Seattle's finest

On the scene with Police Beat


The Crime Watch column was far and away the most entertaining part of my hometown's local paper. Police Beat, a week-in-the-life account of a Seattle-by-way-of-Senegal bike cop named Z (played by nonprofessional actor Pape S. Niang), is structured around these strangely revealing public records, culled from the real Seattle blotter by writer Charles Mudede. Reenacted and filtered through Z's layered immigrant experience, the episodic busts and false alarms are woven with off-key comedy and vague apprehension: a formulation that makes the film the rare work to merit the overused "Kafkaesque" tag.

The various crime scenes Z happens on are only connected in their general weirdness. Director Robinson Devor (previously celebrated for his 2000 debut, The Woman Chaser) drops us into these digressions midstream, denying us context or even clarity of tone. A man ravages raw meat in a supermarket; a woman with a gash on her head has been hit by an errant tree branch; a pimp has two chubby prostitutes doing sit-ups at gunpoint: these scenes hover uneasily between humor and menace. Their oddness reverberates against Z's unwieldy English; he mediates with the strange lyricism that comes from being lost in translation (shades of Jim Jarmusch), instructing the tree-battered woman, for example, that "your tree is dead, and if it's not chopped down, it will continue to harm and disturb the living."

If the audience is peculiarly disassociated from the nominal action in Police Beat, it's only to match Z's dreamy remove. We get his strange little koans in English, but the voice-over, in which he ponders his immigrant status (Police Beat articulates the notion of being a stranger in a strange land to an extreme degree) and worries over his spectral girlfriend's faithfulness, is rendered in his native Wolof. Z's musings aren't readily locatable in either time or space, and while thoughts and action frequently seem to overlap, the echoes between the two only thicken the obscure narration.

And yet, if Police Beat 's montage is something of a hazy daydream, it's hardly a formless one. The glue holding the picture together is Devor's responsive mise-en-scène. Seattle — with its forested city streets, overgrown industrial sites, and ubiquitous water passageways (and bridges) — is a landscape of in-betweens, everywhere suggestive of Z's placeless condition. In framing too, Devor frequently denies us a fully contextualized picture, casting Z against abstracted dark blues and greens. When Z rides his bicycle, the director allows the background to blur out of focus, creating an effect reminiscent of those deliriously dreamlike rear-projection shots once preferred in Hollywood productions.

Police Beat is marked by indirection on all levels, a risky modus operandi rarely found in mainstream or independent cinema. The prioritization of situation over characterization recalls Robert Bresson's classics (as do the detached voice-over and the use of a quotidian occupation to frame the "action" of a film), and while Police Beat isn't Pickpocket, sometimes a film's ambition seems validating in its own right, regardless of whether it ties together as a neat package (Police Beat doesn't).

Or maybe I'm just more willing than usual to forgive loose ends because of my sense that Devor and Mudede had fun making this movie — in compiling the crime reports and scouting Seattle, yes, but also in playing with the police procedural.

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