The Lure

"The Lure", written by Robert Bolesto,
directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska

When in Sundance watch amazing “The Lure”, a totally crazy, beautifully made new Polish film. It is a mermaid/vampire story directed with self-assurance and taste. The women/fish characters audaciously and successfully negotiate dangerous traps of the concept, the other women are also great. So are the guys: for example the manager of the night club where the mermaids work is played by Zygmunt Malanowicz, the same guy who acted in 1961 Polanski’s “Knife in the water”. In my mind his performance somehow bridges the two films: both are bold, intelligent and exploding with talent.

The director Agnieszka Smoczyńska and the writer Robert Bolesto while telling a fairy tale (modern, therefore appropriately bloody and in your face) treat us, the audience, with rare respect. Uff, thank you!

Yes, I love vampire movies but the subject is not enough to enthuse me. For example: I rarely walk out of a film but in case of the Jarmusch's “Only lovers left alive” just couldn’t stay till the end. Also, on the non-vampiric, but melancholic front - Smoczynska accomplishes more and better than von Trier frequently tries rarely getting it right.

“The Lure” has a weird original title “Corki dancingu” (the daughters of a dance hall?) While I like the export version better, I see that the Polish title also points toward a certain adoption and family dynamics on the screen. Although a subplot, it is also a tasty one.

So let “The Lure” charm you but watch out and don’t get bitten by a mermaid’s sharp teeth. If you meet her live, that is.


Endangered playfulness

"A Missing Self"

An upcoming Etiuda&Anima Film Festival screening of “A missing self” made me revisit this project. I've realized that it suddenly acquired a new and disquieting dimension:

Its seemingly light and playful action took place just a few years ago: a Japanese performer, who wished to be anonymous, sought her “Polish self” by placing around Tokyo “a missing person” posters with her face. I decided to follow with the camera because I found it intriguing pondering of the limits of our personal borders and identities.

Now, in 2015 yearning for creativity and exploration, for self exploration clashes with fear and aggression. The EU immigrant /fundamentalist/nationalist crisis pressures us to retract into our cultures, to strengthen our born identities, to seek power by separating ourselves from others.

Are we going to allow madmen to define ourselves by limitation, scarcity and separation? Are we going to take power from coiling in or from expanding? Is our missing self within or outside? The very worst would be to arrive at the conclusion that nothing is missing.  It would be the worst because hubris is always severely punished.  

So although “A missing self” is only a rough sketch I am glad I did it and hope to further explore its theme in a larger form.


Two Electras?

Persona by Ingmar Bergman, 
the first appearance of Electra (Liv Ullmann)

The second appearance of Electra
(Bibi Anderson?)

In Persona, Bergman uses two shots of Elisabeth Vogler acting on stage. The first comes early on when Alma is told about her new patient.  The second appears at the end when Alma, alone, leaves the house on an island.

I’ve been conducting a Bergman films analysis class several times already. This fall one student upon looking closely at the two shots proposed that in the second shot it is Alma (Bibi Anderson) and not Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann).

Such an interpretation would make perfect sense out of the film’s ending which puzzled many for years. Is it possible that Bergman planted such an “key” to understand his film and never revealed it? Is it possible that nobody (nobody!) noticed it since the release of Persona in 1966?

Of course the idea that Alma and Elisabeth are one is banal by now, and some have said that it could be all happening inside the Alma’s psyche, but never have I found the proof of it in the actual “double casting of Electra”.

Check it out for yourself comparing the screenshots above.   


What do movies show?

"Black Widow", directed by Bob Rafelson

I’ve re-watched “The Black Widow”, which is one of my favorite film noire flicks - mostly because of Theresa Russell. Then I found a 2006 interview with Bob Rafelson. Although he spoke there about directing fighting scenes he said something that resonates beyond a fight choreography: ”The audience doesn’t want reality.”

This given, what does an audience want? Escapism, visceral thrills and narcotic forgetting?

Or maybe the audience wants the reality beyond the everyday of banal, fast and superficial.

