Monday, March 21, 2011


“écrire c’est toucher au trou qui fait qu’on y manque, au monde, qu’on le manque, et que c’est ce trou qui fait qu’on parle, ou, autre façon de proposition, que du fait qu’on parle on ouvre le trou entre lui et nous qu’écrire ça creuse un peu plus le trou du trou…”
Christian Prigent

What Christian Prigent says of poetry, Cristi Puiu might have said of filmmaking: “making a film is touching the hole that makes it that we are missing, from the world, that we are missing it, and it is this hole that makes us make films or, another way of saying it, that by making films we open the hole between the world and ourselves, that making a film digs a little further into the hole of the hole…”

“Aurora” is about distance. THE distance, that “hole” between us and the world. The deep gaze of Cristi Puiu, author, actor and director, opens this “hole” and mirrors it, tempts us to look into an abyss that only rarely dare we contemplate. But here, this abyss is, in fact, all we look into, for three hours on end. Something happens that closes the loop, something makes it possible for the snake to swallow its tail/tale, something enclosed in this equation of the author who thought up the character and then who went ahead and incarnated it. 

Something happened to Viorel, Puiu's character. What exactly happened is NOT IMPORTANT. Nor is what we see on the screen.  Yes, in so many words. But now, here he is, on the verge of ending lives and, implicitly, of ending his own universe. Which had been made unwhole by some events, which some people had dug a big hole into. That hole is about to spread and its agent is now Viorel. Murder is just a way of ending someone's universe, but there are others, more subtle, leaving one raw and incapable to cope, day after day. How many of our fellow humans are just that, people whose universe was shred to pieces but who simply survive themselves and those OTHERS, empty stares masked by Xanax or other “mood enhancers”? We will never know. Viorel is someone who is out of Xanax, to whom, cherry on top, an improper medical system has denied that drug -- but, hey, how is that important, these mood altering substances are only decades old and they are not the issue here, the DISTANCE is the issue here, and the Others, and how some of us cannot resist the pressure anymore and do the things we read about and make us cringe. Here we have Viorel, one of these many criminals, who are just people who follow their thoughts to the end of what has become their ordeal, their life ruined. Here is someone who "rises" from his ruins to spread ruin in his turn. But that doesn't describe it. Nothing can describe it, Puiu tried his best using himself and a camera and all I have are words... I can only object to the words "rise", "ruins", "spread ruin", "his turn". What's left? "Here is someone". There you have it. And this someone kills.

So what if there is a woman who spends nights with him. Does she love him? Does he mean anything to her? Does he love her? Does she mean anything to him? We don’t know and we don’t care, as we understand from the hero’s gaze that neither does him. The distance is too great between these characters. The game is elsewhere. His life is elsewhere or, rather, is nowhere else to be found. Not anymore? Has it ever been somewhere or has this distance consumed it, always?

Viorel is distant and measuring distance. Like any good engineer. And so become we, the audience, we take part in his distances to the others. We'd practice them, too, we come to understand and relate to many of these distances. But some of those distances, some of those gaps and holes are his, Viorel's.  We relate to that, too, and thus we measure a distance between us and Viorel. 

Puiu does the same as he builds the film. We sense that there was first a story, then there was a set, then there were the people on the set and Puiu taking care of it and then Puiu in front of the camera and Puiu behind it and then Puiu doing the editing. We feel all these tiny distances in this ritual of proximity, dare we call it dance, or simply Puiu's cinema, which we come to experience for three hours: Puiu, Viorel, viewer. Actually, make that four: there is the camera as well. The odd man out -- the director of photography. Here, it even gets comical at times. There was a moment, maybe the darkest of all, when Puiu and Viorel went upstairs and we were left with the "camera" to stare at a wall, while Viorel, presumably with Puiu's hands (but we can't know for sure) was committing the first murder. "Murder". "Killing"? But no, "directing/editing Puiu" was there, with us, laughing maybe. He's there all the time, watching Viorel, with us, post "factum". Like when the Shostakovich music starts playing, out of nowhere. Those are encounters with Puiu the director that amount to some kind of  "entr'actes". It's as if Puiu felt the distance growing too much and he needed his audience, he needed to pat our backs, to say hello, to diminish the distance between us and him and increase the distance between him and his character.  He held his hand to us, almost drowning? Or because he was afraid we might? Anyway, those were pure moments of poetry. Or, should I risk it, "puitry"... Why not, these are just words...

Viorel is spying on some other people – we understand quickly enough that those must be his ex-wife and his children, who now live with his former parents in law, who had a hand in the dissolution of his marriage. At the same time, we sense he is spying on himself, measuring that distance. At no time does he stop doing that before going to the police. And even then, he attempts to hold the distance between himself and the detectives, he is demanding his "due respect" -- that the distance be preserved. In his carefully measured world, where words should mean what the dictionary indicates and roles should be played as they were meant to be played and everyone should integrate into their proper slot and keep all distances correct, nothing bad would happen. But once these distances get muddled, engineer Viorel dissipates into badly contained anger.  Let words be words, let there be no hidden words and hidden truths, or else let the belongings be split into half and let toy soldiers return to the former child's nightstand.

