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.

Jiri Menzel, Closely Watched Trains, 1966

Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains is a film that deals with human tragedy on several different levels but which, even in doing so, keeps a calm, informal and overall passively humorous character. Menzel’s style of filmmaking is such that the sad and tragic events that the film depicts are presented from a kind of detached perspective which provides them with a poignant realism. The powerful impact of each event is felt more so upon retrospection, the after-thinking which the film invokes. The film does not present the viewer with the dramatic heightening and emphasizing which is often expected when dealing with subjects so serious as war, suicide and death. The often expected dramatization of the sadness of life can often cheapen the experience. However, in Closely Watched Trains, the calm and detached representation of these events at once renders them powerful, realistic and also denies the audience the dramatic release of an idealized and glamorized over production. Without this release, the audience is left to thoughtfully engage with the events for itself which invites an individualization of the film-watching experience.
The film interestingly mixes tragedy with comedy. Throughout the film there is a great deal of sexual humor, often related to Dispatcher Hubicka’s womanizing and to Milos Hrma’s much emphasized problem of premature ejaculation. Even more significant, though, to the character and plot developments of the film are the themes of chaotic and absurd sequences throughout the course of the film. These are, also, often humorous but made so through their greater context within the film. Each character has his own, weird, individualizing and eccentric quality. The station is located, seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. The region is not urbanized, and the area seems desolate except for things related to the station and its employees. This perpetual isolation from the rest of Czechoslovakia affords the station employees, the film’s main characters, the time and freedom to independently go about their daily lives in spite of the fact that World War II is being played out in the same country. The only contact that the station employees have with the war at all are when German troops pass by, when those conspicuous “closely watched trains” pass by or when Councilor Zednicek stops by for a talk. Even all of these situations, though, are treated by the characters as mere distractions. As soon as their presence is gone, so is any thought of them and the characters return to going about their individual concerns and affairs. The reverberation and impact of the war rarely disturbs the characters, but even when it does enter their lives they usually shrug it off, with an almost careless annoyance. This is highlighted in scenes that include the Councilor with his map in hand, praising the German war machine’s strategies. Milos and Hubicka continually make fun of the Councilor and indeed seem bored with his speeches. As bored as they seem with having to salute the German trains as they pass. The character’s dissent concerning the war is carried to absurdist extremes in the incident of Hubicka’s stamping the naked telegraph girl with German language stamps, the same that the Councilor uses in previous scenes to mark the German armies advances and retreats on the map. The situation is carried to absurd extremes by the girl’s mother, and the German occupation of the country is satirized through absurdity in the climax of the event when the Councilor tries to bring Hubicka to justice. The entire sequence is treated humorously.
The relative isolation and slowness of life at the station only emphasizes each character’s personality and concerns, which are often portrayed chaotically and absurdly. The absolute lack of rigid formality in the film’s editing contributes to the overall sense of randomness and light-heartedness that the characters embody. The lack of rigidity and rule in the formal aspects of filmmaking also detract from the sense of continuity between scenes and causality in the narrative. Things seem only loosely tied together, and no scene in the film necessarily necessitates the next. The causality relationship among the scenes is negated, and the continuity is disrupted considerably. This is an appropriate style fir the film to take. The spirit of randomness and freedom embodied by the New Wave Czech approach to film fits well with the character’s unusual approaches to life. The opening sequence in which Milos recounts his family history back through his great grandfather sets the tone for the rest of the film, in terms of content but also stylistically. Milos tells the tragedies of the deaths of his grandfather and great grandfather, but they are represented humorously. More significant, though, than what these ancestors did, is what Milos identifies as their raison d’ĂȘtre, Milos says that they each were their way and did what they did because they did not want to do anything at all. They did not want to work, they preferred to pass their times in easy idleness. Milos claims that he too has inherited this quality for life. This attitude of ambiguous apathy translates in the case of Milos, and Hubicka, to a passive but significant reluctance of attitude toward the war and especially the German army. This attitude culminates at the end of the film in an active resistance toward the German army in which Milos blows up a passing German train. Milos gives his life in doing this, but inadvertently so. Milos becomes a reluctant martyr. The sequence can be seen as a poignant reminder, at the end of a film about apathy and carelessness, of the tragic reality of war but the scene resists doing so. Milos’ death is treated with the same informal passivity as his, almost comic, attempt at suicide. More than a deliberate and heroic action of rebellion and martyrdom, Milos’ death seems like the result of a chaotic sequence of events. Far from meaningless, but certainly not dramatized or heroicized. Milos’ act seems as much a strategy by which to get Hubicka “off the hook” for the absurd underplot of stamping Virginia’s ass, which detracts from its import in relation to the war, as it is a revolutionary act of individual heroics.
The opening sequence also sets the stage for the film stylistically. Milos directly addresses the audience and the scene is made up of very quick editing of film mixed up with still images. In these ways the opening sequence to Closely Watched Trains introduces the film’s resistance of traditional film structure and rigidity and also calls attention to itself as film, an artifice separate from reality. Menzel’s decision to begin the film in this way sets the tone for a film that won’t take itself too seriously but that will, in content and style, embody a free, improvisational and humorous attitude toward the representation of tragedy and the eccentricity of life in rural Czechoslovakia.

