{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Friday, September 21, 2007

Lech Majewski's Angelus

How much I say that images make a film and one need to "eat with eyes", my top most fear with experimental, surreal, non-narrative films is that, at the end of it all, it might go no where. It is not much a feeling of waste of time and effort (we know both are anyway wasted), but that primitive feeling of getting lost in a jungle where although every image is unique, unseen and with a periodic potential of dazzling the senses, but it all ends up in confusion. Also like a jungle trip, it looks like a brave but aimless and once in life time adventure. May be owing to my inability to comprehend such an experience, they may seem aimless, with so many madly imaginative threads but no core. What you are left at the end of it is a sea of images, disconnected and wordless. We are human beings so we long for political, thematic or narrative insights in an experimental work and try to judge the true value of a documentary by the way images are composed, as they say, the keen eye for people and landscapes. How much we say that we don't like masala films, and how much we redefine word masala (like balanced, well-(g)rounded, congruous etc), we are sucker for them, we want everything there. Although a gentle dose of such films do condition us, as they say one acquires "taste", for what to expect and how to sense, but in the end such films are just temporary filmic experience. My second biggest problem is a feeling of self important artistic masturbation (can't you see how beautiful and serious this composition is, you phucking philistine !), that comes at times (pl. see Theo Angelopoulos' self-indulgent poem Ulysses' Gaze to get that exact feeling). This feeling is more excruciating and one does feel wasting time and effort.

This month, Gene Siskel Film Center is organizing a retrospective of the works of Polish writer, director, painter, composer and poet, Lech Majewski. As I read briefly about him, his films looked like all what I am afraid of. Surreal set pieces, ultra-exquisite frames, weird imagination, but something was quiet intriguing about them, the painterly compositions and the wry humor, and plots of some of his films are like folk lores. So I decided to try one of his films, Angelus, which inspired by events that happened in Silesia, a part of Poland located near Oder and Vistula rivers. The Silesian tale is about a commune (of painters and artists) whose master, while dying, foretells three things - The Great war, The Great plague and The annihilation of earth by a mushroom shaped death ray from Saturn. The first two prophecies comes true as World War and Communism, but the members of the commune, determined to save the earth, are worried more about the third prophecy. The most intelligent man of the commune, who likes to work in extreme cold (he even keeps his books in fridge, and sleeps with windows open on a snowy night), works out some calculations and finds out a way to save the world. They need to put a naked virgin boy as a sacrifice on the top is the communist head quarters. Need not to say about the fate of their plan.

The beauty of this tale is that it has a great historical resonance. It is as much a film about stupid but honest efforts of the unsung people, and as it is a tableaux of history as done by a surreal painter with wry humor. In certain ways this film broke my biggest fears about non-narrative, experimental and avant garde cinema. Here the dissociated set pieces are somehow joined by the undercurrent of both, history (factual, narrative) and its mystery (artistic, irrational). The way it shows the historical figures like Hitler and Statin are so loaded with irony and dark humor that they doesn't remain one person, but point to all idiotic rulers and dictators. The way it shows people dealing with censorship and repression is at once funny and filled with concern for them. There are moments of pure pleasure like a old woman dancing and singing, and the sexually over-active couple which is talk of the housing unit. One of the most beautiful examples of colored imagination is presented when Polish men fantasize of American beaches with nude women. Even in their fantasy on the beach, their imagination and women, with an exception of a black woman just for the exotic touch, remain essentially polish. There is also a portrait of a guy who has just discovered the power of a gun, and in the most funny scenes he uses that power on his children and wife. And there is one person who is not yet convinced that the war has ended, lives in a trench and is building a bomb. An obvious cold war metaphor, but its done such a absurdist style that it looks very interesting, and it also doesn't go on to imitate the full cold war pattern, its just a metaphor that happens to fit. Also the mushroom shaped bomb metaphor has shadows of Hiroshima in it, but it is not played like a trump card. The guy who is chosen for the sacrifice is the narrator of the story and is a ghostly presence, a young, almost expressionless guy with a melancholy demeanor. His love story with a very beautiful girl is so downplayed that it almost hurts when we come to know he has to die a virgin, again a symbol of love sacrificed for "greater goods" of the world, and again quite understated.

The visually exquisite surreal set pieces work here because they are not forcibly serious and they doesn't impel us to "see". They doesn't take themselves too seriously, but the pain of people is not anyway belittled or undermined. As young Angelus walks towards his fate, it is a solemn moment that director understands. It is quite early to say the Majewski is a master on the same lines as Sergei Paradjanov or Fellini, but he is quite a discovery for me. I plan to see as many of his film in the retrospective now. There is one at 8:00 pm today.

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