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Daisies

Dir. Vera Chytilova (1966).
The most drolly anarchic cine-provocation to bloom during Prague Spring, Vera Chytilova’s 1966 masterpiece looks better every year—it’s amazing that this feminist Duck Soup is not yet regarded as classic.

Tue., Oct. 27, 2:15 p.m., 2009

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Marta Topferova

Although her first album was titled Homage To Homeland: Czech, Moravian & Slovak Folk Songs, this Prague-born, crystalline-voiced singer is best known for three albums of beautifully crafted and impeccably sung Spanish-language folk music, from Dominican merengue to Argentine zamba. After 20 years in the United States, however, Topferova recently recorded her first album of songs in English. She’s accompanied here by tres, bass, and percussion. With Andy Statman.

Thu., Aug. 27, 8 & 10 p.m., 2009

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Marta Topferova

Although her first album was titled Homage To Homeland: Czech, Moravian & Slovak Folk Songs, this Prague-born singer is best known for three albums of beautifully crafted and impeccably sung Spanish-language folk music. After 20 years in the United States, however, Topferova recently recorded her first album of songs in English, which she debuts tonight with a new quartet and a “special guest.”
Sat., March 14, 8 p.m., 2009

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Josef Koudelka

Although these grainy black-and-white shots of Warsaw Pact tanks crushing civilian demonstrations during 1968’s “Prague Spring” are wrenching, photos of the posters that the Czechs hung all over town are equally devastating. In a cartoon-style diptych, one half, labeled “1945,” depicts a little girl offering flowers to a Soviet soldier after the defeat of the Nazis; “1968” shows her dead at his feet. Buses were papered with signs reading “SOS-UN,” but the world did nothing other than issue diplomatic protests. Although he had previously photographed Gypsies and theater companies, Koudelka rushed to the streets during the invasion, and captured his countrymen confronting tanks and pleading with the heavily armed invaders to withdraw. His photographs were later published abroad—anonymously, to protect him from Communist reprisals—where they won the Robert Capa photojournalism award. These images of average citizens brandishing their bodies and reason against guns and bombs are enduring documents of moral courage.

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m. Starts: Oct. 1. Continues through Oct. 11, 2008

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Milos Forman’s Lost Youth

The star director of the 1960s Czech new wave, Milos Forman arrived here following the Warsaw Pact invasion of his native (and now no longer existent) land and went native with a vengeance.

Forman, the subject of a two-week 17-film retro at the Museum of Modern Art, would become one of the leading directors of Hollywood’s old wave— sweeping the 1975 Oscars with his second American movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and doing it again nine years later with Amadeus. There’s no arguing with that kind of émigré success but, blossoming as it did during the Prague Spring, Forman’s career has the melancholy sense of something irrevocably lost. Indeed, his first American movie, Taking Off (1971), which screens this Friday in the filmmaker’s pristine personal print, might be his last Czech one.

Taking Off is the sweetest of generation-gap movies, shot in and around New York during the summer of 1970 even while the generational nightmare Joe embarked on its reign of terror. A solemn high-school girl (Linnea Heacock) leaves her suburban home and vanishes into the East Village hippie vortex, abandoning her clueless parents (Buck Henry and Lynn Carlin) to essay the counterculture on their own—even joining an organization called the Society for Parents of Fugitive Children. Meanwhile, let loose in America, the filmmaker has a field day orchestrating their confusion.

Forman’s three Czech features—Black Peter (1964), The Loves of a Blonde (1965), and The Fireman’s Ball (1967)—as well as independent documentary Audition (1963), all showing at MOMA, are uniquely dialectical comedies. Forman’s deadpan farces play as funny-sad, his largely nonprofessional actors are at once cute and ugly, his technique is both spontaneous and studied. As epitomized by his quintessential film Loves of a Blonde (which, in conjunction with the MOMA retrospective, begins a week’s run Friday at BAM), Forman’s world is cozy yet bleak, his attitude simultaneously tender and cruel. So, too, Taking Off—which, although equally anecdotal, manages to be wackier and more expansive than its precursors.

Authority is no less hapless here than in The Fireman’s Ball, and the topography of faces is no less vivid than those that Forman mapped in Czechoslovakia. (Were it not for the presence of then-unknowns Kathy Bates and Carly Simon in the extended audition that opens the film, one might suspect that Forman brought his extras from Prague.) Taking Off is also laugh-out-loud funny; epicene Vincent Schiavelli pedantically instructing a ballroom full of anxious parents, including the Warhol superstar Ultra Violent, on how to smoke a joint rivals Peter Seller’s stoned act in I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!

