Die Unerzogenen / The Unpolished (2007)

9 05 2014

Within the first five minutes of Pia Marais’ debut, young Stevie is told by her mother, Lily, that they need to mentally prepare for the return of her father, Axel. While this suggests we might need to be afraid of Axel (his name is menacing enough, if not comically overzealous), Lily herself quickly finds herself back in his arm. Stevie is unimpressed, though, and she’s rather break away from the control of her parents. Marais’ debut is one of the all-time great films about being a teenager, it seems very much in step with The State I Am In, directed by Marais’ fellow countrymen, Christian Petzold. Marais might have more in common with Maurice Pialat, though oddly enough her debut seems like the antithesis of his most celebrated work, A nos amours. The problem here is not teenagers having the freedom to confront their approaching adult and being alienated by it, but instead one who is trapped in that tragically liminal state, but willing to do everything to break out of it.

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With Axel back in the family picture, Lily and Stevie move into his deserted house. There’s two other men there, and it would be presumptuous and unfair to label them as drug addicts, but they are there because they’ve been weathered down by the conditions of conventional society, and the living plans that go with that. One of them, Ingmar, shows an interest in Stevie. She is repulsed by the men around her, and instead their constant references to her budding sexuality. She teases him, but the only attention she is able to receive from anyone comes from his gaze. Stevie makes some friends her age, but they are still cold around her, perhaps simply having her around to benefit from her drug-dealing parents. Even with some companionship, she struggles to shake the feeling that she’s alone.

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There’s an uncomfortable feeling one gets in watching Stevie do pretty much anything in this film. Perhaps that’s because everything she does involves her in close physical proximity to her parents. One wouldn’t describe them as “helicopter parents” in fact they are the parents that such individuals who fit the label fear. They’re irresponsible, care-free, and financially dependent on Axel dealing drugs. This might seem overwhelmingly bleak, perhaps approaching the fatalism of someone like Lars Von Trier, but Marais’ eye observes everything as if under the control of the bewildered fourteen year old girl who is experiencing all of this. Sure, it’s bad to be hanging around exclusively with junkies, but it is the only existence she knows. Instead of overwhelming the audience with how terrible and miserable Stevie’s family life is, Marais’ camera almost suggests we get comfortable with the reality, just as Stevie herself has had to do. So many of us are fascinated by the “transgressive” nature of poverty, especially in film (see GummoLos Olvidados, Pixote – all films I would consider favorites, by the way) but Stevie herself is bored with it. She is constantly looking for what she finds fascinating, but what many of us would call banal: the well-dressed family staying in same hotel, a group of girls her age gossiping about boys, and so on.

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More important than this idea of “normalcy” which is obviously a construct. As a teenager, the rest of the world seems normal because we see only the performance of others in the public sphere. I hesitate to say “everyone is fucked up” because it sounds both trite and reductive, but it might be wise to express such a sentiment to Stevie. She doesn’t realize the idea of normal is completely false. Her more tragic learning moment comes in her interaction with men. She wakes up one day to find Ingmar in the kitchen. His body language, how he positions himself in the physical space of the kitchen is already sexual and intended to discourage to Stevie. To her credit, she beats him at his own game. She promises to perform fellatio on him, before recanting and adding “you could never afford me anyway.” It’s a powerful moment for Stevie because she’s won this sort of game, but alas, she’s going to spend the rest of her life dealing with similar bullshit from men.

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She warms to the idea of Ingmar as a potential sexual partner, though and eventually throws herself at him. It’s easy to read all of this as the actions of a sad girl trying to communicate something with the rest of the world, but again, that’s too simplistic. As much as Stevie is repulsed by the sexuality that men around her impose on her body, she is fascinated with the idea of sexuality to herself. She sees a romantic relationship to achieve some agency, and distance herself from her parents. Throughout the film, Lily and Axel wield her around like carry-on luggage. Children can be a burden, sure, but they almost accept her as only this possibility. Not as a person worthy of their love and care. That’s why she seeks something else. The heartbreaking irony is that a romantic relationship will, in all likelihood, lead her down a similar path. As Hong Song-Soo has showed us, a patriarchal society limits a woman’s agency when she’s in a heterosexual relationship. This is not her fault, of course, but Stevie’s craving to be her own person is not likely to be fulfilled with the route she’s taking.

