Harmony is an art but many films struggle to balance all the different filmic elements into a synchronic, syncretic whole, and one that does not feel maudlin, laboured or exact. But cinema or filmmakers are never expected to be harmonious in their overall paradigmatic design yet in many respects an over abundance of visual and narrative beautification that often plagues mainstream cinema(s) globally seems unappreciative of the lost art of humanist cinema – Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Roberto Rossellini form a post war collective. Humanist cinema has often been dismissed as critical contrivance, a suitably ignoble denigration of an aesthetic, thematic concealment.
If we were to judge the viability of humanist cinema right now through the prism of contemporary film criticism then it would probably be far less argumentative and anodyne to say the work of Ken Loach and The Dardennes have continually kept alive this very notion, although one in direct conflict with the knotty corpus of ontological debates. In his work on Roberto Rossellini Peter Brunette uses a film review by Giuseppe De Santis to posit why the Rossellini scripted Un Pilota Ritorna (1938) betrays a repressed longing for truth:
‘To ask what is the “poetic necessity” behind this shot or that shot is to assume that every shot must contribute to the overall organic project, where every element works not for itself, but is subsumed into the whole’ (Brunette, 1987: 23).
In fact, De Santis points to the organic approach to cinema that would come to define neorealism in the 1940s of which Rossellini would become a chief purveyor.
If the films of the aforementioned directors could be labelled as organic then does this mean everything else is simply inorganic? Organic is a term often associated with food in today’s contemporary culture and while it still retains the associative cultural connotations of righteousness, ethics and virtue, it is a term rarely ever linked to cinema, simply because the once connective, elemental relationship humanism and cinema has been challenged so often, corroding an idea of cinema that appears almost archaic and even doleful now. But what does this prelude of Rossellini, De Santis and organic have to do with Ira Sach’s Little Men? Everything really.
While watching Little Men organic (and orgasmic) kept going through my mind and I kept asking myself – what is it about this remarkable work that keeps drawing me back to this cinematic reckoning? Foremost, it is to do with congruence. The congruity of editing (Mollie Goldstein, Affonso Gonclaves) sound design, performance, cinematography and mise-en-scene are balanced so wholly that the narrative and aesthetic computation takes on a distinctly organic rhythm that in turn works to give life to life. If all the filmic elements are subsumed into the whole as De Santis said then this wholeness, a seemingly impossible enterprise, in Little Men also gives way to the poetic.
Poetic explication extends from the fervent audio-visual interludes (a certain nod to Ozu) that see the two teenage boys bonding over skating, an urban ritual functioning as interstitial breaths, suffusing the narrative with an evanescent allure, fleetingly removing us from reality and entering a state of vacillation. The ambience of Dickon Hinchliffe’s music, a former member of Tindersticks, layered over these transient interludes communicates a friendship that is a provisional marker of adolescence. However, the coming of age story is played out in the realms of the family melodrama, which not only gives the film a classical texture, but also seems logical considering the humanist inclinations.
The connective glue of this melodrama derives from and extenuates traditional masculinity in the guise of the father, a struggling actor – Brian (Greg Kinnear), as one of repressed anxieties. A flawed reconstitution of manhood and a foolish imagining of redemption come from capitalist excess, gentrification, a theme with a prescient socio-political resonance that Sachs uses with which to frame the antagonism between Leonor (Paulina Garcia) and Brian as a class struggle, one determined by the chaotic reign of market economics that have displaced lower income families from their neighbourhoods, made altogether upsetting in the contemporary age of urban austerity.
But let us return to the idea of Little Men as an organic unit in which many of the scenes flow into each other with a remarkable dexterity. Some of this organic aesthetic and thematic unity is attributed to the unassuming placement of the camera, micro sound design (Damian Volpe) and off screen space as a celestial realm. Together, these judiciously regulated formal elements create a cinema that is constantly underplayed by Sachs. What becomes visible are the nuances and minutiae of human behaviour. This is what he wants us to see, to understand and respond to emotionally. The cumulative effect is indelible. So too are the breakout performances from the main leads; Michael Barbieri as Tony and Theo Taplitz as Jake. In the end, the film emerges as a work completely about transience; the social, the psychological, the political.