Storytelling and Self

Claude Lanzmann in his biography “The Patagonian Hare” includes his thoughts about film-making. Two of his quotes (my translation and emphasis) coincide with my current “editing mode”:

“I worked on (...) newspaper articles the same way,
I work now on my films.
I wanted thoroughly examine the issue,
take myself out of the picture,
enter into the reasons and impulses,
lies and silences of those
whom I want to present or whom I ask questions.
All needed for reaching
a state of hallucinatory
and precise hypersensitivity,
which for me is a model for the imagination.
Only such approach allows me to uncover, reveal the truth
and, if needed, make those I speak about alive and present.
Anyway, this is the law I obey.
I consider myself a seer
and strongly advocate to all
who write about cinema
that they include the term “seer”
into their writing techniques.”

- Claude Lanzmann

To take oneself out of the process so that the subject or the theme comes through is a noble but a very tough order. I keep struggling with my own off screen knowledge, biases, over or under sensitivity. My brilliant editor keeps saying “let the material speak by itself, don’t let your ideas mess it up, allow it reveal itself in its own way.” Sounds great but how to really see and hear without influencing with our own apparatus of perception that which is being perceived? How to represent reality in such a way that it won’t end up being a series of subjective perceptions? Is it possible? Of course the concept of “storytelling” implies “a storyteller”, hence subjectivity is at the very core of the process. A story won’t happen by itself. And yet more often than not the less of a storyteller the better.

“Editing is a long, serious, delicate and subtle operation.
Many a time I felt totally blocked,
as one is during a mountain climbing
during which one can’t find a proper passage
that would allow to climb higher.
Usually one such passage exists.
Not two but only one that is any good.”
- Claude Lanzmann

That’s also true, and yet it brings about the same tension between “the storytelling self” and “the reality being told”. In order to move through the story there has to be an entity to make necessary steps. Yet, the moment a proper step has been made the self should forget itself in order to be open, pure, receptive, hearing and listening to that which is outside (of the perceiving self.)

Otherwise, there is only deaf ears madness.

On the other hand “Shoah” is so effective because it is emotionally lived through, because we feel the emotions of the storyteller, because one person took the challenge to take himself out of the (normal to that point) way of relating to the subject. So perhaps the real compromise in this dilemma of how much of a storyteller should be in a story (aside of course from a first person narrative) is not how to balance the presence of a storytelling self and the events/things/people/themes described but the quality of that self who should not be present in the story. Another words in “who is telling the story” the crucial is not “who” but “who is not”.

And so in this bizarre conclusion it turns out that the quality of the storytelling self relies on the ability of the self to be not! Only a few are talented enough to do so. Strangely, since their work is the most effective, they are the most recognized.


Tokyo everywhere?

Yasujiro Ozu and Kôgo Noda, the writers of "Tokyo story"

Nobody disputes that "Tokyo story" is a masterpiece yet a quick run through the internet brings in surprising reasons.

For example a Guardian reviewer writes “The film condemns no one”. Hmmm ... during the screening I had a feeling of a relentless, brutal and furious accusation constantly pouring from the screen. Granted, all done in a restrained, elegant and measured way, which just increased the power of this quiet yet terrifying howl over our smallness, stupidity and wasted chances. So, it seems that contrary to the quoted line, the film condemns everybody. Even the gentle visitors are guilty. Guilty of being too complacent to their children, of playing the game, of allowing the quiet evil of coldness and indifference to spread with its small, banal, everyday steps.

“There are too many people in Tokyo” means all dwellers are bad or are bad because there are too many of them. But there are not “them”. It’s “us” that we should beware. Tokyo is everywhere. Incidentally, I buckle over giving one of my beloved cities such a bad rap. But we all know what Ozu means: in “Tokyo story” it’s not important that it happens in Tokyo, it is important that it is “a story” which happens everywhere.

Almost every writing about this film brings in the aesthetics, the framing, the camera level and such as the key elements. Surely there are there, but that’s just the skin deep formal “clothing”, which feels totally secondary. What jumps out the strongest are the characters, the timings as well as the overall structure of the story. (That's why the reported remake of the film makes perfect sense.)

“Tokyo story” is terrifying because of the gentleness of most of its characters. Their smiles and under-spoken reactions telegraph hidden cries of their souls. The situations extend just a bit longer than needed but not too long to call attention to their slight elongation. It is a teasing approach. The story arc leads from the banal through the tragic to the everyday. This hurts.

Regardless of why “The Tokyo Story” works, it is also fun to poke “behind the scenes”. The reported 43 bottles of sake consumed over the 103 days of writing of the script intrigue. Were they drinking to get stimulated? Perhaps they were just numbing themselves since the story opens access to a very painful spiritual human nerve, the nerve almost impossible to handle while being sober.

