Jerzy Skolimowski's Moonlighting Speaks to Both East and West
Moonlighting has played to appreciative audiences in Chicago this winter, but few people here know much about its director, Jerzy Skolimowski, outside of the fact that he is Polish. Skolimowski is a contemporary of Roman Polanski, with whom he wrote Knife in the Water (1962). After the international success of that film, Polanski went on to become a Hollywood figure of some notoriety. Rosemary's Baby (1967) and Chinatown (1974) each spoke to American fears at a crucial political moment. Skolimowski stayed in Poland a few years longer than Polanski. About the time that Rosemary's Baby was playing to packed houses in America, Skolimowski's Hands Up was withdrawn from the Venice film festival, never to be seen again (so far as I know). After that debacle, Skolimowski went abroad. Since then, he has made three successful English-language pictures, Deep End (1970), The Shout (1978), and the current Moonlighting. Apparently Skolimowski still has some ties with Polish moviemaking, whatever may be left of it. Like Polanski, however, he has become a wandering cosmopolitan, a professional outsider.
Moonlighting has been described as a parable about Polish politics, but that seems not quite accurate. While there are elements of parable, allegory, and irony throughout the film, something odd has happened to them: a transformation connected with Skolimowski's departure from his native country. So long as a movie director works under the pressures of bureaucratic censorship, he must criticize indirectly—by implication. Parable is a practical, everyday device for communicating forbidden messages. It is often used this way in Skolimowski's Polish films. By presenting a romantic triangle, Knife in the Water satirizes two generations of Poles; Skolimowski condemns cowardice or confusion under Stalinism. Subsequent features use this technique almost to excess. We are told of Hands Up (the director's favorite film) that it depicts unfortunate Poles on a train journey, rolling in plaster: one poor devil gets stuck. At this point parable might as well be replaced by direct statement. It has lost the advantage of implication; it has become blatant.
Skolimowski has never lost his fondness for deadpan absurdist ironies. All the same, his parables lose their original justification once he gets to the West. The Shout shows the problem. In this film (adapted from a Robert Graves short story), Alan Bates plays an inmate of an insane asylum, who tells a grotesque story to one of his keepers. The story within the story takes up most of the film. Here the keeper (John Hurt) is a musician living in a lonely countryside with his bored wife (Susannah York). Finding shelter with the unsuspecting couple, Bates establishes sexual dominance over the wife and intellectual dominance over the husband. (I once thought Joe Orton invented that plot in the Sixties; now I see that the English are in this, as in other things, traditional.) The Bates character claims that he has the power to kill by shouting, a skill he picked up from aborigines. He gives the composer a demonstration, not quite enough to demolish him, but enough to send him rolling over the dunes in agony. The musician who lives by sound almost dies by it—then strikes back.
The film is engrossing. It is also, as that determined philistine Leslie Halliwell notes, "curiously pointless." Graves' story and Skolimowski's film both concern the discourse of the powerless: in this case of the presumed madman, who uses storytelling to defy his keeper. The story of The Shout must have made a special appeal to Skolimowski, for it internalizes the oppression which his previous films confront as an external, political fact. However, who is this defiant lunatic and what are we to make of him? The film gives us no answer. It plunges us into the nightmare, but refuses any judgment (unless to hint that both master and slave are guilty). If we do not discover the significance of this primitive energy—beyond its ability to excite Susannah York—then the film becomes a parable about nothing, an irony turned in on itself.
Moonlighting too suggests the difficulties of the Polish filmmaker adrift in the West, but it addresses them very differently. At the beginning we meet a group of Polish laborers, newly arrived in London to renovate their employer's flat. Only one of them (Jeremy Irons) speaks English. They have no work permit. They plan to do the job quietly, saving the boss back home a bundle of money—how much more expensive is British labor!—and getting a big bonus in return. From this point on, the film follows the developing relationships among the Irons character, the other laborers, and the locals. We see a familiar world through unfamiliar eyes.
This device is a common one. Montesquieu uses it in the Persian Letters, where he has his Persians write home about the peculiarity of European customs. The alien viewpoint in Moonlighting is more than a convenient fiction, of course. Imagine the Persian Letters written by a Persian: that is the effect of Skolimowski's film, which sets a Polish perspective against an English one. Within the double milieu—Polish and English—Skolimowski's talent for deadpan parable takes on new life.
Irons, the link between two worlds, is the central figure. He learns to exploit both sides, then takes the consequences. The process of learning is the film. Small, bizarre anecdotes—just verging on flatness—are linked by Irons' voiceover commentary. There is no way to describe the effect of these scenes, but I shall try. Many occur at a local grocery, where Irons and his co-workers are introduced to western plenty. No black market here. The western equivalent to communist black market dealings (inevitable in an economy where everything is rationed) is shoplifting. Irons learns how to shoplift by observing the ways in which various old ladies get caught. He has some wonderful standoffs with a threatening assistant manager, a dour redhead who pursues him with all the fervor of Javert after Jean Valjean or Fix after Phileas Fogg. Irons' blankness—near and dear to the hearts of those who remember him in Brideshead Revisited—proves the perfect policy. He gets away—not with murder, but with enough goods to feed a boy scout jamboree. We have to condemn him; we have to cheer him on. The comedy is painful.
Why should Irons be shoplifting? Initially he does it because time and money are running out on him. The renovation job must be finished but there has been a disaster with the plumbing, setting work back by days. Another problem impends: shortly after their arrival in London, Solidarity back home was suppressed. Irons keeps this news from his comrades (who are not, by the way, part of the Solidarity movement). He has them working eighteen hours a day, cut off from news, cut off from calls back home, cut off from any excursions away from the house. He breaks their watches so they won't know how much time they're spending on construction. He tries to make it up to them with stolen rice.
Irons' predicament is summed up by the televisions which appear so frequently in Moonlighting. Almost the first thing the Poles do on their arrival in London is to pool their entertainment money and buy a secondhand TV. It promptly goes on the blink. They will have to fix it when they get home. Meanwhile television becomes a pervasive fact of life, at least for Irons. A TV surveillance system monitors shoppers in the market. TVs in store windows depict tanks and soldiers marching through Warsaw squares.
Like some other recent films, Moonlighting exploits the contrast between grainy TV pictures with fluctuating color and the finegrained, widescreen movie picture. Is the difference in quality a difference in truth, or in the uses to which an image can be put? Perhaps the latter. This supply-and-demand society produces an excess of information, just as it produces an excess of goods or of junk (all these surfeits are celebrated in Moonlighting). Information is a commodity like anything else. We see the soccer teams running on a sick green field which suddenly blips out. We see the tanks rolling on—via satellite—amid holiday displays in department store windows. We see the furtive shoplifters, caught on security monitors in the grocery store, then apprehended. Distinctions begin to get lost—for Irons, for the audience. Only in the last scene of the film are they re-established.
Moonlighting is a parable, but not the sort designed to get around government censorship. Skolimowski addresses himself to a civilization where censorship typically occurs in the marketplace. (Our version of censorship is "mass marketing.") He begins with a discrepancy between two systems of wage-setting; he moves to the comedy of a man who is corrupted by western ways into setting up a little eastern European dictatorship; he ends by suggesting that you cannot live in both societies at once—not honestly. Techniques invented for communicating surreptitiously are used to focus attention on our open society. This spare elliptical film gives us a view of ourselves we could not get any other way. Eastern truth-telling becomes western truth-telling and circles right back to the East, like Irons and his bamboozled followers.