Amadeus was shot in Prague, and it’s arguable that, as slick as they are, both One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hair (1979) nevertheless also reflect aspects of Forman’s Czech education. But the Czech style was not one that he would ever revisit. Taking Off was his farewell—it’s the film of a runaway child and a rueful adult. February 14 through 28, MOMA.


Also: Anime has scarcely lacked for exposure and adulation, but, so far as I know, the Japan Society’s “Dawn of Japanese Animation” is the first local survey of its roots. Four programs (“Chambara Action & Adventure,” “Horror & Comedy,” “Propaganda,” and “Music & Dance”) match cartoons from the ’20s and mainly the ’30s with appropriate live-action features, some of which are accompanied by live benshi narration. Comparable in their black-and-white cell animation to second-tier U.S. outfits like Columbia and Van Beuren, the Japanese cartoons are less manic and more abstract than the American variety. The cartoons tend to mix animal with human characters (Mickey Mouse turns out in the audience for an Olympic race) or invite empathy with nonhuman creatures. The Animal Village in Trouble is a clear anticipation of World War II, in which assorted monkeys, bunnies, and raccoons are menaced by flood and organizing for civil defense. Suggestive of Japanese woodcuts, the musical cartoons in which funny animals sing popular songs are among the most charming early talkies I’ve ever seen. February 13 through 16, Japan Society.

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Reality Czech

Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, as far as I can tell, is mainly a tribute to the ancient Czech folk custom of yelling. With rare exceptions, everybody in Rock ‘n’ Roll yells all the time. They yell when sitting quietly with their nearest and dearest, they yell when the secret police are likely to be listening, they yell when someone is asleep in the next room, they yell when talking politics, and they yell when talking pop culture. The custom is apparently contagious enough to have infected Cambridge, where Brian Cox, playing Max, a British philosophy professor so dumb that he’s still a Communist in 1968, seems to have appointed himself yeller-in-chief. No wonder, then, that when the press comes to get his reaction to the news of Soviet tanks rolling into Prague, his wife (Sinead Cusack) suggests that he do just what he did when the same thing happened in Hungary in 1956, “[eat] shit and shut up.” Surprisingly, he neither slugs her nor files for divorce, probably because she’s dying of cancer. Or maybe it’s because she herself, a Sappho scholar, has caught the yelling disease, and will shortly badger a student who’s come up with a new interpretation of the word glukupikron into fleeing her tutorial in tears.

Ostensibly, Rock ‘n’ Roll centers on Max’s relationship with Jan (Rufus Sewell), a Czech student who, lurching between Prague and Cambridge, provides a tormented apoliticality that weaves an ineffectual dialectic with Max’s tormented dogmatism. But Stoppard’s showily spasmodic dramaturgy—constantly lurching from tidbits of Chekhovian indirection into long, glib, sub-Shavian explanatory speeches—never gives the human story enough strength to withstand the flood of cultural data he pours over it, most of which seems to belong, like most of The Coast of Utopia, in an expository essay rather than onstage. Sewell, his vocal cords audibly frayed by director Trevor Nunn’s apparent insistence on top volume, nonetheless manages to give Jan a wan, indecisive charm; Cusack’s fervor is often moving. Among the fine (non-yelling) young actors in supporting roles who occasionally relieve the ear-blasting assault, Nicole Ansari, Brian Avers, Mary Bacon, and Stephen Kunken stand out. But you’ll get more drama, and more lucid political discussion, by curling up at home with a volume of Havel and your stereo’s volume control within reach.

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Czech Dream

Hey, Prague—you got punk’d! In this subversive Central European slice of reality TV, Czech film students Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda protest the kudzu creep of globalization with a stunt worthy of the Yes Men. As “hypermarkets” (i.e., homegrown Wal-Marts) invade the Czech Republic, the directors commission a massive ad campaign for an everything store called “The Czech Dream.” Thousands show up for the grand opening, expecting implausibly huge discounts on everyday staples—only to get a rude surprise, one that gives the emptiness of “The Czech Dream” a whole new meaning. The filmmakers sometimes come off as smug jerks, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong about the insidious impact of chain colonization, or the infernal effectiveness of something-for-nothing come-ons even in political pitches (as was happening during filming with the Czech government’s push for the European Union). If their outrage about the evils of advertising seems ho-hum, no wonder: To Americans, shilling is like air.