I had no issues following what happens in this film, contrary to what others reported. Maybe it’s because I saw a later cut. Maybe it was because I was paying particular attention, as I had been warned that it can become confusing. But, to me, if anything, the film was too… explicit! I found myself cringing at what amounted, in that universe, to… too much information! I felt my astuteness less than challenged sometimes and I mildly resented that... But I can understand those who became lost on the way. If the interior of Romanian blocks of flats doesn’t speak to you and your eye is not trained to sense the differences and gets lost in the similarities of these spaces, maybe you will become lost at some point. I’m trying to figure this out because, as I said, I never once felt unsure of what I was seeing. I mean, there may have been some uncertainty at the outset with each character, but I was quickly given the key of who they were either from dialogue or from behavior.

“Aurora” is not only a step forward in Puiu's filmmaking, it is a new beginning. And I couldn’t help but think that maybe the artistic divorce from screenwriter/now director Razvan Radulescu was just what was needed for Puiu to truly come into his own as an artist.

Puiu’s honesty in "Aurora" is total. When he made this movie he simply opened up and let himself bleed onto the screen. He performed observational cinema on himself, he hypnotized himself by doing it and went deeper and deeper into that trance of a character he ironically called “Viorel” (in Romanian, the name means “violet”, a spring wild flower particularly frail, and while I know a few Romanian men by that name, none is too happy with it.) It’s the kind of openness that few artists today are capable of even dreaming about, let alone achieving. If you will, it is an old fashioned ideal, almost, the artist who lets himself be raw, be there, give it all up for… for whom? For the love of others. Observe how old fashioned and pathetic this can sound. So many hacks and people afraid of whom they are have come to populate this planet and have a say in the way things go that indeed, when someone like Puiu comes along, we are rather caught unaware and don’t exactly know what to think. There are those who salute him, but then there are many more who would like him to play by the rules we all learned. Why can’t he do things the way everyone does them, why can’t he… not be himself and not bother us with the blood on his face? Coming from the bloody hands he holds his open viscera in? Oh, gross! Put those guts back into your belly, Cristi Puiu, and stop bothering us with an honesty nobody asked for... This is the 21st century, people nowadays don’t live for their art anymore, they make art for a living and they manipulate the press to bring it before the public. What the hell did you think you were doing?

To see a true artist “lose the battle” over the cinema critics’ minds against a formidable hack like "the talented Mr. Ujica" is a pain, indeed. Luckily, Puiu himself was in no such battle, he did his film for the audience, however restrained that may be and all one can hope is that Romanian (or foreign, for that matter) film critics' ass biting and/or lack of comprehension has long ceased to cause him any pain.

Now, why bother being a true artist, when it’s so much easier to find one and ride in the tail of the comet? Forget about the temperatures that poor thing develops as it travels the universe and enjoy the ride! I won't be naming any more names here, but you know who you are and what you're up to...

Well, all we can hope for is that true artists will find the strength to go on and still make their art despite the workings of this ugly cinema world.

Thank you, Cristi Puiu…


Sunday, December 5, 2010

The New Romanian Cinema 6 Hours Showdown: Cristi Puiu’s “Aurora” vs. Andrei Ujica’s “Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu” (I)

According to Romanian critics, who dutifully take their cues from their foreign counterparts, these two movies in which the viewers receive no clues as to who does what to whom and why, would be the works of two filmmakers of comparable genius. 
If asked to choose, though, many would pick “The Autobiography” as the most seminal and important of the two. I find this so wrong that I will endeavor to explain why I object to even placing them on the same level of magnitude. I even object to my writing them in similar fonts in the title of this post, but I had no choice.

"The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu" - Is Faux Fakery True Art?

Almost twenty years after Andrei Ujica gave his first and (I’d say) best work, as co-director, with Harun Farocki, of "Videograms of a Revolution", everyone seems to discover belatedly this previously ignored Romanian-German professor-turned-filmmaker.

While I loved "Videograms", I thought that "The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu" was an excellent idea unfortunately ruined out of a combination of misguided elitism (which rendered almost unwatchable Ujica's previous film, "Out of the Present") and the author's giving in to the temptation of facility. 
The wool on foreign critics’ eyes when judging “The Autobiography” stems from their understandable lack of knowledge for the subject and a freedom to connect the dots that must both baffle and intimidate them. However, their natural ignorance of life under dictatorship was Ujica's bliss, as the author recently stated that his film was best understood... in the United States!

Here, I would like you to stop and think about this one for a moment... In what world is that OK? This was said by Ujica in the context where audiences back home were receiving this film with an eyebrow raised or were embracing it for all the wrong reasons. Why should those who knew his topic first hand, who lived through it or had parents who had, NOT UNDERSTAND his film as well as... US audiences?

Ujica left Romania in the early 80's, so he missed the worst part of Ceausescu's dictatorship. Still, Ujica and cohorts of local critics argue that people who knew better than the author what those times were like are unfit to judge and enjoy this work of art!  They won't get in line, won't raise to the occasion. Because, you see... Foreign critics must be right, after all. This film was meant for them, to run in festivals, so why are these rudimentary aborigens raising their voices in disagreement and/or disappointment? Say what? It's them we're showing on that screen?  So what?  We're colonizing them with our high culture, which they cannot even understand. This is a nation that became idiotic a long time ago, Ladies and Gentlemen.  Take a look at the shows they were putting on for Ceausescu, you can see that clearly.  Too bad we cannot show it to you in 3D.  Stupid Romanians smiling under communism.  Ah, I assure you, they cannot judge this, I am the artist, and I declare this to be a new form of art, best enjoyed by people who never knew dictatorship, unlike these... morons! (Actually, the word generally used by critics like Alex Leo Serban, Alexandru Matei, etc. is "devansat" - "outran", "left behind").

