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Of waves and journeys

November 11, 2013 - Posted in Academice Posted by:

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/…/ In the beginning, the road was a means to an end, not just the end in itself. Today, if we stop the car, we become aware of the desolate scenery all around us. Seen through the windscreen of a moving car, the surroundings seem alive and populated. But once stopped, we inevitably notice that everything has dried up. There are no more new territories to discover, there are no borders to cross and people are the same wherever we go: human surrogates, acting out their roles. Everything has been said, everything has been discovered and every trip has been made.

The Apocalypse means the end of the secret. Literally it means the revelation, meaning that everything has been said. It is the end of the metaphor, the end of the secret. The nuclear bomb is, actually, the Sun fallen on the Earth, representing the end of the Sun as a metaphor for distance. (Baudrillard 1994: 58)

The first big journey of the world was Noah’s. He had a clear mission, to survive. The biblical ship’s log shows entries that verify the validity of the skipper’s predictions. In the Old Testament, the main implication of travelling is victory. It is normal, humanity is just at the beginning, and there are still so many things to discover. It is the glorious era of archetypal journeys. This is the fundamental form that the radical journey takes, it implies movement as a way to gain knowledge, the road towards a meaning. The only examples of radical journeys in the New Romanian Cinema, detailed in the pages to come are Dacă bobul nu moare/If the Seed Doesn’t Die (Dragin 2010) and Moartea domnului Lăzărescu/The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (Puiu 2005). While Dragin undertakes a too obvious construction looking for meaning, Lăzărescu is a cynical suggestion of the meaninglessness of human existence. The journey here is a naturalistic movement towards the first stages of decomposition, rather than an initiating ritual. However, this is the only film in the New Romanian Cinema that considers, deeply and seriously, the journey theme as a process of passing on.

The sidereal journey is condemnation to perpetual movement: it is the pointless road, it is the crashing of the moth in the incandescent glass of an unreachable lamp, it is the pendulum caught up in a senseless perpetual motion and what can be worse than a sentence to eternal, irrational movement? Camus (1942) managed to give heroic meaning even to Sisyphus’s repetitive journey. Sisyphus has a purpose, and there is a moment when he rises above his punishment. That moment is the way back, that liberating feeling that the descent offers, that one glimpse at an unburdened existence just before resuming his climb with the boulder. He is the hero of hopelessness, or as Comte-Sponville calls it ‘un-hoping’ (inespoir) (2000). How then, can we define Mr Lăzărescu, Cristi Puiu’s ‘hero’? He has no hope, but he is not tragic either. He is not even aware, thus unwittingly becoming the poster child for a nation made of non-heroes, a nation that denied both hope and heroism, not even the absurd sort. Dante Remus Lăzărescu, a very suitable name for this non-hero in the twilight of his life, is just a patient of the action. Maybe only the paramedic, Mioara, the true protagonist of the film, can shed a little light on a sick nation.

The definition of the road movie is still open to interpretation, but it is necessary to make a point out of challenging the one that argues that the road movie is a sub-species of the fiction film with a unique characteristic: that the action takes place in a moving vehicle or during a journey. We cannot agree with this simplistic definition that deprives this important part of modern cinema many of its well-earned merits. The road movie expresses a new form of mal du siècle that is not necessarily of American descent:

The genre can be defined as a combination of recognizable elements, addressing both narrative and artistic direction. It can be argued that the road-movie has its own private narrative and iconographic discourse; nonetheless, the essence of the road-movie resides in the fact that it has an inherent ability to connect with other genres. Genetic hybrid and highly inter-textual, the road-movie can be understood through a variety of theoretical approaches each of which bring to centre stage a different part of the film production process. (Sargeant and Watson 1999)

This generous definition will be applied while discussing the road theme in the Romanian cinema as it helps us put a label on films that are completely different in some respects, and yet so alike in others; films such as Iacob (Daneliuc 1988) and Lăzărescu. Apart from the handful of native road movies (Asfalt Tango – Caranfil 1996), others will be considered in which the road plays just a general, even decorative role, as well as a few in which the journey is the fundamental theme, including the one that deals with the road as the Great Passing (Lăzărescu). It is most interesting to discover the degree to which these films represent what we called radical journeys, and whether or not they manage to paint a portrait of a nation in the films of the Romanian New Cinema.

