Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, Czechoslovakia, 1964)

On the run

One of the few things you can be sure about in Jan Němec’s debut film, and contribution to the then nascent Czech new wave, is that the protagonists are on the run from the Nazis. Co-scripted by Němec and Arnošt Lustig, based on the latter’s novel, the film strips the source material almost bare. here’s very little dialogue and the film is littered with might be flashbacks but also might be dreams.

Němec was in his early 20s when he went to FAMU, the film school in Prague, and apparently hadn’t seen any western art cinema to that date. It’s clear from Diamonds of the Night that he left the school admiring Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson and Alain Robbe-Grillet. There’s even close-ups of ants on a hand, an obvious nod to Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (France, 1929), but there’s nothing in Němec’s film that feels derivative. The Robbe-Grillet influence is particularly from Last Year in Marienbad (France, 1961) where the same events are seen over and over again but with differences. It’s this play of memories that Němec draws on but in his film it seems to be about events that have just happened, or are about to happen, or maybe never happen. This ambiguity situates the film firmly in surrealism, a favourite of Czech cinema, though the dreamlike narrative is rooted in genuine fear of capture. In a bravura opening shot, the boys run from a train taking them to a concentration camp. The long take rushes up the hillside with them; the camerawork throughout is superb. The prime cinematographer is Jaroslav Kucera, who was married to Věra Chytilová; Miroslav Ondříček is also credited. Both went on to make significant contributions to the Czech New Wave.

You could read the boys’ (or is it just one of them?) dreamlike state as being a result of exhaustion. In one scene they spit out bread even though they are starving because it makes their dry mouths bleed. In another a farmer’s wife may be assaulted, sexually or otherwise, as different possibilities are shown. The stark black and white cinematography, sometimes over-exposed, adds a gritty feel to the dreamlike imagery. In one scene, the boys’ seem to spend an age clambering up a scree slope; in another, one of them seems to be chatting up a girl. As to their fate, I can’t spoil it because I don’t know.

Němec apparently ended up making wedding videos in California during the 1970s after being forced from Czechoslovakia after the demise of the Prague Spring; I doubt he brought his artistic sensibility to them but it was no surprise that he couldn’t find work in Hollywood as a director. He was a consultant on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). After the Velvet Revolution he returned to Europe and has continued to make films that, unfortunately, don’t seem to be available in the UK.

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Orphée (France, 1950)

La grande mort

One of the key tenets of surrealism was to annoy the bourgeoisie who have to find profound meaning in their art. To provoke annoyance the surrealists relied upon dreams as the ‘legislators of truth’. Although Cocteau was part of the surrealist movement he was often supposed to be a dilettante; however, as  he said: “I have been accused of jumping from branch to branch. Well I have – but always in the same tree”. Hence although there are surrealist elements in Orphée its narrative has a logic that isn’t found in the classic surrealist films of the 1920s. In Orphée there’s no doubt that death lies beyond the mirror but it also seems to be a dream world that Cocteau brilliantly articulates through a variety of techniques.

One such is using back projection which includes a character engaged in conversation with another who is in the foreground. There’s also superb moment where Orpheus and Heurtebise, whilst in the realm of death, struggle along a wall to reach a corner where they appear to fly down the other side. The ‘underworld’ is accessed through mirrors and the transitions through them are done superbly using judicious angles and editing; there’s none of the plasticity of CGI.

Despite this brilliance I’ve never liked the film as Orpheus himself is a misogynist. However, I noticed this time (my third viewing) that he describes himself, toward the end, as ‘insufferably smug’, and early in the film he says that ‘we shouldn’t think to hard as it would become confusing’ (I paraphrase). In other words, it is typical surrealism playing with expectations that art should be meaningful and indicating that the ‘film’ knows Orpheus is pretty dislikable. On the other hand, unliked most surrealist films, it’s relatively easy to understand Orphée: it’s a commentary on the ‘agonies’ of the creative artist both socially (at the start Orpheus is ostracised by his peers because he is successful) and intellectually (the difficulty of creation).

