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

Monday, May 21, 2012

Final PMN essays now at CosRev

The Spring 2012 issue of The Cosmopolitan Review is now available online, including PMN essays by Marcella Faustini and Julian Myers. These are the final posts in our 2011-12 mini series partnership with CosRev. Many thanks everyone!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Movie Night at the OACC

Bay Area-based curator Jackie Im has started a program called Movie Night at the OACC, a monthly film screening hosted by the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. It features an exciting program of films and speakers, debuting this Tuesday with Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's 2010 award-winning film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which will be introduced by curator Dena Beard.

PMN essays now at CosRev

The Fall 2011 issue of The Cosmopolitan Review is now available online, including PMN essays by Arden Sherman and Susannah Magers.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

PMN partners with CosRev

PMN is happy to announce that the Cosmopolitan Review, an online Polish Studies journal, will publish texts by PMN speakers in six segments. The first two essays, by Chris Fitzpatrick & Julian Myers, and by Erica Levin, appear in the summer issue. Visit http://cosmopolitanreview.com today!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Chris Fitzpatrick and Julian Myers introduce The Promised Land

Chris Fitzpatrick and Julian Myers introduced The Promised Land at the Polish Club on May 18.

The Promised Land—An Introduction

Chris Fitzpatrick: Thanks to Joanna Szupinska and Maureen Mroczek Morris. Over the course of this series, we've enjoyed a diverse range of films in the unique site of the Polish Club, which has, since the 1920s, fostered community activity and exchange. Surely that community has grown as a result. Since August of last year, we've viewed and heard the story of the Berlin wall, told through the perspective of rabbits. We've witnessed strange and protracted documentation of Tadeusz Kantor's avant-garde theatre. And we've watched a marriage dissolve through a woman who fucks an octopus. We’ve also been given an opportunity to think about a rich culture outside the usual stops of London or Paris, Rome, or New York. In other words, by creating this series, Joanna introduced a new set of issues and concerns into the conversation, as told through the voices of the presenters and filmmakers alike.

Tonight we will be presenting Andrzej Wajda's The Promised Land (1975), a film adapted from Władysław Reymont's 1898 novel.[1] It is a story told through lush scenery, where pastoral and industrial settings come to seem somehow equally sublime, and through complex narrative. It is a film grounded authentically, if ambiguously, in history—a history marked by the social and physical effects of industrialization, exploitation, and revolution. Indeed the film was shot in surviving period factories and urban landscapes of Łódź and Silesia. Wajda has recalled finding in one textile factory equipment marked "Manchester 1884"—connecting this machinery to industrialism's "ground zero" as it were. Written by Wojciech Kilar, the unusual score mimics the percussive clanging of this machinery, locating it at the heart of the film’s narrative.[2]

"Ziemia obiecana" was Łódź's nickname, given by immigrants arriving in the burgeoning industrial center, searching for the prosperity promised by rapid modernization. Reymont and Wajda appropriate the nickname with a rich sense of irony. The decisive action of the film begins when three dispossessed but industrious men—a Polish noble, a Jew, and the German son of a factory owner—set out to build their own factory, a textile manufacturing center. As one of them says, "I have nothing, you have nothing, he has nothing: this means we have enough to start a factory." This was the "promise" of the title: the idea that the novel abstraction of money and profit might offer up some escape from family history and traditional village life. As we’ll see, this dream is quickly corrupted by the principals' greed and misbehavior, leading to something like a hell on earth.

