The writings of Bill Mousoulis
The Black Hole in the Summer Carnival:
My first visit to this festival, I found the spa town setting most uninspiring: it was like a summer carnival – a river, food stalls, a rock stage, a techno tent, kids with balloons, teenage girls in shorts. I’m used to my festivals in cold urban settings!
So it was a relief on most days when I actually stepped into the cinemas and saw some films – and some fine ones at that. But it was only when I discovered a black hole named Karel Vachek that the universe was put right. The summer carnival wasn’t swallowed by that hole (ha! – if only!), but the hole certainly sucked me in.
The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF from now on), despite this being only its 45th incarnation, is one of the oldest film festivals in the world, founded in 1946, the same year as Cannes. It’s a large festival, A-list (but under Cannes, Berlin and a few others), well-organised, and very pleasant to attend (the audience mainly polite Czechs). Its programming is typical: the latest world art cinema, with an added focus on films from Eastern Europe. And, of course, some retrospective programs, as seems to be obligatory these days, and thank God for that as it’s usually the older films that are the more exciting.
And so, the “Tribute to Karel Vachek”, a Czech director whose name I didn’t even know, let alone his work. I caught only a couple of the sessions, but saw the other films on DVD in subsequent days. Constantly dressed in black, naturally, Vachek prowled around the festival, and presented his films with a tempered, but also rascally, passion. As Kdo bude hlídat hlídače? Dalibor aneb Klíč k Chaloupce strýčka Toma (Who Will Watch the Watchman? Dalibor, or the Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, 2002) unspooled, I knew I was in the presence of a very interesting doco-cum-essay filmmaker. The Q&A after the screening, which was in Czech only, was mesmerising, as Vachek expounded on his work with fierce intelligence and beautiful dismay. It was easily the best talk I heard at the festival, and I didn’t understand a single word.
Karel Vachek is a director marked by time and place. Early student work, such as the brilliant investigation into Czech folklore Moravská Hellas (Moravian Hellas, 1963), morphs into the feature Spřízněni volbou (Elective Affinities, 1968), which charts the Prague Spring election process with an urgent, behind-the-scenes camera. In many ways a conventional film, Elective Affinities still expresses Vachek’s sheer appetite when it comes to his homeland, politics, culture, life. He plays with the form slightly (the achronology for example), but otherwise it is a great document of a critical time, an ‘alive’ time (May 1968 just around the corner), and, unfortunately, a ‘passing’ time – the Warsaw Pact saw Czechoslovakia shut down just several months later, by Russian forces.
This communist clampdown, for the next 20 or so years, pretty much stopped Vachek’s film career in its tracks (he made only two short films in this time, neither of which played in this retrospective), and he even lived in the USA at one point. The extraordinary, revolutionary, events of 1989 (the dissolution of communism, symbolised by the Berlin Wall being dismantled in November 1989) allowed Vachek to begin filming again. Fittingly, he once again turned his lens to the charged, vital pre-election time, its discussions and processes. Take Two as it were. This time with a happy ending!
The ensuing film, Nový Hyperion aneb Volnost, rovnost, bratrství (New Hyperion or Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood, 1992) was an extraordinary breakthrough for Vachek. He took the template of Elective Affinities and radically expanded it, pushing the documentary form way into the realm of the essay film, and daring to let it overflow (the film is 207 minutes long). Whilst the recording of the election process is still significant for the film (remember, we have the interesting figure of playwright Vaclav Havel becoming President here), Vachek creatively illuminates the event by filming everything around, above and under it, thus ushering in his now-typical “carnival collage” style (and content!). New Hyperion concludes with an iconic collage-shot of the Bastille, the Statue of Liberty, and St. Basil’s Cathedral, all lined up on Charles Bridge in Prague. It’s an awkward composition in a way, like a schoolchild’s collage, but Vachek gives it a surprising power – in this one shot he tells us he is not afraid to canvas the entire weight of the world: ideologies, follies, revolutions. His subject is Czech, sure, but, as we know, everything is universal.