While the above could make a good story, it isn’t extraordinary in its excess but rather in its restrain. In a wonderful clip Shizu Noda, recalling the writing practices of Yasujiro Ozu and Kôgo Noda, says it usually took them 100 bottles of sake to write a script. Perhaps sensing the importance of this particular story they decided to stay sober on this one. Well sort of sober.


Harry Potter and the movies

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
writers: Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling
director: David Yates

The audience was mostly full of twenty-something girls. All eagerly awaiting the screening. The opening shot - the extreme close up of the eyes was strong but also suspicious. Something about it was too much, too fast, too eager and too cheap. “Oh boy, somebody is going to treat me as if I was an idiot”, somebody sighed next to me. As the story was unfolding there were occasional giggles and some smart-ass remarks, yet all got quiet fast. The screen took charge over the hormones, the nervousness of energy, the tiredness and wiggling of the bodies. All of us became subjected to the shiny beets dangling in front of our eyes, moving “24 frames per second” (or whatever visual trick this posh digitally equipped movie theater offered). A few times the audience even laughed at a few lame jokes.

Additional and clearly unintentional laughs the audience awarded to some particularly clumsy staging. Those laughs spoke plenty: we go to the movies to be visually hypnotize, mesmerize and spellbound by succession of sounds and images. The faster, the slicker and the more intriguing the elements the better, however once the human behavior on screen rings false - we are merciless.

I was shocked by the lifelessness of the young characters. They mostly behaved (with the exception of Ron Weasly) as if totally surprised that they are not in a proper vampire movie or something. Somehow all the charm of the first installments of the series was gone. I understand that final confrontation with the evil Lord Vordemort is a serious matter but the movie wasted plenty of time for idle sitting around anyway.

After the screening the audience was borderline disappointed. “I wasn’t floored”, “It was OK, but I can’t wait for the second part”, “The book was better” - were mostly the comments I overheard. Afterwards I spoke to a ten year old, a huge fan of Harry Potter. When I said “but the film was so sad, wasn’t it”, his face for a second clouded - for this short moment he allowed the reality of the film to surface, but then it quickly passed. I suspect that for him the fun of the film was not in its execution but in the subject matter, in the young character of Harry Potter, in the wonderful initial world created by J.K. Rowling. Besides, what's the film's reality? Perhaps our yearnings that we bring into a movie theater are way more important than the skills with which stories flicker on the screen.

In "Deathly Hallows 1" shrewd marketing and our collective eagerness to carry on with magic, innocence and charm triumphed over quality. We can pretty sure envision the second part. It will be laud, fast, furious and victorious. In the human department it most likely is going to be so-so. (There is no reason to change anything or anybody since the formula brings in buckets of cash anyway.) And guess what? We are all going to be there. Glued to flickering images. With sweaty hands and glittering eyes. Gasping at the shinny screen.

Do we love Harry Potter series despite its steady turn to morose and grim, or because of it? Let’s hope the turn does not announce some upcoming collective shadow.


Counting elegies

One of the most shocking, penetrating and devastating poems ever written comes from the Nobel prize winner Wislawa Szymborska. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh translated it as Elegiac calculation. It’s pretty audacious of me to suggest an alternative translation. Yet I feel compelled to seek feedback on my own version of the entire poem, posted below:

Counting elegies

How many of those I knew
(if indeed I knew them)
men, women
(if this separation stands)
have passed over this threshold
(if it’s a threshold)
have run over this bridge
(if it’s a bridge)

How many, after a shorter or longer life
(if it still makes any difference for them)
good, because it has started
bad, because it has ended
(unless they would have preferred to say otherwise)
have found themselves on the other shore
(if they got there
and the other shore exists)

I’ve not been granted the certainty
of their fate
(even if it’s at least one common fate
and still fate)

(if with this word I don't restrict)
is behind them now
(if not in front)

How many of them have jumped out of the speeding time
and is sweetly vanishing in the distance
(if the perspective is to be trusted)

How many
(if that’s a sensible question,
if it’s possible to reach the final sum
until he who counts won’t add up himself)
have plummeted into that deepest sleep
(unless the deeper one exists)

See you,
Till tomorrow,
Till the next meeting.
They don’t want,
(if they don’t) to repeat this.
Subjected to the endless
(unless otherwise) silence.
Preoccupied only with that
(if only that)
which is forced by their absence.

The poem by Wislawa Szymborska
Translation by Pawel Kuczynski


Who sees the farthest?