This beyond could be achieved either by giving them “more of the same”, usually with stepped up intensity, which camouflages for something different. Or the “beyond” is pointed to by intimating that there are ways to deconstruct (sometimes fancy and pretentious words are just right here when you need them) our matrix of learned behavior and perception. I prefer the latter.


What does exist?

"Demon" directed by Marcin Wrona

Ever since I saw his film debut “My Blood” I wanted to write about the talented Marcin Wrona. In his first film he seemed to be wonderfully mad and also technically very competent. His next film “The Christening” was strong, self assured and disquieting. Then came his final picture called “Demon”. (Wrona died during a film festival, officially it was a suicide in which I simply don’t believe.)

IMHO “Demon” reaches the world class level. The elegance of the craft makes the viewing a very powerful spacial and auditory experience. The storytelling is serious and yet displays measured moments for laughter. Its structure is solid and yet open enough to spill its content outside the frame, so that the meeting between a viewer and the screen can continue long after the screening.

The film tells a story of a mystery and does it in a mysterious way. All requirements for the  kicks of “I am scared by the horror” or “I see him quoting from famous films” or “I understand his voice in social/historical debate”are there. At the same time there is a feeling that the film is more than the above.

SPOILER: In the finale of the story the domineering father of the bride (the real demon?) tries to put a spell on the weeding guests convincing them that nothing happened and that they didn’t exist, as he doesn’t exit.

Unfortunately the local contemporaries of Marcin Wrona took this hypnotic suggestion to heart and ignored the movie.

I would love to see a next Marcin Wrona film. And so I am waiting for him to re-appear.


Poetry is hard

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
 by Roy Andersson

I feel bad.  Everyone says it’s a brilliant movie (and one of my favorite directors - Alejandro González Iñárritu is championing it in the States) and yet I am bored and annoyed with it. 

The film comes across as if the exquisite form of the narrative isn't really sticking to its content.  Except of one truly terrifying scene (a bizarre dreamlike killing slaves/art musing) most situations feel extended way beyond their thin premises.   The tableaus are beautifully staged and then not much happens. 

OK, OK I know I am supposed to be excited about the grotesque, the ugly and yet emphatic, the surreal,  about the stretched out dry wit, but c'mon: it’s 2015!  Haven’t we talked many, many times before about „how fucked up we are”, about the fact that "life is weird and we are pathetic and caught in self-inflicting dramas"?  Yes, we have. Yes, we have (that's a movie quote, I think:-)

I know, there are only 25 narrative situations and art is not about saying anything new but about saying it in a new way.  Fair enough:

So, are we indeed so jaded that have to be jolted by theatrical, repetitive tricks?  What would Bunuel say about this film?   Wouldn’t he laughed that it’s too forced, too staged, too much in love with its own aesthetic „illuminations”? 

I suspect the director has been drunk on the excitement coming from him chasing poetry, which as a creative process is indeed very tasty.  But in order to serve such a dish to others one should work harder.  (O boy, I can hear already your thinking - yeah, Pawel smart- ass, why don’t you than show us how to do it better.  I don’t know how, I am writing it as a consumer only.  I bow my head to the director’s technical abilities which are indeed awesome.  But so what that he stages and manipulate space beautifully if the substance of his talk is suspiciously thin - to me, that is.)

Then I searched for some Andersson’s interviews.  Came up with this quote about Bergman:

„He’s always battling with his relation to God. Sometimes I think it’s not very serious, it’s hypocrisy. He’s not really honest about his battle with God, its just good stuff for a movie!”

Really? That’s preposterous.  Maybe pushing the strained thin absurd musings about how pathetic we are is equally hypocritical since it could be also called „just good stuff for a move”.   

Clearly, poetry is hard.  Dry wit poetry is even harder. 

A coda: I really liked his previous installments of the Human Trilogy.  I thought that in „Songs from the Second Floor” and in „You, the Living” his scenes were right on.



at the Roman Vishniac photo exhibit 
Polin Museum, Warsaw

Watching one of the iconic images of the great Vishniac taken in Berlin in the late 20s of the previous century.  

