ONE OF THE HARDEST things to accomplish in western cinema these days, according to filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, is to tell stories that, in his words, "carry moral resonance." This, says the Polish-born writer-director of "My Summer of Love," an atmospheric drama of adolescent infatuation and betrayal set in the English countryside (see review on Page 34), is because we live in a world where, for the most part, "nothing much happens to us."
What school should I send my kids to? Can I get a better mortgage? Should I change jobs? For many of us, Pawlikowski says, "life is dissolving into a series of tiny decisions without moral weight." At root is what the former documentarian and PhD candidate in the expressionist poetry of Georg Trakl calls the "cult of happiness" so prevalent in America and Western Europe, an "idea-free zone" in which the search for quick fixes that one can apply to problems "the way one takes a pill" prevails.
"Where I come from, that's not the dominant outlook."
So how does an artist -- particularly one with a self-described "melancholic disposition" and a "bleak" outlook on life, which he calls a "series of catastrophes" -- invent stories that matter? By seeking out moments of rupture in the fabric of existence, or narrative. "Weird things occur when trains break down," says Pawlikowski, who shot "My Summer of Love" based not on a conventional screenplay, but on a 37-page "shooting document" adapted, very loosely, from the novel by Helen Cross. Extraneous characters and action were whittled away. A new character, that of a born-again Christian ex-convict, played by Paddy Considine, and inspired by the subject of one of Pawlikowski's earlier documentaries, was added. While certain scenes (most notably the film's dramatic turning points) may be written out in great detail, many others are sketched in only lightly and improvised. The director, who spends more time and care scouting locations and choosing his cast than screenwriting, likens the at times freewheeling on-set milieu to a laboratory, in which, he says, "by creating chaos I gain control."
What Pawlikowski calls the "industrial" method of moviemaking favored by big studios -- a producer buys the rights to a book, hires someone (often a playwright) to adapt it, lines up actors and then finds a director to shoot it stylishly -- is not for him. Rather, he builds his story (which can include as much "baggage" from his own life as details from books he has read) with "small, weirdly disruptive strokes," looking, as he did with his documentaries, for scenes and moments that are "rich, mysterious, ambiguous, disturbing, not explainable and slippery."
It's there, he believes, that the real drama occurs, "between the shifting tectonic plates," and not where everything appears to be business as usual.
As fascinated as Pawlikowski is with the idea of disenchantment (an emotion he himself initially experienced in moving from Poland to the West), the director is anything but nihilistic. "Nihilistic is if you can't overcome life's catastrophes," he says, explaining that Mona, the heroine of "My Summer of Love," emerges from her disappointments stronger and more liberated.
He even manages a bit of optimism when it comes to the challenges faced by someone who wants to tell tales that have both an aesthetic and an ethical component in a world that sometimes seems so well photographed that there are no stories left.
"It's difficult, but not impossible," Pawlikowski says, "to create a world which is not exactly real, yet gets at some universal human truths."
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"Screen on Stead," a series of three free outdoor movie screenings in Stead Park (P Street NW between 16th and 17th streets), begins Wednesday at sundown with a showing of the camp classic "Mommie Dearest." The series, which is being presented by The Center, a community organization supporting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, continues July 20 with "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and concludes on Aug. 17 with a yet-to-be-announced title. For more information, visit www.thedccenter.org/sons/index.htm.
-- Michael O'Sullivan