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Reality Czech in Aisle Nine

Upgrading Yippie hijinks with Jackass banzai, gonzo documentaries have become the 21st-century answer to political filmmaking in an entertainment-saturated age: Witness the agit-doc activism of the Yes Men, Morgan Spurlock, and Michael Moore, the genre’s eminence gris who recently unleashed his new health-care expose Sicko at Cannes. But punking for progress isn’t just an American thing. To make Czech Dream (see review, right), two student filmmakers out-flimflammed all their fellow prankumentarians by bamboozling an entire central European nation. Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda orchestrated a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign for the grand opening of a new superstore that didn’t exist, creating a powerful commentary on consumerism that became a media sensation in the Czech Republic.

“The idea came out of the huge amount of superstores being built in the Czech Republic,” Remunda recently told the Voice. In just five years, foreign investors built more than a hundred ultramodern “hypermarkets” there, catering to a population smaller than Pennsylvania’s. “It changed the environment and habits of the people. They started to spend entire weekends in shopping malls.” Not only do Czech hypermarkets include movie theaters and restaurants, but some even offer chapels for weddings and Sunday worship. Czech dictionaries included a new word: hypermarketománie, or hypermarketmania, the pathological obsession with shopping in hypermarkets. “It was funny but also a bit frightening,” Remunda says. “At the time, we heard of a project by an artist named Petr Lorenc, who did a campaign for a nonexistent superstore on a very small scale. He just put a few posters up in Prague, 20 or 50 or so. This was sort of an inspiration for us. We wanted to make a film based on this idea, but to go officially through all the channels of the advertising business and make the film inside the industry, to look into how we are manipulated by advertising.”

Working with top marketing agencies, Remunda and Klusák crafted a massive two-week campaign for an imaginary store called “Cesk ? Sen” (“Czech Dream”), including print ads, TV and radio spots, a website, street flyers, public transport ads, 400 billboards and a wistful Europop theme song sung by a chorus of children. “When the guys from the agency asked about our target group, we said citizens of the Czech Republic,” says Remunda. “So we were trying to build up something that would attract almost everyone.” Though the duo had some government funding for the production, the marketing blitz cost much more than their cash budget. So they employed what Remunda calls “classical advertising principals: product placement.” A company that leases illuminated billboards, for example, “gave the space to us as an in-kind contribution.”

The ads touted Czech Dream–branded products at rock-bottom prices: hyper-cheap ketchup, beer, wine, yogurt, even a solar-powered television that would cost the equivalent of about 10 dollars. “We were really over-exaggerating with the prices, to make it suspicious. The prices were so absurd that it would be a key to unpack the hoax for some people. But [at the same time] we were fully aware that at real openings, people do expect really cheap items. In London, Ikea opened up a superstore and offered sofas for something like 20 pounds. And people used knives against each other to get them.”

The filmmakers didn’t want a similar scene to happen at their event. “We contacted the psychologist of the Czech military to ask them how to be fully prepared for this kind of event,” Remunda says. “We had private security guards, we had an ambulance, medics, fresh cold water. The military advised us to use music to calm people down.”

While tempers flared at the opening—where potential shoppers found only a vast meadow adorned with a fabric façade—the advertising agencies themselves weren’t too happy either, especially after they saw the final movie, which portrays them as savvy manipulators of public sentiment. The film, Remunda says, works “completely different in principle from advertising, which forces you to buy something and not to think about anything. In a way we are advertising something—but we make people fully aware of how this world is functioning.”

“People in the Czech Republic are sensitive to any kind of propaganda” thanks to their nation’s past, the filmmaker says, with “countries around us like Germany or the Soviet Union trying to sell us some ‘dreams.’ Politicians often use the very same tricks and tips to get our votes, to get us to support their positions and parties.” Still, as the film shows, many Czechs weren’t suspicious enough of propaganda bearing a sunny capitalist design. “The reason why the film is understandable all around the world is that it’s really a global issue, but in Western countries, it’s much more developed. In countries like the Czech Republic, we are real beginners.”

