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The Decalogue

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz

With Henryk Baranowski, Krystyna Janda, Aleksander Bardini, Daniel Olbrychski, Maria Pakulnis, Adrianna Biedrzynska, Janusz Gajos, Miroslaw Baka, Krzysztof Globisz, Jan Tesarz, Grazyna Szapolowska, Olaf Lubaszenko, Anna Polony, Maria Koscialkowska, Teresa Marczewska, Ewa Blaszczyk, Piotr Machalica, Jerzy Stuhr, and Zbigniew Zamachowski.


Directed by Joel Coen

Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

With Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Kristin Rudrud, Harve Presnell, Steven Reevis, John Carroll Lynch, and Steve Park.

One way of judging the importance of filmmakers is by looking at the kind of talk they generate among their audiences. Since the recent death of the 54-year-old Krzysztof Kieslowski during open-heart surgery, one of the key points of speculation about him is whether he knew when he announced his retirement a couple of years ago that he had a heart condition. As evidence that he did, one could cite the fact that the "twin" Polish and French heroines of his The Double Life of Veronique (1991) suffer from heart conditions, and one ultimately dies from hers; as evidence that he didn't, one could note that Kieslowski was a heavy smoker and continued to smoke after his announcement (though he may have been simply reckless). And prior to his last heart attack he'd begun work with his longtime collaborator, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, on a script for a new trilogy structured around the themes of heaven, hell, and purgatory — not necessarily in that order. A deeply controversial filmmaker on both sides of the Atlantic, Kieslowski can't be deemed a greater or lesser figure on the basis of what he knew about his heart, but perhaps it isn't a coincidence that his attitudes toward his characters are frequently ambiguous, the issues they raise never closed.

Kieslowski's ten-part 1988 Polish miniseries, The Decalogue — a work (playing this week at Facets Multimedia) that can easily be seen piecemeal, because the films don't depend on one another for their principal meanings — should be judged to some extent by the quality of the discussions it provokes about ethics. Each 50-odd-minute film recounts a story set in contemporary Warsaw in which a character breaks one of the Ten Commandments in some fashion, though Kieslowski is too cagey to identify overtly which commandment goes with which story or to explain other connections — such as why the Sixth Commandment [see photo above], "Thou shalt not commit adultery," is represented by a story in which neither of the principal characters is married. His use of a different cinematographer on all but two of the ten films also makes each story a separate stylistic adventure, especially in terms of light and color. The greatest source of unity may be that nearly all the major characters live in the same housing project, so that major characters in one film are apt to reappear as minor characters in one or more others. ("It's the most beautiful housing estate in Warsaw, which is why I chose it," Kieslowski once said, typically adding, "it looks pretty awful, so you can imagine what the others are like.") As another example of this kind of fascinating crossover — The Decalogue has several — the central ethical dilemma faced by a hospital consultant (Aleksander Bardini) in the second film is recounted as part of a university lecture in the eighth.

All of the films in The Decalogue are easy and pleasurable to follow as stories, yet part of the excitement they generate stems from discussions about their meaning after their dramatic impact registers. As Stanley Kubrick pointed out five years ago in his brief foreword to the published script of The Decalogue, Kieslowski and Piesiewicz "have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talk about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what's really going on rather than being told....You never see the ideas coming." Interestingly, postscreening discussions tend to be exegetical without ever becoming religious; some critics' patter to the contrary, Kieslowski belongs to the agnostic Bergman camp, not to the mystical Tarkovsky one.

The Decalogue harks back to a notion of conceptual art movie that reeks of the 60s — specifically, zeitgeist filmmakers like Antonioni, Godard, and occasionally Resnais — even though it's exploring everyday urban life in the late 80s. The film can be comfortably situated in neither the Polish context of the Kieslowski features that precede it nor the Eurobabble New Age mysticism of the international coproductions that follow it (The Double Life of Veronique, Blue, White, and Red.) (However, it's worth noting that there's at least one intertextual detail that links the work of both periods: the imaginary Dutch classical composer Van der Brudenmajer, alluded to throughout the "Three Colors" trilogy as a kind of running gag, is first mentioned in the ninth film of The Decalogue.)

By way of contrast, a central point of postscreening discussions about Fargo, a Coen brothers crime story about a botched kidnapping set in wintertime Minnesota and North Dakota, is whether this story is based on fact, as it claims to be — discussions that invariably lead nowhere.

