Never enough

A voracious appetite for understanding, for communication, for seeing, for changing things, for living. Getting up after a hard knock and going again. Regardless of set backs. With empathy for those who failed. With silence when needed and a laud cry when required.

The above could be a snapshot of several individuals I have met. Intellectuals. Politicians. Activists. Artists in art or life. Those with "names" and those known only to a few around them. All passionate. All courageous. All inspiring.

Recently I found an expression of this attitude in The Guardian's profile of Zygmunt Bauman (written a few years ago by Madeleine Bunting). Here it goes:

“The real pessimism is quietism - not doing anything because nothing can be changed, argues Bauman: "Why do I write books? Why do I think? Why should I be passionate? Because things could be different, they could be made better. [My role] is to alert people to the dangers, to do something. 'Don't ever console yourself that you have done everything you could, because it's not true,' says the philosopher Levinas, who believed that you recognized a moral person as someone who does not think he or she is moral enough. That is also how we recognize a just society - a just society castigates itself that there is not enough justice in our society."


Life on Marz

A documentary by Marian Marzynski

18-26 of November, Centre for the Culture and Languages of the Jews, University of Wroclaw, Poland screens several films by Marian Marzynski, with the Emmy and Dupont Award winning filmmaker present. Such titles as “Return to Poland”, “Life on Marz: a memoir of a film teacher”, “A Jewish Mother”, “Shtetl”, “Anya”, “A Jew among the Germans” and “Settlement” can be seen there.

Get yourself to Wroclaw for this event or seek other opportunities to watch the Marzynski’s work and perhaps even meet him. (He resides in Boston and occasionally lectures around the US.) In addition to being a great documentarian he is also an inspirational film teacher.

My rave recommendation to seek contact with Marz comes from experience: years ago, being his assistant powerfully influenced the way I see a documentary film. Here are a few things I learned from him.

Marz’s example proved merit of an openly personal approach in telling a story. He did not shy from putting himself into the frame. His strong presence filtered a subject matter and in doing so made it personable and therefore accessible.

Working with a DP Marz insisted to cover a scene with a continues moving shot. Such technique was quite demanding on whoever operated the camera. It pushed an operator to think fast in editorial and therefore conceptual terms while observing the scene, framing, managing focus and keeping the shot steady (without a steadycam). Astonishingly, Marz managed to convey this approach without ever touching the camera. It worked. The Marz’s “cinematographers stable” includes names with Oscar nominations for documentary cinematography. I was never a cinematographer but being often responsible for shooting things for Marz’s Governors State University classes put me in the training and left a strong imprint on my filmmaking style.

Another lesson of Marz had to do with the heart of his stories: diving into our past to embrace the forces that have created us in a primal way.

And finally his passion for teaching and for documentary making: here is a quote from Marz’s book “A Polish-Jewish dream book”:

“Who to make films for? For oneself? For the public? Perhaps only for the intelligent ones? Wouldn’t I want to touch the millions? Here’s my answer: (I want to make films) for those who see more than I would want to show”.

It is a puzzling quote which upon reflection makes perfect sense. We make films to dialog with others, to present our points of view and to hear responses. The responses are intriguing if they bring out a new and true aspect of that which we originally presented. In this way the screen becomes a facilitator for mutual betterment. I like that.


Dialoguing with John (1)


“Done with the elegant incisiveness” you write

which I read with the utmost surprise.

Honestly - this attempt of mine to talk about

a subject barely felt,

only suspected and half guessed,

half perceived through the veil

of a collective refusal to even admit it could exist,

and my own self doubt and fear,

was undertaken with hesitant small steps

and much hesitation.

It still shakes in my hands

like a home made soft jello

with no plate underneath.

Yet I extend it outward,

feeling a bit like a cheat

since I am using a screen as a plate

to solidify that, which can’t be solid to stay alive

to keep movable that, which can be presented

only when captured and frozen by images and sounds.


The “Sacrifice” (3) remake

“The Banishment” written by William Saroyan (book),
Artyom Melumian (script), dir: Andrei Zvyagintsev

How to analyze a great directorial talent? Luckily for those of us who like to ponder the nature of things, narrative achievements in cinema usually inspire works that try to follow them. When comparing the two films in which one is trying to achieve the mastery of its inspiration we get the tools for study what makes a director great.

