A clean shirt for dirt digging

"Aftermath" (Pokłosie)
written and directed by Władyslaw Pasikowski

I have some general comments on the issue of realism in moviemaking. The comments spring from a recent media discussion around “The Aftermath” (Pokłosie).  If you plan to see this film (and you should) read this post only afterwards since it contains spoilers. 


“The Aftermath” set in the present day, follows two brothers as they discover that during the Second World War their father led other villagers to burn 20 local Jewish families.  The brotherly search corresponds with the growing anger from the locals who want to keep the past secret. 

The reception of the film in some Polish media to a large degree unfortunately mirrors the plot: the locals don’t want the truth to be revealed.  The critics, either being dumb or playing dumb, among many accusations fire up the charges that one of the brothers (the one visiting the village) constantly washes his only shirt and does so even knowing that in a few hours will be digging the mud at night.  Furthermore they find if impossible that the other brother could by himself assemble many heavy Jewish tombstones on his field.  Finally, the climactic crucifixion of that brother committed by his neighbors as the revenge for his discovery made one of the critics “laugh”, due to its, I guess, unrealism and the lack of logic (if the antisemitic villagers kill the brother as the punishment for him uncovering their dirty past they should not kill him in the manner that refers to the suffering of Jesus Christ)


What are movies?  Are they the 1:1 depiction of reality?  Are they platforms on which storytellers show what they think about the reality via its selection, manipulation and re-arrangements of its elements?  

Are we supposed to look for the world on the screen as we know if or to treat the screen as a tool to say something about the subject being presented there?

What is the reality on screen?  Is it something that is meant to conform our way of seeing the world outside of us and inside of us?  Or something to show us the unknown aspect of our perception?  

What’s the purpose of us seeking the magic of moving images?  To conform?  To amuse?  To buckle?  To stimulate?  To sedate?  

So what’s about “improbable” moving of heavy matzevahs accomplished by one person, about the crucifixion of “the traitor” by the Christian community or about washing a white shirt just before digging for the grave?   Let’s focus on the white shirt as an example of a connection between storytelling and our sense of reality. 

If we are to tell a story about something that resembles a dark, almost ritualistic journey to self-discovery would it not be appropriate (or at least artistically possible) to have a hero behave as if he subconsciously was expecting or anticipating the significance of his actions?  For example through constant washing of his only white shirt, as if getting ready for some important discovery, as if knowing that the upcoming events are so “holy” that he needs to be in his best to face them.  

At one point watching the film I indeed wondered “why does he wash his white shirt” instead of borrowing something to wear from his brother.   The questions kept lingering in my mind until the hero (in his white shirt) digging in the mud and dirtying himself came face to face with the shattering and “dirtying” truth.  The “white shirt” realism in this case is a subject to directorial manipulation.  Preparing “this is plausible” or “this is not plausible” reaction to a given scene is therefore an important tool in designing the overall emotional ride of the story.  I think the trick is to do it in such a way that the white shirt washing must be timed in such a way as not to slow down the storytelling and yet to plant a question in a viewer mind.  That question will find its answer and conclusion when the hero reaches the destination of his journey.  Such a read assumes that there was something within the subconsciousness of visiting brother that corresponded with his final finding.   

Analysis of the climatic crucifixion in “The Aftermath” would take more time since it is more daring and complex narrative maneuver.  The “realism” of this scene was a subject of media debates where some attacked the scene by saying that recently there were no cases of murders by crucifixion (this was spoken be proud right wing critics accusing the film of lies) while others would dig out the fact that indeed a few years ago there was a case of such a murder (the motives were unrelated to racial hate).   

Listening to those debates makes my stomach turn.  Let me just say that I found “the crucifixion scene” properly chilling and provocative.     


Moviemaking will save the day!

"Argo", written by Chris Terrio 
directed by Ben Affleck

“Argo” is a fantastic film.  Beautifully crafted and basically fueled by “will they make it” question, at the same time carries a few messages that contradict each other, which is not a criticism since that’s how the modern culture operates.    

In “Argo”, Hollywood, even in its BS mode rules big time.  It transcends borders, softens wars, saves lives and on top of it all delivers entertainment.

In our culture moviemaking Hollywood style storytelling almost replaces ancient Olympic games as the activity that can temporarily impose peace.    

At the same time moviemaking is a cultural Trojan horse.  Of that the Iraqis in “Argo” are well aware, yet they fall into a Hollywood/CIA trap.  

If fiction serves as a tool to create reality, is reality based on fiction?  

What’s true and what’s false?  

What are the messages forwarded to the public under the disguise of (seemingly) preposterous entertainment? 

