Conversations with Ben V
On today's agenda: The Early Films of Krystof Kieslowski
Turning to The Scar, I have to brag this time. Half-way though the film I said to Monica, "This is like some sort of socialist, Solidarity's coming 'Nashville.'" She asked me if I had read the CD cover and I told her I had not, which was true. You may recall that the cover speaks of the film as Altmanesque. Damn, maybe I should be submitting a blog to your film site! Seriously though, it might be just as valid to say that Altman is somewhat Kieslowski-like insofar as K. is coming out of a full-on documentarian orientation whereas A. has adopted certain features of pseudo-documentary style. In any case, both films are 1976, Scar for sure, Nashville I think. I wonder if A. and K. were aware of each other at the time.
Comparison aside, the left-over documentary feeling of Scar made it for me simultaneously fascinating and boring. Fascinating for the critique of the system and the functionaries in it. Boring because of a lack of character depth and dramatic tension in the dialogue. It just sort of unfolds in a rather dull way, yet it addresses profound social issues and displays serious political engagement, albeit in an indirect manner. It's not that there is no dramatic conflict. Yikes, there's a ton. It's that, more like a book, so much of the drama is implied in the interior consciousness and conscience of the main character. (The actor playing him gives an excellent performance I feel. By the way, I have been impressed by the acting work in all the K. films you have lent me and I suspect that he is not a leave-the-cattle-in-the-dark director.) But perhaps I am being too Western and even Hollywood in my reception. Perhaps much of the power of the film comes precisely from a kind of Kafka zone (except with some redemption thrown in) in which the style of the presentation is necessarily bloodless in order to deliver a message of alienation in the nth degree. As for the look of the thing, he must have built his story around an actual industrial project happening at the time because he gets some striking reality shots. The quick editing of the trees coming down is very powerful, as is the distant shot of the glowing cemetery.
I didn't make the connection between Altman and Kieslowski until I read the sleeve, but it certainly makes sense. I have no idea if they knew of each other at the time (I'm assuming they certainly did afterwards.) While I appreciated what Kieslowski was up to in The Scar, the film felt a little thin; it is certainly the most transparent of the four films I gave you, as Kieslowski is still operating like a documentarian, hoping that the actors and the landscape (rather than the storyline or dialogue) will convey all the meaning and emotion. This is often a very good thing, if you are in the hands of a master craftsman like Tarkovsky or even a lesser talent like Kim ki-duk, but if you're a fella who is still feeling his way around a film set, it's a bit of a risk. He certainly gets it better (and better) in the subsequent films. And yes, he is a great director of actors. I cannot think of a mediocre performance by any of his leads. If the three actresses who starred in the Three Colours are to be believed, he was very demanding, but also quite open to actor's suggestions. He seems to choose smart actors (and beautiful, sharp women) for key roles because he knows they'll bring something to the set. Oh, and I'm pretty sure that the factory he uses was an actual complex whose construction was halted because of financial difficulties (they had a few of those in 70s/80s Poland).
With Camera Buff you may recognize the lead actor, who also makes an appearance in other Kieslowski films. He's in the final film in The Decalogue, the one about the stamp collectors, plus I believe he was also the brother/hairdresser in White. He's a fine comic actor.
I gather we are in agreement about The Scar, although the more I dwell on it, the more I find it portrays a sort of alienation which I associate especially with Eastern Europe and Russia; i.e., in relation to a state that never passed through a bourgeois-liberal stage of development. But I will not dwell on it any more because I'm too pumped about Camera Buff.