Julian Myers:
This being the last Polish Movie Nite I want to bring up the very idea of a national cinema, and Wajda's place in a Polish national cinema. The idea of a "national cinema" is hard to extricate from the very idea of a "national character," and everything it entails. It is essentially a political category, about which there are many debates. But the idea of being a Polish filmmaker is one that Wajda embraced. As cinema historian Thomas Elsaesser relates in his book European Cinema, "Andrzej Wajda was Polish cinema from the late 1940s, into the 1960s and up to Man of Marble in 1977."[3] He makes films that teach national history, films to be viewed by every Polish schoolchild. We could compare him to a figure like Steven Spielberg, who is, in fact, a strong advocate of Wajda's work.[4] And you see why: like Amistad (1997) or Schindler's List (1993), Wajda's films are sweeping historical epics that seem to tell us something true or truly historical. Released in 1975, The Promised Land looks like a moralistic history lesson for a national audience. In a very direct way this film means to teach a lesson about capitalism and industrialization, from a Polish perspective. They're evil.

But look closer and this lesson comes to seem much more ambiguous. Morally, politically, and, I think, aesthetically. Perhaps this ambiguity comes from the fact that this is a "national" lesson for a "nation" that doesn't exist. At the time of Reymont's novel, Poland was partitioned amongst its neighbors, who, after the failed January Uprising in 1864, aimed to suppress Polish culture, language, and so on. Wajda's film, too, was made in the early to mid 1970s, while Poland was dominated by the Soviet Union. In the Seventies, Poland had an official "state" culture, but a national cinema is a peculiar thing in a condition of domination. Elsaesser points out a further ambiguity as well. What appeared to outsiders in the 1970s as a "national cinema," "may well have struck Polish critics and audiences not as national cinema but as state cinema: official, sanctioned, sponsored."[5] So The Promised Land is an artifact of a "national cinema" that may be without a "national audience," as such (except as it appeared to others, elsewhere). It wants to invent a national audience, but on what terms?

This might explain some of the film's strange "lessons," which evince something more than the usual sleight-of-hand to circumnavigate censorship. The moral universe is chaotic. Characters commit crimes and don't suffer; others, who have done nothing wrong, do. The main character, Karol, is a cold and heartless sociopath—the logical outcome (the film argues) of his new position as factory director, then factory owner. "Your humanity is not required at the factory," he says early on to one of his workers. But while tragedy comes, he learns nothing from it. Given the chance to change his ways, he doesn't.

What's interesting to me is that The Promised Land pretty much has no hero, no "good," except in negative form: the unmarked landscape, authentic social life, agriculture, the past, all those things capitalist industry transforms. "The good, wholesome, healthy village life"—this is how Joanna Szupinska put it, in conversation with us—is now hopelessly transformed into the proletarian mass.

If we think about the meaning of the title The Promised Land in terms of a specific, delimited, geographical place, then the irony of the title becomes clear. A factory disrupts that "land." It makes Łódź, in this case, not a fixed place, but a terminal for importing material, processing it, sending it out—thereby overwriting or erasing the landscape itself. Factories such as those we see in the film or, by extension, industrialization itself, focus well beyond the peripheries of the space they occupy, on external markets. A factory eats away at its local resources, which in this case would be the people, the workers. This is seen literally and figuratively throughout the film: people are actually eaten by these machines.

The very word "factory," synonymous with industrial progress, points to this radical reorganization of people, places, and things. Preceding Manchester by a century or more, the word came from the Portuguese feitoria, meaning "trading post." To quote Susan Buck-Morss, "Factories [for the Portuguese] were trading companies in foreign countries or colonies, granted monopolies by royal charter, who sent agents, or 'factors,' to these foreign outposts that functioned as company headquarters, storehouses, and wholesale processing centers. They initiated the modern form of corporations, amassing capital through the joint-stock system (prohibited as too speculative for domestic manufacture) that financed the risky business of long distance 'trade,' a euphemism for the extraction of value overseas. Factories were agents of imperial projects, sharing real estate with forts and integrally involved in colonial wars. And they were enormously profitable, with no sense of what constituted a 'fair' gain... It is not misleading to understand the first factories of Manchester as an extension of the colonial system, which was now invading the mother country."[6] And we can extend this conclusion to the textile factories of Łódź as well, with their Manchester gear. A foreign system sucking blood from the "mother country," the factory wreaks havoc on the life of its "national" host.

