Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cinema Scope Feature - Game Theories: Corneliu Porumboiu and the New Romanian Wake


This piece appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Cinema Scope.  

Since reaching its height of visibility following the release of the Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), the Romanian New Wave has charted an oblique, fascinating course away from the spotlight. The rising tide of interest prompted not only by Cristian Mungiu’s breakthrough abortion drama but also earlier with Cristi Puiu’s Un Certain Regard winner The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Camera d’Or winner 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) would inevitably have to crest, and in its wake we’ve witnessed an array of permutations on the basic principles crystallized by these key early works, alongside a few brave attempts at expanding upon the aesthetic configurations of the movement’s inherent political and formal ideologies, no matter these filmmakers’ otherwise conflicting personalities and contrasting thematic preoccupations.

In retrospect, Puiu’s Aurora (2010) appears to be the watershed, the pivot point at which this sometimes tenuous trend evolved into something else entirely. Pushing the style’s component elements—severe realism, long takes, elliptical structuring—to the near vanishing point, this disarmingly precise, radically plotted follow-up to Lazarescu was a gateway for Puiu to further narrative experimentation, which he’s since made good on with the conceptually recalibrating Three Interpretation Exercises (2013). Meanwhile, Porumboiu was likewise perfecting the more sociologically and morally inquisitive extremes of the thematic spectrum, while simultaneously tightening up the compositional and structural restlessness, with the impressively comprehensive Police, Adjective (2009). (Mungiu, for his part, has become something of a spiritual eminence.)

Appropriately, then, it is Porumboiu who has proven most consciously attuned to both the limitations and nascent theoretical potentialities of the new Romanian cinema. His two newest films, the brashly titled When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013) and the more modestly christened but no less thematically resonant The Second Game, while at a glance diametrically opposing entities—they can even be said to occupy different categorical modes entirely, as the latter is something of a documentary, or perhaps a nonfiction essay or family portrait—are a nonetheless apt pair. Both conceptual reflections of a sort, these films plot coordinates between the personal, professional, and political past and present of Porumboiu himself, substantially rewiring his programmatic ambition in the process. Taken separately, each film is a unique, strikingly intimate account of artistic and ancestral curiosity; together they illuminate the playfully epistemological nature of a filmmaker in an ongoing conversation with not only his medium but also his maturing methodology.

Ostensibly fictional, When Evening Falls is far more functional, complex, and revealing than that label initially implies. Porumboiu’s presence has always been felt in his work—films as historically and socially attuned as 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective are, on one level, framed by an omniscient perspective naturally suggestive of a sovereign creator, but on another it could be understood that he’s finally written himself into his latest narrative, to the point where a once-external spirit is now finding literal voice through a character within the drama. Despite his moral transgressions, Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache), a self-serious director sleeping with his lead actress while trying in vain to finish a film without further sacrificing his professional integrity, plays the role of a surrogate figure. Navigating ethical ambiguity, pondering the philosophical implications of artistic purity, all the while perpetuating the idea that he may be suffering from an ulcer, Paul is at once curious and contemptible. If he’s not a total transposition of Porumboiu’s lived experience—considering the temperamental divide between his compatriot filmmakers, this characterization could be read as a comment on any number of contemporaries, or simply a behavioural amalgam—the confidence in drawing such novel and unflattering parallels is nonetheless commendable, not to mention comedic.

The central subject of When Evening Falls is less Porumboiu, however, than cinema itself—and more specifically, the new Romanian cinema and the role the dictatorship has played in its modern aesthetic design and wider functionality. The director’s arch humour, always such a welcome nuance of his otherwise rather procedural parables, is here utilized to its fullest capacity yet, as Porumboiu references, comments upon, and just generally subverts the widely held notion of his and his contemporaries’ cold, clinical formulae—and he does so by constructing the coldest, most clinical of any Romanian film thus far. But what should play as a calculated reconfiguration of established tropes is instead rendered as a multifaceted, metaphysical deconstruction.

The reflexive nature of the film’s narrative is established in the opening scene as Paul and his actress/mistress Alina (Diana Avramut) drive the streets of Bucharest discussing the rationale behind certain production decisions made by the director, who throughout is essentially theorizing as a form of flirtation. Paul espouses the purity of celluloid but laments the fact that, by dint of the medium’s inherent recording capabilities, he is unable to shoot unbroken sequences of more than 11 minutes in length. The scene we watch them in doesn’t last quite that long, but it approaches similar lengths without a cut or even as much as a camera movement. And all of the 17 subsequent sequences follow a similar one-shot, one-scene framework, built around mostly static set-ups with only dialogue and the movement of the actors available to establish an internal dynamic within the frame. Porumboiu and cinematographer Tudor Mircea’s methodically precise widescreen 35mm lensing is thus vital to maintaining not only compositional but thematic integrity. One gets the sense while watching that what we’re actually seeing onscreen is an aesthetic model of Paul’s offscreen project, a presumably staid, austere lesson in arthouse conventions, not unlike many of the dour, impersonal films produced in the shadow of Romania’s rise to respectability. One key scene late in the film finds Paul finally admitting that the problems he’s experiencing don’t simply stem from Alina’s acting. “It’s a political film,” he says, before vaguely adding that he “must show what bastards they are, how low they’ve stooped.”

