Friday, February 16, 2007

Correspondences from Sixty-Eight!: Birds, Orphans and Fools + Slavic shorts

In my estimation, the point of Sixty-Eight! is to screen films exactly like Slovakian Juraj Jakubisko's Birds, Orphans and Fools (Vtackovia, siroty a blazni, 1969): that is, to uncover major works of art that have remained obscure to even the most knowledgeable of cineastes (even if the film again falls outside of the conference's '68 auspices, as have the other four shorts and two features that I have viewed thus far). Birds, Orphans and Fools begins innocently enough as an absurdist Jules et Jim (1962, François Truffaut) located in the ruins of a large manor -- that is, after a compulsory self-reflexive (read Godardian or Brechtian) interlude and a carnivalesque parade of outcast children and adults. At first a poly-amorousness rules, with the lead Yorick (Jirí Sykora) even remarking that he mast have been really drunk to end up in bed with a woman (Martha, the initially androgynous though exceptionally beautiful Magda Vásáryová). A third, Andrej (Philippe Avron) joins the couple and what proceeds seems to be a fairly standard page out of Vera Chytilová's Daisies (1966) anarchic playbook. However, with Yorick's shipment off to prison and his return as a normalized member of society replete with suit and tie, Jakubisko's narrative shifts courses revealing its position within the tradition of a conflated love-and-death that marks Luis Buñuel's narratives of sexual obsession -- i.e. El (1952), Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) or part one of Viridiana (1961). In fact, this last work remains an essential point of comparison for Birds..., particularly as Jakubisko's film seems to resurrect the idea of the lunatics running the asylum -- that is the breaking into the manor of the Spanish film and its occupancy in the Czechoslovakian one. Then again, Jakubisko's points-of-reference are not exclusively meta-cinematic: there is the immolation with its clear Vietnamese, anti-war implications, and perhaps more importantly still, the short cropped hair and the train ride with the Orthodox Jew, to say nothing of a number of lines of dialogue that all seem to reference the Holocaust. This last point seems especially pertinent as it gives existentialist weight to the 'eat, drink and be merry ethos' of the film's first three-quarters. However, as with I Am Curious - Yellow of the previous evening, love is not an emotion so easily contained by liberation politics.

If the above work has been the "discovery" of the fest to date, an earlier surprise addition rates as a close runner-up: Armenian Artavazd Peleshian's We (Menq, 1969). Described by Soviet specialist John MacKay as the Soviet Union's most important maker of avant-garde documentaries after Dziga Vertov, We seems to bear out that accolade, particularly in its remarkable capture of visual rhythms and textures. In one particularly striking overhead, an undulating crowd becomes viscous -- as in glutinous -- before our eyes. In another, Peleshian compares the sweaty, muscular physiques of workers with the towering stone mountains. Apart from We, the most impressive of the remaining works of experimental documentary may be Ivan Balad'a's Metrum (1967, Czechoslovakia), which compares closest, in my estimation to Jon Jost's rarely-screened London Brief (1997), though Balad'a's work achieves an exceptional visual richness manifesting in the beautiful flares of his Moscow underground locales.

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