Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Retrospective Love for Skolimowski

A director who critiques society in thoughtful ways (as opposed to clumsy didacticism) is certainly worth reviewing in a retrospective. Such is the case with Jerzy Skolimowski (henceforth abbreviated as JS), who is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Anthology Film Archive this week.

JS worked with the notable Polish directors Adrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski before directing his own films, several of which ran a foul of the Polish Communist authorities, most notably Hands Up!, which was produced in 1967 but not released until 1981 (and was included in the Anthology program). Also screening last night was Barrier (Bariera), a challenging film of the sort that calls into question what is real, what is fantasy, and what does it all mean anyway? A jaded student drops out of school, perhaps to get married the next day. Along the way, he walks through a dreamscape of weird imagery, carrying a suitcase and a saber.

Binding and unwrapping—physical barriers—are repeated motifs in Barrier. Skolimowski can convey a sense of menace in commonplace things, but for all its illusory imagery, he cuts the proceedings with an occasional flash of subversive humor. Barrier may refer to human boundaries, but it is significant to make such a film in Iron Curtain Poland, where barriers were a very real part of every day life. Certainly, Barrier was worlds away from the state-approved Socialist Realism of dedicated workers striving to build the Communist state of tomorrow.

JS was a one-time jazz musician and was an associate of Krzysztof Komeda, who scored Barrier. Komeda’s music at times blends jazz reminiscent of Miles Davis’ Elevator to the Scaffold soundtrack with a vocal choir, but also uses orchestral themes that bring to mind some of Georges Delerue’s work. In each instance, his musical cues underscore the dreamlike nature of the film.

Moonlighting, JS’s best known film (screening today), is different—an uncomfortably direct and personal examination of a desperate individual. Jeremy Irons plays Nowak, one of four Polish laborers set to London illegally to renovate a flat for their boss in the government. Nowak is given the burden of leadership as he is the only one of the four who speaks English and is not a member of Solidarity.

In a career making performance Irons portrays a man given responsibility, but no authority, powerless in a strange land, with their money running out and communication from Poland cut off by the declaration of martial law. In order to finish the project, Nowak keeps the news of crack down against Solidarity from his men, even stooping to destroying mail from their families. Though he considers them fools, crude men of mean circumstances, at least their souls are their own. Nowak however, is a knowing pawn.

The Skolimowki retrospective runs through Saturday, often with JS shorts preceding the films. They make for fascinating viewing, as they show a director dealing with some common themes in vastly different ways.