I called Karol the "main character" of this film earlier, but at this point, it seems clear that Łódź and its factories are the "main characters," so to speak; and this is echoed through the score. The three principals serve as something like class-national types (the disenfranchised Polish nobleman, the German bourgeois, and the Jewish bourgeois). That is to say, that the film seems less about the characters' development, or the moralistic plotting, and more in the "events" (in particular the moments of mortality) and the mesmerizing, at times appalling, mise-en-scène.

I like this line of thought. What does industrialization do, according to Wajda's film? First, it breaks down social roles, that is, it extends its consequences and retributions arbitrarily and in all directions, to criminal and victim alike. And, second, it redistributes space and things: "pushing outwards," "overwriting and erasing," and "focusing on external markets," as you've said. Wajda's film looks on all of this as an unmitigated disaster—not least for the problem of "nation" and Poland as he understood it. We'll have to leave aside the fact that a film is as much an industrial product as anything else. But what's perplexing and fascinating about the film is that its powerful hatred of capitalism won't—or can't—resolve into its conventional Communist solutions: a romance of the working class, or of modernization. And so we're left with a "national cinema" whose national territory seems forever to recede on the horizon.

[1] Władysław Reymont, The Promised Land (Translated from Polish by M.H. Dziewicki). New York: A.A. Knopf, 1927.

[2] See "Land of Promise I" and "II," Wojciech Kilar, Film Music, sound recording. Olympia OCD602, 1994.

[3] Thomas Elsaesser, European Cinema: Face to Face With Hollywood. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005: 14. Italics added by the authors.

[4] See, for example, Spielberg's 1999 letter to Robert Rehme, then President of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, arguing that Wajda should receive a special Honorary Academy Award. "Wajda belongs to Poland," he writes, "but his films are part of the cultural treasure of all mankind." Polish American Network [http://www.pan.net/hollywood/wajda/sspielberg.htm]. Accessed May 27, 2011.

[5] Elsaesser, 15.

[6] Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti and Universal History. Pittburgh: University Press, 2009: 101-2.

Friday, May 6, 2011

May 18: The Promised Land

Join us for Movie Nite at the Polish Club!

Ziemia Obiecana / The Promised Land
138 minutes, color

8pm Wednesday (doors 7:30)
May 18, 2010

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

Polish Movie Nite is happy to present Andrzej Wajda's The Promised Land (1975), to be introduced by curator Chris Fitzpatrick and art historian Julian Myers. Based on Władysław Reymont’s 1899 novel of the same name, the film tells of a Pole, a German, and a Jew struggling to build a factory together within the raw capitalism of 19th-century Łódź. One of them humorously declares, "I have nothing, you have nothing, and he has nothing; that means together we have enough to start a factory."

By the turn of the century, Łódź had grown into a multi-cultural city, and the main textile production center of the vast Russian Empire. Wajda presents a vivid picture of the city, depicting its filthy and dangerous factories, the cruel effects of rapid industrialization on millions of workers, and the ostentatious and tasteless wealth of the rich. The story culminates in a production-paralyzing strike—presumably the 1892 socialist strike that preceded the Łódź insurrection (in which Tsarist police would kill more than 300 workers) and the Russian Revolution of 1905.


Chris Fitzpatrick has organized exhibitions and events internationally for venues including the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy; the Paul D. Fleck Library & Archives at the Banff Centre, Alberta, Canada; the Oakland Museum of California, Oakland; and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. His writing and interviews have been published in Pazmaker, Mousse Magazine, The Baltic Notebooks of Anthony Blunt, and elsewhere. He is on the curatorial board for the Present Future section of Artissima 18, Turin.

Fitzpatrick received his MA in Curatorial Practice at the California College of the Arts, San Francisco, and his BA from San Francisco State University. More information about his projects is available at www.chrisfitzpatrick.net.

