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.  


Run not to be literal?

Fritz Lang in his 1975 conversations with William Friedkin said two things that may be connected:

“I run away from home.  I think that any decent human being should run away from home”

and another:

“Don’t show so that the audience is forced to imagine and become a collaborator”. 


The director’s disease

Robert Altman as a director, according to Sissy Spacek, from "Robert Altman, the oral biography" by Mitchell Zuckoff, “didn’t have that disease where as a director you have to know everything”. 

Altman said himself:

“I don’t think I know the truth. Or if I do, I’ve been disguising it for a long time.   I don’t know that I want to give that up, this late in the game.  But I don’t think it makes any difference.”

How did he operate? Among other techniques: cherishing and encouraging accidents, using active verbs, being open to suggestions, treating actors as equals in creating a story.   



I am reading “Altman” a truly wonderful oral biography of Robert Altman by Mitchell Zuckoff.   It quotes from the “Player”:

- It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully.
- What elements?
- Suspense, laughter, violence.  Hope, heart, nudity, sex.  Happy endings.  Mainly happy endings. -
- What about reality?

The struggle to question the recognizable and safe narrative elements (which are not necessarily cliches) is at the heart of any honest attempt to make one step closer to something as elusive as reality.  

And what is “reality”?

A maverick storyteller faces a tremendously impossible task: to come up with new tools to describe something that has not even been properly defined.   All the “aristotelian” tools, all subtle or not so subtle tricks and conventions of sustaining the audience’s attention crumble when the “what about reality” question releases its inconvenient roar.  


Philosophy and mystery

My favorite director, Roman Polanski, a very pragmatic, precise and logical filmmaker, when asked what’s more important in life: chance or fate, responds (in my translation from an interview in Polish

“To me it’s something between chance and necessity.  It seems to me that chance plays the main part, however if one thinks about it - if one has a realistic approach and thinks that the world begun with the Big Bang - then one has to conclude that everything that happens results from that which was before.  Therefore it can’t happen any other way.  If one talks to God, one is religious.  If however God responds to him, one is schizophrenic.  But these are philosophical issues, and we live in times that are unkind to philosophy.  Philosophy has been replaced by science.  There is no place for mystery.”  


The skin of the images

Naran Ja (One Act Orange Dance) 

Commenting on his bold and powerful 12 min. short Once Act Orange Dance Oscar nominated Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Biutiful (2010), Babel (2006)) says about his format choice (VHS):

“We have lost the skin of the images. Cameras reproduce reality much more sharply than my eyes can see and that’s why it looks fake”.

VHS! And it works!

The brilliance of the piece does not relay on technology, but the format choice enhances the dreamy quality of the flow of the dance.

It is somehow liberating to stop carrying so much about whether it should be shot on 2K or 4K when telling a story.

Yesterday I watched a documentary about a poet. It was beautifully shot using the latest HD gear. Carefully staged shots were just breathtaking. Yet, half way through its length the doc simply folded, froze, died and barely crawled to its end. Seems like the physical weight of the technology got the makers down. They run out of steam. They also came up way too close to the poet so that instead of getting to know her soul I was attacked by the imperfections of her skin. Hmmm.

Clearly the sharper is not always the better.  Clearly a filmmaker should respect “the skin of the images”.


No excuses

The following was written in 1956 by Leszek Kolakowski and immediately confiscated by censorship:  

“Let’s not say that we were cheated.  Nobody is excused by being a victim of a cheat.  Furthermore, let’s not claim that, when we saw crimes, the situation deprived us of the courage to speak the truth.  The lack of courage does not explain anything, even if it can be historically explained because a man is responsible for everything he does.  Let’s not say that we lacked the knowledge of what was indeed going on: because even though back then we had it in less supply than we have it now, we still had it more than enough to gain clear understanding of the abyss between the socialism and the Russian and our own social reality.   What’s more: we were not blind: thousand of facts kept awakening our horror or laughter - both of them platonic, not-threatening and toothless.  

That’s why let’s not kid ourselves that only having the newly acquired knowledge and seeing the dreadful new facts we found ourselves standing on the silent earth from which Gods had left.  Our mirages were not fueled by the lack of knowledge.  They were fueled by the mental and moral system of the organization of that knowledge, in which each uncomfortable fact was easily explained by a network of ideological myths.  These myths served as tools for voluntary self-blinding to reality.  The crisis of the communist consciousness does not therefore arise from the new knowledge about the word: it arrises from the collapse of the mythology that initially gave shape to this knowledge.”  