Had Ujica actually contributed anything else than some music and editing, it would all have become clear and criticizeable even from abroad. But Ujica played his elitistic card with a maximum of effect here and used it to hide behind it, practically, to avoid exposing himself.  Or maybe he was simply too scared, too intimidated by the magnitude of the subject and, I am beginning to suspect, his own ignorance of it.

Yes, it would have been extremely difficult to pull off something worthwhile called "The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu"... I was in awe at the daring concept and I didn't even think it would be possible when I first heard about it, to tell you the whole truth. However, I thought such a reunion of forces as Ujica and Radulescu (the initial project was to have Radulescu co-write a commentary) might do the trick...

But life was to prove me right. They weren't capable to pull THAT off, and I have no idea what the inside story was. When asked about it, Ujica avoided the subject, during an online interview.  The project came out with no comments, just some irony peppering the images as musical counterpoints.

Easy! It's all relative, of course, but hey, that one was indeed the easy way out, just think about it...

I wish at least he had preserved the stylistic purity of the whole, to have abstained from what amounts to muffled comments, if you will, but Ujica chose otherwise.  It didn't work for me at all.

What this film proves is that lies, no matter how one may assemble them, will never give one the measure of truth... I guess even the music went in as the author figured that Ceausescu's image was too... nice, after all. That no matter how he put together propaganda footage, no matter how hard he tried to make it turn against itself and bite its tail, the power of the original directors, the hacks that oversaw it all, finally prevailed. Maybe that is why Ceausescu's family never even protested. Ceausescu comes out as a relatively good guy and we never get a glimpse of what might have been his side of the story. The "autobiography"? Oh, please... Not even close!

Thus, on a par with kids back in Romania, foreign critics responded to the content of the archive images, oblivious to what is missing and on the verge of being incapable to interpret what they are seeing most of the times, as the author refused to offer any indications.

Ujica did COMMENT, however timidly, through some musical pieces and some primitive editing, so why not go ahead and let his viewers know at least what they are seeing if not what he thinks about it?  Oh, I remember -- he stated in a recent online interview that he despised with all his might "Discovery" type documentaries and would never, ever even consider putting together something even remotely like that. The result?  A misrepresentation of facts in the minds of a majority of viewers as blatant as it is definitive. 

So, foreign viewers will never get a chance to understand properly what they watch.  That ship has sailed.

Now, young Romanians, the kind who laugh at it as if someone tickled them, might come to figure some things out, but only if they diligently run to their Wikipedias, etc. after viewing the film and then listen to their elders tell it like it was.  Romanians who lived through at least some of those years will be inevitably disappointed -- there is really nothing there that they haven't seen before and, which is worse, even those three hours will appear misused.  Romanians who lived through communism and think it was the best part of their lives will cherish it as important evidence that they are right to look back wistfully.

I read so much nauseating praise in the Romanian cinema press that I have come to actually not care how anyone will account for the fatal mistakes of this film. Romanian critics ran through the hoops to kiss this movie's ass and thus I felt compelled to kick its butt as hard as I could, as there will still be no equilibrium... People like Alex Leo Serban appeared everywhere journalists or simple viewers said anything against the film, aggressively defending it and its author. (Including here, as it turns out, see comments below)  At some point, Serban even revealed, during a controversy, that they were close friends and Ujica had offered him to teach in Karlsruhe, that was really funny... Anyway, they keep calling it an "essay", as opposed to a "documentary", you see. At twenty minutes, on YouTube, I would have understood.  But for a three hours theatrical release, this better be a full-fledged thesis, dammit! Give me something here to think about, besides easy irony and doubtful musical choices...

We all respond to the stimuli of which the film makes obscene use, namely, crowd scenes. Archive footage was packaged expertly by the "talented Mr. Ujica" as "Ceausescu's perspective", when it was, in fact, merely official propaganda, just a small portion of what Ceausescu put up with on an almost daily basis and which, by the force of sheer repetition, must have become routine to him.

What would then so many crowd images do even in a pretend "autobiography"? They could never stand for Ceausescu's potential choices for his own life story, into which we gain not even the pretension of an insight because the author's interest lies elsewhere.

I am not sure whether Ceausescu lost his head watching the crowds assembled in his honor.  Maybe he did, in Asia, that's the only time when he seemed impressed.  But Ujica definitely lost his watching those moments. Bingo!  There it was, cheap footage, entertaining to WATCH, even if we end up UNDERSTANDING NOTHING and getting all the wrong ideas... But who could STAGE today something of that magnitude?  OK, the Chinese can and have outdone all those things at the Olympics, but still...

Ujica must have thought this one out in Hollywood terms. He had all the studios and their CGI fakery beat here with a series of sequences left behind by 25 years of pain his nation went through, so how could he resist? If the story had to remain incomplete and incoherent, so be it, but those images of huge masses of people looking like complete idiots had to go in. Harvey Weinstein wouldn't have had it any other way, either...

Only Weinstein would have definitely kept this movie weigh in at under two hours, cutting all the artsy lengths which Ujica indulged in. Because, connecting the lavish crowds scenes, too many pointless moments punctuate, or rather puncture this movie, by just as many 'punctums' that are lost on a majority of the audience... At least, Ujica could have played by the rules of entertainment value to the end and let this be shorter and commented properly, but no, what is he, a "Discovery" channel director? Forgetaboudit. He had to please the critics, so he went ahead and messed it all up, adding up to three hours of long shots of... whatever he could find in those archives.

