The ladder

In response to the “Mirror image” (Zwierciadlo) a poem by Tadeusz Rozewicz.

The ladder

Maestro Tadeusz, I respectfully disagree

with your sad poem

about the needless noise

of questions and answers

that lead to the unavoidable silence.

Questions pile up

one upon another.

All needed, all building a structure upon which

one has to keep climbing up

not so much as to reach above the darkness

that /I must reluctantly agree / bits our ankles

but to continue upward not missing a bar.

A noble definition of a human being:

he who does not skip a step.

A ladder of questions. And answers. And questions.

Once it commences, the climb cannot be stopped

since it would precipitate the fall.

That’s the rule only a few hear and practice.

Rembrandt’s old face is a necessary coda

before his next movement can begin itself

in somebody standing in front of his painting,

or just writing about it.

Maestro, silence does not have to indicate

emptiness and despair. Please.

It is rather a gathering of energy

ready to be experienced

on the climb up,


and so human.


The rooster of Mr. Welles

Citizen Kane
written by Joseph Mankiewicz and Orson Welles,
directed by Orson Welles

Some say that "Citizen Kane" with all its visual brilliance is one dimensional in psychological characterization. I would attempt to counter such an accusation with the analysis of the script (which is quite innovative even today), but for now will only point to a single directorial moment which impressed me during a recent big screen re-watching of the film.

The set up:
We are in Xanadu. Susan Alexander, the untalented singer and the abused wife, announces that she is leaving Kane. His plea for her to stay is rejected. He won’t have his way this time.

The take:
The camera shoots toward the floor to the ceiling terrace opening with the ocean behind. A darkly dressed Eastern European butler, who recalls this moment, is positioned on the left. On the right, a huge white rooster, almost obstructing the frame, sits disquietingly close to the lens. With a laud creek the bird flies away a second before Susan Alexander furiously enters the frame and follows the rooster.

The charge:
With the distant ocean, unexpected frame organization, the surprising bird, sudden movements, perspective changes and intense tonality contrast, this is the most surreal take in the entire film. Yet, it also oozes strange truth about a huge emotional turmoil of the moment. It feels as if suddenly some mysterious and very disquieting window into the psyche of the characters has been opened. The window rarely encountered. The playful rooster-shadow on the wall from their first meeting has gone mad and aggressive. The marriage is dead. The pain is unprocessed and blinding for the both of them.

The follow up:
In the next moment, Kane, who in a few takes will explode furiously demolishing a room, steps back. He is positioned against the wall that is decorated with .... barely visible roosters.

If the white rooster take isn’t the great directorial moment in the history of screen psychology than what is?


Phenomenology of Truth

Krzysztof Janczar as professor Lewinski
and Sakiko Yamaoka as the Performer
in "Phenomenology of Truth",

written and directed by Pawel Kuczynski

In the volume 5 of “Melee, a quarterly of philosophy and culture” there is a transcript of a discussion that took place after the premiere screening of the “Phenomenology of Truth”, a 30 min. narrative short starring Krzysztof Janczar as professor Feliks Lewinski and Sakiko Yamaoka as the Performer. Both Sakiko and Krzysztof did amazing jobs in this totally fictitious story. Another words: screen characters have nothing in common with the real lives of the actors.

The December 2008 discussion took place in Manggha, the Center for the Japanese Art and Technology, Cracow, Poland. (Melee hit the polish bookstores, mostly Empiks, in August 2009). The amazingly positive and upbeat talk on film language, philosophy, Japanese and Western cultures lasted almost two hours. I am translating some of its parts in the order of the discussion:

“I have watched the “Phenomenology of Truth” for the first time and must admit I am enchanted. It shows that film as a medium not only can translate from one level to another, but also is capable of commenting on a specific philosophical idea.”
- Michal Oleszczyk
(a film scholar and a critic)

“I liked this film a lot. It is witty, warm but also provocative (...) It asks if the East-West dialog is possible and if so how. It excellently shows the problem of the “surface of things. To me this film, I am saying this a a practitioner, could be a very good illustration of how East and West can communicate with each other”.
- Bogna Dziechciaruk-Maj
(the director of Manggha,
the Museum of Japanese Art and Technology in Cracow)

“The film deals with meeting of two cultures. When I watched it today - that was my first viewing and I am very impressed by it - I thought that perhaps a good keyword to this film would be transculture. (...) Today the question “to what extend can I penetrate another culture?” is replaced by “to what extend even a surface connection with another culture can change my relation with my own culture?" I will give you an example from my own life. My discipline is aesthetics. For many years I was educated in it and then I educated others using its primary principle: that a work of art must be perfect. This perfection is understood in various ways - for example as the harmony of many elements within the whole, when nothing can be eliminated or added to the work. The work of art is a masterpiece if it makes a perfect, completed whole. When I started dealing with the Japanese aesthetics I came upon a notion that perfection in a work of art is vulgar. It is so because a perfect work of art is a closed system, it does not contain mystery, it does not invite to be entered, does not motivate a viewer to participate. I do not think that in the moment of encountering this notion - and it was a shocking experience for me - I penetrated another culture, penetrated Japanese culture, but it allowed me to profoundly change my relationship to my own culture. It does not mean that I abandoned our idea of perfection in art. It continues to be my idea. It is just not so universal, so unquestionable as it was before. When I deal now with various aesthetic issues, the experience of meeting the Japanese perspective is somehow present.”
- Krystyna Wilkoszewska, Ph.D.
(the head of the Aesthetic Department,
the Jagiellonian University, Cracow)

