By Kent Jones
The past and its representations prove their relevance once again
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu
In Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Norman Mailer assesses the performances, self-presentations, and unconscious affects of Nixon, McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, and Reagan as if he were auditing at the Actors’ Studio. Andrei Ujica’s mammoth documentary The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu is grounded in exactly this kind of scrutiny, albeit from a bittersweet historical remove. Ujica plunges us straight into the public life of Ceausescu, without narration, lower thirds, or contextualization of any kind. The portrait is framed by Nicolae and wife Elena’s ad hoc condemnations before a shaky, unforgiving camcorder on Christmas Day 1989, and the story proper begins with crisp black-and-white news footage of Gheorgiu-Dej’s funeral in 1965 capped by Ceausescu’s oration, the opening stage of his national ascension. Over the course of three hours, we are invited to become connoisseurs of party congress speeches, handshakes, official dinners, photo ops with Dubcek, Nixon, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, et al., visits to Queen Elizabeth, Mao, and Kim Il-Sung (twice), designated “at play” interludes (hiking, hunting, sledding, a visit to Universal Studios, an inept game of volleyball), official tributes, parades, birthday celebrations, boardings of and disembarkations from planes, inspections of meat, fruit, and bread before decreasingly worshipful eyes, and countless reaffirmations of faith in that peculiar mid-century invention known as Stalinism.
Ujica’s deadpan strategy delivers us images of life in Romania and of Ceausescu as Ceausescu himself dictated, which means that we do not see the death hospitals or the armies of AIDS patients, the mass starvation, or the massacre at Timisoara. But it is understood, early on, that casual viewing will not be an option. We must look closely or not at all in order to find the increasingly obvious and desperate stabs at obfuscation. Early on, the familiar mix of iconographies on display—traditional peasant imagery, full-throttle industrialism, architecture on a hilariously Olympian scale—seems like a severe mismatch with the rumpled lifetime bureaucrat at the helm. Under the gaze of a Hitler, a Stalin, or a Mao, the same synthesis flows like the realization of a feverish mental design. But the discrepancy between Ceausescu, who looks like he’s been mistakenly sent to the cleaners along with his proletarian suit, and the historical role he has assumed is endlessly astonishing. This mop of hair atop an accordion-scrunched face and body, whose oratorical skills and hand gestures make Nixon look like Marvin Gaye, is temperamentally incapable of striding anywhere. As Mailer might have observed, he never “owns” his space, and he always looks like he’s yearning to escape from the podium or the lectern.
The signs of discomfort, mental exhaustion, and instability manifest themselves ever more noticeably as the years progress, compensated by denial and lavish celebrations. There are two high points. A visit to North Korea occasions a stadium-sized Ceausescu salute that is almost indescribable, but I will give it a try: think of a Rose Bowl parade, a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award presentation, an Up With People Sing Out, a Hallmark Hall of Fame special, the Nuremberg rally, and Zhang Yimou’s Beijing Olympics celebration mixed together in Charles Foster Kane’s snow globe and you’ll get the idea. And then there’s a speech before a small assembly of the faithful in one of those underlit, sparsely decorated staterooms prized by Stalinist leaders. The topic eludes me, but the delivery is the story. With mounting inner desperation, Ceausescu escalates the level of urgency with sudden, erratic increases in pitch and volume, and an official meet-and-greet develops into a harangue to no one in particular (the oddest detail: the disowned but hyperactive hands and arms). Ujica’s film is extremely cunning, dogged, and mordantly sharp, and it is his refusal to streamline the officially sanctioned footage, resisting the temptation to compress 18 choruses of Happy Birthday into three, that gives his film its bite. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu plays out like a purgative pageant in which history swallows a microbe, sweats through a fever dream, and spews out the undigested remains.
It’s always better to let things reach their worst,” said Jean-Luc Godard in a recent interview. He was talking about George Bush, thus measuring history on a scale vastly different from Ujica’s. But then, Godard’s vision of history, of people, and of common life has always been in flux, sparked by a particular moment or mood during a particular time of his life. In Film Socialisme, the first in what promises to be a string of last films, he ponders the sorry state of modern Europe, revisits past sites from his own cinema, and makes a nostalgic reference to the bygone urge to “return to zero.” Of course, Godard has been returning to zero for a long time now, film by film, idea by idea, and moment by moment, with blackouts, repetitions, shock cuts, and insertions of phantom effects into his soundtracks. Despite the fact that his thinking has always been relational and associative, his films continue to be misperceived as Rosetta stones in need of decoding. Peter Handke once observed that there are instants in Godard’s cinema which have the clarifying effect of a blade slicing through the curtain of reality. These instants fall within movements of layering and juxtaposition, which are sometimes thrilling but which sometimes result in nothing much beyond layering and juxtaposition. The dead stretches of antic gesturing, the recitations of texts by compliant young people and old curmudgeons, or the recycling of moves from earlier in the film lay the groundwork for the intrusion of another precious instant. There is in Godard a childlike yearning to keep beginning the film over and over again.
