Even when it seems there’s nothing going on

I must admit, I was surprised to find that the New Yorker’s David Denby had many of the same thoughts as I did while watching and digesting the wonderful “Police, Adjective” (which will hopefully arrive in Madison soon after it gets finished receiving majorly positive reviews in all the major U.S. cities). I was surprised because, while I like Denby fine as a writer, he almost never puts forward ideas that strike me as being worth grappling with. However, if any recent movie is capable of summoning one’s inner Heidegger, it’s “Police, Adjective,” and Denby takes the bait, waxing on the relationship between time and cinema:

The movie has a doggedly faithful relationship to time. In a lecture given in 1924, “The Concept of Time,” Heidegger, searching for a definition, said that time has no body but is merely a medium in which events take place. Cinema commandeers this neutral quality as brutally as it can, substituting dramatic time for real time. Most directors fill shots with information, and then edit them into briefer and briefer segments, jumping restlessly forward or backward, or cutting between, say, a criminal and a cop and their simultaneous actions. Porumboiu goes in another direction: he wants us to experience the duration of ordinary events. Andy Warhol, with his five-hour movie of a man sleeping and his eight-hour movie of the Empire State Building, was the high and low comic of duration. Great directors like Robert Bresson and Chantal Akerman have mounted extended sequences in which the unbroken duration of an event becomes its meaning. They are the dramatic poets of real time, and Porumboiu is among their number.

Hmm… I’ll concede the affinities between “Police, Adjective” and some films by Akerman (whose new Eclipse set is tremendous, by the way); but Bresson? Am I missing something here? Bresson’s is a cinema of juxtaposition, of sounds multiplying images, of materiality; it isn’t really a cinema of duration (i.e. he uses very few if any long takes). This is the same misconception, I think, that leads folks to lump Bresson with Dreyer and Mizoguchi and Tarkovsky and the like. Bresson’s poetry emerges from the combination of fragments, not from their temporal elongation. There’s a lot to like about “Police, Adjective”—but Bressonian it ain’t.

If anything, the sequence in which Cristi and his partner wait to meet with their captain echoes the metaphysics of Dreyer’s “Ordet”: even in silence and dramatic stasis, there’s still a ton going on.

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2 Responses to “Even when it seems there’s nothing going on”

  1. hatemovies Says:

    I saw “Police, Adjective” today and had gone through the entire spectrum of reactions one could have by the time it ended (one of the most phenomenal endings I have seen in a while).

    I can see where Denby is coming from when he compares it to Robert Bresson, although I think he is doing for the wrong reasons. Bresson’s film certainly seem long which could cause people to take it as moving in real time (especially in the case of “au hassard Balthazar”); and I agree that the perception of temporal elongation is not Bresson’s goal. However, I think that “Police, Adjective” and Bresson’s films are similar in that they are both incredibly minimalist. But then, so are a lot of things.

    • Dan Sullivan Says:

      Your point about Bresson’s films seeming long is interesting as, for me, the only one that feels particularly glacial is “Diary of a Country Priest”; the rest almost seem to unfold in a space drained of time, a metaphysical realm of forms that concede their purity only when subjected to rigorous analysis by the viewer. Bresson treated cinema as a means of finding and developing ideas, but much of what he had to say about his approach to film form suggests that he didn’t really seek to craft a contemplative cinema.

      The breathing room in “Police, Adjective” is a direct result of the ways in which Porumboiu plays with duration; Bresson didn’t engage in this sort of temporal manipulation the way that Dreyer did or Akerman does.

      But I also wonder whether there’s a difference between minimalism and stylistic austerity; the latter is something that Bresson definitely has in common with Porumboiu, but as you point out, there’s no shortage of schools of film style that place such austerity at the heart of their sensibilities.

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