Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Breakdown and Return to Nature - Bela Tarr's "Damnation" (1988)

Bela Tarr, Damnation (1988)

A film about loneliness and helplessness, Bela Tarr’s Damnation (1988) is carefully crafted to allow an audience to feel an emptiness; to notice a simple beauty, but a beauty that is combined with physical breakdown. The plot is not central. The length of takes, slow panning of the camera, music used, and careful crafting of sound in general seem to contribute most strongly to the dreamlike feel of the film as a whole, during which we embark on a metaphysical journey – a journey into “the hopelessness of things.”

The main protagonists of the loose plot are a lonely man and a married female singer who struggle with an affair that is hopeless from the beginning of the film. We get this sense particularly after one scene/take where the two have gone away together under the excuse of delivering a mysterious package, made love, and proceed to talk about their situation. Their conversation is highly stylized, but their movements and emotions seem to be completely natural. This is one of the subtle beauties of Tarr’s work – poetic, artificial language that becomes completely natural in contributing to the overall mood of the film. As the two talk philosophically about their condition and lives, we are reminded what the singer has already said about the affair – “my husband comes home tomorrow evening” – as the two talk, amidst the crisp interjection of sound produced by the woman eating a pickle, significant to the feel of the take as it seems to add an aura of frankness and harsh reality during this particular philosophical moment.

In an interview with Phil Ballard of Kinoeye, Tarr talks about his reasons for presenting his films so differently than more conventional, plot based/ action films saying, “The main thing is always how you can touch the people? How can you go closer to real life?” and “We just follow the real psychological process, not the story, not the verbal information.” We see the accuracy of these statements throughout Damnation, and, if attempting to focus too much on the details of the verbal communication or plot line, we become easily bored, focused on what action will happen next rather than what is happening “now” – in the real time long take.

What is perhaps most interesting to me, after reading the interview with Tarr, is that he denies being a philosopher within an artistic medium and that he does not accept the notions that the human condition is absurd or that his films are particularly bleak. He counters questions on these topics saying that he is not trying to draw any conclusions for viewers, but simply present a piece of the human condition for them to see, not to judge anyone or make any assumptions, and, that he feels an optimism in his work because the creative process is an optimistic one. These statements seem both accurate and odd to me at the same time as I think back on my experience viewing Damnation. While I agree that there are no conclusions really drawn, other than that life is full of conflict – of emotion, of circumstance – and that loneliness and existential thought on one’s experience of life is a part of it, I do not see the optimism that Tarr describes, except perhaps through an abstract understanding that others will come to recognize something of what it means to be human through his films.

The final scenes, of the after math of the previous night’s strange, dreamlike celebration and the man breaking down and barking at a stray dog after witnessing his lover having an affair with someone else are about destruction, physical breakdown. Concepts that I associate with a feeling of hopelessness and dark fate, but that Tarr seems to equate with a return to nature, stemming from man’s loneliness. There is no transcendence, just the experience of loneliness and the return to nature that becomes a possibility and a reality when the man is able to leave his society (which is itself broken down and searching for something).

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Cristi Puiu, "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" (2005)

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) is not your typical, glamorized glimpse into the medical world. It is filmed in long takes, each take unfolding in “real time,” with a hand-held camera, yet it is not your typical documentary either, aimed at framing a true story of epic proportion and complete with special narratives, interviews or voiceovers. Puiu’s second feature length film is not a documentary, but a highly stylized and scripted depiction of the death of a 63 year old man. There is nothing unordinary about his illness; he is not a special member of his community; there is no attempt to glamorize any moment. Instead, Puiu works to give us a “slice of life” in his story of Mr. Lazarescu; he presents something deep about the nature of life and death and the stark, fearful, confused moments that every individual faces at one time or another. Giving the film a documentary feel heightens our ability to look at it as a representation of reality, produced not only to comment upon the Romanian health system, but also on how individuals negotiate their lives and deaths, the limitations every person possesses.

