Jerzy Skolimowski’s Radical, Rambling 60s

06/08/2011 4:00 AM |

The Cinema of Jerzy Skolimowski
June 10-July 3 at the Museum of the Moving Image

A dissident expressionist, the Polish filmmake Jerzy Skolimowski makes movies that are almost always political and oftentimes pushes the boundaries of avant-garde combination That’s not a putdown, mind you. Films like Hands Up! and Identification Marks: Zero are inquisitive, labyrinthine and highly experimental works from an intellectual artist who to this day is still figuring out different ways to use film as a medium to voice his disillusionment.

Skolimowski’s earliest films, made in the mid-60s, particularly feel like strident works of an earnest young man frustrated with the formal limitations of cinema. In Hands Up!, Skolimowski, playing himself, even admits that he feels inadequate when he compares his films to the work of Polish painters, and their ability to recreate mood and place. And just think, that self-deprecating comment is one aside among many that Skolimowski makes to help viewers to tease meaning out of Hands Up!, a brazen whatsit of a film and the highlight of the Museum of the Moving Image’s enticing retrospective.

Skolimowski’s films are not guided by the narrative imperative that even the films of Andrzej Wajda and Krzystof Zanussi, Skolimowski’s equally radical peers, largely conform to. Take Identification Marks: Zero (1965), Skolimowski’s debut feature and a fairly straightforward film by Skolimowski’s standards. In it, Leszczyc (Skolimowski himself) is drafted after years of pursuing an ichthyology degree for the sake of avoiding conscription. He wanders around and flirts with a fellow ichthyologist while imagining ways to break up with his current girlfriend (he asks this new girl to take dictation for a break-up letter). The film doesn’t reach its climax when Leszczyc is supposed to join the navy but rather when he finally makes a decision for himself, skipping down the steps of his apartment building’s winding staircase and—presumably—hitting the street a changed man.

Skolimowski’s filmography took an authoritatively strange step forward one year later with Barrier (1966). In its last 15-20 minutes, Barrier‘s formless narrative swaps one protagonist for another, showing that Skolimowski had finally begun to direct films the way that Leszczyc tells a reporter he’d like to live his life: with no set path in mind. Skolimowski has vague political targets and social issues on his mind—the way the older generation preys on the young and the young consequently cling to nostalgia—but he attacks them in a series of broadly sketched-out and highly abstract episodes that form a mosaic of society at large according to a young man on the verge of self-awareness. By keeping his story’s events as thoroughly disjointed as he does, Skolimowski robs us of the perspective that his young protagonists’ desperately crave for the sake of replicating their grim and deeply myopic vantage point.

In Barrier, a confused young medical student struggles to figure out what’s wrong with himself only to wind up being confronted by the campy weirdness of a society that would carelessly consume his youth—an elderly mob descends upon our two lead protagonists, dancing and babbling spontaneously and all wearing hats made out of newspapers because of some weird mass misconception that triangular paper hats are the latest fashion trend. Then one of them leeringly grabs a bottle of champagne and, after insisting that the bottle’s contents are just like his young captive audience, proceeds to greedily drink until he passes out. Which is to say nothing of the scene where our protagonist uses an antique saber to fight a sedan wrapped up in a cellophane-like tarp while one of a window display full of naked mannequins spastically moves its arms up and down in the background.

One year after Barrier, Skolimowski filmed most of Hands Up!, an equally out-there volley against the censorious Polish communist government. Not surprisingly, he was forced to shelve the film until 1981, when he filmed an additional 25 minutes of footage about his intentions, aspirations and fears about releasing the film 14 years after it was initially completed. That earlier version of Hands Up! exclusively followed four students after a wild party leads them to remember how they were all expelled from college. The group’s trouble starts after they blamelessly and seemingly inexplicably print a poster of Stalin with four eyes instead of two. After this, university officials privately interrogate them, demanding that the four students single out who among them accidentally gave Stalin an extra set of peepers. After Hands Up! was submitted to the Polish censors for review, Skolimowski was similarly subjected to questioning regarding which intellectuals he regularly met with and how he was involved with them.

The hellish microcosm that Skolimowski envisions in Hands Up! revolves around spontaneous, drunken rituals and cast-off revelations about why his countrymen liked to imagine that they were content to live in an oppressive climate of fear and mistrust. It’s an amorphous chamber drama that’s constantly in search of its own boundaries: we don’t even find out that the characters are students or what they did together until about 40-50 minutes into the film. Totally unburdened by narrative conventions, Skolimowski non-judgmentally observes his vindictive, wayward protagonists with the basic hope that their fevered malaise will leave a lasting impression on his viewers.