November 7, 2012

As a television folk hero famously said, “A man’s got to have a code.” In a world where powerful men disregard the law and the innocent get trampled, what else is there? But Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, which takes private eye Philip Marlowe (played by Elliott Gould) from Raymond Chandler’s seminal noir novels and places him in (then) modern-day Los Angeles, is a decidedly quirky take on the detective film. Incapable of affecting the kind of dangerous swagger the literary Marlowe was infamous for, Gould grounds this interpretation with emasculating self-awareness. He’s constantly talking to himself, ending conversations with a witty aside to no one in particular. It’s clear from the beginning: rather than an opening scene to display Marlowe’s proficiency for fisticuffs or noir-styled tough talk, we instead see him deliberate for ten minutes on what type of food to buy for his pet cat. One can’t be too tough with a kitty cat in tow, so the conventional wisdom goes.

As is common in detective movies, The Long Goodbye opens with a simple prompt. After securing cat food, Marlowe is asked by a friend for a no-questions-asked ride to Mexico. Soon after, he finds out that the friend apparently killed his wife before committing suicide, and is stuck in a web of intrigue and deceit. (Is there any other kind of web?) Appropriately for Altman, it’s a hazy sort of adventure: the photography is washed out, the dialogue is mumbled and overlapped, and there’s plenty of Angeleno-specific oddities to fill the background (such as a silent, shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role of a bodyguard). Things aren’t as they seem, as one might expect, and Marlowe quickly finds himself reacting to a new development in almost every scene. But there’s a definite sense of adventure, connected through the playful repetition of the film’s theme song in a number of contexts—played at a funeral, in a dive bar, on the car stereo, and so forth. Contrasted with the very tangible atmosphere of violence, it’s almost like we’re meant to be having fun.

To reinforce his hero’s goofiness, Altman is constantly referencing his powerlessness. Though Marlowe was purposely styled by Altman to be a man out of time—note his anachronistically formal suit-and-tie contrasted with the swinging ‘70s fashion—he’s out of his element in ways beyond his personality. For starters, he doesn’t seem to be a very good detective, or even a professional one. Breaking noir convention, the cops are the ones in the know, not the private eye. As one cop says, “Go back to your gumshoes and transom peeping and leave us alone.” (Previously, Marlowe had been seen observing a character through a window.) During this scene where Marlowe confronts the police, he does so while wearing a blanket around his shoulders with a wine bottle in hand—a look never intended to make one seem serious. There’s only one moment of physical assertion, which literally comes at the end and might be the film’s most self-affirming mission statement. Which, not to be coy about a conclusion without spoiling it, might be a little much to stomach after all we’ve seen. That’s the thing about having a code—often, it doesn’t reveal itself until the moment of decision.

While The Long Goodbye is about a detective choosing to act outside the law, Police, Adjective is about a cop figuring out how to act within it. A breakout film at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, Police, Adjective follows Cristi, a Romanian policeman in the middle of a sting planned against Victor, a seemingly typical teenager who we find out may or may not be a marijuana dealer. Over several long takes through dilapidated Romanian neighborhoods, we don’t quite get past that shaky hypothesis; as Cristi tracks Victor, all he’s really able to uncover is that he smokes the occasional hashish joint by himself and along with his best friends (one of whom is the informant tipping the cops off to his supposed dealership). In other words, he’s a typical teenager.

While Cristi accumulates evidence against his target, he’s wracked with guilt over whether all this effort is worth it. As he tells two of his superiors, smoking marijuana is sure to be decriminalized in the near future, and sending a teenager to prison for eight years over such a minor transgression could produce a worse criminal. He refuses to see the bigger picture, as his superiors phrase it—that Victor’s possible marijuana dealership could turn other teenagers into potheads, or that he could become a worse criminal before imprisonment. His attention is focused on what’s in front of him; in a telling conversation with his wife about the lyrics of a song, he seems frustrated that imagery and symbolism are used to convey a theme that could be said outright. The subtext being that he prefers to call things the way he sees it, but isn’t intellectually equipped to debate the nuances of that bigger picture. The struggle between his inner moral law and exterior societal law is what gives Cristi, played by Dracos Bugur, such quiet unease throughout the film.

The pacing is torturously slow for much of the movie. A cynical eye could look at this and make some sneering comment about foreign films and their imagined predilection for non-narrative existentialism, but the austerity has a purpose. In stripping out all style, director Corneliu Poromboiu reduces police work to its procedural blandness. Gone are the high speed chases, the wiretaps, and the Chinatown gunfights, replaced with endless bureaucratic shuffling and idling in anticipation of some action. That missing action? Substituted with fifteen-minute conversations about the textbook definitions of conscience and police. (A scene in which the film’s title is explained; in Romania, “police” is apparently an adjective.) So, no, it’s not really the type of movie to toss on with some friends over, and I’m a little hesitant to completely recommend any film that takes such a militantly serious stance against entertainment. But it does take some small measure of braveness to depict law work as deliberate rather than flashy, when the default approach is usually to invent some kind of elaborate situation which can only be solved by brute force or ingenuity. Elaborateness can be its own artistic standard, but it’s also refreshing to see the world in its unvarnished form.

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