The screening of Jerzy Skolimowski’s seventeenth feature 11 Minutes (2015) at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival, reminded me of a provocation – Is Surrealism a Cure for Film Criticism?1 – which was originally compiled as a pickup for a series of screenings about ten years ago on the theme of “Surrealism’s popular accomplices in the cinema”. The reactions of some fellow cinephiles after the MIFF screening of 11 Minutes were variously dismissive. Critical reactions to the film online vary from “formally adventurous” to “extravagantly pointless.” Overall some fifteen critics were, on balance, about evenly divided by 11 Minutes. One critic called it “an astonishing game of mirages2 carrying an implication that it might vanish on closer inspection. At the screening, Skolimowski’s surprising ‘aesthetic assault’ drew relatively restrained applause from the full house. A critic at its premiere in the 2015 Venice Festival, attended by its writer-director, reported that that the audience was “tickled” by 11 Minutes, the critics less so. There is a suggestion around that 11 Minutes is evidence that Skolimowski has run out of ideas. My intention here is to show that the contrary is true, but rather than provide a critique what follows is concerned with contextualising 11 Minutes. What is this film?
For Skolimowski the desire to free himself from the constrictions of traditional narrative, combined with his love of poetry and painting, have been essential motivating factors in his return to film. Through most of his career he has rejected the rules of cinematic genres and oscillated between mainstream and avant-garde non-conformism. He does not comfortably fit any label based on national allegiance. However Skolimowski has resisted the label of ‘outsider’ for himself because “I could take from my environment everything I wanted”.3 There is no better example of this than the way he risked taking sections of film allocated for prescribed student exercises at the Lodz Film School to successfully realise his first feature, Rysopis (Identification Marks: None, 1965), against the odds. However his cinematic career, like that of most of his peers in the film industry, has been based on productive collaborations rather than solitary pursuit. Central to his comeback is his collaboration with his wife Ewa Piaskowska.
Skolimowski has repeatedly claimed that he makes films to please himself, insisting that he knows no other way. Drawing on David Thomson’s extended metaphor, he stalks like a boxer who delivers stunning blows with either hand, yet knockouts are rare despite a positive barrage of parries and punches. Typicallly we see this in Deep End (1970), which is “funny, touching, sexy and surreal all at the same time”.4 This film, along with Skolimowski’s “Polish sextet” (Rysopis, Walkover (1965,) Barrier (1967), Hands Up! (1968), Moonlighting (1982) and 1984’s Success is the Best Revenge), and Le Départ (1967) are anti-heroic personal films about outsiders. In the other half of his oeuvre are the often resourcefully idiosyncratic literary adaptations: The Adventures of Gerard (1970), King Queen Knave (1972), The Shout (1978), The Lightship (1985), Torrents of Spring (1989), and Ferdydurke (30 Door Key, 1993).
From the first three films he made in Poland, Skolimowski’s feature films have occupied a special place outside conventional boundaries. As well as the work of something of an accidental writer-director (by his own account “a young poet who didn’t care about film at all at the time”5 found himself in film school), in terms of national allegiance they might also seem like the work of an accidental tourist. His filmography is a testament to his resourcefulness and flexibility of mind, his ability not only to find the resources but to devise stylistic responses to the changed circumstances and boundaries of each production. What he has consistently sought is a poetic layering of narrative on a frontier between romanticism and surrealism while continuing to locate metaphor within naturalistic boundaries. More metaphorical than theatrical, the sense of performance is rarely far from the surface, on occasions (such as in Barrier, Hands Up! and Success is the Best Revenge) bursting through into more overt cinematic theatre. In discussing Barrier the director spoke of this artificial theatrical contrivance in his films as “often disturbed by pieces of truth, of realism”. For him realism is “the fact of being able to seize everything (which) should lead to a certain edginess on the part of the spectator.”6
Skolimowski returned to Poland in 1991 to realise a long standing project, an adaptation in English for the international market of the surreal cult novel, Ferdydurke (1937), by his favourite author Witold Gombrowicz whose 1965 novel Cosmos is the basis of Andrzej Zulawaski’s 2015 film of the same name. Its failure meant that for nearly two decades it seemed that his place in cinema would mainly rest on his Polish sextet, Le Départ and Deep End. During this time Skolimowski confirmed that he had lost interest in the cinema, dedicating himself to painting. As Skolimowski announced at the premiere of Cztery noce z Anna (Four Nights with Anna, 2008), “I’m back!”: his comeback films are based on three original screenplays in collaboration with Ewa Piaskowska variously in the roles of (co) scriptwriter and (co) producer in Four Nights with Anna and Essential Killing (2010). These films extend his love of ambiguity in working towards release from the narrative constraints of character and motivation, culminating in 11 Minutes in which the focus is on seeing the characters through “an almost continuous series of abstract moments, accidental and banal or poignant…a strange mixture of the meaningful and the meaningless, the relevant and the irrelevant…as only life can be”.7
