Monday, June 15, 2015

The Second Game

Calling The Second Game a glorified DVD commentary track seems unfair. After all, who would bother to put this muddy video of a 1988 Romanian soccer match on DVD? As per every snide joke ever aimed at professional soccer, the game even ends in a riveting 0-0 tie. And while there is some ancillary entertainment value in following the players as they slip and slide their way through a snowstorm, nothing on the field can match the subtle battle of wills occurring in the conversation between director Corneliu Porumboiu and his father Adrian, the referee of the game on display. True, the pair’s debate over Romanian history and the art of soccer periodically rambles off into dead ends or dull tangents, and one has to wonder whether Corneliu even planned to release this audio when he first recorded it (the occasional ding of a cellphone notification suggests the conversation was taped under rather relaxed conditions). But the game—featuring a team associated with the army and another with the police—is also rife with the everyday absurdities of life during the twilight of the Ceausescu dictatorship, such as when the camera pans across the audience to avoid showing an on-field argument. Good communists, we’re told, are expected to play nice.

Adrian’s initial response to his son’s questioning over every detail of the match is bemused. He can’t quite understand why anyone should be concerned with a 25-year-old soccer match. The game exists to entertain in the moment. Once over, who cares? The man seems blasé about his precarious position—an opening title card reveals that a young Corneliu even received an anonymous threat against his father—balancing the egos between the rival instruments of state oppression, police and army. There is a generational divide opening up in these responses to the pained history of the Ceausescu years, with the younger generation pushing for more answers than their elders care to give. But as the film progresses, the lulls in conversation stretch out like taffy as both father and son become increasingly absorbed by the game. The father is pulled back into the match, critiquing his calls and gruffly admitting that he is enjoying the spirited play between the two teams. Still, he denies the past, and for good reason. Those long-gone days remain too painfully vivid to be embalmed in history just yet.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


So much occurs within the deceptively static frame of Manakamana. Never moving beyond the four walls of a cable car riding to and from the eponymous temple in Nepal, the film consists of just 11 trips, each captured in a single uninterrupted take of about 10 minutes. Some passengers sit in an awkward silence only broken by the periodic metal-on-metal screech of the car rattling past another tower. Others idly remark upon the beautiful landscape below, play music, or bleat, in the case of a carload full of goats being transported toward their sacrificial end at the temple. Yes, there are life-and-death stakes in this humble film about people trying to sit quietly with a rooster on their lap.

The film’s restrictive concept liberates the viewer’s attention, and the world within and without the car reveals an abundance of little wonders. A bird flies past the window so quickly it vanishes like an apparition, calling to mind the disappearing bird swooping through the inner rooms of the Zone in Stalker. Blurry figures wade through the rippling waves of foliage covering the hillside or shout half-heard taunts at the swiftly moving car. In the wordless ride that opens the film, a young boy and old man—the youth agitated and uncomfortable, the elder stiff and stoic—look from side to side until the rhythms of their turning heads seem somehow choreographed. Everything is important when nothing happens.

Every detail, however innocuous, feels like a potential key to the mysterious vignettes unfolding before us, and the film invites the audience to approach each ride like a fresh puzzle to be solved. Consider one of the earlier sequences featuring a solitary woman carrying a basket of flowers. Viewers may feel a twinge of anxiety when the car jolts into motion—are we expected to just stare at this woman in silence for 10 minutes? Give it a few moments. You may notice that she is holding her basket at chest level, in an awkward position that no one could be expected to hold for the entire ride. So why does she do it here? For the camera, of course. Midway through the ride, she shifts to the centre of the seat to better frame herself for the viewer, and a brief, embarrassed smile betrays her ulterior motive before she returns to her nonchalant pose.

This episode, the second in the film, hints at the game being played by directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, who are both actually riding in the cable car with passengers. The couple carrying their rooster to sacrifice at the temple sit stiffly with downcast eyes, but it is not necessarily fear over the car’s rickety ascent that pins them to their seats. Rather, they have been instructed to not look at the camera, and they are so painfully aware of the camera’s presence that they cannot act naturally. By comparison, more experienced performers like the three metalheads inexplicably travelling with a mewling kitten—not intended for sacrifice, don’t worry—take selfies and chatter away for the benefit of the camera. What’s one more lens in their lives? Even the hum of the cable wire begins to sound like a film projector after a while. Or is that just the noise of the unseen 16 millimetre camera?

The verisimilitude of the film has been crafted for its own corruption, just as all of the trips have been carefully edited into a single continuous round trip that nonsensically goes up six times in a row, and then down five times. The directors, both veterans of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, even allow the film to run out on the final ride as the sound carries on, which only highlights the artifice binding the other sequences together. Whereas other films from the Lab aim for sensory immersion—the GoPro pandemonium of Leviathan, for example—this curious hybrid of documentary and structuralist filmmaking prefers sensory deception. Blurring of the line between performance and reality, the film reveals more about the viewer’s biases toward documentary form than anything of the customs and culture surrounding the unseen temple. If Spray and Velez are conducting an ethnographic study, then the true subjects are to be found in darkened theatres around the world, not the green hills of Nepal.