Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) contemplates the price she has already paid
for helping her roommate obtain an abortion

If you saw Christian Mungiu’s masterful, if harrowing, 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days in the theater and haven’t had a chance to catch it on DVD – it just came out – I recommend that you get hold of the little round platter just so that you can see the few extras burned onto the disc. If you haven’t yet seen it, I recommend that you do that now & return to this discussion later, for much of what follows will contain spoilers. There is a discussion that moves toward poetics in the last five paragraphs – beginning with “In a sense…” – that can be read separately.

4 luni, as it might be abbreviated in its original Romanian, is the tale of a college student who helps her roommate obtain an illegal abortion during the last days of the (big C) Communist Ceauşescu regime in 1987. One of the most repressive & financially exhausted of all Soviet bloc countries, Romania was a nation with a police state infrastructure that routinely depended on the black market for many, if not most, of the items of daily life. For a student able to obtain quantities of western cigarettes, coffee, shampoo or milk powder, the black market is an easy way through college. For those buying, it’s all about who you know, who they send you to, waiting around for each & ever item – one didn’t shop for pleasure under Communism. If daily life was a hell of waiting under the old regime¹, obtaining something that was dangerous & illegal was much harder.

For his police state, his cult of personality & his laws against abortion, the citizens of Romania let Nicolae Ceauşescu feel their displeasure. He & his wife were shot to death by firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989. The prohibition against abortions during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy did not last out the week.

I’m not going to recount the film’s narrative fully here, other than to note that this is a film all anti-abortion activists should see, since it shows in painful details what occurs when the procedure is illegal. And it’s one film that all volunteers at Planned Parenthood should see as an in-service training, not just to remind themselves why they put up with the bullshit of picket lines & death threats (and on occasion far worse), but also why every abortion itself is a tragedy of bad choices & poor planning, & why it’s so important to get contraceptive tools & information distributed far more widely than they are today. In 4 Months, the traditional risks of illegal abortion – arrest, death – are skirted, in part because the main characters are all educated people in their early 20s. Imagine this same film with 13-year-olds & the movie you get is a far cry from Juno.

But what interests me here are some decisions writer / producer / director Mongiu made in putting together this film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes & earned him a gold medal from the current president of a still impoverished Romania. The first is the absence of music, which appears only toward the end of the film’s credits. The second are the obvious dramatic threads that are picked up & left hanging, most notably a sequence in which Otilia surreptitiously picks through the abortionist’s bag & steals a knife, an item that foretells all manner of bad endings but never otherwise is used dramatically in the film (I think she notices it again much later, but does so I think just so we recall its presence). Mongiu discusses these in one of the most intelligent director interviews I’ve seen among the added features. In real life, Mongiu argues, life isn’t accompanied by a sound track, things occurs for which there is no closure, experience isn’t aestheticized – to replicate this he has had to build them into the film, adding details that then don’t get followed, eschewing music, refusing to make jump cuts within scenes so as to coerce an audience’s perception of the action. The result is that the film is a series of very long takes, that often Anamaria Marinca, the amazing actress who plays Otilia, has her back turned to the camera & that actual camera shifts within scenes – as when Otilia comes into the bathroom to wash herself out after having been raped by Mr. Bebe, the abortionist – almost cause a kind of vertigo because they’re so rare. In one key scene, the characters’ faces are entirely in darkness. Often the characters are not centered (an issue if you see this in the unletterboxed DVD version) onscreen. Otilia is left waiting in Mr. Bebe’s Soviet-era automobile while he steps out to argue with his mother, who otherwise has no role in this film.

But I don’t think that the only role these elements serve is to heighten our sense of the film’s imitation of real life – I think that Mongiu is being disingenuous in the interview when he suggests this. Rather, I think he is playing quite deliberately with the audience’s well developed expectations, and that the knife in particular is an exceptionally cagey choice for just such treatment. It’s not just that it’s a detail that doesn’t go anywhere, but Mongiu knows full well that we are all waiting for it to be used, to save Gâbita, to kill Mr. Bebe, whatever. Mongiu does exactly the same thing with a remarkable dinner sequence, as Otilia & her boyfriend Adi sit silently at dinner (she’s at the table, he’s behind her, as they celebrate his mother’s 48th birthday). With ten guests around a table that, in the U.S., would never be asked serve more than six, we can see the young couple’s alienation, from his parents & from one another, as the roomful of doctors (and doctors’ wives – Mongiu’s own parents are doctors & he was only a little younger than Adi when this story would have taken place) jabber away, a key detail being that the head of their “unit,” wherever they all work, got their not on his medical skills, but rather on his “healthy” ability to get on “in the [Communist] party”. Everyone talks, not quite at once, Otilia & Adi remain silent, the center of our screen &, with Adi’s mother, our attention. With few if any cuts, the scene took five days to film. Onscreen, it runs less than five minutes.

