“To be good, you must work on your own feelings. It is perhaps impossible to really know yourself, but when you direct an actor, when you have an actor in front of you, you can only work with feelings.”
—Pedro Costa, from a lecture published in Rouge.
“I think filmmakers should be aware that they don’t know anything.”
—John Cassavetes, from
I’m Almost Not Crazy, a documentary on the making of Love Streams.
An “Unnatural Relationship”
Between a Director and His Actor
In the final scene, which is also the final shot, of Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013) a doctor examines video footage of an endoscopy in order to determine whether or not Paul, a film director, requires additional insurance coverage for a condition he did not previously admit having. The doctor watches this footage on a laptop in a trailer at the beginning of another day of shooting on a movie that has something to do with Romanian parliamentary politics and everything to do with Paul’s reason for being. “You said something was missing from the frame,” the movie’s producer comments when no sign of an ulcer is found. “If there was anything interesting I’m sure it would be in the center,” the doctor responds. “When filming you put what interests you in the center, not on the margin.”
The ulcer is “missing” because Paul lied so as to get time off for romancing and rehearsing privately with Alina, a neophyte supporting actor on his film. Metabolism occurs largely over a single day of this, bookended by a night scene beforehand and that aforementioned morning, as shooting resumes. This narrative of downtime consists of 17 sequence shots of predominately frontal compositions. Porumboiu makes considerable use of blocking that shifts attention throughout the frame, especially between foreground and background. It’s a formal choice that deepens our understanding of his film’s central thematic preoccupation: the complex planning involved in attempting a more-or-less responsible/accurate view of the world via the example of a director and his ensemble—of simultaneously portraying the self and the subjectivities of others through this means.
For Porumboiu these sequence shots are of importance primarily in how they use real time as on-screen time, for instance the moments when dinner conversation stalls on its course to a change of topic, a man smokes out of boredom, or an actor thinks of how to respond to a piece of direction, her filmmaker waiting and watching in judgment. This exacting demonstration of lived time as narrative time, a common enough hallmark of art-house and festival fare, is distinguished in Porumboiu’s films, as he employs it in concert with abundant narrative ellipses, created from suggested social demands and contextual details always hovering just off screen.
But these ellipses are not cheaply and cynically deployed in order to move the story along or avoid dealing with the various end points of a narrative premise.1 Porumboiu’s ellipses, though certainly clever, have substance. Few filmmakers experiment so knowingly with the possibilities of off-screen space, maybe better to say off-screen action, an experimentation largely carried by Porumboiu’s subversive wit and a tonal consistency that gives ironic shadings to otherwise innocuous juxtapositions. These are not frames with something “missing” from them, but instead are purposefully withholding compositions, their borders meticulously delineated, that contain an abundance of material (thematic, aesthetic, political) hidden within those spaces and relationships that are shown.
This formal strategy, which is something like a philosophical disposition, applies to each of Porumboiu’s films and in each case arises from the character’s situations and environments, how these inform the rhythm of their speech, their agendas and ways of communicating and the jobs they hold: a small town television crew in 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), a detective on a surveillance assignment in Police, Adjective (2009). Looked at this way, Porumboiu is a master of the workplace comedy, with an emphasis on how the grind and output of different types of work shapes the subjectivities of those people doing it. This is in part why Porumboiu’s cinema is such a knotty proposition. Its minimalism contorts itself in lean and aggressive conceptual frameworks: these are films that represent the subjectivities of their characters, and mirror those subjectivities (to a degree) through form, while remaining otherwise flat-footedly against
Or A Matter of Art and Commerce
The making of a film is marked by the hard won, gradual accumulation of sounds and images that, with varying correspondence to the director’s, writer’s, actor’s, and crew’s intentions at the start, become the raw material for later shaping into a finished piece. This is a constantly evolving process, by nature resistant to theorizing and best laid plans in ways that both correspond and diverge strikingly from all those mundane, pleasant, nerve-wracking, or simply unavoidable matters of daily life.
Being on set lends itself to any number of evocative and fanciful metaphors that, however accurate, can’t help but deny certain facets of equal importance to the ones highlighted by said fancifulness: so it’s a celebration, veering from the ramshackle to the ballroom-precise, an island off the coast of routine and home life, a droning 9 to 5, hours spent secluded in the artist’s studio and a war of attrition. And, of course, one or a number of those things more true than others depending on who you are, who you have to answer to (or don’t), the terms of your relationship to those around you, on your “position”: gaffer or starlet, old friend and work colleague, or merely paid employee.3
Porumboiu’s aesthetic, his self-imposed limitations, and the single-minded narrowness of his perspective give Metabolism a unique kind of expansiveness. They allow the filmmaking process to deepen and project outward in the viewer’s mind, both as Paul and Alina’s many ambiguous silences play out on-screen and even, maybe especially, in the hours, days, and months after experiencing them. The viewer is invited as a seeker, an off-screen confidant to the characters’ on-screen decisions of what “goes into” a film, of who gets to control a cinematic experience and to what degree. It brings to mind another quote from Costa’s lecture: “It’s work to make films, a kind of work very comparable to the work of seeing films. It’s as difficult to see a film as it is to make one properly.” Or at least it can, and should, be.
- This tactic lies at the heart of Interstellar, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; Beasts of the Southern Wild; Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene; Shame; and For Ellen, to name a few of the more suspect and refined examples in recent years. Each of these films use carefully arranged narrative ellipses so as to, simply put, avoid doing the structuring and conceptual work necessary to engage meaningfully with the ideas and thematic concerns they raise. It also allows for both the bypassing of any material deemed too messy, anything that can’t be tidied up for easy consumption, and the elevation of that which would otherwise appear as thin or underdeveloped as it is. This creates movies that feel variously prepackaged, emotionally stunted, and self-satisfied.
- Nowhere is this more the case than in Porumboiu’s most recent movie, The Second Game (2014): the worker this time is Porumboiu’s own father; the job is soccer refereeing in the time of Ceausescu, and the environment is a blustery match in 1988, field blanketed in snow, between the Romanian Army and the secret police. Seldom has there been a more apt origin story of artistic voice.
- This synopsis/evaluation is itself almost as flawed as spouting a pat and tidy “filmmaking is managed chaos” or “filmmaking stress tests the human ability to cooperate and march in lockstep to a single purpose/frame-of-mind.” But it’s most true, if I may, concerning a narrative film produced in the mode perfected and cemented by the Hollywood “dream factory” at some point during its adolescence. I mean “Hollywood” as an idea, as a diagrammatic way of thinking and as bookkeeping.