24th of November. A screening of 22 min. from
“1 Lawnswood Gardens: the world according to Zygmunt Bauman”
Directed by Paweł Kuczyński,
written by Paweł Kuczyński and Anna Zeidler-Janiszewska

After the screening Zygmunt Bauman entered the hall to meet the crowd. The discussion, including Anna Zeidler-Janiszewska and Tomasz Majewski, was devoted to the Bauman's just published book "Between moment and beauty. About art in the racing world" (in Polish). The panelists agreed that the artists are like army forerunners while philosophers are the troops who come afterward when the field has been scanned and recognized. I kept silent on the issue however would like to ad here my two cents:

Bauman himself with the visceral, emotional reaction that his work produces proves that the rational observation and reasoning can be emotionally satisfying and a true forerunner of the approaching times, a profound opener of meaning and sense. (Which are the qualities of great art.)

Secondly, perhaps the pre-visual and pre-conceptual domain is the common source of power and creativity in any discipline. Perhaps the veil from which true talent gets its flow is common to sculptures, philosophers, musicians, dancers, writers etc. Those who are able to drink from it directly and who have the capabilities to pass it to us use specific of “art” or “thinking”, or “life”. Perhaps the source is the primary and the same to all, while the language via which it gets communicated is secondary.

And so one more time (at least in my mind) it turns out that it is not "what tools" but "who" that's the most important when seeking meaning, sense and comfort in our common journeys on this planet.

Photos by PK.


A Zygmunt Bauman documentary film update

Prof. Zygmunt Bauman during the Gloria Artis Medal ceremony.
Photo by Pawel Kuczynski

On November 19th. Bogdan Zdrojewski, the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Poland presented prof. Zygmunt Bauman with a Gloria Artis Golden Medal. The ceremony included a 22 min. of selected scenes from a documentary “1 Lawnswood Gardens: the world according to Zygmunt Bauman”, the project produced and directed by yours truly.

The same selection from the film will be included in two public appearances by prof. Bauman during his stay in Poland:

22 of November, Monday. Poznań. Teatr Ósmego Dnia

24 of November, Wednesday. Łódź. Muzeum Sztuki MS2


How deep is the surface?

“The truth is always on the surface”
says Prof. Lewinsky (Christopher Janczar) in
“Phenomenology of Truth”.
Written/directed by Pawel Kuczynski

Q&A. PK and prof. Agnieszka Kozyra, the moderator.
Behind - the final frame of the film.

Yesterday prof. Lewinsky via his screen appearance met with a group of academicians and students during the Japan Days at Warsaw University. The ensuing discussion posed a question about the connections between the phenomenology of truth and the Kyoto school of philosophy.

According to prof. Kozyra the Kyoto school stresses the affirmation of our sensual experience of reality. Such experience should not be thrown away even when we attain enlightenment. The newly acquired understanding does not invalidate the sensual knowledge nor does it make it something of a lesser value or transitory. In Buddhism there is no escape from the real world and there is no need for such escape. Each moment even the most ordinary is as important as the eternity, or simply is the eternity. Such mind frame was for example behind the evolution of the tea ceremony - which developed from ordinary to celebratory.

If so, a possible similarity between the Kyoto thinkers and Lewinsky is most likely only a skin deep. Or “only on the surface” if one could quip about the Lewinsky’s pet intellectual project. Would the sophistication of the Kyoto school be something that Lewinsky could endorse? Not really, I would venture to say.

Lewinsky is much simpler in his approach. The Kyoto sages cherish the reality of the now because of its context in the much greater whole. For them the big endorses the small. “Each moment is the eternity” validates one by the other. For Lewinsky such distinction would be another philosophical disgrace. He avoids metaphysical or transcendental undertones of any kind. There is only the surface.

In a synchronistic follow up, the next evening I watched “A room and a half’, an absolutely superb creative biography/fantasy of Joseph Brodsky. Afterwards, I found an interview with Brodsky conducted by Nick Watson and placed in the archives of The Argotist magazine. Here is a quote:

“Nick Watson: "Appearances are all there is" (Less Than One). David Hockney has said "all art is surface" and that surface is "the first reality". Are you talking about the same thing and what depths are negated by privileging surface?

Joseph Brodsky: There are no depths. Appearance is the summary of phenomena.”

This is the gist of Lewinsky’s thought! I wish him and Brodsky could get a chance to hang out together. In Kyoto perhaps. Because the question of the nature of surface is still unanswered.


Thickness of time

Warsaw. Claude Lanzmann promotes his just published autobiography “Le Lièvre de Patagonie” (The Patagonian Hare). Somebody asks about his former leftist political views. He explains the war and post war realities and then adds that when talking about the past “one cannot forget about the thickness of time”, that back then not everything was obvious. (This reminds me of Kierkegaard’s “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”)

Flipping trough the book I find a scene during a high school lesson on Rabelais. Young Lanzmann unwisely brings up Bergson. His favorite teacher cuts him with “Boy, Rabelais did not read Bergson”. (This has cured Lanzmann from comparativeness.)

