Sunday, March 16, 2014

The 'control freak' who overcame a repressive government: Deceased Artiste Vera Chytilová

Once seen it is never forgotten. Daisies (1966) is an energetic, disturbing, strange, funny, irritating, profound, ridiculous, and mind-altering film that fits snugly in with Sixties cinema, in that it alters the viewer's mind as it presents a story (sort of) that can be taken as an allegory for the circumstances under which it was made, or an allegory for Western civilization as a whole. The woman who made it, Vera Chytilová, died this week at 85, leaving behind a relatively small body of films and a very large legacy of rebellion against the Soviet authority in her home country of Czechoslovakia.

She was brought up a Catholic (which pretty much explains everything – both the adherence and the rebellion) and capsule biographies love to list the professions she had before filmmaker: technical draftsman (draftsperson?), fashion model, photo retoucher, and “clapper girl.” She studied film for five years (1957-62) and made some shorts and a debut feature before the explosion of sight, sound, and insanity that is Daisies.

The film (which got the full-episode treatment on the Funhouse TV show back in the fall of 1995) follows two young women as they roam around, causing trouble, defrauding millionaires (making it an interesting potential co-feature for Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), having food fights, and being generally both sexy and doll-like, and extremely rebellious. It gets on the viewer's nerves at points, but is so wonderfully stylish and blissfully bizarre that even those who aren't digging it wind up admitting it's a hell of a cinematic ride.

It surely was intended to be an allegory about the ways in which the average person can subvert authority. What Chytilová did to “sell” the film was to make the two lead characters attractive women who are first seen in bikinis – even the most sexist straight male (who believes “there are no good films directed by women”) shuts up when the two cute leads appear at the beginning of the film.

That same sexist (and yes, just about every other male watching the film) gets a little antsy when the film's most mind-warping scene finds the girls cutting up reality itself with pairs of scissors (there seems to be a subtext there...).

The fact that the film was an allegory about rebellion didn't escape the Czech government – in fact most of the films made by the Czech New Wave in the mid-Sixties were very realistically-shot allegories (Vera opted out of the naturalistic, realist approach) that clearly condemned bureaucratic, repressive governments.

As a result, some of the films were banned, most notably Daisies, A Report on the Party and Guests by Jan Nĕmec (1966), and The Joke (1969) by Jaromil Jireš. (All three of these films are in the Pearls of the Czech New Wave DVD box set from the “Eclipse” arm of the Criterion Collection.)

Chytilová avoided offering interpretations of her work (and noted she didn't like “cuddling” her audience), but various interesting quotes can be found in which she offers a personal philosophy. She contextualized the “doll-like” qualities of her two leads with this quote: “Everyone does what they can to avoid thinking. Laziness is the most basic human trait. People don't want to think – they can't make the connection between entertainment and thought. They want immediate kicks. People will not be human until they get pleasure from a thought – only a thinking person can be a full person.”

She stated in an exclusive interview on this blog that the film was not “about the Czech youth,” as had been perceived. “What we wanted to make was an existential film and to use it as a protest against the destruction of the country. What was interesting was that the western part of the world perceived this film as being against all conventions. So it’s clear that it depends from what angle you perceive the film....

“We thought that the creativity as well as destruction was two sides of the same coin because people who are not capable of creation get their kicks from destruction.... The film was laughing at them, ridiculing them, and I think they understood that. Therefore, the film wasn’t shown in cinemas.”

The charges against the film can be found in a document located here. One of the most interesting things about the government ban on the film (which won prizes at foreign film festivals) was that one National Assembly deputy argued in favor of it because Daisies contained imagery of the wasting of food (“the fruit of the work of our toiling farmers”!). In case you wonder what wasting food looks like, this is it:

She made one more film before the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. The Fruit of Paradise (1969) is another incredibly, stylishly odd film. It reworks the story of Adam and Eve and has a gorgeous opening that is pure avant-garde filmmaking (it's no wonder at all that the Czechoslovak Communist Party was threatened by her art).

Unlike her colleagues Milos Forman and Ivan Passer, Chytilová refused to leave Czechoslovakia. She was effectively banned from making films for six years, wasn't allowed to leave the country to attend film festivals, and had script after script quashed by government offices, but she stayed in the country, perhaps because (as is indicated in a later interview cited below) she wasn't the kind of person who took “no” for an answer.

Photo by Tono Stano
In the autumn of 1975, after having several projects killed off and also having found out that she had been invited to foreign film fests that she was not allowed to attend (the government would lie, saying she was unavailable), she wrote an open letter to Czech president Gustav Husak. She noted that the party line was that she lacked “a positive attitude to socialism.”

The letter can be found here. It closes with the stirring statement, “As a citizen, a woman, a mother and a film director, I will continue to fight for the ideals of a socialist society and will do my utmost to bring about their realisation.”

As a result of this campaign, she was allowed to direct her own projects again, her “comeback” film being The Apple Game (1977). At this point it becomes interesting to consider her thoughts about being a “feminist” filmmaker. She was quite proud to be a woman filmmaker, but the feminist label wasn't one she cottoned to, according to a later interview in The Guardian:

“[Chytilová] explains that she does not believe in feminism per se, but in individualism. 'If there's something you don't like, don't keep to the rules – break them. I'm an enemy of stupidity and simple-mindedness in both men and women and I have rid my living space of these traits.'”

