The Anthology Series is a roundtable column here at 4:3 where we look at the oft-overlooked genre of anthology films. Also known as portmanteaus, the anthology film is composed of a series of short films grouped together by theme or some awkward overarching premise. Some of the more popular portmanteaus in recent memory include Paris, je t’aime and horror anthology series V/H/S. There are also anthology films done by the same director, think Love Actually, Argentian Oscar-nominee Wild Tales and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. For the purposes of this column, we will be focusing on anthology films with more than two directors.
In this entry in the series, Ivan Čerečina and Jake Moody look at the 2009 Romanian film Tales from the Golden Age. Each of the six segments relates an “urban legend” from the era of Romanian communism under Ceausescu. These segments were all (seemingly) co-directed by Cristian Mungiu, Hanno Höfer, Ioana Uricaru, Constantin Popescu, and Razvan Marculescu.
The Legend of the Official Visit
Legend has it that they were still spinning when the motorcade turned up at the village.
Jake Moody: So first off, it strikes me as a smart idea in an anthology like this one to open with a piece that’s both explicitly political in content and overtly comic, and that’s what happens with “The Legend of the Official Visit”. Introducing the rough, provincial atmosphere under which many people in Ceausescu’s Romania lived is a good counterpoint to the popular and official narratives of industry, oppression, uniformity and so on. The clash of tricolour national flags and pro-Communist banners displayed by the villagers as they await a promised official motorcade is a great juxtaposition against the obviously agricultural, traditional lives they lead, and this incongruity makes the first segment for me probably the out-and-out funniest. It’s worth pointing out that even early on, the ‘stock troupe’ atmosphere of the Romanian New Wave is apparent, with the central village’s recalcitrant mayor played by Teodor Corban, who I raved about in Aferim! at SFF.
The kitschy, colourful visual vibe is also particularly effective in an opening segment, at times possessing the visual absurdity of a Jeunet film, which allows the short to stand on its own while establishing the ‘urban legend’ theme amongst the others, and also retaining the typical Eastern European black humour. The final payoff is also great, with the various local Party functionaries, sleep-deprived and pissed, still spinning on the carousel with nobody to turn it off, probably the single biggest laugh in the whole film. While there are other segments which surpass this one in parts, the consistency which it brings, as well as introduction to the whole film’s premise, make it an excellent opener.
Ivan Čerečina: This reminded me funnily enough of Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin which played at MIFF last year,1 not just because of its rural setting but the way in which the comedic elements are expressed through mise-en-scene. Perhaps the best example of this is the big gag at the end of the film that Jake also singled out, which draws its humour from the imposing carousel that has surreptitiously loomed in the background of a number of shots leading up to this finale. Looking back, it’s definitely the most interesting film from a compositional perspective, with some fine, colourful rural cinematography that stands above the rest of the anthology. As an opener, it does well to set the satirical tone of the rest of the anthology, though as we’ll see it eschews much of the darkness and sobriety of the later pieces in favour of physical and dialogue-driven comedy. The character archetypes introduced to us in the segment – the high up Party member, the concerned lower echelon bureaucrat, the villagers – are brought back in various permutations in the coming episodes of the anthology, so it makes for a neat start.
The Legend of the Party Photographer
Legend has it that it was the only time Scanteia2 didn’t reach the workers.
Jake: Next up is probably the slightest short in the collection, “The Legend of the Party Photographer”, about a pair of photo editors’ attempts to rush out a doctored newspaper image of Nicolae Ceausescu meeting French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, hampered by Party bureaucrats. It is really devoid of any meaningful characterisation, and, I’d wager, the shortest segment in the anthology, but ultimately a decent development on the first piece. The pair of presumably non-professional actors at its heart (they haven’t been in anything else since) give good displays of the absurdity of being a miserable factotum in a totalitarian system – actually, the more ‘official’ setting explored here, amongst smoky Party offices and drab staircases, provides a smart counterpoint to the first segment’s provincial setting which I think is really effective in consolidating the black satire of the Romanian social environment on show here.