This film should be required viewing at any reputable school of cinema. Just as Shakespeare, through metaphor, raises profound epistemological and ethical questions about the line between the stage and reality, this film - not as profoundly but very meaningfully - addresses the subjective/objective problem in film. The fact that the story is essentially autobiographical is, of course, hardly a trivial aspect of what it's all about. And it seems to me that biography is probably the perfect transition from documentaries to fictions. It stands between the false notion of objectively discovering others and the equally false notion of subjectively inventing the self. All this through-a-glass-darkly stuff aside, however, the moral fibre of the film is front and centre. Unlike the postmodern wack-off all around us today that would have us believe inside is out and outside is in, so just go shopping baby! - K. is an old-school humanist (new-school socialist?); still committed to honesty between friends, hard ethical choices in the real world, and an idea of truth that's more than my opinion about fashion. Clearly, this is the film in which he graduated from the guilt of "exploiting" real people to the freedom of telling their stories for them by making them imaginary. Like Picasso said, "art is the lie that tells us the truth about ourselves." And yet, I haven't even touched on the great achievement of the film. It's funny! All this, and it's fucking funny man! You know, until it isn't. Like Chaplin. Like you said, the lead actor is top notch. Had me laughing out loud, broke my heart too. What kills me about the movie is how early on in his non-documentary-making career he made it. I suppose this partly impresses me because I am ignorant of how long his documentary career was, (plus I am ignorant of his documentary style too, although I did watch Talking Heads.) Even so, Camera Buff strikes me as the sort of self-awareness and self-honestly available only to the wise senior citizen. Not a middle-aged guy. But that's the point I was attempting to express earlier, he needed to make this biographical film at that time in order to facilitate his own transition from documentaries to fictions. It's quite remarkable what a fine film he managed to create from this essentially personal evolutionary exercise.
Blind Chance disappointed me, quite a bit actually. Clearly, the idea is worthwhile. I noticed in the closing credits, a tip of the hat to Kurosawa. I pointed this out to Monica and she said that BC is certainly an homage to Rashomon, which she remembers seeing but I have never seen. Then she went on to make a few jokes about a relatively recent Gwyneth Paltrow movie, Sliding Doors. No doubt, there are a good number of these sorts of It's A Wonderful Life films, you know, that mess with time in order to explore alternative existential trajectories. I read on the box, that BC was suppressed for seven years in Poland and I certainly grasp how it would have infuriated the authoritarians at the time. But for me watching it today, the metaphysic is too accidental, shit happens, you know, blind chance. Again, I recognize that this was opening up a liberating space in the society then; against a dogmatic, mechanically deterministic interpretation of history, the official state ideology. But in the context of our present society, with it's doctrine of individualism and the free (consumer!) choice of the self-made man, the film comes down as a middle-class, liberal take on ''forces beyond our control''. I do not mean to reduce the complexity of the film to this, for there is a lot of detailed interweaving of forces beyond our control and forces in our control, or at least potentially in our control and for which we are ethically responsible. K is too moral to relinquish the latter. But who are "we" anyway? The socio-political problematic is stipped away in BC and we are left with the apolitical individual comfortable in his private sense of right and wrong. The upwardly mobile professional man, rewarded for his domestic goodness by a great sex life, refuses to take action either for or against either side in the political struggle. Indeed, he is an innocent bystander, a victim of the violence, almost a martyr to "staying out of it." This doesn't work for me. One of my father's friends used to joke, "You say you're neutral. Fine. Who are you neutral against?"
Turning from the content to the form of the film, this too was not entirely successful in my view. Initially the pace of the presentation is almost painfully slow. Later on, the contrary occurs, things move very fast. I am fine with the accelerated tempo because the narrative remains coherent but at the same time, some of the editing gets skittish. The cutting gets jumpy, the ride gets bumpy and I don't feel this was intended. I get the feeling that the film was twice as long - after all, he is telling three stories - and it was a tough process to get it down to a manageable length. I can't help speculating that having completely departed from making documentaries, K. is almost overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities of imagined fiction. Hence, BC is about this open-ended potential, both in actually lived human lives and for the artist reflecting on them. Hence, instead of making a choice, selecting one story to tell, committing to it, K. felt compelled to go for some cinematic cubism, so to speak. Eventually, as the coincidences and alternatives pile up and criss-cross, the film achieves quite a lot of momentum. But he doesn't quite pull it off. For me it started to become contrived in a weak way. The proof of this is that I started to predict what was going to happen. Considering that the film is supposed to be portraying blind chance, predictability is a sign of failure on some level. I mean, to give Tarantino his due, in Pulp Fiction, when they end up in the S&M basement of the gun shop - fuck a duck Batman, I sure didn't see that coming! But when the plane blew up at the end of BC - brilliantly filmed though - I did. And a number of other outcomes as well.
