Under the tail of the dragon

The Dekalog (or 'Decalogue', in English): widely considered to be Krzysztof Kieślowski's masterwork, and also one of the most fiendishly difficult sets of films to actually see. Ten films, each an hour long, one for each of the Ten Commandments. Screenings are rare, and the DVDs are out of print and hideously expensive.

Until this weekend I have never personally known anyone who had actually seen the Decalogue. When the Belcourt (site) announced they'd be screening the Dekalog in December and early January, I decided it was time to remedy this little issue. (Film buffs are a strange sort. On drives and over lunches, they swap the names of films and directors like so many trading cards. Kieślowski is traded often on the strength of his Three Colors trilogy, but always qualified with "and I've heard the Decalogue is fantastic, but I've never gotten a chance to see it." I suppose this counts as a pretty spiffy trading card for me.)

Ten films, ten hours, all in the course of one day. These are my notes from that day.

* * * * *

Sunday. 5 January. In the lobby, the cushions are plush velvet over hardwood that could easily qualify as church pews.

There are three of us in the lobby and, unless I am grossly mistaken, I am invisible. Andrew, the ticket-taker-cum-usher with the kind blue eyes, is talking drink prices with the other employee. I do not know her name, but for some reason I've found myself mentally nicknaming her Andrea.

Names, even fake ones, always help; they serve as shorthand. She is easier to refer to by a name, any name, rather than saying that she is the one in the quasi-managerial straight black skirt, white tights, and staff shirt, capped off with a pair of mirror-bright Mary Janes that will make her feet ache before the end of the day.

Dinner is done, such as it was: peanut butter and jelly eaten with apple, chips, and Belcourt Coke while sitting on the stoop next to the fire lane

while staring at my car as it sat, across the street, safely under the tail of the dragon mural. Somewhere between episodes one and six of the Dekalog, the weather slipped from a breezy, warm afternoon to a chill night.

The wind, in the past six hours, has grown teeth.

This is the first theatre I've ever seen that had marble stands in the lobby for holding flyers. I have commandeered one to place this notebook upon; the employees have decided their Pez dispensers are far more interesting than the quiet woman with riotous hair camped out on the bench. After all, I've been here all day.

Campers, they call us, the ones who drive in from out of town or out of state to screen all ten hours of the Dekalog in one day.

Campers, they call us. Insane, everyone else calls it—except for the ones who, like us, have been waiting nearly a decade to see these films, and understand the compulsion to tick these elusive little films off of our to-see lists.

There have been a small but steady number of viewers slipping in and out of the theatre on the left—possibly the only theatre in America right now where the prevailing question every hour is, "Did anyone bring a copy of the Ten Commandments with them today?" (My copy was one of the last things I grabbed before leaving the house at nine sharp this morning.)

80 miles per hour gets you to Nashville fast. The plains slip-slide into hills as you head north, until the slow, sinuous curves of HOV lanes snake you past megamalls, then smaller neighborhoods, until finally you reach the artsy areas around Vanderbilt.

I have been snapping photos all day—enough to guarantee the employees' thinking that the riotous-haired woman is some kind of obsessive shutterbug. Quite the opposite; I just want to be able to weed through and choose a few good pictures when I get home. There is so much to remember—the Jetta parked under the dragon mural, the 1920s projector next to the theatre I'm spending my day in,

the small shops lining the cross street, and the unexpected seating depth of the theatre on the left.

I don't know if I'm going to keep these words that I am so hastily scribbling in this notebook, but I do know that my dumping them off onto these pages is allowing me to think more clearly about the movies I've seen so far.

As of this writing, I've seen six of the ten one-hour dramas that comprise the Dekalog. My traveling companions have repeatedly asked me my thoughts on what I've seen so far, and I think they are puzzled by my lack of answer.

But—I can scribe it here and reveal it later—I think I'm seeing something that, less than halfway through the series, is proving to be one of my all-time favorite pieces of cinema. I already have reasons to want to see the first six again, and I suspect that when I get home, I'll give way to a pipe dream, placing the out-of-print Criterion DVDs of this ten-film series onto a wishlist.

Not that I'll get it. But a girl can dream.

I say all this even though the films are a little slow in parts; the sheer scope of these films is something I have never before seen in cinema.

Ah. I have just been pointed out to a casual moviegoer as a 'camper.' Nice. I'm earning something along the lines of cinemaphile bonus points ("You drove how far? You're going to see all ten today?") from random strangers. Just what my ego needs—a boost. Oh dear.

My goodness, he just offered to buy me popcorn from the bar. A pity I don't like popcorn…

Ah, my movie-mates are back from their dinner. Time to close the notebook, cap the pen, and return for episode seven.

Yes, I am insane, but it's why you love me.


* * * * *

After ten hours of films in Polish, in which I could read none of the signs on-screen, I found myself vaguely surprised to be able to read road signs on the drive home.

We carpooled at half past nine in the morning, and I drove to the theatre. We did not return to our cars until after 1:30 a.m. the next morning. I talked incessantly on the drive home, mostly to keep myself awake. Somewhere past character analysis, plot contemplation, and rants about slow spots in less-favored episodes, we drifted into language discussion. We realized that none of us could remember if Russian had two or three genders for nouns.

At one a.m., this sort of thing is strangely important.

Will I see these films again? I don't know. I doubt it. This was my chance. I took it. After all, sleep deprivation is temporary, but I will be able to say for the rest of my life that I saw the Dekalog.


I need to look at this entry later, but you know, I saw a concert in this place last month ... did we discuss that?

If memory of my former roommate's studies serves me correctly, Russian does have three genders of nouns and a really weird way of handling verbs.

Suzan - we couldn't remember whether Russian had two or three genders of nouns, but we all remembered something about serious conjugation fun. I really need to ask Andy about this since, if I remember correctly, he does speak [some] Russian. Geof - Actually, no, you didn't tell me that you'd been there for a concert. I saw Jonatha Brooke play there a while back. It's a really nice venue for music.