Also, Fassbinder film, and one from newcomer Godfrey Reggio. Vivid allegory -- both comic and tragic -- of today's Poland
When you talk about movies with Jerzy Skolimowski, his eyes glisten and his mouth turns into a wry smile. The effect is impish - and a bit paradoxical on his beefy face, with its broad features and boxer's nose. But it conveys his personality in a flash. Here's a man who cares deeply about films and works hard at making them - and never fails to have great, spirited fun in the process.
Skolimowski's latest picture, Moonlighting, is one of the most inventive, provocative, and just plain entertaining films of the year. It's a comedy and a tragedy at once, and also a meditation on recent events in Skolimowski's native Poland, even though it's a British movie. The plot is slim and finally inconclusive, yet it packs a real wallop as its various meanings glance off one another in a free-for-all of humor, ideas, and suspense. It opened its American run on Tuesday, after premiering at the current New York Film Festival.
The main character, a Polish contractor played by Jeremy Irons, is hired by a mysterious ''boss'' to renovate a London town house. Soon after he arrives in England with three assistants, horror hits his homeland - the Solidarity union is smashed and martial law is imposed. But he wrestles to keep this a secret from his Polish helpers, lest they be distracted from their work. To maintain their ignorance, he finds himself becoming more repressive and dishonest with each passing day.
Yes, it's an allegory. The assistants represent the Polish working class. The ''boss'' is like the Soviet Union hovering in the background. The foreman is like the Polish government - caught in the middle, trying to get the job done and survive.
But that makes the movie sound dry, and ''Moonlighting'' is anything but. There's a sad yet vivid humor in watching the foreman try to hoodwink his crew, knowing in his heart they are too smart and tough to be completely fooled. Even the metaphors of the film are colorful and lively - such as the constant mishaps on the job, which, like so many five-year plans, becomes wildly botched up.
In sum, it's as boisterous as it is poignant. It never lapses into self-pity, even when reflecting on the predicament of being a stranger in a very strange land. And it never loses its compassion, even when it mirrors Skolimowski's feeling that ''being in charge'' - like a foreman, a government, even a movie director - always involves some kind of manipulation that everyone would be better off without.
Discussing the picture over lunch the other day, Skolimowski said the basic idea came from his own experience. He is a Polish expatriate living in London, and ''Moonlighting'' was filmed in his own apartment. He knows other Polish exiles, and helped some of them find work after the martial-law coup made it difficult for Solidarity supporters to return home.
With this background, Skolimowski set out to make ''Moonlighting'' in a documentary style, letting the metaphors emerge gently and subtly. But the director of such ingenious dramas as ''The Shout'' and ''Deep End'' could not hold himself to flat storytelling. He spiced the simple plot with cinematic accent marks, arriving at a rare density of image and richness of sound. To build a moody atmosphere, he altered the look of the picture, boldly eliminating the color green from every shot. As in ''Deep End,'' he continually overhauls the physical setting of the film right before our eyes.
The result mirrors his conviction that life's most marvelous and exotic surprises are usually lurking under our very noses. ''I don't go out much, even to the movies,'' he says. ''I always think there's a lot of interest and drama right in my hotel room or apartment. In making a film, the trick is to start with reality, then take it one step farther. Don't just show the man sitting at the table. Show the amazing shape his legs are twisted into underneath.''
Skolimowski is deeply saddened by recent events in Poland, where he won't be returning for a while. ''I've always been a troublemaker,'' he says, referring to his support for Solidarity, ''and they are fully aware of that.'' But his work seems to take his mind off his troubles. His next film: a spectacular drama about a forgotten inventor (based on a real person) whose discoveries, Skolimowski feels, were more revolutionary than Einstein's. Full of special effects, it will be shot in New York - and in 3-D, using that process ''seriously'' for the first time. Sounds like an exciting project, in the hands of this preeminently daring director. Fassbinder's last film
Veronika Voss was the last film Rainer Werner Fassbinder completed before his untimely passing in June. Fittingly, it stands with his very finest work, although it contains moments that will be too savage or sordid for some viewers. A feverish replay of the old ''Sunset Boulevard'' story, shot in meticulous black and white, it has a visual richness and an intellectual depth that set it cleanly apart from most of his earlier pictures. Despite its occasional flaws, it demonstrates that Fassbinder was finally on his way to becoming a major artist rather than just a prolific prodigy.
Fassbinder's vision was essentially tragic, and ''Veronika Voss'' reflects his pessimism in glimpses of desperation and even squalor. But it never sinks into mere bourgeoisie-baiting, as many of his other works do. Coming at the center of his trilogy on postwar economic life in his country, West Germany, it joins ''The Marriage of Maria Braun'' and ''Lola'' to complete his harsh portrait of a civilization swallowed by its own petty aspirations. Its ideas have point and bite even when its images lapse into the sensationalism that was always one of Fassbinder's weaknesses.
The title character is a faded movie star. Overwhelmed by life, she has become the virtual prisoner of a doctor who artificially eases her pain. The plot centers on her relationship with a small-time sports reporter who becomes her boyfriend. Burrowing into her life, he uncovers her secrets and tries vainly to rescue her from her self-imposed predicaments.
