On the night of Tuesday, April 19, the CPH PIX film festival played host to a 90 minute session with the festival’s main featured director, Andrzej Zulawski. He was asked to talk about his early experiences with movies, his oeuvre and his views on acting in general. A couple of clips from his movies were also shown. As it turned into a rather theoretical discussion, I will have to start by providing a bit of background.
There are two very different schools of drama, which are also like two different schools of art: one in which acting is to pretend, and one in which acting is to really become that which you are acting. They are often described as classical acting and Method acting, respectively, with the former being mainly external, and the latter also being deeply internal, with the actor striving to actually feel what his or her character is supposed to be feeling or experiencing. These schools are illustrated very well by the following anecdote: Dustin Hoffman was filming with Laurence Olivier, and had to play someone who hadn’t slept for three days. So Hoffman showed up for filming not having slept for three days. Olivier said, but that’s awful, you can’t work in that condition, and Hoffman replied, yes, now I can really be convincing. Olivier retorted: My good man, have you ever heard of acting?
The British (who, it has to be noted, are generally considered some of the very best actors) prefer to pretend when acting, while some of the super-dedicated Americans, such as for instance Robert De Niro, to take a famous example, sometimes prefer to come so close to the role as to actually – temporarily – become it. The same tradition of tearing down the barriers between reality and staged drama so much that the acting becomes more than pretense; becomes an embodiment or a trance, is alive in continental European cinema, and perhaps manifested most potently in the collaborations of people like Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, to say nothing of the works of Lars von Trier. The difference between these schools is, to a great extent, a difference of opinion as to the nature of art. To the first school, entertainment and art can be the same thing. To the second, entertainment is boring fluff while only extreme drama, both created and performed in a state of near-hysterics, is proper art; proper theatre. It is a tradition (or is “cult” in fact a better word?) where actors and directors tend to enter a rapt state of dramatic hysteria, and only by drawing on the dormant resources that are unleashed by getting into a state of real and personal breakdown, do they find the means to act their parts – or rather: to be their parts. Needless to say, this produces some strange results on the screen, all the more so because it often proceeds from deeply chaotic personal situations.
Polish-born director Andrzej Zulawski admits very specifically to being an emphatic exponent of this second school (Method acting and then some!). Acting is pain, he says, and it seems plain that, in his particular case, the same is true of directing. He claims he has never met a happy actor. Acting stems from religion, he insists, with origins in shamanism, and therefore needs, to a great extent, to be or become a kind of trance that embodies that which is being acted, to enable the audience to take a stand about this thing, whatever it is: something good, something bad, something strange, something political. Zulawski doesn’t claim to have the answers, but he does have opinions and frustrations, many of them angry ones, and they drive his work. He is never for; always against. An artist has to be anti-establishment.
Born in 1940 in Lvov (now belonging to Ukraine, but a part of Poland then), Zulawski is a man who in many ways belongs to a different historical era. His life and his art have become indelibly marked by the horrors of World War II that he witnessed at an early age – his sister died of hunger, and he says that he saw things that no child should have to see. Then there were the horrors of Stalinism and the Polish communist authorities that he had to endure as he grew up. As he says, he doesn’t know how any of the Poles survived, since the Nazis were planning on wiping them all out once they had finished with the Jews.
From the beginning he detested his Polish communist authorities, and when he clashed with them over his movie-making around 1970, they ended up exiling him to the West with five dollars in his pocket, telling him that if he behaved properly out there, they would send his wife and child after him in six months time. The exile, Zulawski points out, was a kindness of a sort, since the Polish authorites were much softer on their dissident artists than the Soviet Union. Some of Zulawski’s director friends were put in jail, but as Zulawski was not seen as that much of a threat, he was merely exiled. Of course, when he became a successful director in France, the Polish authorities asked him back to work in Poland. However, funding was cut to his Polish science fiction movie On the Silver Globe, based on a 1903 novel by Zulawski’s grandfather’s brother, Jerzy Zulawski. Filming started in 1978, then halted, and was finished practically without funding during the collapse of Polish communism in 1986 (only premiering in 1988), so that, in the director’s view, the movie was effectively killed.
Asked how he feels about Polish society today, he denounces it as rightist and capitalistic; as worse than it has ever been. His son is a director in Poland, and the authorities are only giving support to boring movies which are neither left nor right, neither up nor down. Even so, Zulawski says repeatedly that he considers directing a great, great privilege, and based on what I have seen of his movies so far, I can testify that his full appreciation of that privilege is to be found right up there on the screen. His images tend to be stuffed with matter, both material and emotional, and in this sense he almost embodies the very soul of directing.
Today Zulawski is a member of the board of the European Film Academy, and in that capacity he watches 300-400 movies a year from all over the world (but mostly from Europe). He says that European cinema is lagging far, far behind the American film industry, which is much better at innovation, variety and promotion. Cinema is technology, he declares, and says that European cinema has invented no new motion picture technology for 50 years – it all happens in America, and this is a shame.
To add a personal note to the theoretical proceedings; although I like several of Zulawski’s movies, I must declare myself an adherent of the first school of drama, which encompasses pop culture and which sees entertainment and art under the same umbrella. I do not think that all proper art must necessarily be fuelled by pain, anger and overt anti-establishmentarianism, nor that actors should shamanistically become their parts in order to be effective. The second school of drama, to me, is a relic from an earlier and harsher time, its panicky passion and hysterics also being highly reflective of the poor plight of women in the 1960s and earlier. If the state of women was characterized by oppression and frustration, so would the general state of emotion throughout the culture have been, as I believe our collective reason and emotion are reflections of the gender situations of a given historical era.
I do think the second school of drama can work sometimes, and that deep and meaningful things can come of it (all the more so because we still do live in harsh times), but I believe, with some exceptions, that most art should be fairly pleasant to the audience. People want to be entertained, and if they can become enlightened about important questions in the same process, so much the better. But I think this can happen perfectly fine through relatively conventional entertainment, which can be crammed full of artistic substance if the creators are smart enough. Indeed, my idea of great art is for a work to be so cunning that it sneaks in a lot of deep messages while entertaining the heck out of us (like Matrix, and most recently Sucker Punch), yet not appearing particularly anti-establishment.
I sympathize deeply with artistic rebellion, but I believe art is supposed to be cunning about it so that people do not at first realize what they are being shown. If art, as Zulawski insists, must be a passionate chaos of erratic melodrama in order not to be boring and bland, it conversely and specifically runs the risk of being boring and repulsive to those many audience members who for whatever reason find little or no resonant significance in much of this tumult. Zulawski’s ideal kind of art is not commercially viable, and he himself has had to, as he phrased it, seduce the money men in order to get his projects funded. He uses famous actors and includes plenty of (often twisted) sex and nudity, which is sometimes a form of pandering to commercial tastes – but I do get the feeling that he prefers for proper art to always be fringe rather than commercial. I personally believe the two forms of art should join together, to produce a type of art with the best features of both. And I already see it happening, mainly in the American film industry.