I especially find primitively put together, a clumsy manipulation, the scenes from the seventies, where the filmmaker who never wanted to learn how to make movies endeavored to express the fact that the Romanian people were gathered around his leader at the time. To a scene in some park, taken from some advertising for transistor radios, Ujica added a Ceausescu speech in the background, letting unsuspecting viewers think that, ever in the history of the Romanian people, young folks went to picnics to listen to their president on the radio!!! Ceausescu himself wouldn't have believed it if he saw it... We have there a brand new piece of communist propaganda of the worst kind, made in Romania to fool foreign audiences, cca 2009, by Andrei Ujica.

So, what would be an apt title for this film?  Because the artsy title (which the author used to misguidedly present as alluding to "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" by Gertrude Stein, mercifully he has given up on that ridiculous pretense lately) certainly is just an empty excuse and a misleading "hook".  Then again, here we are served the Hollywood way.  A descriptive title would be "Reeling in the Years -- The Ceausescu Era". What? It's been done in Ireland as a series? Damn... Maybe Ujica didn't know that unexplicated footage juxtaposed (mostly chronologically) is no longer a high concept.  But you see, they write on the screen what they're showing and who's talking, Ujica doesn't. So there. (Could that be why we are not entitled to any clues?..)

In the false mirror of that time's propaganda we glimpse not only the Romanian people, but several others, all hijacked by communism, as they moronically put on shows for their leader(s) and go through the motions, abjectly letting themselves be used as mere pieces in apparently well oiled machineries, disbarred of autonomy and individuality but smiling throughout. The only individuals in those scenes are the leaders, the rest become mere human background, putting, as it were, the "PROP" in PROPaganda, being manipulated and treated as such.

And images of crowds of humans acting robotically fascinate, they always have, ever since Fritz Lang’s "Metropolis" graced the silver screens. Only Fritz Lang's workers never smiled so at least some measure of human dignity was preserved.

In Ujica's film, those poor crowds, knowing they're on camera, knowing any faux pas can cost them dearly, and we're talking serious consequences here, look so silly that they can only elicit laughter. Unwilling clowns doing pathetic things for which God knows how many days of their lives were wasted only to get a bored smile on a dictator's face back then and... thanks to Ujica, many more on our faces today... Should anyone recognize his or her face or stupid moves caught on one of those cameras and ridiculed today the world over, they might be entitled to actually demand damages to the producers of this "masterpiece". Which reminds me of the Borat situations of not so long ago, still in Romania, as the same kind of ridicule occurs. The huge difference is that nobody coerced Borat's unwitting actors into anything, whereas Ujica's... actually Ceausescu's "actors" were forced to perform all those things and that demands a different attitude.  Ujica hijacks both Ceausescu and his victims and has them offer us some big screen entertainment today. To top it all, this is now viewed as a formidable art piece by some and the movie made it into the top 10 of the "Sight and Sound" magazine, for which I lost most, if not all respect.
I suppose that never have there been more people harmed during “the making of a movie” only to be, many years after, wronged and misrepresented by the resuscitation of that bloody footage to make them appear like idiots to worldwide audiences, too! First, it took the "guts" of a dictator. And then came the artist, right? Ujica himself declared recently that the two have many things in common... He probably sees them united by the same disregard for the common folk.
The formidable repression mechanism that made all those scenes possible and that slapped all those obligatory smiles on all those faces is not even remotely alluded to. The teenagers around me, which I later heard, had been brought by Mungiu's efforts from some schools, in the old tradition, were laughing so wholeheartedly that I simply knew that it was lost on them, despite the stories they must have heard from their elders, being raised in Romania and all that.

Now, maybe adults from countries that never knew dictatorship will be more discriminate and will have a sense of it, somehow, from their cultural heritage.  How likely are you to believe that now? Precisely my point.  A few might, but only very, very few. For the rest, the movie will show an almost funny guy who fooled everyone, including the Queen of England, a man who was endearingly clumsy and who balanced that with being almost heroic at other times and who died thinking he was well loved and never knowing where he went wrong. 

Because this is the sad bottom line of this movie.  Many critics rushed to explain and defend Ujica's right to concoct this dubious "masterpiece", an "essay" meant for the "selected few" to understand, taste and discuss in the seclusion of their circles of elevated friends. Ujica himself said that he didn't care whether the masses of youngsters understood nothing and only had more reason to laugh at their elders or if the nostalgics of those days see this movie as further proof that this used to be a great nation under a great leader, etc. because, he argued, trying to prevent such readings would have made him "self-conscious" as he created, and that would have been "exactly what they would have wanted" ("they", being, presumably, Ceausescu and his ilk? It is not made clear, but it reminds me of a funny comment somewhere -- that this film shows that Romanian intellectuals are still so scared they are "resisting by culture", 20 years after communism went down...)

Ana Blandiana commented neutrally that this is a movie about how dictators are being made -- she meant on a global scale, as all the other leaders are shown falling into the trap of history, etc.  That is maybe its only redeeming grace.

Ironically enough, its reception here and abroad is showing us now how artists are being made, by a process uncomfortably similar of false perception.
This is my major problem with Ujica’s “nonfiction, wait, no, it’s actually fiction” film. It has sufficient aesthetic arguments to fool someone into believing that this is an elitist work of art, it has sufficient entertainment value to keep the Beavis and Buttheads of Romania in their chairs, it even has sufficient archive material, presented without comments, to fool foreigners into thinking that they are viewing a dispassionate documentary and to fool older Romanians into believing that this is quite the reverse of that, namely propaganda in disguise for a time long gone. It is all things to all people, and boy, so many wrong things to so many wrong people, that it becomes a masterpiece AT THAT, it invents its own class of guilty ambiguity.  

