Tuesday 28 May 2019

The Fireman's Ball (Hori, Ma Panenko) (1967)

Brandmænd i fyr og flame
In my last review, that of “Land Entranced”, I wrote of a political allegory that used poetic avantgarde as instrument and I was lamenting how I preferred the instrument to be dark comedy. Well, this is exactly what we get in “The Firemen’s Ball”. These two movies could not be paired better.

It works so much better with dark comedy. The movie is so much easier to watch, and the points are driven home far more elegant. There really is no need for symbolism to corrupt the plot as this movie proves. You can have a perfectly coherent story and still have it packed with symbolic references.

I am a bit ahead of myself. The movie we are talking about is “The Firemen’s Ball”, directed by Milos Forman, and the last movie he directed in Czechoslovakia before he left for Hollywood. “The Firemen’s Ball” is a story about a group of firemen in a small Czech town who are arranging a ball for the townspeople. During the ball there will be a ceremony to give an award to the old president of the firemen, a raffle for prizes, typically of foodstuff that is hard to get in communist Czechoslovakia and a beauty contest.

The problem is just that these firemen makes incompetence too generous a word. Amazingly they manage to mess up everything. The prizes for the raffle are getting pilfered and the beauty contest… that is a piece of art. These guys have no idea what they are doing, and their plan is… nonexistent. The girls are practically kidnapped off the floor to attend or are promoted by relatives as favors, the firemen are trying and failing to wing it and before they can present the contestants, all the girls run away and hide in the toilet. Total chaos.

In the middle of it all there is a real fire. A house is burning and now you would think that the firemen are finally on home turf. This they should be able to handle. Alas, the fire trucks are stuck in the snow so all they can do is argue in front of the burning house and try to shovel some snow on it.

This is hilariously funny. Especially because it is not a silly comedy with a lot of gags, but because these firemen mean so well, they really want to do the right thing but they have absolutely no idea what they are doing and so it all falls apart between their hands. The beauty contest was a riot and the scene where they desperately try to save the raffle by closing the light so people can return the stolen goods is a hoot. In the darkness instead of returning the prizes, the rest of them are stolen.

But this is also a political allegory of communism in Czechoslovakia, even though Forman allegedly never admitted it. The firemen are politicians who are hopelessly unprepared and unable to deal with the various elements of the party (running the country). In the face of real trouble (the fire) they are impotent, and the victims of their impotence only get a long nose. The firemen never seem to get how incompetent they are and when a fireman is caught as the only one returning a price (that his wife had pilfered) one of the firemen is upset, not that he stole the cheese but that he tried to return it and got caught. Now everybody would think they are all dishonest as if they did not think so already. Probably a quite precise picture of life in communist Czechoslovakia.

It is a wonderful movie that hits all the right notes, probably helped by the mostly amateur cast. There is a naturalism here that helps to accentuate the comedy and it simply works. I can only recommend it.

The communist leadership in Czechoslovakia did not like it though. It was banned forever. Somebody felt it was a little too true…

Saturday 25 May 2019

Earth Entranced (Terra em Transe) (1967)

Land i trance
“Earth Entranced” or “Terra em Transe” is an intellectual exercise in describing political corruption South American style as a symbolistic poem.

Sounds like something that should be interesting?

I suppose it is if you really sit down to focus on the movie and look for all the political references. Unfortunately, this was not exactly my state of mind. I have been in Seoul for past week teaching and just needed something easy to relax to in the evening. This was probably the poorest choice possible.

I understand the ideas, or at least some of them, behind the movie. The objective has been to make a political commentary to the situation in Brazil in the sixties. Now, I do not know much about Brazil in the sixties, but I suspect it was the usual sad situation with corruption, coups and mismanagement. To “hide” that this is Brazil they invented the land Eldorado and a number of characters, which I suppose refer to actual characters or types in Brazil. They go through some cycles of shifting alliances, broken promises, corruption, interference by multinational companies and violence.

Back in my student days we played a boardgame called Junta, which was much the same. Except using corruption to gain power and plunder the country was fun in La Republica de los Bananos. “Earth Entranced” is not fun at all. Instead of poking at the political system using dark humor, the producers went for trying to make it a depressive avantgarde poem. No two actions are entirely connected. Everybody speaks as if they were proclaiming a poem. Jump cuts makes you dizzy with confusion.

Where did I see all this before?

