Archive for The Fireman’s Ball

Sixty Eight

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , on February 28, 2014 by dcairns


Over at Apocalypse Now, you can read the last word (for now) on the Cannes ’68 Film Fest debacle, and the last entry (for now) in The ’68 Comeback Special, in which Scout Tafoya and I have revisited the films in competition that year. This week, we hand out the (virtual) awards. Here.

By coincidence, I spent most of yesterday talking to Richard Lester, who told me that his entry, PETULIA, was second favourite to win at the time. But then he added “FIREMAN’S BALL would have got it.”

After a good deal of horse-trading, Scout and I arrived at a bunch of awards that satisfied us both. See what you think.

The ’68 Comeback Special: Capricious Summer

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2014 by dcairns


The Cannes selection committee were totally on top of the Czech New Wave — other major film movements and filmmakers may have come and gone without being noticed outside their native lands, but this is one that obviously excited keen interest at the time. I guess the excitement of such a movement arising in a communist country, a movement rejecting propaganda and amiably dawdling amid dead air and empty, interstitial scenes, must have been hard to miss. While the other Czech entry, THE FIREMAN’S BALL, can be seen as social critique, and the Czech censors evidently spotted that and clamped down, Jiri Menzel’s CAPRICIOUS SUMMER seems too oblique, too limpid and indifferent, to excite that much ire or smuggle cutting commentaries. And I mean that as a compliment.


The film’s big achievement, to me anyway, is the way it wafts along, seemingly devoid of plot, tension, point, but still generating some low-level electrostatic interest that keeps you dreamily hooked into the screen. It has a summer quality, even though the weather is mostly lousy. Menzel also appears, as a floppy acrobat-magician, sporting the granny glasses John Lennon popularized in HOW I WON THE WAR, and his performance exactly suits the personality one would attribute to the maker of a film like this — dreamy, indifferent, noodle-like. The film and its characters can contain a few obnoxious moments and traits, but the overall drizzly, good-natured apathy of it all subsumes any whiff of outrage. (It is vaguely possible to get annoyed by Menzel’s more recent I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND, 2006, in which a Nazi eugenics experiment becomes the basis for a prolonged yet curiously flaccid male sexual fantasy.)

I will resist congratulating Menzel on his long, ongoing career, since I did that with Carlo Lizzani and the poor blighter promptly defenestrated himself.


It’s hard to get to grips with why Menzel’s film seems so seductive. It does speak to something in British culture, actually — The Wind in the Willows, Three Men in a Boat, Last of the Summer Wine — a tradition of middle-aged or elderly layabouts waffling away, wasting time in the country. The quality of colour in Czechoslovakian cinema at that time is also appealing. There’s a sly, teasing eroticism, here embodied by sex kitten Jana Drchalová/Preissová, whose circus dance in a pink onesie was probably the sexiest moment at Cannes that year, or would have been if Cannes had actually happened. Is that faint sound the far-off fapping of Federico Fellini?


If I can’t pin down exactly what makes the film so appealing, I can isolate exactly what was distracting me all the way through it — Rudolf Hrusínský reminded me strongly of someone. I eventually decided it was a work colleague, but then I couldn’t figure out WHAT it was about the beefy Rudolf that called to mind a much thinner acquaintance. I eventually decided it was the neckline of his jumper. That, and a sort of slouching stance that turns boredom into an aggressive posture. The bullish Rudolf’s character is a collection of bad qualities, but again, as with the rest of the film, I found him oddly attractive. I covet his filthy linen suit and his stripey jumper. Even his stripey, baggy swimming trunks, held on by bizarre braces. It’s a good look for him, and I think I might be able to pull it off.

Menzel’s short tribute to Hrusínský is touching, and a little horrifying. One of the best, and certainly the most elegiac, of the TEN MINUTES OLDER shorts.

The ’68 Comeback Special: The Fireman’s Ball

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on August 29, 2013 by dcairns


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 —