María Casares’ ‘angel of death’ is particularly striking and in one moment of visual brilliance, when she is accused of loving Orphee, her dress suddenly turns from black to white. And it is such cinematic moments that stick in the mind from Orphée, not Jean Marais’ ‘insufferable’ Orpheus.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (US-France, 1992)

Happy families

I was lucky enough to receive the belated season three of Twin Peaks as a gift so embarked on re-watching series one; I never saw series two when it came out. Series one remains a milestone television series with its mix of the uncanny and humour, much of it derived from the genre mash-up of film noir and soap opera. Season two was more wayward, I found the ‘arch villain’ Windom Earl unconvincing though whether that’s due to Kenneth Welsh’s performance is uncertain. The bizarre Lynch-directed final episode almost redeemed it.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was Lynch’s response to the prematurely-ended, due to low ratings, series (on episode 29, including both series one and two, and a pilot); Lynch apparently had shown little interest in the programme in its second season even though he appeared in a few episodes. As far as he was concerned as soon as the killer of Laura Palmer was revealed, which the television company insisted on, the programme lost its raison d’etre. When Lynch directed he ignored the script, probably because it was trying to explain what was going on. Fire Walk With Me was a prequel to the first series and focused on Laura Palmer whose corpse, in the pilot, stimulates the investigation in the small town. Apparently those who were fans of the series found the film disappointing; when I saw it at the time I was ‘blown away’ by the portrayal of abuse and thought the film was at least as good as Blue Velvet (1986). 25 years later its power remains and I was particularly taken by Sheryl Lee’s performance as Laura; she superbly conveys the girl’s resignation to her fate even as she rails against the forces that have exploited her. It remains uncomfortable viewing.

Given Lynch is in love with surrealism, we can see the first 30 bonkers minutes of the film almost as a short to accompany the feature; unless I’m missing something…

I’ll now embark on the 19 episodes of series three that apparently take Fire Walk With Me as their starting point. I’m enthused enough, at the moment, to then revisit all Lynch’s films for they were all (I haven’t seen The Straight Story, 1999) designed to get us thinking.

The Hourglass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod clepsydra, Poland, 1973)

Mental mise en scene

Mental mise en scene

I was musing to a friend recently that I fancied watching an arthouse film where I had no idea what was going on. Perspicaciously The Hourglass Sanatorium appeared, Wojciech Has’ adaptation of Bruno Schulz short stories, which has some of the most mental mise en scene I’ve ever seen. I use ‘mental’ advisedly as the events probably take place in the protagonist’s, Józef (Jan Nowicki), mind.

The film starts with Józef on a bizarre train with a dreamlike landscape. He arrives at a sanatorium where, apparently, his father is staying, although in Józef’s world he is dead. You might be getting the picture of the bizarre narrative but what I can’t convey is the intricate detail of the settings which reminded me of Sebastian’s apartment in Blade Runnerthe whole film is crammed with clutter and paraphernalia.

The intricate detail of the mise en scene

The intricate detail of the mise en scene

But what is going on? The surrealist nature of the film suggests we shouldn’t try and make sense of the narrative; director Has often welds disparate scenes together with the logic of dream. On the other hand, if we are considering dreams then Freudian ideas are obviously present; Józef’s mother thinks he is still a child and the preponderance of women’s breasts, in some scenes, suggests infantilism. We are probably in Józef’s mind, maybe in the moments before death as he revisits his past, though not in any coherent order.  Jewish culture is clearly important but I don’t know why; this excellent article suggests it is a result of Schulz’s source material. However Has may have included Jewish iconography to upset the Polish authorities who were indulging in a bout of anti-semitism at the time of the film’s making. He succeeded and the film was banned; however it was smuggled to Cannes where it won a prize.

