Perličky na dně [1966)

I’ve never been much a fan of the omnibus film (or anthology film) genre.

Several directors.

One product.

But this one serves a very interesting purpose.

So far, we have only considered the work of Jiří Menzel (among Czech directors).

So now we will get to branch out a bit.

A sampler of sorts.

Funny enough, Menzel leads this whole thing off.

Start with your best speaker, they say.

Menzel’s contribution is fairly good.

It is closer in spirit to Capricious Summer than it is to the masterpiece Closely Watched Trains

Which is to say, it is largely “meh”.

But a true auteur is still engaging even when he or she is meh, and Menzel is interesting…even when he’s boring (as in Rozmarné léto).

If we want to know where the Belgian juggernaut Aaltra comes from, then we should look no further than Menzel’s short contribution on motorcycle racing.

As with all the stories in this omnibus, the author (in the literary sense) is Bohumil Hrabal.

We get our first bit of the “aging” theme in this installment.

The old man with his stories of Smetana and Dvořák.

The weird harpsichord music courtesy of Jan Klusák (or perhaps Jiří Šust).

It’s baroque, but just slightly off.  Anachronistic.  Neobaroque.  Like Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (and just as rococonutty).

But the “aging” theme really comes to the fore in the next section which is directed by Jan Němec.  Němec sadly passed away but four months ago.

In this scene we meet two old men in a hospital.  It is a very touching piece of cinema.

They try to keep each other’s spirits up.

We also start to sense another theme in Hrabal’s writing:  lies.

Lies notwithstanding, Němec’s segment is perhaps the most poignant thing about this film.

In the middle we get a splash of color (the rest of the film being in black and white) courtesy of the radical Evald Schorm.

What makes Schorm’s segment so beautifully jarring is the music (extremely reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen):  organ dissonance ostensibly courtesy of the aforementioned Klusák and/or Šust.

We are presented with outsider art in its purest form.  A painter who paints every wall in his house.  It is certainly reminiscent of the one-of-a-kind Henry Darger.

Incidentally, the scene is deliciously dark humor directed at not only the bureaucracy of the Czechoslovak state but also at the legitimacy of the insurance industry.

Věra Chytilová contributes a dark-yet-dreamy vignette suffused with desperation throughout.  Her use of slow-motion photography captures some very special emotions and is reminiscent of Jean Vigo’s use of the same in Zéro de conduite.

Finally, we encounter gypsies for the first time thanks to the loving depiction of Jaromil Jireš.

A Czech boy does his best Jean-Paul Belmondo before the cracked mirror near the lobby cards.

Dana Valtová might be the most convincing actress in this entire feature.  Her role of the dark-skinned gypsy (who remains nameless) is quite astonishing.

And so we learn a bit more about the Czech people thanks to this defining mosaic from the Czech New Wave:  Pearls of the Deep.

And little by little we learn a new culture.

 

-PD

Rozmarné léto [1968)

I’m not going to blow smoke up your ass.

This one starts out slowly.

Too long at the first location.

The river bathhouse.

The dread of boredom begins to creep in.

No girl.  No gun.

Until Jana Preissová makes her first appearance.

It was unbearable.

A rainy summer.

Every day the same as the last.

In a small town.

A closed circle.

But like Fellini, the circus comes to town.

Thank God for the circus.

Cotton candy.  شعر البنات

Is it girl’s hair?  Pink.  A one-piece pajama.

Or a pig.

It is like the sweet words of the beautiful Haneen Elhaj in Bethlehem.

Girl’s hair.

Running on the electricity of a car battery.

Spinning sugary magic.

Sandy stone (when the mirror of translate is turned upon itself).

We want to know literally what Heidegger Derrida was talking about.

And so it only took director Jiří Menzel two years to lose his voice.

It was perfection in ’66.

Ostře sledované vlaky.

That is the cynical view.

But we must realize that Menzel was literally walking a tightrope.

It’s not funny.

It’s not engaging.

It’s slow.

It’s effective.

By the end you see that Fellini is the right reference.

Capricious Summer (our film) bridges the gap between the antics of La Strada and the lovable freak show of local color that would be Amarcord (1973).