Ewa Mazierska, the author of the only full-length monograph of Skolimowski’s cinema, refers to his distrust of the given, political, religious or national ideology and an “anarchistic undercurrent” detectable in the Polish sextet, especially Hands Up! and Success is the Best Revenge. There is a surrealist affinity in the way Skolimowski’s films are “permeated with strangeness, unexpected juxtapositions, non sequiturs and black humour with a tendency to jump in completely new directions…indifferent to the laws of genre”.8 In his early Polish films “there is an oneiric and dreary atmosphere that can be related to the nature of Polish experience during the period of state socialism”.9 Mazierska notes the way Leszczyc (Skolimowski), in Barrier, “has a peculiar way of looking at objects that interest him with all encounters seeming both accidental and necessary”.10 In the course of accommodating the low budgets and lack of conventional scripts, further marks of a surrealist spirit infusing his films can be found in a variety of ways in Skolimowski’s early work. In addition to a lack of causal explanations and the incorporation of unexpected gaps in narrative, theatrical staging is combined with surreal deformation of space, use of music (notably Krzysztof Komeda’s scores in Barrier, Le Départ and Hands Up!), and the incorporation of written texts including Skolimowski’s own poems in Walkover and Barrier.
Although he has not consciously stylised his films in this direction – he claims continuous awareness of the narrative and aesthetic imperatives of cinema – Skolimowski has acknowledged that surrealist metaphors affect his films.11 As principle vehicles for meaning, metaphors (applying connections not literally applicable) have a special affinity with surrealism in contrast to metonymy (designation of meaning by close relationship) in mainstream cinema. Skolimowski says his involvement with cinema grew out of his love of poetry, with painting eventually reviving his passion for filmmaking which came with a desire to free himself from traditional dialogue-driven narrative, returning with an opaque narrative in Anna, the simplification of cause and effect in Essential Killing and multithreaded action based on “a domino effect” in 11 Minutes.
Jerzy Skolimowski – poet, filmmaker, painter – has been recognised, “a rare thing in the cinema anywhere, a genuine avant-garde artist who (has) been able to push open the frontiers of what the medium can do”12 while making films as a writer-director (and actor) in the mainstream in a number of different production contexts.
It is cinema’s potential to show us a new reality that so engaged the Surrealists as they actively sought, in the way they chose to view films, going from cinema to cinema without foreknowledge, juxtaposing by chance, sequences of images no longer contained by the framework of cause and effect conventionally intended by their makers. Within certain genres – slapstick comedy, romantic melodrama, horror, cartoons – can also be found the transforming poetry of a ‘popular’ surrealism.
11 Minutes might be positioned as a feature film from a major director like no other. It has been compared to a formally adventurous (for mainstream cinema) film like Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run, Tom Tykwer, 1999), although I’m inclined to think a film like Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2001) is a more relevant cross reference; Lola playfully tweaks cause and effect narrative rather than basically reconfiguring it. 11 Minutes and Momento however are deliberately structured to disorient the viewer (the surrealists’ depayesment). An earlier paradigmatic example of such depayesment is L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1963).
There are some similarities between 11 Minutes and a pathbreaking surrealist film. Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali 1929) replaced the artistic aspiration of the twenties avant garde, drawing inspiration from poetry in deliberately anti-artistic engagement with plot, freed from traditional cause-and-effect narrative. In assaulting the spectator Buñuel and Dali play with the narrative logic, while Skolimowski collapses it. Both films are held together by time manipulation: parallel time in 11 Minutes, subversive engagement with contiguous time in Un Chien. The suspense thriller is the frame for 11 Minutes, the erotic love story for Un Chien. Both narratives are enclosed by a prologue marked by the close-up of an eye and an epilogue of contrasting images of death, one a frozen image of decaying bodies, the other obliteration by pixellation. Both share “anti-artistic” strategies. Buñuel and Dali claimed the origin of Un Chien in shared dreams, Skolimowski that of 11 Minutes in a nightmare.
