Torrents of Spring (Skolimowski, 1989)

During this series I’ve often mentioned Jerzy Skolimowski’s daring pinball kinetics, those dynamic formalist skirmishes bouncing symbols off characters and locations with feverish intensity. But his Torrents of Spring is something else altogether. This beautifully composed period piece slowly constructs an emotional setting within a vibrant natural context, highlighting the seemingly measured life these characters lead. It’s weak at the knees for honor and regret, romance and tragedy, and Skolimowski allows the progression of human compassion and weakness to take center stage.  Epic scope has never been this quiet and reserved.

The opening shot of a lone horse-drawn carriage being taxied across a river immediately instills this feeling, calling to mind both wealth and isolation, two themes that will perplex each other over the course of the film. The coach belongs to a wealthy Russian named Dimitri (Timothy Hutton), a wrinkled and forlorn man who walks the empty streets of a German town with silent trepidation. At one point Dimitri looks into a mirror, his lifeless eyes placating the well of wrinkles on his forehead and cheek threatening to overwhelm the entire reflection. In a surprising fit of surrealism, Skolimowski tracks the camera left to right revealing Dimitri in a fanciful jester costume. Whatever has transpired, he has certainly been made the fool.

Torrents of Spring flowers into an instinctual memory/flashback, as a now youthful Dimitri meets a nice young shop owner (Valeria Golino) by chance on a stopover back to Russia. Their impending courtship is flushed with excitement, nerves, and finally a strikingly genuine marriage proposal. But Skolimowski has never been one to trust the institution of marriage, or relationships for that matter. And in a brilliant act of formal subversion, Skolimowski uses Dante Spinotti’s lush visuals to lull the young couple into thinking their love is timeless, as natural as the wind in the trees. Of course, it isn’t.

The theme of manipulation connects Torrents of Spring with Skolimowski’s other more diverse films, but here it’s so much more organic to the rhythm’s of society and class. Like the heroes of Deep End and The Shout, Dimitri gets mentally trumped by a superior adversary, a beautiful Russian princess named Maria (Nastassja Kinski). It’s a classic spider/fly scenario wrapped in a blindingly picturesque setting, perfect for masking true intentions with the glow of the sun and shade of the forest. Dimitri’s weakness is ultimately pathetic, but for most of Skolimowski’s film his character is complex enough to convincingly shift from honorable gentlemen to horny pet, then back again.

This isn’t Skolimowski’s only venture into the land of 19th century lavish gowns and high society. But as opposed to the unabashed comedic buffoonery of The Adventures of Gerard, Torrents of Spring lives in haunting shades of color and texture, both of the physical and emotional kind. The cobblestone roads, the period architecture, hell even the droplets of water falling from the trees, all seep with personal heartache. And instead of crashing aesthetics together, Skolimowski seems intent to let the images and symbols speak for themselves.

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The Lightship (Skolimowski, 1985)

The best filmmakers don’t float through genre – they dive in. And Jerzy Skolimowski’s plunges his nautical cat and mouse game The Lightship into the depths of the Crime film, revealing a haunting and minimalist deconstruction residing under the surface. Set entirely on a motionless vessel anchored off the coast of Virginia, Skolimowski pits a trio of brutal criminals against an unsuspecting Coast Guard crew, exploring the basic necessity for confrontation and action when facing escalating aggression. The physical tension and temporal isolation inherent to the clash becomes Skolimowski’s extreme focus, replacing the political or social metaphors of his previous films with iconic symbols of heroism, doubt, and evil.

Most interestingly, Skolimowski masterfully explores his setting, paralleling the dank cavernous interior spaces of the creaky ship with endless foggy exteriors, disconnecting his story from the rest of the world, destroying any hope for safety or rescue.  Roving set-pieces of dialogue, violence, and confusion snake through the hallways, into the engine rooms, then spill out onto the deck. As the conflict begins to expand beyond threats, Skolimowski breaks down the communication between characters on each side, destroying hierarchical concerns, supplanting racial standing, and undermining the arrogance of youth.

Performance is also a driving force throughout The Lightship, centering Robert Duvall’s devilish dandy Caspary with Klaus Maria Brandauer’s conflicted Captain Miller in elongated fits of verbal banter. These minefields of subtext are tonally diverse, shifting on a dime from menacing to reverent. Skolimowski’s generational dynamic once again rears its head, with Michael Lyndon evoking his disdainful and aloof character from Success Is The Best Revenge as Miller’s teenage son, acting as a sort of gauge for the audiences expectations and loyalties.