But this was 1968.

A very serious year.

The Czech and Slovak (respectively) socialist republics came into being the following year.

We know the legend.

Mai ’68.

All hell broke luce.

Even Cannes was cancelled.

[Cannescelled]

But what is a film festival compared to an invasion?

Before our Capricious Summer was the Prague Spring of 1968.

Lasting well into the summer.

And blooming well before winter had ended.

January 5 – August 21.

Then the invasion.  The Warsaw Pact countries.

Operation Danube.

Romania (and Albania), to their credit, refused to participate.

108 Czechoslovak civilians killed.

Liberalization.  Decentralization.  Democratization.

Like the beautiful Anna.  Fleeting.

Because the circus always has to pack up and leave town.

Our film.

Released May 24.  During the Prague Spring.

Pražské jaro (or jar).

Czech.  Slovak.

The only difference between my bank balance and Bill Gates’.

More zeros at the end.

Infinitely more.

Later these “Springs” would become manufactured (if they weren’t already).

Libya…

We all know about color revolutions…but the Czechs would have a textured revolution in 1989.

From velvet…we could have had the corduroy revolution (ribbed, for her pleasure), silk revolution, cotton (the revolution of our lives)…etc.

The “nonviolent” Prague Spring resulted in the deaths of 96 Soviet soldiers.

84 of them by “accident” (friendly fire?)

and the accidental/”suicide” deaths of 10 Poles.

Apparently none of the Poles died conventionally.

At least the two Bulgar soldiers killed perished from intent.

The four Hungarians all slipped on banana peels in front of Škodas.

This is the tone.

Lola Montès.

Plucking the feathers from chickens.

The chubby wife returns.

Drench the nubile.

Menzel, then, was many months ahead.

Knowing that summer would really begin when autumn usually fell.

Another 20 years before the circus returned.

 

-PD

Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. [1967)

Something draws me to Eastern Europe.  I blame Romania.  Thank you Romania!  Yes, there was something about the ambiance which director Cristian Mungiu conjured up in 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile) which has stayed with me for a long time.

Really, it’s a rather mundane part.  Near the top of the film.  The goddess Anamaria Marinca traipses down the hall to find some soap…and cigarettes.  The scene is a college dormitory in communist Romania (pre-December 1989).  Girls in one room chat about beauty products.  There seems to be a good bit of bartering going on.  Marinca is mainly uninterested.  Looking for a certain kind of soap (if I remember correctly).  On the way back to her room she stops off at the room of a foreign student (non-Romanian) who sells cigarettes and gum and stuff.  The whole film she is searching for Kent cigarettes (a few mentions of this brand).  Not surprisingly, there are no Kents to be had in the dorm.  She settles for something else.  Perhaps.  I don’t know.

She stops and admires some kittens which someone has taken in.

It is astonishingly real.  On par with Roberto Rossellini.

Indeed, it might be said that all New Waves (from the nouvelle vague to the Romanian New Wave) have their birth in the neorealist films of Rossellini.

But Mungiu added a new wrinkle.

Marinca.  [The goddess of whom I spoke.]

Marinca is unglamorous.  No one is glamorous in 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile.  We get the impression that it is the waning days of Ceaușescu’s reign.

Times are tough.  The policies of the state haven’t worked out so well.  It bears some resemblance to a prison.  Material items take the place of money (reminiscent of cigarettes as currency in jails).

What I have yet to define in this article is “goddess”.  What do I mean by that?

Well, I’m glad you asked!  Marinca (particularly in this film) is a goddess to me because she represents the opposite of the typical American woman in the year 2015.  Her beauty is her soul.  Her beauty is her loyalty to her roommate and friend Găbița.  Her beauty is her dedication to acting.  She is completely immersed in her unglamorous role…and it is eye-watering.

I have mentioned a similar impression (which further solidified my admiration for Romanian films) I got from watching Dorotheea Petre in The Way I Spent the End of the World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii).  This masterpiece by director Cătălin Mitulescu preceded Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning film by about a year (2006).  I was again struck by another goddess of film (Petre) who, with the help of her auteur, created a character also in direct opposition to the meretricious, vacuous ideal of American womanhood in the 21st century.