Both insights fit with his documentary style in “Shoah”, the film that seems the end result of an almost alchemical process of entering “thickness of time” while avoiding any external, that is comparative, yearnings. Sticking to the subject matter no matter what. No matter the pain. Early on in “Shoah” after one of the survivors tells a particularly shocking horror story, the director asks off screen - why do you talk about it. Because you Mr. Lanzmann insist, comes the replay.

It took Lanzmann 12 years to make the film. He says that that during those years “the time has stopped”, for him and afterward he had to “reconstruct the time”. Yet even now his relation to time is skewed because of that experience. (Something was off with the translation so I suspect that in French Lanzmann articulated it clearer) Still, that his directorial alchemy involves time becomes apparent from the very first reel of “Shoah”.

Lanzmann in person is remarkably sharp, honest and upfront in his controversial opinions. He is also warm and with a healthy distance to himself. The Q&A is conducted by surprisingly aggressive interviewer who does not always sound smart. A few times Lanzmann boils (“with all due respect Anna, that’s a dumb thing to say”). Yet afterward he reaches out and squeezes her hand in a gesture of (?) reconciliation or forgiveness. I am almost shocked by this small, fast and spontaneous looking action. Yet, after a few seconds it all becomes clear. Of course he won’t hold any grudges. He knows that it’s OK. He has pierced through the thickness of time.


Documentary access

"Thieves by law", written/directed by Alexander Gentelev

Is documentary as good as the access a filmmaker is able to obtain? In most cases yes although I’ve seen a number of boring films with great access to their subjects.
“Thieves by law” succeeds bringing to us three real Russian gangsters. Two of them admit their murderous and chilling past, the third, the most famous one, plays an innocent, yet does not particularly bother to hide his amusement with the situation.

Actually just after the screening I was not convinced that the characters were real. It was too much of good stuff from the filmmaking point of view. I thought that perhaps it was all staged. Then I learned that one of the heros (the "innocent" one) is on the FBI most wanted list as the most famous Russian mob figure. OK, it’s a real documentary, showing real gangsters.

Their agreement to appear in the film says volumes about our times. The fact that they openly give interviews and that, after seeing the film, whoever wants to could probably quite easily locate them, even though they are on the Interpol search list, proves that what they do is pretty much sanctioned by the powers that run the show on this planet. Obviously the film is done only by the grace of its heros, as it clearly serves their PRs, personal whims or other objectives.

If it’s true that 20% of the world’s financial trade is mafia based no wonder the guys in the documentary don’t hide their faces, nor do they mind telling stories of killings they committed in the past.

Alexander Gentelev, who has made the documentary, supposedly in the ‘90s survived a bullet because of a thick wand of notes in his breast pocket. Alexander appears briefly on screen. He does look like a guy who can access powerful gangsters, make them talk and walk away alive. Bravo.

The most mysterious is a poker face gangster who having retired from mafia
(yeah, right) wants to be a film director. However watching the sequence about his filmmaking plans (which I think includes a real snuff clip) there is a sense that perhaps for the first time in his life, he faces a challenge he may not be ready for.

In a subtly implied inference the film at this point seems to be saying that even a ruthless, smart and powerful gangster most likely will fold trying to make a (good) film. Because it takes more than mastering intimidation, stealing and murdering in cold blood to become a good filmmaker.


Technology and the human nature

"The game of death". Produced and written by Christophe Nick
Directed by Thomas Bornot, Gilles Amado, Alain-Michel Blanc

"The Singularity is near". Director: Anthony Waller
Interviews Directed by Toshi Hoo
Co-Directed and written by Ray Kurzweil

Watching movies back to back sometimes sharpens their otherwise single perception. Such was a case when after a shocking “The Game of Death” I saw “The Singularity is near”.

“The Game of Death” repeats a famed Stanley Milgram’s 1961 experiment. Milgram found out that 62% of his participants, mindlessly and heartlessly obeying authority, were inflicting cruelty to other humans. 60 years later, in a TV reality show medium, the percentage of the willing executioners rose to 81%. Watching this documentary made me sick in my stomach. It did not happen however because, as
a The Huffington Post reviewer claimed, the doc was a gratuitous exploitation of the worst in television while pretending to critque it. It was not. Rather it was nauseating because it honestly, brutally and skillfully revealed a sad truth of our nature.