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Delayed Transmission

Václav Havel, who won Village Voice OBIE Awards for Distinguished Playwriting in 1968, 1970, and 1984, finally got a chance to accept Off-Broadway’s highest honor on Monday, December 4, when the Public Theater hosted an evening in his honor entitled “Theater and Citizenship.”

The evening began with a panel, chaired by longtime Voice contributor Alisa Solomon, in which the title topic was discussed by four notable playwrights (all Obie winners themselves): Edward Albee, Israel Horovitz, Wallace Shawn, and Anna Deavere Smith.

Following the discussion, the Voice‘s chief theater critic and current  Obie committee chairman, Michael Feingold, presented Havel with a specially made certificate attesting to the three awards, with a surprise assist from actress Olympia Dukakis, who had appeared at the Public Theater in the production of Havel’s 1968 prizewinner, The Memorandum, and movingly recalled the experience of meeting him when it was in rehearsal.

Havel was previously unable to collect his Obie Awards in person because, following the New York opening of The Memorandum, he returned to his home in Prague, where he was almost immediately placed under house arrest by the then Soviet-controlled government of Czechoslovakia. (At least one of the original Obie Award certificates was smuggled in to Prague for him by the late Joseph Papp.) Following the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Havel became one of Central Europe’s most prominent statesmen, becoming president of Czechoslovakia and, after presiding over the peaceful breakup of that nation, the first president of the Czech Republic. Currently in New York at the invitation of Columbia University’s Arts Initiative, he has been making public appearances and attending performances at the multi-theater collaborative festival of his complete works. He is the only head of state ever to have received an Obie Award.

Addressing the crowd in the Public’s packed Newman Theatre, with thoughts from the discussion still echoing in their heads, Havel said, in halting but lucid English, “I write plays only to ask questions—never to preach. Only to ask a question.” He received a joyous standing ovation before the audience moved into the Public’s lobby to toast him with wine.

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Czech, Please

Some of the best movies you’ve never heard of—produced in a nation that no longer exists—screen in Brooklyn this weekend and next. BAM’s “Czech Modernism”
isn’t so much a full-scale survey as a selection of films produced in Czechoslovakia between the wars, but these 12 archival prints give ample evidence of a surprisingly worldly world-class cinema.

The Czech New Wave was one of the glories of ’60s cinema; “Czech Modernism” demonstrates that it was the continuation of a pre-existing tradition. The series opens sophisticated with Gustav Machatý’s 1926 adaptation of The Kreutzer Sonata (November 30). Machatý, who spent the early ’20s in Hollywood working with Eric von Stroheim among others, brought a measure of Stroheim’s “European” cynical realism back home; updating Leo Tolstoy’s once scandalous account of sexual jealousy with deco sets and expressionist lighting, he similarly uses crime and confession to critique the institution of middle-class marriage.

Sex was Machatý’s major theme. The lone Czech director of the period with an international reputation (mainly for Hedy Lamarr’s bare-all debut in 1933’s Ecstasy), Machatý is also represented in the BAM series by his 1931 partial talkie From Saturday to Sunday (December 3). Mildly racy and pleasantly experimental, the movie follows a pair of plump dumplings for a night on the town. Scored by avant-pop composer Jaroslav Ježek, their jaunty trajectory through cabarets and pubs anticipates Martin Scorsese’s After Hours complete with romantic switch: Taken out by a rich man, the heroine winds up going home with a poor one.

Sandwiched between Germany and the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia produced filmmakers who embraced German and Soviet styles, often simultaneously. Karl Junghans’s 1929 Such Is Life (December 7) delivers Neue Sachlichkeit realism with montage-based punch. A middle-aged Prague washerwoman (Vera Baranovskaya, star of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother) perseveres, suffers, and dies—leaving a drunken husband and unmarried, pregnant daughter. A silent without intertitles, shot entirely on location, the movie is part semi-doc character study, part tenement symphony—making bravura use of fast cutting and parallel action.

That Czech filmmakers were making montage-driven melodramas as late as 1937 is evidenced by the glossier but not dissimilar Virginity (December 9). Shot in Prague’s capacious Barrandov studio by Otakar Vávra, who, still active at age 95, is the great survivor of Czech cinema, this urban romance concerns an impoverished girl, blamed for her stepfather’s unwelcome advances and thrown into the street by her mother. She finds work as a cashier and even love but ultimately has no choice other than to sell herself to her boss.