Despite the fascinating set-up and perplexing genre revisionism, The Lightship lacks the heft and imagination of Skolimowski’s other films. Only meat and potatoes here. But the film is nonetheless often thrilling and challenging, resonating on levels lesser genre films couldn’t imagine. As a reflection of the Skolimowski’s ongoing concerns with familial identity and honor, it’s another singular branch shooting out from the director’s family tree of auteurist oddities.

Success Is the Best Revenge (Skolimowski, 1984)

After watching three of his films, it’s brutally clear Jerzy Skolimowski uses sound design very differently than most other directors. His Success Is the Best Revenge, an enigmatic abstraction of Polish history and national identity, relentlessly overlaps audible patterns even when the images themselves don’t relate. In essence, sound becomes the connective tissue of the film, disavowing the notion visual continuity is reliable when documenting historical perspective. This approach comes to a crashing crescendo when Skolimowski’s theater director Alex (Michael York) finally puts on his magnum opus, clashing live action reenactments of Polish conflict with edited archival footage. It’s a devastating climax leaving plenty of crucial narrative questions unanswered.

But Success Is the Best Revenge also advances themes found in the director’s other films, namely the relationship between adolescents with the adult world of sex and politics. Alex’s teenage son Adam (Michael Lyndon) maneuvers through the film as a willful adult trapped in a child’s body, seducing a female classmate, resenting his father’s blatant weaknesses in sport and character, and finally trumping Western English life entirely and returning to Communist controlled Poland. His actions are just as calculated and arrogant as his father’s, but far more idealistic and tangible. Skolimowski inserts a seediness into Adam’s exploits, as if  the boy needs to experience the extreme freedom of capitalistic society before returning to his forgotten homeland. To distort perception and reality even further, Skolimowski fractures the connection between character identity and physical location, expanding the heightened visual frenzy of Deep End and menacing emptiness of The Shout into a Godardian deconstruction of time and space.

This river of visual and temporal uncertainty feeds back into the endless ocean of sound absurdly crowding the viewers senses. Contradictions abound in this department, including one stunningly random moment when Adam and his female building inspector begin making love in a closet, only to be interrupted when workers begin ripping the roof off from above. As insulation and drywall fall on their faces, the lovers continue with their brazen escapades, just one of the many crazy moments pushing this film further into cinematic oblivion.

While not as potent as Skolimowski’s 1970’s work, Success Is the Best Revenge provides plenty of theoretical and metaphorical baggage to mull over, including a conniving generational competition between father and son best signified during an early soccer game.  Most of all, this film shows Skolimowski at his most rigidly confrontational, exploding an avalanche of problematic symbols and ideas to address the frigid battle for psychological allegiance between East and West. In this game revenge represents neither success or failure, just natural instinct.

The Shout (Skolimowski, 1978)

Extreme sound acts as both savior and reaper in Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout, a thrilling and disjointed oddity following a Caligari-infused nightmare that springs from the ruins of one man’s broken mind. That disturbed gentlemen is Crossley (Alan Bates), a genius mental patient misremembering his life story to an unsuspecting visitor (Tim Curry). As with his Deep End, Skolimowski paints in heightened brush strokes, using a diabolically layered sound design to drift in and out of scenes as if his characters are on a permanent acid trip. And in a way, all of them are.

Like the best work of Alejandro Jodorwsky, The Shout exists in a hyperbolic state, crashing unsettling images and sounds together to construct a completely unpredictable universe. Skolimowski seems to be obsessed with sexual control, or specifically the man’s role in dominating the woman. Metaphors and symbols abound, but here they provide little explanation or justification for Crossley’s contorted vision of the world. His scream carries the power to destroy lives at will, yet his educated prose speaks only half truths at best. This dichotomy defines The Shout, making it crackle with a singular tension.

The striking end result is almost moot. Skolimowski lives and breathes in between horrific moments, forcing the viewer to construct our own version of the Crossley’s changing memory. There’s a motif of extreme close-ups here that appears to be at odds with the muted and numb facial expressions of Deep End. Yet each story feels born of the same mind, connected by an unnerving desire to force the world into submission. Sex, power, faith, and happiness must be controlled, and the cinema of Jerzy Skolimowski introduces characters who despite their best intentions, destroy the very people and ideas they love the most. For Crossley, his intense senses deafen the only happy memories that spell his salvation.

