Genuine Class: All the Real Girls and All the Right Moves
by Andrew Tracy
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.
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