Friday, January 20, 2012

Jerzy Skolimowski and Deep End

Posted By on 01.20.12 at 04:00 PM

Deep End (1970)
  • Deep End (1970)
Given the retrospectives devoted to Sergei Eisenstein, Mikio Naruse and Sergio Leone currently underway in Chicago—not to mention the Robert Bresson retrospective beginning tomorrow at the Siskel Center and the new print of Wages of Fear that opens at the Music Box today—it’s easy to overlook the one-off screening of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970) at Doc Films this Sunday at 7 PM. But it’s a rare revival of a major film—and one that’s still unavailable on DVD in the US. Dave Kehr called it “one of the most authentic films about adolescence that I know,” noting how Skolimowski’s recent departure from Poland enhanced its “unusually strong sense of displacement, unfamiliarity and isolation” (it’s also blackly funny and the soundtrack, which features Cat Stevens and Can, is an added bonus).

These qualities are consistent across Skolimowski’s films, a fascinating body of work that spans five countries (Poland, France, England, the US, and Italy) in as many decades and ranges from surrealist art movies (Walkover, The Shout) to broad comedies (King, Queen, Knave, 30 Door Key) and period pieces (Torrents of Spring). In addition to their recurring themes of alienation (from country, family, or self), the films share a bitter sense of humor, generally relishing in the irony of morbid situations. Skolimowski is one of the cinema’s true Wandering Jews, exiled (or “asked to leave,” as he’s put it) from his native Poland when he was 29 but honing his perspective as an outsider well before that. His first four features, made in Poland between 1964 and 1967, notably satirized youth culture as well as Communism.

These four films (which screened at the Film Center last July) are comedies about young men and women looking for happiness in a world that baffles them: in Identification Marks: None and Walkover, Skolimowski’s character is pinballed from university to factory to military service to semipro boxing, never quite sure if he’s enjoying himself; and something always interrupts the two lovers in Barrier before they can learn each others‘ names. Skolimowski had published poetry in his early 20s, and these films, made only a few years later, often feel more like poetry than prose. Skolimowski conveys his social observations through large-scale visual metaphors, using inventive cinematography to make real urban locations look like the stuff of nightmares.

Jerzy Skolimowski in 2010
  • Jerzy Skolimowski in 2010
While Deep End is more realistic than Skolimowski’s previous films, its poetic sensibility remains sharp. One of the film’s pleasures is seeing how this non-narrative worldview worms in and around the demands of a British youth picture circa 1970. Skolimowski finds as many interesting ways to shoot a London public pool as he did to shoot a Łódz chemical plant in Walkover: that is to say, a lot. This pool, where the adolescent antihero comes of age—or, rather, first discovers sexual obsession—is at different times familiar, pathetic, and discomforting (indeed, it's a perfect backdrop for adolescence itself).

In contrast to the Polish films, politics aren’t an obvious source of anxiety for the protagonist (John Moulder-Brown), so Skolimowski compensates by amplifying the kid’s anxieties about sex, resulting in a tone that’s jumpier and more ominous than any of his previous work. The critic Glenn Kenny has posited that Deep End influenced both Taxi Driver and Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (which, incidentally, also screens at Doc Films this weekend), so fans of either film are especially encouraged to check out Sunday’s screening.

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