and technicians (and formulaic scripts) anywhere in the known world, shaping reality to fit its formulas, the multifarious unknown worlds back at home (rural, urban, and points in-between) are supposed to issue forth with unvarnished documents—journalistic, neorealistic, (sub)cultural, textural, tonal—of their own unique existence. They are emanations, expressions of place rather than usages of place; they stress continuity, endurance, even stasis against the built-in developments, resolutions, and lessons learned of Hollywood; they are records of being rather than becoming.

Any number of exceptions to either rule could be cited, of course, but as with all such fictitious rules the erratic observance is less important than the fact that, as with all those most successful ideologies, they are more or less assumed to exist. And even for those viewers who believe themselves blessedly demystified of such fictions, an almost unnoticed, inherent faith in certain of these rules’ defining principles remains—“authenticity” not being the least among them, and still tossed around in common parlance as a value in itself rather than a tactic. To paraphrase Chris Marker, authenticity is not the opposite of fabrication, but its lining; and in matters cinematic as in so many other realms, lies can be just as revealing as truths. If it is to be valued, authenticity should be gauged less by what it tells us—or what we believe it tells us—than by what questions the signifiers of authenticity prompt us to ask.

In the boundaries of this nifty exercise set up by our gentlemanly editors, it would be all too easy—and supremely gratifying—to provocatively switch up the idea that indie films have become basically middling studio fare and champion the mass audience antecedent at the expense of its niche-market, art-house-inflected follower. The temptation is only heightened when they are represented by one-time Scorsese cinematographer Michael Chapman’s 1983 directorial debut All the Right Moves—a dogged, unpretentious football flick with a shockingly young Tom Cruise striving for a sports scholarship to get him out of his dead-end steelworking burg—and All the Real Girls, David Gordon Green’s much-acclaimed 2003 sophomore effort that sees him once again crossing Terrence Malick with Charles Burnett and producing teeth-grinding irritation (subjectivity slip—apologies). Sadly, that predictable inversal won’t quite work, at least on the simple level of the former being “better” than the latter. Rather, what this juxtaposition reveals is the curious correspondence between these two utterly dissimilar films beyond their small-town settings, a paralleling of stylistic and ideological tactics that neither elevates Chapman’s film nor lowers Green’s by the comparison. Whatever value we ultimately wish to assign to either film needs to be predicated on the questions they raise, and how those questions—rather than the possible answers—hesitantly lead out to those realities that each film displays and occludes in equal measure.

As with his other Southern idylls, 2000’s George Washington and 2004’s Undertow, in All the Real Girls Green angles to work both sides of the authenticity/fabrication divide, his portrait of small-town life and romance at once supposedly more “honest” than its Hollywood counterparts while its golden-hued cribbing from the Malick playbook insulates it from the dictates of literal-pedantic reality. Verism and abstraction are yoked at every level: in the verbal duets between town roué Paul (Paul Schneider, a doughy-faced cross between Dennis Quaid and Edward Norton) and his idealized lady love Noel (Zooey Deschanel), their hesitations, repetitions, corny jokes, and nervous laughter both a (supposedly) accurate rendering of real-life small talk and a ploy to manufacture found poetry from everyday banality (“Sometimes I pretend that I’ve only got ten seconds to live”); in the intrusions of absurdism and incongruity that make poetic or ironic counterpoints to the drama, such as having Paul’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) work as a clown at a children’s hospital (which yields an inevitable, P.T. Anderson–like confrontation where Clarkson weeps, swears and strikes out at her son with a bright red ball on her nose and her face still covered in greasepaint); in the transmutations of drudging labor (a brief sequence of Noel working at a cotton mill) into graceful visuals (the cotton fibers that float lazily in the air).

When coupled with the splintered, episodic (though largely chronological) narrative structure, the relative dearth of plot and the emphasis on languor over action, the film’s carefully modulated surface veritably shrieks “lyric naturalism.” Not only a knowledgeable document of “real” life in a “real” place in all its small-scale non-glory, All the Real Girls ostentatiously pitches for high-art status, but one that derives precisely from its real-world ambience. The film’s narrative distance from the social realities of working-class labor, small-town economic decay and encroaching poverty—the townsfolk’s primary occupation seems to be wistful rumination and picturesque lounging against the backdrop of idle factories—is insulated from criticism by the intimation that it has absorbed those realities and poetically distilled its essence.