Buñuel, it appears, was not “a lover of new technology” as his final essay (written in 1980) “Pessimism” makes clear. In what many would now see as prescient, Buñuel wrote that “the glut of information has also brought about a serious deterioration in human consciousness. Filmmaking seems to me a transitory and threatened art (because) it is closely bound up with technical developments.” He believed that “a change of forms” – whether in narrative or lesser procedures – could potentially become “revolutionary” because any system of conventions “guarantees the survival of an oppressive system.”13 Buñuel ‘s poetry emanates on a jarring irrationality which is based on his use of instinctive reactions. “The striped box – the surrealist object serves as an irrational focus of attention without acquiring any specific meaning… Buñuel was shattered that the film that he considered to be ‘a passionate call to murder’ was applauded as a poetic novelty, cheered as another product of the avant garde… He had sought not to please but to outrage his audience.”14 This he did so successfully with L’Age d’Or (Luis Buñuel, 1930) that it was banned for more than three decades.
Skolimowski has suggested that, for himself as director, each film has its origin in an image.15 In Un Chien it is in two images: the similarity between the eye cut by a razor and the moon cut by a sliver of cloud. For Skolimowski it is the cross in Walkover, the dead cow floating in the river in Anna, perhaps in the final image of Essential Killing, and the ink blot on the artist’s sketch pad in 11 Minutes, but it is not a preconceived thing with a fixed meaning. The field of understanding is much wider. The director claims that he treated the film “like a poem” providing metaphors and symbols, first pleasing himself while leaving interpretation open.16 Skolimowski deploys the convergence structure common to a number of disaster films and action thrillers. Filmic metaphor is freed from narrative causality. Coherence is provided by an overarching metaphor, the series of narrative events themselves allow free play for metaphor.17 Mazierska puts Skolimowski’s cinema of nonconformism in terms of “a willingness to stretch the borders of realism which dominated Polish cinema up to the end of the Second World War.”18 I suggest it was driven more by a poetic imperative, the stretching of boundaries is more of an effect. Too little attention has perhaps been paid to the fact that from the beginning Skolimowski saw himself as a poet (his poetry had been published and he gave it centrepiece in both Walkover and Barrier). He speaks of his domain as being “action based on pure instinct.”19 The special quality of his ‘personal’ films is that of an objective-subjective dialectic which he then described as “the mental landscape of the hero”. As mentioned above, the further move away from plot-driven narrative, the mark of his cinema from the beginning, has been the decision behind his return to film. He withdrew from filmmaking to give himself over to painting which he acknowledges finally revived his passion for filmmaking. As a poet, “instead of putting himself in the service of the world, he exploits it”.20 As indicated above, this has been much of the tenor of Skolimowski’s engagement with film since his comeback.
Skolimowski’s montage freely brings together a disparate range of action in a way that pleases him; as in his poetry and painting, in his filmmaking, Skolimowski prioritises self expression. Cut free from the demands of traditional narrative, “the poet works with instead of through facts.”21 In 11 Minutes causal information is withheld from each event. Where there is causality as in “the main event” involving the director, the actress and the jealous husband, it is not sufficient here to establish the sense of contingency for the characters apart from the director’s purpose.What connections there are between the other events are by chance. There is an absence of grounding in psychological realism which would allow more latitude for interpretation by the actor. The events in 11 Minutes are merely presented as they are; reality is made to conform to a certain expressive purpose determined by the author. “The fact is not being misrepresented, it is being exploited, interpreted according to the director’s purpose.”22
Compositional or technical patterning, Guillermo suggests, needs to reach a threshold of autonomy or dominance before a film tips into the category of poetry.23 “The poet is the least abstract of men,” wrote T.S.Eliot, “ because he is most bound by his own language.”24 The more concrete , the more vivdly particularised the image is, the more poetic it can become. The more bound the filmmaker is to the material world, by the special way things look and feel, the more likely he is to become a poet.
