My way to Bresson (via Skolimowski and his "EO")

Oil on canvas, 2017 
by Jerzy Skolimowski

I approached “EO” with two preconceived notions. The first was an awe of Skolimowski as a painter and a filmmaker. In this order. A few years ago I saw the exhibit of his mostly large format works from which comes the image above. I am also a big fan of his early films, a wonderful burst of cinematic energy.

The second notion comes from many failed attempts to watch Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar.” Contrary to many opinions by great masters of cinema that movie have kept me cold. I don’t even think I managed to watch more than a half of it. I tried several times. Something is clearly not right with my perception of this classic.

Anyway, here comes “EO”. I go to a movie house and I am floored, moved. Even shocked at times. Great film. It beams with freshness, audacity and smarts. I felt I was dealing with a painter who communicates feelings and sensitivities rather than anecdote. The feelings were of a non-human entity, of a donkey. Or was it really a donkey? Was it something we don’t know much about and can only guess its ways of perception? But wait, are we sure of our own ways of perception? Do we really know what we truly experience and sense once we put aside a heavy armour of social pressures, cultural laziness and our own physiological and mental limitations? Watching “EO”, I felt I was exposed to a way of perceiving the world different from mine. Upon second thought: how different it was? Are we really in full emotional control of the events around us? Do we really understand what’s going on? Is our grasp on our existence coherent? Are we in control? Or perhaps we are just as lost and confused as the donkey in “EO”? Perhaps the unclear ways in which the story unfolds corresponds really to our own paths in life, which we desperately try to turn into a coherent narrative, in vain, most of the time.

The “how to” manuals in narrative storytelling present two ways of telling a story: though anecdote or through character. A classic Hollywood formula in which action is the character in its best blends the two approaches, but there is a yet another possibility and that is ….sensitivity.

This is what Skolimowski does in “EO”.

Some sneered at the “EO” as chaotic, unfocused and shallow in its critique of modern life. They attacked the film on three points: that it’s about “everything” and is “all over”, that its callings for love of nature and animals are banal and that it’s all done with too much “pathos”.

Perhaps those critics look in cinema for stability and comfort, for pure entertainment. For the familiar storytelling since the Aristotle, that prevails and shapes our travels in the universe, the familiar which makes our existence bearable but is still not reflective of how things are. In reality everything is a mystery beyond our comprehension. Yet, we endure, we yearn, love and withstand the blows of fate using model storytellings as blindfolds.

Perhaps our nervous system is really more like the narrator in “EO”, who just feels, is surprised, elated, shocked, amazed.

If one sneers at “the message” of EO, I would just quote an old Hollywood wisdom attributed at times to Frank Capra or Samuel Goldwin: “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” Or put it differently if you seek a message in a film you’re missing the point. Not that there are no messages there but that’s not why film are what they are.

Then there is an accusation of “pathos”. Well how intense is your (inner) life? What’s the amplitude of a soul that is trapped, confused, misunderstood? How would you present the inner life of something (somebody) marked for death? Bless your heart if you don’t scream once you wake up and realise how tragic (your, his, its) existence is.

Which brings me to Robert Bresson. After the encounter with the film that is a take on “Au Hazard Balthazar” ("Balthazar, at random”) I attempted to watch the original again. No go. Frustrated I reached out for “Pickpocket” and voila! Suddenly I got his strive to bypass the stiffness of storytelling and to get to the inner life of a character. Then came “L’Argent“ (“Money”), which again presented itself as a masterpiece in exploring the internal while making statements about society. All done with restrain, ellipses, unorthodox rhythms of shots. The narrator was telling the story of feelings while engaging my mind in a precise and abstract manner. That’s a very difficult thing to pull off.

Having watched those two films of Robert Bresson I realised that Skolimowski is not only re-telling a story of a cute and lost in the world donkey. He’s also riffing on the bressonian approach to the inner life of a character. He does it his way of course. Then there is the episode with Isabelle Huppert - seemed weird at first but then it hit me that it was a very bressonian detour. Which wasn’t a detour at all. The donkey was there. Additionally this episode somehow feels close to what Bresson did in ”L’Argent”.

Bresson said that the cinematographer has great potential but very few practitioners. He did this film at the age of 83. Youthful Skolimowski (when filming “EO”, also 83) with all his energy, raw nerve and audacity he is perhaps just entering his next creative phase. Perhaps through his courage and abilities the medium may open up in its sensitivity and narrative freshness. Which is what Robert Bresson envisioned.

I am still to watch "Au Hazard Balthazar".


My best films ever list (first attempt)

Tootsie: Bill Murray, "That's ... one nutty hospital"

A high-school teacher of philosophy reviled that he runs a film club for his students.  I asked about the titles.  Most, as far as I could identify them, where with a positive moral conclusion, with an outlook helpful in navigating the approaching adulthood.  It made sense since the course was for the students about to graduate.

