„Police, Adjective”: The Words and the Things

I have an article in the new issue of Close Up (a Film Studies journal edited by UNATC). It’s on Police, Adjective and it considers Porumboiu’s film as an illustration of Peter Wollen’s influential 1969 adaptation of Charles Sanders Peirce’s trichotomy of signs – iconic, indexical and symbolic signs – to the field of film theory.

Below is an excerpt. The entire article can be read here. The entire issue of Close Up is here.


Launched in 2009, Corneliu Porumboiu’s second feature, Police, Adjective, was at the time, and remains to date, one of the most important films of the New Romanian Cinema (NRC). What the 34-year old writer-director did there was to radicalize some of the tendencies within this current in Romanian cinema (a current also known as the Romanian New Wave); first of all, he radicalized the NRC’s predilection for an ‘observational’ use of film. At the same time, Porumboiu took the radical step of explicitly raising the issue of meaning.

Police, Adjective was coming in the footsteps of films like The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005), The Paper Will Be Blue (Radu Muntean, 2006), and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007). An important aspect of each of those films had been the patient, ‘real-time’ documentation of processes undergirded by (more or less strict) procedures: the emergency medical investigations conducted on a possibly very sick man (Lăzărescu); an exchange of code phrases between military patrols (The Paper); the assisted termination of a pregnancy (4 Months). In Police, Adjective it is the police process of tailing a suspect, with its attendant procedures; the film is about a policeman (Dragoș Bucur) who’s tailing some hashish-smoking high school kids. The act of observation stands once again at the foundation of a NRC filmmaker’s aesthetic, the novelty (for 2009) being that Porumboiu also integrates this act in his film’s subject matter, inviting us to observe the daily activity of a professional observer. (This doesn’t mean that he ever invites us to look at things through the detective’s eyes, in the Hollywood manner developed to such perfection by Hitchcock in his one-character-tailing-another scenes. Here, no shot is supposed to tune us in to the detective’s optical subjectivity. The perspective on the events remains observational in the documentary sense, providing no access to characters’ subjectivities.)

The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, The Paper Will Be Blue and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days were “documenting” life-and-death situations, crises maturing, escalating and resolving themselves over a time span no longer than a few hours. The writer-director of Police, Adjective opts instead for what David Bordwell has described[i]as a “threads-of-routine” realism – consisting in the description of the character’s repetitive, banally quotidian activities. Porumboiu, too, no less than the directors of Lăzărescu and 4 Months, tells the story of a crisis that has sprung up in the life of his protagonist: the young detective will eventually rebel against an assignment consisting, as he sees it, in the destruction of a teenager’s life because of a few joints. And, no less than the protagonists in Lăzărescu and 4 Months, Porumboiu’s detective is racing against the clock: his boss (Vlad Ivanov) gave him a deadline for solving the case. On the other hand, it’s a relatively relaxed deadline – not a few hours, as in Lăzărescu or 4 Months, but a few days. And, from the professional point of view of a policeman, the case is still banal, minor. The abortion in 4 Months, Lăzărescu’s feeling sick that night, the bloody fall of the Ceaușescu regime in The Paper Will Be Blue – these are events that, in the case of each film, snatch the protagonist out of his or her quotidian existence, whereas, for the detective in Police, Adjective, the case of the pot-smoking teen is, up to a point, routine work.

This routine is cinematically represented through the alternation of sequences showing the detective engaged in field work (tailing the kids), with sequences showing him at police headquarters (engaged in paperwork), and sequences showing him at home (eating). What characterizes all these scenes is the fact that they contain large quantities of ‘dead’ or ‘empty’ time. When the policeman is walking behind a suspect on the streets of his (unnamed) provincial town, Porumboiu shows him walking for minutes on end. When, having returned home at the end of a work day, he’s eating a bowl of soup in the kitchen (while his wife is listening next door to a sentimental pop song from the Ceaușescu era), Porumboiu keeps his camera on him until he’s done eating (enough time for the pop song in the next room to end and begin again several times). When the policeman is waiting in front of the villa where a suspect lives, or when he’s waiting by the closed door of a colleague’s office, Porumboiu gives us minutes after minutes of him waiting.

Of course, this is not exactly the ‘real’ time of his vigils: there is compression, there are temporal ellipses. Nevertheless, in a Hollywood-type film, such intervals of waiting would have been suggested, most probably, through a few consecutive shots – the detective looking towards the villa, the detective looking at his watch, the detective throwing away a freshly consumed cigarette butt – none of them lasting very long. Porumboiu refuses this: he refuses to reduce the fact of waiting to such images which would merely symbolize it. The fact of waiting is represented in something of its temporal weight – the weight given to it by the accumulation of ‘dead’ time. To the extent that films are composed or consecutive shots, and to the extent that a shot can be described as a unit of canned time – the time elapsed between the order “Action!” and the order “Stop!” – all films can be described (with a phrase borrowed from Andrey Tarkovsky) as objects “sculpted in time”. Narrative cinema of the classical type works to make us forget this – to make us lose track of time. But, of course, there are other traditions which, on the contrary, base themselves on efforts to make duration felt, to give it weight, materiality. To a certain extent, the structure of Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective could be described as a rhythmic organization of intervals of ‘dead’, ‘heavy’  time.

To summarize, the ‘realist’ formula of this film is based on: 1) actions pertaining to a not very spectacular, not very dramatic daily routine; 2) the fact that, even if these actions are not represented in their entire duration, their duration on screen leans toward completeness; 3) the fact that these actions are repeated (the policeman does pretty much the same things every day). In Porumboiu’s hands, though, this is not just a formula for ‘realism”: it’s a route towards something else.

This way of representing the activities of the policeman – his patient stalking of the teenagers, his picking up the remains of the joints they smoke, his long vigils in front of a villa – has the effect of making them seem somehow absurd, faintly senseless. (Also contributing to this effect are the lack of people in most of the shots – this is a film of mostly underpopulated streets – and the usual fixity of the camera. By contrast, Cristi Puiu’s first two films, which started the New Romanian Cinema – his 2001 Stuff and Dough and his 2005 The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu – are all teeming human activity overflowing from hand-held shots.) In other words, the style in which he represents the policeman’s activities allows Porumboiu to raise the question of meaning. And it is also his style which allows Porumboiu to formulate an answer. […]

[i]For example, in David Bordwell, „Getting Real”, May 3, 2009, http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2009/05/03/getting-real/, accessed on November, 21, 2018.

The rest of the article can be read here