(FOR NOW, rather than post nothing until I can get the last few capsules finished, and holding off on other stuff until I do … I’m gonna post the one capsule I have done and update both this post and add a top post linking here when the other four movies get done.)
POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 8)
I’ve frequently said that if Friedrich Nietzsche could ever have seen Kubrick’s 2001 and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, I am convinced he would have cried out — “there is my philosophy on film.” Similarly, if his acolyte Michel Foucault could have seen POLICE, ADJECTIVE, he would have had the same reaction. And there is no question that, even if I’m wrong about the specific influence, POLICE is intended to be seen and understood as philosophical discourse (cue Mike’s hissing). The bravura last scene, which radically recodes everything that had gone before, makes at least a rationale for what I acknowledge are the film longueurs. That scene takes the form of a Platonic dialogue, only here, the role of Socrates is played by Vlad Ivanov, back to playing someone as utterly pragmatic as he did in 4 MONTHS. But this dialogue is not primarily about the search for wisdom (or even “language,” per se) but more on that anon.
POLICE, ADJECTIVE centers on a working-class undercover drug cop named Christi investigating what may be a hashish ring involving some high-school students, who seem to be Romanian bourgeoisie. But he’s not seeing more than personal use, which he doesn’t think is really worth busting a couple of teenagers over and marking them for life with a lengthy jail term. Though it takes the form of a “policier,” these parts of the film are extremely slow-paced and action-free — entirely observing and following, with basically no confrontation or even much talk. I got a little frustrated at times, but POLICE, ADJECTIVE is ultimately a film about how discourse (what Foucault called power-knowledge) represses experience and shapes what an individual sees as his conscience. And so the pacing of the previous scenes have to “deliver the goods” to us in something more like “real time,” i.e., in the form that Christi experiences, rather than in the conventions of theatrical time, which is closer to “discourse.”
Besides the observational sequences, the film also has several scenes that drop hints the relationship(s) among discourse, words and power is the ultimate topic. The very first scene involves Christi refusing to let a fellow cop on the “foot tennis” team because “it’s a rule” that if you’re no good at soccer, you stink at foot tennis, to which the colleague responds “where’s that written?” In addition, Christi’s new wife is a grammar teacher who sometimes corrects his usage (“it’s what the Romanian Academy says,” she explains). And she also repeatedly listens to a song Christi doesn’t like, and Poromboiu plays it all the way through while the camera watches him eat dinner in the next room, and then restarts it. Christi complains that the song’s lyrics make no sense, an example of his taking a form of discourse (art) at its most literal.¹ Also, Porumboiu fills up the screen two or three times with pages from Christi’s police report and reads them aloud. The scenes feel inert as they impart no information we haven’t seen, and they also feel reductive and bureaucratically plain. But that’s their function in POLICE, ADJECTIVE: to replace the experience we’ve had with an official discourse about it that will become the basis of everything that follows. In that last scene, Christi refuses to set up a sting, saying his conscience won’t let him. And the Socratic debate, which centers on the meaning of words, commences. The effects of words are extended to the logic of images, in the film’s very last shot, a coda of sorts about what will happen next, and which we never see (credit to Tweep James Hansen for spelling it out in exchanges with me, though I did get it).
As should be obvious, my love with POLICE, ADJECTIVE is intellectual and retrospective, and I’ve acknowledged sometimes getting a bit impatient with it as it unfolded. “There’s too many shots of him eating soup,” my notes say at one point. Porumboiu’s first film, 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST, also had trouble with me early, though more as a not-terribly funny comedy than for slackly-paced emptiness, until (also like POLICE, ADJECTIVE) it became essentially a one-room talking scene, there a Romanian TV talk-show that would give Alan Partridge nightmares. I’ll need to give POLICE, ADJECTIVE a second view to see if knowing everything makes the buildup less tedious. But for now, after having discussed the film, argued on Twitter, reread my notes, and written this review, my memories of POLICE, ADJECTIVE are entirely pleasurable. Oh, wait …
¹ I forget the specifics, but Christi basically does the equivalent of taking a line like “my love is like a red, red rose” and saying, “how? Does it have thorns or petals, does it give off a scent, what’s ‘red’ about it?” Which (1) couldn’t more miss the point on artistic discourse, and (2) sets up the understanding of language that will be used against him later.
AIR DOLL (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 7)
HADEWIJCH (Bruno Dumont, France, 9)
ENTER THE VOID (Gaspar Noe, France, 4 — though really an 8 for style and 0 for content)
ONG BAK 2: THE BEGINNING (Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai, Thailand, 5)
It’s almost the end of the decade and, as he did in 1999, Mike D’Angelo has asked us Skandie voters to pick our 10 favorite films of the decade and our 10 favorite performances (one category only; male and female, lead and supporting). He’s about halfway through the countdown now at his blog Listen, Eggroll.
