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).

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.

Pickpocket (1959) at Film Forum

It’s Friday the 13th, favorite of the hapless. Some of your friends are suffering lines at the local tattoo shop for $13 specials (one Brooklyn hotspot offers Mayan ziggurats, a special apocalyptic departure from the standard 13-sailed ship fare). Others are at home with a case of cheap swill, enjoying the violent excesses of a semi-retarded hockey-masked psychopath obsessed with teenagers at lakeside summer getaways. We’re getting busy at Film Forum, accidentally celebrating the superstitious with an appropriately timed screening of Pickpocket.

Part of the theater’s Bresson Festival, Pickpocket (1959) traces familiar territory. Ripped directly from a few key chapters of Crime and Punishment, the plot follows a young man in the throes of a Raskolnikov complex that revolves around one central question: Should men of genius be exempt from moral codes if the violation of such would ultimately promote social good? It’s all pretension. As with Dostoevsky’s hero, Bresson’s (Michel) never reveals much in his crime than getting-away-with-it as an end in itself. On the other hand, Michel’s titular crime is petty in nature (he never bashes brains out of the elderly for cash) and the psychological impact of the act is expressed, rather than painful passages of fevered paranoia dreams, through the patiently shot suspense and hilarity of Michel’s street luck. The themes at play here will tickle your inner existentialist (this is a high time in French philosophical culture: Sartre was likely within meters of the set working on his Critique of Dialectical Reason at the time of production) and there’s a woman, love, redemption awaiting us at the end when all the luck runs out.

Oh, and thankfully, Michel never finds God in the course of these excellent 75 minutes.