REVIEW – If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (2010)

FilmJuice have my review of Florin Serban’s debut feature If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle. Nominated for the Berlin Golden Bear and winner of the Jury Prize Silver Bear, Serban’s film is being marketed as the latest opus to emerge from the fecund soil of the Romanian New Wave. High praise indeed given that that particular wave produced not only Cristi Poiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective but also Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Unfortunately, while Serban’s film does an excellent job of re-creating the corridorpunk aesthetic that has thus-far dominated the Romanian New Wave, the film itself is really nothing more than a generic prison thriller:

The problem is that while films like Police, Adjective and The Death of Mr Lazarescu used a very specific set of Romanian problems to explore what it is like to be a contemporary Romanian, Serban’s film is really nothing more than the sort of generic prison movie that could have been made anywhere. Generic in plot and unoriginal in aesthetic sensibility, Serban’s debut is a largely pointless addition to an increasingly over-loaded bandwagon. Indeed, while the film’s gritty visuals and social realism may have helped to secure international distribution, they do absolutely nothing for the film’s message or emotional impact.

Some critics have suggested that If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is proof that we are close to reaching the bottom of the Romanian New Wave barrel and that all the talent in that particular scene has now been discovered leaving only the hacks and the wannabes. Though I have a certain amount of sympathy for this viewpoint, I think the decision to load If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle onto the Romanian New Wave bandwagon speaks of a more profound malaise with world cinema.

Consider the following hypothetical situation: You are a young Romanian who has just graduated from film school at a time when critics all over the world are singing hosannas to your national cinema. All over the world, people are paying to see Romanian film and you know that, as a young Romanian film director, chances are that you can score a breakthrough hit. However, in order to produce a breakthrough hit and launch your career, you need to attach yourself to this national cinema that everyone is raving about. Q: What is the best way of accomplishing this? A: By making the film you want to make and combining it with familiar tropes. Result: A thriller with a corridorpunk aesthetic.

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is best understood as a professional calling card. A demonstration of technical prowess and aesthetic pragmatism that showcases Serban’s ability to adopt popular styles in order to get a film made. Much like Tom Waller’s Soi Cowboy, it is proof that Serban can be a good cultural citizen and produce the type of film expected of young Romanian film directors. I suspect his next film will be not only better but also a good deal more personal. Florin Serban is clearly one to watch.

4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days (2007) – Willful Stupidity as Self-Protection

In order to mourn the passing of the Humanist and Historian Tony Judt, the New York Review of Books decided to republish an essay of his about the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz.  In this piece, Judt draws particular attention to Milosz’s invocation of the concept of Ketman.  Ketman, originally an Islamic concept referring to a person’s capacity to pay public lip-service to the worldview of political authority whilst maintaining a private opposition to that world-view, was used by Milosz to explain how it was that Communism continued to hold sway over entire populations despite its myriad hypocrisies and impracticalities.  Judt then goes on to argue that American college students struggle with the concept of Ketman:

Why would someone sell his soul to any idea, much less a repressive one? By the turn of the twenty-first century, few of my North American students had ever met a Marxist. A self-abnegating commitment to a secular faith was beyond their imaginative reach.

Judt then points out that market capitalism holds a similar sway over the West as Communism once did over the East.  We all know that capitalism is horribly flawed.  We all know that it makes some people disgustingly rich while denying even the most basic necessities to billions of others.  We know this and yet we simply cannot imagine what it would be like to live without the Market.

In Margaret Thatcher’s deathless phrase, “there is no alternative.”

Set during the final years of Romania’s Ceauşescu regime,  Christian Mungiu’s 4 Luni, 3 Săptămâni şi 2 Zile is an exploration of what it is like to be held between two equally dehumanising intellectual systems.  Intellectual systems that demand complete ideological loyalty despite both being horrifically flawed.

Continue reading →

Police, Adjective (2009) – Nobody wants Realism. Not Really.

In his excellent extended essay What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010), Gabriel Josipovici provides a spirited reading of Cevantes’ Don Quixote.  Quixote, argues Josipovici, is not merely the first modern novel, it is also the first post-modern novel as within the novel’s various framing devices lies the recognition that there is something profoundly false about the form of the novel.  A falseness that can never quite be expunged, regardless of  how full-throated an author’s commitment to realism might be :

“Don Quixote’s madness dramatises for us the hidden madness in every realist novel, the fact that the hero of every such novel is given a name merely in order to persuade us of his reality, and that he has giants created for him to do battle with and Dulcineas for him to fall in love with simply to satisfy the demands of the narrative.  And it dramatises the way we are readers collude in this game because we want, for the duration of our reading, to be part of a realised world, a world full of meaning and adventure, an enchanted world” [p. 34]

No genre has so proudly worn its commitment to realism as the police procedural.  From TV series such as The Wire through to books such as Izzo’s Total Kheops (1995), McBain’s 87th Precinct series and Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels.  The police procedural does not merely seek to entertain by providing us with a mystery that the protagonists can gamely unravel, it also seeks to reflect the reality not only of the books’ settings but also of the job of solving crimes and being a policeman.  However, as Josipovici wisely points out, there is a tension here.  David Simon’s The Wire beautifully captured the political realities of contemporary America, but is it not just a little bit handy that one of the police officers should have chosen to go and get a job teaching thereby allowing the series to devote an entire series to the problems of America’s schooling?  Similarly, Izzo’s Total Kheops does a wonderful job of communicating the texture and character of the town of Marseilles, but is it not convenient that the book’s protagonist listens to cutting-edge hip hop while drinking local wines and eating immaculately cooked locally-sourced produce rather than humming along to Johnny Halliday whilst enjoying a burger and a coke?

Clearly, the police procedural’s commitment to realism is in desperate need of being challenged and deconstructed.  Corneliu Porumboiu’s Poliţist, Adjectiv scratches that itch.  With long and delicately manicured finger nails.

Continue reading →