Saturday, August 25, 2007

Black Peter

[N.B.: I will be discussing certain events in the film, including the end; the film doesn't have a very strong "narrative" however, so I hesitate to write that this post contains "spoilers" because there's really not much to spoil]

Right in the middle of Milos Forman's Black Peter (1963) there's an extended sequence at a dance where we spend the majority of our time observing two losers as they try to pick up dates. Our main character, Peter, pops up occasionally, but in this particular sequence he seems like a cameo in his own film. There's a lot of awkward humor, and rock & roll, and it's all shot cinema verite-style, so it's perfect early Forman. What I especially loved about the sequence was the way Forman focuses (almost) exclusively on these two nerds (who were introduced in an earlier scene as dimwitted antagonists in a side plot) and slowly reveals their humanity. It's a long digression in a film that doesn't have much of a narrative to begin with, but it's got everything I love about Forman's Czech films: it's hilarious, true, unpredictable, and ultimately, humanizing. Forman shows us his characters' weaknesses, not just to ridicule them, but to humanize them. He enjoys making fun of the characters but he's never cruel about it.

It's not that Forman drops his dark humor -- he continues to ridicule the characters for their sad-sackhood and social awkwardness. But he doesn't let the audience get away with easy laughs either; he forces us to recognize ourselves in these characters, to see that we could be the butt of the joke just as easily if a camera were around to document all the embarrassing and painful moments of our own youth. Forman makes fun of his characters (and he can be brutal and black in his humor), but he always manages to give a moment -- a fleeting look, a line of dialogue, a small action -- that complicates things and makes the ridiculous character suddenly the saddest and most vulnerable. Fans of shows like The Office would find a lot to love in Forman's Czech films.

The dance sequence in Black Peter -- long and rambling, focused primarily on secondary characters, utilizing documentary-style techniques, diagetic use of popular music, etc. -- is a premiere example of Forman's early style. It's shot like a documentary, with the camera acting as observer, weaving in and out of the crowd as various characters try to find dates, get drinks, make jokes, and dance. We watch the drama unfold as if unscripted, as young people struggle (and often fail) to navigate their confusing social lives.

Black Peter is a youth film, a film for and about people moving from adolescence to adulthood that captures all the quiet rebellion, awkwardness, mischief, confusion, and ambivalence that accompanies that age. Since I'm just coming out of (or still stuck in, depending on which day of the week it is...) that period of my life, Black Peter resonated deeply. I was Peter in so many ways -- ambivalent toward work and family, anxious about sexual and romantic relationships, lacking a "proper" direction in life. Peter can be shy and bumbling, or he can be mischievous and sarcastic, and he certainly can't behave with adults in the way adults expect him to behave. He's too individualistic, too bemused, too awkward and yet too rebellious to fit in with the world his father inhabits, or the world of his job, or the social world of his peers.

There's a hilarious scene at the beginning where Peter follows a man he suspects of shoplifting. Peter works at a grocery store where it's his job to spy on the customers and look for possible thieves (obvious parallels to Communism and the police state of course). The scene -- with Peter following the man for blocks, past shops and passersby, trying to confront him over the shoplifting, but like an inept Inspector Clouseau, unable to bring himself to even make eye contact with the man, all while the man casually ignores Peter -- is a cinematic metaphor for those uncomfortable, unsure attempts of young people to navigate an indifferent and seemingly more powerful adult world. Throughout the sequence the man has complete control despite the fact that he's the one being tailed; he's the adult and Peter is reduced to a boy who's merely playing at being a spy.

I have to admit, the scene could be a metaphor for my own bumbling experiences with older people. I know that in a lot of my interactions with people several years older than myself, I'm still a "kid" and they're the "adults," and the power in these cases is firmly in the hands of the adults.

Black Peter explores this theme a lot, not just in work situations but also at home with Peter's parents, and even in the scenes with Peter and other young people. There's an unmistakable sense that Peter is different -- not necessarily smarter or better but certainly a square peg, unable or unwilling to fit himself into the roles people have assigned to him. An alternate title for the film is, in fact, Black Sheep. Peter's cynical humor, lackadaisical ambivalence, and the annoyed frustration that springs from his social awkwardness are all traits with which I identified (and I expect others my age or younger would respond to as well; I'm curious what the middle-aged or older response to the film might be...). And of course, the theme of individualism that runs throughout the film is a response to the conformity and restrictiveness (thanks to Soviet Communism) of Czech life in the '40s and '50s that was only beginning to thaw in the 1960s.

