Watching TV in the dark: On The Tube with a Hat

Anca Mitroi

The sun is not yet up. And the way things have been going in Romania, it may not come up at all, leaving the entire country to wade blindly through the muddy, rutted streets. Yet, in the darkness, we know the geese are awake from their muted honking. A bit later, small birds begin to chirp. Finally, at the edge of the green field, where the drab tenements announce "the city," dogs can be heard barking. Each space is identified by its familiar sounds. But beyond these localized and gentle sounds, expletives begin pouring out, penetrating like the driving rain that passes through the roof, the boots and the second-hand coats. In The Tube with a Hat, the profanity and blasphemy come in all forms, mumbled in low voices and shouted at the top of one's lungs, whispered with complicity, pronounced with condescendence, spewed with venomous scorn, articulated voluptuously. Through this swamp of obscenities, vulgarity and threats, a child advances with a vague smile, walking calmly but cautiously, as if he were crossing a minefield. He must reach his goal: he wants his family's television repaired so he can watch his favorite show. This apparently banal task becomes the subject of Radu Jude's film - winner of more than a dozen international awards, including the Jury Prize at the Montpellier Film Festival, the Jury Prize for best international short film at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, and the Grand Prix at the Uppsala International Short Film Festival.

If the ugly landscape and vulgar language shock us, The Tube with a Hat is nevertheless a delicate and sensitive film, with authentic feeling and playful irony, and in which a subtle beauty briefly emerges from the muck of a world stupefied by cheap alcohol, reduced to animal-like baseness or buried in misery and poverty. Jude, a young and talented filmmaker at just thirty years old, has already made other films that have received international recognition; he was also the associate director for Cristi Puiu's successful The Death of Mr. Lazarescu . His name thus must be added to the growing list of young Romanian filmmakers, such as Radu Muntean, Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu or Cristian Mungiu - representatives of a new generation of directors to whom the critics have been paying increasing attention. Having broken free of the older generation of communist filmmakers and the feeble and indecisive vision of the "transitional" period, this "new wave" of Romanians have found their way.

Yet for all that, Romanian viewers would not be wrong to ask exactly what the various international juries have appreciated in this film. Only a native viewer is able to decipher the familiar signs of daily existence and to see them as sources of the famous "reality effect" discussed by Roland Barthes. For nearly everybody else these details probably go unnoticed or they are completely devoid of meaning. For Romanian viewers each sign/element is arranged in its proper place in order to evoke the image of daily misery - a sort of never-ending end of the world. In the film's twenty-two minutes no detail is left to chance: rain dripping through the ceiling, the missing bridge, the mud, the checkered plastic sack, the fuzzy blanket with a hideous blue pattern used to carry the television, the repairman's sign scribbled on the wall of the tenement by the same hand that scribbles political slogans, obscenities or the names of football teams. The background music, the connotations of untranslatable expressions and even bits of conversation muffled by the background noise and invariably lost in the subtitles - all of these elements reconstitute an obviously unbearable world. But it is a world that has become so normal for Romanians that its horrible predictability feels strangely reassuring, somewhat like the catastrophes, monsters or horrors so familiar to us in fairy tales.

Utterly remarkable in this film, given the minutely detailed construction of this world of ugliness and poverty, is its complete refusal to evoke a cheap and pathetic feeling of sympathy or to collapse into what we might call the "documentary picturesque." This is the trap that many of the "transition" filmmakers fell into when trying to "sell" themes and images considered more internationally marketable. Too eager to please, such filmmakers could not go beyond clichés and platitudes, such as the plight of street children, shifts in social classes or the dog-eat-dog world of post-communist Romania. Jude's attention to authentic detail works to flesh out the contours of the characters, giving them depth and rendering them distinct. And this is precisely the point where the film becomes "visible" for the spectator. I am referring to the insatiable curiosity of the child who insists on asking questions although he receives only angry grunts or threats instead of responses. For example, when he tenderly observes an ant, well-meaning adults, who can only imagine bad intentions, threaten him with a slap in the face. He is nonetheless obstinate in his verbal precision - careful to always use the correct word and names: insects, for example, have antennae and not horns, as "all-knowing" grown-ups tell him. He may even apply a tender and thoughtful metaphor such as "the tube with a hat" or "the little barrel," to identify the various TV tubes inside their television set, although he also knows their technical names. On the other hand, his elders, whose restricted lexicon seemingly includes only swear words, simply repeat the same four-letter obscenities.