One of them I call “the preposterousness test.”

It can be applied to “The Banishment” which is a disguised attempt to remake “The Sacrifice” by Andrei Tarkovsky. Similarities are big and small, the internal and the superficial. In "The Banishment", as in the “Sacrifice”, the hero is called Alexander. As in the original we’ve got a house in the country and a mailman - this time however relegated to a lesser part. There are also attempts to copy visuals from the original. One long (LONG!) shot of water floating down hill is a particularly blatant try. Blatant and painful to watch. (Otherwise the film is beautifully photographed.) Why one works and another doesn't could be a treatise in itself.

Visually, from the first image of a slow camera move featuring a solitary tree in a barren landscape (the frame above) we know this is going to be a dialog with “The Sacrifice”, which opens with a similar image and the same camera move. But Zvyagintsev is too smart to copy the Tarkovsky’s image exactly. He stages different action around the tree and builds up a different rhythm for the first few minutes. Yet, this first image establishes an alchemical connection between the films.

The most important commonality however comes from the stories told: both films are about the sacrifice needed to save our hypocritical lives. To carry out the sacrificial deed Tarkovsky chooses Alexander, Zvyagintsev flips the story inside out and selects Alexander’s wife.

So what's "the preposterous test?" It compares the abilities to narrate a truly insane and unrealistic element of a story. A master is able to validate and present as true a genuinely absurd in a narrative. When a lesser storyteller attempts a similar action the viewers go “hehhh?", “how come?,” “well, I don’t know about that”. In short, they don’t buy the way a preposterous element is presented.

Such is the case in these two films. Zvyagintsev does not convince that the sacrifice in his film is psychologically plausible (unless the woman is mentally ill, which would undermine the whole point.) It is a pity, since the beautiful Maria Bonnevie does an amazing job. Tarkovsky on the other hand pulls off the impossible: in his film, for the sake of sacrifice, time gets reversed as the greatest gift. The director uses many tricks to accomplish this. Since I have already mentioned one, the bicycle, let me conclude with a quote from Saroyan, the man whose writing inspired “The Banishment” and who, via such a strange connection, could shake hands with Tarkovsky. Something tells me that these two, although so different in their styles and a sense of humor (Tarkovsky has none), would really hit it off, as they seem to be spiritual cousins.

First of all, my bikes were always rebuilt second-hand bikes. They were lean, hard, tough, swift, and designed for usage. I rode them with speed and style. I found out a great deal about style form riding them. Style in writing, I mean. Style in everything. I did not ride for pleasure. I rode to get somewhere, and I don't mean from the house on San Benito Avenue in Fresno to the public Library there.'
- William Saroyan, "The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills"


The time bicycle - Sacrifice (2)

"Sacrifice” written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

So we’ve been misbehaving. In ways small and big, or is it the other way around? It does not matter anymore how it started and what started it: the missiles have been lunched. What’s left is to cover your head with a sheet. Unless you are around Otto who posses the Knowledge. He knows where to go, how to get there and what to do. He also knows who should embark on the quest. First things first: where to go:

“(...) Prophetic dreams (...) come to me from the transcendent word, from beyond. (...) What is certain is that up there time is reversible. Which proves to me that time and space only exist in the material incarnation. Time is not objective.” - Andrei Tarkovsky talking to Thomas Johnson, 1986

That’s clear and simple. We have got to go to the dreamworld. No surprise here: the Australian aborigines, the Amazonian ayahuasca consuming tribes and others much smarter than us have known it forever. They revered the process as sacred and dangerous. Alexander senses the high stakes of the game: he takes a pistol with him.

How do we get there? By bicycle, naturlich!

Heaven forbid. I hardly ever think. It’s bad for my health...

But it must be impossible to write,
if you’re thinking only of success or failure when you do.

Naturlich! But on the other hand
if nobody reads me in a hundred years’ time,
then why bother writing at all?


