Half Nelson

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Realism, as the name implies, is a concept that deals with reality, or the actuality of something. In film, the realism as a style does not imply that what is going on in the film is true to real life, but more that the techniques used while filming made it seem real. Documentary films are the closest to a truly realistic depiction of life, with actual people and events, however these are not the only films that deal with realism. In Ryan Fleck’s film, Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, USA, 2006), a realist style is used as a means of portraying the struggles of drug abuse, the demise of idealism as a lifestyle, and the perception of hopelessness for life in general. All three of which are themes evident throughout the movie and can be represented through realist styles. Long takes, mainly long and medium shots, use of contemporary, true to life subjects, vernacular dialogue and other techniques help to portray the indication of realism as a style throughout the film.

Half Nelson is about an eighth grade history teacher named Dan Dunne, played by Ryan Gosling, who works at a poor, inner city school wanting to connect with his students on an intellectual level. His weakness is his cocaine addiction and perhaps alcoholism, frequently spending late nights at bars and motel rooms with many different women. Drug abuse is frequent throughout the film, showing many scenes with drug use in their entirety. When one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), walks in on him in the locker room moments after smoking crack, with the vile still in hand, the confrontation is illustrious. With much focus on their facial expressions using close up shots and an unsteady camera, the discomfort shown by Dunne is incredibly obvious as well as the uncertainty revealed by Drey. Realist style is evident here because of the intensity of the scene: As Giannetti and Leach claim, when the scenes are powerful, intense, or vivid they seem real, whether or not they have been fabricated. Furthermore, they claim that with realism, “the camera is regarded as essentially a recording mechanism rather than an expressive medium in its own right” (2005: 364). This establishes the idea that the drug is actually affecting Dunne and that the cameraman is just there to witness it.

The art of realism in this film allows for the audience to view the life of a drug addict from the addict’s point of view. Dunne’s everyday life is portrayed and his constant need for drugs to get through each day is accentuated. The neorealist movement, an Italian movement stressing to view the world from a moral position, states that “a compassionate point of view and a refusal to make facile moral judgments (Giannetti and Leach: 2005:366)” are very important to a film, and that the “ordinary and the everyday are the main business of cinema” (2005:367). Since this is the concept, Half Nelson exemplifies this by means of showing the real: without adding any kind of glamour to the scenes or characters, the audience can feel emotionally for Dunne as opposed to passing judgment based on his lifestyle. “I am sure that the film medium is the most suitable and effective way of presenting the dangers of drug abuse” (Wright: 180). Dunne is a cocaine addict, who is deemed to be unacceptable by society, but the onlooker can understand more of what he is going through because the actuality of the situation arouses emotion from the audience. Although this film is not a documentary on a true drug addict, the realism presented gives the impression that it is, in fact, authentic. As Armes claims, “film is an extension of black and white photography and denies the film any possibility other than that of recording reality” (1971: 20). Dunne is a drug addict and the film is depicting that through realist style; in the film it is a reality.

When dealing with realism and realness in life, the actual events that have taken place determine the extent of that reality. The theory of idealism goes against this...
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