Saturday, February 16, 2008

Scott and the Romanian New Wave; Woodhouse and Russo

"New Wave on the Black Sea," his consideration of the emerging/contested Romanian New Wave in film that includes the devastating 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, finds A.O. Scott firmly in the Yea camp. As in, Yes, Virginia, there is a Romanian New Wave, not just a coincidence of 3 or 4 great movies. Some standout quotes:
Though they might be reluctant to admit it, the new Romanian filmmakers have a lot in common beyond their reliance on a small pool of acting and technical talent. Because of the stylistic elements they share — a penchant for long takes and fixed camera positions; a taste for plain lighting and everyday décor; a preference for stories set amid ordinary life — Puiu, Porumboiu and Mungiu are sometimes described as minimalists or neo-neorealists. But while their work does show some affinity with that of other contemporary European auteurs, like the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who make art out of the grim facts of quotidian existence, the realism of the Romanians has some distinct characteristics of its own.
There is almost no didacticism or point-making in these films, none of whose characters are easily sorted into good guys and bad guys. Instead, there is an almost palpable impulse to tell the truth, to present choices, conflicts and accidents without exaggeration or omission. This is a form of realism, of course, but its motivation seems to be as much ethical as aesthetic, less a matter of verisimilitude than of honesty. There is an unmistakable political dimension to this kind of storytelling, even when the stories themselves seem to have no overt political content. During the Ceausescu era, which ended abruptly, violently and somewhat ambiguously in December 1989 — in the last and least velvety of the revolutions of that year — Romanian public life was dominated by fantasies, delusions and lies. And the filmmakers who were able to work in such conditions resorted, like artists in other communist countries, to various forms of allegory and indirection. Both Puiu and Mungiu describe this earlier mode of Romanian cinema as “metaphorical,” and both utter the word with a heavy inflection of disgust.
Wondering what to watch?
It seems like something more than coincidence, for example, that the five features that might constitute a mini-canon of 21st-century Romanian cinema — “Stuff and Dough,” Puiu’s first feature; “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”; “12:08 East of Bucharest”; “The Paper Will Be Blue,” by Radu Muntean; and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” — all confine their action to a single day and focus on a single action.
I've got some catching up to do. Unfortunately, two of these titles don't seem to be available on dvd in Region 1. Hopefully soon.


Vito Russo, as quoted in Unlimited Embrace by Reed Woodhouse (1998, p.222):
Longtime Companion will be criticized on many counts by the same people who always want films like this one to cover all bases and be all things to all people. Aside from the fact that such a thing is impossible, I'm tired of people who demand political correctness in art. Not only isn't it possible, it isn't desirable....
What?! I mean, yes, yes, amen, etc. I'm thrilled to read that Russo made this statement, and he goes on to make some more excellent points, but did he have any right to this complaint after penning The Celluloid Closet? I'll admit, I tend to use Russo as a bit of a punching-bag in my own thinking, and that wouldn't be as much fun if he weren't fairly smart, but I can't help feeling he's sewing a bit of what he reaped in this particular moment.

By the way, the Woodhouse book, which I just stumbled on as a point of reference in another book and the first edition of which I skimmed this week at the library, is a stunningly excellent work on gay male fiction. Woodhouse is an excitingly intelligent critic. I've already ordered a copy of the revised ed. from 2000 - definitely one to own. In the book he makes the case for over a couple dozen titles that would comprise his vision of a canon of gay literature, but perhaps even more valuable is an appendix that runs down dozens more titles with short critical evaluations. He writes in the kind of lucid, well-argued, timeless and jargon-free prose that would serve audiences both inside and outside the academy. Somebody please tell Mr. Woodhouse it's time for the next revised edition. That project is immediately going onto my short Wishlist of Books Still Unwritten alongside the gay literary history survey that Michael Bronski is uniquely qualified to write.


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