Jewish culture to the fore

Jewish culture to the fore

It’s difficult to sum up: it’s bonkers and brilliant.

Daisies (Sedmikrásky, Czechoslovakia, 1966)

Anarchy in Czechoslovakia

Anarchy in Czechoslovakia

Vera Chytilová died in March and Daisies is probably her most celebrated film; it is brilliant. Two Marias (Ivana Karbanova and Jitka Cerhova) waltz through the film on an anarchic romp which starts off with them eating apples. The symbolism is obvious, as is the bananas, sausages and hardboiled egg that they snip at with scissors while a would-be lover claims he’s in love (by which he means lust). It’s slightly peculiar to say that the girls (Peter Hames in The Czechoslovak New Wave states they are 17) are trampling on bourgeois sensibilities in a so-called communist state, but the privileged middle classes obviously existed there too. In a nightclub, where the clientele are being entertained by the Charleston, the Marias randomly drink others wine and generally make a nuisance of themselves. They allow themselves to be taken to restaurants by older men only to bail out before the men have their ‘wicked way’. They also decimate a banquet, evidently laid out for an audience listening to Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods (where the bourgeoisie meet their fate).

The film’s epitaph sums it up: ‘This film is dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is trampled on trifle’. There’s plenty of trifle in the final scene, flying around in true slapstick fashion and the anarchic comedy of Max Sennett is clearly a touchstone for Chytilová as parts of the film are speeded up in the manner that ‘silent movies’ used to be. Czech surrealism, such as Jan Svankmajer (in scenes of pixilation – animation using live actors), is also evident as some of the art movements of the 1960s, such as ‘cut ups’. It’s a terrific brew of full of humour and brio and, most of all, feminism.

The film opens, and ends, with images of bombing. I took them to be a reference to the Vietnam war. The girls’ adventure starts by them deciding that everything’s spoiled in the world. Hence, their assault on bourgeois sensibility is an attack on the way the world was at the time; and it’s still like that. Clearly Chytilová was attacking more than trifles.

I was reminiscing about university with a friend and she remembered that she was part of the ‘300 group’ that aimed to get 300 MPs into Parliament. That was over 30 years ago! This film’s nearly 50 years old and the battles for equality between the sexes still need fighting. Young women could do far worse than learn some attitude from these Marias.

 

The Grandmother (US, 1970)

Giving birth to granny

Giving birth to granny

This is a very early David Lynch short that mixes animation, pixelation and live action to typically obscure effect. Lynch is one of those directors for whom the auteur theory does work and the ‘seeds’ of his later work are apparent here; particularly the disturbing soundscapes he produces. On the ‘The Shorts of David Lynch’ DVD the film is introduced by the director in hilarious non-explanatory fashion; though I can never work out if Lynch is ‘taking the piss’ or genuinely ‘out to lunch’. It doesn’t matter, in the tradition of the surrealists, Lynch makes films that disturb bourgeios complacency and that’s to the good.

Still LIfe (Sanxia haoren, Hong Kong-China, 2006)

Life in a Ballardian landscape

Life in a Ballardian landscape

A fascinating film set in town about to be submerged by China’s Three Gorges damn. It mixes the naturalism, common in Chinese cinema, of following ordinary people’s ordinary lives with the utterly surreal landscape of a city being destroyed. Jia Zhangke has an astonishing eye for composition so a shot of men sledgehammering a building has stunning beauty.

A man seeks his mail order bride (who left him 16 years earlier) and a woman seeks a two-year missing husband to seek a divorce, set against a gorgeous natural landscape and bonkers moments (the tall building is about to be blown up in the still above). There is also an appearance of a UFO and one building takes off like a spaceship: audacious filmmaking.

Small details resonate too: characters compare how their home towns are represented on banknotes, a marvellous metaphor for capitalist China. Incidentally, the ‘Ballardian’ in the caption refers to British SF writer JG Ballard who specialised in decaying urban landscapes – this film realises his vision.