Roman Polanski, Knife in the Water, 1962

Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water is a film about the absurdity of competitions of male superiority and dominance. In the film, the youth and Andrzej are continually engaging in competition in order to try and decide who the superior male is. The prize seems to be the female, who in the end actually becomes the victor, if it indeed can be said that there is any such thing as win or loss in such situations. The challenge between the males is rendered meaningless as it is the female, the supposed ‘prize,’ who, herself, becomes both the deciding factor and the most important element of the competition.
The film does much to establish a specific mood and feeling. The boat that the three characters share is shown to be a claustrophobia-inducing space. The overtones of awkwardness and tension established between the characters is heightened and mirrored by the distinctive style that Polanski imposes on the film. Composition often heightens the senses of tension and claustrophobia. The frame is crowded by the images of the characters as the ship is also crowded by their physical presence. Many shots are such that half the composition is taken over by a character in the foreground while the remaining amount of frame is given over to the other two in the background. The image is flattened out by this crowding of space, and so the claustrophobic sense of proximity is heightened.
Polanski’s approach to the films photography is appropriate in that knife in the Water is very much a film that functions on a psychological level. There are only three characters in the entirety of the film. As a matter of fact, the settings are conspicuously desolate. The close up shots of characters and their crowding of the screen coupled with their total isolation from all outside human contact and presence heightens and emphasizes the film’s aim as a character study. The film’s most significant aspect is its study of the characters as individuals and their relations to one another.
The plot and the film’s drive is set up as a series of competition-like activities that are established, participated in and precipitated by the two men. Moreover, Andrzej’s insistence on the accompaniment of the youth seems from the very beginning an attempt to prove his masculinity and male superiority to his wife. The elder immediately believes that the youth will prove an easy opponent. The film’s opening scene depicts Anderzej driving in his car with Krystyna, his wife, and the viewer right away senses that their relationship is strained if not altogether on the rocks. The addition of the youth to the group only underlines the complexity and bad circumstance of the marriage.
The elder’s desire to somehow prove an ability to dominance in front of his wife and in relation to the youth prompts the youth to respond by returning the competitive impulse. It is quickly established that the two men understand Krystyna as the prize of their competitions. Nonetheless, Krystyna remains, mostly, detached, or disinterested with regard to the competition. Instead, she remains polite toward her husband and becomes protective toward the youth, almost mother-like. Nonetheless, it is Krystyna who in the end gets the proverbial upper hand on both of the men. The two men become so obsessed with their competitiveness that they disregard Krystyna for much of the film, indeed almost treat her like a prize. However, in the end one realizes that all along it was Krystyna who was most important, and ultimately empowered. The competition between the two men reaches a climax when they explode into fight. Andrzej takes the youth’s knife. When the youth can’t find it Andrzej reveals that he has taken it. Andrzej is fueled by a jealousy that is brought on by finding the youth with Krystyna, though it seemed innocent Andrzej understands it as having occurred behind his back. When the youth sees that Andrzej has taken his knife, he confronts him. A struggle ensues and the knife is dropped and lost into the water. The knife serves as a phallic symbol and the two men’s struggle over its possession symbolizes their struggle for superiority and dominance. As a phallic symbol, the knife represents the defining male characteristic which is ultimately what the entire series of competition between the men was all about. With the knife’s loss, so is lost the competition’s point of reference. Without it, the competition seems unfounded, and so is resolved in a respect. Andrzej throws the youth from the boat and when he won’t return and Andrzej and Krystyna can’t find him they begin to assume that he has drowned. Andrzej leaves the ship to swim to the surface, leaving Krystyna alone. The sudden jolt of reality in the possibility of death and murder has made Andrzej realize the competition’s absurdity. When the youth returns, Krystyna cheats on her husband and sleeps with him. Krystyna returns to shore ro meet her husband, before which the youth leaves the boat unnoticed by Andrzej. The film ends at a cross road, both literally and metaphorically. Andrzej and Krystyna sit in the car at a forj in the road, if Andrzej turns one way he will go to the police and confess to the youth’s death, if he turns the other way he goes home with Krystyna to continue their life. When Andrzej reveals his guilt over what had occurred, Krystyna confesses the truth. That the youth had not died and that she cheated on Andrzej by sleeping with him. Andrzej says that he doesn’t believe her, but the audience is left to wonder whether he really doesn’t or whether he is lying to himself, unable to betray his own false sense of pride. The film closes without providing any resolution.
At its end, knife in the Water exposes the absurdity of male chauvinism and, in its wake, empowers the female character, Krystyna. Krystyna reverses the power relationship between herself and her husband. Not only did she get away with cheating on him but she did not even have to lie about it. Whether he believes her or not, Andrzej loses. If he believes her he has to live with the fact that his wife thinks so little of him that she would cheat on him with the youth that he so furiously competed with. If he decides to not believe her then he must live with the guilt of having killed an innocent young man. The film ends in this psychological tension, and the resolution that is not provided is left to play itself out within this psychological tension. However, the release of tension through a resolution wouldn’t have mattered, for regardless of what one might imagine it to be, it is Krystyna who is in the end empowered and emphasized as the deciding and most important element of the film.