The camera's perspective is that of a child's: it stays close to the ground as if to mimic the gaze of the little protagonist who scarcely lifts his eyes and who does not seem to pay attention to his surroundings whereas in reality he quietly observes everything. The point of view is narrow and restricted, even when it's a question of exterior shots. And the darkness is overwhelming. At the same time, in a few exceptional moments, the camera opens onto vaster spaces in order to incorporate an unexpected sort of beauty. At one point, we see the father, hunched over and burdened, and the son, wrapped up in his hooded raingear, in a game of tug-of-war with the blanket protecting the television - now a kind of third character. They suddenly appear as tiny specks, lost in the immense green field where the birds are singing. Bright yellow, the child's raincoat shines through the grey morning fog like a touch of glistening light. At other moments, we see the screen fill with a tree of white blossoms that brilliantly reflect the sun's pale glow. Or we notice a dull light passing through a lampshade like the unmistakable chiaroscuro of Georges de la Tour's paintings. These moments of beauty are, indeed, rare but they are captivating and memorable.

The characters' psychology is sketched with a few precise traits - pertinent perhaps only for Romanian viewers who can recognize all of the nuances of the cleverly constructed dialogues of Florin Lazarescu. This is no doubt because they are actually a collage of nonsense and obscenities that Romanian spectators have heard all too often. At the same time, the many altercations are also suggestive for the entire audience because they embody the discursive strategy of the coward who always looks for weaker people to humiliate. Nobody misses the chance to degrade and insult another who, by accident or by social class, finds himself on a lower rung. Drivers try to see who among them can produce the most abjectly detailed insult and, at the bar, the drinkers don't hesitate to humiliate - even in front of the child - the father who, just like them, is sitting at a dirty little table guzzling the same cheap beer. The father brutally scolds the child as if to remind himself who's in charge; the city-dwellers mock the villagers. The television repairman descends majestically among his intimidated clients with the pomp of a mystical healer, and spits with impunity on the old televisions awaiting repair and on the apologetic father and son, who explain that they could not get there earlier. For Romanians, the scene obviously alludes to a famous story by the realist writer Liviu Rebreanu in which the characters, also a father and son, miss their train and are accused of sleeping late, although they were up before everybody else. As this image is repeated here as a leitmotif one hundred years later, we might assume that Jude sees unjust accusations and insults as a permanent feature of the lower rungs of social existence.

The child negotiates his way wisely through this storm of obscenity and stupidity; he perseveres in his goal: to see the Bruce Lee movie at 18:00 hours. At the end of his trek, once he has returned home, the child will watch for a few minutes a documentary on the beauty of the Pietrosul mountain range. The clear voice of the narrator, to which nobody is listening and which exalts in the glories of nature can be ironically contrasted with the dirty and depressing world of the protagonists. In the final scenes, only the television will remain to illuminate the little room and, in perfect diction, continue to praise the wonders of the Romanian landscape.

In spite of the precise references, and in spite of the abundance of details worthy of a documentary, The Tube with a Hat is not a "slice of life"; and it goes far beyond the films that want to discuss "Romanian realities" to an international audience. One might also add that the film speaks in a low and subtle voice, unlike much of the other film festival fare that often wears its politics on its sleeve. In The Tube with a Hat, goodwill and irony, bitterness and resignation make themselves felt through a viewpoint that finds its way through the cataclysmic cityscape of debris, the large and muddy potholes and the dilapidated buildings. These contradictory feelings make us reflect generally on human relations, on fragility and strength, on fear and courage, on ugliness and beauty.

In this sense one might compare the short film of Radu Jude to one from a half-century ago: Roman Polanski's Two Men and a Wardrobe . Visually similar in the depiction of two men carrying an unlikely object in unlikely places, both films are about the evolution of characters in a violent and crass world and about their astonishingly different perceptions and sensitivities. Although both films depict gloomy and fatalistic lives, they nevertheless hold out hope - even if it is only a tiny glimmer.

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