By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “12:08 East of Bucharest,” Tartan, 2007]
The emergence of “new waves” may well be a matter of Newton’s Third Law fatuous, homogenized blockbuster “action” produces an oppositive reaction, from the otherwise optionless cultural industries of nations the New Globalism forgot, be they Iran or Malaysia or Mexico or Romania. The reaction is not just the filmmakers’; discriminating audiences around the globe gobble up the proto-new-wave syntax of hyperrealism, open-ended narratives and daring art-film ethos, as they have recently with the Romanians, represented for the most part by Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (which won Best Film from the nation’s most expansive critics’ poll, on IndieWire.com), Cristian Mungiu’s upcoming “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days” and Corneliu Porumboiu’s “12:08 East of Bucharest.” (All three landed trophies at Cannes.) Of course, 95 out of a hundred Americans couldn’t find Romania on an unmarked map if their mothers’ lives depended upon it, and the films remain the quizzical film-year prizes for the anointed minority, for whom cinema is a challenge and a blessing and a mystery, not a mouth-breathing weekend-night distraction.
So, suddenly, a poor ex-totalitarian Balkan nation that had little visible film culture at all for decades (outside of Lucien Pintille, something of the new generation’s granddaddy) is now the hotbed of what the world’s film festivals perceive as new-millennium cool, fresh, expressive and pertinent. “12:08 East of Bucharest” is a key film in the movement, because it explicitly addresses the 1989 revolution that ended the Ceauşescu regime, a pivotal moment in the country’s sense of itself during which the filmmakers of Porumboiu’s herd were still teenagers and film students. (Indeed, the best primer for “12:08” and all of modern Romanian film is Harun Farocki’s found-footage doc “Videograms of a Revolution,” available from Facets, which assembles all of the broadcast material from the week of the revolution, which was, thanks to the seizure of the nationalized TV network, televised from beginning to end.) Porumboiu’s movie, like its contemporaries, possesses a Slavic-style death-rattle humor, and is set in a muddy, worn-down post-Communist Bloc village of newly capitalist predators and broken losers. On the 15th anniversary of the overthrow, we meet three of the trashy little town’s men: a smug, upwardly mobile local-station anchorman (Ion Sapdaru), a cynical history teacher completely wrecked from epic alcoholism (Teodor Corban) and an eccentric codger focused on playing Santa Claus for the local kids (Mircea Andreescu). The TV host’s show that afternoon will address the anniversary, and the resonant question, did the revolution happen in the town, or not? The comedy slowly leaks out of the inability to rope in anyone but the drunk and the old man as guests; once it begins, with the three men seated before the camera as if on a tribunal, half of Porumboiu’s film is consumed with the program and its collapse, as neighbors call in and rabidly dispute the teacher’s assertion of having participated in the historical moment, by (as he claims) heroically rallying in the town’s square at the moment (12:08, December 22) that Ceauşescu surrendered power.
Porumboiu’s actual title translates to “Was There or Was There Not?”; beneath the film’s head-on simplicity and deadpan wit lies an effortless docket of expressed ideas about memory, national pride, community politics and the new Romania, enduring as so many quasi-Third World states do on the outskirts of legality, poverty and social order. But unlike “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” also shopped by Tartan in this country as a comedy, “12:08 East of Bucharest” is authentically funny, in a boozy-Renoirian kind of way the laughs drip organically from the characters. Porumboiu’s camera allows us to observe them in real time (as liberating a strategy as it is eventually brutally claustrophobic), and there’s no need for jokes.
A far more hermetic experience, Kenneth Anger’s rarefied avant-garde film output exists nowhere except inside his stormy skull which by the looks of it is a lava pit of Satanist iconography, homoerotic kitsch, Tinseltown detritus and mythomania. Fantoma’s new Vol. II of Anger’s collected films, following up the juvenilia and precious early films of Vol. I, includes the opuses that made him famous: “Scorpio Rising” (1964), the landmark free-form portrait of rough-trade, James Dean-loving, leather-wearing, cycle-driving gay culture; “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1969), the assaultive black mass montage featuring an unbearable synthesizer score written and performed by Mick Jagger; and “Lucifer Rising” (1972/1981), Anger’s vivid, semi-Egyptian “magick” epic (which had to be reshot from scratch after Manson cohort Bobby Beausoleil buried the first negative in Death Valley; as penance, apparently, Beausoleil recorded a score for the film from his prison cell). For several generations of American youth, this is what the real counter-culture looked like, and Anger’s crazed, fringy, non-linear syntax gave birth to thousands of idiosyncrat underground imitators, music video collages, nightmarish dream sequences, and even the new breed of post-“Se7en” credit-roll montages. The Fantoma package is practically genuflective, stocked with extras, including Anger’s full-on commentary, a rarely-seen 2002 short by Anger about his “magus” Aleister Crowley, restoration demonstrations and an artfully illustrated 48-page booklet featuring new essays by Martin Scorsese, Gus Van Sant, Guy Maddin and Beausoleil himself, all of 60 and still locked up.
“12:08 East of Bucharest” (Tartan) will be released on October 9th; “The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. II” (Fantoma) is now available on DVD.