Yes, movies will save the day, yet some will also enslave us.  

Which mode prevails is up to us. 


Watching “Amour”

written and directed by Michael Haneke

             When empathy is impossible 
            and any attempt of it 
            would be only obscene. 

First two disclaimers: 

Reading the script I missed a few things.  Of course Georges enters the apartment together with Anne when she returns from the hospital.  Yet he still does not know how to help her.

The way the film is photographed is simply breathtaking.  Darius Khondji is a true maestro and his work needs to be studied in depth.

The hint of how the author chooses to tell the story is contained in Anne’s dialogue.  When she still can, she states:

But imagination and reality 
have little in common (...)
and a few lines later:
I can't be bothered
to think about being you.

Haneke directs without “in your face” foreshadowing.  It is a welcoming relief since many masters rely on telling us what will happen and bask in their ability to do it subtly.  In the Hanek’s hand events are told with respect.   Their impenetrability and dignity seem to be the primary concern of the storyteller.  The same goes with to the characters who are treated with maturity, which means they are allowed their independence and are not puppets in the hands of a storyteller.  Correspondingly, the narrating camera does not know in advance what will happen. 

The last point needs to be elaborated upon: of course the film is designed, the shots thought out and the director chooses how to show an event according to its place in the whole story.  An example can be a bravado one shot elaborate opening with the camera floating through rooms, not unlike the best Kubrick moves.  Yet the next scene is filmed in one, wide shot hold for a very, very long time.  Clearly the bravado sets up the stage for the rather unconventional and demanding second shot.  From that moment on we are commanded to watch carefully and not to expect that the director will cater to the vulgarity of the dominating narrative paradigm.  

My previous concerns arising from reading stylistically various scenes turned out to be needless.   Haneke makes all kinds of scenes: the real, the imagined, the metaphorical into one rhythmical tapestry. The rhythm is the kind of this storytelling. 

Actually, if there is a stylistic pattern parallel to “foreshadowing” it is something I would call “after-shadowing”.   It is not a commentary, it is rather only so slight allowance to escape a modicum of accumulated steam.  Enough to create an emotional connection with that which happened previously but not enough to burry the narrative flow with a dreadful “meaning” or “explanation”.  The example of that would be a pigeon. Its meaning is so crystal clear that I am totally flabbergasted by the questions about its role.  It is however crucial that the pigeon comes after the big deed.  Placing this scene before would most likely make everything sentimental and corny.  

To me one of the most devastating scenes is when during breakfast Anne examines the photo album.   None of the scripted words convey the depth of this moment which is a heart breaking farewell to the past.  None shows the complexities of emotions that float through Georges as he witnesses his wife’s behavior.  The way the situation is staged and photographed allows for multiple interpretations of George’s annoyance at this moment.  

In my book this is brilliant directing. 


Reading “Amour”, part four

The next movement is a furious gallop toward the bottom of despair.  The pressure on both of them is palpable.  We even see Georges inner horror illustrated.  Strange, but reads well and is probably very effective on the screen.  She voices the horror straight out.  He explodes when there is no other way and when the self-control fails him.  

And then comes the moment of his action.  As I am reading it the quietness of it is very creepy.  Is it what I am suspecting it is?  Soon it turns out that it was not what I thought it was.  Eve enters the bedroom and sees Anne.  Except five pages later Georges does his very action that the earlier beat suggested (at least to me).  That which was earlier was clearly foreshadowing, indicating something that was brewing inside his psyche.  

Turns out the second half of the script is constructed differently than the first one.  In the second half we have unreal scenery as the representation of the inner space, we have a pigeon which is a poetic opening of the real and explainable into the mysterious and the impossible to put into worlds, we have the usual and almost mandatory in such stories psychic connection or a wishful thinking on somebody’s part.  (That somebody could be Georges, or us, or a narrator).  Finally there is the daughter in the empty apartment, a moment which rather than to explain, further complicates the most basic (what happened) and the most profound (how to handle the drama) questions of the story. 

The purposely unclear and vaguely symbolic elements of the second half do not appear in the first part of the story, which is told in a more straightforward, “you get what you see” fashion.  

The combination of these two approaches invalidates normal, “Hollywood paradigm” analysis of the written script.  The story indicated on the page can’t be reduced to worlds and the arrangement of written events.  It is a non reductionist script writing. 

I am a big fan of Haneke, There are only two movies I can think of that recently have managed to melt the screen for me: one was the original “Funny games” (I haven’t see the remake) and the second was a documentary “Po-lin”.  There is an entry - "The melted screen" - about it on this blog).  

