Police, Adjective (2009)

25 07 2010

A simple structure allows for an intimate relationship. If we look at the script, we will find a very precise construction of the themes. Every conversation in the film (or so it seems) has something to do with language and labels, how our understanding of the world is sculpted by often arbitrary rules and decisions, made by people who are detached from our lives, who are far removed from the specific contexts in which we put their rules into practice. Porumboiu’s aesthetic is loose and natural, like raw footage stolen from real life. Every composition appears to be accidental, as if the camera had simply found the actors without effort. We soon realize this is not the case. The protagonist returns again and again to the same rooms and geographical areas, and every return is emphasized by the camera’s familiar gaze. That is, we return to the same place and the camera looks at that place from the same position and angle. This allows us to build a bridge in our minds: from this scene to that scene. Changing the metaphor: we build a skeleton, a framework, a series of interconnected scenes, joined by place and by the camera’s gaze. The same cement pillar, seen the same way, allows us to jump into the scene we’re watching and emerge into an earlier scene, when we last saw that pillar in that way and from that direction. Which is nothing new: Ozu did it, Akerman did it, Tsai did it. Porumboiu, like many of his cinema-of-duration comrades, gives us the opportunity to draw lines around and across the space of his cinematic landscape. He gives us the opportunity to remember, reconsider, return to earlier scenes, have flashbacks of our own, private flashbacks, and compare how we felt then to how feel now. It’s quite liberating.

These bridges don’t have to be objects or geographical spaces. They can also be repeated mannerisms (mainstream films present us with these bridges too, but they often impose them upon us, which removes our immersive discovery). Look at how the protagonist uses bread to eat his food. No theme to learn here. A mannerism. What makes it meaningful is a twofold effect: we feel closer to the protagonist and we remember what we thought about him the previous time he dipped his bread into food. This remembrance beckons us to chart our evolving relationship to the protagonist. We can always do that, of course. We don’t need the film’s suggestion. But there is a certain poetic impulse to these bridged scenes that makes the charting more powerful. We fall into a web of interconnected traits. The world of the film feels alive with associations and junctures.

Outside of the bridged scenes, there is also a great deal of beautiful movement and detail. A fat woman enters and leaves a store; her hyper-kinetic dog jumps at her bagged fruit. When the protagonist goes to visit one of his colleagues, the latter is taking a photo of a gorgeous woman who we never see again. On a wall behind the protagonist, as he dawdles during a lengthy stakeout, there is graffiti supporting the football club Steaua Bucharest, which returns us to an early conversation between the protagonist and an incidental character regarding football. Look at the protagonist’s hands: he rubs them, he taps the phone as he waits for his call to be answered. Look at what the protagonist and his wife do with a bottle. He places it there, she changes it here, and he finally grabs the bottle and holds it besides him on his sofa-chair.

Consider that whole dinner sequence with the wife: how she listens to the same song three times and then has the temerity to ask him to let her finish the song, as if she hasn’t already done so twice; how he eats his food while the song is playing, enjoying himself while remaining slightly perturbed by his wife’s obsession with the song and her refusal to turn down the volume, despite his request, which she probably didn’t even hear over the cacophony; how lonely he looks while eating dinner inside the kitchen, as his wife youtubes it away in the living room; and yet, despite the growing void between them, which they soon recognize, how husband and wife retain their affection for each other, discussing the song’s meaning whimsically, if not without a little bit of tension. We live and breathe with this couple. The whole universe of the film — connected, interconnected, detailed — is alive and well.

We accept (or can accept) the script’s artificial bluntness because everything around the words being said is so loose and unforced: alive, but not lively, since every street and building is subdued and grimy. But this bluntness is not necessarily a flaw. Dialogue in this film mostly discusses the language being employed for dialogue. Thus, dialogue repeatedly turns on itself, talks about itself endlessly, and eventually, language becomes solipsistic, unable to produce beneficial results in a society that is increasingly at odds with it, separated from it.

We can compare it to what happens in Sharunas Bartas’ Three Days, another look at a country — here, Lithuania — in the midst of political transition after the Cold War. In that film, the historical trauma is so deep that memory has been annihilated, making language useless. Nobody says anything. Silence reigns. Everyone has been reborn in a new historical landscape, but without any shared past on which to hinge words and phrases, without energy or zest to shape a new language to fit the times, and without any communal recollection of the previous historical landscape, either because there is no willingness to recall or because nobody can recall, conversations are impossible, and the few phrases that are actually uttered during the film’s running time are either incoherent or tersely functional.

Porumboiu’s Romania is not suffering from amnesia, but quite the opposite. Nobody can forget the old historical landscape and its language. Conversation continues, but it is increasingly self-conscious, to the point where nothing gets said, unless it is to validate how it is being said, or to criticize what is being said, or to analyze why what is being said is being said in such a fashion. Not even schmaltzy ballads are safe: our protagonist questions the song’s images and symbols, images that become symbols. They don’t make any sense to him. His wife explains: every image is linked to a specific meaning. He asks why the words can’t just go straight to the meaning, rather than opting for a surrogate image with a specific meaning that has been preordained. In another chat with his wife, our protagonist learns that a grammatical rule has recently been modified by the linguistic powers-that-be. He wonders why these faceless men and women have the authority to decide such things.

Our protagonist is not innocent of unwieldy language use. He doesn’t invite a fat man to football-tennis because the fat man is not good at football. Since football is part of football-tennis, as per the name of the hybrid sport, you must be good at football to succeed at football-tennis. Which makes a lot of sense to me, but our protagonist is not a professional football-tennis player. We later glimpse the football-tennis match. It is pathetic. Our players have some skill, but the match looks boring and lazily informal. The fat uninvited colleague could have easily been invited, were it not for strict, unchanging language, and the inflexible models and concepts behind it. No spontaneity, nothing outside what has been defined long ago. The appropriateness of language in its present-day context doesn’t matter anymore. If all of these examples sound humorous, it’s because they are. The theme is serious, but Porumboiu has a quietly irreverent method of communicating it. His humorous take inserts the weighty theme into the banal everyday. The crisis of language affects even the lowliest of activities, like extracurricular football-tennis.

Our protagonist’s main predicament is not exempt from this larger conflict. He is a police officer. He observes some kids who may or may not be trafficking pot, but who are definitely smoking it. He wants to find the person who is selling the drug. He doesn’t care about the mindless smokers and he does not want to put some boy in jail and ruin his youth because of what he believes is a misdemeanor. He has no words to adequately explain why he believes what he believes. His boss, however, does have words, and a dictionary. It’s quite shameless of the film to throw a dictionary at us. By that point, the main theme is being screamed at the audience. Although it could work as comedy, in line with the other subtly funny exchanges. What makes the screamed theme interesting is how it mixes with the rest of the aesthetic. We can feel the theme. We can see it developing in the geographical spaces visited by the protagonist. As I said, the bridged scenes can also be interpreted as a framework, and this framework can be interpreted as the skeleton that holds the edifice of the rest of the film, which lives because of the skeleton that holds it together and allows it to move beyond itself, beyond what it shows us. We are convinced that the world of the film continues past that street and around that corner. And this is important, because the script is not alive at all. And that is important too, since the words the characters speak are indeed dead, fluttering about zombie-like thanks to some sick linguistic necromancy, and they can only exist as mechanical monsters, fed by the fuel of their self-made arguments, because the outside world provides no arguments at all for their perpetuation.




2 responses

25 10 2011


25 10 2011


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