A DIFFERENT KIND OF TENSION
Krysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue is a curious piece of work. Impressively subtle, moving, and tender- not to mention a small marvel in ambition and scope- yes, but how much, exactly, does it have to do with those always-controversial Commandments? Created for Polish television in 1988 and set in the present (with Poland still behind the Iron Curtain, which makes the series, for all its apoliticism, seem even more of a feat), each of these one-hour episodes has one of the Ten Commandments as its theme, using them as a launching pad for complicated moral dilemmas, most of which would seem impossible to solve with a hard and fast one-line rule or “commandment.”
What makes it interesting is how, given Kieslowski’s (along with co-writer Krysztof Piesiewicz) keen interest in trying to find a grey morality in a grey world, he proves the Commandments so applicable and open to a multitude of interpretations. Let’s just say he is neither literal and reverent nor sacrilegious, but this is never going to be Pat Robertson’s favorite Old Testament discussion piece. Nobody gets stoned or anything; nobody commits “sins” that we’re allowed to look down on or judge unequivocally.
They’re all varying degrees of gorgeous in visual composition, framing, color, and tone, and the pacing-unhurried, yet sometimes gathering an intense and urgent momentum- the human empathy, the intelligence, and the deadpan humor that infuse these ten films is uplifting, not in the saccharine, PAX-channel way that description usually signifies, but in the sense that seeing someone grapple with the complexities and frustrations of human relationships in such an attentive, observant way makes you feel like you’re not alone in struggling with what our duties are as human beings, to each other and to ourselves.
There isn’t a single episode not worth watching. That being said, I can’t help playing favorites with particular ones that have been more difficult for me to shake than the others. The first- “Thou shalt not have any other Gods before me”- manifests as a story about a little boy and his university professor father, who make a disastrous weather calculation on their computer, which leads to tragedy. The simple interpretation is that Kieslowski sees technology as a “false idol;” the larger is that he sees the poignancy of naive human belief in ourselves and our technology, the idea that we can second-guess, predict, categorize, organize nature away. “Never turn your back on mother earth,” as Sparks once so ambivalently sang- a healthy respect for nature will always take precedence over technological advancement.
My second favorite is number five, “Thou shalt not kill,” which plays like a cross between Elephant and Dead Man Walking, with two crimes- the brutal killing of a taxi driver by a young man and the premeditated killing of the young man by the state- left unjustified and incomprehensible. Very matter-of-fact, unsentimental, and not preachy. The stark, unblinking, inexorable presentation is apt enough, as this is certainly the most bluntly literal commandment.
The Decalogue episode I’d watch again and again, though, is number six, “Though shalt not commit adultery.” Tomek, a nineteen-year-old shrinking violet of a postal worker, is in love with Magda, a frequent postal customer who also lives in the building across from his, within view of his bedroom window (he knows because he spies on her, first with binoculars and then with a stolen telescope). He watches her sleep with many men, and when his stalking finally comes out in the open, the two meet, discuss the nature of love, and strike up an odd relationship much more complicated and painful than Tomek could have imagined from his window (is this the “adultery”- Tomek cheats on his precious fantasy of a woman with the women herself?).
The story, admittedly, probably has more appeal for someone my age, with its themes of unrequited longing and loneliness still freshly resonant on a personal level. It’s so lovingly handled by Kieslowski, and the actors- Olaf Lubaszenko (Tomek) and Grazyna Szopolowska (Magda)- are particularly appealing. It's a peculiar scenario one wouldn't expect to find sweet in a romantic way, but Tomek never seems like a voyeur of the psychotic kind, and Magda isn't merely a slutty sex object; this is due to the vulnerability and presence of the two leads, their ability to convey the compassion of Kieslowski's whole-human-being approach. If you can’t make your local hormone-addled teenage boy watch all ten, this is the one to really push for.
There is a different sort of suspense in the films comprising Kieslowski's Decalogue- it has a little something to do with what happens next, but is more due to the curiosity provoked by the moral back-and-forth the characters live through. How will they be reconciled with their consciences (conscience is clearly a huge concern for Kieslowski)? Will they find their way? Will they be at peace? Will they attain that elusive knowledge of having done the right thing? The answer isn’t always given, at least not directly, but being so literally close to these characters (the films are framed 1:33 for television, and whether Kieslowski is working in warm or cold colors/light, he creates very human on-screen spaces, mostly via variations on medium-close and close-up shots) keeps you intently focused on their fates, however small or fatal; to put it in conventional terms, they each have the “protagonist” and “antagonist” inside them.
Speaking of difficult-to-shake episodes...