In the conclusion of another very different surreal work, El Sur (The South, Victor Erice, 1983) in which the figuration is metonymic, the theme of doubling (between North and South) embedded in the form of the film, the ending also marking the beginning (the central character has woken as if from a fevered dream and is preparing to leave for the South). This has been described in terms of “a poetry that belongs not to literature but to the ‘dream time’ at the heart of cinema itself.”25 The heart of Skolimowski’s cinematic poetry is blackly comic nightmare. The very lack of concrete referent that 11 Minutes shares with El Sur, the mark of such surreal poetry, serves to heighten the cinematic effect. Philosopher William Earle in A Surrealism of the Movies, in calling for the “release of art from critical or aesthetic judgement, to let it expand in an absolutely open horizon,” nevertheless insists that his “interest is not in compelling all rational creatures to become surrealists but rather to invite a unsympathetic reader to look again at the possible sources of film poetry.”26
11 Minutes is a fragmented non-linear assemblage totalling approximately 73 mins of screen time comprising a prologue (four minutes), then a series of nine events, in and around a single location, simultaneously occurring between 5 – 5.11 pm (67 minutes on screen including a final cataclysmic event played out in five minutess of screen time) plus an epilogue of less than two minutes. All the events are connected spatiotemporally and each intersects with at least one other event during the ’11 minutes’ of the film’s title. Only four are at all causally connected, and there are six connections by chance including four separately at the ex-con’s hot dog stand in the square, the central location.
A jealous husband out of control, his sexy actress wife and a sleazy Hollywood director, a reckless drug courier, a disoriented young woman walking her dog, an ex-con hot dog vendor, a group of hungry nuns, a paramedic team frustrated on a rescue mission, a troubled student on a mysterious mission, a high rise building worker on an illicit break, an elderly sketch artist, a stunt staged for filming.
There are several unexplained occurrences and a CCTV surveillance centre.
Skolimowski had the idea of the prologue as “a kind of cyber cemetery” for the characters filmed with a range of cameras – phone, computer, closed circuit – “to convey the feeling of intimacy, immediacy” and “a sense of authenticity. With the prevalence of social media, a significant part of our afterlife is realised … in cyberspace or (paradoxically) in some cloud”.27 The only event to be played out along cause-and-effect lines is the enclosing meeting between the film director (Richard Dormer) and the actress (Paulina Chapko) pursued by her jealous husband (Wajciech Mecwaldowski). Otherwise the viewer is disoriented by being arbitrarily thrust into the stories through replays from cyberspace. Each event was conceived to exist in parallel within a rigid structure in ‘real time’ of 11 minutes between 5 – 5.11 pm (the plane comes over at 5.05) which was ultimately loosened somewhat, becoming a metaphor retaining various signifiers of the passage of time.
“An unexpected chain of events can seal many fates in eleven minutes…”
“On a purely aesthetic level, the symmetry and simplicity of the number 11 somehow appeals to me. I’m sure the number itself it has some numerological significance”.28
The central location – the Place Grzybowski in Warsaw – provides “the most jarring contrast between the old and the new, between order and chaos, the beautiful and the ugly…I hope the location provides the experience of a jagged, dynamic crossroads with the unexpected lurking behind every corner”.29
An ink blot suddenly appears on the artist’s sketch pad as a stunt for a film is staged from a nearby bridge. The artist is quick to emphasise to the young man on the tram that it was an accident.
A black spot later occurs on a computer screen. In the final image a black spot persists…30
Linda Williams refers to an accompanying illustration Poisson soluble in André Breton’s theoretical defence of Surrealism in his first manifesto (1924) which combines both the Surrealist qualities of the spatial image and its effect of depaysement (disorientation) and the temporal qualities of a spoken text in which narrative time is deconstructed in favour of the time of textual unfolding. Poisson soluble does in verbal language what the best Surrealist films such as Un Chien Andalou would do in images a couple of years later: it unites the spatial elements of image and the temporal elements of narrative in a discourse that deconstructs the usual function of each. This deconstruction of space and time,” Williams concludes, “is similar to the use of space and time in the dream.”31 This, it seems to me, is similarly descriptive of the spatio-temporal relationships Skolimowski is in his own way bending into black comic poetry in 11 Minutes. While he has made no reference to Un Chien Andalou in the few comments he has made on his own film, it would seem likely that Skolimowski would have seen the Buñuel-Dali film (or at the the very least been aware of it) when a student at Lodz, coalescing in the ongoing surrealist affinities in his work culminating, prior to his comeback, with the adaptation of Ferdydurke.
The following poem by Skolimowski appears in three versions in his first three films – Rysopis, Walkover and Barrier. Early in Walkover Skolomowski (as his alter ego Leszczyc) delivers a version to the camera. In Barrier the poem “concerning the gap between great ambitions and their meagre outcomes” is sung by a cleaning lady in a restaurant where Lent is being celebrated.
