Monday, June 25, 2012

Depicting the Wanton

Eclipse’s latest set ingeniously collects ten films – five shorts and five features – by five directors at the forefront of the retroactively titled “Czech New Wave.” Pretty much every film presented here was eventually banned by the Soviet overlords who micromanaged the Czechoslovakian culture following the Warsaw Pact.

According to the set’s liner notes (by Michael Koresky), among the Soviet system’s artistic tenets were the decrees that “art should be easy to understand and that narratives of struggle and sacrifice should lead to uplifting endings.” By these standards, the best films in the set aren’t just unsanctioned art, they’re Molotov cocktails whipped at the monolithic establishment.

The set begins with the anthology film PEARLS OF THE DEEP (1966) which collects five films based on the work of Czech author Bohumil Hrabal.  Each of the short films represents an auteurist aperitif for one of the five features included in the rest of the set. For this reason, I’m going to approach the set by director, rather than by film.

The first – MR. BALTAZER'S DEATH – is directed by Jiri Menzel, who would go on to direct the Czech New Wave’s most popular export, CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS. BALTAZER tracks a middle-aged couple and an old man as they take a road trip to see a motocross event. The three people speak in tangential non sequiturs – discussing engine mechanics, religious figures, uncanny accidents, and (most often) death. It’s heavily suggested that the motocross event itself represents some sort of afterlife where you can, in fact, take it with you, provided “it” has wheels and a certain amount of torque.

Unfortunately, the film is a dud beginning for Eclipse’s auspicious set. Menzel’s lazy surrealism suggests the work of someone who watched UN CHIEN ANDULOU and L’AGE D’OR with an eye toward dissecting what makes them tick in order to duplicate their success. The only high point is Menzel’s balletic depiction of the actual motocross race, a brief bit of transcendence in an otherwise turgid yak-fest.

It’s telling that Menzel’s subsequent filmography abandoned any attempt at the outré for more traditional narrative. His feature film in the set – 1968’s CAPRICIOUS SUMMER – is a more coherent (and more accomplished) meditation on mortality. In it, a group of three oldsters – the proprietor of a bath house, a cleric, and a retired army major – are shocked out of their semi-retired lollygaggery by the arrival of a travelling magician and (especially) his fetching young assistant. The beautiful young woman reignites the lustful energy buried deep in each man and each tries (and fails) in turn to win her affection.

CAPRICIOUS SUMMER is marked by a sweeping, sun-kissed nostalgia. Its protagonists’ attempt to recapture the impassioned fumblings of summers past recalls Renoir’s PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE or Bergman’s SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT. It’s a light and insubstantial slice of life that casts a fleeting look at mortality, buoyed by the its charms of the three main actors (and the extremely fetching Jana Drchalova).

Menzel’s films are the low points of the set, mostly because they lack the teeth of what follows. It didn’t surprise me to read that, when faced with the oppressive Communist censors, Menzel was a bit of a turncoat. “I have more respect for those who swallowed it and worked,” Menzel remarked. “Than for those who didn’t … join the Communist Party and didn’t make the good films they could.” I heartily disagree, Menzel’s entries being the weakest in the set.

The next film in Pearls, Jan Nemec’s THE IMPOSTERS, is another meditation on impending death by elderly men. Two residents of a convalescent home swap anecdotes from their storied careers – one was a relentless reporter, the other a celebrated singer. The men, in the twilight of their years, have no illusions about their impending deaths but choose to comfort themselves with reminiscences. It’s a brief film, but extremely successful in its evocation of the twilight of life, leaving a melancholic residue that’s hard to shake.

Nemec’s feature in the set – A REPORT ON THE PARTY AND THE GUESTS (1966) – is similarly pitch-perfect in establishing a mood, this time one of paranoid dread. The film opens with a group of well-dressed middle-agers picnicking in a forest glen, enjoying pie and indecipherable conversation. Having finished, they meander back through the woods only to be accosted by a group of sinister men, led by a reptilian sociopath, who corral them into a clearing and begin making increasingly threatening demands of them.

Nemec’s staging of the appearance of these antagonists is extremely unsettling; the picnickers are vulnerable in their postprandial bliss, the marauding strangers materialize like a pack of dead-eyed wolves. Particularly disturbing is the leader’s combination of violent authority with childlike abandon. When one of the picnickers meekly attempts to lead the company of their newfound companions, the leader insists he stay. “Such a warm evening will be pleasant for a stay in the forest,” he says, his tone conveying more of an order than an observation.

With this characterization, Nemec nails totalitarian society’s wicked combination of menace and absurdity. For a chilling half hour or so, he concocts a riveting atmosphere of impending violence. The problem with REPORT, however, is that the mood sustained by its first half is trumped by its second half’s descent into silliness – a plot involving a banquet in the middle of the forest presided over by the strangers’ patriarch. Nemec’s premise plays better as a short since it has nowhere to go beyond a certain point other than to drown in its own absurdity while failing to pay off its menacing beginning. But what a beginning!