Locating itself on the other end of the spectrum, “The Singularityaddresses wonders of the upcoming merger of high-tech with human biology and the universe. In a few decades nanorobots will clean up our bodies and allow our minds to retain wast encyclopedic knowledge. Rocks and matter will turn into computing fields for more tech power. Wonderful. The only question is: will it make us better as human beings? Raymond Kurzweil, at least in his film, seems to be little concerned with the fact that we are failing as species, creating oceans of moral and social catastrophes and are completely unprepared for gifts that the splendid technological and biological revolution offers.

I have reservations not only with philosophical and sociological shortcomings of the way the future opportunities are presented in the film, but also with the crafting of the message. The narration is high on technological vision, which while clearly monumental, important and stimulating, is nevertheless presented in a too fast, too shallow and strangely outdated fashion. Granted, the heralded upcoming glory of nanotechnology, exponential technological growth and AI explosion is truly fantastic. Yet the film shows it in a cartoonish way, racing and obsessing over technological wonders with little or no concern with their humanistic implications or lack of them.

Red light goes up when front credits state that that Raymond "Ray" Kurzweil is a “co-director”. In addition one learns that the interviews were directed by a yet another person. Unfortunately what follows does not dispel concerns. The exchanges between Kurzweil and the experts look like created in the editing room with both interlocutors shot in different time and space. The film feels like a giant ego trip and a promotional vehicle for the otherwise brilliant and extremely accomplished guy. Overdoing his mundanely shot close ups and the abundance of the “me” factor don’t help the elegance and the impact of the message.

Somebody could say that it’s not fair to compare the conformists and cowards portrayed in “The Game of death” with some evolved individuals, including Mr. Kurzweil, who are trailblazing the glorious future for our planet. Yet until we learn compassion and cooperation the upcoming wonders of technology will only make most of us miserable.

“The Singularity” has narrative fun (pedestrian as far as the latest animation goes) following the case of a sexy AI female Ramona who, a few dozen years into the future, court battles for the recognition of her individual rights as a being equal to humans. (Allan Dershowitz makes a wonderful allay in her quest). It’s all fine and dandy. But how about setting the clock back to 2010 and trying to get 1/3 of humans deprived of proper education, food and shelter to become possessors of full human rights as well.

In a footnote: as a huge fan of Tony Robbins I protest against flat and borderline ridiculous use of his persona in this film.


On bitching and moaning and other stupidities

Yesterday while working on a complex editing/linguistic/translation issue with Irene, a Chinese friend of mine, I was growling with frustration. She looked at me sharply and said: “Why don’t you do it with a smile, sine you have to do it anyway and since it’s not such a big deal”. The remark instantaneously stopped my exasperation. She was so right.

In most cases within a normal contemporary lifestyle, privileges of any given situation vastly outnumber any possible discomforts and upsets. Yet not many of us “count our blessings”. What is it within ourselves that gravitates toward the negative, that seeks holes within the whole, that tends to get high on problems rather than to celebrate that which is and works?

I recall that Catherine Firpo in her Beijing 2010 ISUD conference presentation looked at the issue from a broader cultural perspective, pondering the fact that in most cultures dominating myths, like the end of the world, are apocalyptic, dark and negative. (Soon on youtube I will start posting selected Beijing interviews/panel scenes including the Firpo remarks.)

Back to my Chinese friend: later I shared with her my recent mistake of taking an antibiotic. Her response was fast: “you are just too impatient, if you took natural remedies it would had taken longer but would be much better for you.” Of course she was right again. Why are we so ridiculously rushing at our own expense even when we know that what we are doing is wrong, dumb and dangerous? Saying that we behave this way because of self destruction is just renaming the question.


The Kafka’s way

Franz Kafka

How much of our (storytellers, screenwriters, directors) primary concern should be transparent in our narratives? Should our intent or obsessions be fully disclosed in the tales we spin?

The audience may not necessarily want to be led by hand, which is the case when a screen or a page turns into medium to primarily transfer information or diagnosis. The audience wants an experience (not knowledge). For that it needs space for (emotional) movement, a necessary element of any experience.

That Kafka is a genius we all know. Encounter with his works shatters our souls and minds. Only the passage of time, pressures of our daily lives and the barrage of sometimes petty, sometimes not so petty human dramas eases the inner turmoil caused by Franz.

So what does “The process” mean? Why is it so disquieting, so devastating, so shocking? A tint of metaphysics, a hefty dose of surreal, a social satire, a psychological vivisection - it’s all there. But what’s the primary engine that drives the narrative?

Milan Kundera in his awesome “Testaments Betrayed” warns against attempts to figure out the meaning in Franz’s Kafka works. For Kundera asking questions like “what does it mean” or “what does Kafka want to say” is plain ridiculous. Such efforts miss the point, flatten his artistic scope and cheapen the Kafka’s experience.

