Jerzy Skolimowski burst on the international movie scene in the 1960s as a Polish triple threat — directing, writing and acting in a series of groundbreaking works. He did all three in such films as “Rysopis (Identification Marks: None)” and “Walkover,” and, other times, he lent out his talents or collaborated, as when he co-wrote “Knife in the Water,” Roman Polan-ski’s first feature and a sensation at the first New York Film Festival in 1963.
Beginning Friday and running two weekends, the American Cinematheque will salute Skolimowski, unspooling eight of his films including “Bariera,” “Le Depart,” “The Shout” and “Moonlighting.” He has been dubbed “The Outsider” for the program, and it’s a tag he doesn’t find excessive or burdensome.
“I do rather see myself peering in from the outside,” said Skolimowski. “In Poland, I was young, brash and rebellious. When I lived in London, I was perceived almost like a guest worker, and, only after living in the United States for more than a decade, do I feel comfortable making a picture here. But it will be from the perspective of characters who are not Americans.”
When Skolimowski enrolled in the Lodz film school in 1960, he had already published two volumes of poetry and co-scripted Andrzej Wajda’s “Innocent Sorcerers.” The young student-poet-screenwriter had a passion for jazz and boxing, the latter a pivotal part of three of his early films which feature him as actor as well as filmmaker.
His first feature, “Rysopis” — made over four years — dealt with a day in the life of a young man in which life, love and politics spilled off the screen with a heady ferocity that immediately marked Skolimowski as a talent to watch. Pic was raw, undisciplined and riveting. And while his craft skills grew by quantum leaps with “Walkover” and “Bariera,” Skolimowski maintained a brash style and singular outlook that cemented his worldwide reputation.
Following the Polish banning of his political satire “Hands Up!” in 1967, he began to wander the globe making films in Belgium, Great Britain and Italy. His tale of a motor-mad hairdresser, “Le Depart,” won the top prize at Berlin in 1967, and Cannes honored him with Special Jury and screenplay awards, respectively, for “The Shout” (1978) and “Moonlighting” (1982).
Then, his career seemed to go off track. His first American production, by his own admission, was a “nightmare.” Titled “The Lightship,” it was a thriller set on the high seas starring Robert Duvall and Klaus Maria Brandauer and the last of four films financed by CBS Films. The highjacking storyline seemed to spill off screen with Skolimowski holding cast and crew hostage to his tyrannical whims.
Good from bad
“The good thing was that I got to do the post-production in Los Angeles,” he said. “I brought my wife and sons, and pretty soon we decided to stay. The film was a horrible experience but it’s amazing how something good can come out these terrible things.”
In Los Angeles, he found himself more in demand as an actor than a filmmaker as a result of striking roles in “Circle of Deceit” and “White Nights.” What amazed him about his new city was that most Hollywood studio executives had little interest or knowledge of movies made outside the United States. Again, he found himself outside the system, trying to comprehend what exactly a “pitch” meeting was. To this day, he said, he is in the dark about development and housekeeping deals, “points” and other Hollywoodisms.
Skolimowski continued to develop his own projects in L.A. and turned to another artistic medium that’s been a major part of his life — painting. Though his work in oils and charcoal has been widely exhibited in Europe, Skolimowski has never had a show in the United States. Coincidentally, his first will take place at the Zero One Gallery on Melrose on the opening weekend of his Cinematheque retrospective.
Out of commission
The conjunction of the two exhibits and a tentative fall start date for his first “American” movie represent a startling about turn for Skolimowski. Two years ago, while preparing a screen adaptation of novelist Mikhael Bulgakov’s sci-fi political allegory “Dog’s Heart” for producer Simon Fields, he was literally knocked out of commission in an automobile accident.
“I was so confident the film would be a success, I went out and bought a new house and this Jaguar that I had been admiring,” recalled Skolimowski. “A few days later, I’m driving down Wilshire with my writer when a fire truck comes roaring down the street. The car in front of me stops, I stop and ‘boom’ we’re hit from behind. The car’s ruined but thank God I have no broken bones.”
Still, the impact did considerable damage to his nervous system which required months of physical therapy, and he was plagued with ringing in his ears and numbing pain.
“I didn’t have the concentration to write and neither did my partner,” he said. “Deadlines were extended but eventually the window of opportunity closed. I was very despondent.”
Skolimowski turned his attention to painting during his recuperation, but the muse wasn’t working. He tried other means of artistic expression, eventually discovering an aptitude for collage using primarily found materials.
“Jerzy’s (new) work echoes Duchamp — the father of found objects and ready-mades. It’s also in the tradition of California Assemblage, and Arman — the French new realist, as well as Schwitters — the German master of collage. It’s simple, clean, unified and terrific,” said Dennis Hopper, who’s been collecting contemporary art for 40 years.
The art show, opening April 5, is titled “33 Yellow Frames” and consists of 11 triptychs that utilize everything from scrap metal to cardboard and packing material. The artist said he’s nervous about the response simply because it represents a new medium for him.
As for the upcoming film, he’s being tight-lipped, saying only that it centers on recent European immigrants to the U.S. and that it is a “success” story. He’ll be reteaming with Jeremy Thomas, who was his producer on “The Shout” 20 years ago.
Further information on the film retrospective may be obtained by calling the Cinematheque at: (213)-466-FILM.