In the Moment
by Giovanni Vimercati
Dir. Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland, IFC/Sundance Selects
“Here is my idea of dramaturgy: a character moves from point A to point B. And then from B to C. Life is like this, constant movement, which is a physical as well as a spiritual act,” Jerzy Skolimowski once remarked in an interview.
This statement, clear in its meaning but open to multiple interpretations, accurately describes his filmmaking. Rather than mainstream recognition, the director of 11 Minutes has pursued throughout his career a radical sort of victory in a world populated by successful losers, where even love is beset by violence and speed is a necessary dash toward the unknown. “Never in the right place at the right time,” observed Serge Daney of Jerzy Skolimowski at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, where his Moonlighting, a movie about the recent military coup in Poland entirely set in a London flat under refurbishment, had won best screenplay. Skolimowski's cinema cannot be assigned to a specific chapter of film history, let alone movement or school. Even his feature length debut, Walk Over (1965), which emerged from among the waves of the Polish nouvelle vague, was decidedly anomalous, like the boxer not turning up for the final match in that film. Its self-effacing follow-up, Identification Marks: None (1965), reiterated the director's eclectic indolence, his reticence to comply with societal or artistic impositions. In his films identification is usually bypassed, the protagonist is always someone else, here is always elsewhere, margins are the only (im)possible center, and shelters do not offer refuge. There is no gravity in Skolimowski’s universe; rather than being bridled into straightforward narratives, events are observed and recounted following their fragmentation.
His latest film, 11 Minutes, takes place in modern-day Warsaw, where a disparate and desperate set of characters go about their daily grinds. A comely actress is meeting a sleazy director in a fancy but cheaply made hotel, and her jealous husband tries to intrude on the audition. A couple of floors below this, a window cleaner is polishing the external façade of the hotel when he comes in to watch and discuss pornography with a woman. A group of paramedics have to fight their way to the upper floors of an apartment building where a woman is about to give birth. A former convict is selling hot dogs to a group of nuns. Low-flying aircrafts speed by; birds crash through windows. An old painter sits by the river when a stuntman from a movie that's being shot nearby drops from a bridge, causing him to accidentally drip black paint from his brush onto the canvas.A similar black spot appears on the CCTV footage a security guard is monitoring; is it a dead pixel or a fly? What is for certain is that this perplexing black point is the centrifugal epicenter around which everything and everyone orbits precariously.
Unlike a more conventional ensemble movie, in which multiple characters are incrementally intertwined together by a narrative, in 11 Minutes collective loneliness is the only thread connecting them all. The film jumps back and forward through the same eleven minutes, often showing the same sequences from different perspectives; this does not disclose new narrative details or angles, but rather simply exposes how disengaged everyone is from each other. That black spot seems to undermine the characters’ individual plans, projects, and ambitions, which are so hopelessly disconnected from the surroundings within which they should take place and shape. Everyone is trapped in this aimless web of expediencies and obstructions, anxiously searching for direction in a world that offers none, where there is nothing left to do but to simply be. All of the digital images and smartphone footage within the mosaics that open and close the film might as well have been shot in in any other western(ized) city for how dissociated and decontextualized they are. The director films these micro-narratives with oblique diffidence, almost resigned yet by no means complacent.
Skolimowski never flaunts his direction, yet this is always recognizably his film.He neither totally adheres to social realism nor expressionism in his cinema. The Polish director strikes a dramatic balance between subjective introspection and engagement with the outside world, stability and vertigo, the art of getting by and that of getting through. Skolimowski prefers the athletic directness of the physical act to intellectual manipulation. In Le Départ (1967), the one film that fully exploits Jean-Pierre Léaud's clueless inadequacy in front of a camera, the protagonist frantically roams the streets of Brussels looking for a car to race. The film ends—four years prior to Monte Hellman's Two Lane Blacktop—with a speeding car and the film itself burning, the final destination and result being totally irrelevant. Significantly, this film—Skolimowski’s first outside of Communist Poland—is evenmore melancholic than his previous films, revealing that the distance between dreams and reality is as wide in Western Europe as in the land of rationed happiness.
Most of Skolimowski’s films take place in the meaningful space between the euphoria of passions and the disillusionment that comes with their inevitable end. While in his early Polish films, his characters' indolence was a strategic retreat from the imposed social discipline of the Communist regime, in 11 Minutes there is no longer a refusal to be part of the system. Everyone is chased by someone else or by their own anxieties, but there is no escape and therefore no movement. In effect, the film consists of 11 minutes of kinetic stillness—nothing happens, but at a vertiginous speed. It’s an apocalyptic slapstick set in an eternal present. Every character’s action is inconsequential, with no clear path ahead.In a way this film offers a negative answer to Skolimowski’s previous characters and theirexistential impatience. This is really it, he seems to be saying, substance has faded into appearances and aesthetic onanism has colonized virtually every corner of this world. Whether shooting in Poland, England, Belgium, America, or at sea, Skolimowski never settled, always a stranger in his own environment and as such a keen and unpredictable observer. He has had the ability to remain true to himself even when working and dealing with different production modes, never conforming to the narrative and cinematic habits of the countries he has worked in. His films have always delved into the elusive complexities of reality and his latest one distinctly ponders the possibility of whether there still is a way we can be united that is not by total accident.