Monday, February 26, 2007

Who is Singing Over There

One of the most popular films in Yugoslavia is Slobodan Sijan’s 1980 classic comedy Who is Singing Over There? and it’s not hard to see why. The film goes along the course of a bus route. Here a group of citizens composed of all different eccentricities journey together to get to Belgrade. Sijan sketches out each character’s personality; he finds their quirks, and their various reactions to one another and the particular problems that arrive during the course of the trip. The bus takes us through the rural Yugoslavian landscape where the route ends in Belgrade. What we encounter on the trip are many conflicts that are witty and comical in the way they arise and or result.

All of the characters in the film exhibit a wide spectrum of particularities. Sijan emphasizes these particular character types. These “types” he uses to create metaphors for the different people amongst the different political and socio-economical strata of society. The numerous people who are picked up are forced to cooperate amongst one another. Here they create groups or allies while maintaining what is in their general interest. This same idea can be applied to humanity on a whole, that we associate with people who we feel work with what is in our general interest (not necessarily best interest however). For instance, near the film’s end, when the man’s purse ends up missing the Germanophile assumes that the gypsies stole it. This cultural and social stereotype has the group of people on the bus unanimously agree with the Germanophile where they then accuse and abuse the two boys for something they didn’t do. It is never revealed to the characters that their assumption about the boys was wrong, however Sijan decided to show the audience that detail. This emphasizes the social lack of empathy amongst the group. There are numerous instances when he shows these differences between classes and social behaviors. Another example of this comes when the young married couple goes into the woods to have sex while the others, in a voyeuristic-manner, watch. The Germanophile comments on the uncouth behavior and remarks on the obscenity of it, however, his watching them in the act is no less perverse than the act itself.

We also go through the film watching the characters develop. This in many ways involves the growing attachment and or affection between characters. This is specifically the case between the bus owner and his son. The son’s childish behavior doesn’t limit him as a character. He seems to be the most honest character, and the only one who ever enjoys himself. The son joins the resistance army, this forces the bus owner (his father) to separate from his son. Not only that but from the film’s context we are aware that his son is probably going to end up in the war (which means his son may die). This detail like the detail about the wallet is knowledge that we have and the characters don’t. This information forces us to ponder the worth of these relationships. It also influences us to think about the value of human relationships, and human temporality. Sijan explores human destruction and differentiation on a personal scale and juxtaposes it with the destruction of the war, which is what ends up concluding the movie.

WR: Mysteries of the Organism

Makavejev’s experimental 1971 film, WR: Mysteries of an Organism, explores, as a filmic collage, an assortment of social and political issues. The film explores the counter-culture emphasis against the social norms of oppression over sexuality. Makavejev also exercises cinematic autonomy by filming numerous sexually explicit scenes, which leave no anatomical details behind.

The film first aligns us with doctor Wilhelm Reich, which is presumably what “WR” may stand for among other suggested acronyms such as World Revolution. The documentary-like beginning informs us of Reich’s orgone box, which he is eventually prosecuted for, and his particular school of therapy. The film uses many Freudian devices and symbols to constantly juxtapose human behavior, sexuality, and politics. Makavejev exploits the commoditization of capitalism and the restrictive elements of communism. Under communism the individual is treated as insignificant. That means that a person’s appointed role is in the best interest of the group; and that creative (artistic) and sexual energy are seen as destructive, unproductive elements in society.

Makavejev’s collage of symbols, and allusion has us questioning every image the film presents. The film gets caught up in a series of events, which may not be temporally simultaneous, but reveal a concurrent exhibition of scenes whereby the idea is about exercising liberation. For instance, Tuli Kupferberg, from the underground band the Fugs, is walking around New York stroking a toy gun, awkwardly walking around businessmen and other people all the while the song “Kill for peace” is playing. Another display of this new liberation is when he visits the office of Screw magazine, or when we, in the narrative portion of the film, see the nude young couple chasing each other around the room promiscuously exploring one another.