I actually remember when Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War was released in 1989. There were posters and newspaper ads which, in light of the film itself, are kind of funny. The posters were like this shadowy two-shot of Michael J. Fox (who plays Private Erikkson) and Sean Penn (Sergeant Meserve), Penn’s mouth fixed in an enraged howl, with the words “FOX” and “PENN,” in giant block type, across the top. Given the film’s themes, it seems likely that this last-name-only advertising gimmick- which, of course, wrongly signified both that the two actors are much bigger “stars” than they were and that the film would be an action-packed thrill-ride- disappointed its share of that segment of the filmgoing population that wouldn’t be satisfied until Terminator II was released a couple of years on.
But if there ever was a cinematic contribution by Mr. Brian de Palma that belongs in the same post with Kieslowski, it’s this, which takes a look at the Vietnam War as a complex morality-play (albeit with some fairly sickening observations about the degeneration of human traits during war). It would be easy to lump it in with those other late-eighties Vietnam-war films, but to contrast it with the best of them (not so fast, Hamburger Hill), where Full Metal Jacket is a precise, at times even cool-glee (oh, Stanley, you were a wicked one... we miss you) satiric precision-force dissection of the War Machine, and Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July have their righteously angry political overtones (and Apocalypse Now, though not from the late eighties, becomes a tour-de-force Heart of Darkness metaphysical journey), de Palma, as usual, is a bit earthier than his peers.
Casualties is based on a true Vietnam War story, first published in the New Yorker in 1969 (is it mere coincidence that Pauline Kael adored this film to the heavens, hardly a unanimous critical reception?), of a squad of young American soldiers who, fed up with the V.C. (and, implicitly, the jerking-around our soldiers got by our own government in ‘Nam), go AWOL, kidnapping a young woman from her village, holding her hostage, raping her repeatedly and eventually murdering her. Sgt. Meserve (Penn) is the ringleader, a man so full of rage that anything in his path is bound to be obliterated, and Pvt. Erikkson (Fox), who has somehow managed to retain a shred of moral compass amidst the moral no-man’s-land of war. Meserve is in charge, so the atrocious acts occur with Pvt. Erikkson looking on, desperately horrified and powerless (shades of Blow Out, where Travolta’s character was similarly impotent against the onward march of murderous events). It eventually becomes a battle of the wills between Erikkson and Meserve, and though Erikkson is undoubtedly on the side of right, it’s hard to decide what’s more horrifying: The horrible crime committed by guys who are effectively not much different than any decent joe six-pack- arising from a sense of lawlessness seemingly due, Lord of the Flies-like, to the removal of socializing factors), the military indifference, extending to the highest level, toward it, or the fact that we’re forced to ask ourselves: Isn’t the sort of unbearable human suffering these soldiers inflict on an innocent young woman both a macrocosm of what America was doing to both its own soldiers and the country of Vietnam, and nothing more than a drop in the bucket of cruelty and bloodshed during wartime?
De Palma’s blunt, garish visual style is in full swing here. There is, of course, the famous “ant-farm” sequence where the camera pans down through the profile of the jungle topography to show us the underground tunnels of the Vietcong, perhaps the most visually clever moment in the film. There are also plenty of split-screens, though de Palma no longer even has to literally divide the screen into two separate boxes; he can simply foreground an action in one half of the screen while another plays out in the background on the other half, and it’s an immediately identifiable mis-en-scene, patented de Palma. This device is used during the murder of the Vietnamese woman, and it has a devastating effect; it emphasizes the powerlessness of Erikkson, or us, to stop it. The only de Palma-ism that doesn’t work- or that needed some significant modification- is the final scene, which contains a line of bad dialogue that would’ve been funny and appropriate, a joke, in any of his other films but feels like a regression in this context, it would’ve been interesting to see the conceit itself, a typical way of ending a de Palma film, modified to fit the film better, and to see how much more elastic de Palma vision could have been.
De Palma eschews his usual cartoonish sex-violence pranks- so outrageously appropriate for his Hitchcock tribute/send-ups- instead focusing his fetishizing impulse on Fox as Erikkson; the camera is as obsessive with showing us Fox’s angelic, horrified countenance at the uncontrollable human misery as it normally is with showing us dreamlike sex, centerfold-nudity, or psyche-stabbing blood ‘n gore (usually in service of a grim joke, and usually a pretty good one). There’s a truly beautiful, rainy extreme close-up of Fox’s face as Penn espouses his philosophy of moral decimation in defense of the kidnapping, rape, and murder, and Erikkson’s physical tininess compared to Meserve, his fellow soldiers, and the jungle is consistently emphasized. De Palma’s camera finds violation magnetic, but it’s used for a different purpose here. He doesn’t sensualize the rape or murder; this story, unlike virtually all of his others, is too “real,” too human, not artificial enough, for that. He knows that the “movie-violation” here, the violation that needs heightening and obsessive explication, is that of Erikkson’s, and our, sense of justice, human decency, and our delusions about our “civilization” and the wars it makes on our behalf.
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