/…/

Marfa si banii/Stuff and Dough, the 2001 road movie by Cristi Puiu, represents the beginning of what became known as the Romanian New Wave, while the decade ends with another road movie – Bogdan George Apetri’s Periferic/Outbound (2011). Between these two pivotal moments, films that deal with the journey as a theme or have the road as the essential support for the actual theme, are scarce. The road as a symbol is the main topic for this analysis, and we have left aside the geographical bovarism that characterizes nearly all New Romanian films, therefore those that have ‘escapism, emigration and the mirage of the West’ (Corciovescu and Mihăilescu[K1]  2011) as main ingredients were not included here.

One of the main reasons for the absence of the road as a main character in the last decade of Romanian cinema could be the financial limitation of local productions. A film about the road, or that takes place on the road, can be expensive, it implies travel, exterior shoots and a lot of production hassle. This is one of the least relevant reasons in the discussion at hand, but given the decisive impact financial limitations have had in the shaping of the New Romanian Cinema in general and ‘minimalism’ in particular, we could not help but mention it here.

Another, more essential, reason for the absence of the road seems to be related to the exclusively urban nature of the films belonging to this movement. There are a few exceptions from this rule and these can be found in the films of Napoleon Helmis-Toader or in Marian Crisan’s Morgen (2011). The characters of Romanian New Wave films are like moths drawn to an elusive flame, they never manage to fly out of their enclosure or to find the spark of protest within their urban prison. There is no uproar, no need to escape and no desire for a ‘permanent vacation’ as in Jarmusch’s films. For example, the picnic in Adrian Sitaru’s Pescuit Sportiv/Hooked (2007) is not an escape from the city, but rather a short break from the concrete monster to have an affair in a natural setting. But even this plan is realized, in a sad and pathetic way, within the confines of a car.

Yet another reason – the most important one – is the absence of a deeper meaning of the road in Romanian cinema. Mostly, when it comes to Romanian minimalism ‘what you see is what you get’ and this pushes things to be matter of fact, making the road merely an object rather than subject. The Romanian New Wave does not deal with journeys, neither matter of fact ones nor least of all the deeper, archetypal, radical ones (journeys of initiation, journeys to ‘the other side’, etc.), although there are a few notable exceptions.

Even in the case of the purposeful journey, where the road itself gains a deeper meaning, this is a direct result of the relationship between the road from a matter-of-fact perspective, and other matter-of-fact occurrences. So the deeper meaning is by no means the result of a philosophical attempt made by the author, but rather the conclusion of clustering everything together. Mr Lăzărescu is both literally and figuratively a patient of the great passing, he is by no means the agent of it. The lack of awareness about the meaning of the journey causes a fundamental divide between Mr Lăzărescu and Professor Borg from Ingmar Bergman’s Smultronstället/Wild Strawberries (1957). We should mention here, without any cynicism or irony, but lucidly and sadly, as we understand and respect the author’s vision: in the Romanian version, the great passing is lower case, it cannot and will not be capitalized.

Undoubtedly, most of the characters in the films taken under consideration here cannot afford the comfort and intellectual luxury to seek the essence, the meaning of movement, the ‘universality’ and ‘synthesis’ of the journey experience as described by Baudrillard and Guillaume (1994). The Romanian – character or person – confused from an axiological standpoint, spiritually and physically sick, living in the post-communist era, hounded by transition, blinded by neo-capitalism, driven insane by shortcomings, tortured by desires, a bulimic media consumer and brought down by primary worries or the obsession of nothingness, is denied the sophisticated process of reflecting upon the meaning of the road. Even without the possibility of this thought process, Romanian films nonetheless end up with the inevitable conclusion that it is impossible to reach other realms, both physically and spiritually.