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The beauty of the situation, if there is any to be found, is that Stevie does indeed have the time to fuck up and learn. So many of us do, whether it be with sex or the countless other exciting yet emotionally exhausting things we do as teenagers. I come back around to Pialat’s A nos amours. The anxiety felt in this film is the pressures of being your own person, and the struggle happens within an environment that is much less imposing than the one in Marais’ film. Suzanne’s situation seems brighter, she would be the type of girl that Stevie gazes at in jealousy. The experiences are always different, but if there is something universal in the teen condition, it’s the idea of being counted as a person. Both films are beautiful and bittersweet depictions of this struggle. It’s one we should all remember and be sympathetic towards.

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Dealer (1999)

8 05 2014

There’s no one who has seen Thomas Arslan’s Dealer that wasn’t completely sure what they were getting themselves into before hand. Perhaps “Bressonian” is an overused description of style, but where cinema stands right now, Bresson’s aesthetic DNA is over a great deal of things. I mention this because I think it’s a fair description of Arslan’s film, but I mention it in passing because I think dwelling on this shared ethos will yield analytic results that are trying too hard and reaching too far. To clarify, there is something intriguing in where these filmmakers overlap and connect, but it would be a disservice to Arslan to focus solely on how his film works in step with a canonical classic like say, PickpocketDealer is cut from the same cloth, but its print is unique and worthy of our investment.

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Can is a drug dealer, but not by choice. He lives with his girlfriend, Jale, in a cozy enough home with their daughter. Jale is constantly trying to get Can to find real work. He says he looks for it, but can’t find anything. She calls him on his bullshit. She’s not the only one giving him a hard time, though. Can is repeatedly visited by a cop that he knew in his youth. The cop gives him the option to work undercover for them, but the persistent act never wears him down. He dreams of something bigger, which is what his boss, Hakan, might offer him. He’s opening up a new bar and he wants Can in on the dealing, but again, he’s getting pressures from every angle.

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As one would expect from Arslan and his Berliner Schule peers, everything here is played rather straight. There is no non-diegetic sound, and the things we do here are the unremarkable sounds that many of us are already familiar with. Arslan’s focus is not on the bustling streets of the city, but instead on the outskirts, where the soundscape is dominated by the hum of an air conditioner, or the scattered screams of schoolchildren off in the distant. While Can feels the pressure from his profession, it is not the conventional gritty hustle we so frequently see portrayed in America, or even the images we’re fed on the local news. Can’s environment is not another character itself, it’s something quite banal and unremarkable, but Arslan’s ability to illustrate its ethos is poetic. Sure, its not pointed and romantic, but it is loving in ability to step back and observe.

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While Dealer is not a political film, it does reflect a reality that requires some political unpacking. Can, and most of his coworkers are of the Turkish diaspora. Without reading too hard into the  Turkish-German relationship that I don’t know enough about, it’s easy to see it translated to the Black-White relationship in America. The “war on drugs” was launched to criminalize the behavior of young, Black males. Their customers might be richer and white, but the design of such a program was intentional in criminalizing those who turned to drug dealing as a last resort. In America, the war on drugs is a hollow, rhetorical tool used to legitimate abuse impoverished and colored bodies. The same thing seems to be happening in Dealer, where the drug king isn’t hassled nor are the white buyers, but the Turkish dealers are, and they feel the brunt of the apparent “anti-drug” measures made by the law. Arslan’s film observes this, but like everything his camera captures, nothing is made of it. It’s the reality, and Arslan feels no need to point at like a more superficially “social problems” film would. He’s not aloof to the problems. The critique of the system being less pointed makes more biting at times.

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What Dealer quietly observes is the reality that many of us face. Immobility might be a problematic term, but definitely the inability to move upwards in society. Can and Jale are ultimately stuck not by his drug profession, but instead the society that leaves him with no other options and then criminalizes his only means to living. As he himself points out late in the film, “They made it impossible to move.” He’s referring to the local police here, but this kind of manipulation, this trapping is something institutional. This kind of critique is not in the discourse of Dealer itself, but instead hidden away in the languid, empty shots of the protagonist looking on. Perhaps I articulate something similar far too often, but this is an effective political film precisely because it is not a political film.

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