New Hyperion is the first of five films in this indeed current (a sixth film is presently being edited) cycle of Vachek’s films. At roughly 4-year intervals, the films range in length from 147 minutes to 254 minutes. The second film in the series, Co dělat? (Cesta z Prahy do Českého Krumlova aneb Jak jsem sestavoval novou vládu) (What Is to Be Done? [A Journey from Prague to Český Krumlov, or How I Formed a New Government], 1996), is a development from New Hyperion, and pretty much the setting in stone of these films’ collage template. (As inventive a director as Vachek is, he has in a way simply been repeating himself since What Is to Be Done?, though Who Will Watch the Watchman? represents an interesting variation.) Freed from the constraints of having to film an actual event as the basis of his film, What Is to Be Done? is an exciting free-form exploration of ideas, people, politics, culture. It’s the moment Vachek’s vision as a filmmaker coalesces and totally flies. It is also no coincidence perhaps that this is the first time his own voice and personality come into full expression in the work. And the typical “Vachek gong” that is heard in all the films (a drum, or bell, or indeed gong, as a punctuation) is particularly prevalent and inventive in this film.
Whichever way you look at it, Karel Vachek is clearly one of the world’s most interesting doco/essay filmmakers at the moment. His films are certainly demanding and impenetrable at times (mainly due to the Czech subject matter, but sometimes also because of the tone, a mix of the straight and satirical), but they are also very exciting cinematically, and abundantly thought-provoking. They are also quite surreal at times, and there’s no doubt Vachek as a personality risks being seen as a fool (or wacky at the very least). His masterclass was brilliant in this regard – as if knowing that he really couldn’t discuss much in the space of 45 minutes, he spent most of the time spinning vinyl, branding certain tracks as “good”, others as “bad”. For 20 years, His Master’s Voice dominated Czech life. For the last 20 years though, we have Vachek’s voice. (1)
Another Czech retrospective section, “Tribute to Juraj Herz”, was a further KVIFF highlight. One just wishes it contained more than one film! Petrolejové lampy (Oil Lamps, 1971) is both a gorgeous and incisive portrait of a number of ordinary provincial people, at the turn of the previous century. Iva Janžurová is extraordinary as a feisty independent woman who stands firm yet has things collapse around her. The director Juraj Herz shows a complete command of the medium, creating a colourful (in all senses) and emotional film, with only the music (too Hollywood) being a misjudgment. And, we saw a brand new print of the film, it looked stunning.
Better than The Red Shoes even! Powell & Pressburger’s 1948 classic has been doing the festival round lately, because of its digital restoration, and KVIFF had the pleasure of having Powell’s wife Thelma Schoonmaker introduce the screening. And a special explanatory video by Martin Scorsese was also screened. KVIFF also had the presence of Pressburger’s grandson Kevin Macdonald, a film historian/documentarist, for this “Tribute to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger” (six of their films were screened). The Red Shoes is one of several masterpieces the pair made, a vivid portrait of a dance company. Mind you, I’m not convinced by this kind of digital restoration process – I feel it gives a subdued, over-cool result. But it does at least produce a clean, high definition image.
Quite a few of the new films I saw (and there were numerous new titles in KVIFF, across numerous sections) were found in the “Open Eyes” and “Horizons” sections, which are non-descript monikers of course, but obviously better than “Cannes highlights” and “Films from other festivals”, respectively, which is what the sections were. So here we had, pleasingly, the new films by Kiarostami, Oliveira, Lee (Chang-dong), Denis (but conspicuous by their absence were the new Godard and Weerasethakul films). For me, the best film in these two sections, better than the films from the four aforementioned directors, was Lourdes, directed by Jessica Hausner. This film got the FIPRESCI prize at Venice last year, but I’m always a little wary of prize-winning films by lesser-known directors – for example, Un homme qui crie (A Screaming Man, d. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun), which was in the “Open Eyes” section here in KVIFF, and which took the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes: for me this is a poor film, a by-the-numbers “artful” study of a man and his situation. It is not enough to simply put together a “good” film. Just because something isn’t trashy or commercial doesn’t mean it’s worthy.
