a monthly film series featuring invited speakers, hosted by the Polish Club in San Francisco

Friday, October 29, 2010

Julian Myers introduces Possession

Julian Myers introduced Andrzej Żuławski's Possession at the Polish Club on October 27.
photo by Maureen Mroczek Morris

Introduction to Andrzej Żuławski's Possession (1981)
by Julian Myers

It is my great pleasure and difficult task, now, to introduce to you the 1981 film Possession, directed by Andrzej Żuławski. Let me start with a quote from Żuławski about the film.

“To please the majority is the requirement of the Planet Cinema. As far as I'm concerned, I don't make a concession to viewers, these victims of life, who think that a film is made only for their enjoyment, and who know nothing about their own existence.”

This sounds something like the narcissistic proclamation of an avant-gardist. I want, at least in part, to argue with it. For Possession is no dry exercise in extremity. The film is visually ravishing. And it moves forward with a surreal velocity as compulsively, convulsively watchable as more conventional directors. In his commentary on the film, nothing less than James Cameron’s blockbuster Titanic is a touchstonemore for its timing than its central love story, it must be said, which Żuławski describes as “ludicrous,” but the reference stands. It’s worth noting, too, Żuławski’s unpretentious pitch to his American producer: “Possession is a film about a woman who fucks an octopus.” To which his American producer replied, with gusto, “Let’s do it! How much money do you need?”

That his film addresses itself to viewers described as “victims of life”—this, however, is something worth elaborating further, alongside the real conditions of victimhood from which Żuławski composed the film.

Some history will bring the director’s attenuated victimhood into view. Possession was Żuławski’s fourth film, preceded by The Third Part of the Night and Devil—films made in Poland, in Polish, with Polish actors, funded by the state. After the relative critical success of Third Part, Devil, an allegory of the suppression of the Polish student movement in the late 1960s, in the grotesque register of Heironymous Bosch, was banned by the Polish government, and not seen for sixteen years.

Offered the choice of leaving cinema and leaving Poland, Żuławski chose to leave Poland. He went to France, where in the mid-1960s he had studied Political Science at the Sorbonne, and made the film, L'important c'est d'aimer, which was both a critical and commercial hit, in relative terms. With a new authority and fame, he returned to Poland in 1975 to work on a version of his great-uncle Jerzy Żuławski’s book On the Silver Globe. But again the government interfered, stopping production and confiscating his materials. He resumed Silver Globe in 1986, but the aborted project was hard to salvage and the film was never exactly what he wanted it to be.

In the wake of this dispossession, he left again to the West. He wrote the script for Possession in 1978, in New York City, during the aftermath of this second disaster. Indeed, alongside its central story of love, the primary subject of the film would seem to be exile, and the feelings of displacement, alienation and miscommunication that exile provokes. This is registered, in Possession, by a wild disorientation of place. The whole film seems to be lurching precipitously around tiny corridors, cramped apartments and compressed streets.

The film was also written out of the personal collapse of his marriage to Małgorzata Braunek, a luminously beautiful actress, and one of the stars of Third Part. If Possession is a meditation on exile, its other primary force comes from the unnerving, enigmatic, explosive meltdown of the relationship between its two characters, Anna and Mark, played by Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill.

The choice of actors emphasized their double alienation: Adjani is Algerian French, and Sam Neill is from New Zealand, and the film takes place in West Berlin, this strange little claustrophobic zone. Their personal “exile” from one another, that is to say, is refracted and multiplied by cultural difference. The effect is that the characters are completely estranged, from each other and their surroundings, and barely able to communicate with one another. “We spend our lives not facing each other,” Żuławski says, and indeed his characters often seem to be speaking around corners or with their backs to one another.

Both actors are fantastic and unforgettable. Adjani emerged as a major force in this moment. She won a prize at Cannes for her performance in Possession, and she's almost unspeakably beautiful and compelling in it, even as spasmodic as she becomes. There’s something to be said for Żuławski’s direction of women actors—they’re routinely at their very best in his films—and Adjani most of all. “I came from the French cinematic school of real thinking,” Żuławski says, “and I believe that, with few exceptions, acting is a female occupation.” His filmography—and in particular L’important c’est d’aimer and Une femme publique—attests to this. But Neill, too, is incredible here, and it is his strange performance that holds the film together. He is a volatile stick-man: weird, sweaty, beaky, and lurid. You can't take your eyes off him.

Two more characters are played by Germans, who are no more at home than Mark or Anna. Heinz Bennent, fresh off Truffaut's Last Metro, plays a “karate-Zen” guru. “I hate this guy,” Żuławski says, bluntly. “He’s better at everything than Sam Neill. But he’s totally wrong as well. He’s dangerous like poison.” Another character is played by the wonderful Margit Carstensen, who starred in numerous Fassbinder movies, notably Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant; she'd just been filming Berlin Alexanderplatz. Both put in fascinating turns.

But they’re nothing compared to the strange, hypnotic performances of the main two, who right from the start are acting in a hyper-charged manner: amped up, hysterical, agitated, weirdly avid. Perhaps this is a technique related to radical forms of dance-theater pursued by Jerzy Grotowski and Ryszard Cieślak in Poland in the 1970s. But whatever its origin, their performances seem, from the very beginning, to externalize and materialize their emotional turmoil in extreme ways.