Now he/ After bad days/ Or after something like youth/ Or love
With a hand on his throat/He wants to make up for lost opportunities/He wants to be again/
God knows whom/ With a hand on his throat/ He wants to make up for lost opportunities/
He wants to be again/ God knows where/And he adjusts his tie.32
Bruce Hodsdon, “Jerzy Skolimowski: Eyes Wide Open.” Great Directors profile. Senses of Cinema, 27 (July 2003) http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/skolimowski/
The editors would like to apologise to the author of this article Bruce Hodsdon for the incorrect spelling of his name in the email publicising Issue 82. He has long been associated with Senses of Cinema and we deeply value his work – sorry Bruce!
- Recently revivied here: “’Is Surrealism a cure for film criticism?’: Bruce Hodsdon Retrieves a Poetic, Vintage Contribution to the Conversation” Film Alert 101, 25 August 2016 filmalert101.blogspot.com/2016/08/is-surrealism-cure-for-film-criticism.html. ↩
- Manu Yanez, “TIFF 2015: 11 Minutes (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland/Ireland) – Masters”, Cinema Scope, 2015 cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-online/tiff-2015-11-minutes-jerzy-skolimowski-polandireland-masters/. ↩
- Ewa Mazierska, Jerzy Skolimowski: The Cinema of a Nonconformist. (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2010), p.3. ↩
- David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Sixth Ed. (New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 2014), p. 977. ↩
- Paul Risker, “To Be Aesthetic and Not Boring: An Interview with Jerzy Skolimowski”, Cineaste XLV/2 2016 https://www.cineaste.com/spring2016/to-be-aesthetic-and-not-boring-jerzy-skolimowski/. ↩
- Michael Delahaye. Interview with Skolimowski. Cahiers du Cinema in English, 12 (December 1967). ↩
- Director’s Comments at 11 Minutes official website: http://11Minut.com. ↩
- Mazierska, p.73. ↩
- Ibid., p.74. ↩
- Ibid., p.75. ↩
- Ibid., p.72. ↩
- Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s (New York: Continuum, 2008), p.168. ↩
- Marsha Kinder, “Hots Spots, Avatars and Narrative Fields Forever”. Film Quarterly 55.4 (2002). ↩
- Steven Kovacs, From Enchantment to Rage: The Story of Surrealist Cinema. (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980), p.209. ↩
- Director’s Comments at 11 Minutes official website. ↩
- Risker. ↩
- Skolimowski would seem to be referring to a poetic moment, figurative rather than plot-driven, a source of the filmmaker’s inspiration. This both connects and contrasts with the cinephiliac moment defined by Christian Keathley, for example, as achieving a level of subjective memorability for the viewer, “a self reflexivity (that) further links the feeling produced by cinephiliac moments to the euphoric experience of the uncanny, identifying them as ‘a strange and unexpected meeting with yourself ‘.” (Keathley here is quoting from an article by Lesley Stern in Paradoxa (3.3-4, 1997) and referencing Roger Cardinal in Framework 30.1, 1986). Keathley in turn distnguishes cinephiliac moments from filmic moments which are designed to be both narratively important and visually striking “memorable because they are precisely designed to be visually striking and narratively important” (Keathley p.33). See: Christian Keathley, Cinephilia and History or The Wind in the Trees.(Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006). ↩
- Mazierska, p.7. ↩
- Risker. ↩
- Jean Mitry, The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. Trans. Christopher King. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), p.158. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Director’s Comments at 11 Minutes official website. ↩
- Karla Oeler, “Poetic Cinema”. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory. Edward Branigan and Warren Buckland eds. (London and New York, 2014). ↩
- Cited in Gilberto Pérez Guillermo, “Jacques Becker: Two Films,” Sight and Sound, 38.3 (Summer 1969) p146. ↩
- Tom Pulleine, “El Sur (the South).” Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1984 . ↩
- William Earle, A Surrealism of the Movies. (Chicago: Precedent Publishing, 1987), p. 8. ↩
- Director’s Comments at 11 Minutes official website. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Malfunctioning transistors and manufacturing flaws can result in a dead pixel when one picture element in all three (red, green, blue) sub-pixels is permanently turned off creating a black spot in the display. Maurice Yacowar, “Reviews & Ratings of 11 Minutes,” IMDb.com, accessed 29 August 2016. ↩
- Linda Williams, Figures of Desire: A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1981). ↩
- Translated by Ewa Mazierska, ibid., p. 153. ↩