Rightwing Film Geek

The latest Romanian mast….zzzzzzz

High drama in the latest Romanian film -- two people eat dinner.

High drama in the latest Romanian film -- two people eat dinner.

I don’t think there’s any way around it. I saw POLICE, ADJECTIVE again last night and cannot even describe it in any way that doesn’t make it sound like a boring reductio ad absurdum of the slow, grind-you-down European art film. Very few plot points, all spun out way beyond their possible narrative interest, not much suspense or danger for a policier — you’re watching somebody perform a job that mostly consists of watching other people.

And yet, I liked POLICE, ADJECTIVE a lot, both on first and second viewing. Both when I didn’t know exactly what was coming and when I did. But I can’t defend the film against the flat claim (shut up, gemko) that “it’s boring.” Yes, it is, and not just in the tautological sense that any movie, even the most rock-em-sock-em action flick, is boring if it doesn’t engage you (the sense in which I would say NINE or FIGHTING are boring). POLICE, ADJECTIVE is boring in the sense that it’s not trying to entertain you or promise … heck, I just started to parrot the following sentence that Stanley Kauffmann composed in his rapturous first review of L’AVVENTURA.

The first 10 minutes make it clear that this is the work of a discerning, troubled, uniquely gifted artist who speaks to us through the refined center of his art. We make “like” this film, but those first 10 minutes indicate that liking is not the primary point. We “like” Maurice Chevalier but do we “like” Wozzeck or No Exit? If so, all the better, but we know from the start that it is irrelevant to their effective being.
This is not to say that L’Avventura is an unpleasant or uninteresting experience: simply that it does not come out of the wings like a chorus girl with a grin on her face to make a hit fast.

Kauffmann doesn’t use the word “boring,” but we all know what he’s getting at. And in that sense I can formulate an acknowledgement that POLICE, ADJECTIVE is “objectively boring” even though I personally found it gripping. It took me several repeat viewings to really feel like I was getting a grasp on Antonioni’s 60s films, though for a variety of reasons, in a way unlike how I’m pretty confident that I entirely got POLICE, ADJECTIVE on first view (I don’t have tremendously much to add to my Toronto capsule).

Boredom is a taboo subject in film criticism — partly because it’s an inarguable opinion and an emotional reaction, not a judgment; partly because defenses of it inevitably comes across as bookworm machismo (“you piker … I can take 7 1/2 hours of watching Bela Tarr’s paint dry. Twice!!!”). But one thing that has fascinated me for a decade, looking over my own tastes and those of my filmgeekbuds and professional critics I follow is — what tickets does one split on the “objectively boring” movies? Because anybody who hangs around art-houses finds that he likes some, but not others, and that this sport is almost a short-form personality test among ourselves. Which ones do I/another-given-person/the-august-voting-body like, which ones not, and is there’s some discernible pattern. Here is a rough breakdown of where I stand on films and film-makers with a general reputation of being the most difficult or boring, or, in a terminology that Ryan Wu has made universal, the Level IV guys¹:

Like: Dreyer, Bergman, HUNGER, Rohmer, A MAN ESCAPED, Tsai, SILENT LIGHT and HADEWIJCH, the Dardennes, post-RUBLEV Tarkovsky on subsequent viewing, pre-RUBLEV Tarkovsky, THE PASSENGER, Haneke, THE PUPPETMASTER, what I’ve seen of Tarr, WEEPING MEADOW and TRAVELLING PLAYERS
Dislike: Bresson, Malick, Jia, Denis, Hou, GERRY, some Antonioni, MIRROR, EUREKA and L’HUMANITE, post-RUBLEV Tarkovsky on first viewing, most Jarmusch, THE HEADLESS WOMAN, early Resnais, ESTHER KAHN, Breillat, most late Kiarostami, ETERNITY AND A DAY

I think looking at the list also confirms a thesis that’s got something to do with the films themselves. I think what distinguishes the ones I like from the ones I don’t — and obviously there’s exceptions — is that however slow the first list is, there’s usually something that I can call “tension” running through them. And in the right hands, slowness of pace can even heighten a sense of unease or uncertainty. Sometimes, it’s narrative — Francois Leterrier’s quiet inexpressiveness in A MAN ESCAPED is a man keeping his thoughts from the Germans, while narrating them to us; Nicholson assumes a journalist’s identity and animates two groups of pursuers; the protagonists in the Reygadas and Dumont films are on quests for eternity. Sometimes it isn’t — you’re waiting for Tsai to crack a joke out of the side of his films’ blank face, wanting to be taken back into Li Tien-lu’s confidence, waiting for where Bela’s track will go, knowing that when the Dardennes’ three plot points happen, each will be a lulu. In every case, there has been something for me to hang my hat on through the longueurs. I need that; I don’t want what one of my buds calls “space to wander around in a movie” (you’re the artist — I want to see what YOU have done). Boredom works as part of a system of contrasts, not as a free-standing element, or the “main event.” Or to put it another way, the fact that silences can be the most deafening music doesn’t mean that you need to pay any attention to 4’33” or critics who fall for it.

PorumboiuIn the specific case of POLICE, ADJECTIVE, I was engaged on first viewing because I went in knowing from buzz that “something big” would happen at the end. I was not exactly under any impression that there was narrative “danger” a la some Romanian gang-banger just waiting to kill the protagonist for messing with his turf or anything like that, but there was … again … anticipation. Obviously, on second view, I knew everything that was gonna happen, but still the film felt like it was moving forward, and that the little action and watching was for a purpose, albeit one that has to take place in “real time” (I’m glad I wrote my initial review a week later, having had a chance to absorb the film and discuss its ideas and let me think it through.)

Obviously, I like POLICE, ADJECTIVE and enjoyed it on second view, but tellingly I went to it alone. Earlier this year (last year actually), I took a friend who’s a big “up with the IRA” dude to see HUNGER, exciting him with the topicality while warning him that it’s very arty. Ben liked it (at least he said he did and we did discuss it for a long time afterward) while acknowledging the obvious formal challenges it poses and its treatment of “Troubles” topicality — 2/3 of the film could have been made about any prison dispute with no rewrite, and the other third is a debate on even terms, not a singing of “The Wild Colonial Bhoy.” I’d successfully “goosed” Ben that one time,² if you like, but would I recommend POLICE, ADJECTIVE to him, or any person who is smart, reasonably discerning but not a hard-core film buff (or Romanian, a Foucault scholar or some other topical “in”)? No … the slowness of pace, the repetitiveness of incident, combined with the lack of topical interest, would make it a risk I’d be unwilling to take in a social situation.³
¹ I should add that I don’t think Rohmer is even arguably boring, and indeed Ryan typed him as Level I, the lowest degree of difficulty, in his initial categorization. But his inclusion is mandatory because of the NIGHT MOVES line.
² Ben and I have seen several other films, but American “auteur” films of the more-populist prestige (or more-prestigey popular) ones — BURN AFTER READING, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, PUBLIC ENEMIES.
³ Going to a movie with a friend is probably as much about being with the friend than the movie per se — something I hadn’t learned at the time re the woman with whom I saw PLEASANTVILLE.

January 22, 2010 - Posted by | Corneliu Porumboiu, Viewership

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