How does it work today?  We are living in the free world but not everything is perfect (let’s just leave it with that).  The suffocating  oppression of yesterday is gone and we the lucky inhabitants of the Western democracies enjoy good life, freedom and wealth.  However, who knows how our today’s choices will be judged in the future from the perspective of the global, environmental consciousness?  

The world of ideological myths does not allow a vacuum.   What than would be small, uncomfortable facts that we sweep under the carpet  in order not to see the truth of today?  What are the present ideological myths that do not allow for the unobstructed view of the world?  


The hubris of knowing

by John Cassavetes

To understand or not. To know or not. These are the questions for a director.

Claude Lanzman in the Spiegel interview states there are no historical explanations in his movies. Not understanding is his iron rule. To him, to ask “why” is obscene. To me it means that as a filmmaker he only wants to represent, to bring closer, to allow us to experience something that cannot be experienced. In the interview he says that “When posed the question, "why?" by Primo Levi, then a prisoner, an SS officer answered: "There is no why here." This is the truth. The search for why is absolutely obscene.”

This brings in a troublesome dilemma: if a murderer presents a disturbing point of view that could pass for truth and the insight (in this case, the insight would be that there is no insight) than wouldn’t accepting such a position be playing into his own, the murderer, view of things? Therefore on the level of thinking about the events I would disagree with Lanzman, but then on the level of showing them through the filmmaking process I would agree with him. I would agree because when faced with the task of showing on the screen something that clearly exceeds any previously known paradigm seeking the “whys” is plain hubris. If that is indeed the case than film directing does not necessarily gain from “seeking understanding”. Whoa! What a strange conclusion.

Is it really the case? Let’s take John Cassavetes who claimed not to plan anything because to him the main force that destroys the storytelling is the knowledge where the film is heading. Supposedly it was his custom to write the ending only a few days before the wrap of shooting. 

Clearly he didn’t want the knowing to intervene with the doing. That’s a really strange statement, except Cassavetes made some truly awesome films. They were bold and challenging. “A movie should be troublesome for the audience”, he used to say. Perhaps the hubris of knowing is just an easy way out of our problems, the problems that we write, sing, film and ponder about.


Step aside

Andrej Tarkovsky (?, I am pretty certain it is him) writes in one of his books: “You have to be a servant of the work of art not a master of it”.  
And his long time editor Michal Leszczylowski says somewhere (I do not remember where)  “in bad movies decisions how to cut are made by either director or editor.  in good movies these decisions are made by the material.” (quoting from memory)

In short, humbleness.  

Perhaps this dynamic can also work in a simple and modest documentary which I am currently producing.  

I took upon myself to tell the story of a certain philosopher who is no longer around.  

The project is tentatively called "The Department of Historical Necessity". 

I just returned from another material collecting trip and discovered there that the hero of my story takes over in a very literal way: he makes me set up shots according to his (specific) physical ways of interacting with the world.  I just looked at these shots and they look eerily real.  

Where will it lead me if I allow it to take over?


Documentary and philosophy (3 of 3)

Switching to a more specific, personal testimony: the easiest way out of the problem how to show an abstract thought on the screen seems to be to equate a thought with a person and profile that person.  I’ve done my share of those documentaries and noticed that they are most effective when their follow their heros’ unique emotions and sensitivities.  For example when working on a Zygmunt Bauman documentary ("Lawnswood Gardens") I kept asking myself "how would Bauman direct" - not to assume I would be able to approach the world the way he does (I would not) but to keep myself in check when facing the task of presenting such a person on screen.  The documentary cinema clearly loves emotions and sensitivities while approaches the abstract with hesitation.  