Time again. The passage of time as the motivator of our actions. Anyway, back to the “Sacrifice.” A magical bicycle is the vehicle that can save us. Only Maria knows how to ride it with grace. She does so at the end of the film, when the peace is already restored. At the beginning Otto rides it clumsily. Later, Alexander falls off it riding on a straight country path. Why does he fall? Because it the secret vehicle, impossible to master by a mere human.

The way Tarkovsky stops and reverses the time is the most amazing directorial maneuver in this film. Note the absence of any vulgar film time tricks. Formwise, all is based on rhythm, light and sound.

Tarkovsky wanted to name the script “Eternal Return”. Even though the Nietzsche’s eternal return is talked about and the Boy for a moment becomes the Dwarf, the key character in the Nietzschean metaphor of the Now, this is not a film about the strive to find the eternity in the Moment. It is rather about old, plain reversal of time, or rather of our smallness.

Look at the faces of the family members “the morning after”. To them nothing has happened and yet they seemed to have undergone a powerful inner transformation. The scales have dropped off their eyes. The Doctor for example announces that he wants to go to Australia because he is “tired of this perversion”. Their small (yet so powerful in their consequences) lies have become unbearable. That’s one more reason Alexander has to keep his end of the bargain.

OK, we know where to go and how to get there. Now comes the question what to do.

The answer is the only one possible: love.

Finally, who should do the loving?

For the sake of peace, the Boy, the tree and the future

- it should be you!


A case nr. 285 - Sacrifice

"Sacrifice", written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

The frame above starts the key shot in "Sacrifice." In a moment the camera will pan down and reveal a miniature of the house behind Alexander’s head. The sudden change of perspective and scale produces an unnerving, dizzying feeling. It is as if we were suddenly catapulted over the real house.

Alexander is perplexed. Maria (the one that, as we learn later, has magical powers, and who is the only one capable of reversing the time) explains that the model was done by the Boy and Otto as a gift for Alexander, “but don’t give me away, Mr. Alexander.”

The Boy and Otto make a strange pair: the opening scene has them already together, literally circling Alexander. The Boy is the innocence, openness and the future personified, Otto is the messenger from “the other side”, fittingly he works as a postman (!) and is the only character who understands and to some degree controls the link with the other reality, the reality that causes strange, paranormal occurrences in our world. Otto collects them: to date he’s got 284 cases.

With the camera tilt down, the case number 285 has just begun its course, even thought Alexander does not know it. Neither does Otto but luckily for us all he figures it out just in time. Maria, although possessing the magical force, does not know what’s going on.

Such is the set up on this planet: there are those who understand but are not able to produce physical results, and there are those who can make things happen but need help in knowing when and with whom (and to whom?) to apply their force. In between these two groups there are mere mortals, the semi blind Alexanders, who, according to Tarkovsky, need to make an offering of what’s the dearest to them to keep calamities at bay. Such action proves their highest humanity. Hmmm. Being a “good nietzschean”, as my friend Alan Rosenberg from “Light Denied” would say, I am not crazy about such an interpretation, nevertheless the film's directorial brilliance is awe inducing.

So with the shot above the alchemical spectacle of the sacrifice begins: immediately afterwards a nuclear war starts, as if to trigger the transformation of the hero. To save everybody Alexander has to embark on a journey to conquer time.

Later: on Tarkovsky’s eternal return.



28 years ago, to the day, I arrived in the United States. Back then going anywhere from Eastern Europe was a major crossing. Coming to America was arriving at the best place on the planet.

To this day I remember minute by minute of my first American hour. It consisted mostly of the (surreal to me) drive from JFK to a friendly home in New Jersey.

The dreamy sequence of moving, slow motion (that's the free airline booze effect) images of night lights, amazing highway announcements, strange road signs, suburban homes (too clean, pretty and large to be real) is my first American memory.

During the drive a question uttered by my host (a wise, European escapee) turned out to be prophetic.

John turned from the front seat (Mary, his wife was driving), locked his eyes on me and asked - “So Pawel, did you come here to stay for good?” The question shocked me. I never allowed myself to voice such a thought. He did it for me. I mumbled some insignificant, stupid answer. However, at this moment something had pierced through and we both realized the truth.

John and Mary, I bow to you in my eternal gratitude. For your compassion, understanding and help. You will remain forever in the top of my Book of Life. Wherever you are, God bless you both!