The overall coherence is only secondary to the visual demonstration of images and ideas that Makavejev finds schematically important in understanding the contemporary international social and political issues of the day. He employs phallic references throughout the many images and ideas he proposes, as device that symbolizes among other things, a sort of masturbation. For instance, in one scene Kupferberg is standing on a bridge, wearing army fatigues, stroking his toy machine gun. This symbolic reference shows war and violence as a form of masturbation. The same idea is true for capitalism, having Tuli walk all around New York city through these crowds of people who, for the most part, buy into the materialism and commodity that capitalism sells, which also exploits another form of masturbation. These non-necessitous actions, such as commercialism and materialism, are all capitalistic frauds that occupy our time. Juxtaposed, however, with what Makavejev says about communism takes us from one extreme to another. The communist ideal reinforces a group mentality, while the capitalist ideal enforces mass consumption as means of exploring individualism (but really, it enforces a norm of materialism, which the group or society is encouraged to follow).

The Witness

The film The Witness (1969) by Hungarian director Peter Basco is a satirical exploration of the communist regime during the harsh paranoiac Stalin fueled era of communism. The film takes place during the most oppressive era in Hungarian history (’48-’56). Here we get a glimpse of an infrastructure built on grounds where any and everyone is a suspicious subject in the communist eye. This system is exploited and explored throughout the entire film. The films derisive humor obviously didn't go over well, which is why it was banned in Hungary until '81.

The story focuses mainly on Joszef Pelikan and his experience under the communist system. His run around starts when he’s arrested for illegally killing his pig in order to feed his family. However, instead of making an example out of Joszef they use him as a tool for their different ploys, including scripted show trials. When he’s released from prison he finds out that his offense no longer exists. Here we see the power of the government, and their ability to simply erase events from history however they please. This startles Joszef because he fesses up to slaughtering the pig, but the officials respond to him saying their never was a pig.

This same ride of satirical events continues as the film progresses. Virag, who pulled strings to get Joszef released from prison, now wants him to test against Zoltan, a so-called spy. The trial however isn’t hinged on any valid reason for suspicion; the trials are scripted. These show trials are a harsh reality of the communist regime where many officials were forced to say they were spies, fascists, etc. The show trials birthed out of Soviet paranoia of the 1930’s. Joszef’s experience in the show trial didn’t quite pan out as most trials did. He ends up confusing details, and emphasizes his limited capabilities. For example, his common response was to say, “I’m just an idiot” or “I don’t understand.” The ironic thing is that there wasn’t much to understand. Many of the decisions made by officials, and many of the trails, were hinged on trivial details, and non-sense.

Verag’s character adds a lot to the mordant wit of the film as well. He is physically worn away. His character almost seems like a robot where someone behind the scenes is pulling his strings. This is true, someone is obviously controlling him or else he wouldn’t be so worried about manipulating Joszef. However we never actually see who or what controls or influences Verag’s decision-making process. He also doesn’t eat much because of an ulcer, which is presumably affected by the amount of stress that is imposed on him from the party. Much like Joszef’s emphasis on his being an “idiot”, Verag is constantly emphasizing his paranoia saying “how can you be sure” or “not being suspicious is suspicious.” This distinct association shows that party as paranoid and the common man as unknowing.

The film overall really shows how the common man in his own way is a hero. Even though Joszef doesn’t quite understand the arbitrary actions of the party he consciously questions the validity and veracity of them. His run around with the party, going in and out of prison, reflects the instability of the communist infrastructure. The film doesn’t necessarily explore the horrors of communist oppression but attacks the historical issues in a mocking sardonic scope that allows the viewer to overcome the harsh past and learn from the experience.