A small victory for Peter, and the individualism and youth he symbolizes, comes in the last scene as Peter must endure yet another lecture from his conformist father. As Peter sits and grows increasingly annoyed by his father's exhortations, suddenly the movie shifts into the absurd and the camera freeze frames on the father, freezing him in mid rant.
But this is not like the freeze frame in something like Truffaut's 400 Blows, where the frame stops and the film ends. Instead, it's only Peter's father who has been frozen; Peter himself continues to move in his own frame and sits dumbfounded as he witnesses his father's cinematic paralysis. In a bit of self-reflexivity, Forman freezes the film on the father but allows Peter to continue to move and "live" within his own frame, with Peter being fully aware that his father's frame has stopped. Whether by an act of God, or simply the joking act of some unseen director, Peter is left to shake his head, do a double take, and wonder. The viewer is left with a delightful, if often times dark, comedy about the trials of not quite fitting in.

As far as I know the film is only available in the U.S. from Facets Video in a lousy transfer with terrible subtitles; the subtitles are barely matched up with whoever is speaking and several lines of dialogue are simply not translated. As unfortunate as this is (especially since Forman's other two films from this period -- Loves of a Blonde and Fireman's Ball -- are both available from Criterion) Black Peter is still worth seeing; the awkward humor comes through despite the poor subtitling.

Late Night

Yeah, I stayed up to watch the whole thing. It was surreal, hearing a home run call at 3:30 in the morning. Apparently there's a major league rule that you can't start an inning after 12:59 am, and that the game must then be continued the next day. BUT -- if it's the last time the two teams will meet for the season then that rule is suspended. Such was the case here in Detroit last night/this morning. Heh.

Wake up Carlos, you just won the game

Friday, August 24, 2007

Czech New Wave crib sheet

I'm really not into getting all academic or informational on this blog; it's just not my thing. My writing is more in the mode of personal reflections, opinions, occasional rants, and random stuff. I've done enough academic writing in my life that I don't want to spend my leisure hours doing it too.

So, before I start posting about some Czech New Wave films I enjoy I thought I'd link to a couple of brief but informative overviews of the period that will help set the stage for my future posts on films like Black Peter, Loves of a Blonde, Daisies, Closely Watched Trains, Capricious Summer, etc.

Criterion goes In Focus on Czech New Wave

Andrew James Horton at GreenCine on Czech and Slovak Cinema

(Both essays have links at the end that are well-worth checking out as well)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The List Post

So, I participated in the initial round of Edward Copeland's Foreign Film list thing, and first, can I just say: Who the hell let the bum (me) in?! Seriously, the names of the participants are like a who's who of awesome film writers and then there's me. Yeah. "One of these things is not like the others" and all that. So a great big "thanks" to Mr. Copeland for his hard work on a very fun enterprise (I've been having a blast all week, watching films and analyzing them, and thinking about my tastes, and looking at my list and seeing how it reflects on my personality, etc.), and thanks also for being open to the opinions of bums like me!

One thing I've noticed in all this list-making craze (AFI, Online Top 100, Eddie's awesomeness) is how a lot of us are embarrassed about the films we haven't seen, or the guilty-pleasure films we've included on our personal lists, or the final product itself as having missed too many old movies or obscure masterpieces, or included too many mainstream popcorn flicks or predictable "classics". I feel like sometimes people (myself included) approach list making as an exercise in trying to look good. There's that thought process where we want to include something but we're afraid of "what people might think", so we leave it off and throw something with a little more cache on there to make ourselves seem cooler and smarter, more "with it", etc.

I know I almost succumbed to this desire. But with this new list we weren't being asked specifically for THE BEST, but a combination of criteria, sort of a "really good films that you totally love, but don't worry this isn't a canon" kinda thing. So when I feared what people might say if I put Cinema Paradiso on my list (hey, I cried okay? That movie really moved me, man!) I decided, frak it, I'm going with it and I'm proud of it. (And it made the uber-ballot, so, yay!)

Random Thought: Yeah, so snobs cling to certain things -- knowledge of wines, indie rock, for example -- and feel superior to other people because they know all about and like these specific “cool” things. The elitist doesn’t even have to like the thing in question, she must merely recognize that SOMEONE should like the thing, claim it as objectively good, and champion it as worth preserving. I’m a sometime-elitist. I’m not a snob (I hope). I think the films of great foreign directors are worth celebrating and preserving and that love of these films should be cultivated, as far as it’s possible, with a wider audience. Just don’t get down on me ’cause I’m not all that interested personally in Hsiao-hsien Hou or Pather Panchali.

