Filmmaker in residence, Lech Majewski, talks painting, Basquiat, and art through oppression with BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM, ahead of a series of Film Society screenings nationwide.

*   *   *

POLISH/AMERICAN director Lech Majewski’s idiosyncratic films are having a run at Film Societies around the country. He started his artistic career as a painter and a poet, and moved into film – frequently making films about painters and poets. He’s most well known for devising and writing the 1996 film Basquiat, and his work has moved into incorporating digital technology into the very narratives of his work. Unashamedly a ‘big picture’ artist, his films contain a multitude of fascinating and ferocious ideas, and while his films haven’t had much mainstream or arthouse coverage, his oeuvre is developing into a pretty formidable one.

Majewski grew up in Katowice, an industrial area in Poland, but spent his summers in Venice. He says “an upshot of that I was on quite good terms with a lot of old art that was in Venice everywhere, and with new art, because every second year is the Biennale and the best of the modern art comes to Venice. I found the difference between the old and the new art is such that my heart is with the old art.” Majewski then realised the possibilities of cinema, and was drawn to it. “I realised that this type of aesthetic, and this type of looking for meaning, one can do nowadays in cinema. In other words, if the old masters would be alive today they would be doing films. That was my thinking. I got into the Academy for Fine Arts, but I also got into film school.”

He studied under Wojciech Has (The Saragossa Manuscript), and was drawn to Italian cinema (Antonioni, Fellini, Visconti, Pasolini) and the French New Wave (Resnais and Godard for example). However, after making his first film in Poland, The Night, Majewski left the country when martial law was declared in 1981, and the neo-Stalinist regime re-asserted its power. However, it was a play in London which made his reputation – and specifically it was a version of The Odyssey which he put on the banks of the river Thames. As it was set on the Thames “we had to print our tickets with the tide timetable”, and the show incorporated places like the old power station (now Tate Modern), the House of Parliaments and London Bridge as Odysseus’ challenges. “Odysseus had a mic, and because it was on the river, and a boat, and the noise of the engine, we had to amplify his voice and he was on a radio mic. No wires attached because he was acting. We were passing by the Houses of Parliament in England, and at the same time, there was this very narrow garden in front of Parliament between the Thames and Parliament. Maggie Thatcher was having a garden party and she was speaking to her guests. And the signal from our radio mic, we had more powerful equipment than they had in the Houses of Parliament, so she lost her signal as she was speaking, and Odysseus’ voice went over her microphone. And at that time, Odysseus was talking about Circe, the goddess who turns men into pigs. You can imagine the English press. We were big and everybody was cheering us. Suddenly she in a man’s voice proclaiming, under Circe ‘we will turn you men into pigs, you heads will dangle from the trees in my garden.’ We were wildly cheered when the boats were passing the following days. That’s how I started my career in the West.”

From there Majewski moved to America. In 1988 he headed to Brazil to make the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs film Prisoner of Rio). He sums the experience up with “spent two years in the night clubs of Rio.” His film The Gospel According to Harry, which is being played at the Film Society, is the film which helped establish his art film credentials. Starring a then unknown Viggo Mortenson, the film is a dystopian sci-fi film set in a world where the Pacific Ocean has dried up (the desert was filmed in Poland). “I found Viggo when he was absolutely nobody. First of all he had very good looks, but he had a way of holding himself to himself. He was a little bit mysterious and I thought this is a perfect man to be a star.”

The film however that Majewski is most known for, is a film he actually abandoned after three years of trying to get it made – Basquiat. Majewski wrote a screenplay based on the controversial painter, but found it difficult to get it made, despite his script being praised from the likes of Harvey Keitel and Diane Keaton. “It was my brainchild, I interviewed seventy-plus people for the project. A very dramatic screenplay came out of it, a screenplay where Basquiat’s father didn’t smell of roses. He was a very abusive father, and Jean-Michel’s mother was in an asylum. Obviously I put it in the script. But the sole executor of Basquiat’s estate is his father because the mother is in the asylum. He read the script and said absolutely no way you’re making this film... He started to throw very heavy obstacles.” He also had problems with the distributors. “The distributors were saying this is a black guy, having drugs and then dying at the age of twenty-seven. This is really a downer. Who cares about it? No way. This is the time for romantic comedies. So they said no.”

“If we want a good cinema in New Zealand, let’s create a totalitarian regime here. We can start here at this table... I came here to do just that. Tonight I will attack the local TV station and declare myself the prime minister.”


It took a contemporary to Basquiat, neo-expressionist painter, Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Before Night Falls) to make the project. “If you know Julian Schnabel, he’s the biggest bull I’ve met in my life. He put his own money into it, and he designed a scheme where he would pay the actors with his own artwork. Very creative approach.” However, the film was criticised by a number of critics for its approach to the subject – and some have noted the film appears to be more about Schnabel than Basquiat. “Rightfully so. Because Julian has put this Gary Oldman character into it. The ironic thing about it is that Basquiat didn’t like Julian at all.” He’s glad the film has seen daylight, but “I have my problems with the film. Now it’s a romantic ballad devoid of this certain claw that was ripping Jean-Michel.” From Basquiat, Majewski made another film about a self-destructive artist – Polish poet Rafal Wojaczek. “I was fascinated with Basquiat because I was earlier fascinated with Wojaczek. And I found they were soul brothers. Both were kamikaze and very good artists.”