Another thing that can be found lacking in the New Romanian Cinema films has mostly to do with a sub-theme, nonetheless a road movie fundamental, we are talking here about the absence of the Other from the palette of cinematic themes brought into discussion about the Romanian New Wave. Supposedly against sacrificing content for decoration, it is actually narcissistic and stylistically auto-referential to the core; it is egocentric and not just self-sufficient in terms of style and subject, but also when it comes to the biography and geographical positioning of the characters. Nevertheless, we can find some exceptions to this aspect: If the Seed Doesn’t Die and Morgen. The latter of the two serves as a good example for the aforementioned theory that it belongs to a different realm in Romanian cinema. Marian Crisan’s Turk, a character of Jarmuschian descent, is probably the most important Romanian character of the decade, precisely because he is someone else – he is the Other.

The theme of otherness is a metaphorical exploration, it is a way to explore the existence of the Other. The journey, perceived in its widest meaning, is an instrument, a possible scenario that leads the way to this sort of discovery. Starting from the assumption that radical otherness is impossible to find (Baudrillard and Guillaume (1994), the objective is unattainable to begin with. The sidereal journey’s brackets designate a vector; it is the point of suspension between the beginning and the end, and it inadvertently denies the existence of the radical journey whose main purpose is looking for unknown people and unknown things. Just as radical otherness, radical journeys are incomprehensible to western society today. The only occurrence of the journey that can be accepted now, the only possible type, results from a mix of spatial displacement combined with personal fictions and the utter refusal of attaining real knowledge about the people and places one comes across; this type of journey is just a surrogate. And it does not matter anyway, because the people one comes across in the western world today are all the same, the inhabitants of a world deprived of mysteries or frontiers. In this instance, the sidereal journey is an attempt to continue on the path. With the avoidance of tourism and artificial drug-induced journeys – the two possible extremes that are common practice worldwide today – the only resultant option is an infinite state of floating, with no contact with anybody (Baudrillard and Guillaume (1994). The radical journey, on the other hand, cannot be practiced without meeting and possibly knowing and understanding the Other, even if this is directed towards the Self. Yet, the comprehension of the Other is a rarity in Romanian cinema. As for the leap inward, in a search for the Self, the journeys tend to lean towards the pathological, like Cristi Puiu’s Aurora (2010), an interior road movie in search of darkness and the inner beast.

Last but not least, a fact worth mentioning is the profound inclination of the New Romanian Cinema towards the static, thus drawing its existential significance precisely from the lack of movement. By this is not meant the narrative inaction or the stillness of the very long shots so dear to the New Wave as opposed to the hand-held camera Parkinson of some others. Instead, what is being referred to is the stillness and lack of action in the character’s arc, in his or her project. This inactivity and perpetual delay of action is a common thread all through the films under discussion: we can observe it in Cristi’s almost Dostoyevskyan dilemma (Politist, Adjectiv/Police, Adjective, 2009), in Paul’s perpetual postponing in Marti, după Crăciun/Tuesday, After Christmas (Munteanu 2010), in Viorel’s obnoxious delay of the murder (Puiu 2010) or in the failed Chekhovian departure (to Amsterdam, to Amsterdam) of Felicia (De Raaf and Rădulescu 2009) that constitutes a perfect example of the non-journey, suggesting failure on an existential level, providing a pattern for, as Atkinson calls it, ‘the anti-road-movie’ (1994) /…/

(For the complete version of this text and its  references check The Road Movies of The New Romanian Cinema by Lucian Georgescu, in Studies in Eastern European Cinema, Volume 3, Number 1, Intellect, London, UK,  2012, pp. 23-40)

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