Oh yes, French new wave. The sacrifice of the coherent causality of a plot to hammer home some symbolic points. So many symbolic points that the story apparent is largely lost.

Man, I prefer the dark humor version…

 I find it hard to summarize the plot because I did not get it. My usual crutch in those cases is Wikipedia, but reading the plot summary made me wonder if this was the same movie. The names match, though, so probably it is. It is something about a guy called Paolo (Jardel Filho) who supports different political candidates in the hope of saving Eldorado. Exactly what kind of political system he wants is unclear, but something about being accountable to the public seems to be a key. However, Paolo keeps getting disappointed. There is just no hope to get out of the mess.

There are quite a few women clinging to him throughout, but rather than being romantic connections they seem to symbolize various aspects of the country vying for his attention. Just as the many odd characters and situations symbolize parts and states of the country. I take it that the many nightclub images popping up out of the blue from time to time is the tendency to drown yourself in pleasures of the moment rather than taking responsibility. Perhaps.

I cannot say that I liked the movie. Maybe under different circumstances it would go down better, but this was just too intellectually pretentious for what I needed this week.

Wednesday 15 May 2019

The Jungle Book (1967)

In 2012 and 2013 I watched a few Disney movies from the List. My son was at that time around three years old and he loved them, Dumbo and Pinocchio, and so I bought quite a few classic Disney DVDs. One of these was The Jungle Book and along with the others it was on heavy rotation in those years. Children grow up though and in later years The Jungle Book has been standing on the shelf, waiting for its turn on the List.

Watching it now is diving into that period and every scene is laced with memories to the extent that it is difficult to give this movie a fair review. I honestly do not think this is anywhere near the pinnacle of Disney’s production, but I am still smiling all the way through its 70 minutes running time.

Bagheera, the black panther (no, not the superhero), finds a baby boy in the jungle. To save the child he takes it to the wolf Raksha, who just had a litter of her own, and there Mowgli is raised.

Fast forward a few years and the animals learn that the dreaded tiger, Shere Kahn, has returned. This is bad news for Mowgli as the tiger’s hatred for humans is renowned. Bagheera is to take Mowgli back to humankind, but Mowgli does not want to leave the jungle. The major part of the movie is about Baheera and the bear Baloo trying to lead Mowgli out of the jungle and Mowgli resisting, getting into trouble only to be saved by his friends. The monkeys are bad, the snake Kaa is bad, but Shere Khan is the very bad one. Eventually Mowgli prevails, but instead of having now learned to live in the jungle he gets tempted by a pretty, human girl to rejoin humanity.

It seems very likely that this, like Pinocchio, is about growing up. To avoid temptations and dangers and instead take responsibility and make the right choices. Mowgli resists change and growing up. He wants things to stay the way they are and live the easy life, like Baloo, but life is not that easy and unless you face the challenges you get lost. Message-wise Disney had not changed that much since the forties.

The original story was a lot darker. The DVD includes the storyboard for an alternative ending that takes the story to some far darker places and while this might have made the story more interesting it would not have had the same easy appeal to children. I believe Disney made the right decision there. As it is, even small children can sit through The Jungle Book and get a lot out of it and it was to all accounts a smash hit at the box office for Disney.

The Jungle Book is famous for the music and I suppose that is okay. For me it is the character gallery that is the draw here. They are all very well fleshed out, more than I am used to in cartoons. On the negative, the story feels very… thin. It has probably something to do with the short running time and the repeating nature of the challenges Mowgli faces. The drawing technique is also not that impressive. It is not anywhere as polished as Pinocchio or Peter Pan.

Still, I keep thinking of watching this with my son and those memories are so sweet that I would be able to forgive the movie anything. Not the best Disney movie, but you could do worse.


Friday 10 May 2019

Marketa Lazarov (Marketta Lazarova) (1967)

Marketa Lazarova
Well, I do not understand what I have just been watching. When I looked up “Marketa Lazarova” I was told that this is the best Czech movie ever. I hate to say this, but it does not bode well for the many Czech movies coming up.

The Best Czech Movie Ever takes place in medieval times, during the period where Christianity is competing with pagan Slavic beliefs in the Bohemian forests. There are some… clans I suppose they are, who are fighting each other. Some of them are bandits who plunders travelers. In one of the rickety castles is a girl called Marketa who wanted to be a nun, then she gets kidnapped and raped, only to fall in love with her rapist. Then she wants to be a nun again only to regret and be married to her dying rapist. There is also a girl called Alexandra who falls in love with a son of a bishop only to crush his head with a stone.