The third director showcased is Evald Schorm, whose HOUSE OF JOY is PEARLS’ best short. Audacious out of the gate, HOUSE OF JOY is a stylistic tour de force, splattering raw formalism all over its taut twenty-odd minutes. Two bumbling government bureaucrats show up at the home of an artist (played by actual avant-garde painter Vaclav Zak) to deliver a convoluted insurance spiel. That’s as close to a plot as this HOUSE gets; most of the film is spent taking side trips down increasingly bizarre paths. Horror movie organ music, ominous slow-motion footage of the withered old painter prancing around with a knife in the middle of a herd of goats, and a vignette involving an aluminum crucifix that causes deadly traffic pile-ups are just a few of the elements that compose this freewheeling, brilliant film. It’s an absurd response to an even more absurd society.

Schorm’s 1967 feature – RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON – couldn’t be more different from its shorter predecessor. RETURN is a deliberately paced, somber look at crippling depression. An engineer dissects his life following a suicide attempt (and his subsequent hospitalization). The stunningly harsh black-and-white cinematography reflects the tormented, cynical soul of the engineer as he wanders a world increasingly foreign to him. What Schorm’s film gets especially right is the engineer’s anger, a rarely explored facet of depression. By his estimation, the world has failed to deliver on any front – even forbidding him to die. Soul stirring and formally disciplined – going from the wild, wooly HOUSE OF JOY to this is an impressive feat – Schorm’s landscape of embittered alienation is one of the best cinematic depictions of depressive despair.

The next short is Věra Chytilová’s THE RESTAURANT THE WORLD, a beautiful bit of doleful absurdity set at an automat where the body of young girl is found in the deep freeze. The staff deftly carry out their service-oriented duties, all the while attempting to secretly deal with the girl’s corpse. A wedding party carries on at one end of the restaurant while a failed fiancé waxes miserable about his terrible relationship history.

The film is beautifully shot, well acted, and borderline incomprehensible. Much of the language is so beyond bizarre, it feels like watching a coded message. Chytilová’s feature offering -- 1966’s DAISIES -- is probably the most notorious film in the set and could be accused of being similarly obtuse. However, DAISIES is too fun, funny, and full of brilliant life to be bothered with any such accusation.

DAISIES follows two anarchic pixies – both named Marie – in their attempt to become “spoiled”. They see the world as a ruined place and damned if they’re not going to get there too, by means of spiraling hedonism and belligerent giddiness. The two prance through the city, blowing bubbles in their beer, running up expensive restaurant tabs on other people’s dime, breaking into impromptu music numbers, lazily attempting suicide, and generally (often literally) crashing into high society. Their antics are punctuated by beautiful interstitial collages of bugs, plants, fruit, food, and music and underscored with effectively contrapuntal sound design. DAISIES is a sensory assault.

DAISIES is a beautiful stream-of-consciousness mash-up of sex, music, (playful) violence, fashion, and food food FOOD. The eating scenes in the film are endless, equal parts hilarious and revolting (indeed, the film was banned by the Soviets for its depiction of food wasting) and culminate in a breathless last supper. It’s a punk rock film, occupying the same experimental hinterland as the Monkees’ HEAD and Monty Python at their most outlandish. Would that other avant-garde filmmakers would learn to have this much fun.

The final director featured, and the set’s big revelation, is Jaromil Jireš. His short – ROMANCE – nicely concludes PEARLS OF THE DEEP with a simple, almost neo-realist, love story. A cool youth spots a beautiful Gypsy girl outside of a movie theater. Before he can screw up the courage to approach her, she insouciantly requests a drag off his cigarette. It isn’t long before the two are post-coital, listening to jazz music and discussing the future potential of their relationship. ROMANCE is a perfect short – a sweet, linear microcosm of two individuals swimming in a sea of impersonal collectivism – and a welcome respite from the absurd and often harsh shorts that precede it. It also finishes with one of the greatest ending shots/social commentaries ever which I’ll refrain from describing. Pearls is worth your time for ROMANCE alone.

It’s Jires’ 1969 feature-length adaptation of Milan Kundera’s THE JOKE, however, that is the best film in the set. An eerie look into the paranoid, oppressive Communist regime, THE JOKE is that rare political film that refrains from preaching or offering solutions and just lets the collateral damage – the effect of toxic ideas on individual human lives – play out.

An aging doctor is set on a course of revenge by a chance encounter with a patient. We soon discover – via ingeniously contrived flashbacks -- that the doctor was the victim of party politics. As a youth, he was a cynical individualist thumbing his nose at the idealistic collectivists. He paid dearly – work camps, forced military service, reeducation – for a joke written on a postcard to his then-lover and now he looks to settle old scores.

Part of THE JOKE’s genius is its refusal to let anyone off the hook. The doctor soon learns that revenge isn’t easy or satisfying and – more tellingly – that his unwillingness to forgive is destroying him more than it’s harming his opponents. Amos Vogel called THE JOKE “possibly the most shattering indictment of totalitarianism to come out of a Communist country.” Beyond that, though, it’s shockingly insightful in its depiction of human nature and beautifully acted and composed. It’s a shame that Jires isn’t more well-known. Hopefully this amazing set will remedy this and bring the works of these other four talented filmmakers back into the spotlight.

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