The Wave of the Postmodern

in 30th EnergaCAMERIMAGE International Film Festival

by Leslaw Roman Czaplinski

Lesław Roman Czapliński compares films in the program to the golden age of cinema and draws allusions to the influences found that still resonate for directors and cinema-goers today.

The Camerimage festival in Toruń, Poland, is an exceptional cultural event in the world of film festivals. Its objective is to focus on the achievements of filming skills and technique, therefore, in its limelight there are no film directors or actors as elsewhere, but camera operators who remain in the background behind those mentioned before.

This year the organisers honoured Stephen Burum, the creator of pictures for Brian DePalma’s films, including The Untouchables, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish, as examples to represent his previous work.

The repertoire was eclectic in that the audience could watch artistic films (by the likes of Krzysztof Zanussi and Jerzy Skolimowski) and genre cinema (disaster movies, life stories), adaptations of world’s literary masterpieces (by the likes of Erich Remarque), and sequels which had gained much financial success (Top Gun: Maverick). The aforementioned production may help to convince that major developments in filming techniques do not necessarily involve new artistic values.

The Arts Cinema, for which the FIPRESCI jury showed much appreciation by bestowing their second award as representative jury to Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, had also played a significant role at the festival.

The profile of the 30th jubilee event (Toruń, 12th-19th November 2022) was marked by the influence of postmodernism and its main conviction that originality is the aesthetic category belonging to the past, and that nowadays it is only possible to continue familiar motives and conventions and put them in question (e.g., remaking the script of Ikiru (To Live) by Akiro Kurosawa, with the plot taking place in England).

One of the main themes this year has been the yearning for the old Cinema culture, taking into account both the show and the building itself. This specifically refers to the film inaugurating the festival, Empire of Light by Sam Mendez, with shooting photography by Roger Deakins.

The empire means the name of the town at the seaside, and the light – the foundations of projection technique. This work shows nostalgic yearning for the Cinema at the time of its decline at least in its previous form with large buildings and halls. You may associate it with the achievements of Giuseppe Tornatore and Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, because the plot is set in the times of Margaret Thatcher and her government and conservative prejudices against relationships between people of various ages and race.

Blonde (directed by Andrew Dominik, photography by Chayse Irvin), shows Marilyn Monroe in the context of her family issues and manipulation by Hollywood, enforcing her to make replicas of the stereotyped personality invented previously at the cost of her genuine acting gift and aspirations, invoking the disappearing world of the Cinema and its stars. The film combines the black and white and coloured narratives, though you may wonder how to decipher their composition. The scene of oral sex with JFK, when he is attending a press teleconference on the Cuban crisis, prompts you to interpret the fate of the world as dependent on the sexual satisfaction of one man, like in Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon where the rocket flight accompanies the orgasm of the protagonist.

The motif of a repeated custom to visit the Cinema on a set day of the week is shown in Living (directed by Oliver Hermanus, photography by Jamie D. Ramsay), which is obviously a remake of the above-mentioned film by Kurosawa, where a heartless official standing in view of the incoming agony has decided to do something good for the community of his district, so to leave a good legacy for himself. The plot is set after WWII, which has become a pretext for following the style of the sound Cinema at that time, when it was based on dialogues. Therefore, the rhythm of cutting creates the order: a shot and a counter-shot, which combines the change of the sharpness of the foreground and the background in line with the dominating character now. This may involve, for example, the mirror in the background where the speaker is reflected. This effect is also seen in the enhancement of the expression by the coloured lighting of zoomed-out faces and expressionist shadows of night landscapes.

A long shadow of a running figure which attempts to fly over and over again, and who was shot most probably with the use of a drone, is the opening sequence of the mentioned Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, photography by Darius Khondji). You may interpret it as the call for making the final resume of your own life, in view of upcoming death? Once again, you may make links to either Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman (a visit to the character’s mother), or All That Jazz by Bob Foss. The fact that the voices of other persons are often coming from outside of the frame, which is empty except for the character himself, may support the thesis that the entire plot is surely a projection of the film hero.                             

The interpretation of subjective visions, often referring to the real situations which are filled in the framed scenes of the underground, could be grounded by the fact that one of the lizards coming out from the container is named Guido, that is the hero of Fellini’s , and later on you will see a scene with the line of characters in the desert like in the finale of that film.

In turn, The Angel in the Wall (directed by Lorenzo Bianchini, shooting by Peter Zeitlinger) seems to be initially an imitation of Umberto D. by Vittorio De Sica set in the times a half century from the emergence of the original. Sick and infirm Pietro (played by Pierre Richard), after the termination of the lease of his apartment, has established a hiding place for himself, and is lurking from behind new tenants, i.e., a mother and her daughter and, while they are absent, the family living across the street. An unexpected scene at the end of the film in line with the classical drama conventions showed relations between motives without a logical connection and referred them to the tragedy which happened a long time ago playing a decisive role in the life of the protagonist.

The claustrophobic nature of the plot is mirrored by the rich visual part of the film, which comprises a non-conventional setting of the camera, and its manual handling and double exposure during the scene with the dream of the hero. Furthermore, the soundtrack is composed by the sounds of high volumes and musical illustration using unconventional acoustics. The rainy apartment resembles a favourite visual motive from films by Andrei Tarkovsky.

You could find destroyed interiors as if from Tarkovsky’s Stalker in the sequence of scenes of the search for the Russian violoncellist by Lydia Tár, who is a fictitious conductor from the film by Todd Field, shot by Florian Hoffmeister who won the Grand Prix Award. 

You may find only a few allusions in All Quiet on the Western Front by Edward Berger, despite that it is the third adaptation of the famous fiction by Remarque under the same title. After the black-and-white and frightening Paths of Glory by Stanley Kubrick, the use of colour could deprive the pictures from their thrilling effect of the soldiers dying in the muds in WWI, but the shooting of James Friend is perfect. The ironic scene showing that the highest amounts of deaths are at the end of the armistice, alludes to the poet Wilfried Owen and also the film concerning the last Balkan wars, The Enemy, by Dejan Zečević.

Like the French New Wave artists who learned the movie-making craft from the shows they saw in the Cinémathèque of Paris, so then modern cinema-goers, who watch the current repertoire, are unable to escape from the content they have previously seen.

Lesław Roman Czapliński
Translated into English by Oktawian Bulanowski
Edited by Steven Yates