Anyway, I had the same ambivalence in me when I sat down to watch Lourdes – I thought it would be another middling film, hyped up for us. It took just 20 seconds for me to realise that I was in good hands, that this Jessica Hausner is an excellent director, formal but penetrating. There are many fine attributes to this film: the documentary footage is blended into the fictional story in an extremely accomplished way; the central performance by Sylvie Testud is minimal but very intelligent and expressive (the recurring “knowing” smile she gives is amazing); the script is absolutely cracking, very tight and controlled (but with one major flaw – having the lead character go mountain-climbing is implausible); and the film’s tone is a curious mix of the black (cynicism for Lourdes) with the humane (sensitivity for all the characters). And, as a director, Hausner shines. The compositions are precise, the editing is powerful, and all the actors are relaxed but expressive. A couple of times Hausner seemingly loses grasp of the reins, by allowing characters to slowly, in real time, get up and walk away from where they are – but when the main theme of the film is the tragic inability of disabled people to walk, this is brilliant. Hausner has two previous feature films to her credit, which I haven’t seen. I’ll certainly be keeping a keen eye out for her next film.
Abbas Kiarostami’s latest film Copie conforme (Certified Copy) is certainly a strange film, in all kinds of respects. There’s no doubting Kiarostami has the philosophical worldliness to pull off directing a film in Italy (or France, or Australia, or wherever), it’s more a question of the outcome, the choices of script, actors, etc. And the film is very engaging and pleasurable – its 106 minutes felt like half-an-hour, such is Kiarostami’s touch. It’s a daring film, an essay about cinema within the context of a fictional story. Or perhaps it’s a fictional story within the context of a heavy, undeniable reality. Kiarostami references his own work, and seemingly Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1953), echoing the process of “imitation” that the film examines, a process of subjugating oneself to a previous form, a previous incarnation. It’s an acknowledgment, a sign of respect, to “copy” something else. It’s a way into that something else. Why would one want to do that? In Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999) it is the characters’ self-loathing that propels their desire to be another person. In Copie conforme, the goal is not to be another person, but to copy them, in a conscious, extraordinary way, in order to be enriched. And when it’s Juliette Binoche doing that, the result is beautifully sad and rich. To be able to see tragedy, to be able to see estrangement, or difficulty, or years of torment, to be able to see that in the first moment you look at someone – that is extraordinary, and Kiarostami captures it.
Another master, Manoel de Oliveira, also delights, with O estranho caso de Angélica (The Strange Case of Angelica). Of course, that Oliveira is now making films past the age of 100 is astonishing in itself, but let us rejoice instead in his incredible series of films he’s given us the past 10 years. They are light, graceful, philosophical, and strange, all at once, and The Strange Case of Angelica continues in this vein. Here, we have a serious young man, a photographer, who surrenders to his imaginations. He obsesses over his photographs of farm workers, but it is the pose of a dead young woman that sends him over the edge. It’s all a bit cliched, but Oliveira gives proceedings a sense of wonder mixed with a morbid solemnity, and the changing time-frame (is it the ‘30s? is it the ‘60s? is it the ‘00s?) only adds to the intrigue.
Lee Chang-dong’s Shi (Poetry) is a solid film that clashes several different types of people (and attitudes): self-centred, amoral teenagers; shrewd, pragmatic businessmen; and kooky but wise grandparents. It’s a good mix, especially from the POV of the latter, in this case a 60 or so year old woman who looks after her grandchild. Lee has a great sense of reality (realistic art direction especially), and he is alive to his actors, the relations between the characters. We see whimsy tackle tragedy, using some interesting means! Unfortunately, the film just seems to peter out at the end, slightly spoiling the fascinating panorama on show.
Claire Denis’ White Material is not a “new” film as such – like Lourdes, it had its premiere late last year at Venice, not this year. Denis is quite clearly in the top echelon of French directors, for 20 years now, an inventive narrative experimentalist, with a touch both brutal and sensual. White Material continues in this fine way, with the bonus of a tour-de-force performance by Isabelle Huppert, as a frayed-cum-mad woman. However, I’d like to see Denis step out and surprise us once again, as she’s done several times before.