All up, though, it is a well-placed but hardly independent short. The introduction of some of Hanno Höfer’s music, which is used brilliantly in other segments to lampoon the grim industrial pop-punk of late Communist youthfulness, is less effective here – a third of the way in, and I’m beginning to feel that some more cynicism is required to get to the heart of what the film’s supposed to be about.
Ivan: Like Jake, I though that this was a fairly funny but admittedly slight addition to the film, a decidedly light-hearted look at the absurdity of the cult of personality around Ceausescu. The bureaucratic committee at the centre of the process of recutting an image of the country’s leader are somewhat broadly drawn, echoing some of their counterpoints in the first segment (and throughout the anthology, in fact) in their flustered, fearful dedication to their post. Driven not by a deep-seated commitment to ideology but rather by a paranoia about provoking the ire of the Party higher-ups, the segment probably milks their blind subservience for comedic effect a little too much and without much nuance; the committee head helps us out here, shouting ‘Fuck ideology!’ at one of their meetings just in case we hadn’t got the point.
Still though, what was most refreshing was the stylistic departures that the segment took, eschewing drab realism for more adventurous compositions, particularly a few striking moments in the all-red development room where the photographers work. I would have liked to have seen more of the archival footage from the Ceausescu-era, as the brief glimpses we see of it do a nice job of contextualising the fictional story at the segment’s centre.
The Legend of the Zealous Activist
Legend has it by the end of the year, that the village reported a literacy rate of 99%.
Jake: For me, the third film, “The Legend of the Zealous Activist”, is probably the least fun to watch of the opening half’s three shorts, but also a welcome change of pace. While the film is actually quite cagey about the specific directors involved at each stage,3 it’s clear that whoever took over the reins at this point wished to capitalise on the anthology format. As we’re introduced to a young party activist being informed that the local area possesses the worst literacy rates in the nation, the editing pace slows and less emphasis is placed on comic timing. The giant, swooping pan over the Party meeting to focus on the functionary and his ‘call to action’ is a great use of camerawork to effect satire, too. This kind of visible change of tone would be jarring and probably ineffective in a typical narrative format, but it works well here as we’re viewing each segment in a vacuum.
I don’t, though, think that ‘Zealous Activist’ is the best of the urban legends featured as the backbone of the anthology – following the activist into a rough rural community and observing his eventual defeat by the wily local shepherd doesn’t feel as rewarding a payoff as with the earlier, more obviously comic short. However, the greater sense of conflict or cynicism involved in this story is welcome, and for me seems to be part of a transition towards more serious engagement with social realism as the film goes on.
Ivan: Probably my least favourite segment so far, this feels like a pretty tame piece of satire that misses an opportunity to examine some lasting divides in Romanian society. Urban/rural is the broader grouping that contains within it the subsets of educated/poorly educated, intelligentsia/proletarian masses, yet there is very little in this segment that isn’t just reinforcing preconceived notions of the character of these groups. As with so many of these “city-dweller goes to the sticks” films, comedy is drawn from clashes of taste and class. Here, the earthy villagers resist the activists attempts to make them literate, preferring to tend to their livestock, and the party member leaves the village in defeat. While the segment doesn’t exactly push the message that the villagers are stupid, its sketches of characters are much to one-dimensional and clichéd to really say anything interesting. The use of folksy country-bumpkin music accompanying the activist’s adventure into the country doesn’t help things either. The low point of the collection for me.
The Legend of the Greedy Policeman
Legend has it that the family used what remained of the animal for the seasonal celebrations.
