A recent conversation with a work colleague reminded me of a blog post that I'd half started writing in the first half of last year. Around that time I was working my way through Patrick Rumble and Bart Testa's book Pier Paolo Pasolini: Contemporary Perspectives. There's an excellent essay in it by David Ward called A Genial Analytic Mind: 'Film' and 'Cinema' in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Film Theory, in which Ward discusses Pasolini's ideas of 'the tape-recorder' and 'the mirror'. Essentially, in Pasolini's usage, 'tape-recorder' refers to 'a realism that limits itself to recording the events of reality', while 'mirror' refers to 'a qualitatively different engagement with reality that aims at intensifying our perception of its essence' (the quotes are from Ward, pp131-132).
The reason why I was so taken with Pasolini's ideas is that they are consistent with my own approach to filmmaking. More specifically, Pasolini's terms could be used almost interchangeably with what I have often referred to as 'reality' and 'truth', though I suspect I've never elucidated my ideas quite as eloquently as Pasolini. This might have something to do with my over-reliance on quasi-religious terminology, such as the word 'soul', which, though I use it in a secular and somewhat symbolic way, can never quite be shaken free from its Christian connotations. But perhaps, with reference to Pasolini, I can help explain what I really mean when I use these terms.
Much of cinema today is concerned with 'realism' – whatever that may be. At best a slippery term, let's assume, for our purposes here, that by 'realism' we mean the recreation (or the recording) of the concrete world around us; or, to borrow from Ward, the production of a 'literal translation', a 'double of reality'. So far, so good.
But so what?
What can an out and out recreation of life tell us about...well, life?
For Pasolini, such an aesthetic provides only a hollow 'replica of things, one in which essence, here identified as mystery, gets lost or misrepresented' (p132).
The implication, then, is that while the use of the 'tape-recorder', or 'reality', may please the anorak brigade, it's never going to equate to anything of substance or help us explore an existential conundrum. Furthermore, it's never going to amount to a completely satisfactory artistic whole for, as Carl Th. Dreyer has said, 'realism in itself is not art' (see p184, Dreyer in Double Reflection).
Dreyer, it's worth noting, has also spoken of the 'reality'/'truth' dichotomy in expressing his idea of 'psychological realism'. As Acquarello puts it, Dreyer saw cinema 'not as a medium for capturing absolute reality, but as a means of articulating perceived reality' and in his work does 'not seek to document reality, but to capture the ephemeral essence of its underlying truth'.
It is precisely this 'ephemeral essence' that I mean when I say 'truth', and that Pasolini believes is lost through the 'tape-recorder' aesthetic, as outlined above. It is also precisely this term that I have always struggled to explain in a fully understandable, tangible way. Perhaps this is because it is, by definition, something intangible (even Dreyer reverts to religious terminology to describe it: 'It is not the things in reality that the director should be interested in but, rather, the spirit in and behind the things' p184, Dreyer in Double Reflection).
But whatever this 'essence' ultimately is, or however we label it ('truth', 'mirror', 'psychological realism'), it is surely this which gives substance to our work, and allows it to go beyond mere representation. Pasolini, for example, believed his 'mirror' was able to reflect life back to us in a way which revealed 'expressive qualities that we otherwise might have missed' (p132, Contemporary Perspectives).
The divergent ways in which Dreyer and Pasolini achieved their goals (Dreyer through an aesthetic of 'simplification and abbreviation', Pasolini through one of enhancement and 'intensification of perception') prove that there is no one route to reach the 'truth', but I believe their arguments against 'reality' are enough to send us all in search of it.