On the other hand Karl Erich Grozinger in his “Kafka und die Kabbala” convincingly shows the ties between “The process” and the cabala tradition of seeing our existence as the subject of the ongoing metaphysical judgment. Grozinger amply quotes chassidic scholars whose images and structures have striking similarities to the scenes and events used by Kafka in “The process”.

After reading Grozinger there is no doubt that Kafka, intensely participating in the life of Jewish Prague, was enveloped in the chassidic metaphysics. Yet his writing does not immediately reflect that. The scholars place the eternal process in the majestic and imposing “heavens”. Kafka locates the same in the everyday, the gray, the cheap and the dirty. He removes all transparently ethnic and religious indications but keeps a bare bone assumption central to the cabala - that all our deeds are constantly evaluated and judged by the Higher Court. That our existence is in fact the subject for an ongoing judgment. That our faulty souls are eternally judged in the process. That all of us are guilty.

Perhaps the Kafka’s storytelling lesson is to keep the transcendental core of a story hidden. Or to stripe one of our inner torments of its religious and cultural “clothes” and present it raw. Or to mix the metaphysical with the mundane.

Now that I know what Kafka wanted to say in “The process” his prose remains as intriguing and inspiring as before. Luckily no amount of analysis can destroy meeting a masterpiece.


Should she wake up?

The Sixth Sense
written and directed M. Night Shyamalan

“The sixth sense” even (or especially) on the repeated viewing makes a huge impression. When the plot is nearing its resolution we wait for two revelations about the boy’s abilities. By this time we all know that his mom and his friend psychologists would need to face his sixth sense. We know that it’s not going to be easy, as it counters reason and both “recipients” have been drawn as logical and sensible people.

The revelation to his mother I would place among the best scenes ever written for the screen. I think it works so powerfully because the script does not leave time for the mother to buckle over his preposterous claim (“I see dead people.”) The information about the grandma he provides is so emotional, so right and so to the point that she does not have time to reason. The scene races, even though they just sit inside the car. The speed comes from her feeling torment, astonishment, relief and finally closure.

The same emotional ride needs to meet the psychologist. The scene pivots on a technicality (the wedding ring) which triggers the explanation illustrated by flashbacks and much running around by Bruce Willis. It all works, closes the narrative, everybody understands the point, the properly shocked public gets its “narrative satisfaction”.

Yet, I can’t stop thinking that the two revelations are not on the same storytelling level. What Willis is asked to do in this scene does not provide him with the same “playing field” that the mother got, neither offers it to the wife. The limitation comes from the decision that the wife needs to be asleep and turned away. The psychologist follows the boy’s hint to talk to his wife when she is asleep. That’s a great devise, but the way it’s written/directed results in the characters not looking at each other at the most important situation of their emotional life.


.... what if this final confrontation changes into a face to face situation. Another words: they “talk” much as it’s now, then the wife turns around and wakes up. Now both are looking at each other. Yet she, awakened, can’t see him.

It is then, looking right into her face, watching and trying to make sense of her reaction he realizes what’s going on. Then without moving away he can do his closure face to face with her. It would give both plenty to explore as actors. And the flashbacks and the ring are still within the scene.

Yet, they clearly rejected this idea.


Words and images

a scene from a book “Winter in the morning”
written by Janina Bauman

Nina Chrzanowska as “Janina”
director Pawel Kuczynski

An upcoming documentary on Zygmunt Bauman will include a few scenes from “Winter in the morning” by Janina Bauman. The book inspired “Modernity and the Holocaust”, hence an attempt to explore the relationship between the two titles: the Warsaw Ghetto memoir and the ground breaking sociological treatise.

In staging the “Winter” scenes we wanted to pay tribute to the written word. At the same time we knew that the exact presentation of that which the off screen voice reads would result in a mere illustration. This would diminish both worlds and images and produce a lame scene.

While playing with the footage it became clear that any slight gap between the voice and the corresponding images would open up the scene, allowing for some air. It would trigger the imagination and make the perception active.

Perhaps such “non illustrative” approach is healthy not only when one has to join a text off screen with its visual representation but also when any text, any script has to be manifested visually.

That would mean that a goal of a narrative visual storytelling is not to show the content but to trigger imagination so it can enter the content.

The shot above by Andrzej Belina Brzozowski. Some "making off" material from the production is here.