Aside from identifying and mining the hero’s emotions, also a “negation of the abstract” seems to work well when trying to bring philosophy to screen.  In “Philosopher’s Paradise”, a narrator does not understand an abstract idea of the hero of the film.  Constructing a watchable screen tale is helped also by the fact that the narrator is the son of the misunderstood philosopher.   Because of that, there is a constant and personal tension.  In my fictitious 30 min. short “Phenomenology of truth”, a made up philosophical theory (“the truth is only on the surface”) championed by the film’s main character is constantly challenged through opposing its message staging, framing and plot turns.  I am mindful however that this “negation” maneuver however, while working in this fictitious area, could for ethical reasons be unacceptable in a documentary.  

I am currently working on a yet another “philosophical” documentary titled “The Department of Historical Necessity”.  It will be a story of Marek Siemek, the profound, brilliant and esteemed professor of the Warsaw, Bonn, Jena and other universities.  (“there are about 20 people on the planet that can think and Marek was one of them” someone says).  Yet, in what may be a cop out in terms of the subject discussed in this entry, I have to admit that the “juice” and the drive of the film will come mostly from Siemek's tragic life turns, his amazing charisma and personality as well as from his inner demons.  I will of course make an effort to communicate in a clear way his intellectual and philosophical dramas but the overall story will have to be constructed with the classical beginning, middle and end, with the good and the bad guys, with the plot turning and (hopefully) surprising the viewer.  

So, aside from choosing interesting or dramatic people who express abstract thoughts, aside from applying various dramatic devices to make stories about the abstract issues fit formulas of the contemporary storytelling what else can be done to further bridge the disciplines of philosophy and documentary filmmaking?

My tentative list of certain film grammatical figures and structural approaches that might help in a less apodictic and primitive screen storytelling that seems to be the norm of today include:
  • to allow each (abstract) beat to sufficiently reverberate so that a viewer can absorb it. 
  • to seek rather than to preach. 
  • to pose a finding in a form of a question rather than the answer, since each statement pretending to be the full explanation of a given problem invites by default its opposition and by doing so undermines the effort to “seek together”. 
  • to try not to follow the obvious in exploring a problem.  (Aren’t the documentarians charged with the task of showing something that would normally be hidden to a casual observer?)
  • to use sound as a driving force for images, rather than the other way around (at present the dimension of sound seems quite mysterious and allowing for forming fresh and unexpected associations)
  • to limit spoken abstractions to minimum.
  • to seek ways to equate abstract terms or emotional states or intellectual attitudes with spaces.  Once that’s done a space can become a representation of an idea (an example from a feature film world would be “dream” and “consciousness” presented in “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”.  (Yes, despite the main theme of this post, I think the most promising inroads into expanding the film grammar come nowadays from the independent feature film area.)
When all is said and done clearly the bottom line in coming up with (intellectually) satisfying documentary film storytelling is the sensitivity and maturity of a storyteller (not age related) and for that even more than in the subject of “documentary and philosophy” there are not fixed findings, lists to follow or insights to give.  

That’s why I was so late. 

(3 of 3)


Documentary and philosophy (2 of 3)

Usually good philosophical texts exude passion, emotion and underlying dramatic structure of intellectual kind.  Their structure comes from their thesis, assumptions, inner conflicts and the way points are developed.  Therefore one could break down a philosophical discourse into a dramatic grid not unlike the Hollywood three (or four or seven or whatever) act structure.  Once that is done, it would be possible to seek proper emotional or dramatic representations of the elements of this structure and present them visually.   (Various attempts to revolutionize the aristotelian/hollywood structure are still returning to the basis)

A single “philosophical thought” is never a hundred percent purely abstract.   It is so because, language, even when dealing with abstract terms (such as truth, justice, beauty, knowledge, meaning etc), does not leave them in our minds totally abstract.  Each of the above terms (and any other philosophical word) triggers some sort of mental image.  For example when we say or hear the word “truth” it never stays in our minds removed from reality.   It is always a specific truth.  It is always “the truth”.  We may not fully realize the specificity of our abstract thinking but it is always there, obvious or hidden yet always present.  Therefore it is safe to assume that underneath an abstract term lies always a specific image.  Respectively no specific image is devoid of abstract meaning: whatever we see triggers associations in our mind.  
The above point gives hope to the thesis that there is a common ground between visual and abstract: perhaps a translation of the world into a language and translation of the world into visuals both come from the same base. This primal ground would be a pre-language and pre-visual unity. It could become a well from which one could dig out primal “communicative elements”. “The communicative elements” would be the images and sounds laced with pre-cognitive meanings joined by their common origins. They would be the alphabet for a true philosophizing cinema. Would it push the field into a new form? Hopefully, yes.