The photography and its viewers are almost a hundred years apart. The shadows remain.   Does the original photo and its contemporary display above first trigger an aesthetic reflection or rather a moral and historical one?   

photo by Vanessa Gera


two dialoques

- Dad, do you remember how old the universe is?

- 7 milliard years.

- Twice that. 13 milliard, 700 million.

- That much?

- Yes.

- Than it’s better to stay home.

- I agree.

- Son?

- Yes, Dad?

- Do you realize how good it is that there is life?

- I do, Dad.


When quality destroys

She’s Funny That Way, 
directed by Peter Bodanovich

It would be too easy to utter smart ass remarks about a movie that doesn’t work.  I try to stay away from such comments. However at times in a lame flick fascinating things happen.

I admit, I watched this movie while distracted. Had to take a few calls and return a few text messages so I was out of the cinema hall a few times. Every time I was back in front of the screen the movie felt weird. I though I just wasn’t focused enough since it was the Maestro Bogdanovich directing.

As the film progressed the excuses for my subjective “not getting it” were getting weaker and weaker, but I was telling myself “come on, this is just a light, screwball New York comedy, relax and enjoy. After all you are a big fan of mistaken identities plots and that is sort of that”.

Then at the end of the film came a few black and white shots from an old movie. It was supposed to justify and reveal the origin of a running gag.

From the first second of seeing this quote I felt awakened, energized and intrigued. The framing, the lighting the lenses, the composition, the intensity of the actors were right on. (In the Bogdanovich film a few actors were also great.)

The black and white quote was like an explosion of quality on screen. It produced a wave that went backward making it painfully clear that everything prior was lame. At home I researched the quote: it came from a flick by Earnst Lubitsch!

The only question is how could such a learned film scholar and a brilliant director in the past allowed for this self defeating blow proofing his lack of form. The “Squirrels to the nuts” (the earlier title of the film) would have been just a passable “shall we switch the channel, ah, let’s wait maybe it will get better” movie. Instead by the contrast with the quote it turned out into a disappointment that rubs its faults into its wounds.

Sometimes putting a truly great element into the work (quote or no quote) can seriously undermine it as a whole. Almost like a twisted “kill your darlings” application.

On many levels, it is a humbling and cautionary case.



FDR in "Karski and the lords of humanity" 
by Slawomir Grunberg

This documentary is about a Polish WWII hero, Jan Karski, who after being sneaked into a ghetto and a concentration camp, personally informed Franklin Delano Roosevelt about Holocaust. On the screen, when talking to Karski, FDR is presented as a pompous, grandiose figure, who with the exception of a few empty words, didn’t do much to stop the catastrophe in Europe.

The idleness of FDR, and inertia of the allies, who did not want to bomb Germany specifically to stop or at least to lessen Holocaust haunted Karski to the end of his days. He was tormented by the self imposed guilt that somehow he failed to convince the Wester powers, the Lords of Humanity. Seeing Karski trying to deal with this burden is heartbreaking. It is so because he did more than his share in opposing evil, yet those informed by him didn’t act on this knowledge.

The film ends with Karski urging everybody not to be idle when witnessing or being told about bad things, no matter how small they are.


The premiere

The premiere screening of "The View from a Cathedral".  

The event was opened by the Vice-President of Warsaw University, Prof. Alojzy Nowak, who said that during his frequent travels (he is responsible for the international cooperation) the most frequent question he hears is ...... "did you know prof. Siemek?" 

Hearing him and others talk about the hero of "The View..." made me realize how privileged I was to be able to work on this project. 

Thank you all for making it possible.  


Press release for "The View..."

"View from the Cathedral,” directed by Pawel Kuczynski, is a 90-minute documentary about MAREK J. SIEMEK (1942-2011), an esteemed professor of Warsaw University, a world class specialist on classical German philosophy, a recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Bonn - the first post war German "honoris causa" title given to a Polish philosopher. Siemek was also a charismatic personality whose legendary Warsaw seminars shaped a generation.

The film is based on recreations (Siemek is played by Stanislaw Elsner-Zaluski), including the hero’s interactions with Hegel, Schiller, Fichte and Marx, interviews and archival materials. A central place among those who talk about Marek J. Siemek belongs to his beloved master, prof. Bronislaw Baczko, whose absence in Poland after the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968 tormented Siemek with pain and guilt.