Deep End (Skolimowski, 1970)

Hallucinatory, subversive, and exaggerated, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End signifies a cinema of extremes, where heightened sexuality, angst-ridden youth, and massive repression ooze from every rigid angle. Set almost entirely in an urban London bathhouse, where the dank grey spaces occasionally burst forth blasts of color and sound, Deep End follows an escalating relationship between teenage employee Mike (John Moulder-Brown) and his older counterpart Susan (Jane Asher). Their interactions begin innocently enough, with Susan seeing Mike as a cute on-the-job companion worthy of her fleeting attention. But as Mike’s obsession with Susan gains momentum, Skolimowski begins to expand his visual fragmentation into the seedy London streets and clubs, introducing the boy to a devious alternate universe nipping at his heels.

Skolimowski details the excitement and naivete of young love, but then hollows it out as Mike begins to see Susan much like her other male suitors do – as an object. The brilliance of Deep End lies in it’s overt symbolism toward gender politics, whether it’s the brazen cardboard cutout of a naked Susan Mike steals from a strip club, the missing engagement diamond lost in a mound of dirty snow, or the splash of blood-red paint that begins and ends the film.  Many of these absurdly dark moments produce comedic undertones, further complicating Skolimowski’s thrilling vision of modern day selfishness and excess with tonal shifts worthy of the best Hitchcock.

Skolimowski seems intent diving head first into scenes, skipping establishing shots altogether, plunging Mike deeper into his personal heart of darkness. This editing pattern makes Skolimowski’s London a relentlessly dark and muddy place, where conformity runs rampant and sexual deviousness is status quo. Or maybe that’s just Mike’s impression of this very adult world, and ultimately his eyes often tell untruths when experiencing the emotional roller-coaster of first love. It’s all a slippery slope, and Deep End certainly displays a unique narrative current hardwiring every scene into a disjointed psychological circuit breaker. For Mike, Skolimowski’s strange and unsettling world is a dangerous place to come of age.

New Focus: RETROSPECTIVES

With the light-speed expansion of Gone Cinema Poaching, where I’ll be covering mostly new films and filmmakers, Match Cuts will primarily shift to focus on glaring gaps in my cinematic foundation. Over the coming months I will be watching and writing on films by specific filmmakers I’ve unforgivably ignored over the course of my 28 years on this Earth.

This will be an expansive project, covering 10+ films per auteur (depending on availability) in order to immerse myself in these particular cinematic worlds. Already queued up: Kenji Mizoguchi, Jacques Tournuer, Edward Yang, Pedro Costa, Douglas Sirk, Moshen Maklmalbaf, Tsai Ming-liang, Hong Sang-soo, and Frank Tashlin. But first, one of the masters of Polish cinema – Jerzy Skolimowski. My experience with Skolimowski begins and ends with his great turn in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, so basically I’m starting from scratch. Wish me luck.

Screening Log: 2/3 – 2/10

The House of the Devil (West, 2009) – The slow burn of Horror, every shot precisely retrograded to brilliantly reference a menacing slice of voyeuristic nostalgia. West uses silence  like a knife, peeling away his protagonist’s safety one layer at a time. The stalking credit sequence is not only a throwback usage of freeze frames, but a stunning photo album of one woman’s grey, empty, and conflicted universe. It provides a wonderfully diverse parallel to the film’s bonkers ending, a scattered and messy piece de resistance against the devil himself. Guess who wins?

The Bicycle Thief (De Sica, 1948) – For my money the best way to introduce Italian Neorealism to a group of non-film majors. Maybe it’s De Sica’s masterful use of the roving medium shot, but I’m always drawn to Bruno and his crumbling facade of strength. Also, one of the most depressing endings in film history, and rightfully so.

Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954) – Hadn’t seen this in years, but decided to show it to my students for Hitchcock night. Still might be my favorite Hitch, the way his meticulously meandering camera scales walls and window panes like a thief in the night, subverting POV at every turn until we can’t trust anything we’ve seen. Basically a greatest/worst hits of martial bliss, with all the quiet and lovely moments in between. Still think each window represents a different future path Jefferies could take, as his reality slowly gets consumed by his perception of guilt, love, and responsibility. And has there been anyone more classically striking than Grace Kelly? Maybe the best American film of the 1950’s.

The Palm Beach Story (Sturges, 1942) – The best Screwball Comedy ever? Count me in. Sturges at his most charming and sublime, existing simply to hear wit seamlessly bounce back and forth like a tennis match in the clouds. Here’s another credit sequence that freezes, but this time to excentuate complex romantic history in all its zany glory. Sturges decides to end the film with another whimsical twist of fate, layering our perception of character times three. Brilliant in every sense.