Jake: Coming into number 4 of 6, it does seem strange that barely fifty minutes of a two-and-a-quarter-hour film have passed and we’re at the nominal halfway point. Pacing is everything in these anthologies, and relying on the second half of an already long film to pack most of the weight is really a big imbalance. It’s fortunate in this case, then, that this is such a strong contribution – I felt that the film as a whole was in danger of being derailed at this point, but for me “The Legend of the Greedy Policeman” continues the deepening naturalism of the third segment, with greater emphasis on grey, jagged environments and nasty-looking tower blocks. It’s these environments which we typically associate with a lot of post-Soviet cinema, and so I understand the impulse to reject them, but at the same time real incisiveness is usually best achieved by exploring the true everyday experiences of people.
This short is perfect for the format, concerning a simple comic plot – the policeman of its title attempting to obtain a black-market pig from his brother, which unexpectedly arrives alive – whose black humour is tempered by a cynicism about the system which generates such situations. Of any of the segments, this one surely possesses the darkest punchline, with the policeman’s determined efforts to gas the animal using his son’s school science knowledge resulting in an exploded apartment. In the end, this short is the strongest of the bunch because its touches of communitarian solidarity are tempered with pessimism –it manages to balance the competing parts of a film like this most effectively.
Ivan: I’d say this is the strongest of the bunch too. It’s certainly the funniest segment of the anthology, but the best thing about it is that the humour isn’t at the service of some broad allegorical point or to offer a caricature of certain rungs of society. Rather, the film commits to its simple plot and the big gag at the end of it in and of themselves – the social critique it produces is more a nuanced by-product of the characters’ actions rather than an explicit, none-too-nuanced central metaphor. As with the best segments in the anthology, it succeeds because it plays off the interpersonal relationships that drive the narrative with the social context in which they occur. When Uncle Fane brings his brother’s family a pig, it’s a special occasion owing to the shortages in the butcher shops. The other half of the pig is intended for his wife’s medicine professor as a way to help her get in his good books for her studies. The son wants his parents to kill the pig so that he can peddle some choice portions to his studious classmate, and thereby get ahead with his physics homework. All of these competing relationships centre around the black market pig, and it does a neat job of showing the personal and the political become enmeshed in times of economic hardship.
The Legend of the Air Sellers
Legend has it that with the end of communism, Romanians bought Dacia cars with empty bottles.
Jake: This one was a let-down for me after “Policeman”, mainly because its seems to disregard the wit of the first and fourth shorts for a more stereotypical Romanian New Wave style which ultimately just didn’t work that well in the anthology format. Which is a particular shame because the urban legend at its core is probably the most interesting: with no other means of making money, unscrupulous youths would supposedly turn up at apartment block doors posing as government officials and convince residents of the need for a water sample – the bottle then being exchanged for a small refund for profit. Both the growing presence of criminality in the shorts and the essentially pathetic nature of that crime are smart comments on the hopelessness and cynicism engendered by governments like Ceausescu’s, as are other recurring themes such as the supposedly distant dream of owning a car.
However, “The Legend of the Air Sellers” does tail off a bit – a premise this simple, as teenaged Crina meets up with conman Bughi and suggests to him that even fictional air samples could be used to make a profit, needs to be really succinct. Instead, we’re met with a short considerably longer than the openers, which does introduce a lot of the bleak humour so synonymous with the New Wave but which also tries to act as a quasi-serious social realist drama. The comical vibrancy of the early shorts’ mise-en-scène is replaced by a kind of drabness that doesn’t work to evoke the sense of a downtrodden community as presumably intended, but instead feels somewhat disengaged.
Ivan: I agree, Jake, that this segment probably has the punchiest and most promising premise, one that seems perfectly suited to this short format. It’s a story that lends itself to comedy because of the repetition that is at its core: each interaction with the occupants of the flats is another chance for a gag, and variation is at the core of the humour; how Crina and Bughi will tackle the obstacles of swindling each occupant offers a comedic crutch to fall back on. There’s something of an unevenness of tone here, though, or at least the director doesn’t quite know how to level the comic absurdity of the premise with a social realist narrative (Crina’s) that is bubbling under the surface. Crina becomes involved with Bughi’s con-artistry in order to go to a school camp that her parents can’t afford, that much is clear, but the associated coming-of-age uncertainties that are hinted at with this central goal are swept aside as soon as the two begin their con artistry. It’s an odd shift and one that makes the tonal choices in the film (i.e. between gag-driven comedy and sober drama) somewhat jarring.