Neill’s character seems to work for the CIAthough Żuławski says he originally intended the film to be set in Detroit, with Neill as a factory worker in an auto plant—what a different movie this might have been! He has just gotten back to Berlin. From where, is never quite explained. And since he’s been gone, something has gone very wrong with his marriage. His wife is cheating on him—this we learn in the first minutes. What soon becomes clear is that something more sinister is going on as well.

The details of this I will leave to the film. But what emerges is a pained portrait of a woman's sexual dissatisfaction and hysteria, and a man's jealous, violent rage and bewilderment at her desire. This is a trauma so mutually disfiguring that both partners end up being replaced by horrifying versions of each other. Indeed, after seeing the final cut of Possession, Adjani—who hadn’t watched the “rushes,” the daily shots during production, and so didn’t know during in the process how she was being pictured—disparaged the film as “psychological pornography.”

This charge speaks to the film’s raw emotions, and suggests that something more than mere “horror,” in its “Planet Cinema” sense, is going on here. Indeed, Żuławski describes Possession as “the story of his life,” an autobiography, exposing with self-lacerating candor his personal problems and misbehavior with a partner that he dearly loved. Żuławski is, he admits, a “strong believer in couples and marriages and children.” The film shows these beliefs under enormous, unbearable pressure and distortion. But, nevertheless, we begin in reality, he says. This is an ordinary situation. A marriage is ending.

But increasingly, a second level or order is introduced, gradually overwhelming the first. An ordinary story becomes a surreal fable. It gains along the way a mythic dimension. Certainly Possession acquires in its second half a sort of inscrutable dream-logic. This mythic dimension, Żuławski asserts, however leads us not to pure fantasy, but to a kind of deeper truth of human relations.

“Every possible theory,” he says, “every way of orchestrating life: all of this is wrong. But what is left? Individualism, or anarchy? No. What is left is human decency. All good films are about morals. This film is about morals.”

These are strong words about movie concerning a woman who fucks an octopus. But I think they attempt to answer Adjani’s misgiving about her own brilliant performance. Far from pornography, Żuławski answers, this is the task of any cinema worth its salt, and what morality and human decency truly demands: to face up to our own separation and self-delusion, to traverse the phantasmagoria of our pain, and not to look away.

And so, my fellow “victims of life,” here is Possession.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

October 27: Possession

Join us for Movie Nite at the Polish Club!

Polish Movie Nite is happy to present Possession (1981), an English-language film set in West Berlin. This psychological thriller by Andrzej Żuławski depicts the demented, fever-dream relations of a broken couple (played brilliantly by Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill) who, from the very start of the movie, are barely able to communicate with one another. Possession was chosen by Julian Myers, Assistant Professor at California College of the Arts, who will introduce the film.

123 minutes
For more information, see Wikipedia, The Dig, and Slant Magazine.
Watch the trailer on YouTube.

8pm Wednesday
October 27, 2010

Polish Club of San Francisco
3040 22nd Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

This special Halloween event is made possible in part by Trumer Pils and Krol Vodka. A great big THANK YOU go to Maureen Mroczek Morris and Mrs. Krystyna Chciuk of the Polish Club for their ongoing support of Polish Movie Nite. Thanks also go to Julian Myers, Arden Sherman, and Sharon Lerner for their help in the preparation of this event.

Polish Movie Nite is a monthly screening organized for the benefit of the Polish Club. Events are free and open to the public. Donations are welcome.

Modjeska- Woman Triumphant

About 100 guests crowded the entrance to the Delancey Street Screening Room on October 17.
photo by Maureen Mroczek Morris

Caria Tomczykowska introduced Modjeska- Woman Triumphant at the Delancey Street Screening Room on October 17.
photo by Maureen Mroczek Morris

About 100 guests attended the San Francisco premiere of Modjeska- Woman Triumphant at the Delancey Street Screening Room on October 17.
photo by Maureen Mroczek Morris

Monday, October 11, 2010

October 17: Modjeska- Woman Triumphant

Polish Movie Nite is happy to announce the San Francisco premiere of Modjeska- Woman Triumphant, presented by Maureen Mroczek Morris. My thoughts and commentary of the film follow below (full disclosure: I helped with some research for the film back in 2005).

Modjeska- Woman Triumphant

57 minutes

3pm Sunday
October 17, 2010

Delancey Street Screening Room
600 Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA 94107

Modjeska- Woman Triumphant is presented by Maureen Mroczek Morris for the benefit of the Polish Club. Suggested donation: $5-10. Please call (415) 244-5252 to reserve your seat.

Helena Modrzejewska

The stylized documentary Modjeska- Woman Triumphant is the culmination of six years of work by director Basia Myszynski, who has referred to the film as the “project of [her] life.” Probably most compelling is the narration by Beth Holmgren, professor at Duke University, who is currently working on a book about Modjeska.

