Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Decalogue: Seven

Seventh Commandment: Thou shalt not steal.

In recovery, addicts will often refer to their behavior when using as an act of theft. If you a
re getting drunk rather than spending time with your children, you are stealing the presence of a loving parent from them. If you are ducking out of work early in order to catch happy hour, you are quite literally stealing productivity and the employer’s right o have a worker focused on his or her job. This message is rendered explicitly in the seventh film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, an affecting and well produced entry even if it seemed slightly transparent to me.

Majka, a young college senior, lives with her parents in the housing complex that unifies each entry in the series. She has a six-year-old daughter who live with her, Ania, but this daughter is being raised by her parents as Majka’s sister, and her mother, who was never affectionate or supportive with Majka, fawns over Ania
and is quite close to her. Majka wants to flee with Ania to Canada, but needs her mother’s permission to obtain a passport for the girl.

Already the theft is obvious. Majka has had her daughter stolen to be raised as someone else’s, just as she
has had the support of a parent stolen by her mother who lacked fairness and affection for her. Ania too has had her true mother stolen from her. It is arguable that such thefts were beneficial for some involved: Ania is likely better off in some ways not being raised by a teenager, and the freedom from childrearing responsibilities allows Majka to remain in school, with all the opportunities such advancement allows. Yet Kieslowski isn’t a moralizer; theft is theft, no matter how one may justify it.

As the story progresses, Majka steals Ania from show at the children’s theater and takes he
r to Wojtek, Ania’ father. The two met when he was hired as a literature professor by Majka’s mother, only to fall in love with the sixteen-year-old Majka and impregnate her. He is initially uncomfortable, yet warms to the young girl as time passes. Majka intends to blackmail her mother for permission to take Ania with her to Canada. Even at this point we can see theft in virtually every action one character takes in relation to another, both literal and figurative. And such actions recur until the narrative’s end and, one can imagine, continues on.

Kieslowski’s narrative is so effective because it allows on to view strained relationships the way those i
n addiction recovery often do: as acts of theft. While the story provides characters and situations with which to practice such an evaluation, it is in our own lives that such analysis can be the most painful, yet also provide the basis for much healing.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Decalogue: Six

Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not commit adultery.

In the sixth film of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue first seems to be about a na├»ve young man who develops an obsessive attraction to a woman he doesn’t even know. Both he and the woman he admires live in the same apartment complex that serves as a link between the characters in each episode. Tomek is a
shy young man who works in the post office by day and by night spies on his neighbor Magda with a telescope he has stolen specifically for this purpose. As we see Magda through Tomek’s gaze, we learn that she is a bold and confident woman, an artist, who shares her bed with several men who make frequent visits.

In order to get closer to her, Tomek calls her home but says nothing when she answers, sends her fake
money order notices so that she is forced to come into his post office, steals some of her letters and reads them, and even goes so far as to get a job as a milkman just to get close to her apartment. When one of his fake notices causes a confrontation between Magda and his manager, he feels guilty and confesses everything to her. When she asks why he has done all these things, he replies that he loves her.

For Magda, love means the carnal act, the playful banter that has no deeper emotion behind it. There is no such thing as true romantic love. But despite what one might think by merely reading about Tomek’s actions, his love is not carnal at all; instead, he simply loves her. Since he is so shy and innocent, presenting no threat to her, Magda toys
with Tomek, putting on a show for him by positioning her bed in front of the window and seducing a lover when she knows he is watching. When informing her lover that they have been spied upon, he flies into a rage and punches Tomek. Now it is Magda’s turn to feel guilty.

After accepting Tomek’s offer to go to an ice cream parlor, Magda hears him tell all about his love for her. In a truly erotic scene, she tries to entice him into the sort of love she knows, only to have it end disastrously as Tomek runs away in horror. Now the tables are turned as she uses binoculars to try and find out what has happened to him. His innocent ways have awakened something inside of her, yet he has slashed his wrists and is taken to the hosp
ital.

The film isn’t about adultery, as neither Tomek nor Magda are married, but instead about adulterated love., love that has become debased. Many of the scenes place the viewer as a gazer, emphasizing the male eye of the camera, yet desensualizes that look to come more into line with the views on love of Tomek rather than those of Magda. Yet he himself has been the subject of a gaze the entire time, that of his godmother, who understands his loneliness as she herself is lonely after her son has left and never really returned home.

