Review Bag II: Forman, Franklin, double shot of Svankmajer
THE FIREMEN’S BALL (1968) Forman
Before THE FIREMEN’S BALL, I was only somewhat familiar with Forman via his big Oscar-winning work — AMADEUS (brilliant!) and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (good, but overrated). So, please forgive me if my knowledge of the Czech filmmaker is lacking. I didn’t know what to expect from FIREMEN, but now that I’ve seen it, colour me enthused. It is a treasure. Visually witty like few films I’ve seen, the camera bemusedly records folly after folly with a feather-light grace, winding its way through a large cast of characters gathered for one night at a gala ball put on by the local firemen. Right from the opening scene, you know you’re in for something special: Forman out-Godards Godard with the sight of a poor artist hunched on a ladder, attempting to finish his work for the ball – an intricate banner creation with real burns, added by himself — only to find himself left hanging in the air by the fumbling fireman who was supposed to hold the ladder down, now off arguing some silly matter. The hapless artist ends up burning down his own work while scrambling for a handhold; it’s a simple and bitter summary of the state’s brain-dead treatment of artists and the mutual destruction that results, and that’s only the first five minutes.
Over the rest of the picture we partake in the ball, seeing behind the scenes as the foolish old firefighters have a closed committee session to pick a beauty pageant winner – for a pageant no one wants to win – as well as the sad quest of one official as he searches for the increasingly missing items up for auction. I’m not acquainted with Czech politics in the late 60s, save for the Prague Spring, but it’s not difficult to see why Communist censors banned the film. Any figure of authority comes off as a bumbling (but not entirely unsympathetic) idiot, while the overseeing men get their comeuppance as fat, lazy misogynists. That’s all entertaining enough, but what really impresses is how Forman retains a sense of humanity, and a sliver of compassion for these buffoons, deftly seasoning the critique (if there is any; Forman has claimed there isn’t, which I find very hard to believe, given how loaded every shot appears to be) with a knowing tolerance of silly human behaviours. That his camera feels weightless in its documentation of the events is owed to the sharp and compact script (it’s only 72 minutes), which, even in the midst of an enjoyable thread, always has an equally interesting plot to cut to. All together, it’s the feather touch that packs a punch, a truly deft handling that Forman apparently misplaced for the overdone CUCKOO.
An IMDB reviewer calls it “Hitchcock for kids.” That would be the single best description of Richard Franklin’s spy thriller, and seeing it for the first time in about twelve years, and in full this time, I am left lamenting the current state of live-action movies aimed at children. This film could never be made today, what with its surprisingly realistic violence (perpetrated by a child, no less) and generally menacing tone (the only memory I have of my eight-year old viewing is the state of heavy tension it kept me in, like a nightmare that doesn’t end). Seeing it in full, years later, (I missed the first forty minutes or so in my initial viewing), I am pleased to discover a clever little thriller that plays like NORTH BY NORTHWEST’s pulp-addicted grandson.
Henry Thomas is perfectly cast as an imaginative youngster obsessed with spy missions, coached by his imaginary mentor Jack Flack (Dabney Coleman, who also plays the boy’s widower father). The lad becomes entangled with a dastardly espionage case centered on a video game that falls into his possession (this was one of the earliest movie-video game tie-ins), evading assassins and double crossers, and through it all learning who the real hero in his life is. It’s not hard to see where it’s going, moral-wise, and the film works its way to its lesson at a consistent pace, never ceasing to charm with its earnest lead’s performance, who carries the film without breaking a sweat; and it’s simple set-ups for suspense-laden exploits. Franklin keeps his visual grammar clean and clear, and the film works the better for it; his balance of menace and relief in each of the movie’s scenes of peril is well attuned, and never exploitive. It’s the sort of flick you don’t see anymore, at least not in live-action: a thriller for kids that isn’t afraid to dabble in danger, but knows where the limit is. All that, and a touching story about fathers and sons, which, Pixar’s work excluded, is all but extinct nowadays. When I have sons myself, I’ll be sure to throw this on at least once a year.
Tim Burton has his work cut out for him – he might make a more visually astounding ALICE, as far as colours and CG are concerned — but nothing quite beats Lewis Carroll’s story as told with stop-motion monsters and the most repeated set of lips to appear in a film, ever. Alice definitely goes to Wonderland in Jan Svankmajer’s adaptation — at least she visits its dour communist incarnation. Using his famed stop-motion abilities, Svankmajer brings The White Rabbit, The Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, and various sundry creatures to stilted life, and the results, unsettling under the best of circumstances, would be terrifying if seen by a five year old at night in a dark room. It would all be more bearable if Svankmajer didn’t insist on using exclusively man-made noises to sonically illustrate his creatures’ movements — I will never look at a rabbit’s teeth the same way — but the effect is undeniably potent, and a much-welcomed interpretation of a story that’s a lot darker than the folks at Disney want to admit. This is more of a nightmare than anything, its dreamscape enhanced by the beautiful and bizarre truth of stop-motion working at full steam, but what really impresses is the emphasis on the drab: Wonderland is basically an abandoned factory whose second calling is to develop new shades of rust and rot. It’s not pretty, per se, and it weighs on the soul after eighty some minutes, but I confess that I thrilled to its monochromatic glory if only to brace myself for the digitally timed onslaught of Burton’s vision. Svankmajer’s ALICE ought to be the definitive version of Carroll’s story, if only for capturing the stark terror of little Alice’s adventures; it may be the closest we get to having a film with echoes of the Grimm brothers: made for the kids, nasty bits and all.
Svankmajer’s FAUST is the proof that ALICE really was for kids: the Czech filmmaker’s adaptation of Goethe’s play as a whole is both better and worse than its predecessor, but at least ALICE didn’t feature little demon puppets beating and raping little angel puppets in some sort of spiritual gang warfare. FAUST relies more on live marionettes than stop-motion puppets, and while they are brilliantly creepy creations, their execution as agents of plot and comic interlude leaves something to be desired. Maybe it’s the bobbing movement, too smooth to really disturb as stop-motion does, or maybe it’s the insufferable rhyming of that one jester, but the conceit wears thin before it ought to. There are still plenty of sights that simultaneously scar and entrance — the image of Faust having conversation with his stop-motion animated self (a demon in disguise) is particularly memorable — but they don’t add to the whole in the cohesive manner that ALICE did. It’s more a collection of increasingly bizarre and disturbing sketches, culminating in a scene I did not expect, that I did not expect to be chastened by: in danger of repenting, the Devil sends a demon disguised as a beautiful woman to seduce Faust. What makes it extra special is the fact that Svankmajer, using marionettes and comically overbearing costumes for his angels and demons, does not spare the viewer the sights and sounds of Faust the human making love to a large wooden puppet. It’s may be the most starkly depicted portrayal of the power and horrific deceit of lust that I have seen in a motion picture. It’s this late addition to the freak show that offers Faust some real weight — that bit with the jester torturing a demon (and the viewer) with an endless game of summoning and dismissing really didn’t do it for me — and when it finishes with Faust’s death by automobile and the realization that this awful experience (giving one’s soul to the devil, etc.) is being repeated over and over, a different man each time, it gains some weight as a work of morally impacting art. I still don’t get the cannibalistic homeless man, though.