On September 13, 2009, nearly 200 guests filled the courtyard of The Silent Movie Theater, housed in a 1940s art deco building on Fairfax Ave in Hollywood, following the Los Angeles premiere of the film.

Basia Myszynski (left) with Patricia Modjeska Palmer

Basia and Leonard Myszynski

Born in 1840 (arguably, but that's a whole other story), Helena Modrzejewska was a famous Polish actress working in the second half of the 1800s. Although much literature and other materials exist about Modjeska (as she came to be known in the States), most notably about her life and career in Europe (Poland did not exist as a sovereign nation at that time), this is the first film to specifically focus on Modjeska and her life in Southern California, which she so loved.

Modjeska as Adam Kazanowski in The Court of Prince Wladyslaw

In 2009, I attended a lecture by Marek Zebrowski (director of the Polish Music Center at USC), hosted by the Modjeska Art and Culture Club of Los Angeles, during which he spoke about Modjeska's close friendship and intellectual exchange with composer Ignacy Paderewski. Zebrowski, who was also interviewed for Myszynski's film, made the case that Modjeska left Europe for the US for largely political reasons. Interestingly, Woman Triumphant puts forth another thesis, namely that Modjeska also fled greatly for personal reasons. With an illegitimate son in tow (and her own legitimacy also frequently pointed out), she could reinvent herself in a new country without the stigma and gossipy journalism that publicly followed her every performance. No doubt, it was a combination of multiple pressures that pushed her out of the Russian Empire (although she had been born near Krakow under the more lenient Austrian rule, she had advanced quickly to play leads in Warsaw as well as in Russian cities). In a brief email exchange, Myszynski explained to me, "The film focuses on the most personal of reasons because [they] most affected her [and] me as a filmmaker." Focusing on the personal in addition to the political reasons "would highlight the drama best in understanding why we make the choices we make - usually we are most affected by the personal," she writes.

Madame Modjeska in front of her Stanford White-designed house at Arden, which is now a National Historic Landmark

That said, Modjeska was not only running away from problems, but turning to new opportunities. She envisioned the formation of a utopian artist colony in the Wild West, where she and fellow ex-patriots would live off the land and at night could discuss art, literature, and music around a campfire. She would eventually call her property Arden, referring to the work of her beloved Shakespeare. After emigrating in 1876, she settled in 1888 in Orange County, in what is now known as Modjeska Canyon. She stayed at Arden until 1906, when she moved to Newport Beach where she would spend the last years of her life writing her memoirs.

Unfortunately, of her utopian dream only the discussions at Arden were fruitful; the intellectuals she settled with knew nothing of farming, let alone in the rocky and dry climate of Southern California. In short, she proceeded to travel around the country in her customized Pullman railroad car, supporting herself and her son as well as her friends back at the colony. Remarkably, in addition to extensively traveling the American country, she made the sea journey to her homeland five times after settling in the States.

The film includes numerous interesting historical documents such as photographs of the actress in her many roles, and interviews with historians and Modjeska's living progeny. Several interesting claims are also made. Among others, Myszynski puts forward a strong case that Modjeska contributed to changing societal attitudes toward female actors. Whereas actresses at the time were often likened to prostitutes, Modjeska insisted on personal dignity and respect for her craft. She diligently maintained and guarded the image of a lady, perhaps only for her own sake, but as a result she effectively altered the public understanding of women in theater.

Modjeska as Ophelia in Hamlet

Woman Triumphant also chronicles the subject's own personal and professional aspirations through published press reviews and Modjeska's own colorful writings. Apparently, although she was an acclaimed Shakespearean actress in the States early on, her ultimate professional goal was to play Shakespeare in London, which she felt she had achieved with great success toward the end of her career.

Overall, the film provides a lot of information on Modjeska's life, especially in California, and I recommend multiple viewings for the full appreciation of this part of her astonishing biography. Additionally, the little-known early history of today's Orange County is personalized and illuminated.

Modjeska- Woman Triumphant (2009), 57 minutes, English and Polish with English subtitles, produced by OC Influential Productions, LLC, in association with GetBizzy Entertainment, Inc. Created by filmmakers Basia and Leonard Myszynski. More information at www.modjeskawomantriumphantmovie.com

Bay Bridge

P.S. Ralph Modjeski, Helena Modjeska's son, grew up to be a famous American civil engineer and bridge builder. Among others, he designed the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, still in use today. Now every time you drive over it, maybe you'll think of Ralph and his pioneering mother...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

October 10: KUSF 90.3FM

Tune in to KUSF 90.3FM tomorrow, Sunday October 10, from 2pm to 3pm. "Studio Poland" host Zbigniew Stanczyk will talk with Maureen Mroczek Morris and Joanna Szupinska about the film Modjeska- Woman Triumphant, scheduled to screen next week at the Delancey Street Screening Room.

Listen online at www.kusf.org

Maureen Mroczek Morris and Joanna Szupinska at the KUSF station on the University of San Francisco campus, October 9.
photo by "Studio Poland" host Zbigniew Stanczyk

Friday, October 1, 2010

Joseph Becker introduces MDM

Joseph Becker spoke about Stalinist architecture at the Polish Club on September 30.
photo by Maureen Mroczek Morris