As the film opens, we see Mr. Lazarescu in a cluttered apartment littered with cats. He is in some distress, which we learn more about as he calls a hospital to send an ambulance and chats with his sister on the phone about his illness. Mr. Lazarescu is isolated in his everyday existence and we get a feeling of his isolation as he conducts both of these phone calls; we hear only his questions and answers- his repetition of the facts surrounding his illness and justifications for continuing to drink in his current state. His neighbors come over but offer no real attachment to the man as they argue over who will accompany him to the hospital or whether or not it is necessary that anyone attend him. What I found compelling about the interaction of the husband and wife next door was in fact something that had nothing to do with Mr. Lazarescu himself. While the wife, Miki, appears to be doing her best to offer Mr. Lazarescu some healthy assistance – running to fetch medicine, bringing him food to help ease his stomach pains – she is constantly undermined by her husband, who presumably feels as if he has an authority over her as such. What is interesting about this is that it appears to be a natural fact of married life within the particular social environment of the film.

Again and again, power relations and social hierarchy play a prominent role in the action that unfolds. Another example of this hierarchy I speak of comes as the female ambulance attendant, attempting to offer whatever medical summation or description that she can in order to speed up the admitting time of Mr. Lazarescu at each hospital, is constantly ridiculed, though she seems to have more sense and authentic concern for the dying Mr. Lazarescu than any of the doctors. That said, it is in moments such as these that we realize how compelling and realistic the film is; within every social system there are hierarchies and procedures and they often limit the scope of the individual to reach a deeper human understanding of others or feel compassion for those who are misunderstood or ordinary. And yet, even the misunderstood, ordinary, lower-ranked citizens eat, sleep and die like everybody else. This is why The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is powerful: because it reminds all of us about the inevitability of death and the solitude of the human condition which makes it impossible for others to ever really access us. The doctors who have little time to spend or who are quick to judge the moral characters of patients are not evil or even especially careless; they are like all of us – individuals with their own concerns who cannot help but distance themselves from emotional attachments with people who they will eventually be forced to see die.

The film is visceral as well, though we don’t get many shots of graphic content, because we slowly witness Mr. Lazarescu’s decline as if we were sitting in the room with him, knowing that he was about to die. It is a devastating reality of life to confront mortality and Mr. Lazarescu may remind us of any loved one who has suffered a similar fate; in fact, anyone who has suffered a similar fate. Most of all, we know that some day we will suffer a similar fate – death, no matter how it comes to us. We feel sympathy for Mr. Lazarescu because we acknowledge this, while acknowledging the film’s style (probably on a more subconscious level), which forces us to think in terms of reality over the fantasy world often constructed by films. Here there is no particular honor in death or heroism in those who aid it; we simply see what we see.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Lucian Pintilie, "The Oak" (1993)

Pintilie’s The Oak (1993) is a film made to reflect the memory of Communist Romania. Set in the 1980’s, a time when Romania was one of a very few countries to remain Stalinist, it provides a fragmented, yet telling (perhaps somewhat through exaggeration, though I would have no way of knowing to what extent) view of a country in which, as mentioned in Caufman-Blumenfeld’s article, anything could happen from one moment to the next.

Though there is no real sense of a cohesive plot in the narrative telling of the film, there are elements which are consistent throughout. For example, there is anger in the main female protagonist, Nela, which cannot be tamed. It is the anger of the lack of proper medicine under the Stalinist regime; the anger of her father’s death and the questions of his heroism it invites; the anger and resentment for her sister and for the condition of her world, where even civilian children were not spared from violence and death as long as their deaths served some broader political purpose, such as stopping protestors at any cost. Nela’s grief often illustrates some irony of or conflict between the competing notions of communism and capitalism throughout the film. For example, she cremates her father when she discovers that due to lack of refrigeration facilities under her current government (as there was lack of nearly everything necessary to survival and health maintenance), her father’s wish to donate organs to medical research could not be fulfilled. Directly before we see detailed sequences of her father in the fire, the camera focuses on a sign which reads: “Eternal glory to those who died, fighting capitalism.” However, in the first scene during which we see her father’s ashes, they are contained in a glass Nescafe instant coffee jar – a glaring example of capitalism (as pointed out by Caufman-Blumenfeld as well).