What this formulation yields is, paradoxically, a kind of comedic conversation between Paul’s pretentious musings and Porumboiu’s visualization of these very same concepts, as the director’s various methods and modes of storytelling are subjected to a kind of real-time auto-critique (time itself is indeed one of the film’s other primary considerations; one seemingly inconsequential scene plays out with just the click of a car’s turn signal simulating the tick of a clock). As a result, potentially insufferable dialogue (“To what extent do you think Chinese cuisine is affected by the fact that they eat with chopsticks?”) is rendered gleefully absurd in its thematic employment, while mundane blocking and rehearsal exercises are parlayed for maximum cerebral pleasure, Porumboiu’s mise en scène at once evincing both mastery and mischievousness. Rather than devolve into novelty or, worse yet, parody, When Evening Falls re-engages its own aesthetic constituents with meta-analytic verve, the alchemical addendum of its full title suggesting a self-sustaining cinematic schema that Porumboiu turns into a game of technical and temporal sleight of hand.

More games are played, both literally and figuratively, in The Second Game, Porumboiu’s most recent work, and his first feature-length non-fiction film, which just premiered in the Berlinale Forum. With the exception of the more subtly engaged When Evening Falls, which nonetheless excavates a corresponding type of cumulative experience, holding up a mirror to the dictatorship, all of Porumboiu’s prior features have plainly integrated historical elements as a sort of thematic infrastructure. The concerns of Porumboiu—and, indeed, all of his contemporaries—could in fact be identified as primarily political, particularly considering the age of Communism during which they matured. Porumboiu himself directly addressed the era in 12:08 East of Bucharest, which reconsidered the fall of Ceaușescu by dramatizing a media-sanctioned debate between a group of men who may or may not be authorities on the role their hometown played in the revolution. The Second Game, however, is something altogether different, as it bridges the past and present through shared reminiscence of individual experience—an experience with political and professional intrigue severe enough to accrue very real personal implications.

Sourced from VHS tape and produced over just two days, The Second Game is essentially a feature-length commentary between Corneliu and his father Adrian as they watch a recording of a soccer game that the elder Porumboiu refereed. There’s no visible editing, no interviews, no narrative—just a sloppily recorded audio conversation (and the sounds of incoming iPhone alerts) over a badly faded, distortion-drenched videotape. And yet what reads as numbingly banal in theory is almost miraculous in execution. The Second Game proceeds like an audio/visual memoir, collapsing time, technologies, and testimony while positioning itself as a historical rejoinder to a regime whose impact was felt in corners far beyond cultural institutions. In both its political and sociological inquisitiveness, then, the film represents the most direct indictment of the administration since Andrei Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010).

To the untrained eye the game itself may seem fairly commonplace: it is, after all, a 1988 match between Dinamo and Steaua Bucureşt that ended in a 0-0 tie. On the surface, all that’s really unique about the contest is the torrent of snowfall impeding game play. But at the time Dinamo and Steaua represented two of the country’s primary factions, the Army and Secret Police, with the former being no less than Ceauşescu’s favourite team. Add to that the cultural climate of the time—the game took place just one year before the Romanian Revolution would overthrow Ceauşescu—and you have a showdown which involved not simply two soccer teams, but government and counterculture camps as well. Throughout the film Adrian intimates the opposing pressures put on him and his team of referees, and at various points we hear Corneliu lightly prodding his father, who preferred to “play the advantage,” as to why he didn’t issue more yellow cards and how if at all he attempted to remain impartial. It quickly becomes clear that the least interesting thing occurring on screen is the game. Rather, interpersonal rivalries, intimidation tactics, convenient editing, and extracurricular ploys provide the drama in a parallel conflict taking place just beneath the surface.

The surface, however, manages an aesthetic intrigue all its own. The VHS playback, while volatile, becomes almost hypnotic in combination with the snowfall, which is a blur of white in the sky but a gathering pitch of browns and greys at ground level. Certain standalone, beautifully abstract images are even reminiscent at times of what many contemporary avant-garde filmmakers spend months trying to approximate with analogue hardware. It’s so mesmerizing that minutes will occasionally pass without a word from either father or son, before the latter most often breaks the silence with an unexpected bit of hilarity (“It’s slow and nothing happens. It’s like one of my films”). You can sense the familial familiarity between the two as Corneliu continually phrases questions and comments in a manner he knows from years of experience will elicit humorous responses from his father (“No, I’m not a basketball referee,” Adrian explains when asked if an instance of considerable bloodshed should have paused the game clock). But even in moments of levity, at no point does the film’s prologue, wherein Corneliu recalls a conversation with one of his father’s friends who warned that “one day he would come home in a coffin,” fail to retain its innate gravity, weighing the conversation with an air of pronounced relief.

At one point late in the film as the two discuss the technical and stylistic aspects of the event’s production, Corneliu obviously fascinated by the logistical and political decisions made by the television crew, particularly the tendency to cut away from on-field skirmishes to focus instead on the raucously passionate crowd, Adrian flatly states that “this couldn’t be a film.” It’s an unexpected remark, but one which echoes a comment made by Paul in the first scene of When Evening Falls: “Film has its limits,” he explains to Alina, expressing his interest in the capabilities of digital but his mental inability to reconcile its potential. It’s a widely held belief that is continually reflected upon in these two captivating films via a variety of cinematic sources. But it’s an argument that between the two is refuted time and again. [CS]

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