Tuesday, July 12, 2011

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.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Google Me (2007, Killeen)

Rating: **1/2

Every truism has at least the potential of setting our mouths ajar to utter a mindless “wow”, before we come to our senses and rightly dismiss it as drivel. “We are all connected” is only one of the bunch, and yet Jim Killeen managed (doggedly and sometimes strenuously) to build a documentary around it. Google Me opens with a simple premise of Jim googling himself and setting out to connect with his namesakes around the world. Who are they? Are they like himself? Are they – yes – “connected” by something more than mere name…?

As it turns out (surprise, surprise), the Jims are not at all alike. There’s a priest, a swinger, a couple of others (an all-white crowd, by the way). Killeen hops around the globe asking his fellow Killeens a question about “a man’s purpose”.

With his James Gandolfini-like smirk and generally affable presence (not to mention a blatant self-dramatization resembling Brian Herzlinger’s narcissistic turn in My Date with Drew [2004]), Killeen makes for a tolerable subject, but there is an element lacking – both in him and the movie at large – that has something to do with want of responsiveness. For all the differences between various Jims, the central one reacts almost identically to every one of his namesakes – that is with an open smile and a perfunctory curiosity. He meets plenty of people; yet you hardly feel he encountered anyone by the movie’s end.

Google Me is a skin-deep odyssey in search of the meaning of life, which stops short of a becoming a true journey of self-discovery. Instead, it’s a series of mostly boring interviews, with some shamelessly touristy inserts, all stressing various cultural differences (Jim’s squirming over a Vegimite sandwich is a visual equivalent of an entry in a “Xenophobe’s Guide to Australia”).

Part of the movie’s charm – if “charm” is the right word for sufficiently inoffensive naïveté – lies in its touching formal semi-flourishes. First-time filmmaker Killeen can’t help himself but insert his own reaction shots into the interviews (some of the double takes seem painstakingly re-enacted and don’t gel with the interviewees’ expressions). However, as is the case with most silly follies, there are bits that seem almost inspired, some having to do with Killeen dramatization of his hilariously pat mid-life crisis at the very beginning of the movie.