Documentary truth, part 1

On the set of "Citizen Havel".

What is truth in a documentary? What does it take to accurately portray a person on the screen? Does the term “accurately” relate to the way a person sees himself, the way others see him, or both? Are we who we think we are, or who we are in the eyes of others?

“Citizen Havel” by Pavel Koutecky, Miroslav Janek provides some food for thought on the subjects.

Some say this film is a “fly on the wall” documentary, or the ultimate “cinema-verite” of political films. To me it is more of a showman’s piece where the hero is most of the time “on” and fully controlling the message.

Despite statements from the filmmakers that Havel could “tune out” the camera there is always a clear indication that there is something between his very own self and the way he present himself to the public/camera. Yet even though this obvious barrier exists as a thin film over the screen we get the sense of Havel’s earnestness and his noble nature. It happens largely I think because we sense his efforts to be right.

Vaclav Havel is all about making an effort to be better, “to keep vertical” (as Kieslowski used to say, according to his friends), to improve the world around by leading, providing an example. That can’t be done without self examining and self consciousness. In this respect Havel by his very nature and his calling uses the presence of the film crew to telegraph his essence. Some say he forgets the camera, I would say he plays it as a good director or a stage play writer designing the story. His theatrical sensitivity should not be a surprise, he is a dramatist and probably,
more than many of us would be capable of, sees himself as a character in a life's play. Luckily, Havel is congruent in his message and in the way he is. That’s why, the more the director gives him screen time, the more president Havel reveals his true self - a warm, genuinely carrying guy with an surprising sense of theatrics.

Overall this documentary film is a creative effort both on Havel’s and the director’s part to present a certain class, an attitude which Havel employs in his life and makes an effort to articulate and strengthen via his public appearances, to which the film clearly belongs. There is a noticeable effort on his part to be “right” - in things small and big. He wants to be always prepared because he knows that everything he does sends a message. We “civilians” could only learn from him.

There are two scenes in the film where the camera retracts mostly to high angles and watches cars from above: during the arrival of president Clinton and at the funeral ceremony of president’s Havel wife - Olga. Both times - with different moods of course - the filmmaking eye catches the essence of events in a very cinematic way mostly via the mechanical movements of soulless machines, yet the spirit of each occurrence is
precisely telegraphed.

I’ve briefly met mr. Havel during a half hour interview for “Lawnswood Gardens”. He was exactly like the person in the documentary: thoughtful, sensitive, precise, concerned, slightly shy yet with power inside. It was a professional situation which at the same time spoke plenty about the private man. I may soon post on my youtube channel another “Lawnswood Gardens“ making of with a clip from that meeting.


Images want our sanity

What follows is a totally subjective riff only loosely inspired by a few W. J. T. Mitchell remarks, which very well could be totally misunderstood.

It is intriguing that Mitchell, the premiere current theoretician of the visual in the modern culture, the man who flirts with giving an image a voice (“What do pictures really want”?) at the same time unleashes an attack at the abstract as if wanting to lessen its cultural power.

In his lecture “Seeing madness. Insanity, media and visual culture” Mitchell presents a claim that, well ... we all may be mad. How come? He starts with Kant. Kant opens his Critique of Pure Reason with a chilling sentence: “Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of the mind.”

So we are doomed to be dumb. At least we know that the tool we got for making sense of the world is insufficient for the task. Yet the human hubris prevails and the madness thrives. The madness resulting not from chaos and disorder, but rather from having birth in actions of pure reason. Both madness and pure reason as expressions of our minds are hard edged on logic, order, causality. It is just that somewhere early on in their reasoning a fatal step of a wrong assumption takes place and then there is no escape from disastrous results.

For Prof. Michell madness seems to be a cultural tool defined to a large and perhaps decisive degree by those who decide what’s the norm and what’s madness. Therefore it can easily become an instrument of politics. That was the case with the mathematical findings of John Nash’s principle of equilibrium, which in addition of getting him a Noble Prize was also the base for the cold war philosophy with its doctrine of Mutually Assured Distraction (M.A.D.) Madness is therefore the result of reductionistic tendencies of the flowed reason coupled with our insane strive for order and clear answers.