This film is a lie, and a lie so blatant and multifaceted it even alludes at itself being such in the title.  How gutsy is that? So gutsy it has got to be art, right?  And so it shall come to pass, especially that the author, a professor of media theory, is encouraging critics worldwide to think of it in those terms, even to consider it the beginning of a new type of cinema, non-fictional cinema, made of previously existing footage cleverly assembled!
Ujica's next project?  Believe it or not, “The Beatles”. Now that’s a much safer bet, how wrong can you go showing unexplicated archive footage of that phenomenon?  I wish he had left Ceausescu alone and did that one instead... Leaving aside what I think about the costs and feasibility of such a project, this only enforces the theory that the aesthetic choices in "The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu" were triggered by Ujica's fascination with power exerted by a handful of individuals over masses. And he is a good student, too, judging from the way he manipulates his audiences, in his turn…
When asked during a TV interview why he didn’t indicate somehow that Ceausescu knew that his people was deeply unhappy under his regime, Ujica “disarmingly” admitted: “I had no such footage”.
This speaks volumes about the role played by hazard in his choices. Because that doesn’t even mean that such footage doesn’t actually EXIST, only that Ujica has not seen it. 

We should mention here that a reported 2000 hours of archives were combed by director Titus Muntean in the vaults of the Romanian Television, in order to present Ujica with only 200 hours of chosen materials. And this is another one of my discontents: Ujica should have at least watched those 2000 hours himself, directly for his project.  I am amazed that no Romanian critic familiar with Muntean's work sensed his acid irony hard at work in the choices... Arguably, if another Romanian director had toiled in the archives, we might have seen an entirely different movie, according to the 200 hours that artist might have pulled out...

Anyway, Muntean was asked to be on the lookout for any and all pieces that would never have been shown on TV, especially tape endings, bits where Ceausescu would be “unguarded”, “himself”, besides some precise historic moments.  I doubt very much that the parts where Ceausescu would intimate any knowledge of the suffering of those he led were particularly sought after.
And even if such footage did not exist,  how about the written archives? There are tens of thousands of pages of documents that survived. No historian is mentioned on the screen, so probably nobody bothered to look for materials that might round off the official images (mostly without sound) found in the Romanian Television archives. This serious and amazing topic was treated in a superficial manner, just selecting 3 hours out of 200 and putting them together in a way that made some sense...
That I find excessively easy.  Just like a teenager seated behind me at the premiere who, not fifteen minutes into the picture, after figuring out what it was going to be like, let out, between two fits of laughter: “You bet, man, he had so much of this stuff to choose from!”. Like, you see, he was envying the author’s access to all that bounty, because he could have pulled off something just as “funny” at home, using Windows MovieMaker and then posting it all on YouTube to gather precious views…



Wednesday, October 10, 2007

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

That would be about 144 days, right?


Mungiu got my attention from the moment I noticed Gabita was waxing her legs. 144 days pregnant, in deep shit, therefore, and the woman was WAXING HER LEGS! I sank in my chair. This had got to be good. Her play with the stupid plasticized table cover (Oriental sounding "mushama" in Romanian, an ubiquitous object that some have come to integrate into the Romanian quirkiness of being) was also gripping. Then Otilia took over and started to show us what it meant to find your way in Communist Romania, to fly under the radar, like most people did, as it had become their second nature.

So I knew I was in for a treat if the entire movie would be generous with such insights into the darkness of Romanian communism and the curses it had bestowed on people's approach to sexuality and reproduction.

Come to think of it, the curses still exist, only they have metamorphosed. For instance, check out the reaction of some regular American fellas upon discovering "Libertatea" online. And remember that "Libertatea" is the top selling daily newspaper in Romania, at quite a distance from its "normal" follower, "Jurnalul National".

Another intriguing possibility is that these curses had less to do with communism and more with the way Romanians relate to sexuality and its...well, consequences. This may have brought them into those depths of cynicism when abortion was forbidden. The fact that a law passed there, be it by the Communists, restricted both contraceptive methods and abortion may be an indication that all is not kosher in this domain. The brimming orphanages that brought Romania to worldwide attention may slap the same cynical accusation on Romanians. If all truth be told, even the chilling statistics showing that so many women still consider abortion an OK contraceptive method in that country deserves its own movie, but hey, that would be even more painful to watch, right?

Yes, it is a movie about how cynical people can become. True, the system has its part in it. But then again, it takes people to build the system, etc. And people who think they can mess with entire communities' bodies and life-giving decisions grow everywhere, even as we speak, right? Which gives this movie its instant and indisputable universal appeal. It cuts to the bone, it goes where no movie has gone before, it takes upon itself to show us a story about abortion as up close and personal as it can get (while still keeping its PG ratings, and this is, I think, why the camera stops following Otilia, for the first and only time during the movie, and sticks demurely with Gabita during the sex scene between Otilia and Bebe)

They say that Bebe was a monster in the movie. He could have been tons more monstrous. For instance, he was downright considerate when he chose to have sex with each of the women, I mean, separately. I disagree with CTP's assessment that "a nice looking fellow" like Bebe could have found willing sexual partners for a fistful of lei in any student dorm. I don't know where he got that from, he is way too jaded! But indeed, the enticement could have been a lot more serious had he gone to the bottom of male fantasies on the subject. Maybe the real life Bebe had, back then, who knows... But what would have Mutu's camera done in that case? Good point. And how about the ratings? Okay...