Whether one views this as bona fide film poetry or imitative calculation, authenticity is nevertheless both Green’s point of reference and point of departure—which could be said equally of All the Right Moves, with the crucial difference of destination. Where Girls angles for art, Moves squarely targets a cross-class youth demographic; the mournful Will Oldham song that plays over the credits of the former stands in neat opposition to the titular, upbeat rock anthem that opens the latter. (The songs on the soundtrack album are also the first names to emerge on Moves’ end-credits roll.) Where Girls is reticent with detail, Moves shoves its real-world signifiers, both narrative and socio-economic, right up front. The opening sequence shows Cruise’s Stefen Djordjevic (ethnicity alert provided by citations on his wall) awakening in his bedroom bedecked with engineering schematics and football trophies (the goal and the means of getting there), looking out over the grey town in the dawn, doing push-ups, and heading off to school in his varsity jacket while his father and older brother return from an overnight shift at the steel mill.

The agon between entrapment and escape, being stuck in this dying town or making the leap to “success” so neatly sketched in the opening minutes not only frames the experience and characterization of everybody connected to Cruise—his dictatorial coach (Craig T. Nelson), mercilessly drilling his team in the belief that a victory will secure him a coveted coaching job at a big-city university; his best friend (Chris Penn), who lands a scholarship immediately before learning that his girlfriend is pregnant; his girlfriend (Lea Thompson), who yearns to study music but knows that scholarships only go to “meathead jocks”—but also seeps into and conditions every aspect of their lives. Sex, love, and even crime all derive from prevailing socioeconomic fact, which is shown to be a matter of human as much as systemic determination. When Nelson cuts Cruise from the team for “insubordination”—after the young firebrand stands up for a teammate who cost them the big game and is then subjected to a ferocious locker-room tirade by Nelson—and the scholarship offers suddenly dry up, the film quite poignantly shows how much people’s whims, prejudices and resentments feed into the capitalist machine that ultimately exploits all of them.

As is to be expected, however, the film’s grounding in social reality—and even, at its keenest, social analysis—is superseded by the ideological running mate of its goal-oriented narrative: namely, that the film ultimately be a story of individual travail and triumph, and that the previously carefully etched physical reality of that individual’s surroundings disappear in favor of his metaphysical validation. It’s perhaps a tribute to the filmmakers’ integrity that the de rigueur happy ending plays as so forced, considering some of the interesting shadings that precede it (no matter that they too often have to be spelled out). The grasping ambition and self-doubt of Nelson’s bellowing coach, undercutting his status as straight-out villain; the pathos rather than pitiability of Thompson’s no-win situation, and the touching (and quite erotic) moment when she finally gives herself to Cruise even as he strives to leave town for good; the multiethnic makeup of the football team itself (“dagos, Polacks and niggers,” as Nelson calls them as he fires them up for the big game) and the untroubled harmony between them—all these trailings out into wider, richer textures are effectively subsumed by the cheer-and-jump-into-embrace finale.

Yet even if they are subsumed, those realities are not completely lost—and the film’s insistence on foregrounding them perhaps tells something of how the two decades separating it from Green’s wannabe lyric ode had changed the topography of both American commercial and independent film. Though they were ultimately only more fodder for its fantasies, working-class and socially/economically marginalized characters were still familiar presences in the Hollywood cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s, whether in drama (Blue Collar), the cop/caper film (Cops and Robbers), the trucker flick (Convoy, Deadhead Miles), the exploitation film (The Unholy Rollers), the feel-good fable (the first two Rockys, which Zach Campbell nicely addresses at Elusive Lucidity), or the youth movie (Saturday Night Fever or, indeed, All the Right Moves). In this situation, the leading lights of independent cinema were not compensating for a lack of representation of these different worlds, but for the terms of that representation. Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles, Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding, and Eagle Pennell’s The Whole Shootin’ Match not only widened the ethnic boundaries of onscreen working-class/marginal subcultures, but crafted a filmic language that could be simultaneously more direct, more artful, and differently authentic than their Hollywood counterparts.

By the first decade of the new century, the landscape had changed in two crucial ways. The ever-decreasing number of studio releases not only allowed ever less room to display a fuller spectrum of American life onscreen but also had cemented upper- to upper-middle class life as the social norm, finally supplanting the traditional middle. (See the unquestioned acceptance of luxe living in the “realistic” fabric of the films from the Apatow stable.) Secondly, the institutionalization/commodification of independent cinema via Sundance both channeled so-called “independents” straight into studio development mills while making the traditional province of independent cinema—those many different Americas within Hollywood’s America—into a boutique item, a matter of filmic rather than social precedence: where the self-conscious stylization of Killer of Sheep grows out of a feeling toward its subject, the self-conscious stylization of All the Real Girls grows out of a feeling toward Killer of Sheep. More than an artistic choice, Green’s evacuation of social reality is reflective of the changed dynamic between studio and independent cinema, just as All the Right Moves reflects the then-still commonplace integration of social reality into feel-good fantasy. Which mode one prefers is a matter of taste, I suppose—though from this end, anyway, the potential truths embedded in formulaic fictions seem more (that word) authentic than the ostentatious truthfulness of a polished fiction that finds advantage in the absence of reality.