The Shop on Main Street

Elmar Klos and Jan Kadar together, in The Shop on Main Street, provide an example of the traumatic and paranoiac experience of Slovakia life under Fascist oppression (specifically anti-Semitism). The film displays everyday hardships typical to common peoples, such as those in the main character, Tono Brtko. Kadar focuses on human relationships and the human exhibition of power (social and or political). For instance, when the Tono and his brother in-law Mark are together with their wives at Tono’s Mark, with confidence, displays his power and abilities, those of which have been provided to him through the Fascist Slovakian party.

Tono, however, doesn’t have power to rely on; he’s weak in his marriage, and his closest friend is his dog. His confidence only extends so far throughout the film. Tono knows his abilities and uses them where he can; in his case, it is carpentry. He builds and refurbishes things, such as, the old woman, Mrs. Lautmann’s furniture (i.e. her dresser and mirror, etc). His other project is the Fascist monument that is being built in the middle of town.

Once he’s appointed the Aryan operator of Mrs. Lautmann’s shop he realizes the shop is only a front. His only brother in-law scammed him by giving him a shop that won’t provide him with any profit, oppressing his ability to succeed (exhibiting his power over Tono). At the shop Brtko is instructed by Kucher to let the woman still live and work at the shop while the Jewish community pays to support both Tono and her. This arrangement endangers Tono, Lautmann, and Kucher. Throughout the film we see the relationship between Tono and Lautmann, and Tono and Kucher grow. Tono finally develops a sense of responsibility. When he’s confronted about by his wife, Tono responds aggressively.

The Fascist set up a mass deportation of the Jews. This increases the films terror and intensity. Not only that, but the location where they gather the Jews is at the monument outside of the Lautmann’s shop. The paranoia increases as the film gets more claustrophobic. The tight and uncomfortable feeling that Tono is experiencing, from hiding Lautmann, emanates clearly throughout the end scenes of the film. His alcohol-ravaged mind is also tossing back and forth frantic dizzying ideas about whether or not to send poor old Mrs. Lautmann out to the square for deportation. However juxtaposing this with Mrs. Lautmann’s contentment and naivety toward the whole situation creates an awkward tension where even the viewer begins to get anxious.

In the end, all of the paranoia, chance and drama got Tono nowhere. And what are we supposed to feel about Tono? The pity that might arise does so because his hysteria was a product of the Fascist pressures and oppression. The film over all employs a more realistic aesthetic. Kadar’s character selection, and particular focus on common actions poses realistic questions about human nature, power, and perception.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Red and The White

The 1968 Hungarian film The Red and the White is Jansco’s exploration of war. He takes advantage of the liberal attitude in Hungary. His difficult, and abstract filmic narrative is influenced by the modernist ideologies; his impulse is to force the viewer to look the film’s form. The story surrounds the war between the reds and the whites. Jansco’s photographic form concentrates on wide, distanced shots. He usually has long enduring shots. These filmic elements alienate the viewer from character attachment. Through these distanced shots, and lack of character attachment Jansco portends that war is void of identity.

Jansco shows how insignificant the individual is in the overall efforts of war. Not only that, but Jansco shows how meaningless the war is, and how trivial victory really is. Who wins in war where people and cultures on both sides are harmed, and even destroyed? Jansco presents both armies, red and white, as bad. He emphasizes the unnecessary and trivial choices made during war. For instance, many of the so-called victories involved senseless acts of humiliation against people of the opposing army.

The arbitrary rules of war achieve nothing. In fact, the war seems much like any ordinary board game, whose rules make little sense and only apply to the game, outside of the game these frivolous rules are completely insignificant. He shows how unstructured both armies are. However, in the midst of all this chaos Jansco adheres to strict filmic patterns. These patterns affect our perception of the film. His long shots detach us from the war. It is precisely in this detached state of mind where we are forced to question the actions of the film on whole. If the film surround a few main characters are our understanding of war would be muddle in character stories where we’d become preoccupied with the individual. Jansco makes it perfectly clear that he doesn’t want to impose this attachment to characters. It is even sometimes hard to pinpoint which army is which. This I think further detaches us, because we don’t even assess the validity of each army. Instead we confine our thoughts to war in its most basic and fundamental level of raw conflict.