What is also revealed in this Guardian piece – in which she is referred to as “the Margaret Thatcher of Czech Cinema” because of her control-freak tendencies – is the fact that “film-making with Chytilova is by all accounts a harrowing experience. She shouts and screams, and gleefully admits to beating up her cameramen when they prove unwilling to try out new ideas.” (Perhaps this is why she could take the metaphorical beating imposed on her by the Czech authorities?)

We know little in America about her later films (there are 13 post-“ban” features and 6 documentaries listed in her IMDB listing, but IMDB is a not-exactly-reliable resource). Perhaps the most bizarre was the box-office hit she directed in 1993 from a script by Czech film and stage star Bolek Polivka. It has the wonderful name The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday (1993).

According to this review by an American blogger, the film is a broad, “obnoxious” comedy that is tolerable only because one of the female costars is “ridiculously hot.” The reviewer notes the film has no resemblance to Chytilová's earlier avant-garde work like Daisies.

The one festival of her films that brought her post-Daisies work to the American public (well, at least the NYC “metro area” public) was a five-film retrospective of her work in the late 1990s (that included her 1966 classic and four post-"ban" titles, including The Apple Game, right) on the CUNY-TV program City Cinematheque. The piece de resistance was an exclusive interview with Chytilová conducted by host Jerry Carlson (through a translator, if I remember correctly). To my knowledge, Carlson's is the *only * interview of Chytilová done in the U.S. for television. (If you know of others, leave a comment at the end of this piece.)

To pay final tribute to her, I have to turn to the prickly interview she gave the Guardian interviewer. In the article, Chytilová admits to having “recently attempted to direct her own death scene. At home and feeling under the weather, she became convinced her hours were numbered. 'I found the idea rather disagreeable that the moment after my death, I would lose total control of what happened, and someone would have to find my remains.' As it turned out, she was just suffering from wind, but the experience was humbling.”

It seems that, once Chytilová was able to throw herself back into filmmaking full-time (during the six-year ban she made works with her husband under his name and took time out to raise her children) she went at it full-bore. “You always have to work as if what you're working on could be your last,” she says in the Guardian interview. “I want to move on, even if I have to crawl.”

As some visual extras I offer the following clips. First is Chytilová's segment from Pearls of the Deep (1965), “Automat Svet” (without English subs). She has never offered a list of her influences, but this short reminded me of Vigo's timeless L’Atalante:

Next are two other clips from The Fruit of Paradise (1969), her Eden saga. These clips contain no dialogue and are pure dream-like weirdness. The Freudian symbolism is apparent (the man wants to wrap the woman in his red cloth!), but the filmmaking is trippy and wonderful:

A second clip, in which our heroine discovers things inside and outside:

Two clips from The Apple Game (1977), which appear to have been posted because the female in 'em is topless/nude. In any case, it's an example of more linear, scripted scenes that occurred in her later work (plus, again, the notion that she knew how to draw straight male viewers in):

A very short, subtitled scene from her 2001 film Expulsion from Paradise. A film about the making of a film, Expulsion is another, more serious film she directed from a script by Bolek Polvka, the star of her Fuckoffguysgoodday hit comedy:

I'll close out with brief glimpses of the later films by Chytilová that we never saw. This is a commercial montage for a festival of her works:

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for the interesting post about this controversial director. :) I have just a few notes:

1.) The Inheritance from 1992 certainly isn´t Chytilová´s most bizarre film. It´s actually the most conventional one. At least, formally. However, to see it just as some lowbrow crowd-pleaser would be a mistake. As usual for Chytilová, it´s quite sarcastic morality, this time JUST DISGUISED as a lowbrow comedy.

At the time of its release, Czech film critics were no less disappointed by it than was the reviewer you quoted. However, many of them later admitted that they were wrong. The film is now seen by many as quite accurate alegory of wild times after the Velvet Revolution and its impact on behavior of people, unprepared for a new political situation.

2.) Just a few weeks before Chytilová´s death was released a sequel to this film, this time called The Inheritance or Fuckoffisnottosay, directed by Robert Sedláček.

Věra Chytilová worked on this sequel some years ago in its very embryonic stage, but later she became ill and as far as I know, eventually refused to participate on it in any way. Despite the massive popularity of actor Bolek Polívka, the sequel was a flop.

3. And for the most bizarre thing she ever did - I have two suggestions. In 1986 she made a film called Vlčí bouda (Wolf´s Hut), which was extremely bizarre metaphorical horror about bunch of extraterrestrials, terorizing a group of young people while posing as their teachers.

The second - 1998 film called Pasti, pasti, pastičky (Traps, Traps, Little Traps) about two men who raped a hitchhiker and she castrated them in return. It was supposed to be a comedy.

4. Some of the films that you didn´t mentioned were also considered as very good - especially Panelstory (1979), Faunovo velmi pozdní odpoledne/Faun´s Very Late Afternoon (1983) and Kopytem sem, kopytem tam/Snowball Reaction (1989).

(Sorry for my English. Hope it does make sense.)