Another film shown by the Film Societies this year is Angelus, a Colour of Pomegranates-like-tableaux depiction of a group of apocalyptic working class painters from Poland. They artists were from “the same region that I grew up. We knew about them but we didn’t know about their ties to a secret society. They were presented by the regime as this group of working class painters, and this was an illustration of the fact that the working class are the future of the world, as socialist propaganda always depicted. ‘We don’t really need artists, working class people, they can do everything’. But then I discovered they were this strange group tied up to this secret society that had these absurd ideas, but the ideas were concentrated on saving the world. I think I instantly thought about Don Quixote. No matter how idiotic the idea, the fact that somebody undertakes it, it puts him in my mind as a hero. In my movies, people always try to save something, themselves or the world.”

The Garden of Earthly Delights continues Majewski’s love of painting. “Always what I’m trying to do with cinema is trying to create a sense of painting. That’s my lost world of painting that I’m accessing by film.” But it’s older paintings, which try to capture the world in their sweeping statements that attract Majewski – and the ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Bosch is certainly ambitious. He loves “the density of his [Bosch’s] world. I’m not yet there, but to contain the world in a work of art. Nobody does that nowadays. Only misery, and fragments, and bits and pieces. I think Dante would be ridiculed today, there are not enough jokes and he’s too serious. We went into this disastrous area of ‘sickness’. If you go to galleries of London and New York, they’re full of rubbish. Literally. I’m not saying the painters are rubbish. There are heaps of rubbish on the floor. I don’t get it. My strong impact that Venice had on me was I came from this very ugly world, and I saw this island of beauty. I saw humans are capable of creating beauty. That was the most shocking discovery in my life. I am here to try and capture a little bit of beauty. But beauty is very unpopular now.”

Bosch’s painting is highly controversial – a number of critics have viewed the painting as a vicious critique on human failings, while others have seen it as a celebration of humanity and the earth. Majewski favours the latter interpretation. “Because it’s there. Very simply. There is an attempt to unify the world of humans, with the world of animals and the world of plants. There are strange amalgams of all these shapes of the insects and humans and fruits for example, which is very interesting as far as the senses are concerned.” The film focuses on a love story, however, Majewski wanted to move the film as far away from a standard love story as possible. “Whenever I saw a love story, I felt the artificial aspect of getting into very intimate situation and I know that there is this whole crew dangling above them with mics and cameras and lights and god knows what else. There are zillions of people hanging like grapes hanging above them and they’re supposedly telling themselves as intimate things. I thought maybe I could do a love story by the lovers. So it will be their personal diary, their personal recording.” The actors were given lessons how to use the camera and were left to their own devices to film (though the room was bugged).

The film is notable for its use of digital technology to achieve a rare sense of intimacy. “The Garden of Earthly Delights was an exam whether filmmakers nowadays are dependent on technology or they can just go on the street and make it themselves. I was going to go on the street and prove to myself that I can do a movie with a tourist camera and the movie can play in a cinema – that means there are no borders anymore, no limitations. I can’t sit down and blame the system or the moneyed people or whatever because at any time, if I have an idea, I can go out and make a movie. It’s a very empowering experience. Don’t blame the world, don’t blame the others, don’t blame the limitations, because they simply do not exist now. I know what I’m talking about because I started in the old school, in the 35mm splicing in a splicer with glue and scotch tape. It was very limiting, you had to have a lot of money.”

Majewski is in New Zealand for a number of months to teach down at Canterbury University, and his films are touring the country in Film Society screenings nationwide. He also seems to have some other plans in the country. Majewski’s films are well-defined by what the New York Times called the “aesthetic of destruction”. Majewski however is a loquacious, humourous man – quite different to the death and destruction which haunt his films. His response to the aesthetic of destruction call brings up a conversation he had with Werner Herzog in the nineties. “We started to talk about Polish cinema and he said ‘nowadays, there are no good movies in Poland. It used to be that Poland had these fantastic films, but now it’s gone.’ And I said ‘why do you think that?’ And he said, ‘there’s too much freedom.’ I thought this is a strange sentence, so I ask him, ‘what do you mean by that?’ And he said ‘good art needs oppression.’ And I said, ‘what countries do you think will have great cinema?’ He said ‘the countries where there are strong oppression. I think Iran and China.’ This was so prophetic, I cannot tell you. At the time of our conversation, nobody had heard of an Iranian film, or a Chinese film. If we want a good cinema in New Zealand, let’s create a totalitarian regime here. We can start here at this table. She [a bemused waitress who was giving us coffee] thinks I’m joking. I came here to do just that. Tonight I will attack the local TV station and declare myself the prime minister.”