Prof. Lewinski returns!

written and directed by Pawel Kuczynski

On Saturday we completed a scene for the next “philosophical adventure” of professor Lewinsky. The shoot had a quite elaborate background: floating dragons, laser lights and explosions. My miniscule yet wonderfully capable crew took advantage of a powerful sight and sound night extravaganza organized by "Teatr Groteska" in Cracow. Thanks to the theater kind permission we could be in the right spot on the right time to film our scene. I am quite happy with the results and hope that from now on professor Lewinsky will be more “public friendly” and commercial in his film appearances.

And yes, the figure on the right side of the frame is myself. Due to production logistics I have put myself into the story as a filmmaker/journalist investigating a strange behavior of the professor and his cute female assistant. This means that not only does prof. Lewinski return but he also brings with him his very own opponent, who actually writes the entire story.

Credits: The shot above by Joanna Urbaniec. Paweł Soja operated the second camera. Grzegorz Juras became prof. Lewinski and Małgorzata Makosz his lovely assistant. Andrzej Robak organized the shoot. To be continued.


The “what” distinctions

“Poste Restante”
written, directed by Marcel Łoziński
camera by Jacek Petrycki

The latest by Marcel Łoziński got him the 2009 European Film Award for best short film. The film is a 14 min. tale about a letter addressed to God and what happens to it at the Undeliverable Letters Department of the Post Office.

What follows is from the interview he gave Joanna Sławińska in the 1/2010 issue of the SFP Film Magazine:

Łoziński (Oscar nomination for “89mm to Europe”) believes in extensive documentation. Unlike most who say “know what you’re saying”, he pushes it further. The documentation is essential in order to be able to know the following:

what one wants to say,

about what one wants to say it,

why one wants to say it,

how one wants to say it.

Once the documentation is thoroughly done, due to the production logistics he “compresses reality”. By provoking, stimulating what’s already there or planting external elements into the photographed scenes he brings about that which he knows is already there (which, with patience and lots of time and money would eventually reveal itself naturally)

At the same time he advocates that there is no objective truth and that every camera set up is subjective by its very nature.


Nolan, Hitch and Michael Bay

written and directed by Christopher Nolan

Somebody wrote that Nolan’s problem is that his dreams are directed by Michael Bay. I disagree. Were his dreams directed by Michael Bay “Inception” would be much more fun. Yes, I think Michael Bay, together with Steven Spielberg, are the best showmen of the Hollywood raze-dazzle.

Pseudo-psychological or pseudo-intellectual pretenses are grave sins of storytelling. A few truly spectacular shots and fantastic visual concepts can’t hide them. (Whoever came up with the city folding upon itself shot is a genius! If for only one shot.)

True that while watching the flick I though “Amazing that he gets away with such shallow shit! Anybody else would fall flat on his face and die. Yet, this guy keeps the story moving. That’s an impressive skill. Still, I felt cheated and bored by the overall set up. Boring characters played by boring actors inside a half baked story. All spiced up by mountains of dollars and super talented technicians.

While Nolan toils hard, Michael Bay kicks ass with gusto and ecstasy of dealing with the medium. He truly pushes the envelope in rhythm, speed, visual elegance. That’s why I love his directing. Nolan plays it both ways, tries to be hip and profound. Ends up neither.

Where is Hitch in all of that? Well, coming back from the screening I felt “dirtied”, so I pulled out “The Secret Agent”. Great characters, great wit, palpable pleasure of storytelling. All jumped out of the screen and restored my faith in the medium.

I think that Hitch and Bay have fun when telling their stories. Nolan flexes his muscles and strains. That’s a big difference.


The fighters

Two quotes:

Victor Korchnoi, 79. Last year speaking to “The Independent”:

“Sometimes I felt I had to stop”, he admits. “They say: ‘You have done so much in this life. You can relax’. Then I play a game, and I lose to somebody. And I look at him. I look at who he is, as a chess player. And I look at who he is, in general. And when I do this, I know why I will never stop.”

These two words “in general” are troubling, aren’t they? No mercy to the weak ones? That’s correct, once they decide to enter the game.

Another quote comes from Andrzej Kostenko, a close collaborator of Roman Polanski, age 77, one of my favorite directors:

“Even when a director has talent, but lacks the tenacity - he lets things slip. But he (Polanski) does not allow things go (contrary to his vision).”

The same principle, isn’t it?

Both in chess and film one has to first fight one’s own weakness.

Only then comes victory.