In addition to portraying Siemek the philosopher, the film attempts to explore an ideological and psychological dramatic split common among those Polish intellectuals who succumbed to the allure of Marxism. It is also a story about the difficult and almost always lost duels that ideas wage against reality.

The title refers to the two major themes of the film. “The View” represents the philosophy of an image as developed by Johann Gotlieb Fichte (“our consciousness consists of images”), “the cathedral," aside from an ethical metaphor, relates to the university departments divided into "chairs" (from latin "cathedra" meaning a seat with a back support).   This etymology becomes clearer in the world of polish academia where the university departmental structure (dismantled as part of the post-1968 repressions) was divided into “cathedrals"("katedra" in Polish.)   Marek J. Siemek belonged to a “cathedral” run by two intellectual giants, Bronislaw Baczko and Leszek Kolakowski, both of whom were later forced to emigrate. Some believe that Siemek’s failed attempts to recreate the tradition of his “cathedral” contributed to his stroke and premature death.

The first ever cast and crew screening of the film is scheduled for May 23rd, at 6:30 PM in the main auditorium of the “Old Library” building at Warsaw University. A reception will follow. Invitations through pawel@directing.com

More info at www.directing.com and deafearsmadness.blogspot.com


Press release for "The View...." (in Polish)

poster by Katarzyna Milkiewicz

(This is the Polish version of a press release, 
the English version will follow in the next post)

23 Maja, 2015 Uniwersytet Warszawski

Premiera pełnometrażowego dokumentalnego filmu pt. WIDOK Z KATEDRY, reż. Paweł Kuczyński.

Bohaterem tej pełnometrażowej, częściowo fabularyzowanej opowieści o tragicznym ideowym i ludzkim rozdarciu polskiego intelektualisty jest MAREK J. SIEMEK (1942-2011), Prof. ZW UW wybitny znawca klasycznej filozofii niemieckiej. Wyróżniony doktoratem honoris causa Uniwersytetu w Bonn. Wykładowca, którego charyzmatyczna osobowość i kultowe seminaria na Uniwersytecie Warszawskim uformowały nieomalże pokolenie, nie tylko filozofów.

W roli prof. Siemka występuje Stanisław Elsner-Załuski. W filmie wypowiadają się uczniowie, koledzy i przyjaciele Profesora. Szczególne miejsce zajmuje ukochany mistrz Siemka, prof. Bronisław Baczko, którego nieobecność w Polsce po 1968 roku spowodowała u Siemka zmagania ze “smugą cienia”. “Widok z Katedry” poprzez jednostkowego bohatera, częściowo opowiada również o tych, którzy ulegli marksizmowi, oraz o trudnych i zwykle przegrywanych potyczkach idei z rzeczywistością. 
Tytuł filmu nawiązuje do dwóch wątków: “widok” reprezentuje filozofię obrazu wg. Fichtego (“nasza świadomość składa się z obrazów”), “katedra” odnosi się do do rozwiązanej w ramach represji po marcu 68 struktury uniwersyteckiej, w której Siemek pracował w katedrze prowadzonej przez Bronisława Baczko i Leszka Kołakowskiego. Zdaniem niektórych, Siemkowe nieudane próby odwołania się do tej tradycji znacząco przyczyniły się do udaru i przedwczesnej śmierci.

Pokaz filmu odbędzie się o godz. 18:30 w Audytorium Starej Bilblioteki Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego (Krakowskie Przedmieście 26/28). Po projekcji spotkanie z ekipą i lampka wina. Zaproszenia poprzez pawel@directing.com


The Premiere

Marek Siemek
photo by Wiesław Milkiewicz

The premiere of a documentary film “The View from a Cathedral” (dir. Pawel Kuczynski)

The Auditorium of the Old Library building Krakowskie Przedmiescie 26/28 May 23, 6:30PM. Followed by a wine reception.

The film is about the late MAREK J. SIEMEK an outstanding philosopher from the Warsaw University, the recipient of a honoris causa doctorate from the University of Bonn.

