O slavnosti a hostech [1966)

This is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen.

Rarely have I seen such uneasiness conveyed through cinema.

The really terrifying part is.

How mundane all of the symbols are.

Is/are.

Insane.

For a moment.

Like the Czech version of Deliverance.

We see “party” in English (in the context of Czechoslovakia), and we think.

Communist Party.

But the slavnosti in question translates to “feast”.

Google tells us.

And Google is never wrong.

Right?

Which is to say.

Hell is a party.

A party from which you wish to flee.

Beggar’s banquet.

There is no leaving communist Romania.

And Czechoslovakia?

I can’t tell you, dear friend.

But we know of the boy who swam the Danube.

Symbolic.

To nonaligned Yugoslavia.

And from there to Italy and Toblerone.

That’s Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii.

But what we have here is A Report on the Party and the Guests.

Report.

Also sounds very bureaucratic.  Quintessentially communist.

Let’s take the popular notion that Kafka sums up bureaucracy.

In which work?

The Trial? With Josef K.?

Yes.  This is most applicable to O slavnosti a hostech.

We must learn to speak every language.

Like Pope John Paul II (slight exaggeration).

Because Kafka wrote in German.

Der Process.

It’s a process of ablaut-ish metamorphosis.

Prozess –> Proceß –> Prozeß

swimswamswum

Kafka died in 1924.  Age 40.  My age in six months.

1948/1949 Czechoslovakia becomes part of Soviet bloc.

Comecon.

Not to be confused with Comic-Con.

And never any Poto and Cabengo in San Diego.

Though they be in their own backyard.

Grace and Virginia were superheroes without costumes.

And they had their own language, by golly.

Brings tears to my eyes.

To see them playing potato.

“What are they saying?”

This is the absurdity of blogging about the absurdity of a film inspired by the absurdity of Kafka.

But likely unconscious.

This genius (director Jan Němec) died only a few months ago.

But he gave the world a belly laugh.

And an unnerving masterpiece.

It is not as obviously magnificent as Closely Watched Trains.

But it is supremely subversive.

In a totalitarian state (like Amerika)…which is completely ruled by commodity relations.

This is our last recourse.

England swings.

Like a pendulum.

From the gallows.

Frexit (France leaves NATO…again).

Hexit (Hungary curses continental Europe from Buddhapesht to Bookarrest)

Crexit (Croatia invents new correction fluid for computer screens)

Spexit (Spain certifies that said correction fluid meets ISO standards)

Esexit (Estonia doubles GDP overnight with racy dating service app)

Slexit (a dual rush for the doors by Slovakia and Slovenia)

Rexit (Holy Roman Emperor reestablished in Romania, confined to Bookarrest)

Fexit (Finland engages in creative destruction)

Pexit (Poland and Portugal [in that order] gobble seed with bobbing avian head motion)

Irexit (being both hungry and anorexic [morbidly hangry], Ireland joins the Brits in bolting)

Everyone else stays.

Until the Czexit.  [ooh la la]

Serbia accedes and secedes in same day simply to give the world the thrill of Sexit.

[I know I know]

This is the rearrangement of guests.

So many not at the world table.

In such times.

Only art can explain.

 

-PD

 

Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. [1967)

Something draws me to Eastern Europe.  I blame Romania.  Thank you Romania!  Yes, there was something about the ambiance which director Cristian Mungiu conjured up in 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile) which has stayed with me for a long time.

Really, it’s a rather mundane part.  Near the top of the film.  The goddess Anamaria Marinca traipses down the hall to find some soap…and cigarettes.  The scene is a college dormitory in communist Romania (pre-December 1989).  Girls in one room chat about beauty products.  There seems to be a good bit of bartering going on.  Marinca is mainly uninterested.  Looking for a certain kind of soap (if I remember correctly).  On the way back to her room she stops off at the room of a foreign student (non-Romanian) who sells cigarettes and gum and stuff.  The whole film she is searching for Kent cigarettes (a few mentions of this brand).  Not surprisingly, there are no Kents to be had in the dorm.  She settles for something else.  Perhaps.  I don’t know.

She stops and admires some kittens which someone has taken in.

It is astonishingly real.  On par with Roberto Rossellini.

Indeed, it might be said that all New Waves (from the nouvelle vague to the Romanian New Wave) have their birth in the neorealist films of Rossellini.

But Mungiu added a new wrinkle.