Everything else is a blur.

While this could have been an interesting medieval adventure drowns completely in surreal dream visions, weird cuts and disconnected scenes. I have no idea how the different characters relate to each other or why they do what they do, in as far as I get what they are actually doing. I did see a lot of killing, it is pretty graphic, but it seems more like an endless bloodbath than something with an actual point.

Speaking of point, can somebody tell me what the point of the movie was, please? Even Wikipedia, that elaborates on a plot that must be from a different movie from the one I saw, cannot tell me the point of this movie.

The soundtrack is good. Surprisingly good, actually. Often I could lean back confused, but enjoying the music. However, this peters out in the last third of the movie where we mostly hear grunting men. Much less charming. Also, the dubbing is sort of clumsy as you often have no idea who is actually talking.

Apparently, this was a ridiculously expensive movie to make and I can believe that. A lot has been made out of the costumes and the settings. There is a Game of Thrones feel to the roughness of the scenery and so much more regretful is it to see all that effort wasted away on a presentation that leaves the audience, well… me, baffled and confused. This had the makings of a great movie but throws it all away as it tries to be avant-garde. It is as if Bunuel or Godard were to direct Lord of the Rings. A terrible idea.

Probably I have completely missed the idea of this movie. This is after all The Best Czech Movie Ever so somebody saw something in it. I am just thinking Missed Opportunity.


Friday 3 May 2019

The Red and the White (Csillagosok, Katonak) (1967)

De røde og de hvide
There has not been many Hungarian movies on the List. Come to think of it, I believe “The Red and the White” is the first one to appear. Whether that is a good or a bad thing I am not the right one to judge, but if it takes something special to make it to the List, I would say Hungarian cinema enters in style.

“The Red and the White” is different from practically anything I have seen. It takes place in 1919 during the Russian civil war where “Red” and “White” forces are battling it out after the Russian revolution. What we watch takes place somewhere on the banks of the Volga river. There is a monastery that seems to change hands a few times and a hospital where the nurses try to treat everybody as humans. The Whites in their sharp uniforms releases the prisoners they caught when they took the monastery, only to hunt them down for sport. The reds are trying to hide, fight back, or simply die. When tables are turned the Reds are not much better.

What is special here is that we never get to know any characters. Hardly any of them has names and those we see will either disappear, or more commonly, simply die. It is as if documentary cameras were put up and the footage combined without telling any personal story, but rather that of being people an a brutal, pointless war. It is a bit distressing at first, when I was trying to make sense of what was going on, but when I accepted that this was not about individuals by the concept of war I relaxed, leaned back and got a lot out of the movie. It is not that difficult to follow when you accept there is no actual story arc. Whoever holds the guns, holds the power and power is corruptive and is easily abused. Those without guns are less than livestock. Symbolically they would take off their shirts as if to demonstrate their vulnerability or maybe their humanity, whereas those with guns where uniforms, making them abusers of power.

We see that when a farming family is humiliated or when nurses are taking into the forest to dance with the officers. We see it in the casual way prisoners are killed or the sporting hunt to catch and shoot the escaping POWs.

In this environment the nurses try to hold the torch of humanity but having no guns they are as vulnerable as the prisoners and cannot protect anybody.

Another point is the pointlessness of war. There is no aim to what anybody does, no strategic objective, no purpose. The heroic charge in the end demonstrates clearly the futility of war.

As an antiwar statement “The Red and the White” serves its purpose perfectly. The anonymity of anybody we watch is the facelessness of the struggle. Everybody is just one in many and there are no personal fates, just a collective civilization breakdown.

It was probably what got the movie banned in the Soviet Union. I suppose they thought they would get a heroic movie about the exploits of the Red army, but instead they got a movie with no heroes and a denouncement of war for any cause. Ten years after the Hungarian intervention I suppose the Soviet saw the underlying criticism of the powerful with the guns against the defenseless victim. In the West the movie fared better, which it not so surprising considering the growing antiwar movement.

This is not a movie you enjoy, it is far too depressive in its points, but it is very interesting and so completely differently filmed from a conventional story that I am constantly wondering what is going to happen. This is a powerful statement and I recommend it.