More Zbigniew Rybczynski – Zupa (1974)

Another must watch:

As an addendum to yesterday’s post, I’ve since learned that Tango earned the director an Oscar at the 1983 ceremony. Remarkable in its own right, but read the fittingly bizarre occurrences surrounding Rybycznski’s historic win:

“At the 1983 Oscar ceremony, Polish director Zbigniew Rybczynski had possibly the worst night that any Oscar winner has ever had at the Academy Awards. When his short film, Tango, was announced as the winner of the Best Animated Short category, presenter Kristy McNichol mispronounced Rybczynski’s name as ‘Zbigniewski Sky.’ When Rybczynski accepted the award, his speech was cut off by the orchestra. After talking to reporters in the press room, Rybczynski stepped outside the auditorium to have a cigarette. When he tried to return, an overzealous security guard refused to let him in. Rybczynski was holding his Oscar, but was dressed in a cheap suit and sneakers because he had been unable to afford better clothes. He tried to explain to the guard that he was an Oscar winner, but his English was limited. Hearing Rybczynski’s Polish speech, the security guard assumed the director was drunk and shoved him up against a wall. During the altercation, Rybczynski reportedly yelled, ‘American Pig! I have Oscar!’ and tried to kick the guard in the groin” (via IMDB).

On a Certain (Anguished?) “Public Intellectual”

Late October, 1945 – Jean Paul Sartre clears his way to the stage with an axe, reaching his lectern to deliver what would become the first appearance of the so-called Public Intellectual. His defense of Existentialism that evening, ironically self-described as an argument “for philosophers and specialists,” now exists in print as perhaps the most accessible introduction to a modern philosophical worldview by a founding participant and theorist.

Whatever critical garbage was thrown at Sartre (and there was a lot, from every direction), all in attendance could agree that something strange had transpired post-delivery: the discussion surrounding the event was not simply an “inside matter.” Professional intellectuals had their share to say, sure, but the average Parisian had jumped into the discussion, opening a public arena for serious philosophical debate. It signaled the birth of a new intellectual phenomenon, one that may, without condescension, be difficult for most Americans to understand or picture. I mean, when’s the last time you saw serious media coverage of a philosopher appear before an enthusiastic crowd of…. ok, well there’s that. But you know – it’s a strange bird, and “major” is used loosely here. I wouldn’t bet that the correct pronunciation of “Zizek” is recognized by even, say… half a percentage of the American population (with a large intersection among 20-something bearded white dudes who roast their own coffee).

With the possible exception of Noam Chomsky and, to a lesser extent, the late Howard Zinn, Americans have never had a widely known left-leaning intellectual personality (not that I would ascribe as much to Noam, after whom an experimental linguistic lab chimp was named). Ask high school students today if they’re familiar, let alone have read, anything by Z Magazine‘s poster boy and it’s blanks around the room. Not so among the French: “Philosopher” is understood as a civic occupation where someone like Henri-Bernard Levy can play something like a consultative role to the executive of French imperialism. As for cultural impact among youth, I imagine Foucault and Serge Gainsbourg have about the same recognition, which says a lot against possible comparisons in the US (uh… Zinn and Naked Raygun maybe?).

Ok-The-Public-Intellectual-So-What? That’s not why I re-read “Existentialism is a Humanism” after collecting 10 years worth of dust, a self-published pamphlet run by my buddy Jake well before Yale’s fancy print (we could only get it on Marxists.org). After all, I don’t seriously believe that its appearance created the historical possibility of the Public Intellectual, but it’s worth exploring whether its content and tenets created a theme in philosophical thought that could organically grow into a socially popular worldview (which, I believe, it may become once again in this country).

So let’s go back to October 29, 1945. Waddling up to the stage, Mr. Sartre begins rattling off a series of slogan-like punchlines that would become convenient points of possession for opponents and adherents alike:

Existence precedes Essence! 

Without God, everything is Possible!

Man simply is!

Something something something a soldier and his mother!

The Christians would say, “oh, this twat! He believes in nothing!” Devout mothers and fathers shivering scared that Simone and Mr. Sartre would seduce their virginal daughters into a much more pleasurable interpersonal experience than the Confessional. Members of the French Communist (so-called) Party went into a tizzy – “but it’s anti-materialist! You deny solidarity!” That night they would scratch holes into their heads figuring out what differences comrade Stalin’s notion of “freedom” would have with the strange little lazy-eyed man’s. Then there were the people who immediately became enamored with the arguments, sucking in comforting hot air of deliverance from ideologies, dogma and the moral uncertainties of preceding years. Human freedom seemed imminent.

