§ Schematics, Cinema
At the end of Corneliu Porumboiu’s “Police, adjective,” the film’s central character diagrams a sting operation in chalk. The film, which focuses on the “waiting” of police work rather than the “action”, is itself a sort of biding of time, a delayed decision about the sting: will it happen or not? At the end, it clearly might, but the viewer does not see it. The film ends abruptly: in media res, after the decision about action but before the action occurs. So too does Porumboiu’s 2011 film, “Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism.” Artistic abruptness. The diagram describes where the police camera and officers will be, where points of escape lie. In so doing, it mimics the logic of filmmaking: the director sets up a scene, arranges the actors, and captures them, so to speak.
A very explicit connection between the “work” that film does and the work of policing: a type of following (“Police, adjective” follows the follower), a type of interrogation (an “asking between” plots, words). “[Film] can save, but not solve,” Porumboiu suggested in a Q&A. What the two operations, the two forms of work — filming and policing — share is a search for truth. Porumboiu frequently locates that truth in the interstices, the unique moments after the decision but before the action: the betweens.
Porumboiu is searching for transient moments of truth, “A moment of grace, if you will.” The art of cinema, he suggests, lies in the interplay between “what we see and what we don’t see,” the decision to show and hide, to reveal and conceal. Where television seeks to present reality “directly”, for Porumboiu, film mines the gap between the “here” of the screen and the “elsewhere” beyond its frame, between the words his characters speak and the meanings their bodies project, between the preparation for actions and their enactment.
In response to a question about the relationship between his films and revolution — as one of the leading “Czech New Wave” filmmakers he has to answer to and for revolution — Porumboiu notes that many see revolutionary changes as sudden, abrupt transitions. In reality, he says, things change slowly. His films focus on potentialities and possibilities, but equally too on mundanity, “impotentiality.” On slow, invisible moments of decision. Near the conclusion of “Police, adjective”, the detective protagonist refuses to carry out the sting. The chief leads him through a tedious terminological dispute about the meaning of “police” and “justice” (I’ll return to this). The detective’s head leans back, out of the frame. When it returns, we know that he has decided to do it. The verbal moment of confirmation never appears. The waiting which constitutes most actual police work, the rehearsals which make up so much of filming: these become the centerpieces of his movies.
And if they focus on planning rather than acting, the films also frequently emphasize the moments when plans fail. One of the most stunning sequences in “Evening Falls” includes a long, repetitive rehearsal of a scene for a film-within-the-film: a woman is showering, gets out, starts to walk to her room to dress, hears voices that perturb her (we never learn why), and puts on her clothes for protection (“like armor”). Repeat, repeat. The film cuts to the actress’s naked body on the director’s bed, a shower running in the background. A phone rings one room away and she rises to answer it, closing the door behind her. The director leaves the shower and begins to walk to his room, a sea of grey, but stops in the hall, hearing her phone call. He pauses and then walks to his room to put on his clothes. Like armor? The prepared scene occurs but with roles inverted: the simulation mutates into reality. At the end of the film, the long-practiced scene is cut: it exists as preparation, but it will never be part of the film itself. A very similar relationship between preparation for action and the action itself appears in Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood For Love”: the principal characters repeatedly practice an action — confronting their spouse, for example — but only do so as practice. The practice, however, has a reality of its own and brings the woman to tears.
Near the beginning of “Evening Falls”, a director and his lead actress discuss the materiality of film. Film can only allow for takes up to eleven minutes, he tells her, this provides a fundamental limit. In the future, however, this limit will disappear, people will no longer watch movies. What will they watch? she asks. We may call them movies, he replies, but they will be something totally different. Why not use digital cameras? she asks. Because I need the limit, he responds.
This dialogue frames the film and structures the viewing experience. One constantly feels the strain of the physical medium as each long take proceeds, as the conversations pingpong, as the officer follows his man, as the limit approaches. This limit is “necessary” for the film’s fictional director (for Porumboiu too) because it allows for the minimal gap, the space between the seen and unseen. Digital film, the film of the future: without limits it will become something entirely different. It will become television.