It is as if the main crisis for Nela throughout the film lies in discovering who her father, who she had absolutely adored growing up, really was. Along her journey, which finally leads to uncovering the truth of what kind of man her father really was, she viscerally experiences the worst her country has to offer in terms of violence and corruption. Nela is raped and treated as less than human at times; she is also treated well when discovering connections to those in power, but is frustrated by limitations on the exercise of individual power within such a strictly ordered Stalinist system.

Near the end of the film Nela visits her dying mother in search of answers that her sister promises her she needs to hear. Her father was a member of the secret police, who, while working for the underground resistance, began looking for traces of Jewish ancestry on her mother’s side. The most devastating truth of all, however, concerns why her father put his arm on the train tracks to avoid going to the front to fight during WWII. Nela had believed, and told others that if her father didn’t want to go to war it was because he held onto his ideals so strongly and must have had a deep reason for avoiding it; she finds out that in reality, he was simply a coward. These disturbing facts illustrate that Nela has never really known her father, yet she is and continues to be extremely emotionally tied to him. At the film’s close, we see Nela burying her father’s ashes under an oak tree, along with burning pictures of her sister and the gifted children she has been working with as a psychologist, who we assume may have been the children who perished in the school bus hostage situation, during which the local party secretary gives orders to open fire on the bus, without any concern for the children aboard. It is as if she is burying the myth of justice and honor along with the innocence of the children who have been murdered; none of these qualities can describe the Ceausescu era in Romania. In addition, the burial of these specific people and the memories of them may allow Nela to move past this period as communism begins to decline and there is something to hope for.

This idea of there being something to hope for may be more clearly expressed by the final statement Nela and Mitica make about having children together – that with the two of them, they are bound to have either a genius or an idiot, but that the worst thing that could happen would be for them to have a child who was average. Perhaps this may be their final statement as they turn their backs on communism and ideals of social equality that can never be successfully achieved in reality. After all, under communism, the goal was to be “normal”, on equal par with everyone else. And, since during this time increase in birth rate was extremely important to the Romanian nationalists, Nela’s baby could represent a new generation for Romania, one with a drastically different political vision.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Eastern European Women Directors Discussion 2: Agnieszka Holland's Angry Harvest (1985)

Agnieszka Holland – Angry Harvest (1985)


Agnieszka Holland’s Angry Harvest (1985) may not frequently be referenced in terms of the portrayal of women in Eastern European film or films by Eastern European directors in general. However, though the film centers around a male figure undergoing several crises during WWII, including harboring a Jewish woman he finds in the woods hiding, after jumping from a train bound for a concentration camp, and may be most aptly compared to Klos and Kadar’s The Shop on Main Street (1966), there are certain details of it that allow for a feminist, or woman centered analysis of it.

In Angry Harvest, Leon Wolny is a hardworking farmer who happens to find Rosa Eckart in the woods and takes her in, hiding any traces of her from neighbors who could turn him in to the Gestapo. During the course of her hiding, however, Rosa appears as a weak, helpless, desperate woman just trying to survive through her captivity, rather than just a woman who is being helped or hidden. I bring forth these observations because Leon frequently treats Rosa as if she is his rag doll, there to give him some sort of pleasure and enjoyment, but not worthy of any true compassion. He hides her to save her from execution, yet he treats her like an animal as the film progresses; it is almost as if his hiding her is a selfish act done either so he can have her in his possession at all times or so that he can ease his conscience. It is almost as if we could picture Leon thinking that whatever he does to disrespect Rosa is ok because she is a woman and a Jew and he is ultimately saving her anyway.