Julian Myers is an art historian whose writing has appeared in Documents, October, Afterall, Frieze, and elsewhere. His research is concentrated on sculpture and spatial politics of the 20th century, the social and political dynamics of consumer society, and the historical frameworks for contemporary art and exhibition. Myers is the author of numerous monographic essays on the practices of artists Tariq Alvi, Trisha Donnelly, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, Eric Wesley, and the Independent Group, among others. Most recently, these include "Total Relaxation," published in Sudden White: After London (Dexter Sinister, 2009), "Totality: A Guided Tour," on Harald Szeemann's 1983 exhibition "The Tendency to a Synthesis of the Arts" (Afterall, 2009), "Form and Proto-politics," on the 1969 exhibition "Other Ideas" (The Exhibitionist, 2010), and "Riot Show: Some Notes on the Archive" (Fillip, 2010). He is on the editorial board of The Exhibitionist.

Myers holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and a BA from Cornell University. He has taught courses in art history and theory at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, the San Francisco Art Institute, and the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, where he is currently full-time faculty.


Polish Movie Nite is a mini-series of free public events organized by Joanna Szupinska from August 2010 to May 2011. This is the final event. Many thanks to our speakers, audiences, and blog followers for your enthusiastic participation!

Thanks to the speakers, Chris and Julian, as well as Melissa Kozera and Arden Sherman for their assistance in the preparation of this event.

This screening is sponsored by the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland.

Polish Movie Nite is generously hosted by the Polish Club of San Francisco. More information about the Polish Club is available at www.polishclubsf.org.

Special appreciation goes to Maureen Mroczek Morris and to Krol Vodka for their ongoing support.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Erica Levin introduces Camera Buff

Erica Levin introduced Camera Buff at the Polish Club on April 27.
photo by Maureen Mroczek Morris

Introduction to Camera Buff
by Erica Levin

Camera Buff (Amator) is a film about filmmaking in Poland. It introduces us to a bureaucratic film culture where documentaries made by factory-sponsored cine-clubs are discussed with the utmost seriousness and may even earn film festival prizes. Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski in 1979, Camera Buff means to gently mock the pieties of this Communist cine-culture, but the bite of its satire is sometimes overwhelmed by the film’s erratic emotional tone, which is funny in one moment, and surprisingly overwrought or even tender in the next. Filmmaking is an activity, even a kind of labor, that Kieślowski has difficulty comfortably lampooning. I would even say that the relationship of cinema to work is central for Kieślowski: What kind of work is it? What does one do when making a film? What happens when it is transformed from an activity animated by love into a job? And what of this love? What does it promise, and at what price? Remember, of course, that Kieślowski poses these questions in the context of a cinema culture for which “the worker” occupies a historically privileged role.

Kieślowski is associated with what critics have called “the Cinema of Moral Anxiety,” a movement that flourished in Poland between 1974 and 1980. Filmmakers of this post-war generation were educated at State-run film academies, subject to all manner of bureaucratic pressures and the threat of censorship, but also given a relatively substantial amount of autonomy. This was a moment when socialist realism was on the verge of giving way to something more like social realism. Upon graduating, Kieślowski directed documentaries for more than a decade before shifting his focus to feature filmmaking. In interviews he talks about his desire to show life, not as it was imagined by the State, but as it really was. Tonight’s feature is preceded by one of his earliest documentary efforts from 1967 entitled The Office. Here Kieślowski’s camera captures nothing so much as the absurdities of bureaucracy, the way it comically hampers getting anything done, but also how it weighs heavily on the spirit of anyone entering its sphere. If the image of the heroic worker epitomizes the socialist realist cinema of the late 1940s and early '50s, then Kieślowski’s cinema evolves out of an impulse to show the other side of life and labor in Communist Poland. While films like the 1951 Destination: Nowa Huta! are full of youthful, bare-chested Polish construction workers setting out to build a new workers' paradise, Kieślowski’s characters are decidedly more human, fallible, funny, but also flawed. He pictures the endless contortions of body and soul that everyday life in Poland seemed to require. Another of his early documentary films focuses on Łódź, a city whose many limbless inhabitants, victims of industrial and traffic accidents in the dangerous urban environs, were a source of perverse fascination for the filmmaker. In Camera Buff, Kieślowski again trains his camera on an exceptional body one that stands out against the norm. The film’s main character, Filip, makes a film called Worker, about a dwarf, or perhaps better, a man of short stature, who has been at the factory since it opened. Though Kieślowski talks of having wanted to make a film featuring a similar protagonist, one wonders how his film might have differed from Filip’s, which is too sentimental to be truly great. It’s as though in order to realize this film, Kieślowski had to frame it in terms of the unhappy story of our amateur filmmaker.