I’m interpreting a bit, but after Sartre went through his basic defenses, addressing the Communist and Christian differences as the “atheist representative” of contemporary Existentialism, the rest of the lecture goes something like this:

La guerre est finie.

It’s your life to live.

You’re responsible now.

Doesn’t that feel nice?

Well it shouldn’t, you wretched little lying fuck! You’re supposed to be sitting in a corner with your head on your knees, anguished nearly to death that your life could’ve gone in any 8 billion directions but you chose to become a goddamn street sweeper. Anybody can become anything! Don’t you understand that – the human is universal!

Right right right right right right! Critics have identified Sartre’s attempt here to shoulder up a little to the Communists in the room. I can see how someone might argue that – and I wouldn’t deny it, given what I know about Sartre’s political history. But even among Stalinists, his examples, which dealt with the future of the Russian Revolution (Sartre was not, it’s important to note, unequivocally committed to its defense) or of trade unionists having to choose between Christian organizations over the PCF (but he didn’t advise which side to take!) seemed rather right wing. And despite all the “it’s not bourgeois, I swear” defensiveness – thou doth protest too much, Mr. Sartre – the delivery essentially came across as a series of empty tautologies for a mainly middle class audience with a little too much time to contemplate liberation than actually fight for concrete demands on the street. Not a good look to a youthful Communist crowd that had just suffered the depredations of an inter-Imperialist war.

Lots of talk, Mr. Sartre, but I’m afraid your philosophy will have its proper historical place in films about privileged European art crit… Oh, wait! That’s my previous post…

Certified Copy (2010) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman has described a “backbeat of Marienbad” in his glowing review of Kiarostami’s critically acclaimed “Certified Copy.” The reference is well placed, but its relevance and emphasis some 40 years after the French art house shocker, I think, deserves further detail.

If you haven’t seen either film, a quick plot comparison: In Resnais’s masterpiece (a film I’ve returned to a number of times in the past two years, including its use as an identifying “gravatar” both here at Film Margins and elsewhere), the story centers on a man who spends his time at the Marienbad Hotel (whose intricately designed interior is worthy of a feature itself) convincing a beautiful woman of their amorous acquaintance the year prior. Certified Copy similarly revolves around two (possible) lovers, wrapped up in the tiny package of a Linklater afternoon love affair. In both films, it’s not entirely clear whether the relationship is one to continue or begin. (It’s entirely possible that Marienbad’s central male character is just a creepy guy with a deeply flawed pick up line.) And where authorial decisions are concerned, I wouldn’t argue that either Kiarostami or Resnais was particularly interested in the plot details. Why anyone would give two shits about the lives of over-privileged petty bourgeois Europeans wanking around honeymooners’ destinations snapping their fingers over “corky wine”, now or 40 years ago, will, I hope, always remain a mystery to me.

So forget the plot.

What really matters here is how each director is playing with the audience’s perception of the passage of time, whether by use of the failing memories (or crafty persuasions) of his nameless characters as a foil for attacking linearity (Marienbad) or maneuvering fluidly between different languages, identities, relationship histories and intellectual discourse in a fragmented, non-consistent manner (Certified Copy). In that sense, I’ve always seen in Marienbad Resnais’s pointed response to neorealism, an argument that a linear plot structure, the feeling of forward motion or story, with clearly demarcated beginning and end, problem identification and positive resolution, is an illusory notion that should be taken for granted neither in art nor life.

Kiarostami has arguably done Resnais one better, introducing into this discussion of fragmented reality a more concrete and explicit concern with themes of authenticity that have appeared in critics’ estimation of Marienbad. Certified Copy’s central characters, ostensibly complete strangers at the beginning of the film, adopt 15 years of marriage on the suggestion of a cafe waitress. It’s a copy, perhaps, of something they’ve seen along the way, either in life or fiction, but no less a “real”, momentary break in their status quo, even if by faking it, that they can call meaningful and life-affirming (sorry!).

While I’m at a loss to bring these notes to any real conclusion, I can admit to being challenged by the re-introduction of what are effectively existentialist themes en vogue almost half a century ago. Film Forum, it’s worth noting here, last month re-screened Marienbad, while this month saw the Bresson Festival, a schedule packed with the Existential (not least among which, the Dostoevskian Pickpocket). If you think I’m digging a little too deeply here, remember that we probably shouldn’t dismiss critics’ investigations into the current popularity of Zombie flicks and drama-horror series on television today as reflective of an end-times obsessed culture mired deep in the depredations of economic and political instability, a moment as good as any to think through our place in the world. Kiarostami’s is perhaps a welcomed harbinger of cinematic things to come, exemplifying, we might say, challenging humanist film making in an otherwise escapist, oftentimes fatalist, art environment.