photo: Michał Helwak

Bedside table #47. Michał Oleszczyk: Nothing gives me such an intellectual high as a vast novel

Film expert Michał Oleszczyk talks about his recent ‘film’ readings, the intellectual high associated with reading vast novels, the books that shaped him and those to which he returns, as well as the ecstatic distrust of a critic.

This is our ‘Bedside table’ series, so it would be appropriate to start by asking what precedes bedtime. Do you read before bedtime or do you rather watch films?

I read. In my case, films have an aura of work. A book is invariably a holiday.

What have you read recently then?

I love biographies and autobiographies of Hollywood directors and American writers. Recently, I have been reading a lot about Orson Welles and James Dickey, a poet and quite a scoundrel who created the memorable novel Deliverance, which was later brought to the screen by John Boorman. I like to practice the archaeology of my youth and learn more about the context of the creation of film works that two or three decades ago worked on me without any filter of knowledge, furnishing my head and determining my sensitivities.

Do you read mainly about films?

Unfortunately, yes. I say ‘unfortunately’, because even though I love cinema, nothing gives me such an intellectual high as immersing myself in a vast novel. Unfortunately, I have almost no time for this. Recently, this type of adventure has been an insanely twisted Antkind by Charlie Kaufman - a 700-page settlement with the failure of the twentieth-century existential project, which is cinephilia. Wildly funny and bitterly sad.

Which of the recently read film-related books could you recommend?

Unfortunately, there are not many such books on the Polish market. The Anglo-Saxons beat us hands down. I liked the new, not-so-obvious biography of Krzysztof Kieslowski by Katarzyna Surmiak-Domańska. I think it actually sheds new light on how we can read the cinematography of the world’s most famous Polish director.

I am sure you could name a lot of films that will stick in your memory forever, changing your perception of cinema, art, and life. Are there any books of this kind? Did you experience equally formative readings together with your formative film viewings?

Of course. The key to a complete rebuilding of my sensitivities was Proust, which I read in full around the times of my Matura exams. Shakespeare remains my central fascination, constantly being explored anew. Besides, Dostoevsky, Chesterton, and Conrad – i.e. moralists. P.G. Wodehouse - a beloved humourist. The book I read every few years, and it always means something different to me, is Dickens' Great Expectations - a masterpiece about the gap between our young "I" and everything that the spinning cogs of the world have done to us over the years.

What do you pay attention to in other critics? What is important to you in writing about films? Henryk Bereza once wrote a book entitled Pryncypia (“Principles”), which concerned the tasks and duties of a literary critic - what are the principles of film criticism writing?

These principles have been set for me by Karol Irzykowski and Pauline Kael, two of the most outstanding critics in my opinion. In a word: to think. To challenge. To question. To be ecstatically distrustful. Criticism begins where sentimentalism in the approach to the matter of art ends. Art is not there to be petted. Every work worthy of this name is a desperate attempt to impose the will and form on a world whose every mechanism is aimed either at subordinating the individual to a group or even at destroying the individual (whether biological or social). It is from understanding this mechanism that all critical reflection on art begins.

In one of your interviews, you said that there are still too few adaptations of fiction in Polish cinema, both classics and contemporary titles. Which texts, in your opinion, beg to be screened?

A new, audacious adaptation of Żeromski's Przedwiośnie (“The Coming Spring”) would be welcome. Strug’s short stories are a mine of topics. I always thought that a properly processed Zając ("Hare") by Dygasinski would be a good animated film. A modern adaptation of Pamiętnik Munia (“Munio’s Diary”) by Bałucki (if it was done by e.g. Marek Koterski) could be a hit. Reymont's Wampir ("The Vampire") is material for the highest quality cinema - a delirious romance with elements of spiritism.

And what are your favourite film adaptations of literature? Do you pay attention to the fidelity to the spirit of the original or rather an interesting distribution of features or a skilful translation of the literary work into the language of film?

My favourite literary adaptation is John Huston's "The Dead" based on Joyce's story. This is an ideal adaptation - both faithful and giving the original an additional boost. "The Innocents" by Clayton based on Henry James - a masterpiece. Adaptation does not have to be faithful to be successful. But whenever adaptors manage to keep their fidelity while adding an extra layer to the literature, it is a small miracle. One of my favourite examples of such success is "Vanya on 42nd Street" by Louis Malle based on Czekhov.

The cooperation between literary and film circles seems to be much less developed today than it was in the People's Republic of Poland when writers such as Jerzy Andrzejewski, Mieczysław Piotrowski, and Tadeusz Konwicki wrote for the cinema. What is the reason for this divergence?

The cultivated myth of a director-genius who is so clever that they write the script themselves is to blame. Some people can do it, but these are rare cases. Most directors would do well to have an active relationship with literature and to enter a series of creative tensions with men of letters.

Is there anything that contemporary cinema could learn from literature? Or, on the contrary, can writers take something for themselves from cinematic storytelling?

Writers already make the most of the cinema. Filmmakers could become a little more sensitive to the literary diversity of world descriptions. Especially in the tradition of the long realistic novel, there is an element of multi-layered analysis of reality, which is often completely ignored in cinema, to the detriment of film. It is a pity, for instance, that Greta Gerwig remained so completely uninterested in the cultural peculiarities of New England when she brought Alcott's "Little Women" to the screen. Depicting the family of the March sisters as some kind of an origin of a ‘cool’ proto-hippie family, with Laura Dern as a crazy mum baking biscuits at midnight, is almost a slander thrown at the cultural formation that made "Little Women" possible at all.

For some time now, you have been not only a film critic, but also a screenwriting consultant, and recently co-writer of an emerging film by Łukasz Ronduda. How do you see the form of a contemporary film script from this perspective?

There are more and more interesting script texts on the Polish market. Bottom-up initiatives of self-improvement and mutual help among beginners and more advanced scriptwriters are created. We have a great group of young, very talented authors (Marcin Ciastoń, Ewa Rozenbajgier, Bartłomiej Konarski, Łukasz M. Maciejewski, Magdalena Zarębska-Węgrzyn, Krzysztof Umiński, and many others), as well as an outstanding individuality, which is Robert Bolesto. I follow their work, and I keep learning from them.

Is this strange form, i.e. a script (which is more a kind of a score than a fully-fledged ‘literary genre’), still awaiting some formal innovations, new, revolutionary ways of telling stories? Or maybe this is already happening?

The script has always been and always will be an ephemeral creation. It exists - and then it is gone; it undergoes an alchemical melting into a film. The nature of what happens on the set and then this incredibly creative process of cutting often completely transforms what is written on a piece of paper. What should be strong enough to avoid spontaneous transformations is the structure and main idea of the whole. A script with a strong structure is a good script - this principle will never change.

Finally, a question about your reading plans for this creeping autumn. What are you going to read?

I dream of finally reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Interviewer: Jakub Nowacki

Translated by Justyna Lowe


Michał Oleszczyk - lecturer at the "Artes Liberales" Department of the University of Warsaw and the Warsaw Film School. Film expert and script consultant. He hosts the podcast "SpoilerMaster" and co-hosts (with Sebastian Smolinski) the podcast "Foreign Correspondents: Deeper into Hitchcock".