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* SCREENING ROOM

Skolimowski's World

The American Cinematheque is screening some of the Polish emigre director's major works.

April 02, 1998|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The American Cinematheque's "The Outsider: The Films of Jerzy Skolimowski," begins Friday at 7:15 p.m. at Raleigh Studio's Chaplin Theater. It kicks off with "Deep End" (1971), one of the masterpieces from the Polish emigre director who has aptly said of himself, "I have the talent to create panic all around."

Indeed, Skolimowski, who is as disciplined as he is impassioned, is the master of emotionally charged, beautifully evoked atmosphere. Skolimowski will be present to discuss his films at all screenings.

"Deep End" deals with a youth on the brink of manhood, but the hero's wryly comic encounters move from poignancy and charm to unexpected tragedy. In the process, Skolimowski has created a masterpiece, a picture that freezes the smile on your face.

When 15-year-old Mike (John Moulder Brown) is hired as an attendant at a huge and dingy London public bath, his instructor is Susan (Jane Asher), a beautiful redhead several years his senior. (Both actors are flawless.) Shy and sensitive, Mike is abashed by Susan's warning that the patrons, male as well as female, may want more than just a towel and soap and, what's more, that there's good money in it.

One day, however, Susan, who is both cruel and provocative, discovers Mike is a virgin and makes a teasing pass at him only to catapult him into a total and helpless love. Mike's passionate pursuit of Susan is hilarious until at last there is a final confrontation between innocence and corruption.

For Susan, a lovely, resilient young woman who has been made deeply cynical by poverty, is even more cynical and bitter than she realizes. Without uttering a word of social protest, Skolimowski has created an impassioned denunciation of society's evils.

Before that chilling moment of truth, "Deep End" is a very funny film. The choice of that cavernous public bath with its huge indoor plunge--longtime Angelenos will be reminded of the old Bimini Baths--as the principal setting is inspired. It lends a slightly surreal quality to the story that is echoed in Skolimowski's highly developed sense of the ridiculous, the hallmark of East European filmmakers.

Populated with acutely observed characters, "Deep End," deceptively casual, is full of superb comic episodes. Skolimowski finds the line between comedy and tragedy very thin indeed.

Before the credits of "Barrier" (1966), which screens Friday at 9:30 p.m. with "Identification Marks: None," we watch a series of men, their hands tied behind their backs, hurl themselves off whatever it is they're kneeling on. The camera gradually discloses that they're engaged in a crazy kind of competition, the prize being a piggy bank containing their pooled savings. We learn they're a group of young medical students, and the winner (Jan Nowicki) of the contest then commences a Kafkaesque odyssey involving a brief encounter with a pretty blond streetcar driver.

The film's title, it would seem, refers to the obstacles that young people everywhere must overcome to become a part of the society in which they live. Skolimowski is highly critical of life in an Iron Curtain country, and he expresses his strong feelings obliquely in stark, abstract images.

The world of "Barrier" is a nightmarish one in which an individual is cast adrift in vast empty spaces, desperately reaching out to another only to be pulled away.

On his fantastic journey, which commences symbolically the day before Easter, Nowicki is weighed down by a large suitcase and is armed with his father's antique sword, reclaimed from a pawnshop that could have been designed by Dali.

Skolimowski's images, shot in harsh, high-contrast black and white, are frequently striking. At one point we watch Nowicki try to scale an old brick wall to rescue a chicken tied to a fire escape. The camera then pulls back to show us an immense crowd gathered to watch Nowicki fall. A sequence takes place in an immense, nearly deserted nightclub in which the charwoman proves to be the star yet must scrub the floor before she can sing.

Perhaps inevitably, a studied, pretentious quality creeps into "Barrier," which boasts one of the late Krzysztof Komeda's evocative scores. But it remains an effective expression of protest by an angry and talented young artist. It has been suggested that Skolimowski had been influenced by Cocteau and Fellini. But with its romantic quality and often luminous lighting "Barrier" brings to mind Murnau's "Sunrise," which also involves a trip to a city, streetcars, a romance and even a big cafe scene.

Most of Skolimowski's films are all too rarely shown and his 1964 "Identification Marks: None" most likely has never before been screened locally. It is remarkable for a first feature, for it elicits an unsettling ambiguity and uncertainty as effectively as subsequent Skolimowski films. Casting himself as a drifter finally caught up in the draft, Skolimowski uses an astonishingly fluid camera to allow us to see the world through his young man's eyes.

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