The wide shot at the film’s end is clear example of how Jansco avoids any instance of emotional attachment. The characters in both armies are almost presented as like pieces or figurines in board game. This sequence blatantly depicts war as a sort of game. Overall, the lack of emotion and attachment is a form of manipulation in itself. This behavior, or mind set, influences us as viewers to lose a sense of hope. In the futility and sadness, Jansco focuses on the selflessness of war. He juxtaposes this harsh negative condition of war with a tranquil rural landscape. On the whole, he seems to be trying to show how unnatural war is, and show how our human condition is not based on those arbitrary rules and actions that result in murder and humiliation.

The Joke

The 1969 film The Joke, credited to both Jaromil Jires and Milan Kundera, was banned soon thereafter it was released. The film is influenced by the nature of Kundera’s writing. His frequent use of dark humor is an elemental contribution to the film. The main character, Ludvik, cannot come to grips with his reproachful past. Throughout the film Jires toggles between Ludvik’s flashbacks of his oppressive past and contrasts it with his present state of living. Jires portrays the extremely oppressive state of communism. He makes it clear to point out that Ludvik is not a bad guy; he’s an ordinary citizen who unfortunately became the victim of the political and social oppression. Jires explores the pretentiousness of communism by exploiting the triviality of numerous public celebrations, which only really exist to suppress mass counterrevolutionary movements, instead this portray the image of false patriotism.

The story unfolds starting with Ludvik’s relationship to Margaret. Their relationship seems to fade when Margaret decides to attend an extracurricular course on politics. This is obviously reflexive of the sentiment at the time, which promoted patriotism. This sort of behavior is ingrained even in the young children of the society who in their patriotism become much like a boy scout; however this sort of patriotism, and attachment to the party continues to grow with age. This loyal and subservient behavior to the government forces citizens to turn on its own people, including family and friends, in the name of patriotism for the government. Such is the case for Margaret who turned on Ludvik, who in a letter to Margaret passed a joke about Trotsky. His joke however was not treated as a joke; it was treated with the utmost scrutiny, inevitably resulting in a six year sentence at an army labor camp, and thereafter labor working mines.

Jires tries to effectively, and realistically explore Ludvik’s tragic fate. The story emphasizes how much his distant past influences his everyday life. Jires, by interspersing flashbacks with the present, shows how real Ludvik’s past is. Ludvik is often seen, after a flashback, responding to his flashbacks—talking to himself, making gestures as if he is responding to his flashbacks, etc. This intangible past obviously goes unaffected by Ludvik’s responses and unfortunately tortures him throughout the film. Jires provides a vivid picture of Ludvik’s tormented psychology. He constantly relives a past that he wishes he could’ve eschewed sometime ago.

Since he can’t reclaim this past of his, and change the course history he tries his hand at revenge. This attempt, however, results in a distorted and pretentious love scheme. This attention to relationships, and the influence of age, love, and desire all come laced with Kundera’s definitive dark humor. It isn’t necessarily that Kundera intends to portray sad and embarrassing relationships instead he is trying to capture the essence of reality (that is, what it is to be human and to fault as humans do). The story ends with Helena embarrassed because Ludvik uses her. She desperately yanks his arm, and falls to her knees in hopes that he might take her back however he doesn’t. This leads her to attempt suicide, however in the humorous manner akin to Kundera, her attempt at suicide fails because what she eats are laxatives. In the end Helena’s assistant defends her by picking a fight with Ludvik; the fight ends when Ludvik beats the young man to the ground. Ludvik stands over the young man and confessing the beating isn’t meant for him. It’s obviously implied that his reaction came out of his repressed anger toward the communist oppression that ruined his life (that is, he lost his education, his companion, and time spent on so many years wasted in the army and mining camps).