Here are my ballots, with the Mike-request proviso that I not give away the point totals. To that same end, I’ve also listed them in alphabetical order, so as not to suggest any order of preference. There’s also links to those among the films and the actors’ films that I’ve written about.
BEST FILMS OF THE 00s
CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (Andrew Jarecki, USA) — review essay here
THE CHILD (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium) — review essay here
DOGVILLE (Lars von Trier, Denmark) — review essay here
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (Cristian Mungiu, Romania) — TIFF review here; with expansions here and here
GRIZZLY MAN (Werner Herzog, USA) — review essay here
MEMENTO (Christopher Nolan, USA)
LA PIANISTE (Michael Haneke, France/Austria)
SILENT LIGHT (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico) — TIFF review here; with review essay here
SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (Roy Andersson, Sweden)
TIME OUT (Laurent Cantet, France)
BEST ACTORS OF THE 00s
Bjork, DANCER IN THE DARK — review of the film here
Russell Crowe, CINDERELLA MAN — review of the film here
Ryan Gosling, THE BELIEVER
Olivier Gourmet, THE SON — review of the film here
Isabelle Huppert, LA PIANISTE
Heath Ledger, THE DARK KNIGHT
Maia Morgenstern, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST — review of the film here
Simon Pegg, HOT FUZZ
Aurelien Recoing, TIME OUT
Imelda Staunton, VERA DRAKE — review of the film here
The ongoing travesty of the Nobel Prizes was aggravated again last week …
GOOD HAIR (Jeff Stilson/Chris Rock, USA, 2009) — 8
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that got me more in touch with my Inner Clueless Honky than this one. Even Rock’s famous “Niggas-vs.-Black-People” routine, as “inside” as that was about how black people talk among themselves, it at least concerned matters I was familiar with. This movie — good, bad or indifferent — was an eye-opener about the ins-and-outs of a subject (black hair, mostly women’s) of which I had zero knowledge. People have contests? Like this? Is that what “nappy” means? Sodium hydroxide — um, wouldn’t that stuff be caustic (there is a one-scene white chemistry professor who practically defined my reaction to that stuff)? Thousand-dollar hairdos? Really? Selling real hair? Naw …
GOOD HAIR is formally indifferent even for an info-“documentary. You can often see the camera and equipment do more than “edge” into the frame (look particularly at some interview-react shots while Rock is sitting — amateurish stuff). And I don’t know how it would seem to someone already familiar with the subject, whether it’d play like one long “No shit, Sherlock.” But for me, a white dude with naturally straight, blond, very fine hair — it was literally an educational experience
I went in with fairly low expectations, going at all only because I love Chris Rock when he’s not trying to act (as clearly wasn’t the case here). I’d expected an extended comedy routine about the relentless triviality of hairdos, which might be fun but the lowest form of pleasure — stroking one’s existing dispositions. For a sense of how indifferent I am to the subject matter, I sport a buzzcut, spent much of last night on Twitter making fun of Manny Ramirez’s hair, have never spent more than $20 on a haircut, and had to call a beauty shop a couple of weeks ago at work to ask what exactly was the legitimate use for the hydrogen peroxide product terror-suspect Zazi was supposedly stockpiling.
Instead, GOOD HAIR is the best Michael Moore movie Michael Moore hasn’t made since ROGER & ME — filled with dry, caustic but never-ugly humor tossed in at unsuspecting onscreen persons from the quizzical Everyjournalist narrator at the side. Like the majority of my Tweets, I realized during GOOD HAIR. Also like the Moore of 20 years ago, GOOD HAIR has a clear and pointed POV that it doesn’t try to hide, but one that never takes over the film. The women Rock interviews in beauty shops are in on the jokes at their expense without ever being reduced to a “target” for the sake of elucidating some authorial thesis.
The film has five large sections — the framing devices, to which the film frequently recurs, of an Atlanta haircutting contest (fun) and Chris asking himself what he’d tell his daughters (unneeded) about their hair. The other sections consecutively concern hair relaxants, the use of weaves, where the hair comes from, and how hair affects relations (in every sense) between black men and black women. Rock interviews the contest teams, ordinary people in barber and beauty shops, and lots of big-name black Americans, including artists and singers who need to keep a certain public image. They and he all deliver — both intellectually and comedically, and often both at the same time. Maya Angelou’s first weave, the backstory of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” video, Al Sharpton’s first straightening (the story involves James Brown), a 6-year-old describing why you get perms, “kiddie beer,” “creamy crack,” etc. There are even some priceless scenes where Rock tries to sell black hair to salons, and the owners — mostly Asian, but one black — react like he’s trying to sell them crap sandwiches. Rock’s persona manages to keep this subject matter interesting and make palatable an angry subtext against using white looks as the standard for black beauty, against narcissism and beauty-worship, and misguided priorities. It takes a special movie to have me nodding along in agreement with Al Sharpton.