Interesting...Blind Chance is easily my least favourite of K's films, mostly because of the forced-ness of the concept. Regardless of its politics, which I didn't really bother parsing much past the notion that life is a balancing act where individual freedom is found somewhere between those things we can control and those we cannot, I just didn't find the film cinematically appealing, as K tries way to hard to make the 3 stories fit into a narrative straightjacket, from which there is so little room to move. I just found it damned frustrating--it was like a hermetically sealed bag; there was no air to breath, no life in it.
Rashomon is only superficially similar. The ideas Kurosawa explores are much more elemental and far more interesting (what the hell is truth, and can any of us ever hope to find it, for example). I will lend you some Kurosawa when you are done with Kieslowski (yes, I have Rashomon) so you can check it out for yourself. I predict you will find Ikiru the most moving and accomplished of all Kurosawa's work, though I'm partial to The Seven Samurai. But I'm a sucker for action epics with a political message.
I think you will find No End a much more rewarding experience.
This is not working out. How are we ever gonna get our version of Siskel and Ebert off the ground if we keep agreeing with each other? About Blind Chance, you refer to the forced-ness of the concept and I believe I said that I found it contrived. I ventured to suggest that there is a unity of form and content, so the film fails cinematically not regardless of its politics, but rather because of them. To quote my dad, "The middle class is the class that's in the middle and doesn't know what it's in the middle of." A bit more generously, Kieslowski's muddled political thinking is not legitimated by his artistic treatment of it. On the contrary, the result is art equally muddled.
Is there no end to me spouting off at the mouth? I wouldn't blame you for cutting off my supply of films after my last lecture. And I quoted your own words to you, that's low. Forgive me. I hope you know that I am not attacking you, or even Cronenberg for that matter. I have a disease. I talk political theory. I have no defense except to offer that these four Kieslowski films in a row would make anyone talk political theory.
Wow, talk about disillusionment! You will be relieved to hear that I don't have too much to say in response. No End knocked all the air out of my lungs... (almost). I didn't like it at all but not because it didn't work. It worked too well. Turns out I'm just a loud-mouth with no balls for the ugly truth. The complete despair of the film is just too much for me. But I would be a hypocrite (re: my previous lecture) if I didn't grasp that he is capturing the negative spirit - hell, the total lack of spirit - in Poland at the time. And the way he represents this microcosmically at the level of personal loss and grief, yet giving this personal story just enough of the larger social context to make it charged with political meaning - it's pretty heavy. The god that failed, the dream is over, abandon hope all ye who enter here... no end. Powerful film.
The only point I have to make is that I don't think it is any more openly political than the other three. It seems to me that it has the reputation for being so because whenever an ex-communist addresses how he became ex, the ideologues of capitalism jump all over it with big klieg lights. With no subtlety at all, K. makes it known to his audience that No End is his Orwellian statement. Hell, he even puts the guy in the film. (Didn't catch the book title but, hey, it's either 1984 or Animal Farm.) But before he became completely disillusioned, K. was just as politically engaged. In The Scar and Camera Buff, he is still working within the system, trying to carve out some emancipatory space to be sure, but still resigned to the maintenance of the society; working for reform, not abolition. So Camera Buff was well received in the Soviet Union but considered too parochial in Paris, not yet internationally valid film-making. Untrue. As for Blind Chance, as I have said, I think this film is something of a cop-out on K's part politically (and a mess artistically). Even so, it's not as if he tries to be apolitical in the film.
Good news, Monica has to use the computer. I am done.
Thank you Dan Jardine for taking me to the Kieslowski Festival.
Yer welcome. The aspect of No End that really sticks with me is the overt spirituality. Usually Kieslowski is more subtle about it, but here you have the dead husband hovering over the piece like Marley's ghost. It had the potential to be a terribly hokey device, but Kieslowski is careful not to overplay that card, deploying it sparingly and as a result very effectively. As for the disillusioned communist angle, well, it surely ain't a sign of a latent embrace of capitalism, is it? I mean, it seems clear that Kieslowski is a commited humanist, and while he finds the Soviet system a dead end, he isn't necessarily turning his back on left wing politics. The noble characters in his film remain devoted to humane causes and no amount of Soviet bashing will change that.