Still, some of the reflections on the paranoia and divisiveness that infused social relationships in the Eastern Bloc post-1989 really hit the mark. The highlight of the segment for me is the well-earned joke about those who own three-bedroom apartments handing over champagne bottles to the faux government officials. It succinctly encapsulates the distrust pervasive in the Eastern bloc amongst neighbours, where widespread material shortage made gossip and hearsay into its own kind of social currency.
The Legend of the Chicken Driver
Legend has it that many Romanians were forced to steal in order to survive during the ‘80s.
Jake: Both closers for me were a bit disappointing, with the final segment probably the weakest of the bunch. It’s hard not to feel that their duration probably contributes to some kind of fatigue at this point – burning a fun sub-twenty-minute short at the start may have been effective then, but leaves us with harder-to-digest-work now, when it’s least palatable. The concluding “The Legend of the Chicken Driver” also isn’t as well-shot as many of the other segments, with the old equivalency that handheld cameras = Communism on open display, and a general odd sense that the premise for a feature film has been wedged into a short.
Maybe lacking the youthful focus of many of the previous segments makes this one feel a bit sadder, especially with its focus on the middle-aged deadbeat Grigore and his attempts to woo a roadhouse cook at the expense of his cantankerous wife. There’s a sense that subversion comes from radical people, and very everyday stories can feel ‘too small’ to work as satire. For me, that’s probably one of the main take-outs of the whole film: anthologies which are ‘political’ in nature do require a naturalist style at times, as well as benefiting from overt comedy. Most of all, though, they do seem to need to maintain the balance between comic and tragic tones to a greater extent than a standalone feature would, a result of the constant need to introduce settings, characters, and relationships. “Chicken Driver” works worst with the format, and so loses much of its power, while the shorts from earlier on which are cynical about Romania’s history while also retaining the ability to laugh at the madness of it all are the strongest.
Ivan: Actually I’d diverge a little from what Jake has said about the positioning of “Chicken Driver” at the end of the film as I think it makes sense coming after the “Air Sellers” short given their stylistic similarity and their shared plot points. We have a man, unhappy at home, hustling for extra money on the side: the problem of material shortage (here, a lack of food for the Easter celebrations) melds with a personal crisis (a stale marriage), in the same way that Crina’s desire for extra money is driven by her wanting to pursue a social rite of passage in the form of the summer camp. Stylistically as well we might point out a similarity, with hand-held camera and strict diegetic sound shared across both films, though “Chicken Driver” feels more rigorous in its austerity and sobriety. While the comedy that was quite successful in the other segments isn’t there, I think it works well as a piece of social criticism in the way that it focuses on personal relationships to gesture towards how material realities can permeate even on this interpersonal level. It reminds me of a similar strategy used in Cristian Mungiu’s Romanian New Wave staple 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days with its complete focus on the plight of its protagonist while eschewing all broader social or political references. This is a work in a similar vein, and while it’s probably the least fun of all of the segments and certainly feels like a truncated feature in its relative narrative complexity, it’s a fine way to end the anthology.
Despite there being five directors listed for six shorts – Cristian Mungiu, Hanno Höfer, Ioana Uricaru, Constantin Popescu, and Razvan Marculescu – no one director is credited with any particular short.
|1. The Legend of the Greedy Policeman
2. The Legend of the Official Visit
3. The Legend of the Party Photographer
4. The Legend of the Air Sellers
5. The Legend of the Zealous Activist
6. The Legend of the Chicken Driver
|1. The Legend of the Greedy Policeman
2. The Legend of the Chicken Driver
3. The Legend of the Official Visit
4. The Legend of the Party Photographer
5. The Legend of the Air Sellers
6. The Legend of the Zealous Activist