Essential Wandering

Jerzy Skolimowski and the search for a mythical home
by Michael Atkinson  posted June 10, 2011
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The question that helplessly arises is this: How is it that Jerzy Skolimowski, of all filmmakers, should arrive at the lean, provocative Essential Killing (2010), only his second film in 20 years, and with it make a festival splash more befitting an inventive Romanian rookie than a peripatetic 72-year-old veteran of the Polish New Wave? As a filmmaker with a puzzling half-century of peculiar projects and long silences and catholic passions behind him, Skolimowski has always been a marginal figure, erratically appearing and helming films so disparate he's a living disputation to the auteur theory. His work defines him as a searcher, a road movie antihero still looking for his mythical home on the horizon. One of the most interesting nomads in a film culture filthy with them, Skolimowski was cut loose from the Eastern Bloc in the late '60s and has been roaming the plains of the global industries ever since, coming full circle in his new film, lost in the icy Carpathian wilderness.

Essential Killing, screening at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of a Skolimowski retro (and being released by Tribeca Film in August), flaunts its conceptual desolation and limited POVs like beach party muscle. It's a film designed to be noticed, a film about the Afghanistan war that doggedly, even perversely, resists overt politics; an on-location survival saga shot with a recognizable American-indie star (Vincent Gallo) who has not a word of dialogue; a physically rough ordeal that's meticulously staged and framed on the razor's edge between pulp excitement and arty poeticism but never quite tumbles into either camp. Like its hero, the movie experiences a downward slide into exhausted delirium; the first third is a breathless and fascinating introduction into the war's concrete tribulations. We begin in a helicopter over an Afghan wasteland of desert rock and canyon (actually Israel), join three Arab-dressed U.S. soldiers in the eye-startling geography as they chitchat and scout for mines, and before long a Taliban fighter we don't even see clearly lifts a shoulder rocket off a corpse in a cave, waits for the trio of Yankees to cross his sightline, and blasts them to shit. Immediately he is chased through the mountains, and a copter-shot shell knocks him down and bursts his eardrums. Captured and hooded and renditioned, shuttled blindly from vehicle to vehicle and locale to locale, interrogated by screaming Americans, and waterboarded—all before more movement, plane to truck convoy, which piles up on a night road avoiding wild boars, and our protagonist, such as he is, rolls free and runs into the woods.

What little dialogue Skolimowski's film has indulged in so far falls away (snatches uttered by the very occasional stranger tell us we're in Poland), as Gallo's wily, haggard straggler keeps moving through the eastern Polish hinterlands, killing whosoever should cross his path (including an unlucky logger, with his own chainsaw), donning a succession of looted uniforms, and trying to skirt the dog-tracking Coalition forces hunting him down. That's the bone and sinew of Essential Killing; there's little heart and no decoration, however it may invoke the endless forest running and collapse into starvation and hallucination of Jan Nemec's WWII odyssey Diamonds of the Night (1964). Skolimowski's film remains something of a mystery. The travails of Gallo's racially ambiguous loner (the film offers flashbacks of a veiled Arab wife and muezzin calls to prayer, but he could be from anywhere, even America) are so winnowed down that Skolimowski's movie has the purity of design of a weapon or tool. But to what purpose? Little sympathy is expected for the Taliban hero, and his victims are barely humanized. The war itself is almost merely a condition of life, spiraling out ordeals all over and so ubiquitous it constitutes a kind of weather. The landscape is the primary antagonist—and the lack of food. This enigmatic pawn in an absurd postcolonial combat simply gets misplaced, wanders too deep into the heart of Eastern Europe, where lostness used to be a metaphysical condition, and vanishes.

Skolimowski is not one for agendas, only ambivalences. If my favorite post-peak film of his is The Shout (1978), that doesn't mean I completely grok that loony, Robert Graves–derived psychodrama at all, or how its very distinctive character relates to Skolimowski's other work, before or after his expatriation. On the surface a Teorema-ish portrait of a marital invasion by a rogue figure (Alan Bates, fondling a bone and supposedly possessed of deadly Aborigine magic), the film opens, Caligari-like, as a tale told by an inmate in an insane asylum (Tim Curry, of all people, is the young, sane doctor listening), and so the film is inherently unstable, a tissue of fabrications that more than hints at madness wall to wall, particularly in the way Francis Bacon's paintings literally and unpredictably invade the action, and the implications of the "experimental music" crafted by victim-hubby John Hurt, which sounds as though it were conceived only as a deviously effective form of torture.

Marriage doesn't interest Skolimowski terribly, but being an alien in a landscape does, as exemplified by Moonlighting (1982), a deft, affectionate culture-clash comedy (four Solidarnosc-era Poles trying to survive on a demolition job in London) that's as close as Skolimowski has come in the past three decades to mining the emotional torque of his own experience. (The apartment being shredded was Skolimowski's own.) Or one would hope, compared to the manic, solipsistic mess of Success Is the Best Revenge (1984), a Thatcher-era debacle about a Polish émigré artist struggling to reestablish himself in London, and in which Skolimowski's son stars as himself, a discontented Pole teen aching to return to Warsaw as the workers' movement builds. (The rest of the family were Skolimowski's, too.)

The Lightship (1985) was, by comparison, a modest character study cum Polanskian bell-jar face-off (or a Desperate Hours remake at sea), between Coast Guard captain (and Skolimowski look-alike) Klaus Maria Brandauer and Robert Duvall's Panama-hatted dandy-bandit. Earnest and game, the movie is best remembered for untethering Duvall's inner Capote, while Skolimowski's Turgenev adaptation, Torrents of Springs (1989), fueled by the literary costumer fad of the late '80s, is barely remembered at all. Would that Skolimowski have found a style or voice and stuck with it—once communism finally lay down and died in Eastern Europe, he went eagerly back to Poland and made a faithful film from Witold Gombrowicz's famous quasi-Surrealist novel Ferdydurke, titled 30 Door Key (1991) in some of the few locales that saw it, which did not include the U.S. The story's absurdist juxtaposition between adult life and the idiotic barbarities of grade school, clearly translated here as Iron Curtain parable, makes for unamused and awkward viewing, as far from Turgenev and London immigrant workers and Francis Bacon as you could get.

After a 17-year absence, Skolimowski's search may have found resolution. Four Nights With Anna (2008), a small, Kieslowskian parable about a persecuted loner who begins to invade a nurse's apartment at night to secretly do chores for her as she sleeps, is filled with Polish remorse and an old-fashioned Euro-film rigor Skolimowski hadn't displayed since Deep End (1970). Essential Killing, co-written like Anna with Skolimowski's second wife, Ewa Piaskowska, is nothing if not rigorous, climaxing with one of his most startling images: the white horse, riderless and streaked with human blood, grazing on the first grass shoots to jut up through the Polish snow. For the first time since the '60s, the path for Skolimowski looks clear. 

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Vincent Gallo in Essential Killing, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski
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THE AUTHOR

Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct