Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Damnation, Bela Tarr, Hungary (1988).

Bela Tarr, Damnation, Hungary (1988).

The majority of scenes in Damnation take place at night and in the rain. This choice of setting marks the mood of melancholy and the depressing character of Bela Tarr’s minimal plot. Also appropriate to the air of loneliness and dejection is the film’s form. Tarr shot Damnation with an incredibly beautiful stylization of camera work. Shots are very long, and the pans and dolly work that characterizes much of the visuals are very slow. The camera lingers over very little action for prolonged periods of time. The form compliments the mood in that the stylized and dramatized beauty of the camera work imbues the pro-filmic content with a feeling of great and forlorn melancholy, in its slow, contemplativeness and, at times, total lack of action or plot development.
There are just as many scenes in Damnation that (barely) push the narrative or give clues of the plot as there are long takes that seem to be totally unrelated to the story. The plot is discerned obliquely, at best, and is displaced from its traditional centrality. Causality, motives and insight in terms of characters and narrative are totally absent and when there is dialogue or action, albeit absolutely minimal, the spectator is even denied the traditional construction between reverse and counter-shots which are conventionally employed to clarify. Instead everything that occurs throughout Damnation is interrupted and fractured by the beauty of its visuals.
Fate, destiny and misery are common topics of the dialogue but dialogue is scarce. Scenes are often marked by silence. When dialogue does occur it is completely unnaturalistic. It is often poetic and resembles dramatic soliloquies more than conversational speech. The abstract ideas that the spectator is encouraged to consider are appropriately presented through an abstraction of dialogue.
Equally as important as the characters is the world that they inhabit. Sometimes it seems that Tarr gives precedence to the setting over his characters, as they are not always readily recognizable within the frame but are instead often simply part of it, at best. The camera time and again focuses on abstract patterns such as rain, puddles walls and dirt. An extreme close up and slow dolly shot across a wall down which run drops of rain is intensely beautiful. The spectator is forces to focus in on these details of this world that Tarr has created, a world that becomes real and self contained within the frame of the screen and which we are compelled to take intent interest in. Such as at the end of the film when a character walks off the screen and the audience is left to linger over a vast and open, empty landscape of mud and rain. The desolation runs into and across the huge, uninterrupted landscape with only very minimal and slow motion of the camera. The details of this world and of form register with clarity against the silence of the plot.
As thin a the plot is it does deal with great themes of love, loss, betrayal, breakdown, age, depression and loneliness.
The form and lack of plot in Damnation have an effect on the sense of time. Time is stretched out and the movement, or often lack of movement, within the film gives its scenes and events a sense of timelessness. This timelessness works well with the long shots of vast, empty landscape, lack of occurrence and obliqueness of the plot. The relations among characters and their relationship with the landscape are also as oblique and difficult, both for them as well as for the spectator, as the abstraction of the plot. The timelessness affects them as well; the timelessness of their loneliness and the timelessness of their sadness.

The Wounds, Srdjan Dragojevic, Yugoslavia (1998).

Srdjan Dragojevic, The Wounds (Yugoslavia, 1998).

Dragojevic’s The Wounds is dedicated to post-Tito generations and, appropriately, the protagonist, Pinki, is born in 1980, the year Tito died. The film, though, deals with the post-war state of affairs in Serbia. The film portrays the gangster corruption that became such an explicit problem of the Slobodan Milosevic era. In the mid 90s Milosevic deliberately affected a state of hyper inflation to his own personal benefit and that of the gangster elite. Plunder fueled the gangster population, which had ties with the corrupt regime of the time, and the black market. The Wounds presents a picture of the effects that the decaying system had on the lives of those that grew up in such conditions. However, the film exaggerates and practically ridicules the lifestyles that the system bred, it doesn’t judge, or glorify them, which by its style creates an interesting dichotomy.
The Wounds in addition to portraying particular problems of post-war Serbian society also serves as testament to the increasing internationalization of filmmaking. The film is funded mostly with Western monies, its style is noticeably and deliberately Western and even in content it significantly quotes Western cultural motifs that serve to both highlight the Westernization of Serbia and also to exaggerate the main characters’ traits and behavior. Each of these elements is understood to be a reality as a direct effect of the fall of Communism. During Communism the state funded the arts, including film, and therefore money from the West was uncommon if not impossible. With the collapse of Communism the state no longer had the funds to support art and so the production of films began to depend on Western resources. The collapse of Communism also meant that the culture itself became more open to Western influence, in terms of financial as well as purely cultural currency. The Westernization of Serbia can be further understood as a result of the fall of Communism in that with the fall of Communism so too fell the values and beliefs that Communism had engendered the culture and society with. With the collapse of the sets of Communist values and belief systems the culture was left with a sort of void. This vacancy in the collective conscience is attempted to be substituted, in The Wounds, as one example, by the Western popular media image of masculine violence and dominance. The popular western imagery of masculinity as defined through domineering violence is exploited throughout The Wounds. The imagery has a dual effect by the reinforcement of the style by which it is represented. The film self-consciously employs a very Hollywood style which is coupled with the portrayal of the decay of Serbian society. The film portrays the youth of two teenage boys, Pinki and Svaba, as they grow up friends with a gangster, one of the very many that is alluded to throughout the film. Pinki’s father represents, to an extent, the older values of the society. Pinki though rejects everything that his parents are. In the presence of a failing and increasingly decaying society, Pinki sees the wealth and feared presence of the gangster neighbor and decides that he prefers to live life like him. Pinki and Svaba grow up being taught the gangster lifestyle by Ludi, the neighbor. Guns, drugs and the ill treatment of female characters are piece and parcel to the lifestyle. Dominance over everyone, often induced through the fear that guns create, is always a must for Pinki and Svaba. Constantly cussing and waving around their weapons the kids could remind the spectator of almost any popular Hollywood action-violence picture, centralized around the importance of the homo-erotic bond between male characters. However, in Hollywood films of the kind every effort is made on the part of the filmmaker to instill and solidify the unwavering, and convincing portrait of masculine power and “coolness.” In The Wounds Dragojevic does no such thing but instead keeps the reality of his characters conspicuously clear. No matter how macho-strong they pretend to act the truth remains that they are only kids. These two kids have the trappings and iconographies but none of the interiority or truth of the images that they try to imitate. Rather than seeming totally menacing or convincingly “cool” the two characters are absolutely ridiculous. The film reflects the penetration of American culture and the detrimental influence of the American popular media male image. The film presents these influences as contributing problems among many that the post-Tito society must face. The film asks its audience to think about Serbian culture and its condition after the Yugoslav wars. Money is practically worthless, gangsters are the only local authority and the children who are subjected to these harsh realities attach themselves to the literal implications that the penetration of Western culture presents. The brutality of growing up in a decaying society in The Wounds has given way to violence, male sadistic dominance and the continuous infliction of new, collective wounds again and again over the barely healed scars of the past.

Fuse, Pjer Zalica, Bosnia (2003).

Pjer Zalica, Fuse, Bosnia, 2003.

A poignant blend of tragedy and comedy, Zalica’s Fuse shows the weird and wrongful state of affairs in Bosnia in the wake of the Yugoslav break-up wars. The film depicts the divisions among the different ethnicities that now must find a way to live together.
In the nervous, preparatory confusion leading up to a visit from US president Bill Clinton, a small Bosnian town must clean up their act in order to show the façade of a place worthy enough to be graced by the presence of an American president. Their goal is to show the great progress that has been made in the relative peace that has followed the horrible wars. The officials that are assigned to survey and take note of the progress of the town are shown to be ignorant to the obstacles and problems that Bosnia is faced with and must suddenly scramble to overcome. When the officials are visiting the townspeople with the mayor, the question about whether or not the people have or will have jobs soon, as though having a job were a matter of fact. The mayor responds that no one has jobs, that it is a reality of the economical situation and that the government is working for a solution. In addition, many of the townspeople are actually paid stand-ins from a neighboring city, put in place to give the impression that the different ethnicities now live in harmony, illuminating the absurdity of the situation that the pressure from the West has imposed.
The real problems that the Bosnian town seeks to polish over and conceal are the more serious realities of a prostitution ring and drug trafficking. The prostitutes must be swept away so that they are not seen by the officials, and the drug dealing is covered over. Furthermore, the local police put itself through rigorous reorganization to try and prove that they will be capable of protecting the president when he visits fro a speech. Part of the reorganization is to throw piles of documents out of windows in nervous hassle just ahead of the officials’ entrance.
All of the preparation that the police go through, as ordered from above, proves to be in vain. The officials inform them that they will have nothing to do with the protection of the president and are actually instructed to not even come close to Clinton but that he will arrive with his own private protection. This reality reveals an even deeper and sadder extent of absurdity in that the entire prospect of the president’s visit is predicated upon his confidence in, good will and respect toward Bosnia which turns out to be as much of an artifice as the façade that the town is trying to show off to the officials. The reality of the situation is that the visit is only happening in as afar as it is beneficial to the president himself, and any benefit that it might propose for Bosnia is disregarded.
The dynamics within the ethnically-mixed fire fighter squad, of which one of the main characters is a part, is another focal point of interest. Though one of the members, the main character’s friend and colleague, is appalled by the idea of needing to work along side a couple of Serbians, he has little choice in the matter. The ethnic mixing of the fire fighter squad is part of the façade of peace and brotherly harmony that the town’s government wants to show the visiting Americans, and by extension, as they assume, the world. They want to prove that post war Bosnia is cultured and civilized. By the end of the film, in the face of tragedy, the four members come together in mutual grief for the suicide of the protagonist’s father.
Such as in the case of the mentally instable father, the film is punctuated throughout with instances of grim reality between the long comedic sequences. One of the reasons that the film works so well is that the problems and concerns that the town faces, in how it learns about itself and its inner dynamics, though they often are of corruption, are stretched to the limits of absurdity. The diverse, and bizarre problems that the town attempts to disguise are given a sense of unity among one another through this brand of satirical comedy, as did Peter Bacso in The Witness though Bacso’s was more extreme. In the case of Fuse Zalica didn’t want the humor to totally detract from the seriousness of the issues. Such is the tragic appeal of the mine that wounds the protagonist’s love interest early in the film, as well as the father’s depression and delusions.
The father has never gotten over the fact that his older son was killed during the war. Throughout the film he believes that he sees and talks to his son. He also demands from the authorities that they work to rescue the children that are still POWs or dead on enemy grounds. At the end of the film when it is discovered that the dead son did not die at war at all, but was killed by a local gangster, the father falls even deeper into his delusional depression. Finally, at the end as Clinton’s motorcade is approaching the center of town where he is set to deliver his speech, the father commits suicide by leaking gas into his house and lighting a cigarette. The house explodfes with a terrible sound. Clinton’s secret police are frightened and they scatter, taking Clinton’s limo away in nervous escape. The father’s living son is a fire fighter and so as he makes his way toward the smoke, in a moment of intense realization, he sees that it was his own house, where his father was, that had exploded. In front of the shell of his home, in the only moment of anger that he reveals throughout the entire film, the protagonist punches the mayor for not caring. As he grieves, his fellow co-fire fighters gather around him and hug. There is no tension in this tender image of grieving between the Bosnian and Serb workers, only human compassion.
Fuse seems to suggest that the greatest problems that remain for Bosnia in the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars are the lingering effects of those very wars. The bombs, whether landmines infields or insanity in people, that remain along with the aftershock pain that is still associated with the horror of those wars. The film sees these as the far more significant issues, as oppose to the political games that so many try to play with the world powers of the West, such as is depicted in this film where it is rendered absurd and meaningless. For Fuse the real issues for Bosnia and Serbia are those intangible scars of the past, and the effects that still exist, often ignored, from them.

The Oak, Lucian Pintilie, (Romania, 1992).

Lucian Pintilie, The Oak, Romania (1992).

Lucian Pintilie was a rather successful theatre director in France before returning to Romania after the end of Communism when he returned to his original artistic medium of filmmaking. In The Oak of 1992 Pintilie’s interests in the unique possibilities of the cinema, as oppose to, and as a result, of coming out of a predominantly theatrical background, are apparent in that he readily experiments with ideas that are fundamental and unique to film.
Pintilie’s filmmaking interests which are most readily apparent in The Oak are related to the defining characteristic of the cinema: the moving image. Pintilie’s play with the moving image, as juxtaposed to the still images of photography, is interwoven within the narrative of The Oak. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the moving to the still image is set against a number of dualities which the narrative revolves and develops around. As a filmmaker who had been denied his opportunity to work within his medium of choice, because of effects and realities of censorship working within Communist Romania, Pintilie finally gets his opportunity in The Oak. The film’s first shot is of a projector showing home movies. The oak begins as a film showing a film. The home movie is of the protagonist’s childhood. She is shown as a child playing with a gun. The scene is one of “play-massacre” as she runs around with the gun and everyone in the room pretends to be killed as she giggles. The home movie seems to be one of better times and less worry. Upon its finish the spectator learns that the protagonist is caring for her sick father. The first scene depicts her as very depressed, locked away within her small, dirty apartment. She appears broken down as she drags herself around the room only to discover that her father has died, lying there on the couch from which they watched the home movie. This opening scene already well establishes some of the film’s biggest concerns and overriding themes. The projector as the defining characteristic of the cinema, for one, which is throughout the rest of the film replaced by the protagonist’s still-photography camera which she seems to carry around everywhere she goes. The home video also helps establish a conflicting juxtaposition between the carefree and happy days of childhood which it depicts, set against the dark and embittered, stark reality of the present, that is adult consciousness.
The idea of the image of the cinema is lingered upon throughout the film. The camera that the protagonist carries around with her, in effect, creates still images of things that were just moving. The camera is a Polaroid, so her photos are actualized immediately. The contrast between the moving image (within the film) of the thing that she photographs and the stillness of the Polaroid both highlights the inherent interest in the cinema that the film formally portrays, and underlines significant concerns that the film evokes. A cow in a field that was just alive is photographed after being killed by military training bombing. The protagonist shows the image of the dead, motionless cow to a soldier who was involved in the bombing and he is visibly moved. The protagonist also shoots a photo of her dead father, who had presumably been alive, though ill, in the moments just leading up to the film’s start. The moving as compared to still image, makes the things that the film depicts all the more powerful.
The duality between different kinds of images is one that is woven within that plot and set against a number of other dualities that the film evokes. The photos often highlight the juxtaposition of life against death, and the opening home video exhibition underlines the deep difference between the protagonist’s childhood and adult moods. The dualities are often negative, and appropriately attached to the film’s bleak perspective on life. The film presents a strong dichotomy between village/country side and city as well as between nature and industry. The countryside seems more carefree and less frustrated, though apparently not too distant from the stress and polluted anxiety of the city. Likewise, the countryside is viewed as plentiful by the city peoples although the peasantry claims their own poor fortune and lack of life’s necessities. Likewise, the picnic that the two main characters share in a field, in nature, just outside the city is at a setting that overlooks a large and ugly, polluting factory. The lush green hills and trees are set against the factory, and suddenly disastrously and brutally interrupted by a military air strike. These dualities can be compared to the protagonist’s more personal conflict, related to her father’s dual identity, as it is revealed to her by her mother. This man who she had been living with and taking care of and loving dearly turns out to have been nothing like what she had thought him to be. During much of the film she talks highly about her father, his tenderness, caring devotion and great courage. The mother reveals though that he was actually a heartless, selfish, angry, mean, and cowardly man. The one thing that the protagonist had been holding onto as a shred of hope and justice in a world that seems increasingly rotten at every turn is in that scene also brutally undermined. The truth about the father is related to the truth about the society that the film depicts.
The film cuts randomly and rapidly from scene to scene, often with very little if any relativity. It is a film of fragments and disjunction, just like the socio-political structure that it portrays. Nothing works properly and everything seems to be falling apart. Everyone is bitter and life is shown as a series of random, meaningless instances of chaos and brutality.
Moreover, The Oak is peppered throughout with the sense of random chance. Things just happen and are always presented with suddenness and apparent randomness, as if each event just as well might not have happened at all, ala Bazin on Vitorio de Sica. This sense of randomness is appropriately coupled with quick and sudden film editing language of the cuts between scenes. The scenes, events and cuts all seem to come almost out of nowhere, as if by chance. This all gives the film’s portrayal of societal decay and dysfunctionality a greater force in that it makes the society’s dysfunction seem like a perverse kind of normality.
Finally, the film’s arguably most significant duality is that which is related to normality. Dysfunction and brutality for these protagonists have become a sort of normality, especially because of the random chance and non-linearity with which they are imbued. The main character is a psychologist that works with “special,” or “gifted” kids at a city school. She refers to them a gifted, as though there is something special about them in a very positive sense. The bizarre tragedy of the kids is that she also talks about how they are teased and abused by the other kids, the normal kids. The notion of normality in the case of the kids is presented as a definite negative. This idea is associated with the final scene’s sequence of murder when the authorities shoot up a school bus full of criminals and their child-hostages. The children become casualties of the necessity to remove the criminal threat. The policeman who is in charge and receives the order is hesitant and upset about the decision, but it is an example of how a brutality as the means toward an understood ends can overtime become normal protocol.
The duality of the normal vs. “the other” in terms of people is probably best exemplified in the film’s final statement. The two main characters sit under a tree and discuss the possibility of having a baby. The man says that the child had better be either a genius or an idiot, because if he’s “normal, I’ll kill him with my own hands.” This sequence comes right on the heels of the school bus massacre, the film’s scene of greatest injustice and brutality. When the norm is one of dysfunction and brutality and the natural state of affairs is one of disastrous consequence, it instills in people the suspicion of anything resembling the normality that they have come o know. Moreover, and more significantly unjust, the murderously disastrous state of affairs gives people the fear to bring children into the world, the fear of subjecting children to the injustices of the world, the fear that they may become a part of the brutal abuse that is evermore becoming “normal.”

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

My Twentieth Century, Ildiko Enyedi, Hungary (1989).

Ildiko Enyedi, My Twentieth Century (Hungary, 1989).

My Twentieth Century mixes naturalism with anti-naturalism as much as it mixes historical fact with fantasy. The film is about the transition into the twentieth century and it skips around as much temporally as it does geographically.
The film presents the spectator with the world at the turn of the century and represents the promise that the new century held at the time, especially in the West. The spectator is given sequences, throughout the film, showing several of the greatest and most promising technological advances of the time. Electricity, in the figure of Edison and in the image of light, the telegraph, the phonograph and film are in My Twentieth Century depicted and heralded as the approach of a great new age. Each of these new inventions, and especially collectively, made the world excited with dreams of the possibilities for development and advance of humanity that the Twentieth century seemed to propose. The reality of the world, though, is that the Twentieth century did not as it turned out fulfill any of the great promises and dreams that seemed so possible at its onset. Instead horror, especially in the shape of war, would mark and scar the world, by far, much more than any technology would create progress or happiness.
The film is shot beautifully in black and white through which, in part, it makes many allusions throughout to the silent era of filmmaking. The silent era was the first major era for the film industry and in it many people saw this new art form as an art of the people. As much excitement and promise that the technology presented, so too did the advent of the new art form of film. However, the promise and excitement of film as an art for the people, that could unite and restore justice to the masses, was like the promise of the new technology, never to be realized. Instead it turned out for many to do a bitter opposite. Fascist regimes employed and manipulated film to serve their own cruel ends. Fascist Italy as well as Nazi Germany caught on quick that film could be used powerfully as propaganda. Film lent itself to the manipulative lies of these terrible regimes more appropriately and forcefully than arguably any previous method ever had. Far from fulfilling its promise of something wonderful, for many intellectuals of the time film became the bitter and malicious opposite of all the great that it could have been. People like Walter Benjamin were made terribly disillusioned and never looked back on the art medium of film the same way at all. My Twentieth Century in alluding to the silent era makes the connection deliberately clear – the early days of film came to represent promises unfulfilled much as did technology at large. All the wonderful advancements became tools of the murderous war machine that ravaged much of the world during the first half of the twentieth century.
The narrative, in terms of characters, is elusive. The first and final scenes mirror one another. They are each of a woman giving birth to twins, seemingly miraculously. She lies in bed holding one baby, and seemingly surprised pulls another out from under her skirt. The scene has the feel of something miraculous. Much of the rest of the film, though, seems intent on turning its back on scenes of joy such as this one. Nonetheless, the appearance is always one of beauty. Scenes depicting light shows to exhibit the new invention are depicted in a very high contrast. The large bulbs burn brightly and magnificently in the dark of night. The narrative follows the lives of the twins which turn out to be totally opposed to one another. The twins are separated by two strange men at a very early age. One grows up to be poor, timid and a political revolutionary. The other becomes wealthy and very eroticized. Dualities such as this central one run throughout the film. One girl represents innocence and humility and strives for women’s equality while the other represents exploited, sexualized allure, practically hustling wealthy men for their money. These opposed dualities work well with the high contrast black and white of many scenes, the contrast between naturalism and anti-naturalism and the desperate opposition between the promise that the Twentieth century presented at its birth and the reality of what it would become. Also appropriately, the film ends just before the horror begins.

Lunacy, Jan Svankmajer, Czech Republic (2005).

Jan Svankmajer, Lunacy (Czech Republic, 2005).

Lunacy deals most significantly with dualities of mind and body, anarchistic liberty and severe punishment, and, formally, stop motion animation and live action.
Jean is the protagonist and witness to the two extreme forms of social order that the film diametrically opposes. They are witnessed most fully in the insane asylum. The Marquis and Murlloppe run the insane asylum as a practice in total liberation and freedom. Anyone can do whatever anyone wants at any time. Later in the film it is learned that the Marquis and Murlloppe came into power only after revolting against the real Drs and locking them up in cells in the basement of the asylum. When the real Drs escape their imprisonment with the aid of Jean they show the other extreme order of rule. They believe in strict order and severe physical punishment. They believe that in order to cure the mind the body must be punished. Physical abuse to a mentally ill individual returns harmony to the individual. Thus is tied in the film’s constant dialectic between body and mind.
The interesting fact each form of rule is that they inevitably lead to similar harm. Total liberty without any restrictions at all inevitably means that people eventually begin taking advantage of one another, abusing each other. The more powerful of the group take control over the weaker and submit them to whatever they like. Such as does the Marquis in his bizarre rituals that seem to involve rape and physical indulgence. The other side of the token is upfront with its sadomasochistic intent. Strict order, control and severe punishment in the form of beatings and bodily mutilations seem outright fascistic in all its sadistic indulgence. Although each thing seems like an opposite of the other, they cause the same effect. The film suggests this through its action, explicitly. This leads one to suggest that the film may also be saying something very similar about body and mind as well as sanity and insanity. Western culture is engrained with the idea that the body is totally different and separate from the mind. However, there have been many challenges to the enveloping assurance of this notion and Lunacy seems to participate in its critique. The popular belief is not always the right.
Likewise the film also intercuts, from scene to scene, between live action and animation. The animation is stop motion and therefore deliberately artificial looking. Its artificiality makes it all the creepier for what is constantly animated into motion is dead, raw meat. The meat crawls and moves around and even often mimics the action of the previous scene. Complete artificiality of animation as juxtaposed with live action beckons the question of what exactly is the fundamental difference between reality and representation. The live meat of the animation sequences is rarely identifiable as body parts, but when it is one can often discern eye balls and tongues. Two of the thirteen corporeal punishments that the Drs impose on their patients that the spectator is treated to the sight of are the removal of eyes and the removal of the tongue. The meat then seems somehow connected with the severity of the punishment.
The animation sections don’t advance the plot at all, but do make the often disturbing nature of the plot all the more so. The animation and the plot independently are not really too creepy or disturbing, but when they are interwoven and coupled so brilliantly as in Lunacy then each makes the other far more creepier and oddly disturbing.

No Man's Land, DanisTanovic, Bosnia (2001).

Danis Tanovic, No Man’s Land (Bosnia, 2001).

Danis Tanovic in No Man’s Land not unlike Underground aims to expose the absurdity of the Yugoslavian civil wars of the 1990s. However, No Man’s Land also incorporates the uselessness of the UN in the affair.
The UN is represented as totally ineffective and altogether unhelpful. Furthermore, the media circus that surrounded the war only interfered and made things far worse still. The peace troops only stand on the sidelines and observe, detached. Even in trying to resolve the situation of the soldiers stranded in a trench between lines, they get absolutely no good done at all but only, instead, aid the media in further interference and exploitation. Even worse, all three of the soldiers that they came to rescue die anyway.
The horrible situation that the film centers around, coupled with the remote uselessness of the people that it attracts, gives the overall effect of a powerfully bleak absurdism. This can be seen in that the two main soldiers, caught in the trench, represent the greater sides that are involved in the conflict. They hate each other and are mortal enemies and apparently do not even know why. All they can do is angrily ask each other why they started the war. They even share common backgrounds. They refer and allude to the life they used to have before the war and obviously long for it nostalgically. When one evokes the memory of a woman he used to know it turns out that the other also used to know her. For a moment they share a laugh. This is an indication of how close each side had lived to one another before the war. It is an allusion to the stark absurdity that things could ever get quite so bad. The lines, from each side, run back into their pasts, so close to one another. These two were so close to one another that they even knew the same girl, and now they want only to murder each other.
The uselessness of the UN peace troops is best illustrated in the only bit of music that is heard throughout the film. When the German mine expert arrives to try and save the man that can’t move for the mine beneath his body there suddenly starts a techno, electronica type song, actually resembling European, especially German, dance-techno music. However, the song seems to clash with the imagery, its up beat and dancy, but the situation is tense and slow moving. It is also surprising to the spectator because the film has no music in other scenes. In this moment it is quite alarming for it to suddenly begin. However, just as suddenly as it begins the audience learns that the music is diagetic, in fact emanating from the headphones that one of the UN troops is wearing. He suddenly has to remove them to listen to a superior. This sequence, short though it is, most powerfully illustrates the UNs absence from the situation at hand, their remoteness. Though they are physically present they don’t really have any care at all as to what is occurring.
Also interesting to mention is the contrast throughout the film of the long, peaceful, beautiful, panoramic nature shots of the natural landscape and the violent brutality of what is occurring within.

Underground, Emir Kusturika (Yugoslavia, 1995).

Emir Kusturica, Underground, Yugoslavia, 1995.

In Underground Kusturica has portrayed a long and sweeping encapsulation of the history of the former Yugoslavia over the Twentieth century.
The film represents WWII, the Communist era and the horrific civil wars which would ultimately tear Yugoslavia into 6 separate countries. Even with its very serious and ambitious subject matter, however, Underground hardly takes much of what it shows very seriously. Instead of focusing in on the important socio political aspects of the situations it depicts the film prefers to be very funny, boisterous and over the top with its characters fabulous partying and wild behavior. Even with this sort of façade, though, the film functions as a sort of allegory and ultimately creates very serious and pointed ideas about its ambitious subject matter.
During the first World War II part of the film Blacky and many others upon the bombing of Belgrade go underground to manufacture weapons secretly. Marko gives them to the partisans. During the Communist era Blacky and the many underground secret weapon manufacturers are deceived by Marko to go on believing that WWII never ended. Believing that they are still making weapons for the end of defeating the Nazis, to kick them out of Yugoslavia, they all remain underground and in hiding. Marko goes on selling the weapons on the black market, in effect financing wars all around the world, and he becomes rich and an important Yugoslavian political leader. In their deception, Blacky and the others believe that they are making the weapons for a good cause, to defeat the Nazis. They instead are serving a Communist leader and supplying arms to all sorts of militaries round the globe. They are doing this blindly, and unknowingly provide Tito, still believing him to be their hero in the fight against the Nazis, with undying support, albeit blind support. This art of the film can very much be understood as a metaphor for the Communist era at large. Otherwise logical citizens are tricked into blindly supporting unjust totalitarian dictatorships. Even a character, a doctor, later in the film remarks that living under Communism was like living underground. A metaphor that can be further applied to the reality that most Communist countries of the period were totally cut off from the West, and much of the world, financially, economically and otherwise.
Though much of the film is quite content with exuberance and embraces over the top antics, humorously, there are a few sequences that stand out in stark contrast. Especially significant is the films final part, before the “heaven” scene, which represents the civil wars. Suddenly the spectator is treated to harsh and horrible reality. The sequence that ends with Ivan’s suicide is especially heart wrenching. The horrors of this civil war, in the film, don’t even compare to what is shown of WWII, or anything else for that matter. The civil war is represented far more forcefully, brutally and painfully. It is a if to say that the war that ended Yugoslavia as a country was a far more horrific ordeal than any other the country survived throughout the Twentieth century.
Moreover, Underground seeks to expose the absurdity of war. That war achieves no happiness for anyone involved and is a truly absurd and horrific thing that humans do to one another.

Provincial Actors, Agnieszka Holland (Poland, 1978).

Agnieszka Holland, Provincial Actors (Poland, 1978).

Holland’s Provincial Actors is a film that deliberately disorients the spectator in several different ways. The characters’ central concern throughout the film is that of a play which they are to produce. Although the play is talked about constantly throughout the film it is never shown. It is withheld and played down, but the overall sense is that the play is about Polish liberation. Films that usually deal with play production traditionally adhere to a certain formula. There is usually a lot of arguing and conflict during the period leading up to opening night, but the film generally ends in triumph when, despite all the fights and trouble, the play is put on as a success. However, in Provincial Actors the triumphant climax is denied and the audience is left with a great deal of fighting that ultimately amounts to a rather bleak ending. This is appropriate considering almost every other aspect of the film, including sub plots and form, also conveys an undeniably bleak if not altogether depressing energy.
The film is basically about a provincial actor, the protagonist, who, along with his wife and all the rest of the actors, work for a small, provincial theatre. As far as acting is concerned the theatre is basically a dead end, and yet although everyone is well aware of how bleak the future looks they do nothing to improve their situation. The protagonist is considered, especially by himself, the star actor of the company. He is generally treated as such, but it is apparent that he is destined to never amount to much. Furthermore, what seems like alcoholism coupled with his crumbling marriage have stricken him with a sort of self destructive depression. Nonetheless and to make matters worse for everyone involved, he is totally full of himself and his large ego portrays his notion of “star actor.”
The film’s form compliments its bleakness well. The music throughout is in opposition to the narrative and resultingly weird. A music that seems to signal eeriness or some sort of oncoming dramatic climax is never realized. Instead the music disorients the spectator as it sets one up to expect things that never come to pass. The greater part of the film is set indoor with medium shots, creating a sense of claustrophobia and fragmentation. The film also refuses the spectator any establishing shots, so each new scene is unfamiliar and seemingly disconnected. Such elements of traditional narrative are rejected so much so that even temporal relationships between scenes are obscured.
Coupled with the bizarre musical treatment all of these elements intensify the film’s overall sense of agony and tension.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Goran Paskaljevic, Special Treatment, (1980).

Goran Paskaljevic, Special Treatment
Yugoslavia, 1980

Goran Paskaljevic’s film of 1980, Special Treatment, deals with a story about a group of recovering, so-called, alcoholics and their doctor. The group of alcoholics, throughout the film, are portrayed as submissive although not altogether necessarily in the need of such radically life altering treatment as is the Dr.’s program. They are though forced by the state to commit to the treatment fully, which means that they are not volunteers and that they have no life outside the treatment until they are “cured.”
Ultimately, though, the film is less about questions of disease and treatment than it is about issues concerning power and authority. The Dr. is controlling and domineering to almost absurd extents over the group of patients. The film picks up at the point where the Dr. has decided to take his patients on tour to lecture and show them off. He takes them to a brewery. The trip is excused as a demonstration of the patients’ newly acquired will power and presumably by extension to show off the “success” of his treatment, which is appropriate to the Dr.’s sadistic brand of egotism. Really though it is more in order to rub the patients’ noses in their weakness. It is a construction of power on the Dr.’s behalf.
There is through the course of the film a great premium and emphasis placed on the idea of will power by the Dr. and his supposed ability to instill it in others. In addition, the Dr.’s favorite song is a famous piece from Wagner and the film’s theme music is another piece by Wagner. Wagner, though his music may well be defended in exclusively musical terms, was the Nazi composer par excellence. His music was, and is, connected with Nazism. Furthermore, the Dr.’s insistence on the absolute importance of will power coupled with his controlling behavior as well as the fact that this is indeed a film, calls to mind Triumph of the Will from Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl was, of course, Hitler’s filmmaker, and Triumph of the Will is her most important work and widely considered one of the most effective accomplishments in the cinema of propaganda. Especially in the images of his lecture the Dr. becomes an embodiment of Nazi, sadistic, domineering power and unreasonable authority. His lecture looks and sounds more like a screaming fascist speech than an academic, or intellectual, display.
The Dr.’s control over the patients does not include the imposition of physical violence or death, but the life-controlling treatment program, in its consuming character and in the complete removal of the patients from society, is a kind of death. They are no longer alive except for their involvement in the treatment. Also, the Dr. imposes his own domineering will upon the patients by forcing them to do totally unnecessary activities. The exercises, for example, seem useless and their true raison d’être is revealed at the end of the film. After the debacle propagated by the patients’ refusal to adhere to the Dr.’s play he takes revenge on them through the medium of forced exercise, the same that he had already been subjecting them to throughout the film. The exercise that the Dr. implements is all the more ridiculous because it is no kind of real or beneficiary exercise. The patients are made to run around in circles, flap their arms and jump around aimlessly and meaninglessly. At the final event of it, the reality of forced exercise as punishment is exclaimed by the fact that it comes immediately after the patients’ resistance to the Dr.’s power, but more so because the Dr. is very obviously angry as hell about it. He has the patient’s exercising, but he dictates exactly what they are to do in real time. He has control over their bodies and their movement and he shouts out the commands with fierce force and punishing conviction.
Another avenue by which the Dr. attains unreasonable power over the patients is through the forced play that they must rehearse and act out in front of strangers. The worst part of this is that the monologues that the patients give are regarding their own real and personal lives, or former lives. Not only that but they are designed to strike the speaker deep as they reveal damaging details and the most painful memories. The play is an imposition of restricting and domineering structure on a series of forced confessions. The confessions intended to completely humiliate the patients.


Slobodan Sijan, Who is SingingOver There? (1980).

Slobodan Sijan, Who is Singing Over There? (Yugoslavia, 1980)

This film begins on April 6, 1941. April 7, 1941 was the Nazi bombing of Belgrade. The film is about a journey, an excursion that through its incompetence reaches pilgrimage-esque levels of importance for the characters involved. Each has urgent and personally important reasons for needing to reach Belgrade, which seems ever more distant because of the host of obstacles that continuously present themselves throughout the journey.
The film is set in pre-communist Yugoslavia at the onset of WWII. The characters desire to reach Belgrade, but little do they know that the very following day to when their journey begins Belgrade is to be bombed and Yugoslavia is to be dragged into a terrible war. However, it is a comedy. The plot is constructed around character types, and the comedy is employed to reveal tensions and contradictions as an undercurrent to the official Yugoslavian rhetoric of Brotherhood and Unity. As such the film evokes real and important problems.
The tension and the revelation of problems are transformed from being a constant undercurrent throughout the film to an overt and arresting explosion near the end of the film. In an ugly display of overt and violent racism, near the end of the film every character, as a mob, attacks the two Gypsies. They accuse the Gypsies of stealing, though they have absolutely no proof and though the spectator knows from a previous scene that they are in reality innocent. This incident occurs upon reaching the film’s goal, Belgrade, but the violent assault of the two Gypsies is interrupted by a Nazi air strike upon the city. This entire scene has an effect of opposition against everything that had come before it. The film as a comedy invites the spectator to relate to the cast of characters who represent a cross section of contemporary social types. Every one seems more or less likeable, that is up until the film’s final scene.
The film also comments on the superimposed bureaucratic superstructure of the society. It is examined through the isolation of this set of characters from said society. The entire bus ride is just short of being entirely disastrous but nonetheless the bus driver absolutely insists on following the rules and forms that are meant to govern public transportation, no matter how ridiculous. The extent of exaggeration renders many of the film’s elements to be satirical, like in Bacso’s The Witness.
Another interesting theme throughout the film is the secondary function of the two Gypsy characters as a kind of chorus. They provide a refrain to which the film’s action always returns. They act like the chorus in Greek theatre. They always play the same song but change the lyrics to comment on the present action of the narrative. As Gypsies they are outsiders, and as outsiders they are most fit to comment on the current situation.

Dusan Makavejev, (1971), WR: Mysteries of the Organism

WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Dusan Makavejev, 1971

Dusan Makavejev’s 1971 WR: Mysteries of the Organism is a film that at once embraces some of film’s most influential theories and simultaneously seems to reject all traditions of mainstream filmmaking.
WR seems to embrace Eisenstein’s theory of dialectical montage but pushes the notion of colliding juxtaposed images to absolute extremes. The film is complicated, dense and difficult to approach but it seems that it might be best illuminated in terms of montage and that it might too illuminate Eisenstein’s theories though they are employed to radical extremes. The film cuts between images and sequences that almost seem unrelated. However, by means of juxtaposing the opposed images they are made capable of alluding to and associating themselves with greater issues that they would not have had the force to evoke alone. The film asks its spectator to compare the images and think about them in relation to one another. Every scene throughout the film creates this sort of clash. In addition to creating the juxtaposition between individual images the film also invites comparison on larger scales. The spectator is asked to contrast between entire sections of the film, as several themes and quasi-narratives are also present, though they are constantly intertwined with seemingly freely associated, thematically unrelated sequences. The major plots that are spliced throughout the film are a documentary about Wilhelm Riech, a fictional quasi-narrative involving a Yugoslavian girl, Melena, and her romantic interest, a Russian performer, and sequences of a man in army fatigues who dances menacingly around American city streets while wielding a toy machine gun. The film juxtaposes the Yugoslav girl narrative with biographical information about Reich, fictional footage with documentary footage, the United States with Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia with Russia and, as did Reich in his own work, Marxist political liberation with psychoanalytic sexual liberation. The film creates complicated dialogues among these clashing themes and more.
WR is avant-garde in form and confrontationally controversial in content. In addition to taking after Eisensteinian montage theory, Makavejev seems to have also been interested in Eisenstein’s insistence that art must shock. For art, and especially the cinema, to be effective and fully realize its potential for conveying meaning it has to confront, jolt and rattle the spectator. The sometimes shocking imagery if of Makavejev’s film certainly conveys a great deal of force in the arresting effect that it has on the spectator. Eisenstein’s notion of shock is relayed in WR through offensiveness.
The idea of dialectical montage is that the collisions between images and ideas will evoke higher truths. In WR, though, none of the many, long sequences of fierce dialectical montage lead to anything definite at all. Their inconclusiveness is deliberate. Part of the point is that there are no objective answers and there is no objective truth. Instead the spectator is left to think the film through for him or herself. Melena’s speech about the inherent dangers and bad effects of political and sexual repression given in the courtyard of her building is crosscut with shots of her roommate having rather explicit sex. Melena’s speech is received with great applause but suddenly her ex-boyfriend shouting macho-sexist slander which is likewise received with great applause. Cut to communist Chairman Mau and an impossibly enormous gathering. Cut to a Stalin propaganda film showing him before a huge and greatly applauding crowd. Cut to a huge Nazi organization including a Nazi military march. What is the relationship between each of these mass movements? Makavejev provides no conclusion, but the succession of images does provide an incredibly interesting juxtaposition of images and ideas to think about.
Another reoccurring image in the film are scenes depicting Reich’s medical followers implementing the radical practice of scream therapy. These scenes are particularly difficult to watch, but they are presented within the framework of the film without any judgment. At one point, however, there is a horrific scene of electro-shock therapy thrown into the mix. It is visually similar, at least in its presentation, to the scenes of scream therapy. Is scream therapy implied here to be as bad as the electro-shock? Its difficult to say as even the shock therapy is represented rather ambiguously.
Makavejev withholds all conclusions and refuses to provide answers to his queries. WR is a splendidly complex and rich achievement, one that certainly requires a great deal of more time.

Marta Meszaros, Adoption, (1975).

Márta Mészáros, Adoption, (Hungary, 1975).

Adoption is about the value of making a real, meaningful connection and the beauty of honest friendship in a cold, despondent world where each can often be so hard to find.
Márta Mészáros has brilliantly conveyed a sad, depressing mood. Kata is an older woman who os involved with a married man, whom she has apparently been seeing for many years. Kata has decided she wants children. Her married boyfriend already has children of his own and doesn’t want to hear anything about it. The sensation that the spectator has entered Kata’s life at a time of great change is noticeable from the very start of the film. One gets the impression that her life has been very much the same for a long time and that in part a reason she has stayed with this married man already so long is that she is literally and figuratively stuck. She is stuck in the familiarity of routine, which is quite easy to let happen even if the routine is rather bad.
Anna is a younger girl, probably in her mid teens, from an orphanage near where Kata lives. When Anna goes out with her friends for breaks from the orphanage it seems that they often see Kata and that Kata has already become quite aware of them as well. When Anna runs away from the orphanage, she goes to Kata, hoping that she can stay with her for a while, at least long enough to see her boyfriend when he visits, and then she’ll go back. Before Anna enters Kata’s life it is apparent that Kata is suffering. She is all alone in the world and her man is quite distant and does nothing but reject her appeal for a chance at happiness through a child. Her mood is also conveyed through her stillness and her reluctance to ever smile. She says that she loves this man, but it is really part of the construction that she has built up around herself, over the years, of self imposed alienation and withdrawal. This is quite similar to what Anna has also grown accustomed to doing to herself. In discussing with Kata the possibility of a child, she advises against adoption, saying that all abandoned children are damaged. In this incredibly heartfelt and revealing line Anna is talking more about herself than anyone. Like Kata, Anna has also received a lot of damage to her self esteem.
Anna and Kata quickly develop a bond and take to each other in an almost mother daughter relationship. The mother daughter model, though, they both know can never be truly fulfilled. Nevertheless, they form a strong and significant relationship. This relationship is the most important in the entire film, more so than Kata’s oppressive relationship with the married man and even more so than Anna’s relation to her boyfriend, and eventual husband.
The conclusion of the film is quite interesting in that both Anna and Kata fulfill what each, throughout the film, desires the most. Anna, with Kata’s help, marries her boyfriend and Kata, in the film’s final scene is shown adopting a baby. Each momentous event, though, is represented as distant. Anna’s wedding is shown as a great and festive event but Anna does not seem happy. In her final shot the spectator sees her, but does not hear her. She seems to be fighting with her new husband and as he walks away Anna appears sad, hurt, entirely unfulfilled. Apparently the wedding that she wanted so bad does not in the end make her happy. In her final scene, in a room crowded with celebrating people she is shown alone and says nothing. In Kata’s final scene she finally adopts a baby, but even at this point she still does not smile. The final shot is of her running with the baby in her arms toward a bus and the film leaves questions about her future happiness inconclusive. Each of the women fulfills their dreams, their life-changing wishes. Through each event, though, each woman identifies herself in relation to a totally traditional female standard. Anna becomes a wife and Kata becomes a mother. Their dreams, what they thought would make them happy, what they expected would bring meaning and fulfillment to their lives, was defined and decided by societal and cultural preconceptions of female expectation. Each of the women was, at the film’s beginning, certainly unhappy and unconventional. They were like two resistances to social standards of how a woman is to behave. They were each, through circumstances out of their control, decided by third parties (for Anna, her parents and for Kata, the married man), denied their conventional cultural roles as women. This lack contributed significantly to the sense of loss that each felt and therefore to each woman’s unhappiness. At the film’s conclusion, though, they supply each of their lives with what it was that they had been denied and were lacking. However, when the film ends, neither of the two is by any means convincingly happy. Their futures seem as uncertain as ever. This inconclusiveness and absolute resistance to comedic form that Mészáros implements in Adoption seems to suggest that the antiquated societal and cultural ideals that have traditionally defined femininity, and the role of the woman, are no longer entirely valid. Each of the two women was most happy in the bond that they had alone established between the two. Unconventional, by most respects, as their relationship may have been, perhaps it was its unconventionality which made it work so well.

Peter Bacso, The Witness, Hungary (1969).

The Witness, Peter Bacso, (1969).

The Witness from Peter Bacso is a comedy about one of Hungary’s most hideous periods of history. The film takes place in Hungary during the Stalinist era, between 1948 and 1953, which was a time of terrible repression in Hungary. The genre of comedy is used to pointedly satirize these harsh years.
The film uses the focal point of a show-trial to criticize Stalinist Communism from within. During Communism people were not just shot and murdered without explanation the way that has always been such a staple of Fascist regimes. Instead, the government would put together elaborately staged court trials. The show-trials were often based on lies and orchestrated not to serve justice but to remove people. A realistic façade was important, presumably, to show political and national order. The trials were, essentially, theatrical productions with paid actors for witnesses and lawyers. In The Witness Pelikan, a common citizen and worker, is selected to testify in one of these show-trials by Virag who is presumably a rather high ranking member of the local government. The intention to have Pelikan testify as a witness, though, is not revealed up front. Instead when Pelikan is arrested he gets bailed out by Virag as a favor which Virag insists will need to be paid back “some day.” In the mean time Pelikan is given prestigious jobs to serve the government, all of which he fails miserably at.
The comedy of the film is served through how it comments on the incompetence of the system.
Pelikan is given the jobs not because he is qualified but because he is in favor. With each new job Pelikan ends up arrested and imprisoned anew. Pelikan’s incompetence in his jobs is mirrored by the incompetence of the state system. The film is keen about showing the absurdity in the system’s insistence to follow order and observe forms. Virag is the embodiment of the bizarre and twisted logic that everything tries to follow but that doesn’t work at all. The firemen reach Pelikan’s house fire after it has already consumed the home, when Virag and his team build Pelikan a new house they forget to include windows or doors. Everything is backwards. The best example is the trial which works least well of all. The show-trial does not in any way even attempt to fulfill the purpose of what a trial is supposed to be. A show trial is indeed an utter betrayal of the so called justice system and really defies the whole point of what a court system is meant to be all about.
The Witness uses exaggeration to satirize the state during the Stalinist era. The preparation leading up to the performance of the trial itself is phenomenally executed. The series of jobs that Virag consistently sets Pelikan up for is like a series of preparatory tests to attempt to familiarize Pelikan with the glorious Hungarian Communist system. However, the endeavor proves miserable and disastrous. Pelikan means well but does everything backwards, he is clueless. A the end of each job, Pelikan is back in prison, in the same social profile of a cell which includes Pelikan, the common worker, a priest and a former Nazi officer, who represents the past and old regime. Each time, Virag bails Pelikan out again. He is picked up by a black sedan in which he must ride with two quiet, very secretive and comical-looking officers. Each time they take him back to Virag’s office where Virag waits with big, elaborate dinners for him, of which Virag himself never partakes. It is in Virag’s office, while Pelikan eats, that the two main characters have there most revealing conversations. Virag is always worn down and tired looking. He constantly sighs and complains about how he never sleeps. His favorite slogan is to say “The international situation is intensifying,” and such things which suggest that there is urgency to act immediately. To act on what or for what reason is less clear. When Virag finally breaks the news o Pelikan that he is to be the star witness in a trial it is revealed that they want Pelikan to testify against an old friend of his. Pelikan resists and argument ensues. Pelican complains that there must be a mistake because he knows that his friend must be innocent. A heated Virag argues intensely that anyone anywhere can be guilty and that he can make a guilty party out of anyone in Hungary. Virag intently asks Pelikan if the last time he saw his friend he didn’t notice anything “suspicious” about him and the way he acted. When Pelikan says absolutely “no” Virag responds, decisively, with “exactly.” Confusingly Virag leads Pelikan astray from the argument and makes very little sense. Virag argues that “Not being suspicious at all is most suspicious of all.” Virag’s reasoning is bizarre much like the twisted logic that everything seems to be so serious about following pointlessly.
The trial is the culmination of the satire. Pelikan and Virag visit the writer in charge of formulating Pelikan’s statement. The statement is entirely full of outrageous lies, even mentioning that the defendant was seen conversing with “frog men” but Virag takes it very seriously. The writer is by no measure the kind of guy who should be working in the investigatory objective science of law. He writes as if it were a creative endeavor, and thinks himself quite good for fiction, which happens to be what this backwards, perverted trial is seeking. Perverted in the sense that it perverts away from its, supposedly, “real” or “intended” goal. The day of the trial, everybody is appropriately nervous. Virag hands Pelikan his statement to review before going out to testify. In his nerves he hands Pelikan the wrong paper, the verdict instead. Indeed, the verdict is decided and written before the trial even begins.

Miklos Jancso, The Red and the White

Miklos Jancso, The Red and the White (Hungary, 1968).

Jancso’s The Red and the White of 1968, Hungary, is a film that treats form and content with great deals of experimentation. Hungary, of all the Eastern European countries that were involved or affected by the Warsaw Pact had the unique possibility among them to experience the greatest extents on both sides of Soviet oppression. The film takes place in 1919 in Russian/Ukrainian territory during the Bolshevik Revolution and at a time when Hungary was Communist. After 1919 Hungary became Right Wing Nationalist and allied with the Nazis in World War II. After WWII and by 1948 Hungary was Communist again as a result of strong Soviet influence. Throughout the era of Stalin Hungary was the harshest dictatorship outside of the Soviet Union. Whereas for many countries 1956 marked the beginning of liberalization, the year meant a very different thing for Hungary. In Fall of 1956 the Hungarian Revolution overthrew the Communist regime and withdrew the country from the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet reaction to the revolution was to enter with crushing force, put out the successor, liberal government and instate a harsher oppression than most other Warsaw Pact countries were subjected to at the time. However, with the increasing liberalization of Communist countries into the 1960s, Hungary too became increasingly liberalized despite the Soviet backlash of ’56. By the late 60s Hungary enjoyed a greater degree of artistic freedom than did any other eastern European country, except for Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring. Artistic freedom in the late 60s made possible the production and release of more experimental film such as The Red and the White.
With such a turbulent history it is not altogether surprising that Hungarian art during a period of liberalization would look back critically on the events that were to shape the countries future. It is a film that criticizes war. The Red and the White uses the genre of the war film to criticize war by turning the genre on its head. It is a film that is intimately involved with its own form, so much so that the content is relegated to a level of obviously less importance. The only continuity in the film at all is through form. The similarity of shot sequences and their repetition throughout the film mirror the supposed ritualization of military order and rigid form. Though the action that is represented in the film, like its form, seem ruled and rigid, they also seem irrational. The film does give an insight into the rules and rigidity of military order through shots of the patterns and formations that the soldiers must organize into, always shot as through the shots themselves were also patterned according to a strict set of rules. However, the rules and their close adherence, both in the case of the warring soldiers as well as in the filmmaking itself, begin to appear illogical and completely absurd, as though they are totally arbitrary. There are apparently two sides in combat, supposedly the Reds and the Whites, but they are indistinguishable from one another. Furthermore it is constantly almost impossible to tell who is winning. Power and success constantly change hands, so quickly, that “winning” becomes meaningless and irrelevant. Moreover, because the camera deliberately and continuously misses the action that leads to success and power, the ideas of who’s who and who has the upper hand are made even more opaque. The action that in the war genre is traditionally most significant in The Red and the White constantly occurs off camera. Of course, this makes the action of what is indeed depicted on the screen even harder to follow. The film’s continuity and narrative are abstracted and obstructed. The only thing that is certain is that people are dying. In almost every scene multiple people are shot. The patterning of the cinematography and the soldier’s illogically murderous behavior are the only elements in the film that give it any unity or continuity. It is as though the entire film is made up of themes. These, though, are only fragmentary, and the result is that throughout the film the spectator is basically seeing the same thing over and over. Furthermore, like the placing of the most significant battle/war-action off camera, so the convention of the war-hero is also abolished. War films traditionally heroicize certain figures. In The Red and the White not only is nobody heroicized but there are no characters, certainly none of any significance. Almost all the shots are long and this total lack of close ups impedes identification with the characters. Emotional attachments which are often so important and central to war films are not allowed at all in Jancso’s film. The arbitrary, self-imposed rules that the film seems to follow are by no means conventional of filmmaking and they render the plot very difficult to approach or follow. Likewise, the arbitrary rules of war are rendered completely absurd and indeed meaningless. In war there are no good guys, no moments of valiant heroicism, no glories, no goals, no winners, no points, no understanding, no logic and no meanings. By turning the genre upside down, The Red and the White suggests a very different approach to war, that war cannot be measured in terms of positives, but rather that war should be measured in terms of inconclusive, fragmentary, meaningless negatives. The Red and the White is an anti war film and as such it does a phenomenal job of capturing the inherent absurdity and irrationality of war.

Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, The Shop on Main Street, 1966

Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, The Shop on Main Street
Czechoslovakia, (1966).

Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos’ The Shop on Main Street is an amazingly sad portrayal of the disasters that the oppressions of an unjust, murderous, totalitarian regime can effect on individuals. The film is very much about individuals and there is a great premium and emphasis placed on character development. It is about individuals caught in the forcing and uncontrollable current of history. The film is beautiful and beautifully photographed. It deals with weighty themes and represents a powerful vision of tragedy.
The protagonist, Antonin Brtko, at the beginning of the film is a common citizen, most preoccupied with trying to make life easier and not too much interested in matters that don’t directly affect him. His biggest worries at the onset of the film are his nagging wife and his dog who follows him everywhere. His attitude is one of passivity, although it is revealed in degrees that he is against the war. The spectator later learns that he had refused to join the Nazi presence with his brother-in-law. It seems that the brother-in-law, Imro, had persuaded him to join but Brtko refused and has since, but not necessarily as a result, hated Imro profoundly. One of the first scenes of the film has Brtko asking his wife if she has heard about all the ships that had been recently sunk and all the soldiers that died, but he can’t seem to remember from which side the casualties were. He is obviously concerned, albeit in some passing sense, with the war but not involved or interested enough to remember what most might consider the most important facts about the casualties. Likewise, one wonders whether his refusal to join with Imro was more of a moral stand or a resistance to extra work. Brtko seems in these ways similar to Jiri Menzel’s character Milos from Closely Watched Trains. Both are a bit lazy and both are quite passive and often disinterested. The more significant similarity between the two is that in each film they are irreparably changed and overwhelmed by the issues and circumstances that exist out of their control and that are, ultimately, larger than either of their individual lives. They are each subsumed by the pull and current of history. However, in Shop on Main Street the effect is individualized and felt far more personally. Whereas in Menzel’s film, the jolt of reality at its finale does not really change the carefree sentiment of the film as a whole, in Shop on Main Street the tragedy is felt deeply and the mood changes dramatically.
The change in the character of Brtko begins to take its grip when his brother-in-law gives him a position as Arian Manager of a Jewish store owned by Rosalie Lautmann. Immediately upon her introduction it is evident that Lautmann is an amazingly sweet and genuinely good natured person. The result is that Brtko can’t tell her the real reason that he has come to work with her, he instead lets her go on believing that it is her store and that he is only helping. Lautmann takes him in with open arms as though he were her own child. Brtko becomes a part of the Jewish community, he makes friends and business arrangements while letting his greed stricken, opportunist, nagging wife believe that he as become a powerful, rich Arian overseer.
Lautmann is always telling Brtko of herself, her family and her past. She tells him stories of her late husband and of her family who never write. She is lonely, quite literally all alone. Brtko is also much the same, considering that he all but hates his life at home. The two get along famously, and not in the least for the lack they share, but also in part because they are both genuinely sad but good hearted people regardless of how different they might have been before meeting. Lautmann gives Brtko her husband’s suit and hat and she cooks for him nearly everyday despite her arthritis and Brtko, as a former carpenter fixes and cleans her furniture while she waits on customers.
Like the ever growing so-called Tower of Babylon in the town’s center, which Brtko passes each day with increasing anxiety, so grows the tension among the people in the town and within Brtko himself. The imposing tower, being built since the film’s beginning, is like a prefiguration of the horror to come. On the morning when the Nazis march into the town’s square to “round up” the Jews to, as they say, “cleanse the town” one feels sick knowing, with hindsight, the greater historical context. The fact that the film so dearly and closely portratys the bond between Brtko and Mrs. Lautmann, and in that she is made so sweet, personalizes and individualizes the horror of the Nazi oppression in a way that few films are capable. Lautmann, as old as she is, hardly is even aware that there is a war in the first place, she couldn’t even understand “Arian Manager,” her age inspired ignorance makes Brtko and the spectator all the sadder and more afraid for her and her possible fate. Shots like when Brtko is nervously rushing all about town to find Mrs. Lautmann and he passes a long line of marching Nazis are composed ingeniously. Brtko’s face takes up half of the entire frame as he moves straight to the left, and, in the background, the line of Nazis marches upward toward the right. The composition creates great dynamism in the contrast between the close up on Brtko’s individual face moving one way while the long line of anonymous soldiers moves, in the background, into the opposite direction, each in diagonals. A shot like this emphasizes Brtko’s psychology because it is a close-up but also because it is from one of the most psychologically rattling scenes of the film. It also shows the strong contrast between Brtko’s concern and the Nazi intention. The opposing diagonals also visually manifest the internal tension and conflicting sentiments within Brtko himself in that he wants to protect and save Mrs. Lautmann and at the same time knows that they will kill him for aiding her if he is found out.
At its tragic climax, the last few scenes of the film show the psychological torment that the fear the Nazis inspired in people could have on individuals. The Nazi terror is so huge that without ever even entering the shop, horror ensues nonetheless. With the deaths of both protagonists the end of The Shop on Main Street is a representation of the horror of war without the depiction of war. It is an incredibly powerful portrayal of injustice and fear.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Jaromil Jires, The Joke, 1969

The Joke, Jaromil Jires
Czechoslovakia, 1969

Jaromil Jires’, The Joke is arguably one of the Czech New Wave’s most highly politicized films. As might be expected, it was immediately banned upon the Soviet reinvasion of Prague in August of 1968. When Alexander Dubcek was kicked out of power and Czechoslovakia was taken back into the Soviet sphere of influence, the film was considered so controversial that, although Jires continued to work, it was held from his official filmography.
Like many Czech New Wave films, The Joke can be seen as a film that foregrounds the importance of the individual subject despite the communist insistence on community and the de-emphasis of individuality. Also, like is common of Czech New Wave, the individual in The Joke is caught up in history. The struggle to remain individual against the powerful currents of history and community is a central theme in the film. The main character, Ludvik, struggles to cope with his life and the world around him. He is obsessed and haunted by his past. What he obviously considers the horror and personal devastation of his past is inseparable from the pull of history. The past that Ludvik was forced to suffer through was imposed on him by forces that were far out of his control. Ludvik’s obsession with his past is expressed in the film as much through dialogue and characterization as it is visually through montage editing. Jires uses the language of continuity editing, shot and counter-shot, to visually connect Ludvik, in the present, with the experiences of his past.
The Joke is a film that creates meaning through juxtaposition. Meaningful comparisons are constantly set up through the main character’s, Ludvik’s, perspective. Ludvik’s past is played out through flashbacks. Jires presents the viewer with the image of Ludvik in the present but constantly thinking about and obsessing over the past. A central event in the narrative of the film is the past event of Ludvik being kicked out of the university. The event is played out in three parts. First, Ludvik wrote a postcard to his girlfriend which included a joke. The second is Ludvik’s inquisition by a university board. Third, and lastly, Ludvik is subjected to a university vote that decides his expulsion from college. The result is that Ludvik is kicked out of the university and sent to forced labor in the mines for six years. No small punishment. The audience, though, is presented with each of these past events through flashbacks. Though they are past events, and communicated through flashback, they are simultaneously, through the editing scheme, projected into the present.
The viewer sees Ludvik in the present, in his hotel room, when the flashback to his interview with the board begins. The interview is shown literally from Ludvik’s point of view. The camera takes Ludvik’s vantage point; it shows the scene through his eyes. The board talks into the camera, and when Ludvik speaks, he is not shown, but his voice seems to emanate from the camera itself, as though the viewer is experiencing the event firsthand. To heighten the scene’s impact and to highlight its significance to the main character, the language of continuity editing, of shot and counter-shot, is employed and manipulated. Jires gives the viewer the shot of the board, in the past, the shot of Ludvik’s flashback, or memory, of the board, questioning him. Jires juxtaposes these shots of the board with counter-shots of Ludvik but the counter-shots of Ludvik are not of him in the past at the inquisition but instead of Ludvik in the present, in his hotel room. Through traditional continuity editing the shots are intended to match up and to clarify. However, in The Joke these shots do not match up, and instead of merely clarifying, they tend to complicate. They complicate both the film’s accessibility and Ludvik’s psychology, a central aspect of the film being to represent this interior psychology on the screen. Jires’ manipulation of continuity editing techniques achieves an equation between what is understood as past and present in the film. However, this combining and equating of past and present through flashbacks is made conspicuously clear to be particular to Ludvik. It is Ludvik’s obsession with the past that brings its significance to the foreground in the present. Other juxtapositions in the film render the past and present as being at odds with one another. The irreconcilable differences between past and present are the most significant result of showing them together.
Ludvik’s obsession with the past is intricately tied to his desire for revenge against those who kicked him out of college, sent him to work and forever changed the course of his life. However, it becomes amply clear throughout the course of the film that the past has become irrelevant to all except Ludvik. Ludkik is disconnected from the realities of the present. He is represented as a creepy, dark, brooding, disturbed middle aged man. His personal horror is unfounded in the present, and he is all but lost. When Ludvik finds one of his arch rivals from the past, a man from the board, he sees an opportunity for enacting revenge upon him. Ludvik sleeps with the man’s wife in hopes that he will be devastated to learn of her betrayal. When Ludvik does sleep with her he learns that she is separated from her husband. When the man finally shows up he is accompanied by his girlfriend, a woman half his age. He is wealthy and almost happy to see Ludvik who shrinks in his presence. The past is gone to this man and irrelevant, as it is to everyone around Ludvik. Ludvik’s revenge was in complete futility. Toward the end of the film, Ludvik finally decides to play with an old friend in his band to a crowd of gathered youths. They play old folk songs and standard traditionals. These are songs that represent the past. The crowd, though, doesn’t care. They are loud and disrespectful of the band and their music. The songs are meaningless to this youth that has had such a very different set of experiences than people like Ludvik. It is again reemphasized that the past is obsolete to all except the obsessive and embittered Ludvik. Finally in the film’s finale, a youth who was in love with Helena, the woman who Ludvik slept with, appears to fight Ludvik for having hurt her. Ludvik beats up the youth, and exclaims “it was not you who I wanted to beat up!” and the film ends abruptly. The ending is abrupt and sudden, but appropriate. There is no resolution and no release from the build up. The film’s entire action and course of events culminate in futility. The horrors of Ludvik’s past are unfounded in the present. Ludvik’s particular past, though it haunts him, is meaningless to everyone else. Ludvik is a memento mori, much like his channeling of his vain and futile anger into the fight with the youth, he too is displaced.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Vera Chytilova, Daisies, 1966

“Dedicated to Those Whose Sole Source of Indignation is a Messed-Up-Trifle.”
Vera Chytilova, Daisies, (1966).

Daisies both begins and ends with images of war. These are images of modern warfare, of mass destruction. These sequences frame the rest of the movie, they act like a bracketing device and therefore imply that it is from within them that the rest of the film must be seen and understood. The first scene that introduces the girls portrays them as dolls, their arms squeaking like hinges as they move erratically. This is immediately on the heels of the films opening sequence of war images alternated with close ups of a machine cranking away. Like a doll, a machine does not have a mind of its own to decide its own actions, other people must control and direct it. However unlike a doll a machine can be turned on and left to proceed in its automatic insistence indefinitely. Machines are expendable. When people begin to act like machines, and when people begin to be treated like machines, expected to automatically and blindly follow commands and orders the Dadaists called it automatism. Humans become like machines, expendable, or so they begin to be seen as such. World War I presented the world with destruction and murder on a more massive scale than could have ever been imagined previously. Automatism is the behavior of, and treatment of men like machines, they become part of the greater war machine and are expected to follow orders and kill without question. Likewise, casualties no longer matter, for like machines, men are seen as expendable. When a machine breaks, one replaces it. Dada was a response in the arts to the horrors of World War I.
Immediately following the images of war, and portrayed as dolls, the girls’ first conversation of the film is their most expansive. They decide and agree that “the world has gone bad.” Throughout the rest of the film the girls’ excuse and justification for acting the way they do is the, by now determined fact, that the world has gone bad and has therefore caused them too to go bad. That all the world has gone bad seems to be inextricably linked with the film’s opening images of war and allusion to both Dada and automatism. The film seems to imply that war has inspired a world wide sensation of numbness, people have been left semi-comatose – automatically and blindly doing only what is expected of them, like machines or dolls. The horrors of such massive and murderously destructive war have rendered everything meaningless. There no longer exists the optimistic hope of a grand narrative or salvation. As was an aim of Dada art, Daisies also seems to imply that all is meaningless. In these ways Daisies seems decidedly post modern. Post modern in its reliance on figurative form, on its anti-narrative aim and in its assurance that the horrors of the world have rendered human action meaningless. In Daisies the girls must first realize this reality, the reality that there is no truth or any such thing as the hopefulness of a greater, more important overriding narrative, some shred of justice or slither of meaning. Once, in their first scene, the girls have realized this they can finally act out as they have been dying to. No longer imbedded in the false security of social routine and norm, they can finally be free to do whatever they want. However, their destructiveness and the negativity that they inspire is by no means implied to be the necessary human condition. Rather, it is the necessary response to all the mass destructiveness and negativity that humanity has laid onto itself over the past century. That is, their behavior has been caused by greater situations and events that are removed from them and completely out of their control. They are not altogether free from the force of automatism, but they are indeed separate from the automatismatic masses who remain asleep to the realities of the world, if there is indeed any such thing as objective reality which the film also challenges. These are the people who are offended and repulsed by the girls’ behavior. They are shocked, and likewise the film itself through its radical and revolutionary approach to form is meant to shock audiences. The two girls supply a jolt to the people they confront, and the film is meant to do the same to its audiences. Chytilova’s radically avant-garde approach to filmmaking assaults the viewer in every respect. Chytilova destroys the conventions and the expectations of cinema much like how her protagonists destroy social and behavioral norms and expectations. In this way, in Daisies, form compliments content.
There is also the fact, which cannot be ignored, that the two protagonists of the film are female. There is indeed something to be said for their actions in respect to feminism. Feminist criticism often calls for the destruction of traditional forms of representation in order to replace them with new, just forms. To reinsert into the canon of work the female artists that history has ignored, as well as to replace the traditional aim of the visual arts as a male dominated medium. If film is traditionally a medium that constructs a male vantage point and aims to gratify purely male need and fantasy, then feminist film must rearrange the traditional form and aesthetic of representation in order to reverse the male-imposed power relationship. Daisies, in this sense, both prefigures feminism and enacts feminist theory.
The film ends much like it began. The scene in the banquet is arguably the film’s scene of greatest destruction. Much like their behavior throughout the film, the girls indulge in food and drink that does not belong to them, they break bottles, glasses and plates and they destroy, make a real disaster, of an upper class if not state funded banquet hall. Their scene of festivity and jovial destruction leads immediately to a reaction by the girls to clean up their mess, to work. The two appear redressed, but no longer in clothes, rather, bound in papers tied to their bodies with rope. They run nervously around the room, and indeed the scene is shot in fewer frames per second to give it a look of jerkiness and speed, cleaning and trying to fix their mess. All the while that they are cleaning the girls continually recite the rhetoric of work. They, apparently mindlessly, recite over and over that work is good, that they must do their work in order to be happy, as though hard work was a prerequisite to happiness. The strange thing is that they suddenly seem to almost believe it, that their necessity to do work will lead, once the work is done, to happiness. However, no matter how hard they work it does no good whatsoever in cleaning the mess and destruction that they have created. They set bits of broken plate next to one another and assure each other that it is just perfect, as it should be. In this scene work is shown to be absolutely meaningless and worthless, incapable of fixing anything or doing any good at all regardless of how much they praise it. The destruction was too great. The scene does however suggest that these two girls, apparently no longer the same two people that we had become acquainted with throughout the film, are bound by documents that tie them to their work and to a misleading and false ideology of the importance and virtue of work. The documents are manifested visually through the papers that are tied to their bodies. These papers that they wear are like the documents that enforce people to labor and to production quotas, but more importantly they are like the propaganda that tells the masses that to work all one’s life is virtuous and good. All the scenes during the film of collage making and all paper cutting that the girls did comes to mind and suggests that undoing themselves of these papers ought to be quite easy, however they seem helpless to stop working. They seem convinced that they must work before they can be happy, even if the work is obviously worthless since things are too far gone to be fixable anyway. The scene ends with the girls deciding that they have completed their work. They lie down, exhausted but elated, on the table. They smile and say that now that their work is done they are happy. At this moment, maybe because of its thorough and striking contradiction to everything the girls were and did throughout the film, they seem more ridiculous and ingenuine than even at their greatest heights of most ridiculous infantilistic behavior. This awkwardness that the audience is made to feel at this point is deliberate in order to underline the absurdity of the popular rhetoric which suggests that work is the only avenue to happiness. Finally, lying down on the table and in their achievement of “happiness,” the girls suddenly scream as the enormous and decadent chandelier above comes crashing down toward them. The scene cuts and is replaced with images of war, just as the film had begun. The audience is left to wonder, but there can be little doubt as to the chandelier’s devastating capacity. The final scene can be understood as a metaphor for life. The girls are bound by the documents, or laws, conventions and norms of the culture and society to which they belong, and as such they spend their entire life working and working toward the promise of happiness, but once the work is finally over, happiness is still elusive, because then they die. One works their whole life through, obeying the rules and hoping for happiness, and then they die. Daisies reveals the absolute absurdity of it all, and that it is meaningless. The automatism of post modern society is just that, a mindless automatism. The majority of the film, before the concluding scene, is a kind of demonstration of how one can break all social and behavioral expectations and shows that they are not invulnerable. It is also the realization of the desire to scream. To let out all of the pent up emotion associated with a post WWI and WWII world. It is a rebellion and a rejection of the world the way it is, and as such, it is incredibly revealing.
Daisies is iconoclastic in relation to all tradition and previous modes of filmmaking. It seems to say that the old modes are no longer valid. That this absolute madness of filmmaking is the only remaining viable means for expression of such sensitive but revolutionary and explosive issues.

Milos Forman, Loves of a Blonde, 1966

Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde is a film about youthful longing, aspiration, dreams and their inevitable impossibility. It is a film that assaults the viewer with a candid and unapologetic brand of realism. This realism represents social situations and social behaviors that ultimately lead only to awkwardness and disillusionment. It is at its core a story of disillusionment and the youthful optimism that resists it.
Characteristically of Czech New Wave filmmaking Loves of a Blonde is a film that is not concerned with telling as neatly constructed a story as possible. The film gives a feeling of looseness as oppose to the rigid feel of conventional filmmaking with its narrative aim and concern of constructing a careful, controlled well rounded plot. In Loves of a Blonde there are entire scenes that seem more like Lumiere Actualités than fabrications of the cinema. These sequences do not, and are not intended to, advance the narrative. Instead they help provide the mood of the film and make the scenes seem closer to real life while simultaneously calling attention to the style and process of film as film. Scenes seem to extend giving the sense of indefiniteness, as though the argument between Milda and his parents could go on forever or as though the three reservists may never make up their minds to approach the three girls. These are scenes that in conventional films are cut to their bare minimums in order to push the narrative ahead. However, one is inclined to ask the question, ahead to what? The feeling of indefiniteness of these scenes in Loves of a Blonde is a feeling of life, as life is not made up of simple linear narratives.
In terms of plot, Loves of a Blonde can seem, as a whole, disjointed or fragmentary for refusing to provide the neat and careful construction of story, or even resolution. This is appropriate in the sense that the main character, Andula, also seems disjointed. Andula does not know what she wants and her decisions often make her seem confused. At the beginning of the film she is seen lying in bed with a friend, describing, really gushing about, her boyfriend who has given her a ring. She makes him sound like a real wonderful guy. When he appears later in the film the truth of the situation is revealed, that he is a terrible person. At the end of the film, Andula is likewise describing Milda and the time that she spent at his parents’ house in Prague. Again Andula makes the experience out to seem as though it had been wonderful, which is far from the truth. At Milos’ parents’ house she was subjected to an excruciating interview and belittling by Milos’ mother. Later that night, when Milos finally arrives, his mother forces him to share the bed with her and his father so as to not allow him to be with Andula. In bed the three of them argue endlessly and inconspicuously. They are loud and rude and they carry on indefinitely. The argument is absurd and has no foreseeable resolution, and yet they continue as though bickering and arguing through the night is perfectly common among them. The argument is almost entirely about Andula and what a problem it is that she has shown up unannounced. The insensitivity and insistence of the argument and its inherent awkwardness evoke comedy and is humorous, but there is an abrupt cut from the comedy of the argument to Andula. Andula is sitting just outside the bedroom door, crying. The sudden cut to Andula’s tears has a powerful impact as a juxtaposition to the argument inside the room. The seeming endlessness of the argument is funny to the audience, but there is nothing funny about it at all to Andula. The straight cut to her sitting down on her knees, crying, functions as an abrupt change of mood, and is therefore quite powerful.
When Andula, at the end of the film as at the beginning, tells her friend, in bed, how wonderful a time she had at Milda’s, the audience knows that she is not being honest. The trip to Milda’s house was a disaster by all measures. However, it is not that Andula is outright lying to her friend. Rather, Andula is romanticizing, idealizing the experience, just as she had before in the case of the boyfriend who had given her the ring. Andula is seeking the companionship and love that is necessary in modernity, just for making life bearable. When situations and life seem to only betray Andula’s hopes and needs she fabricates her history in hopes that the next time will be better. Andula’s is the optimism of youth that confronts and resists the realities of life. All youth reassemble their memories in order to make their lives more the reality that they long for.