Saturday, June 16, 2007

12:08 East of Bucharest

A first-time director with an unusual talent for visual composition, Corneliu Porumboiu introduces the three principal characters of his film 12:08 East of Bucharest, denizens of Vaslui, a small Romanian town, through a series of eloquent static compositions that quickly situate the principals in their small town environment: an elderly man, Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu) searches for a cheap Santa-Claus costume, a drunken schoolteacher, Manescu (Ion Sapdaru) borrows money, a television host, Jderescu (Teodor Corban) argues with his mistress. Porumboiu brings these three together in the film's second half, a single extended scene that takes place on Jderescu's TV program and necessitates a shift in the director's aesthetic strategy.

The subject of Jderescu's program, which features Piscoci and Manescu as guests, is the question of whether or not a revolution occured in Vaslui fifteen years ago on December 22, 1989, the day Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown. In Jderescu's formulation, the question hinges on whether citizens converged in the town square before 12:08, the hour of Ceausescu's defeat or only after news of his deposition had already reached the town. If they came to the square only after the decisive hour, Jderescu argues, there was no revolution. Manescu insists he was there prior to 12:08, but a series of townspeople who call in to the show contradict his account. Porumboiu initially plays the Rashomon-like contradiction between points-of-view for laughs, but when it becomes increasingly clear that none of the witnesses saw Manescu on the square and his story becomes increasingly unlikely (Manescu's credibility further complicated by the fact that he was almost surely drunk at the time), the tone switches to one of sadness, especially given Manescu's continued insistence on his revolutionary presence.

In this long scene, Porumboiu abandons the seeming objectivity of his static compositions which defined the film's first half aesthetics in favor of a subjective point of view, reflecting the camerawork of the show's cameraman. This indivudal, a young man impatient with a stylistic approach like Proumboiu's, employs a jarringly mobile cinematographic technique, much to the host's chagrin. When we first see him, he is holding an unmounted camera, insisting on what he considers a more modern aesthetic strategy, but this approach is quickly dimissed by Jderescu. During the taping of the actual show, the camera goes in and out of focus, zooms seemingly at random and frames the wrong characters, the cinematography reflective not so much of a radical aesthetic as incompetence on the cameraman's part.

Porumboiu's strategy here serves a dual purpose. First, it breaks up the potential visual monotony of the forty-minute scene. The director's static camerawork is certainly effective in shorter scenes, but here the rag-tag appeal of the amateurish cinematography mainatains audience interest and creates humor. The visual strategy also serves another, more significant purpose. It underscores the subjective nature of experience which is the scene's dominant theme. By using an impressionistic, shifting camera, Proumboiu further emphasizes the disconnect between Manescu's percieved experience and that of the other townspeople, mirroring the contrast between the scene's subjective viewpoint where the audience sees the action as the cameraman chooses and the rest of the film, dominated by more objective static, medium shots which allow them to decide for themselves which aspects of the scene are most deserving of their attention.

The film's gorgeous final sequence finds Proumboiu returning to this earlier aesthetic strategy. As the television program ends, the cameraman leaves the studio and the director frames him in a stunning shot against a brick building as snow falls on the town. He waits for the streetlights to turn on and, when they do, he proclaims the scene "beautiful as my memories of the Revolution", emphasizing the subjective nature of memory, a theme that supports Manescu's dogged assertions in the face of the contrary experiences of the other townspeople. The cameraman's sense of the surrounding beauty is borne out by Proumboiu's perfect composition, which gives way to four additional snowscapes, as different parts of the town are illuminated. The shots are almost like still photographs, with only the falling snow providing any motion. The film's ending mirrors a similar sequence at the beginning of the work in which the lamps are turned off throughout the town, and it brings the often uproarious picture to a quiet, reflective conclusion. Literalizing the spread of the Revolution, these lovely sequences show off Porumboiu's painterly sense of composition and bring a final sense of melancholy to the director's historical meditation.

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