I guess what I'm getting at is that I just don't see the value in trying to impress with something like a list. The Online Film Community's Top 100 is not a reflection of my tastes (and I didn't participate in it, so that makes sense), but it is a reflection of something, it says something about what the participants are into (even if on an individual basis people's votes looked different), and in that way it's interesting and has started some really fantastic discussions. Does it bum me out that a lot of older (pre-1960) movies haven't been seen or enjoyed by a portion (though, who can say how large?) of internet film bloggers? Yeah, fo' sho', since old movies are my thing. But the great thing about Cine-blog world is that we can just get another list going if we want, and in this case, we have.

So, let out your inner sentimentalist! Don't be afraid to be thought an inexperienced whelp! Philistines unite! Share your list, embarrassing movies and all, for the world to see! You know, whatever.

So, yeah, don't be embarrassed if you think some mainstream hit movie is better than the Three Colors trilogy. You might be wrong, of course, but the debate and discussion that follows is where it's at anyway. (And the "you" here is me kinda talking to myself, just so you know.)

Random Thought: Gosh, now I sound like those young punks who snivel and snark on pre-1970s (or, as my generation seems to say: “when movies were slow, boring, and black and white, but for some reason everybody talked unnaturally fast“) and foreign pictures (which are not only slow, boring, and black and white, but also subtitled -- more work!). That is not me. Please believe me.

Another Random Thought: I think the foreign films I love, so far, skew young because I am young (relatively. 26.) (and I had that particular thought as I watched for the first time and added to my favorites A bout de souffle). Tokyo Drifter, Port of Shadows, Black Peter. Not exactly Cries and Whispers or Tokyo Story, but it’s some of what I’ve seen and loved. I’ve only had about eight years of serious, deliberate cinema study under my belt, and much of it has been devoted to pre-1960s American cinema, so I’ve got a ways to go.

Anyway, here's my (totally embarrassment free) (well, maybe there's a little (teeny, tiny) bit of embarrassment for Farewell, My Concubine, but it's just a smidge, a tiny, tiny smidge):

Grand Illusion
Only Yesterday (Japanese title: Omohide poro poro)
Day of Wrath
Farewell, My Concubine
Nights of Cabiria
Gospel According to St. Matthew
The Conformist
Black Peter
Tokyo Drifter
Exterminating Angel
Cinema Paradiso
Eyes Without a Face
Loves of a Blonde
Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows)
Shoot the Piano Player
La Belle et la bete
Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Also (movies I should have included and I don't know why I didn't, I'm stupid):

Rules of the Game
Man Is Not a Bird
Battle of Algiers

Will I write more about these films? Possibly. Very, very possibly. I am a lazy bum though, so, you know...

Monday, August 20, 2007

If Movie Lists Were Mixed Tapes...

The mixed tape is a thing of the past, especially for the children of ipod (and my parents’ generation was stuck with LPs and 8-tracks) so this concept might be kinda limited to the twenty-four to thirty-four set. But: What if you could make a mixed tape of movies instead of songs? I’ve always loved making lists but I have a hard time ranking things. One day Gigi is ahead of The Bandwagon on my all-time musicals list, the next day Bandwagon jumps over Gigi, and then sixty hours later both have fallen two spots and Gold Diggers of 1933 has taken over. I love lists but I’m so wishy-washy I can never settle on the ordering of things. I hate saying: “This is my number one,” because I know two weeks later I’ll have found another number one depending on the weather and my changing moods.

So, to satiate my list-making desires I thought it might be fun to order things as if I were making a huge celluloid-spun mixed tape; a kind of double feature on steroids. The movies aren’t listed in order of preference; they’re listed so that each movie builds on and reacts to and flows from the ones preceding it, just like the experienced mixed tape maker who orders the songs in just the right way to maximize the sonic experience.

You know (an example): First, a fun, catchy radio hit to start things off, then a couple of happy but slightly more obscure tunes (peppy but suitably hip so as to show off your alt-rock credentials), then a slow, lilting piece, maybe about lost love, then a raucous, heavy rocker, then something ironically 80s, then a trip down memory lane with a mid-90s band like Gin Blossoms or the Lemonheads, then a party song, something hip-hop but not too radio-overplayed, then another slow song, etc. etc.

If movie lists were mixed tapes, what would be on side one? On side two? Would you start side two with something energetic or something somber? Would you end side one with something happy or sad? How would you fill the nebulous middle, that place where everything seems to run together and yet cohesion seems to fall apart, how do you keep it interesting, how do you keep it fresh? Consider this a trial run. If movie lists were mixed tapes…

Title: Procrastination Station

Side One:
Mansfield Park (1999)
Light in the Piazza
Paradise Road
Dark Victory
The Thin Man
Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows

Side Two:
Father of the Bride (1950)
The Parent Trap (1998)
Roman Holiday
Splendor in the Grass
Dinner at Eight
The Exterminating Angel