What are you staring at?

Toward the end of Cristi Puiu’s Aurora the always unsettled and increasingly unsettling Viorel (played by Puiu) lopes into one of his daughter’s classes, disrupting a party rehearsal. He grabs her, to get her to leave with him, and in a prototypical long fixed take, the camera gazing at the action from just over and behind the head of one of the schoolkids, we watch a teacher try to make sense of what’s happening, try to get him to let the daughter stay for a bit, while Viorel with barely-suppressed agitation gets his daughter dressed, readies her backpack, responds curtly and then with a vague menace to the teacher. His eyes frequently dart to the side, catching the schoolgirl right below the camera’s gaze. He looks at her, he goes back to what he’s doing, he looks at her, he talks, he looks at her. Then there is one extended glare, a head-shift away with his eyes on the floor (as if afraid? ashamed? completely unable to fathom human connection?); when he pulls his head back up, he stares at her–and although the set of his mouth and the look on his face hasn’t really changed, the gaze now seems furious. In a low monotone he asks “What are you staring at?” She turns away.

We can’t. Aurora isn’t a perfect film, but it may have a perfect performance. The brilliance of that performance–the slow revelation of Viorel’s desperation, and the horror attendant therewith–doesn’t really come clear unless you engage the long, long, long, long 100 or so minutes before anything specific happens. (The film then goes on for another 80 minutes. Did I warn you that it’s long? It makes Police, Adjective seem like Michael Bay.)

But what I really want to talk about, if briefly, is the shared aesthetic in the recent Romanian new wave. Shots which endure–long takes with a camera either immobile or with fixed legs (‘though its gaze may shift around, from that standing position). A choreography and mise-en-scene that can masquerade as unrehearsed but is usually stunning in its attention to space. Or, rather, stunning because of the shot’s duration. A fixed camera dragging us into (real?) Time and Space… yet the artifice–the constructed aesthetic–becomes visible only if you keep watching. That’s true with the plots, as well. These films drop us into dialogue, characters walking around an apartment or a street–again, it seems “real,” unplotted… yet plot emerges, characters become clear. The shaping of story emerges almost as much through the shaping of our attention.

The above isn’t crystal clear, but I wanted to scribble some ideas out. A couple more thoughts: this aesthetic seems pervasive — Cristi Puiu’s films (including The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), but also Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective and 12:08 East of Bucharest, Radu Muntean’s comparatively-brief Tuesday, After Christmas, Cristian Mungu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. These films are among the best I’ve seen in the last ten years — and Lazarescu and Police are flat masterpieces. They all approach space, time, plot, character in similar ways . . . yet their respective impact–their tones, their subjects–are astonishingly diverse. Puiu’s Lazarescu used the aesthetic as a corollary to the fixity of institutions, the people wandering about in the shots (and inside the system) countering with a fussy, generous, messy resistance to being reduced to fixed positions or roles. The possibility of humane interaction emerges even more compellingly out of the vision. Yet his latest turns the gaze of this Romanian aesthetic inside out; the camera, rather than a static institutional view which cannot fully contain the human interactions “inside” the frame, becomes a nervous attempt to see the humanity in this particular individual. He is hard to see, despite always being there onscreen (even, in one long shower sequence, laid bare). Viorel anxiously veers between trying to hide and staring at others, and what at first feels simply like a portrait of social alienation becomes something harder to nail down. The camera and its long takes almost feel like our stand-in: we want to understand, to really see Viorel. When we finally do, it’s terrifying. But the long takes continue… and, again, the camera seems to help us learn to frame his humanity, despite the actions, despite his resistance. (What are you staring at?)

Police is about surveillance even as it surveils; its use of the gaze is meta-generic as well as social satire. 12:08 echoes the comic possibilities of silent film’s fixed camera. 4 Months and Tuesday use the aesthetic to more fully capture the emotional and affective experiences at the heart of each film.

In other words, he says wrapping up without anything other than a finding of some facts, there’s this remarkably-consistent aesthetic yet used to such (seemingly) disparate effects… I’m fascinated, and wonder about your respective/collective thoughts….

3 thoughts on “What are you staring at?”

  1. 183 minutes for Aurora? That may be a tad long for even me. Looks interesting though. The films I’ve seen above are really, really good films.

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