Marinca.  [The goddess of whom I spoke.]

Marinca is unglamorous.  No one is glamorous in 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile.  We get the impression that it is the waning days of Ceaușescu’s reign.

Times are tough.  The policies of the state haven’t worked out so well.  It bears some resemblance to a prison.  Material items take the place of money (reminiscent of cigarettes as currency in jails).

What I have yet to define in this article is “goddess”.  What do I mean by that?

Well, I’m glad you asked!  Marinca (particularly in this film) is a goddess to me because she represents the opposite of the typical American woman in the year 2015.  Her beauty is her soul.  Her beauty is her loyalty to her roommate and friend Găbița.  Her beauty is her dedication to acting.  She is completely immersed in her unglamorous role…and it is eye-watering.

I have mentioned a similar impression (which further solidified my admiration for Romanian films) I got from watching Dorotheea Petre in The Way I Spent the End of the World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii).  This masterpiece by director Cătălin Mitulescu preceded Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning film by about a year (2006).  I was again struck by another goddess of film (Petre) who, with the help of her auteur, created a character also in direct opposition to the meretricious, vacuous ideal of American womanhood in the 21st century.

And so it is that we finally come to the film under consideration:  Душан Макавејев‘s Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator.  Dušan Makavejev is Serbian.  Out of deference to his country I have listed his name in Cyrillic script.  Likewise, the title of the film (at the top) is in Serbo-Croatian.  It is a grey area about which I am not completely informed.  Suffice it to say that Croatia seems to generally use Roman letters (as opposed to the Serbian usage of Cyrillic).  It is a bit like the distinction (and writing differences) between Urdu and Hindi [which I have heard described as essentially the same language, but with two different writing systems].

I prefaced this article on Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. with my own backstory concerning Eastern European cinema because it is relevant to my approach going forward.

Before coming to this, my first Yugoslav (1967) film, I opened up the can of worms which is Czech cinema by reviewing Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky).  Jiří Menzel’s sexually-charged film poem from the previous year (1966) was a major revelation for me.  And so it is that Dušan Makavejev’s bittersweet confection shares more than just a communist framing with Menzel’s aforementioned erotic portrait.

Yes, Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. is about our old film-school standbys:  sex and death.  I can never combine those two words (in the context of film) without remembering the ridiculously funny scene of Jim Morrison at UCLA screening his student film in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991). 

The fictional Morrison, then, would be trying to hop on a nonfictional bandwagon represented by the likes of Menzel and Makavejev.  Morrison’s time at UCLA (1964-1965) not only coincided with the staggered births of “new waves” around the world (particularly in Europe), but also occurred while Morrison’s father (US Navy Rear Admiral [RADM] George Stephen Morrison) was the commanding officer of a carrier division involved in the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Jim Morrison lived fast.  Entered UCLA in 1964.  Graduated with an undergraduate degree in film in 1965.  Was dead by 1971.  But those years in between…  It’s no wonder Jim had an Oedipal complex (evident in the song “The End” [1966/1967]) when considering his father was involved in false-flagging the U.S. into a suicidal war against communism.  What a disgrace…

No, the real hero in the family was not RADM Morrison, but rather Jim.  He turned on the dream-switches of so many kids.  To put it quite bluntly, he was part of the counterculture in America which caused kids to start giving a fuck about the world and politics and geopolitics and confirmed charades (frauds, shams, etc.) like the Gulf of Tonkin “incident”.  Such a sanitary and slippery word:  incident.

It fits perfectly, in that there was no incident.

But while Morrison the Younger had gone off into Brechtian pop-rock, Serbian director Makavejev was busy making Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator.  It is equally stunning, for its medium, as “The End”.

Sex needs beauty.  A really luscious film like this needed Ева Рас (Eva Ras).  She is a bit like Jitka Zelenohorská’s character in Closely Watched Trains…mischievous, bewitching…  But there is one great difference between Ras and Zelenohorska:  Ras is a blond.

Though our film is in black and white, it is clear that Ras’ silky hair is rather fair (a detail which would not have escaped Hitchcock).  It must be said, however, that Makavejev did not give in to the easy femme fatale portrayal when it came to filming Ras.  Izabela (Ras) is a complex individual.  The film tells us that she is Hungarian.  She is different…other.  She needs sex.  She is passionate.

All the same, her portrayal by Ras is poetic and tender.  Really, what we are seeing here is a tentative feminism expressed by Makavejev which would become a thundering symphony of women’s liberation in Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. 