This sixth entry is as much Magda’s story as it is Tomek’s, for her concern for him changes the way she conceptualizes love, marking that change as the crux of the narrative. Yet after Tomek returns from the hospital and encounters Magda, he tells her that he doesn’t look at her anymore. She has changed, but now her love is as unfulfilled as his once was. The redemption of love is blunted by the dismissal of one’s affection. Magda is now in the place Tomek inhabited in the first scene, and Kieslowski’s slam cut to end the film is jarring and effective.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Decalogue: Five

Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill.

Krzysztof Kieslowski begins the fifth entry in The Decalogue depicting three characters who are initially separate, but whose paths not unexpectedly cross as the narrative progresses. By choosing to leave almost all contextualization out of the story as it opens, he is able to reveal needed information when it will be the most effectiv
e in terms of creating a certain sensibility with the viewer. In fact, this is Kieslowski’s most polemic entry thus far.

The director introduces the three main characters separately, using distinctive cinematography that uses almost no establishing shots in order to make the three men seem even more isolated. In fact, the extensive use of close-ups on each individual throughout the film serves to make the narrative seem more abstract, to make the characters seem less like individuals and more like types.

Jacek is a young man not quite twenty-one who is angry and seems alienated as he wanders the city, looking for and causing trouble wherever he goes. He drops a rock off a bridge and onto a car’s windshield as it drives underneath, causing an accident. He scares away pigeons who are being fed by an old lady, even as she asks him not to. Piotr is a young, handsome lawyer who is interviewing with a job at a prestigious law firm. He is firmly committed to the highest ideals of justice and stridently opposes the death penalty. And the taxi driver is a middle aged man who is mean spirited and unsympathetic. He leers at young girls, scares small dogs with his horn, and promises to wait for a couple only to drive away without them.

It doesn’t take long for one to realize that Jacek is going to commit a murder, which logically must be the taxi driver. The murder isn’t quick and easy as we often see it portrayed in entertainment; instead, Jacek strangles the man, beats him with a pipe, drags his body towards a body of water to dump it in, realizes the man is still alive, and then as the driver begs for his life, smashes his head with a large rock.


Cut to a year later. Piotr is serving as the defense attorney for Jacek, whereby they immediately lose their appeal to stave off the death penalty. The rest of the film portrays the cruelty and detachment of the state when implementing the harshest of all penalties.

Yet what separates this film from the typical polemic against the death penalty is the nature of both victims: neither is a sympathetic character. As an audience, we realize that the killing of the taxi driver I not justified even though he is presented as a bad person. And with no doubt about the guilt of Jacek from either the state or the viewer, an argument against capital punishment is automatically more difficult to make. Nevertheless, as we learn the first real information about Jacek just before he is taken to be hanged, that his young sister was killed by one of his friend’s with a tractor after he and Jacek spent the afternoon getting drunk when they were thirteen or so, he becomes more than just grist in the argument.

At the start of the film, Piotr mention that vales in Poland are declining, and thus as people ask themselves whether they are doing things of value, that definition is constantly shifting. What Kieslowski is trying to impart with this film, from my perspective, is to ask how society should respond to this shift, a shift that produces small sinners like the taxi driver and egregious ones like Jacek. Does it merely punish those who have lost their way, or does it try and restore those lost values to the individual in question? By depicting the machinery of the state to be just as valueless and inhuman as Jacek, his execution serves only to further erode the values of the society.


We often have arguments over the penal system here in America, asking whether it is for punishment or for rehabilitation. The state claims it’s the latter, but recidivism rates would argue that it is in fact the former. Even if it could be proven that the death penalty served as a deterrent, it still wouldn’t make executions moral. Instead, imagine if the resources for Jacek to seek counseling after his sister’s death had been in place. Perhaps he would have remained at home, as he speculated, and the murder never would have taken place. Or perhaps if the sort of moral society Piotr was lamenting the loss of would have existed enough that two thirteen year old boys wouldn’t have been getting drunk and driving a tractor. While the abstract nature of the story clashes with the intense characters of the previous four films, Kieslowski argues effectively here that killing itself is wrong and that a society who engages in killing as punishment is contributing to the problem of moral decay, not combating it.

Monday, April 5, 2010

From Space Exploration to Time Travel

While attending a panel on time travel this weekend at the National PCA/ACA Conference in St. Louis, a panel that at one point was so boring that I prayed to time travel to the end of it, a fellow audience member asked a question that has had me thinking since: what are we to make of the professed shift from science fiction narratives centering around space exploration to those centering on time travel?