This depiction I have set forth, however, presents some ideological problems to the film’s concept as a whole, though, because the audience identifies with some of Leon’s demands on Rosa as being necessary to her and his safety. For example, there is a scene where Leon lets Rosa outside after days of hiding in the cellar. As she marvels at the sun, gun shots are suddenly heard in the distance and Leon explains that they are coming from the woods and that if she were found hiding, if anyone were to see her outside, that both she and Leon would be similarly shot – one for being a Jew, the other for hiding one. Here we sympathize with Leon, who we may have previously come to identify solely as a lustful, controlling male out to dominate Rosa with rules that keep her locked in the cellar.

As for a more specific and detailed analysis of Rosa herself, within her situation of hiding, it seems as if she is willing to accept Leon’s view of her (possibly women in general) and to follow his demands in order to survive. A vast majority of shots involving Leon having sex with Rosa are not undercut by Rosa’s facial expressions of agony, or her body struggling to resist. Yet, as the film continues, Rosa seems to grow complacent and to accept her condition, hoping that one day she will find her husband. What does this say in terms of assigning a feminist meaning to the film? One possibility is that Rosa is consciously choosing to submit to a man with greater power in hopes of creating agency for herself later, when an opportunity arises; another, is that she does not hope for agency in the future but believes that she is being treated as women of her condition, paired with a more powerful, non-Jewish man, could be expected to. In either case, it is clear that Rosa begins to be less opinionated and less rebellious toward Leon as the film progresses. And yet, something very peculiar happens at the ending – Rosa does take control of the direction of her life, even though her actions turn tragic by the film’s close.

Rosa commits suicide because Leon was going to send her to live with another family for fear that her hiding in his cellar had been discovered. The tragedy lies in the fact that her husband comes looking for her at Leon’s door just after he has discovered her lying in blood, her wrists slit. Leon lies to her husband, telling him that she had left about a month ago in search of her husband; that she had gone back into the woods. The facts of Rosa’s suicide both support and further complicate my claim that Rosa was just trying to survive in Leon’s home, in hopes of being able to create agency for her self at a later date. Her suicide can be viewed as an act or agency in itself; she finally took control of her circumstance, deciding that she could not continue to live locked in the cellar, a slave to Leon. However, this is complicated by the fact that Rosa probably would not have killed herself if she had hope that she would continue to stay with Leon until the end of the war.

Our question is this: was she so distraught about leaving because she had formed some type of attachment to Leon or because it would be more difficult for her husband to find her in a more distant town? Was her reasoning some combination of these two? It is difficult for us to quite answer this, just as we may not know exactly how to feel when Leon tells Mr. Eckart that he loved his wife very much. There is no clear cut answer to any of our questions about Rosa’s motives or Leon’s love for her. The only sense that I got which led me to come to some of these conclusions about the importance of Rosa having control over her death, was that in the end Leon realized his own inner darkness and could not easily reconcile with himself over the way he knew Rosa and his selfish, lustful reasons for holding his power before her while she stayed in his house. The film ends with a close-up of Leon’s absent face, his blue eyes almost shining, but filled with complete emptiness, even as he reads a letter thanking him for helping Rubin’s (a man he refused to help while he was alive) daughter by paying her the debt he owed her father. He had helped her, along with Mr. Eckart to make it to America and begin a new life, yet there is a deep sense that his personal anguish over Rosa’s suicide will never subside. It is as if Rosa holds the power over his happiness just as he did over hers while she stayed with him. The only difference is that Rosa refused to let Leon control her ultimate fate, whereas, perhaps Leon will never be able to forget the weight Rosa has brought upon his soul (due to how he treated her in life, too concerned about himself to offer sympathy, compassion and genuine respect to her).

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Wounds – Srdjan Dragojevic (1998)

“Like the old days were any better. Romanticization will kill you.”