Set in Munich in 1955, with the Nazi period still in recent memory, the film makes most of its social and historical observations through metaphors. The other heroines of Fassbinder's economic trilogy participate directly in their country's ''economic miracle.'' Unlike them, Veronika Voss languishes in a sad fantasy world all her own, symbolizing the cultural decadence that Fassbinder wants to indict. Other characters represent further aspects of that decadence - especially the doctor, an embodiment of capitalistic corruption, and the reporter, whose ineffectuality turns in upon itself.
It's a grim story, but its purpose is essentially constructive, and its intelligence always evident. These qualities raise it well above the mass of Fassbinder's prodigious output of some 43 films in about 17 years. ''Veronika Voss'' opened the 20th New York Film Festival last week, and will soon begin regular showings.
Incidentally, the New York festival followed up ''Veronika Voss'' with the American premiere of Bolwieser, a 1979 work that points up the worst facets of Fassbinder's art along with the best. Though lavishly filmed and energetically acted, it fails to rise above the seamy level of its seamy characters, a quartet of burghers enmeshed in adultery. A cut-rate combination of ''Madame Bovary'' and ''Woyceck,'' with all the petty trappings and none of the underlying vision, it is not redeemed by its baroque visual style. Of the new Fassbinder imports, ''Veronika Voss'' beats ''Bolwieser'' (also known as ''The Stationmaster's Wife'') hands down.
Meanwhile, two more works from the last part of Fassbinder's career are due soon on American screens. ''Querelle,'' based on Jean Genet's novel and nearly finished at the time of the director's death, should have its US opening within a couple of months. And the 13-hour ''Berlin Alexanderplatz,'' originally shown on West German television, is scheduled for a December debut at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A movie with no story
There has never been a movie quite like Koyaanisqatsi. And there certainly hasn't been a title like ''Koyaanisqatsi,'' which is a Hopi Indian word meaning ''life out of balance.''
The film, directed by newcomer Godfrey Reggio, wants to shake up our complacence about contemporary ''life styles,'' which Reggio feels are growing rapidly beyond our control and even our comprehension. But this is no message movie full of preaching and teaching. It's a whirlwind guided tour of our planet , wrapped in 87 minutes of virtuoso cinematography.
Deeper meanings aside - and they are easy to forget, under the circumstances - you won't find a more dizzying, dazzling, and diverting experience on the screen today. Its first complete showings will take place next Monday at Radio City Music Hall in New York, as a special event of the New York Film Festival. Dates will be announced in the near future for regular theatrical showings.
''Koyaanisqatsi'' has no story, but it does have a logic and momentum all its own. It begins with brooding shots of nature, which give way to images of human intrusion and manipulation. Eventually we land in the big city, pulsing with energy and throbbing with life - and, Reggio suggests, just about ready to escape our grasp and make us its servants instead of the other way around.
Another thing ''Koyaanisqatsi'' doesn't have is a narration. The film communicates everything through images and music. The score is by composer Philip Glass, in his more recent and more conservative style. Rhythmic and repetitive, relentless and relaxing at the same time, its gradually evolving chunks of sound make an ideal counterpoint to the incredibly crisp images of cinematographer Ron Fricke and the unifying ideas of director Reggio.
Ironically, the stunning images and sounds of ''Koyaanisqatsi'' are its biggest weaknesses. While it's clear that Reggio wants to challenge our lazy thought habits, his vision of ''life out of control'' is so deliciously filmed that it looks downright inviting most of the time. This is an easy trap for moviemakers to fall into, and Reggio - perhaps a bit dazzled by technology himself - has done little to sidestep it.
But he doesn't seem to mind. Discussing his work over lunch in New York last week, he said he wanted to avoid the off-putting images he might have used to illustrate the ''Koyaanisqatsi'' concept. In the Bible and elsewhere, he noted, the message is plain: The most dangerous tendencies in modern life may seem to be the most seductive. A main goal of ''Koyaanisqatsi,'' he continues, was to film ''the beauty of the beast.''
Reggio's background has more philosophy than film in it. As a member of a religious teaching community, he taught middle-class children, then decided it was more important to help poor and underprivileged youngsters. He worked with street gangs for seven years, but felt his individual efforts could do little to solve the real problem, ''which is that society produces these kids.'' So he decided to use film in a stab at changing society itself, or at least confronting its untenable assumptions.
The targets of ''Koyaanisqatsi'' are the acceleration, density, and centralization of everyday life. Reggio thinks these tendencies are leading us toward a social breakdown, with gridlock and blackouts as the harbingers. He's no pessimist; he feels the coming disruption will be a fine opportunity to shape a brave new way of living. And to wake us up, he hasn't harped on disasters or pollutants or other dramatic symptoms. Rather, he wants us to consider the idea that ''what we consider our crowning jewels - our technologies and machines - may be the very things that cause all our difficulties.''
''We can't continue in lockstep forever,'' he adds, ''governed by the red-and-green rhythms of traffic lights. In worshiping our achievements, we've failed to realize how they alienate us from our planet and from each other. Society has taken on its own life, independent of the people in it. I've tried try to throw some of this into a new perspective. We must learn to experience life on a one-to-one basis again.''