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"This is a true story," states an extended title at the beginning, which goes on to explain that the events took place in 1987 (coincidentally, around the same time that The Decalogue was being scripted), that at the request of the survivors the names of the characters have been changed, but "out of respect for the dead" everything else in the film is true.  This being a Coen brothers movie, one's likely to scoff or smirk at such a claim, but even if one doesn't the last thing on the end credits — "No similarity to actual persons living or dead is intended or should be inferred" — surely deserves a smirk of its own.

However, I don't think anyone in the general audience who sees Fargo – and that includes me — cares in the slightest whether any of the events actually occurred, regardless of how one feels about the movie. The opening and closing titles are strictly pro forma, and the same could be said for the movie's characters — though this is the Coen brothers in a hyperrealist mode, meaning that the characters are at least superficially more realistic than those in any previous Coen brothers feature.

The abrasive caricatures in the Coen brothers' work, not to mention the low-angle Steadicam dollies they often favor, periodically remind me of Kubrick and his combinations of misanthropy and seamless technique — but the thematic differences are crucial. Virtually all of Kubrick's features concentrate on elaborate, ingenious control systems that ultimately spin wildly out of control. (After the opening section in Full Metal Jacket, it's the narrative itself that goes haywire, though most critics — with the rare exception of Bill Krohn in Cahiers du Cinéma — saw this as a failing rather than as a radical, meaningful artistic strategy.) In Fargo there's no ingenious control system to dismantle; the kidnapping plot that sets everything else in motion is harebrained, and no part of it is carried out with any precision, so all that one can observe is an ugly, messy situation that becomes progressively uglier and messier — particularly since it's juxtaposed with the unvarying forbearance of the pseudopopulist heroine, a cop assigned to clean up the mess.

One thing Kieslowski and the Coens have in common — apart from heavy-handedness at their worst moments — is that they are regionalists and historians, though many qualifiers have to be added to this description. Kieslowski never learned French fluently, a language spoken in all four of the films he made after The Decalogue — a failing that earned him the scorn of some French critics; and like Antonioni, Godard, and Resnais in their zeitgeist modes, he remained a historian exclusively of the present. The Coens, who hail from Minneapolis, can be considered regionalists prior to Fargo only if one considers television a regional culture — and I think in some ways one can; in Fargo they take on their home turf as well as their TV culture, and the results are singular. In most of their pictures TV culture counts for much more than geographical setting and historical period. It's only in their pictures set in the present (Blood Simple and Raising Arizona) and in the near present (Fargo) that they qualify as historians worthy of the name; otherwise they're basically mixing and playing with media clichés, paying scant attention to real places or actual periods.

Broadly speaking, both The Decalogue and Fargo have a lot to do with television, but Fargo represents an apotheosis of a peculiar posthumanist TV tradition that the Coen brothers have made their own — to the same degree that The Decalogue, though it was made for television, represents an apotheosis of a humanist tradition in movies that may be on the verge of disappearing. I realize this sounds fairly overblown, but I suspect that how one values either work has something to do with how one values human life.

To clarify my biases about TV, I should stress that I'm thinking less of TV content — the impetus behind Clinton's much-debated V-chip proposal — than of some basic properties of the medium. Studies disagree about whether watching violence on television makes children more violent, but there seems to be something closer to a consensus that watching television of any kind tends to make children's behavior more aggressive and antisocial. I would guess that this is partially true because remote-control buttons, channel dials, and on-off switches let us make other people appear and disappear, a power we can't enjoy in the world outside television; by extension we have a solipsistic habit of thinking that people don't fully exist if they're not on-screen.

Combine this habit with certain stylistic practices associated with commercials and sitcoms and you have the only kind of reality available to characters in a Coen brothers movie; whether these characters are lovable or detestable, they're lovable or detestable in a TV way — defined by a minimal set of traits that are endlessly reiterated and incapable of expansion or alteration, a fixed loop. By these standards Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a cheerful, methodical pregnant police chief, and Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) — a wormy car salesman from Minneapolis who's in debt and hires two thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrud) to get a ransom from her wealthy father (Harve Presnell) — have the predigested reality of TV personalities, but not the everyday reality of most of the characters in The Decalogue. (Though Kieslowski's work does include one striking exception, the "silent witness," a mysterious young man who briefly turns up in eight of the films — he can be seen warming his hands by a bonfire at the beginning of the first. This mythological figure points to the more pretentious side of Kieslowski, and I, for one, could have done without him.)


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