The Lewinski update

Prof. Feliks Lewinski (Krzysztof Janczar) lecturing

To answer a few recent questions concerning Feliks Lewinski:

Prof. Lewinski's theory is gaining momentum in the academic word. Scholars are dissecting his early publications, doctoral dissertations on Lewinski are in vogue, many congresses devote entire sections to discuss his philosophical contributions. For example see the Lewinski panel at the 2008 Congress of The Contemporary Philosophy, Boston, USA: link

Feliks Lewinski is a Polish philosopher who has written extensively on topics in philosophy of language, ethics, and metaphilosophy. Until the publication of his “Phenomenology of truth” he was best known for his writings on Wittgenstein, and his association with the New Wittgenstein School. He has also written on Stanley Cavell, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Soren Kierkegaard, edited two volumes of Hilary Putnam's papers, and edited (with Adam Hottgeland) one volume of Thomas Kuhn's papers. He lectured extensively in the United States, Israel, Great Britain, Germany, Iran and Brazil.

Lewinski was born in 1950, in Warsaw, Poland. He received his B.A. in Philosophy and History of Science from Warsaw University, and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Krakow University in 1970. He joined the philosophy faculty at the University of Krakow from 1991-1999, and then became Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warsaw where he continues to teach.

For more info see also "Phenomenology of Truth" and "Light Denied". Prof. Lewinski graciously appears in both.


The camera power

The Cove" written by Mark Monroe,
directed by
Louie Psihoyos

“The Cove”, an Oscar winning documentary about the dolphin killings in Japan is upsetting and uplifting. The set up and the images of the slaughter bring disgrace to our species - hence upset, to say it mildly. When we realize that the camera becomes an instrument of the fight and at the end turns into the redemption device - the power of the medium rings laud.

The climactic scene with the TV monitor is one of the most powerful and dramatic I have ever seen on screen. Elation and sadness walk side by side there. The hero moves forward. Because he has to.

The director, in an interview says that through this film media become “the weapons of mass construction.” That too, yet the final results are unclear and the tormented soul of the hero remains just such.

Will he redeem himself? Or better, will the world grant him the redemption, since he has done everything he could have to erase his earlier wrongdoings?


Servicing the story

A master class with Werner Herzog

More from Werner Herzog, the guy who's not afraid to challenge seemingly obvious and commonly accepted :

He does his own slate - to be the last in between the actors and the crew. He bans cell phones, viewfinders and video village from his sets saying that looking at the monitor on the set is a major mistake. It gives false security.

He emphasizes the word “rhythm”. Rhythm is established in the shooting not in the editing. Esthetics must come from the moment. “Storyboards are instruments of cowards and book keepers”.

He claims not being interested in understanding himself nor exploring his inner boundaries. “That’s all new age bullshit.” “There is only a story.” “Be a storyteller and a professional - that’s all.”

Digital shooting pushes decisions into the future. That’s bad. Be present. Shoot fast and little, edit fast. “I try to edit with great urgency”. “Versions are diseases of a filmmaker.”


Piercing through

Miho Iwata at the Popper’s Synagogue, Cracow.

She appeared all dressed in white and with the sheer intensity of her gestures brought in unspeakable drama.

It was like a slap in the face to this sunny courtyard.

To the artsy crowd,

to the feeling of hipness,

to contentment,

to the need for entertainment,

to the underlying boredom.

A quintessential bourgeois afternoon in an old square

was scratched to the halt.

Faces froze.

Shivers run through spines.

A few laughed (oh well.)

Later, she explained that

it was all spontaneous and improvised.

Just reacting to “too much sun, too much of things being right”

The performance took place in an old synagogue courtyard.

What was she really reacting to?


How to report on reality

Documentarians of words and images often think alike. Take for example Werner Herzog and Ryszard Kapuscinski, two masters of reportage.

“Shah of Shahs”, by Kapuscinski, immediately grabs you tight. You experience the world written about with your own skin, you care.

From the very first moment of this reportage the author puts his own sensitivities center stage. In the very first chapter he does not describe the reality he is supposed to report on: instead he describes his inability to grasp it. In the second chapter he writes about three photographs and while he describes each accurately the heart of “the photographs” story are his own imaginary scenes about possible (and absolutely likely) scenes leading to their taking or following them. From the very beginning of this story the approach is subjective, imaginary, poetic. So why do people moan and groan now about his supposed transgressions from reporting the facts, about not belonging to documentary but rather fiction?

Kapuściński’s personal approach chimes with Herzog’s who’s master-class I attended a few weeks ago.

Herzog says that since nobody can describe truth, we have to be a little vague.

We can’t find the real truth but still should strive to approximate it. That’s why one should seek the ecstatic truth as opposed to the cinema verite truth.

Furthermore, facts do not constitute truth. Cinema verite was too much based on facts. So, don’t be a fly on the wall, admonishes Maestro. We should be thorns that pierce. Be a director. Be a film MAKER - inspires this almost 68 years old wonderfully alive and insane maverick in his 3 hour long intense lecture.

What’s also interesting is Herzog’s approach to literature. He unequivocally claims that nowadays one cannot be a filmmaker without voracious reading.