To me, the biggest, most offensive monster was off-screen, all the time, and was never even referred to. He was the Unspeakable, Unmentionable one. Very cool. I refer, of course, to the co-author of Gabita's pregnancy. Now, if he were "unknown", that would shorten the distance between him and the occupant of the second place in monstruosity, Gabita herself. But she was the empathetic kind, a female Hannibal, minus the intelligence. Then came Mr. Bebe, a monster by vocation and choice, and finally Otilia, who was initiated to being a monster during the events pictured. We could safely state that this is the theme of the movie -- how a woman is turned into a monster, slowly but surely, given the "right" constraints and a series of choices "between two evils" she needs to assume.

I'm sick of hearing everyone what a hero Otilia was and how grand her gesture, her self-sacrifice. She was a flawed human being herself. She couldn't have been otherwise, monsters need soft moral tissue to develop... But we can't help but empathize with her because of her good side, as she is so selflessly taking action to help out her friend in need.

She's a great main character, that I'll give her. However, she DID HAVE CHOICES when it came right down to the aforesaid sacrifice. Mungiu didn't close off her every exit, and he didn't because he obviously couldn't have. Yes, they had paid in advance some nights at the hotel, so money would have been lost there. Not a great fortune, but a considerable amount, let's say, the amount a Romanian student would have needed for food for a month, back then. There WERE other possibilities to be explored in terms of potential abortionists -- not to mention the idea that the pregnancy should have been kept at that point, never mind that... Otilia, finding out herself under pressure about the real advancement of the pregnancy, doesn't even think to ask -- "Hey, are you sure?". However, she does decide to commit "the sacrifice".

Hers was therefore a cold and calculated management decision. Otilia struck me as a great manager, by the way. She is DRIVEN. We like these people in today's pressed for time world. She takes action. She is astute, too, as she negotiates the hotel room, her way out of the bus crisis. (By the way, why be dishonest there? I told you, she's not perfect. Bus tickets cost next to nothing back then and students had reduced fares, etc. Busted, Otilia!) She tries telling Mr. Bebe that she is having her period to extract herself from the situation. However, she might have told the truth there, as testified later by her boyfriend, Monster No.5, who had not protected her during their latest lovemaking session, even under the "menace" of fertility... Which makes Otilia safe from "perpetuating the cycle of unwanted childbearing" by saying yes to Bebe, with a chance of having been already pregnant by her boyfriend. So it was, after all, the immediate way out (and time was of the essence) IF ONE COULD LIVE WITH IT.

Thus, Otilia chooses to prostitute herself to minimize the hassle and improve the chances of success of the task at hand, which is helping Gabita get rid of her unwanted pregnancy. Her management abilities combined with an openness to moral compromise (undoubtedly honed by the system) pushed her to this NON-OBLIGATORY decision.

It's all relative, some people sleep their way to the top of corporate ladders, or to get a part in a movie, so this is quite heroic, by comparison, right?

Once you accept that, it's all good. The movie, I mean. But if you insist to imagine Otilia as a saintly, perfect woman, all dedicated to her friendship with the moronic Gabita, well, then good luck suspending your disbelief, because you'd have to...

In conclusion, this is a genre movie, a monster movie, with suspense and all that. :) Seriously now, in spirit and emotions stirred, it is the absolute opposite of a romantic comedy, if you will. A "romcom", as in "ROManian COMmunism" horror... It's also a "buddy love" act, with a hint of "dude in trouble". Well done!

Yes, it made me think about things. Yes, I applaud it and the scandal/discussions it aroused.

But when I came out of the cinema hall, I envied the people who were in line to see "The Bourne Etc."

"432" is not entertainment, it's truth and pain administered via a good story. A movie one pays to suffer through, while Mungiu delivers unwanted truths about human lows. Which, at some level, turns him into a kind of Mr. Bebe...

And if you think this is a cruel joke, I say it was my tiny revenge for the extra time endured by us all in front of the screens, as this film could have been shorter by 30 minutes at least, just like its Romanian predecessor in examining human bodies and minds dishonored by cruel systems, "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" by Cristi Puiu.


Monday, July 30, 2007


I have this new theory: that Romanians are the greatest communicators on Earth.

I have spent a few weeks there this time around. And I am in love with the very people that originated ME. How lucky is that? What were the odds, I ask bombastically?

They have this saying that goes "Romania is a beautiful country, too bad it's inhabited". (Don't they say that about France, too?) Anyway, it makes me mad: no, Romania's natural beauty is not really that great. And, on the contrary, the people are so warm and friendly and funny and bizarre and crazy that they are indeed Romania's only claim to fame.

They have started to learn to put that on camera -- and they bagged the big prize in Cannes -- and kudos to that wonderful Mungiu for an important story, fantastically told. My take: this is only the beginning. This amazing people will be known for its quirky, bizarre and deeply disturbing human rawness and its unique way of coping-by-communication.

I remember being slightly amazed at how the Internet made its debut in Romania: at the Net Cafes everywhere, people were busy... chatting! IRC channels open, they were tirelessly meeting one another and yakking away. Or the mobile phone craze! Everyone has a few of those, and they keep chatting and chatting. They can't keep their mouths shut or their fingers still, they have to communicate to one another, day in, day out. A latin people, granted, but... There are no limits!

