Deconstruction, noun. Different meanings are discovered by taking apart the structure of the language used and exposing the underlying assumptions.
– Collins English Dictionary
Myth, noun. The second function of myth is to justify an existing social system and account for traditional rites and customs.
– Robert Graves, “Introduction,” New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology
Deconstruction began as a theory of language interpretation examining the unique characteristics of written language versus speech. The concept of deconstruction has applications in the broader worlds of philosophy, architecture, and cinema studies, among others. Its applicability is limited only in how we chose not to apply it. Deconstruction, in its most basic and intuitive sense, uncovers the artifices that hide underlying assumptions and structures. From there, we can discover the myths that are central to those assumptions.
Myths are stories that attempt to explain the way the world is and answer questions that are common in all cultures. Each culture may come up with a different set of myths to answer these questions as myths are not dependent on being factually true. Myths not only shape our view of the world, they also shape our expectations, ultimately making our world view seem true.
Deconstructing myths can recalibrate our senses and hone our perceptions of life and art. It can work, not to destroy, but to refresh and renew the power that myth has on the human psyche while giving us a firm re-grounding in reality. Once we have learned just what myths are at play in a particular situation, we can admire, challenge, embrace or even overturn those myths.
Overdone, deconstruction could easily constrain our joy and diminish our imagination and inventiveness by stripping everything down to bare essentials. (A skeleton may be beautiful, but most of us prefer to have flesh on the bones.) But in the right amount and at the right time, an act of deconstruction can provide a tonic that refreshes and permits us to recognize and appreciate the extent that artistic forms create a beguiling veil disconnecting artist from audience, severing them both from reality, and ultimately, if we are paying close attention, we might sense the veil separating us from our self.
If deconstruction were continually or everywhere applied, it would be destructive of art itself. It’s not clear what we would gain from knowing, for example, that the Mona Lisa had a melanoma under her left breast, irrespective of whether that were true, nor is there likely any aesthetic benefit from learning that such and such a painter secretly used urine to paint pictures of angels, not as an artistic statement but as a substitute for a missing ingredient in the paint, nor that a long-ago, famous composer was in fact a mass murderer or pedophile.* These are not the myths that need shattering because they do not effect the direct experience of viewing art.**
The medium of cinema, television and other forms of image-based popular art, has gained a unique position in our culture. These art forms have replaced, among other things, companionship, conversation, sports, imaginative play, acting out stories and storytelling itself. Because of this, art forms in which images predominate have substituted for several generations a new view of reality, a new mythology of life and the world that is often far from accurate, all without the consent, consensus or perhaps even awareness, by the public that such a shift in perspective has occurred.
The treatment of time is a major way in which we are beguiled by cinematic arts and is an important subject in Police, adjective. In the dominant popular mythology, time is no longer seen as holistic. It is altered and dismembered, speeded up, (although there are occasional uses of slowed down motion) and fragmented so that what takes years in a lifetime or hours in a day, is shown as being completed in a relatively short time with no intervening periods of any consequence or that hold any consequences. (Although the truncation of time is also a part of literature, one’s life experiences helped keep time in a more realistic perspective than is true of the uber-engrossing impact of image-based media.)
The Romanian film, Police, Adjective, directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, which screened at the 34th Hong Kong International Film Festival in April 2010, deconstructs the usual cinematic treatment of time through transforming the familiar police drama. The film gives us a picture of real police work, not the slick and glamorous of “Miami Vice”, nor the earnest and upright of “Without a Trace”, nor even the ‘gritty’ of “CSI”. Instead of the crackerjack units, with precise and well-ordered roles, good suits, and carefully choreographed excitement, we are given a tiny glimpse of just how un-coordinated and unfulfilling honest police work can be. And also how hard it is to do real, honest, police work.
And my god! You could see and feel every second of the mind-numbing aspects of the main character’s police officer’s job and it was tedious, boring, and unfulfilling. The actor, Dagos Bucur, who portrayed the main character on screen, did a phenomenal job. Never for a moment did I not believe he really was the character he was portraying. By restoring, to a more dominant position, the usually absent element of time, one of the most important features of life, this film has turned a spotlight on some important myths that now pervade our culture; e.g., that life needs to be a constant source of stimulation, that nothing is of value if it isn’t entertaining, and that we can have the fruit without putting in the labor or waiting for the harvest.
This is not to conclude that the cinematic myths we have gotten so used to are not valuable or important. Rather, through deconstruction, we can see the effort and artistry that goes into creating and maintaining these myths. And through the act of seeing them, rather than merely feeling their effects, we have the opportunity to reaffirm the importance and even necessity of myth and the role it plays in giving us a world of fantasy that is functioning, coherent, and ultimately, sublime/subliminal.
Police, adjective, also tackles the myth wherein the audience identifies with the protagonist and habitually adopts that character’s point of view. In this case, the protagonist is so pliant and quirky that it becomes difficult to actually identify who/what exactly he is thereby making it possible for the audience to be more detached, more of an observer rather than a co-conspirator as is usually the case.
If the only thing Police, adjective does is to deconstruct some cinematic myths, that could well be reason enough to see it, but it does much more. It is funny as well as painful and it raises serious issues that are important in and of themselves, e.g., personal integrity, conscience, order vs. chaos, drugs and society, who represents the real public danger, the banality of evil, and more.
I left the theater renewed in spirit, deep in thought and knowing that I’d never look at The Wire in quite the same way again. What more can one ask of a film, or any work of art for that matter, than for it to have made a fundamental difference in the way we perceive something we thought we already knew.
* Information of this nature might indicate a need for some type of intervention, medical or police, on the individual artist or subject of the art, but has no apparent bearing on the art itself.
** Such information may give pause to consider or reconsider certain practices in society, and ways of thinking about aberrant behavior, which may be of benefit generally and therefore to the artistic experience indirectly, which we may find of interest, but this is beyond the scope of this paper.