A more startling evocation of female martyrdom, Karel Anton’s 1930 Tonka of the Gallows (December 3) is an expressionist ballad in which a kindhearted country girl turned big-city prostitute volunteers to keep a condemned man company on his last night. No good deed goes unpunished: Tonka is expelled from the brothel where she works and, like Hans Christian Andersen’s match girl, winds up dying—amid visions of happiness—on the pavement.

The idyllic sequence in which Tonka revisits her native village anticipates the strain of pastoral lyricism that characterized mid-’30s Czech cinema. Josef Rovenský’s The River (December 8) split the director’s prize at the 1934 Venice Film Festival with three other Czech films, including Ecstasy; all were celebrations of the countryside. Opening with a pantheist montage and an incantatory voiceover, The River concerns—what else?—a pair of gently star-crossed young lovers. The dialogue is sparse, and the music near constant. Guy Maddin’s remake would be uproarious.

More fascinating from an ethnographic point of view, Faithless Marijka (December 10) was made the same year as The River by novelist-filmmaker Vadislav Vancura in the mountains of the Subcarpathian Rus, using a mixed cast of Czech actors and local nonprofessionals speaking a variety of languages, including Ruthenian and Yiddish. The movie is a tale of backward development and backwoods passion but, despite a few awkwardly interpolated studio shots, its stark premise is secondary to an evocation of the wild Carpathian landscape.

A commercial failure evidently too raw in subject matter and stylized in montage to appeal to Czech audiences, the movie was released in the United States a few years later as Forgotten Land. (A colorful poster for this “Mountain Folk Drama . . . interesting to the entire Slavonic race, especially to Ukrainians, Russians, Czechoslovakians, and also Jews” has hung for decades in NYU’s Department of Cinema Studies; for the hundreds of students, faculty members, and guests who may have wondered what it was all about, this is your chance.)

The leading literary exponent of Czech expressionism as well as a pioneer of Czech independent cinema, Vancura (executed by the gestapo during World War II in reprisal for the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich) made an even more experimental film in his 1933
On the Sunny Side (December 1). Most simply put, On the Sunny Side uses a Prague orphanage as a metaphor for a just society in a class-ridden world. On one hand, the movie’s sly jokes and eccentric musical numbers suggest the Popular Front fantasies made by contemporary French filmmakers. On the other, it’s strikingly detached and analytical in its film language—with an abundance of high-angle shots and a highly contrapuntal use of sound.

Something of the same mood, even more absurd and cartoonish, may be found in Heave Ho!
(December 9). Directed by Martin Fric, this 1934 comedy is one of four made by the cabaret team Jirí Voskovec and Jan Werich—unique, unpredictably droll social satirists who drew on both Dada and American slapstick. In this Depression comedy, Voskovec is an unemployed worker, and his partner plays a bankrupt industrialist. Both seem vaguely inebriated as they navigate a
mildly surreal landscape of flophouses and breadlines. Despite the paucity of subtitles, the movie will seem wonderfully familiar to anyone with a taste for the anarchic Paramount comedies of the early ’30s.

“Czech Modernism” includes only two postwar movies—one, Alfred Radok’s 1949 The Distant Journey (December 10), is a masterpiece. Among the first movies to represent the Holocaust, Distant Journey focuses on a Jewish doctor who briefly forestalls her deportation to the “model” concentration camp at Terezin by marrying a Czech colleague. (Their wedding dinner is a remarkable blend of gaiety and terror— the proper bourgeois guests marked for death by their mandatory Jewish stars.)

Like Orson Welles, Radok was a man of the theater and his use of film form has a comparable audacity. Distant Journey is filled with outsize shadows and shimmering reflections; it interpolates newsreels and noir angles, using a spare, mournfully jazzy soundtrack to underscore its expressionist touches. Once the action shifts to Terezin (where Radok’s father and grandfather died), the fantastic is a function of the movie’s verisimilitude.

This horrifying, emptied-out world seems distinctively Czech—or at least Kafkaesque—with its gnarled old people and vast warehouses filled with confiscated Jewish belongings.

Something similar happened to the movie itself—withdrawn after a brief run and locked in the vaults for the better part of two decades. In his history of Czech cinema, novelist Josef Skvorecky links The Distant Journey to the Czech new wave of the 1960s, remembering it to have been “as much a revelation to all of us as were the films of Véra Chytilová, Milos Forman, or Jan Nemec”—all of whom were profoundly influenced by this “tragically premature and anachronistic work of art.”