Remember those TV channels I was upset about? Now I GET them better. People chatting, everywhere you turn, they can't help themselves. I suppose there are TV channels that nobody tunes into, but still those TV talk shows will be on because those people have to express themselves, and they'd do it anyway, so who cares how many cameras are on them, and if you pay them to talk to each other, sure, they'll take it! That's the spirit of many, many TV stations. It's a non-stop, non-alcoholic (although I can't be 100% sure) happy hour on air.

And the level of detail and intimacy! Californians have a way to go before they touch this! Any taxi driver will dive right into their heart and souls and pour their private life stories if only you make a slight remark they can latch on to -- or, alternatively, you can bare yours for them, they'll listen intently. And then repeat it to the next customer. Everyone is everyone else's shrink there. Total therapy -- or an exasperating madhouse, it depends on one's mood.

I love it how the terraces are full of people. I hadn't realized that, since for quite a few years I had come there in winter. People seem to have quite a bit of money in Bucharest. And the restaurants have improved vastly. Atmosphere, service, everything is quite alright. Almost as good as Prague, only the beauty is missing and some extra traffic and pollution occur. But hey, then... There are the Romanians! The big Communicators! English everywhere, French quite often, Italian understood, and now even Spanish is no longer that uncommon. You can't find that in Prague, you can't compare the two!

So, to the accidental tourist who may happen upon my words: if you're moved by beauty and loftiness, and the party life is secondary or has to happen in such surroundings, by all means, do Prague and be happy. But if you're looking for quite possibly the coolest people, the warmest, funniest, bend-over-backwardest for their guests and really happy to talk to you about themselves, yourself, their country, your country, other people's countries, selves, TV series, whatever -- come to Romania and you'll be sure to have a blast! Just make sure to do your homework right -- a few good addresses, and you'll be set for meeting the COMMUNICATORS!


Monday, April 9, 2007

The "Out-of-Country" Experience

Why is there nobody in the Romanian streets, these days? As in "protesting"?

Yes, yes, I've read the news. Several weeks' worth. That's why I am addressing rhetorical questions here.

I was blissfully clueless regarding the current political situation, while still keeping in contact with a lot of friends over in Romania, until one of them asked:

"How does all this new Romanian shit reflect over there?"
"What happened?"
"You don't know?"

No, I didn't know. And yes, I do now. And no, it fucking makes absolutely no sense to me why nobody told me earlier or how faint and scarce are the voices raised against this outrageous state of events. Are you all mad?

Tariceanu? Geoana? Patriciu? Orban? Antonescu? HELLO! It is a considerable shame that these people ever reached a modicum of success under your watch -- but for them and countless others like them to have become your lords and masters, whether you voted them or not... Excuse me, your eyes were wide shut a little too long.

How do you people just live your lives as if nothing were the matter? You are being successful, you're making money, you're going places, you're having a ball while everything crumbles around you, in that country. How can you let it all happen? You don't even TALK about it anymore! You all have blogs and you are like, la-la-la... Oh, read my witty thoughts, check out this tidbit of cool stuff I just dug out from the net trenches because I'm so in the thick of things and I know where the supremely intriguing images/videos/snippets are, so of course they will all reflect on ME, they identify ME and my bloggin' brand! Or, let's fucking talk about clothes, cuz that's where Romanians suck, man... What a wonderful world this would be if they were all wearing (insert favorite labels here...)


So, dear Romanians-oblivious-to-Romanian-realities, you all left your country while physically there, as it were. Thanks to the Internet and those TV stations (so heavy with entertainment and commercials, who cares how biased the news are!) you are currently enjoying "out-of-country" experiences and cannot give a shit on what's going on in the real world. Panem et circensis galore, so... Wow... Look at you! Just like your parents and grandparents under Communism, only bubblier and happier! See, they only had books and a few old movies to escape into, not to mention the scarce panem at some point... So maybe they're proud of you now, as they watch you grow fat and ignorant to your surroundings, while your country disappears from under your feet, no longer a relevant item for you, able consumers of the world and the world wide web. Why shouldn't they be? Why, why, why?

I just thought I'd meet some of you here and ask you ominously, as in Pink Floyd's "The Wall"...



Monday, March 19, 2007

I Think Blogging Just Died... the hands of TwitterVision.


P.S. I realized what TwitterVision reminds me of: Jake Scott's video for R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts". The "camera" movement is there, doing crazy global travelling shots this time and focusing on assorted mug shots with a few words providing unexpected insights into folks' minds -- like the video's "subtitles" did.

The scripted hurting part is missing of course, because people mostly chirp away, they don't get too personal.

Which is good.

And it is REAL, and it is in real time...

Of course it's fascinating.


Monday, December 11, 2006

Prolegomena to a Phenomenology of Romanian Mass Media (Just Kidding)

According to the media, every day STUFF (initially called "shit" throughout this article) happens during these never-ending transition times. That is, unless Romanian teams are involved in international football games, when "stuff", like a huge djinny looming large over us, suddenly enters the game and all the imaginable details that surround it, as if it were sucked back into its proverbial bottle. If the international football leagues were re-designed so as to have non-stop competitions and if a sizable portion of the coming European structural funds were poured into Romanian soccer teams, then the whole country might sink into -- or rise to -- some Scandinavian-type daily blissful routine in the running of its other affairs. That would be an excellent excessive-latin-spirit-sucking-device; I might patent it under the brand "Latirin" (from Ritalin, for those who don't get enough pharmaceutical spam.)