Having read the script I am really curious how Haneke directed it.  Did he go for unity or for jarring?  For poetry or realism?  Combination?  Other ways?  

I suspect (also because of its fame and accolades) that the movie exudes coherence.  The coherence despite the “weird” elements is possible probably because of the otherwise tight  unity of space and limitation of the world depicted to just a few characters.  

Meaning: vagueness works only if has solid grounds or directly addresses some primal mystery, which by default can’t be reduced to an answer.   


Reading "Amour", part three

The last part of the first act is again a combination of the opposites.   The act ends with a powerful deed which comes out of the blue and follows several pages of fairly light stuff (in the context of what had happened).  Reading it I was wondering why is Haneke loosening the screw.  Silly me.  Relaxing breathing is allowed only to set up the stage for a powerful punch.  And so, the payoff at the end of the act brings back the vibrating tension established at the very beginning.  

The way the big event is told is sparse and elegant, if one can use such a word for this kind of drama:

(once she’s seated in 
the wheelchair) 
Why are you back already? What time is it? 

Georges has understood immediately. He closes the window noiselessly.

I am surprised that afterwards, as a coda to the scene, the couple discusses Anne’s dead. Suddenly the characters say what they think.  I am sure that further reading will reveal the intent of that.  Of course, the Haneke’s writing technique becomes transparent by now: if a heavy conversation is coming, than that which precedes it should be lighter.  That’s indeed the case, although the lighter comes from a funky funeral description.   Still, the differentiation of colors is clear.  

I just realized that I am reading it as if it was a 120 pages script.  Now I see that it is has only 68 pages.  This means that we are in the middle of the story already and that my references to the first act were off.  This also means that the screen pacing of the written page will be much slower than normal.  Interesting.  How is Haneke going to do that?


Reading "Amour", part two

Information as emotion

The next ten pages seem like the next round of a dance figure.  It starts slow and seemingly away from the main subject: there is a conversation between the visiting daughter and the husband.  The illness of the mother is revealed only at the end. It is done in such a way that it ceases to be the information delivery.  Instead, it is a powerful revelation of the trauma that has been caused in the universe of Anne and Georges.  Another trick consists of mixing the graveness of the situation (the operation went bad) with Georges reaction (yawning).  Quite disturbing counter move since we already know that he cares a lot, to say the least. 

Then comes a surprise move: Anne is brought home and Georges waits there for her.  This means this is their first time close and together, the first time he has to learn how to handle her.  This writing maneuver borders on not plausible - didn’t the hospital offer the husband basic lesson about how to handle the wife?  However it also heightens the tension and the awkwardness between the couple.  

We have just “witnessed” or rather read the second movement of a dance or a tragedy.  While the first started with a gloomy scene (the police enters the place of death), the second begins with a neutral family talk which at first has nothing to do with the already established through-line of the story.  

I can pretty much image what I would.  It would be worse: the hospital, she is being discharged, a doctor offers him some pointers how to physically help her moving around.  They try with awkwardness.  Cut to their apartment: suddenly facing the reality, they sit paralyzed with the realization that they are facing unfaceable.  She announces “no more hospital”. 

Haneke designs this movement sharpening Georges’ anxiety and Anne’s horror.  Both emotions seem to be voiced through their respective denials.   The end of the scene has a potential for unbearable pitch.  I wonder how it is directed:

Then she notices that she’s forgotten her glasses. She rests the book back on the bed cover and fishes for her glasses on the night stand.In the end, she manages it. Then she opens the book again, and tries to read.


Reading “Amour”, part one

The next several entries will be about reading and watching "Amour".  There could be spoilers.  What follows is mostly geared toward those of my students (there will be classes next semester) who would care to look closer at the Haneke's work.  I suggest to read the script first, then visit this site and only then see the film.

Perhaps there is a connection between thinking about the way to validate philosophical concepts and constructing emotional universe through scriptwriting.   Let's start with philosophy:

Approaching philosophy: 

As Milan Kundera brilliantly explains using as the example eternal return, the true significance of a philosophical concept can be fully grasped through the exploration of its opposite. 

Perhaps naming the assumptions accompanying an idea could the second methodological tool for the analysis of a concept. 

Furthermore, practical (social and psychological) repercussions derived from a certain theoretical view might as well be the third lens through which one can asses the value of a given theory. 

So we have three elements to evaluate the structure with: the opposites, the assumptions, the repercussions.  How does it work in the screenwriting structure?

Approaching storytelling:

I’ve decided first to read the Haneke’s script and only then to see the film.   Got as far as the page 13 and am floored.  The read is strong, clean, emotional.   The structure is precise, the movement is fast.  