And so it is that we finally come to the film under consideration:  Душан Макавејев‘s Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator.  Dušan Makavejev is Serbian.  Out of deference to his country I have listed his name in Cyrillic script.  Likewise, the title of the film (at the top) is in Serbo-Croatian.  It is a grey area about which I am not completely informed.  Suffice it to say that Croatia seems to generally use Roman letters (as opposed to the Serbian usage of Cyrillic).  It is a bit like the distinction (and writing differences) between Urdu and Hindi [which I have heard described as essentially the same language, but with two different writing systems].

I prefaced this article on Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. with my own backstory concerning Eastern European cinema because it is relevant to my approach going forward.

Before coming to this, my first Yugoslav (1967) film, I opened up the can of worms which is Czech cinema by reviewing Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky).  Jiří Menzel’s sexually-charged film poem from the previous year (1966) was a major revelation for me.  And so it is that Dušan Makavejev’s bittersweet confection shares more than just a communist framing with Menzel’s aforementioned erotic portrait.

Yes, Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. is about our old film-school standbys:  sex and death.  I can never combine those two words (in the context of film) without remembering the ridiculously funny scene of Jim Morrison at UCLA screening his student film in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991). 

The fictional Morrison, then, would be trying to hop on a nonfictional bandwagon represented by the likes of Menzel and Makavejev.  Morrison’s time at UCLA (1964-1965) not only coincided with the staggered births of “new waves” around the world (particularly in Europe), but also occurred while Morrison’s father (US Navy Rear Admiral [RADM] George Stephen Morrison) was the commanding officer of a carrier division involved in the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Jim Morrison lived fast.  Entered UCLA in 1964.  Graduated with an undergraduate degree in film in 1965.  Was dead by 1971.  But those years in between…  It’s no wonder Jim had an Oedipal complex (evident in the song “The End” [1966/1967]) when considering his father was involved in false-flagging the U.S. into a suicidal war against communism.  What a disgrace…

No, the real hero in the family was not RADM Morrison, but rather Jim.  He turned on the dream-switches of so many kids.  To put it quite bluntly, he was part of the counterculture in America which caused kids to start giving a fuck about the world and politics and geopolitics and confirmed charades (frauds, shams, etc.) like the Gulf of Tonkin “incident”.  Such a sanitary and slippery word:  incident.

It fits perfectly, in that there was no incident.

But while Morrison the Younger had gone off into Brechtian pop-rock, Serbian director Makavejev was busy making Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator.  It is equally stunning, for its medium, as “The End”.

Sex needs beauty.  A really luscious film like this needed Ева Рас (Eva Ras).  She is a bit like Jitka Zelenohorská’s character in Closely Watched Trains…mischievous, bewitching…  But there is one great difference between Ras and Zelenohorska:  Ras is a blond.

Though our film is in black and white, it is clear that Ras’ silky hair is rather fair (a detail which would not have escaped Hitchcock).  It must be said, however, that Makavejev did not give in to the easy femme fatale portrayal when it came to filming Ras.  Izabela (Ras) is a complex individual.  The film tells us that she is Hungarian.  She is different…other.  She needs sex.  She is passionate.

All the same, her portrayal by Ras is poetic and tender.  Really, what we are seeing here is a tentative feminism expressed by Makavejev which would become a thundering symphony of women’s liberation in Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. 

And it is good.  It is good for men to see these types of films.  We men idolize and reify women in the West, but we don’t often enough stop to really observe the trials of womankind.

In the best spirit of socialism, this film has something for everyone…men, women…ok, maybe not children.

Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator is really an intense film.  If you have seen (and made it through) Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (a film I, incidentally, once made the mistake of showing at a party), then you’ll be alright.  For those faint of heart (I generally fall into that category), there are a couple of rough moments in this film (in the context of criminology).