In a sense, Mongiu recognizes that, just as a poem is a “machine made of words,” to quote Dr. Williams, a film likewise is a “machine made of cuts & scenes” and thus has to achieve “artlessness” as a surface by building it in, not unlike the way Judy Grahn deliberately builds in artlessness to her very best (& relatively early) poems, such as “A Woman is Talking to Death” or “A Common Woman.” It isn’t inherent in the medium, whether film or poetry. Clarity, after all, isn’t a given – it’s an effect.

In the past few weeks I’ve noticed several comments, laments really, from people about the alleged “elitism” of post-avant poetics, including several comments the other day to my note contrasting flarf & conceptual poetics, but also on my nephew Daniel’s blog as well. As I noted on my links list Monday, connecting to one such complaint, it’s an argument that could have been made against some of the work of the troubadour poets in the High Middle Ages (1100 – 1350). And it’s become increasingly the case as other genres, from the novel to reality TV, have come along to absorb some of the social roles traditionally encased in the poem. The one function – the only one – that no other genre can take from poetry is its role as the art of language without limit. And in a nation in which 90 percent of the readers (and 100 percent of the editors) of the New York Review of Books are insane if they think that they’re literate, that does make poetry something that can only work for the masses under two circumstances –

   the poet her- or himself is capable only of a handful of surface effects (the Kooser / Collins road)

   the poet her- or himself makes conscious decisions to build in hooks that give the appearance of dumbing it down for the “average Joe” (the Robert Creeley / Judy Grahn / Frank O’Hara road)

One of these is, I would submit, a legitimate aesthetic choice. And one of these strikes me as having more to do with neurological pathology than it does literature. (If someone no brighter than George W. Bush wrote poetry, would Garrison Keillor think it “good”?) I think it’s clear that Mongiu’s road is that of the aesthetic choice.

A second “bonus” feature on the DVD gives us some indication as to why. One of the “benefits” of post-Communist life in Romania, a nation with twice the population of Pennsylvania, has been the destruction of its film industry. Without state sponsorship, there is little in the way of funding for films. And most of the old theaters are in commercial districts where more money can be made by putting the buildings to other uses. With a population of 22 million people – 2 million in Bucharest alone – Romania now has just three dozen cinemas. To show a film like 4 luni to Romanian audiences, some of whom have not seen a film in a theater in the 19 years since the fall of Ceauşescu, the filmmakers put together a caravan that traveled to thirty cities over one month, showing the picture in auditoriums or even on outdoor screens & walls – they brought their screen with them in addition to all the projection equipment needed for 35mm viewing, Over the month, the film reached an audience of nearly 18,000 people – a great success for Romanian cinema, but frankly pathetic numbers compared to the 5+ million tickets sold the first weekend of Sex and the City in the USA. (In fact, film caravans exist throughout Europe as an alternative means of distribution for regional – non US blockbuster – or serious cinema, the problem’s not unique to Romania, just more pronounced.)

I have always – even as a teenager – been interested in what the troubadours called trobar clus, that writing they reserved for their best readers / listeners, themselves, the origin of the sestina. I want a poetry that does the very most it can do – all of the 19 books from the Poetry Society of America contest that I really loved (I have seven still to profile here) reflect that. Some do so in terms that enable them to reach broader audiences, but others don’t avail themselves of that choice, taking what I might call the Stein / Zukofsky / Beckett / Joyce / Watten road instead. The idea that one road (the Creeley / Grahn et al road) is morally superior to the Stein et al road is, I think, defensible only – and I do mean only – if you think that the population of the US, and the other English-speaking countries, is so deeply, even permanently damaged that a truly literate art of language can never fully exist. That’s a possibility, but I’m much more of an optimist than that.


¹ My experiences in Russia two years later confirm this. Under Communism’s last stages, life was logistics.


<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?