“This is the third film by Pawel Kuczynski that I am watching and each time I am struck by his attitude of distance, humor and, I would say, impishness, which in a way makes fun of philosophy. (...) The film provokes questions such as: isn’t the “phenomenology of truth” indeed a great vision but just requires better prophets? Aren’t all philosophers condemned to theorize about the truth and the seeing instead of just seeing themselves? Doesn’t the Japanese woman in the film, in her naiveté, see more and deeper, and therefore better exemplifies the rules of the phenomenology of truth than its creator could ever do? I think that - as is required in a truly philosophical film - we do to get any conclusive answers here.”
- Adam Workowski, Ph.D.
(a lecturer at the Papal Theological Academy in Cracow
and The Collegium Civitias in Warsaw)

“I tried to build the story using a formula of a counterpoint: if there is a controlling idea, there should be also its reverse. In the accord of the dialog idea of this festival, I wanted to create a filmic dialog between philosophical ideas. I am glad that was noticed. Transculture was also very important, not only in this film, but also in the workshop that we conducted during the festival. The workshop was based on short dialogue written especially for us by Mikhail Epstein, an American scholar born in Russia, the theoretician of transculture. He rebells against identities being totally determined by places of birth, by native cultures, and not by our free and conscious choices. Epstein is convinced that one can live “on the border of one’s culture”, that one can have a few cultural identities.”
- Pawel Kuczynski
(more about the festival workshop
in the “lecturing” part of www.directing.com)


The antagonist’s power (2)


How wonderful that scripts mirror life, I marvel

going to a lecture by an accomplished writer/director

with a huge output, many awards, international status.

Yet, his public talk is sprinkled

with bitterness and resentment,

a few times almost boils with anger.

This guy is for real, he really hurts, I discover,

suddenly liking him more.

Then I remember that some time ago

upon watching (graciously I must say)

one of my docs, he said:

“You defended yourself in this one.”

What kind of a statement is that, I fumed long afterwards.

Movies are not about “defending”!

Not understanding that the metaphor

is quite apt for the screen battles,

so hard to win.

Anyway, the lecture continues.

The speaker proceeds to exculpate himself.

From living in the 20th Century?

(an urge that many intellectuals feel compelled to address)

From success?

From being alive?

He, who remembers the second world war,

says in reference to one of his films:

“We know about ourselves

only as much as we have been tested by life.”

He sounds serious, real and sincere.

My lofty and comfortable concept of writing

as a magical tool that gives great power to the writer

is defeated on the spot.

(As in "In this one, you didn't defend yourself.")

I could not.

(How could I forget uncontrollably shaking arms

of that beautiful woman

suddenly destroyed by the news given

on the hallway of the oncology female hospital ward,

while her paled companion

tries to protect her from falling down.)

Sadly, we don’t choose our antagonists.

Neither in war nor in peace.

Neither publicly nor privately.

Neither outside nor inside.

Instead something writes us

with a cruel or a gentle pen,

challenging us with horror,

other times with luck,

selecting our antagonists.


The antagonist’s power


The biggest lesson of screenwriting

is a truly astounding one:

your future does not depend on you.


you are made by your opponent.

It is your antagonist that decides

if you are great or just mediocre,

pedestrian or inspiring.

Pick your battles,

the instructors of life yell at you.

Pick your antagonist,

if you want to shape your destiny,

says quietly the blank page.

The page of your life.

Think if over very carefully:

Who will you vote for?

Who will you fight against?

Which country will receive the gift of your life?

Who will you hate with passion?


Lessons from Ronald Harwood

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", screenplay by Ronald Harwood
from the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby.
Directed by Julian Schnabel.

Another fascination conversation from the Creative Screenwriting Magazine podcast series conducted by Jeff Goldsmith:

It was Harwood who came up with the first person subjective for the film. The decision that the camera is the protagonist jump-started the writing process. Harwood has the highest praise for the work of Janusz Kaminski, whom he calls brilliant.

It is interesting to hear that when starting a process of adaptation he spends a lot of time figuring out what the story is going to be about. That means further selecting the thematic scope of the material given to him. The choice is his own decision. Harwood is a strong believer in allowing a writer to discover where the story wants to go. He is against the internal and the external pressures resulting from outlining or pitching prior to writing.

Of course upon turning in a draft, Harwood closely works with the director. On “The Pianist” it was a 5 weeks long daily intense collaboration with Polanski. When Jeff Godsmith asks him what he learned from Polanski, he responds with one word: precision.

Also there is a really funny and telling bit about the post “and the Oscar for the best adapted screenplay goes to” conversation with his agent, the famed Jeff Berg. Harwood says that when, the day after, Harwood announced his total lack of interest in directing, Berg’s face immediately became 25 years younger.