And it is good.  It is good for men to see these types of films.  We men idolize and reify women in the West, but we don’t often enough stop to really observe the trials of womankind.

In the best spirit of socialism, this film has something for everyone…men, women…ok, maybe not children.

Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator is really an intense film.  If you have seen (and made it through) Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (a film I, incidentally, once made the mistake of showing at a party), then you’ll be alright.  For those faint of heart (I generally fall into that category), there are a couple of rough moments in this film (in the context of criminology).

In all, I am very proud and happy to have seen my first Serbian movie.  As a resident of San Antonio (and fan of the San Antonio Spurs), I feel it gives me a better glimpse into the life of one of my favorite basketball players Бобан Марјановић (Boban Marjanović).  I highly recommend this film…and Go Spurs Go 🙂

 

-PD

A fost sau n-a fost? [2006)

It took me a long time.  To come back to Romania.  Country I’ve never visited.  But in film.

I do not know which Romanian film I saw first.  It may have been 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

It may have been The Way I Spent the End of the World.

You can read my praise for those two perfect films here on my site.

But let me just say that I am honored to finally review what I consider the third perfect Romanian film:

12:08 East of Bucharest.

The Romanian title translates directly as “It was or was not?”

Perhaps a little massaging would render the phrase more like “Was it or wasn’t it?”

And so what is this Hamletesque sentence driving at?

That is the question!

The revolution.  The Romanian Revolution.

In a particular town (Vaslui) was there a revolution or wasn’t there?

While this may sound like a rather dry premise, let me assure you that director Corneliu Porumboiu proves himself to be a master on the order of his countrymen Cristian Mungiu and Cătălin Mitulescu.

Porumboiu is helped by the fantastic acting of three stellar performers.

Mircea Andreescu plays the character Emanoil Piscoci.  Andreescu’s comic timing as the awkward Mr. Piscoci is one of the defining elements of this film.

Also indispensable is Ion Sapdaru as Professor Manescu.  Sapdaru’s desperation and body language also make this film the timeless gem that it is.

Though we may not completely sympathize with his brusque character, Teodor Corban does an admirable job portraying the unifying (and polarizing) Virgil Jderescu.

Finally, I cannot leave out the small-but-pithy contribution of the excellent George Guoqingyun.

[we now interrupt this horribly boring review to bring you the point]

The point?

Black humor.  Bleak humor.  Dark humor.

The town…looks as shitty as my town.  My neighborhood.

There aren’t any explosions.  No CGI.

No superheroes.  In fact, there’s not even a pretty girl with whom to fall in love.

That’s reality right there.  Verismo.

As the snow falls on Vaslui I feel the same desperation I feel on a daily basis.

The cracked concrete of the apartment buildings.  The sad roofs.  From above.

The band is a little out of tune.  Desafinado.  I love them.

This film isn’t like the oblivion of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.  It doesn’t have a blooming flower of hope in its heart like The Way I Spent the End of the World.

But it shares with those films a country and a particular way of looking at the world.  Show the bad stuff.

The difference here is, “Show the bad stuff…and then laugh a little.”

A little.

It will still make you cry.

No, it’s not a calculated Italian confection.

This is a beautifully sloppy film.

It’s films such as this which make me push on–which make me keep writing.  I keep hoping.

Porumboiu…your crappy world gives me hope in my crappy world.  Thank you.

-PD

4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile [2007)

This is “the big one” of the Romanian New Wave.  Winner of the Palme d’Or, it was director Cristian Mungiu’s second feature film.  The overriding perspective is radically and beautifully feminist (I say that as a man not well-versed in feminist literature or theory).  Over the course of 113 minutes we see the lengths to which friends go for one another.  In this case, the generosity is mostly one-way.

Anamaria Marinca gives one of the finest performances in cinematic history as Otilia.  It is a much pithier version of Dorotheea Petre’s role in The Way I Spent the End of the World.  What these two actresses bring to the screen is a representation of the female in diametric opposition to the typical young American woman.  These characters are not stylish, nor selfish.  They are not shallow.  Their lives are hard and I can relate to that.  These actresses make me fall in love with their characters.

Marinca embodies her role to a degree which is beyond extraordinary.  Mungiu’s direction is fantastic, but Marinca makes the whole thing possible through her onscreen dedication.  This is certainly one of the finest films ever made and it thankfully sheds light not only on the little-known Romanian film industry, but also on the harrowing tribulations of being female.

