Returning to Beauty


Our attention span is constantly getting shorter. This is a different, polyphonic reception of reality – fragmentation of time and perception. You can’t argue with it because that’s the nature of the world, driven by our changing attitude towards time and our own concentration

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Jagna Lewandowska, Maciej Stasiowski: You once said you were a poet and painter who made films. How do these proportions look like today?

Lech Majewski: Perhaps the emphasis has shifted slightly towards painting but poetry is important too… It seems to me that it’s actually still the same. Film allows you to wed these two elements. It allows them to last in time, like music. Of course, the painting and the poem also last in time because a poet has to be read and a painting has to be viewed. But it’s still an indeterminate, ambiguous process. You can stand in front of a piece in a museum for two seconds or two days whereas film has its limited duration. This makes it a philosophical riddle.

Lech Majewski,
photo: Dwa Brzegi Festival
You, however, especially in your videos, defy cinematic linearity.

Not only in the videos. My latest film, The Mill and the Cross, based on a Peter Bruegel painting, is also multilayered. It has its main plot, of course, to be grasped immediately, but if someone wanted to go deeper, they’d find hidden layers, all explicated in Michael Gibson’s famous essay, out now on the Polish market in a beautiful album edition. All the reproductions in the book, which is called Bruegel. The Mill and the Cross, were printed using the special technique of stochastic printing (without grid) on silk-enriched paper. Section two contains filming stills, section three is the script.

Your video installation Blood of a Poet is a non-linear form by definition. Weren’t you afraid that the full-length feature Glass Lips you made on its basis might be in a way incomplete?

You mean that the installation is simultaneously shown on 33 screens? A Borgesian garden of bifurcating paths. Cortazar did that in Hopscotch, offering at least two different options of reading the book. With 33 videos, the number of possible narratives is close to infinity. Of course, there are certain binding elements in this work: leitmotifs, objects, symbols or the same situations played out in different configurations. Each video is of different length and they can be screened simultaneously until the end of the world and longer without the given synchronicity moment repeating itself. Laurence Kardish, curator of the New York Museum of Modern Art, said that if you write poems, at some point it’s time to put them in a volume, to create an organised whole – and so Blood of a Poet gave rise to Glass Lips.

So perhaps you publish your next book as liberature?

In The Mill and the Cross, a film with many semantic levels, the most interesting thing construction-wise was to build a labyrinth within a closed time. Bruegel’s painting is a sort of philosophical essay. All that other artists highlighted, he puts in the background, be it the fall of Icarus, the suicide of Saul, or the suffering of Christ – Bruegel hides it all from us. The crucial events are woven into the labyrinth of the daily.

Are you already planning another motion picture? In selecting your ideas, are you guided by some kind of key or by intuition and impulses?

I have various personal visions, visual motifs, that I’ll be trying to realise. But I don’t really like talking about the future. I try not to do it because the future keeps surprising me. I don’t want to provoke it.

Returning to bifurcating paths, what do you think about the practice of publishing movies on DVD where you can divide them into segments or scenes and reshuffle those?

You can navigate between them but that’s mainly to browse quickly through the film. Our attitude towards time has been changing. Our attention span is constantly getting shorter. People free the picture because their phone is ringing or they’ve remembered something they were supposed to do. Then they return to the movie. This is a different, polyphonic reception of reality – fragmentation of time and perception. You can’t argue with it because that’s the nature of the world, driven by our changing attitude towards time and our own concentration. I have a TV with 200 channels on Manhattan and there’s nothing to watch on most of them. Let alone the fact that whatever is shown is constantly interrupted with the same commercials and it is them, rather than the film itself, that you remember. I guess it was Fellini who said that film is just an unnecessary addition to commercials.

Your recent films have all been made using digital technology and it seems that you’ve really mastered it and adapted it to your needs. In one interview you even liken the digital camera to a brush, in opposition to analog equipment. Does the predictability, literalness, sharpness of digicam not put you off sometimes?

This sharpness helps greatly, especially with the latest film. It hurts me that The Mill and the Cross will be shown not only in Blu-ray but also on DVD because several deeper backgrounds with a whole range of characters are then lost. The film takes place in 1563, in the full bloom of the Renaissance. A characteristic feature of painting then was to juxtapose a very distinct foreground with a depth of field. Somewhere beyond a figure’s shoulder, afar, we see perfectly rendered tiny human figures. If we approach the painting, we can clearly recognise who these people are and what they are doing. I’ve always been fascinated by that. I wondered how to shoot such a scene. If you use a wide lens, the foreground will be slightly deformed and the background becomes tiny. You can’t make out the details. A longer lens means that what’s up close looks alright but in the back everything is out of focus. I remember that Orson Welles encountered that problem. When Gregg Toland made the first camera tests and presented them to Welles, the director asked, surprised, “Why is the background so blurry?” The cinematographer explained to him that this is how the lens works, but Welles’s childish obstinacy prevailed. They cut the lens in half, glued together the elements and they had what they wanted: the foreground all the backgrounds were in focus. Digital technology permits the same effect on an even larger scale. Welles was a film neophyte and that helped him to break many seemingly unshakable rules. He broke through them with youthful swagger and maximalism. The danger of digital technology rests in the fact that it has become almost exclusively a tool for making banal fairy tales.

What do you think is the role of contemporary art? Should commenting on recent events be one of its duties or should it turned towards the past?

