“Is it real?” – That is the question posed by two American hunters as they find themselves caught in the midst of the foggy highlands in a Scottish village stuck in time. The village is called Brigadoon (1954). It’s not to be found on any map, and has the highly stylized forms of MGM productions from the 1950s and the chromatic splendor of Vincente Minelli’s glorious musicals. In other words, Brigadoon is cinema (just as The Wizard of Oz was also our film-musical, an even more famous one at that).
The two hunters are played by Gene Kelly and Van Johnson, but,in some sense, they also represent us moviegoers. They make up the ying and yang of our dual condition as spectators. One (Kelly) believes in the unbelievable, despite his misgivings he needs and wants to believe at all costs; the other (Johnson) is a cynic and refuses to believe in anything that doesn’t seem logical to him. When Gene Kelly asks “What is real for you?” Van Johnson responds, “Things I can touch, taste, see, hear, smell and swallow,” as he takes another swig at the flask of whiskey…
At the antipodes of realism, Brigadoon transfers this sense of the real from the screen to the spectator’s mind. Minelli does not seem to claim that the village – and its absurd “miracle” – looks real on screen. He even appears to claim the opposite: that it emerges as artificial and unrealistic as possible. Only in this way can the spectator voluntarily establish a “pact of reality” with this artificial, movie-studio world. It is then up to the viewer’s discretion whether they choose to be Kelly or Johnson, whether they choose to make this world real or not.
Most of contemporary cinema has neither the courage nor generosity to trust the viewer and ask: is it real? This is why it goes to such lengths to simulate a live effect – the camera seems merely to be observing, as though merely reporting the story, pretending to ignore what the characters in front of it will do – so it shrouds everything in a naturalism that passes itself off as real. This is why it is so authoritarian towards its viewers, so that they will be too intimidated to wonder about what they are seeing. The film Brigadoon is an example of a film that does not obscure its artifice. But by appearing as what it is – the apogee of studio cinema – one can feel it all coexisting amiably with unrealism, the weight of the bodies and the physical exertion of the actors as they dance, the camera swinging with the movements of the crane that casts shadows over the set and shakes the artificial bushes, the materiality of a world composed of lights and cardboard. Things you can (almost) touch, taste, hear, smell and swallow… and that’s for real!
Miguel Gomes responded to SIFF 2019’s main theme “Is it real?” with an original text, first published in the festival catalogue.