Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Closely Watched Films: Jirí Menzel Retrospective at IFFK-2007

Jirí Menzel, for those who still don’t know, is a maverick Czech director, whose film Closely Watched Trains won the Oscar award for best foreign film in 1967. He was born on February 23, 1938, in Prague. His father Josef Menzel was a writer and journalist. After having formal training in film making and working as assistant director in some films, he began his controversial journey into Eastern-European film history with Crime at a Girls' School in 1965. But it was his next film, Closely Watched Trains, a black comedy against German occupation of Czechoslovakia, which is still regarded as his masterpiece. There followed other films such as Capricious Summer and I Served the King of England, which firmly established Menzel as a modern master.

Most of his films are literary adaptations from various Czech writers, including Bohumil Hrabal and Vladislav Vančura. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he saved his career and probably life by disowning his previous films and making a lifeless propaganda film, Who Seeks the Gold Bottom. But that didn’t hamper his creativity as he found ways to make films of his ‘true’ style later. It is fitting that communists in Kerala honoring Menzel now as an act of accepting the fault of their Soviet counterparts decades ago.

There is every chance that Menzel films will cause the ‘theatre jam’ in this year’s IFFK, just like the films of Kim Ki Duc, Makhmalbaf and Bunuel had done in previous IFFKs. Menzel films have the perfect celluloid combo of those curious bedfellows that festival goers find irresistible: satire and sex. Josef Skvorecký writes in his essay about Menzel that “his entire oeuvre is one continuous eulogy of sex—a subject at best tolerated by Marxist aestheticians in Czechoslovakia”.
Here is the synopsis of the films included in the Menzel retrospective in IFFK 2007 (Courtesy: Yahoomovies, IMDB, http://www.combustiblecelluloid.com/, wikipedia).

1. Larks on a String/Skrivánci na niti(Czechoslovakia/Czech/94"/1990)
A story revolving around the relationship between a male laborer and a female prison inmate, both of whom have been interred for compulsory "re-education."

2. Snowdrop Festival (83’/1984)
This movie is based on texts of Bohumil Hrabal, world-known Czech prosaic. It's a story (in a form of a mosaic of short episodes and pictures) about the sadness and happiness of inhabitants of Kersko (Kersko is a small woody area full of cottages and roods). These people are both simple and sensitive, they have their own pleasures (e.g. Leli is a collector of cheap, but inutile things) and the greatest delight of all of them is a hunting. Crude poetics of amateur hunting is screened by dreamy pictures of this area. Menzel mixes sentimental lyricism and rough (but not vulgar!) humor and the outcome is the never-ending landscape of continuous life in the proximate nearness of nature. The performances of actors are brilliant. Both Rudolf Hrusinsky as a Franz and Jaromír Hanzlik as a Leli have nonrecurring charm bottomed on a pain and inebriation. Only the music is not perfect: Jiri Sust usually assembled his film music from his older works and in this movie there are many quotations.

3 My Sweet Little Village (98"/1985)

The movie's main storyline follows the life of Otík, a mentally retarded young man, in a tight-knit village community. The sweet-tempered Otík works as an assistant truck driver with Mr. Pávek, his older colleague and practical-minded neighbor. Pávek's family takes care of Otík, whose parents are dead. However, the two coworkers become at odds over Otík's inability to perform even the simplest tasks. Pávek demands that Otík be transferred to assist another driver, who happens to be a choleric and suspicious man named Turek (Turkish in Czech). Rather than work with Turek, Otík decides to accept an offer of employment in Prague, but finds he does not fit in to the city life. After discovering that the transfer of Otík to Prague was a trick by a crooked politician to get a deal on Otík's large inherited house, Pávek agrees to give Otík a second chance and retrieves him from the city to resume their work together.
The film also follows several subplots, such as the secret romance of Turek's wife with a young vet, the tribulations of an accident-prone but respected doctor who has almost as much trouble with his pessimistic patients as he does with his car, and the desperate deeds of Pávek's teenage son, who has ardent feelings for an attractive local teacher.

4. The End of Old Time (94’/1989)

This bedroom farce takes place at a large country estate in the period between the two world wars. It has been rented by Stoklasa a somewhat uncouth but very wealthy businessman, who hopes to buy it. He and his family and staff have settled down comfortably when they are visited by a nobleman acquaintance, Duke Alexi, whose genial, boisterous ways and penchant for women sets the whole region in an uproar. The hero of this tale is Spera a young man with a similar yearning to bed women. He is constantly frustrated in his attempts by the ever-present duke, who always manages to get to the girls first. While that is going on, the businessman's daughter and the son of people from a neighboring estate have been seeing each other, and are constantly being frustrated by their inability to find a private spot to make love in.

5. Closely Guarded Train/Closely Watched Trains (93’/1966)
An Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, the film takes place almost entirely at a train station. A young platform guard (Vaclav Neckar) longs for two things -- to lose his virginity and to keep out of World War II. The movie explains to us that the young man's father and grandfather are both eccentrics who also managed to escape the service. The other train station workers are equally bizarre. One man raises birds while another continually seduces young ladies -- in one hysterical sequence, he rubber stamps one girl's naked behind. (He's later prosecuted, not for any sexual misconduct, but for improperly using the German language.) Closely Watched Trains unfolds with the rhythm of a breeze, managing to be both funny and poignant in such an understated way that it doesn't even seem to be trying.

6. Capricious Summer (74’/1968)

A year after his international hit Closely Watched Trains, Czech director Jiri Menzel returned with another lighthearted comedy, Capricious Summer (1967, Facets Video). In it, three middle-aged friends love nothing more than to drink and discuss Deep Thoughts while dangling their toes in a run-down swimming hole. When a cut-rate circus performer (Menzel himself) shows up with a beautiful blonde assistant, the friends' world gets turned upside down. The color photography only accentuates the dreariness of this overcast summer, and the end result is not quite as engaging as Closely Watched Trains, but it certainly proves that Menzel was not a one-hit wonder.

7. I Served the King of England (120’/2006)

Following a long prison sentence, Jan Díte looks back over an eventful life, which has seen him elevate himself from humble waiter to Nazi bridegroom to millionaire criminal. One of the most ambitious and expensive Czech films of all time, this historical epic is the long-awaited result of a protracted struggle for the screen rights to Bohumil Hrabal's famed novel. Jirí Menzel's adaptation is his fourth to be drawn from Hrabal's work (including the superb Closely Observed Trains). Combining sheer visual excess with sardonic commentary upon European mores in the first half of the 20th century, I Served the King of England proves worth the wait. It's a beautifully performed and designed film, shaded with irony and festooned with moments of delightful physical comedy.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The namesake – IFFK

It is not clear now that Meera Nair’s film, The Namesake, is part of “World Cinema” section International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) to be held in Thiruvananthapuram from December 7 to 14. But this year, when IFFK is at its 12th avatar, it has a namesake in the parallel universe of film festivals. The first International Film Festival of Kashmir (IFFK) was held in Srinagar this year on April 28-30. The event, held in the northern most state of India, did not attract as much media attention as the other one to be held in one of the southern most states. But from its website, it can be seen that the film festival triggered off passionate debates about the role of art in times of terrorism. Also it is not a high profile festival with international juries and lucrative prizes. But it is a good beginning and hope it will carry on like its elder brother in down south, which has become an annual spiritual centre of film devotees. Let the gods, Kurosawa, Bergman, Buñuel and the like, bless the festivals. Long live IFFKs.