In all, I am very proud and happy to have seen my first Serbian movie.  As a resident of San Antonio (and fan of the San Antonio Spurs), I feel it gives me a better glimpse into the life of one of my favorite basketball players Бобан Марјановић (Boban Marjanović).  I highly recommend this film…and Go Spurs Go 🙂

 

-PD

Ostře sledované vlaky [1966)

There is no precursor for this delicious film.

Closely watched trains…

There is no warning.  No real foreshadowing of what awaits Miloš Hrma.

And I, of course, will not give away the game.

But let me tell you about this watershed moment in cinema.

You could say Czech New Wave.  You could also say Czechoslovak New Wave.

In the case of the auteur in question, Jiří Menzel, it is the former.

The movement was already going by this point.

1966.  Almost the midpoint, if we say 1962-1972.

But none of that matters too much.

What matters is this film.

Closely Watched Trains.  Ostře sledované vlaky.

And so we started with Romania.  A new wave.  A current phenomenon.  Briefly in vogue.  And completely deserving of the praise.

And we made a point to look elsewhere.  To Iran.  Because of Kiarostami.

And now we add a much older New Wave.  It is of particular interest to our first location (Romania).

In globetrotting through movies we hit some odd, beautiful destinations.  Nations.

Czechoslovakia.  No more.  Today.  Czech Republic.  Slovakia.  And Ukraine.

But none of this matters much either.

What matters is Miloš Hrma.  The shy boy.

We know.

Intimately.

Not easy.

If the meek shall inherit the earth (Earth?), then it’s a long time in coming.

I am fond.  Quoting Neil Young.

“Vampire Blues”

“Good times are coming/But they sure coming slow”

Indeed.

That is the situation of Václav Neckář’s character Miloš.

He has the delight of love.  Snow in the air.  Smoke from a steam locomotive.  A cloud of fleeting sparks.

Our heart beats rapidly for cute Jitka Bendová.  And we think of football.  We try to ignore the Bond girl essence of her name.

Because she is one of the most poetic faces in cinema.  No Wikipedia page for her.  At least not in English.

But it is this love between Miloš and Máša which gives us hope.

An adieu from the caboose (football, football).

No doubt Wes Anderson plumbed the depths of Closely Watched Trains while searching for his own cinematic language.

In fact, the beginning of this film is very much like the beginning of every Wes Anderson film.

An exposition of characters.

Some with peg-legs.

An old crazy uncle.

A cow with too many udders.

But the most crucial is the hypnotist.

If there is a precursor to Jiří Menzel (and there must be), then it is Renoir.  Renoir meets Eisenstein.  And sex.

Did I fail to mention?

Closely Watched Trains is a sexual tension which can no longer be crystalized.

And thus history served us well by preserving this document of a different age.

It is a naughty film, but not by today’s standards.

It is sex…as directed by Hitchcock.

And for that it is sexier.  More tense.  Taut.

Consider, for instance, the stamps.  Ooh la la.

If you go ga-ga for Gyllenhaal in Secretary, then you must see the breakthrough moment.  In cinema.

Like the first kiss.  May Irwin.  Thomas Edison.  But actually William Heise.  1896.

Big black maria.  Something/Anything?

Yes, in fact.

First, and most importantly, the telegraphist (as played by Jitka Zelenohorská).  Almost like Chantal Goya in Masculin Féminin, but better.  Same year.  1966.  Maybe Menzel got an idea from Godard.  In any case, Zelenohorská gives one for the ages.  Deliciously naughty.

And lest you run off feeling less-than-substantive edification, it is political as anything.  That’s where Eisenstein comes in.  A brief moment of cinematic intercutting.

And the war.  Like Les Carabiniers.  1963.  The Rossellini inspiration via Godard, perhaps?

But really it is a new cinema.  Czech!  Mind-blowing…

Sex is more erotic with a laugh.  Surreal.  Real.  More real than real.

In a stunning final coup Menzel brought us Naďa Urbánková.

One minute you’re thinking about a girl, another you’ve been rounded up by the state security apparatus.

And then they realize you’re nuts.

And they have pity on you.

Release you into the swaying grass.

And like Chaplin you waltz off into the sunset to fulfill your destiny.

What a film!

-PD