The event is organized under the auspices of the vice-President of the Warsaw University and the Institute of Philosophy at the Warsaw University.


Premiera filmu dokumentalnego pt. „Widok z katedry" (reż. Paweł Kuczyński)

Audytorium Starej Biblioteki, ul. Krakowskie Przedmieście 26/28, 23 maja 2015 r. o godz. 18:30. Po pokazie zapraszamy na lampkę wina.

Bohaterem filmu jest MAREK J. SIEMEK (1942-2011) wybitny filozof, profesor Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego oraz doktor honoris causa Uniwersytetu w Bonn.

Impreza odbywa się pod auspicjami Prorektora UW oraz Dyrekcji Instytutu Filozofii UW.



Stanislaw Elsner-Zaluski as Marek Siemek
"The View from a Cathedral"
formerly "The Department of Historical Necessity"

The Marek Siemek documentary has been trimmed down to 85 minutes and acquired the new title.   „The View from a Cathedral” encompasses the three territories the film travels through: the visual, the metaphorical and the academic. 

The search for the title that would fit was long and tortuous not only to me but also to those who were close to the production.  Thank you all! 

Various titles were considered: at first I pitched the story as „The Philosopher who died twice”.  Then I cut a trailer for „The Department of Historical Necessity”. Then came Aufhebung, Reason is free, freedom is reasonable, Honoris Causa, A Philosopher and the nation of devils.  And plenty more that I will save for later.  No, not for another change.  For a brand new project, I mean. 

What’s important for now is that The View from a Cathedral has entered the final post-production stage.  


Life reinforces preposterous plot twists

Whiplash, by Damien Chazelle

Being a sucker for “let’s succeed no matter what the odds are, even if the biggest of the culprits are our own limitations” I liked this movie a lot. The drive is amazing and so fast and furious that even some less plausible plot twists gallop past reasonable doubt and produce a narrative epiphany.

Upon reading about the director having a serious car accident but nevertheless returning the next day to work I wondered if my comment about “less plausible lot twists” (I meant that the hero has a very serious looking car accident which miraculously does not stop him from showing up for a gig where nobody minds a bloodied performer rolling onto the stage) had any merit. Clearly the screenwriter/director walked his talk. Hats off to him.

Hats off to him also for splendid direction and for supervising amazing editing and acting.


93% and philosophy

Professors: Wolfram Hogrebe, Maciek Kaniowski 
and "Marek Siemek" (Stanisław Elsner-Załuski)

According to some psychologist studies 93% of our communication is not word based.  Bad news since a film about a philosopher and his way of looking at the world has to be based on words.  Or does it? 

The hero of "Aufhebung" is a champion of reason philosophically expressing itself first through words.  The "second" expression of philosophy",  the true destination of Siemek's thinking, is society.  

How to maneuver between the two expressions?

Showing the interaction between the social and the philosophical can push he project to become educational.  Presenting concepts alone can turn it into a lecture.  Having a bunch of people talk about idiosyncrasies of the hero seems a cheap way out.  And on top of it all there is the specter of "93%" which means that even if there is plenty of talk, it's not the talk itself that makes or breaks scenes, sequences and the project itself. 

The present version of the film runs 90 minutes. Recently I cut it down from 2,5 hours. There are talking heads and staged segments.  There are emotions and ideas.  Balancing between them is the key challenge of this stage of the production.    



Michel Houllebecq in Paris Review:

"Look, the Enlightenment is dead, may it rest in peace"

A very unnerving thought.   


No grievances

"He preferred to seize opportunities rather than to nurse grievances." Writes David Remnick in "Havel in Jerusalem" (in December 2014 issue of the New Yorker)

The phrase reaches out to me probably largely because I had a privilege of conducting one video interview with Havel and got a glimpse of his ways. From our short interaction I sensed his openness, gentleness, curiosity, honesty and a certain firmness. That's why when reading about Havel I have in my mind an image of a real person, which greatly enhances the written remarks. 

I'd like to set the "no grievances" phrase as my New Year Resolution.