The first 40 minutes or so of Film Socialisme are set aboard an ocean liner, which through association becomes the European ship of state. The consistently reiterated idea is that Europe was liberated only to become dependent, driven home most forcefully in provocatively low-res imagery of passengers dancing, eating, gambling, and even receiving Communion aboard a pleasure cruise (certain shots look like they were grabbed with first-generation Flips or cell phones). Godard works the degradation of the image and the sound recorded by built-in mikes (the flapping-slapping of wind, for instance) to his advantage. As he settles into an unusually stately rhythm, these destabilized tableaux are pointedly contrasted with cleaner and more serene images of the sea, the yellow and blue of the ship, an old man and a young girl, Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye. But it’s the rougher images that cut deep. We’re looking at people filmed as they now film themselves. Godard once longed for a camera that he could keep in his glove compartment. Thirty years later, the world is filled with cameras you can keep in your pocket, usually for “filming” of an altogether different kind. Godard strikes a chord with these “ordinary” images and sounds and their continually jarring recurrence in the montage, harmonizing fascination, revulsion, and a bracing “nowness.” Are we looking at “them” or at “us”? An open question. At a certain point, the sheer density of collapsed cacophonous sound, pixelated images, and rote human activity at the gaming table or on the dance floor becomes terrifying. Before he settles into a monotonous landlocked stretch with a working-class family and a pet llama, Godard gets a vivid portrait of compulsively pursued leisure and its coarsening effect.
Film Socialisme moves rhetorically from destination to destination. Jia Zhangke’s undervalued I Wish I Knew charts history through actual emigrations, physical and cultural displacements. Jia uses a World Expo commission as an occasion to dig deeper into the vein he discovered with Useless and 24 City, and Shanghai becomes an epicenter of historical change. Many saw the film as an officially sanctioned staying action. Why? Far more than 24 City, Jia’s film is a delicate web of associations between interviews and clips. Some found his inclusions of passages from other people’s movies—the 1948 Spring in a Small Town, Antonioni’s Chung Kuo, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai—mere fodder for the fans. It amounts to a good deal more than that. For instance, Jia shoots an interview with Hou on a train moving through the mountains, an evocation of one of his finest films, Goodbye South, Goodbye. It is also an evocation of flight, one of the central preoccupations of this film, and of a fellow artist’s particular cinematic language, another side of which is revealed with the clip from Flowers, which prompts Hou to reflect on the early 20th-century “innovation” of falling in love, which in turn evokes the many tender romances alluded to throughout I Wish I Knew and the secrecy prompted by a century of political tumult. Jia’s cinematic language is always polyvalent, and his juxtapositions flower gradually across the span of the entire film—perhaps too gradually for the impatient critics who made such an issue out of the passages of Zhao Tao wandering through the streets of modern Shanghai, which make up about one percent of the entire movie.
There is a tremendous shared urgency about history and its representation in these films, a need to retrieve the most ephemeral historical truths before they ossify into fact or legend. It is also there in what was arguably the central event of this year’s festival, Olivier Assayas’s Carlos. All these shufflings and re-shufflings of the historical cards suggest the high-intensity concentration of forensic investigators studying the shards of a bomb blast. This strain of filmmaking, directly correlated with the innovations of Final Cut and Avid and the ability to play with images, inspires both montage-based documentary (Ceausescu) and the light, fluid rush of images and gestures in Carlos. The similarity between the two films is fascinating. Where the Jia and the Godard are like fast-motion maps of activity traced from the center outward, the densely concentrated portraits of the Romanian dictator and the Venezuelan superstar terrorist closely follow the movement of history itself. They are rise-and-fall stories in different keys (the Ujica is pitiless and sarcastic while the Assayas is deft, exhilarating) and different tempi (Ceausescu is defiantly slow and monumentally deadpan; Carlos moves at the speed of light and seems to cover enough ground for 10 films), and they both pull off a couple of impossibles. Ujica allows the official record to lay itself bare, to reveal how much was hidden and how much was unconsciously imparted. Assayas pulls off a miracle, creating a high point in the narrative strain initiated 20 years ago with GoodFellas, in which the energy never once dissipates, even during the normally hazardous “fall” section. He also takes us through a historical trajectory even stranger than Ceausescu’s, in which the guy who seemed to hold all the cards became a betting chip thrown on the table of geopolitics.