I blame contemporary art for the death of spirituality and aesthetics. Aesthetics construed as contact with beauty, indispensable for mental health, allowing you to find Arcadia. 20th-century art shattered that sense of beauty to pieces. Just take a look around the contemporary art galleries, all these monsters, the bloody guts… During the launch of my album at the New York MoMA, the director was showing me around the new exhibition. Suddenly there’s consternation because I’ve trampled on a blind lying on the floor. I thought it had fallen from the window but no – it was a work of art! Well, galleries all over the world are full of such blinds, trash and waste. A world torn apart by the beast of banality.

You have been likened to Matthew Barney…

Well, we even have the same distributor in the US. It’s precisely from them that I have Barney’s latest film. Of course, I admire his sculptures but the films – well, it’s art for art’s sake. I admire people like Greenaway or Barney for creating their own language and finding a loyal audience for themselves. However you look at it, it’s a great achievement. However, their work does not particularly appeal to me. I feel much closer to William Kentridge or Bill Viola.

Have you seen Adam Sikora’s latest work, The Expelled? Two artists with a connection to you in a separate project. Sikora, a cinematographer friend of yours as the director, and actor Krzysztof Siwczyk (of Wojaczek fame) trying their hand at Beckett. Without forgetting their Mikołów heritage, though.

No, Adam doesn’t show me his films. It’s good that Krzysztof has already become so post-Wojaczek – a postscript to Wojaczek… I haven’t seen it, unfortunately, but I’m happy to see my film reverberating like this years later.

In Angelus, the characters speak Silesian dialect. Have you ever thought of adapting a folk story?

I was born in Stalinogród, that is, Katowice, so renamed after the Generalissimo’s death. I remember old ladies in folk costumes, the horses, the coal wagons. In fact, in primary school my friends spoke pure Silesian so just playing with them was enough to learn it by heart. Just as Wojaczek was a journey towards my youthful fascinations, so Angelus was a return to images from childhood. Surprisingly, I remember my teenage days in black and white and the earlier childhood as a feast of colours – in ORWO Technicolor.

When, in 1981, I saw Manhattan for the first time, I went for a walk around Central Park and I saw huge houses in the sun, I had a peculiar feeling – they were like the houses I looked at in Katowice as a boy. They were back in the same proportion. I felt like I was four again. I also remember that when after nine years’ absence I found myself again in my old apartment, where I was born, I also had an incredible feeling. Everything that I had remembered as huge seemed minute to me now. These days I visit my mother more often and the magical rooms have expanded again. But not only space has its strange twists. Not long ago I met in New York with Michael Hausman, the producer of Miloš Forman or Martin Scorsese. Michael produced my US debut 25 years ago, Flight of the Spruce Goose, and we hadn’t seen each other since. And now, sitting in a bar with him, I felt like we had last met three months earlier. When, in turn, I remember things that happened a year ago it turns out they are from seven years past. Time and space constantly become warped, bulging and deforming like in a fairground mirror. I’ve been to Kazimierz several times now. It would seem that moving around a town stretched along the Vistula will be a piece of cake. And yet I constantly get lost here and discover new dimensions of houses, squares and streets.

Do you see magical potential in Kazimierz? Could you make a film Angelus here?

Hard to say. I’m always here in high season, the place teeming with tourists. This paralyses, numbs you. If I were to experience any magic here, it would have to be at a quieter time.

Is every filmmaker a would-be critic?

Am I an unfulfilled critic? No… I’ve never really felt the need. If I wrote about films, it was about those that had personally touched me. I tried to find out which elements worked as a meta-language, allowing me to fall into resonance. I’ve written about various films. I’ve written a book about Fellini’s Eight and a Half. I spent two months with that movie on a camp bed in the editing room of the Łódź Film School. I slept with it. No DVDs then. In fact, today I’d go for the editing table too because only then you can count the frames, watch the splices on the film. Eight and a Half, a film so closely studied, still hid a lot from me. It’s a phenomenon of great movies – their essence always eludes you, no matter how many nails you use to pin it to your desk. It’s a constant flight of this “thing”, the spiritual substance, esotery, pneuma, transcendence or the Arielic intangibles. Ariel hovering above and refusing to be pinned down [laughs]. Amazingly, the spirits floating over works of art are the most durable media. They are essentially Platonic. The physicality of these objects is fragile, brittle and faded, but their spiritual essence is more durable then tungsten. In recent years I embarked on the ambitious project of reading The Divine Comedy in two languages: in Polish (in two translations) and in English (in three translations, one in blank verse, two rhymed). I also collected literature on each cantica, going through all this at the pace of about one part a year. And everything that I learned about the unique “space” of this work was between the lines, as it were. When you read Dante’s text in the standard fashion, you just skim over the characters, situations…

The text signals…

Yes, the text is just semaphores. It’s like reading Eliot but he often included footnotes. It forces you to follow the author’s inspiration. I recently bought a facsimile of the typescript of The Waste Land in New York. You can see the first typescript and all the alterations – 200 pages, photographed 1:1. It is only in this scale that you see the author’s work. If I could find Wojaczek’s old poems and print the facsimile with his notes. Then we would see how the unique poet is building something, where he’s searching. In Borges, who put a great effort into polishing his texts, every metaphor is beautiful. And again we’re talking about Beauty. We’re far out!

Well, let’s return to earth then. Thank you very much for this conversation.