(2 of 3)


Documentary and philosophy (1 of 3)

I am late. 

Months time ago a colleague of mine, an accomplished documentary film director asked me to write something about the connections between documentary film and philosophy.   In our talk the “philosophy” part came almost as an afterthought, an addition to the main theme which was documentary filmmaking as a genre.  Before our meeting the colleague had attended a screening of “Lawnswood Gardens” and saw a few previous titles of mine, also dealing with philosophy, hence I guess the phrasing of his request.  

In my mind my screen interest in philosophy is really only a skin deep.  It just so happened that during the last decade as a film documentarian I have been hanging out with various academic crowds of “lovers of wisdom”.  It influenced many of my productions dated from the first decade of the 21 century.  Some deal with heavy subjects of “truth”, “universalism” or post-modernity.  Yet, they were always the subjects of filmmaking rather than attempts to philosophize with camera.

Therefore what follows are just loose remarks coming from a practitioner rather than a theoretician. 

It seemed and still seems to me that an exploration of documentary film technologies and its subjects would yield similar conclusion regardless if the discussion was triggered by documenting thinking, object production or character representation.   That is assuming that as my spiritual and professional guru (I’ve never met him) Krzysztof Kieslowski stated documentary filmmaking tends to follow a thought as opposed to feature filmmaking that usually follows a plot. 

Yet, if a documentary by its nature is closer to the process of thinking rather than to storytelling than indeed perhaps zeroing in on meeting between philosophy and film could be interesting for exploring theory of a film-making craft. The distinction between theoretical thinking and following a story would however in itself require a closer examination.  Such examination would clearly exceed the preliminary and sketchy nature of these quickly jotted remarks.   For example the implied assumption that story presentation and its consumption is somehow simpler and inferior to “pure” thinking would need to be closely analyzed in terms of what is “story”, what is “thinking”, how they differ, how overlap and perhaps influence each other. 


I was delaying my response, dragging my feet due to difficulty in voicing something that would not seem obvious, banal or too esoteric.   Finally the pressure to deliver has outweighed the hesitations.  I have decided to put forth a few intuitions accumulated during those long hours of exasperation when I racked my brains trying to give screen justice to abstract subjects.  They come as points to myself, indications of potential ways to proceed in practicing the craft rather than (God forbid) rules, which of course I don’t know.   So here we go:

(end of part 1 of 3 )


Universal in Red with Black

"Red with Black" 
written/directed by Pawel Kuczynski

A mystery conjured into a cow.  Reflections on the margins of “Red with Black”, a film by Pawel Kuczynski” is an essay by Aleksandra Drzał-Sierocka in “The contexts of art, the contexts of aesthetics” (in Polish, just published by Authors and Officyna”.)

The author is kind to my 2008 effort portraying painter/sculptor Henryk Musiałowicz.  The essay title refers to Musialowicz openness to nature: “this great artist is enchanted by a cow and does not hide it.  To him art is a road to self discovery and as such should be based on a watchful and courageous search (...)

The director does not respond to questions about the meaning, mystery and rebirth which are posted every now and then by Musialowicz.  Instead he leaves them hanging and allows to reverberate.  Clearly sometimes more power comes from stating the uncertainty than from solving it.  

All that composes the unusual climate of “Red with Black” which is a very intimate and reflective film.  Even though it presents a specific person, it attains a certain degree of universal dimension.” 

I am glad that the reviewer talks about "universal".  However never during the making of this project I consciously attempted such a response.  Rather, I was just trying to offer my purely emotional reaction to the Maestro and his art.  

The question arrises where does the "universal" come from: is it the result of a subject, a narrative approach (conscious or unconscious) or does it, to a large degree, result  from a viewer's sensitivities?  

More information about this project and links to a trailer: http://www.directing.com/red.html


A second later

A part of the poster for a Tokyo art event 

The poster image triggered in me the following reaction:

A second later

is even more painful


the moment of the blow itself.

Tears will come to both


only one is crying already.

They will both be dead


only one is feeling it now.

They will both regret,

each for different reasons,

however neither knows it at this moment. 


on the other hand,