The ’68 Comeback Special: The Fireman’s Ball
Welcome. Scout Tafoya and I are blogging the entire line-up of the 1968 Cannes Film Festival — the Cannes that never was. Previous installments here and here.
I love this one. Milos Forman manages to square a number of circles here — he was able to make a film in communist Czechoslovakia with funding from capitalist Carlo Ponti. And he was able to combine Tatiesque behavioural comedy and comedy of movement with a documentary style, something even Tati couldn’t quite do (he tried, in TRAFIC). The stylistic trope is a success, though the financial one proved problematic, with Forman getting buffeted by censorship from the Czechs and lawsuits from the Italian.
The movie is a pretty courageous attack on a system that doesn’t work because it fails to take account of human weakness and corruption — that’s maybe the mildest critique one could make of soviet-style communism, but it’s a critique all the same, and thus dangerous. (When I screened the film for students they found it so plain enjoyable they didn’t want to hear about deeper meanings — “An allegory? That’s spoiling it!”) The authorities objected strongly to the portrayal of regional firemen as incompetent and venal. In an effort to provoke a controversy they could use against the film, they screened it to a real fire department, only to find the Czech firefighters largely agreeing with the film’s depiction, and reminiscing about their most spectacular bungles, which topped anything Forman had dared to portray.
As for Ponti, he objected to the film’s very short running time and claimed Forman had failed to live up to his contract by delivering a film of less than feature-length. Forman argued, rightly, that the film was the perfect length for what it was (it’s not exactly slight, but it would start to seem slight if you inflated it). For a while, a huge and terrifying lawsuit dangled over Forman’s head.
The film itself pulls off an exceptional balance between affection — I think Forman loves his subjects, non-professional actors whose hesitant performances manage the difficult job of seeming realistic rather than amateur — and cruelty — the comic developments are mercilessly observed and much of the humour downright mean. How does he even get away with reducing to a shambles the ceremony intended to honour an ancient fireman, now apparently about to expire from cancer? By making it something that’s more important to the ball organizers, a bunch of stuffed-shirt bureaucrats (though again, observed with affection) rather than the recipient, who attends more out of a sense of solemn duty than pride. Bow-legged and befuddled, he seems impervious to harm, whereas the gradual disintegration of the ceremony is mortifying to the idiots in charge. Thus, tragedy is circumvented and comedy achieved.
This strategy, whereby the real victims in the film are unable to suffer, is a very useful one. The climax, when a house burns down under the fire brigade’s noses, is kind of melancholic, but still hilarious, and part of its bittersweet ludicrousness comes from the fact that for once it shows the people acting together and trying to do some good, but in the most misguided way. The old man whose house is on fire is frail, so they sit him in a chair, one of the few belongings rescued from the blaze. Then they worry that he’ll be cold, so they move him closer to the fire. Then they worry that the sight of his life going up in smoke will be distressing to him, so they turn him around so he can’t see. Of course, the man shows no sign of distress, just bafflement at this odd behaviour.
There is a bit of pathos — somehow, speaking for myself, anyway, I’m able to laugh and feel pity and not blame the filmmaker for being a bastard,
Oh, and another thing that strikes me as near-miraculous — the beauty pageant. It’s a good, but risky, anti-communist joke, the beauty contest where the girls are all selected for political reasons and do not exactly fulfill the normal criteria for Miss World. Kind of chimes with western jokes about female shot-putters and stuff. But of course the danger here is more cruelty, and sexism to boot. Forman manages to make the sweaty firemen the butt of the joke, and the more attractive girls, the ones they want desperately to take part, are all really odd-looking too, so the parade becomes a celebration of physical idiosyncrasy, rather than a nasty put-down of females who fail to come up to some societal standard. In the context of this movie full of wonderfully odd-looking characters, the girls are all rather lovely.
I got the making-of info from Forman’s excellent memoir, Turnaround.
Buy this —