J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Martin Scorsese Presents: Innocent Sorcerers

There was a brief and shiny moment during Poland’s tragic years of Communism when disillusioned youth could pursue Bohemianism. It did not last. Of course, many of those early 1960s musicians, artists, and would be drop-outs joined the Solidarity movement as fed-up adults. However, life still seems to have a lot of possibilities outside of politics for Bayzli and his associates in Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers, which screens as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema film series that has made its way from the Film Society of Lincoln Center to the Denver’s SIE FilmCenter.

Bayzli (a.k.a. “Medicine Man”) is a sports doctor who moonlights as a jazz drummer, or vice versa. He takes nothing seriously, even including music, but least of all women. While doggedly avoiding his ostensive girlfriend Mirka, Bayzli reluctantly agrees to help his hipster buddy Edmund separate the Holly Golightly-esque Pelagia from her square boyfriend.

However, instead of steering her back into the club to wait for the exceedingly interested Edmund, the two somehow wind up back at the doctor’s flat. For the rest of the night, they engage in verbal parrying worthy of Eric Rohmer. Maybe it is significant, but perhaps it is all meaningless. Nonetheless, neither of them is ready to let go of the evening, despite their determined efforts to play it cool.

Although Sorcerers was Wajda’s immediate follow-up to his WWII trilogy, it is something of an anomaly in the director’s filmography. Unlike Man of Iron and Katyn, it almost never addresses political or historical controversies. However, there is a deep-seated skepticism informing the characters’ world views. They spend their nights partying and their days sleeping, because they clearly do not believe their contemporary society is offering anything worth sacrificing for.

Yet, the film is distinguished by a lightness of mood. On paper, this one-crazy-night story sounds largely interchangeable with any number of modern day indies, but Wajda, the young master, never lets the proceedings get too cynical, sentimental, or quirky. Rather, it all unfolds rather effortlessly and matter-of-factly.

One thing is certain, nobody could ever assemble a cast like this again, including co-screenwriter and future auteur Jerzy Skolimowski appearing as a punch drunk boxer. It would also be difficult to corral international fugitive Roman Polanski, who plays the bass-player leader of Bayzli’s band. Sadly, Zbigniew Cybulski (sometimes called “the Polish James Dean”) is no longer with us, but he brings plenty of manic method as Edmund. Likewise, the late and very great Krzysztof Komeda and the not quite as well known but still late and pretty great Andrzej Trzaskowski added some real deal jazz cred, essentially playing themselves.

In fact, Komeda’s score sounds fantastic. It swings hard, but still has a pensive character. You can real hear how he links early 1960s hardbop to the more open but emotional resonant music of his protégé, Tomasz Stanko. Indeed, it is a major reason why Innocent Sorcerers is such an enduring masterwork. You know it must be good, because it still managed to generate official flak for Wajda, even though he thought it was completely apolitical. Highly recommended, it screens this Monday (8/18) at the SIE FilmCenter, during the Denver run of the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema touring film series.

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