Posted on: 10 June 2011
With another reappearance by Terrence Malick and now a retrospective of the work of Jerzy Skolimowski, this is proving to be the summer of cinema’s prodigal sons. And although the filmmakers could scarcely be more stylistically dissimilar, they share an iconoclastic and achingly personal approach to the cinema, even when they retreat into semi-retirement. Like Malick, Skolimowski too had an early (though more protracted) career of daring, highly original work, followed by years of varyingly successful ventures in the transnational European film industry, and then a lengthy hiatus. His recent return to filmmaking reveals that this sabbatical has not dulled his wit or his experimental flair, and provides an opportunity to revisit the work of one of 1960s cinema’s most under-appreciated artists.
Perhaps most recognizable to contemporary audiences as Naomi Watts’s racist Russian uncle in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (or for his cameos in Mars Attacks! and Before Night Falls), Skolimowski was at one time numbered among the most important filmmakers of the Eastern European “new waves.” A graduate of Lodz film school (where he shot his first feature Rysopis on the sly while he was supposed to have been making shorts), the young director gained entry into the iconoclastic cinema scene of fellow countrymen Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski. (He wrote the dialogue for the latter’s Knife in Water.)
But with several highly accomplished and increasingly satirical films made in his home country – including his series of semi-autobiographical films about a disaffected young man trying to wend his way through the harsh unreality of postwar Poland – Skolimowski was shut out by official censors and forced to make his way abroad. This began his long career as a journeyman director – and his own nearly twenty-year hiatus before his return with pervy-sweet Four Nights with Anna – but even when working on assignment, Skolimowski is never simply a director-for-hire. Deeply personal films and cockeyed literary adaptations alike share the director’s cracked vision of the world, always skewed through brazen montage sequences or flattening lateral tracking shots, flashes of surrealist mise-en-scene or fractured narrative structures, and always, always the sound: gripping tendrils of electronic noise, blasts of choral music or atonal drone, and the simple, creeping ambience of atmospheric tones and textures.
But even if Skolimowski’s expressive, serpentine style can be hard to pin down, ever shifting between subjective and objective, reality and fantasy, his themes and characters have remained consistent. In film after film, he’s especially preoccupied with maladjusted weirdoes, freaks, and exiles, outcast figures straining to make their way through unfriendly environments. Skolimowski’s Doinel-esque double Andrzej Leszezyc in his autobiographical Polish trilogy, Deep End’s pool-attendant virgin Mike, and even the beleaguered Taliban played by Vincent Gallo in his new film, Essential Killing are all characters subjected to kafkaesque social orders, obscure desires, and failures of language. A sometime boxer and jazz-drummer, as well as a filmmaker, poet, and painter, Skolimowski is often drawn to the brute physicality of his protagonists, setting them against cryptic, byzantine landscapes of urban decay (the stifling white interiors of Barrier, the blighted city-skeletons of Hands Up!) or natural indifference (the barren Devon of The Shout, the wintry hinterlands of Essential Killing). This antagonism between characters and their milieux is often realized in indelible set-pieces: Skolimowski’s own boxing bouts in Walkover, or his futuristic one-sided table-tennis match in Hands Up!, the protagonist’s crazed, suicidal joyride in Barrier or Vincent Gallo’s tooth-and-nail fight for survival in Essential Killing.
From the dour, transitional world of Eastern Europe to the nervous, desperate conditions of living in exile, Skolimowski’s characters are individuals – unhinged, unmoored, transient – and their adherence to individualism often pitches them against enormous social or political realities: the dour social architecture of mid-60s Poland in the early films, or the cultural curiosities of English life in a changing Europe in Deep End, The Shout, and Moonlighting. In much the same way, Skolimowski’s own status as an exile from Poland from the late 1960s until the 1990s lends him the character of a political director, raging against Stalinism in Hands Up! or American occupation in Essential Killing. But this resistance is less one of Solidarity than one of personal expression and idiosyncrasy, a perpetual war fought by the self against those forces that seek to claim or define it. Even when this war leads to desperation, confusion, or madness, Skolimowski remains committed to the outsider, alienated from the world and living by his own logic—hopelessly, but doggedly.
From June 10th to July 3rd, the Museum of the Moving Image will be presenting a selection of Skolimowski’s films, which we’ll be covering here. Check back here for updates.
Introduction by Leo Goldsmith
Success Is the Best Revenge1984
Torrents of Spring1989
King, Queen, Knave1972