In a world where mathematics supports insanity, where pure reason has to fail by its own definition, where images are aloof and mysterious in their desires ("What pictures want in the last instance, then, is simply to be asked what they want, with the understanding that the answer may well be, nothing at all" - as Mitchell finishes one of his early drafts of the theme), the power goes back to the discerning eyes and the minds and the souls of you and I. It is you and I and everyone who wants to make an effort of being clear, present and honest that could and should stand up against madness. It is us who are capable of restoring sanity by embracing images in their totality and learning from them not to reduce them by logic, interpretation, agendas or our petty "visions". Images are saner than us. They show us how to be more human. Let's learn from them.


The fake cosmos, part 2

"The Three of Life"
written/directed by Terrence Malick

Before I continue the June "
Melancholia" and "The Three of Life" post let me make one thing clear: I consider Terrence Malick a cinematic genius. What follows is not so much about his stylistic choices as about the current direction in visualizing the cosmos.

The opening quote of “The Three of Life”: "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" telegraphs the upcoming film and at the same time sentences it to the unavoidable failure.

The answer to the Book of Job question is only one: “Dear God, thank you for singling me out and addressing me personally. As you know, I was not there. I have no clue how it looked like, what if felt like, why was it happening or even how to imagine it since the event you are referring to totally transcends my insignificant self, my ability to imagine, comprehend or visualize.” “ Yet, I will try, continues Terrence Malick (in making the film), I will try to sing a song of our human yearning to touch the divine, to see that which is impossible to see since we couldn’t have been there.” Hats off for this noble attempt.

Yet, 43 years after the Space Odyssey, after Kubrick, Tarkowsky, Lucas and NASA defined the way we envision the cosmos certain stylistic directions seem used up, not as fresh as they were decades ago. (The more splendid NASA photos are the more they reveal limitations in showing the totality of events they point to.)

We accept the (unavoidable) fakery of a “realistic” film language describing a typical psychological scene be it in a Mallick or a von Trier movie because a) we’ve been conditioned that it is the way things are (they are not!) and b) because we bring into the perception of such a scene a huge amount of our own references. We augment what we see on screen with our own personal experiences or cultural annotations beaten into us by education and culture. Things get more muddy when talking about the beginning of the world. The thin layer of existing iconography is clearly bogus, it does not represent the reality of things. We don’t have enough references to confirm or at least partially justify the reality of the existing canon of the cosmic imagery. How to make it more “real” for us? Whoever figures it out will be a new Leonardo.

For now however the stylistic path "
Melancholia" and "The Three of Life" chose aims for the absolute visual truth in rendering the non-renderable. In this context, starting with the quotation from God himself only begs to close with a quote from the Lady Gaga Madison Square Garden HBO special in which the diva yells:

do you know what’s the second thing after money I hate the most?.... the truth!... the absolute truth!.. instead give me a bucket of bullshit, anytime!”


Lawnswood Gardens

"Lawnswood Gardens"
directed by Pawel Kuczynski
written by Pawel and prof. Anna Zeidler-Janiszewska

Last night we had a premiere screening of “Lawnswood Gardens” - a documentary portrait of professor Zygmunt Bauman. The hero himself attended, which as normal in case of his public appearances, attracted a crowd eager to meet him. We felt bad that the theater management had to turn people away due to the safety regulations.

Earlier in the day "Gazeta Wyborcza", a leading Polish newspaper, run an announcement calling the film “a comprehensive and insightful portrait of an eminent scholar, who grants the camera an unusually close access.”

Prior, culture.pl, the official site of the cultural program of the polish EU presidency has published the following write up:

"Lawnswood Gardens" is a 53-minute film portrait of Bauman, who serves as one of the main representatives of Polish intellectual thought. The core of the film is based on Anna Zeidler-Janiszewska's brief visit to the Professor's home at Lawnswood Gardens in Leeds in the spring of 2010. The film includes archive materials and other interviews, exploring the links between Bauman's "Modernity and the Holocaust" and "Winter in the Morning", a diary from the Warsaw Ghetto written by the Professor's wife Janina Bauman, who passed away in December 2009.

The film also includes a conversation with artist Mirosław Bałka about his "How it is" exhibition at the Tate Modern and the Professor's response to Bałka's work, providing a sociologist's perspective on art.

The film also features the Professor's friends from Leeds: Anthony Bryant and Griselda Pollock, as well as Aleksandra Jasińska-Kania, Nina Kraśko, Jerzy Wiatr and Vaclav Havel. Bauman's daughter, painter Lydia Bauman, served as the artistic consultant on the film.

The film was realized thanks to the support of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, the National Centre for Culture and ZAiKS.

The full text of the write up is linked below (one correction in the director’s bio: my philosophy study lasted only one year)