Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The 47th New York Film Festival: Police, Adjective

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Corneliu Porumboiu's
outstanding second feature Police, Adjective (Politist Adjectiv), from the Romanian director's screenplay, renews the temporal emphasis that is among the key markers of its country of origin's nascent "new wave," whether one looks to Cristi Puiu's exceptional The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) with its real-time synchronization of narrative duration and Mr. Lazarescu's final moments, or to Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) debut, where an on-screen television program wryly considers whether or not a shadow protest occurred in a provincial town around - or even before - the time specified in the English title. (Cristian Mungiu's comparatively underwhelming Cannes prize-winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [2007] might be proffered as a third example, if for no other reason than for its duration-specific title.) For Police, Adjective, this defining interest characteristically finds expression in an archly modernist long-take aesthetic that underscores the duration of the film's central investigation, and facilitates our own exasperation at its tenor. As such, Porumboiu's latest proves closer to Puiu's organic application of this technique than to Mungiu's ersatz introduction of the long-take.

Police, Adjective opens in the midst of an on-going police investigation of a hash-smoking teenager, with young cop Cristi (Dragos Bucur) following the aforesaid in the film's opening, mobile take. Porumboiu wracks focus to introduce Cristi, who characteristically, as in the numerous similar passages to follow, steps into the shot that commences with the human subject of his investigation. Indeed, while these zoom-lensed sequences offer the point-of-view of surveillance, it is not Cristi's literal p.-o.-v. that Porumboiu presents, but rather an omniscient, authorial view that in effect Cristi and the viewer shares, without precisely inhabiting this perspective. Moreover, the location of Cristi's entry into the frame becomes minor drama in a fashion, thanks to the pattern established in the frequent utilization of this strategy, as well as in the film's dearth of more conventional dramatic occurrences.

Throughout his lengthy passages of surveillance, spread over an eight-day span that again precedes the film's opening, Cristi stays out of sight, rushing to collect physical evidence after the underage trio - including Cristi's unreliable mole - disperses. As these scenes proliferate, Porumboiu provokes in his spectators a feeling of the waste involved in this investigation, not simply at the thought of its subject going to prison for three-and-a-half years on the basis of minor drug use, but of the resources wasted in nabbing the young man on what has every appearance of being a relatively venial crime. Again, this is a matter of time, of longer takes presenting the banal work of police surveillance, and even of the film's deviations from this strategy, where a cut-in, often accompanied by changes in the soundtrack, immediately signifies a temporal ellipsis.

While the film's investigation trades on temporal excess, the impossibilities of syncing schedules comes to the fore later in the narrative, as the sudden time crunch involved in concluding the investigation produces a situation where there is far too little time as opposed to the picture's prevailing circumstance of overabundance. Once more, in this emphasis on the temporal, Porumboiu stimulates his viewer's frustration, which in this instance ironically focuses on the possibility that the prosecution of this young man is being rushed into. For all the waiting and down time presented throughout Police, Adjective, which extends beyond the actual surveillance to passages that focus on Cristi dining and drinking alone, or in the off-camera presence of his wife who listens to a You Tube clip at an ear-splitting volume, there is too little time at the film's conclusion.

By virtue of Porumboiu's extensive engagement and manipulation of the temporal aspect of his medium, Police, Adjective does emerge as a fundamentally cinematic work, to define cinematic in this regard as the emphasis on a quality of the work that belongs particularly to its medium's ontology, something to which its medium is particularly well suited. Moreover, Porumboiu certainly reinforces his film's self-reflexive interest in its specific art form through an on-screen definition of "police" that locates the film squarely within the police procedural form, as J. Hoberman noted in the film's introduction for its New York Film Festival screening, and which compels a certain, genre-necessitated conclusion, as NYU film scholar Lisa K. Broad observed, to match the procedural form. However, as Ms. Broad also argued, this same on-screen inclusion of 'police's' dictionary definition contributes to the film's generally un-cinematic character: namely, Police, Adjective's obsession with language - which includes not just this ultimate on-screen definition, but also two hand-written police reports scanned slowly for the spectator to read, in addition to the verbal exchange in which 'police,' among other pertinent words such as "conscience," "moral" and "law" are defined, and a pair of earlier discussions with his wife on a song's meaning and his report's misspelling - speaks to a work that might have been equally well-suited to the short-story, prosaic format.

Yet, as undeniable as this might be, Porumboiu nevertheless actively articulates an off-camera space that is very much the purview of sound cinema. In this way, the language and even time of the written media is joined with the space of the visual arts (and in particular, to cinema again in its combination of on and off-camera spaces) to create a work that is compellingly cinematic and un-cinematic at once. Along these lines, it remains to be said that Police, Adjective combines highly verbose passages with equally wordless sequences, most of which revolve around the surveillance portion of the investigation. In other words, this is a film in which alternately we watch, we read and we hear; this is a mixed cinema that is nonetheless cinematic.

Police, Adjective, it remains to be said, is also quite funny in its moments of verbal sparring amid the picture's longer passages of silence, whether we consider the early discussion of Paris, Prague, Bucharest and a fourth Romanian backwater, or the final dictionary reading, where Porumboiu implies that modern-day Romania might still qualify as a police state. In this regard, Police, Adjective continues the Romanian 'new wave's' express emphasis on its nation's current institutional deficiencies, inherited from Ceauşescu's Soviet satellite; in this instance, Porumboiu presents a legal infrastructure that is as broken as the bureaucratically crippled medical system of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. As such, Police, Adjective emerges as a signature work for not only the Romanian 'new wave' but for the 2000s modernist art cinema itself, which has shown a marked movement away from the more poetical 1990s (exemplified by Abbas Kiarostami) to a socially conscious idiom. Porumboiu's film also joins Puiu's Lazarescu at the very peak of this new Romanian cinema.

Police, Adjective is scheduled to be released on a limited basis in the US through IFC Films, beginning 12/23/09.


Just Another Film Buff said...


This is a masterful review of a superb film. Thank you for this article...

gcgiles said...

Thank you, Mr. Anderson, for a thoughtful review.
What do you mean by, "this is a mixed cinema that is nonetheless cinematic"? The opening clause of this sentence suggests that the film is "mixed" because it requires a viewer's efforts to hear, read, and see. Am I right in that? In which case, are you saying that the film does this patently, and therefore unusually, since it is nonetheless effected with a moving picture camera and sync sound? Are you saying that what would in other films be a seamless mesh is here in fact conspicuously segmented? I'm thinking now of the slow scrolling camera when his reports are shown: is this humorously cinematic (a travesty of the portentous scroll that opens many films), a mimicry of poring eyes, or just a convenience to make the writing legible?

Michael J. Anderson said...

Greg, thank you for your very thoughtful comment and question. Perhaps I was a bit imprecise about my use of the term "mixed cinema," which in Bazin's usage at least adopts elements closer to the representational strategies of other media - and particularly theatre. Thus, I chose to use to the term to confer the sense that this is a film that at times uses strategies that more properly speaking belong to other media - the written word - while remaining a work that truly engages with the nature, the ontology of its own medium: in this case through its facilitation of duration, and an organization of space that often calls our attention to the off-screen... something the cinema does better than any other medium.

gcgiles said...

Much obliged. I had a feeling that "mixed cinema" alluded to something I was unaware of. Thank you for your generous response. Cheers...