Friday, July 8, 2011

Lawnswood Gardens (2011, Kuczyński)

As accomplished as it is unadventurous, Lawnswood Gardens is the latest entry in what I’m tempted to nickname “Paweł Kuczyński’s Professor Series”. One of the most original (and least apprectiated in this country) independent Polish filmmakers managed (so far) to portray his own father, professor Janusz Kuczyński, in Philosopher’s Paradise (2004), as well as conceive a fictional persona of professor Feliks Lewiński that haunted both the sublime Nietzschean inquiry of Light Denied (2008) and the quiet trans-cultural-comedy gem, Phenomenology of Truth (2009).

Lawnswood Gardens focuses on the renowned Polish sociologist/philosopher, Zygmunt Bauman, and sets out to give an account of his life and work. Bauman is a seemingly easy subject: he’s affable and talkative, and yet there’s a sense his guard is up at all times. He’s not acting, obviously, but he’s remarkably composed and not once in the whole movie do we get the feeling that he reveals something he would mind other people to know about. Though brilliant, he doesn’t seem driven – you don’t get a sense of an all-encompassing compulsion to write and proselytize from him (as you did when watching Janusz Kuczyński, as well as “watching” Nietzsche’s ghost roaming through Light Denied). Bauman is the sanest, and possibly the happiest, in Kuczyński’s ongoing gallery of philosophers.

The director seems to have reacted to that trait in his subject’s personality and that reaction is visible in the film’s tone and style. Kuczyński’s signature irony is all but missing from Lawnswood Gardens, which takes a while to get used to, but is by no means a defect. The director is conspicuously absent from the frame, which stands in direct contrast to Light Denied and Philosopher’s Paradise. This is largely Bauman’s show, and he turns out to be a seductive, if not downright spellbinding, talker. He speaks in fluent, fully organized passages that sound like ready-made paragraphs and yet seem to be coined right before our eyes. There are no instances of Bauman getting lost in a sentence or losing his grasp of things (which was the case in the great supermarket sequence in Philosopher’s Paradise, in which Kuczyński, Sr. was near-desperate in his quest to locate the dairy section). It’s fair to say that Lawnswood Gardens – instead of challenging its subject – follows him closely and reverently (which is true even on a literal level: we get many tracking shots showing Bauman’s back as he moves through spaces by car and on foot, or simply stares into an open field – which serves as the film’s poster, too).

If I’m not mistaken, Kuczyński can be seen in one shot holding a boom mic, and is heard a couple of times on the soundtrack (once, we see him positioning the microphone before the interview starts). Still, it’s highly characteristic of the movie’s overall tone that in one of those exchanges between him and Bauman we hear the professor ask: “Yes?”, to which Kuczyński responds with a definite: “Yes!”. The goal of Lawnswood Gardens is less to discuss Bauman’s ideas than to present them (hence multiple shots of listening students), and the movie does it in a very eloquent, gripping manner.

The most significant stylistic flourish comes in the form of re-enactments of Janina Bauman’s account of her WW2 experiences. Kuczyński employs couple of memorable devices, blatantly staging a fully-costumed reenactment in the midst of contemporary blocks of flats, as well as distancing the viewer in an almost Bressonian manner when he doubles the words spoken by the actors witha a word-for-word repetition in the voice-over (this particular scene made me think of the first section of Andrzej Munk’s Passenger [1961-63] – the one that follows the prologue – but I’m not quite sure why).

All in all, the movie is by no means old-fashioned (and I loved the idea of the star-of-David-crowned tram travelling through the whole film), but it seems like a much safer effort than Kuczyński’s earlier work. I applaud it, but I hope the streak of daredevil experimentation and downright folly will reappear in the director’s future projects. I always await them with pleasure.


  1. Right on! Lawnswood was indeed an exercise in restrain. I figured so many people crave (screen) contact with and information about Bauman that to engage in a discussion rather than the presentation would be a misuse of the opportunity I got (and others didn’t).

    As per your challenge to return to the daredevil experimentation I will gladly respond soon. Actually, I truly appreciate the encouragement since two projects I am currently making are quite nuts. But hey, I am clearly dared here, so watch out :-)

  2. Indeed you are dared, sir :)

    In the meantime (and also as means of inspiration), I just mailed you a DVD with a mindblowing British doc that I'm sure you will enjoy!

    Thanks again for the movie and hope to see you soon :-)