Within the first three scenes we know everything: how the story will end and how it starts.  We know the problem, we know the scope of the emotional trauma we will be taken through.  What’s also very important we love the heros.  Yet, the heros are doomed.  We know it and somehow in the third scene they also realize that.  By placing the end at the beginning, the characters somehow acquire intuition.  Although they don’t know how the story will end, our knowledge of it influences their subjective sensitivities displayed by them within a scene.  

The opposites of what’s coming is the base on which the tragic slowly uncoils itself.  Those would be the concert, ride home, tea drinking, chat about the plumber. 

The assumptions that envelope the story, the glass wall that gets shattered so early on are simple: the status quo will go on, life is good, things must be nice.  

The realization of the repercussions of a simple moment at the end of the “tea scene” is what concluded the introduction and what totally shatters our peace. 

“She takes her cup of tea, as if to show how well she is, and drinks it up. When she wants to re-fill her cup, she completely misses her aim. She notices it, puts down her cup and bursts into tears.”

From this moment on Anne, Georges and every reader are in it together. 



A flyer from the 2012 London Sebastiao Salgato exhibit says “....to frame otherwise unseen realities...”.  “Unseen” is the understatement in case of Salgato’s social work: the realities that he forces us to see are those that we know of but don’t want to do anything about: the poverty, the injustice, the abuse.  

His goal is simple.  He says “... I want the world to remember the photographs and the people I photograph”.  Only that.  He does not say, “I want you to do something”, he just wants us to remember.  

Because the sins of not acting, the sins of neglect come from forgetting.  

Because among many wars that are fought within our minds, one of the most devastating or uplifting (depending on its outcome) it the war within our memories.  Collectively and individually.  

In both cases the results define our ethics and therefore our destiny.  

That’s why framing decides our humanity.  


Bad acting

Bad acting 

is not listening. 

If you want to act - listen. 

I would say listen to your partner in the scene, 

but if you are too self absorbed to do that,

at least listen to yourself.  

Just listen to anything

- that will allow you to communicate. 

Otherwise you are just racing, 

frozen, scared 

and ineffective. 


The noble futility

A woman is a woman 
by Jean Luc Godard

This film is serious.  Despite its intoxicating charm and lightness, despite its erotic infatuation with a wonderful actress, despite its tongue in cheek playfulness with the film tradition it seems to ponder the questions of what’s true, how we choose to act, how we construct our world.  

The way Godard stages and edits most of the scenes is all about exploring possibilities, about hesitation, about the drama and the elation of choosing one of the many opportunities that present themselves in front of each of our “next moves”.  

It’s as if he wanted to break through the annoying vulgarity of the “here and now” and to challenge the pressure of "what's next?".  The vulgarity comes in many shapes: physical and psychological and (probably) spiritual and ontological.  The last two are clearly my own calls.  

In a few telling moments Godard suggests the suspension of the physical laws or their vulgarity.  A girl in a split second of crossing  the door frame changes her cloths or - an egg thrown in the air stays there long enough for the character to come outside the door, exchange a few lines, return inside and only then to catch the egg in the frying pan.  The defiance of psychological vulgarity (or at least an attempt to make the point of its ugly existence) is the subject of Godard's repetitions, versions, contradictions that he uses in directing.  

He plays on the terror of the completed moment, on its fakery and vulgarity of a single action that is just one of the many possible and beautiful until its potential is broken by the unavoidable "next move ".  Every "next " once, executed, becomes trivial and faulty.   Every single one.  

The noise that many critics make about his “playing with conventions” seems superficial.  The musical convention for Godard is just a tool to explore what is, to explore the way a story can be told.  He’s way to clever to satisfy himself with just dancing around conventions and cleverly switching them. 

As I wrote the above, I thought that such a read could assume too much into his style, but then I watched his conversation with Dick Cavett. 

In that interview (I highly recommend it) Godard, about 25 years after "A woman is a woman”, makes some points that in my mind chime with the observations from this entry.  He says   (I am paraphrasing) that the speed and the distance are the two most important variables in seeing and taking in the world.  That means in translating our experiences into filmmaking.

Here are some other ideas from that interview: 

The image is always a result of the shock of two images.

Movies are the trains not the stations (responding to why he focuses so much on the space between the actors).  He wants to be a train. 

Space is the time you need to go to someone else. 

Most filmmakers don’t really need a movie.  They want to be in a business, because it’s an easy business to be in, but they don’t need a movie.  Godard on the other hand needs his films very badly.  He needs them to ponder whether a story can be told at all.