This weekend, the Northwest Film Center is featuring two films that arose from the Czech New Wave, a film aesthetic of 1960s Czechoslovakia. These films, a number with experimental elements, include humor, sarcasm, and political or social critiques from a humanist perspective. In other words, the lives of day-to-day people are featured within a political context that reflects first the Nazi and then the communist forces under which they lived. The Czech New Wave was short-lived, from the days when Alexander Dubček enacted some liberal policies until the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of the country.
The most well-known director in America to come out of this background is Milos Forman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Amadeus,” “Man in the Moon”). Two films from this era that are screening tonight and tomorrow night are “Daisies” and “Closely Watched Trains.”
“Daisies” (1966), directed by Vera Chytilová, follows the zany lives of two teenage girls, both named Marie (Ivana Karbanová, Jitka Cerhová). They both are free-spirited but with streaks of meanness. The two Maries agree that they are spoiled but remark that the world is spoiled also. Their hedonistic antics, many of which are strange yet artful, take place amidst bombs, fighter planes, and large geared machinery. One wonders if their anarchic actions are only to give them some sort of a voice or presence in the mixed-up world which surrounds them.
Experimental in nature, the film opens on the two Maries appearing rigid and squeaky, as if dolls. Black and white blends into psychedelic colors, sepia, and saturated tones. The two Maries entice older men to take them to fancy and lengthy dinners. They sloppily consume endless amounts of food and drink, and then ditch the men at the train station. Next they’re in a private club behaving badly. Slapstick capers get them tossed out. Chaplin comes to mind. Displays of butterflies, photo montages, peculiar cutouts, and other psychedelia delightfully fill the screen from time to time.
When the two Maries find a fancy dining room table set for over a dozen, with a disturbing abundance of food, the absurdity of their actions culminates in an orgy of gluttony and messiness. Then, reflecting on happiness and reality, the brunette Marie asks “Are we pretending?” and the blonde Marie responds, “No…after all, we are really happy.” Their crash at the finale becomes an exploding bomb, and there is an interesting dedication before the film concludes.
All in all, the chaotic and odd “Daisies” shows a creative and amusing look at the times when Czechs were briefly allowed some freedom, including the freedom to criticize the world around them. This freedom was crushed in 1968 until communism finally fell in 1989 there and in other Eastern Bloc countries.
“Closely Watched Trains” (1966), a black and white film, has a different style, more narrative, but still with touches of humor. It is the coming-of-age story of young Milos (Václav Neckár), an assistant at a train station during the German occupation of the country during World War II. While history swirls about him, Milos is fixated on having his first sexual relationship with a young woman named Masa (Jitka Bendova).
The film is filled with sly humor and the absurdity of late adolescence as Milos muses at the beginning of the film: “The entire town knows I want to be a train dispatcher for the simple reason that I don’t want to do anything just like my ancestors except to stand on the platform with a signal disc and avoid hard work while others have to drudge and toil.”
He works with Hubicka (Josef Somr), a womanizing dispatcher who mocks their boss, the station master (Vladimír Valenta). Hubicka finds every way he can to have little flings at the train station. His boss is appalled, shouting from his upstairs apartment that this is Armageddon, and that morals are loose. Hubicka simply ignores the rants.
Milos is despondent when he fails to perform, so to speak. Yet, despite his obsession with his virginity and lack of success, he slowly becomes drawn to the Czech partisans who are trying to force the Nazis out of the country. This blend of the personal and political journey of an average young man is what gives this film its humanity and sense of truth.
Isn’t it a fact that humans always are in a swirl of figuring out their own lives while at the same time wanting to effect changes in the bigger political and social reality surrounding them? Just how this occurs in one young man is portrayed in “Closely Watched Trains.”
Directed by Jirí Menzel, the film won several awards, including the 1968 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film. Based on a book by Bohumil Hrabal, this film marked the beginning of a collaboration between Menzel and Hrabal (“Larks on a String” (1969), “Cutting it Short” (1980) and “Snowdrop Celebrations” (1983)).
Both films are screening tonight, July 26, beginning at 7:00 pm with “Daisies” followed at 8:45 pm by “Closely Watched Trains.” Tomorrow night, both films screen at the same times. Tickets can be purchased a half hour prior to screening at the Whitsell Auditorium box office, 1219 SW Park Avenue (northern entrance to the Portland Art Museum). There is a double-feature purchase option. Tickets can also be purchased on the website of the Northwest Film Center.
Sources: Northwest Film Center website, IMDb “Daisies” link, IMDb “Closely Watched Trains” link, greencine.com website, libertasfilmmagazine.com website