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…