Srdjan Dragojevic’s The Wounds (1998) is a carefully crafted, highly stylized, visceral portrayal of extreme nationalism and ethnic war within a nation. Before we see a single image, we begin to feel as if something apocalyptic or especially telling of an era of destruction is about to be given to us, from a particular point of view – this dedication opens our look into Serbia, 1991-1997: “This film dedicated to the post-Tito generations.” After the dedication, the first scenes we witness are from the year 1997. Pinki and his friend Kraut are established Serbian gangsters and Serbia itself is presented as pure chaos. Quick, montage-style cuts are made, along with the use of special camera techniques to give a sense of the confusion and heightened emotion of the time. As was brought up in class, this looks like a typical gangster film, comparable to the works of Scorsese in it’s stylization and dramatic cuts; there is a depressing, nihilistic, and utterly nonsensical (to some outside the Serbian nationalist culture) story to be told though the excesses and impulsive rhythm.

The film flashes back and forward in time to tell the story of Kraut and Pinki’s initiation into Dickie’s gang, but there is never a hint of nostalgia about the past, even the past of Tito. There is only what is happening now and how one can survive it. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the film is that gang life seems the only way to survive the present for both young men. Those who do not fight and fight physically, with guns instead of expert mental strategy or the use of money to buy power, do not, in many cases, survive. Such is the case with one of Pinki and Kraut’s rivals who tries to bribe them, but cannot escape the impulsive, trigger happy young men.

The type of gang violence we see in The Wounds is out of pride, machismo, and principle alone, rather than just wanting to be rich or famous – it is about power and superiority of one’s ethnic group. Even the pride involved with romantic rivalries is commented on as Kraut and Pinki grow jealous over one another when Lijdia shows them both sexual attention. Kraut kills Lijdia out of principle – because Pinki asks how she is, reminding him that she is stressing their loyalty to one another – and allows Pinki to give him the same five wounds that he previously inflicted on Pinki in a jealous rage over her attentions.

It was also pointed out that Kraut and Pinki appear to imitate American gangsters and that they are not believable “tough guys,” but rather, kids who are playing the role of gangster. I read this as a harsh reality of the particular situation Kraut and Pinki find themselves in as kids trying to make sense of the politics of their ethnically torn country and desiring to become legendary examples of Serbian superiority. They are not believable because they are role playing, and the scariest thing of all is that they do not allow themselves to think before killing. By making everything just another childish game (with guns) they may not have to face up to the reality of what their actions are doing to perpetuate violence and destruction – it is simply what they do, the killing, as if they know no other reality than this dark fantasy world where they are the main heroes.

What conclusions can we really draw from the fact that the film does seem to draw on a tradition established in Hollywood? And, does the film romanticize the life of the nationalistically charged gangster, though the message is clear that “romanticization will kill you?”

Nearly every character we are introduced to (with the exception of Pinki’s mother) has either been killed or killed themselves by the final scene of the film, in which we see the bodies of Kraut, Pinki, and their “Croatian” peer shot to death, lying close together as if looking into the sky. Their romanticization of the life of gangsters did literally kill them; they may have been trying to be heroes, or just trying to survive, but this ending clearly brings the point home that there is nothing romantic about the Serbian situation during this period. As for any connection to America, or Hollywood, perhaps a statement is being made about how America is viewed by other countries attempting to define themselves and struggling to unite, especially in the importance of commercialism and sense of pride that these men of Dragojevic’s film are dying for. And, if each different section of another nation models itself on romanticized ideals of what it means to have power and freedom as Americans do, without mending the tensions between each section first, than those leaders of the different gangs are only fantasizing about their groups reaching positions of control individually, rather than making an attempt to establish goals for the entire nation to meet together. Perhaps this type of tendency to prove the most powerful, however, is a sort of backlash created from years of “brotherhood and unity” (when the reality was anything but).