Of course, this shift is not comprehensive. A presentation by Korcaighe Hale examined the selection of historical events in three time travel shows ranging from the later 60s to the early 90s, but with shows like Lost and Flashforward dominating the airwaves and others centered on exploration, like Enterprise, incorporating elements of time travel into their mythologies, it’s not hard to argue
that this shift has taken (or is taking) place. But what reasons could there be?

One person acknowledged that as we learn more and more about our universe, about how unlikely it is that we will ever be able to leave our solar system, such stories of exploration no longer have real traction. I suppose this is true to some extent, though it’s not as if a show like Star Trek took the science all that seriously and viewers didn’t seem to have big problems with that. I have another idea, but as I am severely ignorant of much of science fiction and its discourses, I am going to argue through the prism of Trek and let my argument be judged as in/adequate based on such a decision.

Why did the public so engage with the space exploration narrative central to Trek in the late 60s and through syndication in the 70s? Coming out of the policies of brinksmanship in the 1950s, where the Eisenhower Administration moved to contain communism within the Soviet Union, it seems to me that a show about a peaceful (military) explorers spreading a message of human rights and a celebration of the individual would have some traction from a purely patriotic standpoint. It allowed the viewers of that era to identify the positive intentions of their government separate from the unpopular policies by which they were implemented.

But with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the need to spread the message of anti-communism was no longer necessary, and as a result, the sort of space exploration narrative eventually lost its traction as well. Sure we had The Next Generation going strong through 1994, but even the popular Deep
Space Nine abandoned the exploration format in order to tell the story of a Federation trying to broker peace in a rapidly changing galactic landscape, arguably analogous to the state of the world after the fall of the Soviet Union.

We now live in a world where we aren’t threatened with death every day, on a societal scale at least, and thus we can relax from spreading our message and take time to appreciate the differences between us and others by studying how we got here. And thus the time travel story resonates, for we can go back and see what choices shaped our society, how different (and the same) people were in the past versus today. And we forecast what will happen to us in the future along these same principles.

I’m not even sure I totally buy this, but it seems a framework for a larger discussion can begin here. It’s even possible that I will be presenting a paper on this topic at next year’s conference, but before I get ahead of myself, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, perhaps contextualizing this argument within the greater scope of science fiction literature, but certainly offering your own takes even if they blow my hypothesis out of the proverbial water.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Reading List: March 2010

Right now I am in St. Louis at the PCA/ACA National Conference where I am presenting my paper on hyperlink cinema tomorrow afternoon. I've attended a few panels over the past two days, including a great one comparing changes in baseball as being reflective to changes in the nation (and the reverse). I also have been immersed within the world of adaptation studies, trying to decide if that is a possible home for at least some of my interests. I'll likely be writing about some of what I've heard in future entries here.

Only seven posts of substance last month, but I am proud of them. I thought I'd blow through Kieslowski's Decalogue, but spacing them out has made for a more relaxed and reasoned response. That said, I hope to be done before April is over.

On the academic career front, I have some acceptances but as of now no funding, meaning I'll likely be taking a year off. In many ways this is a good thing: it gives my wife more time to
finish her degree; more time for my house to accrue some value before I have to put it on the market; another year of banking real money before taking the huge cut to teach. Yet I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed, that it didn't feel like a step backwards. I have some ideas on how to make myself a better candidate to programs that will probably suit me better next year, so I am confident that I'll land in a better spot eventually, though on a day to day basis this is occasionally hard to remember.

March saw me avoid reading a novel for the first month since, well, before I started keeping a list. I'm still unengaged by literary fiction, though I may take a look at an occasional story or novel w/r/t adaptation studies in the near future. The best book I read was Nonzero by Robert Wright, an application of game theory to cultural and biological evolution. Since I finished this the night before leaving for St. Louis, I haven't written thoughts on it yet, but look for those in the future. Anyway, I read 4 books and 4 graphic novels last month:
  • Bomb Power by Garry Wills
  • Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels & Karen L. King
  • The Return of Depression Economics by Paul Krugman
  • Astro City: The Dark Age: Brothers & Other Strangers by Kurt Busiek & Brent Eric Anderson
  • Queen & Country: Operation: Broken Ground by Greg Rucka & Steve Rolston
  • Rasl: The Drift by Jeff Smith
  • Batman: Cacophony by Kevin Smith & Walt Flanagan
  • Nonzero by Robert Wright
Thoughts or questions about anything, whether related or not, are welcome as always.