So how do you become a troubled camera buff in Communist Poland? If you are Filip Mosz (played by the delightfully comic Jerzy Stuhr – who co-wrote much of the film’s dialogue) you buy an 8mm camera to film your newborn daughter, knowing full well that it will cost you the equivalent of two months' salary. We are made to understand what a rare novelty such a camera might have been in small-town Poland at this time when Filip’s purchase provokes the interest of his boss. He surprises Filip by asking him to make a short film commemorating the factory’s 25th anniversary. Soon, filmmaking comes to eclipse all of Filip’s other responsibilities, both at work and at home. We watch him discover how peering through a camera mediates the world differently, endowing the smallest details with new significance, but at the same time distancing him from what he sees. The film tempts us to share in Filip’s all-consuming obsession, his desire “for something else” he can’t name but knows to be bound up with filmmaking. And it isn’t difficult to endorse this impulse no matter how doomed it might be, or how much it may cause others to suffer, particularly his young wife. As Filip heads off to the amateur film festival with his first film proudly in hand, she shouts out, “Don’t win!” He ends up bringing home a prize, but by the end of the film we aren’t sure exactly what he has won. That said, Camera Buff isn’t a straightforward story of defeat; it would better to see it as one that traffics in the blunt and unmistakable pain of reinvention.

After his death, Kieślowski was remembered as a filmmaker who brought “a new form of melancholy” to the screen, one that offered “a kind of intellectual and spiritual cleansing for viewers accustomed to seeing the world through images approved by the government.”[1] Some of that melancholy was already evident in the documentary films he made before turning to fiction, which traded in stories of the ethical dilemmas faced by real people in their struggle with Party politics, corruption, and bureaucracy. Some of these films were subject to censorship, but more often they were marred by Kieślowski’s anxiety that they might hurt those he pictured, or that they would be misappropriated by the authorities. Camera Buff was one of Kieślowski’s first feature fiction films. It was well received by audiences in Poland and abroad. (Like Filip, Kieślowski also brought home an award, in this case the top prize at the Moscow International Film Festival.) Kieślowski’s shift to fiction filmmaking was its own kind of reinvention, not an immediate turn away from everyday political struggles, but a way to give form to his increasingly shaken confidence in the ethics of showing life “as it is.” Later, his fiction films would become much more focused on dramas of the private sphere, but at this moment, Kieślowski was still very much drawn to the uncomfortable zone between personal and public life.

Although much separates our own political and economic context from that of Camera Buff, there is something about Filip that feels familiar. Perhaps it is his near-blind commitment to an unnamed possibility he glimpses in his work, the hope that it will bring meaning to his existence, and the reckoning he must make when he runs up against the real constraints of his situation. These aspects of his story are still strikingly resonant. Watching Camera Buff today, we might find ourselves thinking anew about our own conditions of life and work, and our investment of work with desires that, though they may be irrational, nonetheless feel impossible to abandon.

[1] Józef Tischner, quoted in Annette Insdorf, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski, page 32.