This is a pinnacle of synergy…where acting perfection and directorial excellence come together.  I simply cannot do this film justice…no matter how many words I throw at the page.

-PD

Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii [2006)

I learned early on to care for the little guys.  Or:  this film destroys me.  How I spent the end of the world…  I remember seeing this in a dingy room spending my last five dollars to have it on demand.  It is as good as I remember.  If they ever send another one of those time capsules into space…you know, the ones with music by Bach and such…they should reconsider this film as one of the most touching pieces of art humanity has ever produced.

Sometimes the little guy is a long, lanky guy…and so it is in this movie.  Andrei (Cristian Văraru) is like a Romanian Napoleon Dynamite.  But this is no comedy.  Imagine living in a country where emigration is forbidden.  That’s a big way of saying, “you can’t leave.”  No exit.

Văraru is so good in this that it is unreal.  Imagine the dorkiest kid you ever went to school with…picked on, beaten, made fun of…  Well, Andrei is determined to get out of Romania.  This is communist Romania…in the year(s) leading up to the fall of Ceaușescu.  Andrei is the new kid in town as well.  He shows up with a police escort.  The military police dump his family’s stuff onto the unpaved, rainy road and he starts life anew as the neighbor of Eva (Dorotheea Petre). 

[At this point I must pause and catch my breath, because Petre’s acting is one of the most remarkable phenomena I have ever seen.  Thank you.]

Dorotheea starts off as an average girl…in fact, literally the girl next door…soon enough.  She has a sort of jock, soldier boyfriend.  They go to the communist school.  The idiot guy sneaks her out of class like a luckless James Dean.  As they are halfway making out, he kicks over a statue (bust) of Ceaușescu .  Dorotheea ends up taking the blame.  She doesn’t squeal, but the dude is a cop’s son.

And thus life changes for Dorotheea.  She is removed from the communist youth party by her comrades; her colleagues.  Keep in mind, there is no choice in the matter as far as being a member or not.  As she won’t admit to a crime she didn’t commit, she is moved to a school for rejects and losers…a little reeducation.

There she meets her new neighbor Andrei.  He’s not like the other dudes.  He’s thin as a rail and has gigantic lips.  He’s weird.

They become friends and she learns that Andrei is planning to escape from Romania.  He is going to cross the Danube.  There’s no waltzes of Viennese blue in these waters…this is the icy Danube of totalitarian government.  He agrees to take Dorotheea along.  They train.  In perhaps the most touching (and certainly the most visceral) scene, the two practice acclimating to freezing waters by immersing themselves in an old bathtub filled with floating ice.  Andrei even rigs up flotation vests using old coffee cans.

And so one night the militia (secret service) show up at Andrei’s house.  He’s one step ahead.  He will have to leave now if he’s going to leave at all.  The two set off and hop a train.  It is an amazing story of the desire to be free.  They finally arrive at the crossing point.  Armed guards watch the river with automatic weapons…ready to shoot any who try to escape from this utopia.

As they are halfway across the river, Dorotheea turns back.  Fear?  No.  She remembers her adorable little brother…one of the ones too young to have this chance.

Timotei Duma plays Lalalilu (Lilu for short).  It is for him that Dorotheea returns to the grey monotony of Eastern European socialism.  Andrei makes it to Italy and sends pictures, a denim jacket and Toblerone.  I’ve never seen a girl look so sad while eating chocolate in all my life.  As you might notice, I’m not too worried about dangling modifiers at this point either.

And so Dorotheea soldiers on.  She even gets back together (somewhat) with the cop’s son because he is supplying medicine for her sick little brother.  Poor kid is always getting fevers…  But the sadness is in her eyes…and her first sexual experience turns out to be just a momentary diversion from her horribly drab, drab life.

And then it happens.  It happens in more than a few Romanian New Wave films…because it is the moment:  the fall of communism.  Dorotheea and Lilu and the parents hug and dance around like a Matisse painting while verbalizing the moment…”we’re free!!!”

This is darn near a perfect film.  This is a film for the little guys.  This is a film for the forgotten corners of the world.  This is a film for people with drab, drab lives who feel like prisoners–who have no dream other than the hope of managing a smile once in a while.  Cătălin Mitulescu made a piece of art to be cherished and hidden and shared and preserved.  This is why I love cinema.

 

-PD