A fantastic Romanian New Wave film, Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest fits the mold: largely wide, static frames; absurdist comedy; socially adept narratives. It strikes me – likely because I’ve been watching several of them lately – that the genre and mood of these films is perhaps closest to that of the Czech New Wave (I’ve got a few of them upcoming on this blog).
Jderescu (Teodor Corban) owns a local TV station. After some cancellations he finally is able to bring Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), a local teacher, and Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu) onto his show to discuss the events of December 22, 1989, when Nicolae Ceausescu left the country bringing an end to Communism.
While 12:08 East of Bucharest is foremost a comedy, it’s also really heartfelt. The questions and thoughts at its core: was revolution the reason that Ceausescu left, or did “revolution” occur after his departure?; semantics vs. action; heroism; and the distortion of (collective) memory.
This latter one reminds me a lot of The Tin Drum, which I just recently read. There’s something in 12:08 about the unwillingness to discuss an event, the willingness to remember it a certain way, or, in Manescu’s case (whether you believe him or not), the willingness to remember it an entirely different way than everyone else.
One of the metaphors of the film is declared by Piscoci who says that a revolution is like the streetlights in Bucharest: they go on gradually, spreading throughout. This, to Piscoci, is how things started in 1989.
The film opens foreshadowing that idea, with a shot like this one, among others. Piscoci sitting eating while the lights turn on outside:
At the end of the film Porumboiu returns to these images as Jderescu, in voiceover, refutes Piscoci’s claim, saying that actually, all of the streetlights turn on at once (read: revolution flares up at once everywhere). This is accompanied and followed by a deceptively complex series of shots.
A streetlight on a corner turns on:
Streetlights down a street turn on:
Streetlights on another street turn on one at a time:
So what’s the big deal? Well, Porumboiu is playing with us. Is this a crosscut that is supposed to represent parallel action (meaning – are all of these lights supposed to be turning on at the same time and, short of a split screen, there’s no better way to visually display it?)
Or is this linear and are the lights turning on one at a time?
In short: is this Piscoci’s or Jderescu’s claim? It’s a clever way by Porumboiu to give a non-answer to his own question, or perhaps, to allow for both answers, because even with the advantage of hindsight on such an event not all things immediately become clear.
A lot of the humor in 12:08 is from its comically austere framing, like these:
Both wides are so static that the motion – particularly the lonely clarinetist in the first one above – is really emphasized. And you have to watch that entire slow walk from frame right to left.
The second frame above is continued when Jderescu enters his TV studio. In the frame above he enters to find his opening band playing Latin music. He insists on something more nationalistic and Porumboiu gives us, to that point, a rare cut within a scene. Jderescu lectures his cameraman on going handheld and disappears behind the glass of the recording room. The cameraman and clarinetist (who lost his clarinet) sullenly set up the frame and sit, leaving the camera to do the work for them:
It’s pretty tongue-in-cheek of course. Porumboiu prefers the static frame. He’s that young director with the hat. His job is easy, right? All he does is point the camera, and let things happen. He doesn’t have much to do (wink wink).
A lot of the other comedy comes from Piscoci’s hilarious performance (that’s him frame left below – a good still to represent his demeanor throughout), the poor camerawork throughout the amateurish show (see the second and third frames below – a lazy, accidental tilt down, and unorthodox, clumsy framing), and Manescu’s insistence on his involvement in the revolution despite the refutation by numerous callers:
The comedy, though, is reined in at the end when a female caller to the show puts the brakes on things. She’s not calling to berate Manescu or Jderescu as many others are. She’s there to talk about her son who died after the events in question. She goes on to tell the TV panel that it’s snowing outside. That they’d better enjoy it now before it gets muddy later. Her delivery is stoic. It shuts everyone up.
Her point seems to be: who cares if it was the revolution that sparked things or not? Who cares how the streetlights go out in Bucharest? Her son died. That’s real. Porumboiu then cuts outside and it is indeed still snowing. We get to enjoy it (like people enjoyed Ceausescu’s departure) before it turns to mud (like her son’s death, like the bickering aftermath, like the state of Romania).