I said that when I was teaching filmmaking my choices where not that wholesome, rather bordelining on “sick”, and probably not appropriate for the young audiences as a source of “feel good, educational inspiration".  At which point he challenged me to create a list of my films.  Upon completing it I realised that there are two kinds of films there: one says it’s all gloom and doom, along the lines of “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown”:  

  1. Irreversible, dir. Caspar Noe
  2. Chinatown, dir. Roman Polański
  3. Nocturnal Animals, dir. Tom Ford   
  4. Biutiful, dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu   
  5. Requiem for a dream, dir. Darren Aronofsky 
  6. Pulp Fiction, dir. Querten Tarantino
  7. Mullholand Drive, dir. David Lynch
  8. Vertigo, dir. Alfred Hitchcock 
  9. Eyes Wide Shut, dir. Stanley Kubrick
  10. Black Widow, dir Bob Rafelson 
  11. King Ubu, dir. Piotr Szulkin

The second list chimes more with a line from Tootsie “That's... one nutty hospital”: 

1. Adaptation, dir. Spike Jonze

2. Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind, dir. Michel Gondry

3. Being John Malcovitch, dir. Spike Jonze

4. Tootsie, dir. Sydney Pollack

5. Some like it Hot, dir. Billy Wider

The “doom and gloom” outnumbers “whimsical”.  Hmmmm…..

the lists leave out the masterpieces of Kieślowski, Skolimowski, Tarr, Antonioni, Bergman and the likes.   to be continued...


A nightmare of a documentary filmmaker.

A nightmare of a documentary filmmaker:   For some reasons I am publicly showing a documentary by a noted Polish feature film director Krzysztof Zanussi.  Mr. Zanussi did make a few docs, but is known for his features and one of them -  “Illumination” floored me when it first came out.  I remember that watching it made me feel that I was hooked into the very center of being, whatever that meant.  I am a bit afraid to re-watch it now.  

Anyway,  the subject of the documentary is not revealed in the dream.   I suspect that it wasn’t even a real film.  It was “something out there”, unspecified.   

The documentary is screened in front of a large audience, in an open space, somewhere in between a cluster of drab, tall post-communist apartment buildings from the 1970-is, the setting still typical in many smaller and bigger cities in Poland.  Think Kieslowski’s “Decalogue” and you will get the picture.  

Somewhere behind a screen, the sun is picturesquely reaching the horizon.   Because of the angles of the buildings it is hard to it see from a platform where Zanussi and I sit.  The platform is a makeshift to accommodate the event, something clearly improvised.  The screening is not very formal.  

I am making a public introduction to the film saying that we don’t know if the shape of the film is the result of the filmmaker having a lot of material and then narrowing it down to the present shape or just shooting very judiciously and carefully.  When I sit down, the screening begins.  

I want to be near the guest and because of that I have to position myself in such a way that I don’t see the screen (it’s blocked by an edge of the building).  Zanussi on the other hand sits on the platform in such a way that he sees the screen.  However he seems to be more concern about what I just said than with what’s in front of him. 

With irony and almost contempt he repeats to me what I just said about the option of shooting plenty to edit with.  Somehow he finds it ridiculous, untrue and really harmful to understand his process.  Pretty soon, not paying attention to the screening, we exchange the arguments pro and against such a manner of filmmaking.  I try to support what I said with my own experiences, among others from working - as an qual- which I stress, with Chuck Workman, an Oscar winner for his “Precious Images”, a short documentary, the editing ode to Hollywood.  Zanussi doesn’t buy it, and his reaction further strengthens my inner suspicion that bringing up this argument  reveals my weakness and low self-esteem. 

I feel inadequate, like shit. 

What does it all say?  This dream?   That metaphorically speaking I don’t see the screen?  That I am stuck in the old ways with the people of the old?  (Zanussi is old but I am not a spring chicken myself.)  That it all happens in a post-communist projects like settings?  The setting of the mind?  My mind?

After I wake up (with a terrible headache, probably induced by a stupid decision of not drinking any coffee the day before) I try to forget the dream and the headache by checking FB.  

The thing that catches my attention is a post about the new book dealing with the devastation of the post-communist transformation in small Polish cities.  Somehow the landscape from this book (the book is getting raved reviews) chimes in my mind with the setting from my nightmare. 

A strange connection.   Can a dream foreshadow the upcoming internet perusal?  Of course, why not.  After all dreams are meant to foreshadow, so what’s the real question here?  The question is I think: how can I stop thinking in the old ways?  Can I be fresh and look at the world anew?  And if so what does it mean?  

Is it relevant that I am talking about somebody’s else film not seeing it?  (Which would reveal ignorance and a lack of focus).  Being blocked by architecture?  (Meaning positioning myself unwisely, so that I don’t know what I am talking about), trying to be nice to a quest - that’s what causes me not to see the screen.  That’s the lesson number one.  

The lesson number two is that I project onto his work my own limited understanding of what’s possible in the craft of documentary filmmaking.  Cleary that’s inadequate and limited.  To my clumsy introduction he reacts with sneering.  Rightfully so.  His authority (he made a few fantastic films) tells me that I should shape up, that my ways are faulty, inappropriate, lame, shallow.  Now,

that’s enough to make a filmmaker shiver in his nightmare.  

Thinking back I realise why Zanussi: last night, already fighting with the headache I started watching the film “Rose” directed by Wojtek Smarzowski.  Years ago the film made a huge impression on me, and somehow I kept it in my mind as one of the best Polish films ever.  Watching it last night reinforced this opinion.  I noticed that one of the film producers was Zanussi.  That explains “casting” him in the dream. 

The nitty gritty of the dream however is: how to tell a true life story (in a documentary but not only).  Do we gather the material and figure out what it means later or do we go boldly with a preconceived notion what we want to say and shoot accordantly?  

I don’t know. 

The nightmare of a documentary filmmaker.