Other films I saw in the “Open Eyes” and “Horizons” sections: Na putu (On the Path, d. Jasmila Žbanić) is a Bosnian film about an alternative Muslim culture puncturing secular contemporary Sarajevan life, which is an interesting enough theme, but the film has nothing of interest to it formally; Bal (Honey) is the 5th feature from the Turkish director Semih Kaplanoğlu, who is unfamiliar to me, but on the basis of this film I’d say he is a good art cinema director, pleasurable to watch, but nothing special; Howl (d. Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman) is a lively but monotonous biopic of Allen Ginsberg’s life, especially early on, the court case against the poem “Howl”; and the Japanese film Kyatapirâ (Caterpillar) from renowned “pink eiga” director Kôji Wakamatsu is a film that starts off slow and mundane, then seems like an exploitation film, and then soars into grand and edgy territory, as war, rape, feminist anger and false honour all swirl together in a black fury of human drama.
Of course, being in the Czech Republic, I would have liked to have seen a stack of Eastern European films, but of the 20 or so titles in the “East of the West” and “Czech Films” sections, I caught just the one. Oh, but what a one. Aurora is the new work from the Romanian director Cristi Puiu, who garnered great acclaim for his previous feature, Moartea domnului Lazarescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 2005), which I haven’t seen. Clearly, there is something distinctive happening with Romanian art cinema at the moment, though I base this only on Aurora and Politist, adjectiv (Police, Adjective, d. Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009), the only two recent Romanian films I’ve seen. It’s a reinvigoration of realism, in a minimal style, with long real-time passages. And Aurora has an intentionally “slow” camera, as, hand-held, it responds to the action in a delayed manner, apeing news reportage footage. Which is a conceit, but … it still adds something to the film. Kick in the fact that the subject is emotional torpor, catalysed into murderous intent and action, and we have a noteworthy film, a probing “descriptive” study let’s say, of modern family problems.
Closer to home, I was looking forward to the two Greek features in the festival – Mavro Livadi (Black Field, d. Vardis Marinakis, 2009) in the “Official Selection – Out of Competition” section, and O Diahiristis (The Building Manager, d. Periklis Hoursoglou, 2009) in the “Another View” section. Last year, Greek cinema had unprecedented success at the Cannes, Berlin and Locarno festivals, with three different titles picking up awards. Which caused great excitement in Greece, many people heralding the dawn of a new era. This year festival success has been minimal, and the Greek economic crisis will now no doubt affect production, but Greek cinema is always a little different and interesting, and Mavro Livadi and O Diahiristis, and their teams (producers, directors, actors), were greeted well at the festival. And Mavro Livadi’s raw sex scene caused a few walkouts, which is always a good sign. For me, both films are mixed experiences. Mavro Livadi is set mainly in a convent, and the “atmospheric” sound design had me moaning, but when the characters break free of the convent and are in the woods, the film opens up beautifully, becoming an exciting portrait of freedom, sex, life. O Diahiristis starts in such a gentle and modest way, with great tenderness in and between the characters, that I was taken aback and very pleased. Alas, dramatics crept in, and actually dominated, and I also found it incredible implausible that anyone would want to leave Vangelio Andreadaki (surely the Greek Juliette Binoche). Nevertheless, the film is still an enjoyable social parable.
As with all major international film festivals, this year’s KVIFF overflowed with films to see and things to do. I did feel, however, that the programming could have done with at least one good sidebar of avant-garde film work, or certainly more experimental narrative / essay films in the main programme. Also, I felt the Masterclasses were flimsy and in a poor setting. 45 minutes in an open foyer space is not good enough. 90 – 120 mins in an enclosed environment is what’s required. When one has guests such as Thelma Schoonmaker and Michel Ciment, one should get the most out of them! Even in the midst of a “summer carnival”!
1. I must add, even just as an endnote here, the entertaining title of Vachek’s most recent film (from 2006): Záviš, kníže pornofolku pod vlivem Griffithovy Intolerance a Tatiho Prázdnin pana Hulota aneb Vznik a zánik Československa (1918–1992) (Záviš, the Prince of Pornofolk Under the Influence of Griffith’s Intolerance and Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday or The Foundation and Doom of Czechoslovakia [1918–1992]). All of Vachek’s films are available on DVD, in beautiful packaging, from this website: http://www.radimprochazka.com/en/shop/
© Bill Mousoulis 2010.
This report first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.56, October 2010.