Anyway, so every day stuff happens, and on all TV channels the usual media heads are chatting about it. I'm not sure to this day why in Romania, which is an OK country in terms of human potential, just a handful of individuals get rotated like mad on all locally produced TV programs.

This may be an effect of the communist era when, in the 80's, people had access to a single TV channel during as little as two hours of programming every night. Under those circumstances, there was no chance to develop a considerable pool of TV stars. So maybe the Romanian collective TV consciousness was molded around a tight number of people whom it can accept on its screens. That would be my noble, idealistic and compassionate view.

So it's either that, or... Could it be cheaper for the TV stations that way? Because I forgot to mention the huge number of hours that each channel's "anchors" are supposed to be spending every day facing the nation.

As a result, watching Romanian TV is like watching a bunch of hamsters doing their... thing. Hamsters don't get very creative. We look at them because they're cute, strangely hypnotic and mildly therapeutic with their exercise wheel routines. So it is with Romanian TV, minus the cuteness and the therapeutic effect. Actually, little do I know about the secret lives of hamsters, maybe they do compete for the "eyeballs", or the "hearts and minds" of innocent humans and they make statistics and ratings and calculate their brand power in their sick itty-bitty brains. It's hard to trust anyone these days, let alone a rodent.

Normally, these overworked TV hosts call to their rescue "guests": journalists, political figures and miscellaneous... let's call them (as they actually might even call themselves) "media consultants". But you'd think that at least at this level you get some variety. Nope. The same professional guests (PGs) do the rounds. I mean, as you zap, you see PG1 on TV1, while PG2 is on TV2, PG3 on TV3, etc. One hour later, PG3 is on TV1, PG1 is on TV2, etc. And sometimes TV hosts do extra time as guests on each other's shows.

Thus, in theory, it is quite possible for someone who wants to spend a doubtful quality evening watching several talk shows on different topics, to see the same four hamster-people all afternoon and evening -- while ZAPPING! Ain't that something? Then the viewer gets to feel like a hamster, too, his or her remote powering the exercise wheel. It's an endearing picture, really: hamsters looking at each other, through the wheel rungs, in stroboscopic redundancy, each thinking he/she is smarter. It keeps people off the streets all over the globe, if you think about it. (But I digress, thought the typing hamster and pressed "enter")

There is a problem with this system of scarcity and recycling, and in winter it becomes supremely obnoxious: with bad weather, traffic in Bucharest often grinds to a halt... And the guests who couldn't make it from one TV station to another are being called in on their mobile phones, and in between the issues at stake we get real time traffic reports, complete with traffic noises and frequent interruptions - very dramatic indeed. While some think it's just frustrating and unprofessional.

And that's because TV stations have not foreseen the problems raised by their "frequent guest programs". (By the way, do PGs get some type of mileage? They definitely should be issued magnetic fidelity cards by each TV station.) Otherwise, you'd think they would have huddled together in the same building, or at least the same neighborhood. But it's not to late: if they were to move their tiny talk show studios into the enormous House of Parliament, that would solve everything, because then all political guests would be just a few steps away, too. Plus, how bad can traffic get on those marble corridors? I say huddle all media hamsters in the same cage, it saves energy and reduces pollution.

If you think that kind of television might as well be called visual radio, you're right. I have friends who record the TV shows they're interested in as MP3s. Why bother with talking heads one sees more often than their friends and family, and moreover, who might not even be in the studio for viewers to admire their new shirts or hairstyles?

But let's get back to the issue of stuff happening. Now we may define several types of stuff:

- regular stuff (RS)-- your daily helping, matters over which people have strong opinions and uphold them, and on TV your usual hamsters are doing just fine debating them over and over again;

- important stuff (IS)-- this kind might even make one want to read a newspaper online the next day, because one's usual opinions may be slightly challenged. The usual hamsters get into heated arguments, and international examples get quoted a lot -- we try to learn from others' experience how to deal with this, when there are no downright European commandments that may be invoked, which would graciously end all discussion.

- very weird stuff (VWS)-- this is the worst kind -- this is the kind of stuff people are not sure what to think about, and it's so localized, so... Romanian in its essence that watching what people do in other countries is futile -- just trying to find similar circumstances is a headache. The overarching topic of my article (because there is one, trust me) is precisely this type of very weird stuff, of accidental, random, if any universal value. In a VWS case, the nation is on its own. The stuff in itself may be more or less important, per se, but its occurrence marks a turning point, or at least defines a trend... It is, in short, the kind of stuff that makes Romanians be Romanians, the stuff that defines the nation and shapes the very "Romanian weirdness of being", to paraphrase Kundera quite creatively, if I may say so myself.

VWS is quite exciting on Romanian media and I'd venture to say that it happens quite often. Romanians have a talent to bring it up. And they are becoming experts and manufacturing it themselves, they no longer wait for chance or the European integration-related issues to spark it up.

They are actually hooked on this VWS, as a nation. They love to define themselves, to gaze at the national navel, to compare notes occasionally, to re-read into their own past things that might have escaped them during the communist period. They are indeed a very narcissistic people and they indulge in this pastime maybe more than the healthy amount, but while I'm writing these very words, I'm falling into the national sin, and I love every minute of it.

Well, what do you think that 90% of this nation's educated people over 40 do when faced with VWS moments?

Because, believe it or not, sadly, these guys have a cookie-cutter SOLUTION!

(Hint: yeaH, tHey turn to someone (or his close friends). And if it sounds like a cult, wHy, tHere are plenty of elements of tHat in tHere, built and maintained carefully over tHe years.)