Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Solidarity in character

This is my first actual post on the blog for a few reasons. I wasn't able to get the last film between Netflix and the Virginia Tech library (which does have a pretty good selection) but also because the first film brought some pretty intimidating posts. I studied film as my concentration in undergrad and have done some research on film as a grad student thus far, but it seemed like most of the contributors for The Emperor's Naked Army were very well versed in the filmmaker and much of the history behind the film. That said, I decided to no longer worry about that. The idea behind this blog is great and I'm just going to contribute as much as I can with my limited experience.

Enough of that. I watched The Fireman's Ball last night and laughed my ass off the entire time. Simply as a comedy, Forman did an incredible job. The facial expressions on the bald fireman alone (especially while dancing in the circle of marching beauties) were worth the price of admission.

Besides enjoying it purely as a comedy I was impressed by the use of comedy so well as a tool for political expression. Ed's post is great at showing how much of this there is only in one scene. The thing that struck me last night was also the lack of individual identities throughout the film. Some of this might be because I was relying on subtitles, but I don't think it's all that.

There were some individuals which stood out. The 86 year-old former chairman is one, as well as the victim of the fire and Ruzena's father. Other than that, it seemed that the more important identity of most of the characters was the group they were a part of. Some firemen were more recognizable and more important, but they were most importantly part of the fire brigade. This is accentuated more when one of them chastises another for returning a stolen lottery prize by saying that the reputation of the brigade is more important than any honesty.

Similarly, most of the party goers seem to be more important as members of the crowd than individuals. The symbolism of the groups is fairly clear. The firemen are the authority trying to maintain control and run the system (however poorly) and the crowd as the people -- who steal and end up in a state of chaos. When the fire breaks out and everyone rushes out to go watch, workers at the ball attempt to collect on bills, but because of the disorganization of the system and the force of the mob this is almost impossible. Once outside, the manager of sorts continues to go around to people, but it's clear that the system has failed in the goal of collecting on all the bills.

A trip to IMDB confirmed this sense of collective identity as the primary one (at least as one of Forman's tools) as most of the cast members listed are named only as "committee member" or "'Miss' contestant." This most reminds me, of course, of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. I haven't seen many films from Russia or the (now former) USSR made before 2007's Night Watch, so this was the biggest connection I could make.

The use of collective characters, whether purely a result of soviet montage's influence or only influenced by it, not only makes the symbolism of each group stronger. It also makes the comedy stronger. Because I don't have to remember faces for names mentioned in the dialogue I'm able to concentrate on, and better appreciate, the wonderful action and interaction of each group involved in the beautiful chaos that Ed described so well.

Watching Fireman's Ball definitely makes me want to seek out Forman's other films, particularly The Loves of a Blonde, to see what his overall style is like. Great choice, Marilyn, and I hope to keep active in this community.


Bob Rehak said...

Beamer, thanks for your post, and for acknowledging the intimidating nature of the initial discourse here -- I too am finding it a little hard to dive in. That said, I really dig Forman's early films. My father emigrated from (then-) Czechoslovakia in 1950, so I always watch films of the New Wave trying to glean perspective what makes him tick -- a circuitous path to understanding one's own parent, but then I have always found the Czechs' mode of expression more eloquent than what's spoken aloud (a second-language issue?). There's something about Czech humor that Forman captures brilliantly in FIREMEN'S BALL and LOVES OF A BLONDE (which I adore): laughter as sour as a garlic pickle; makes you pucker up and wince.

Marilyn said...

Beamer - Thanks for bringing this discussion back to life. It seems the academics are busy during the summertime, so it is up to us "regular" folks to post. I initially posted on the first film, but nobody had any comments for my post, so I deleted it, feeling intimidated myself. Apparently, its absence was missed by a few people. That made me confident to just go for it. I'm glad you liked my choice. It really is an acidly funny film.

Bob, I'm interested in your "second language" idea. I also find Czech humor very distinctive, but moreso, the beauty of their images really gets me. Thanks for joining the discussion.

Bob Rehak said...

Hi Marilyn. I continue to puzzle over the nature of Czech humor -- worrying all the time that I'm essentializing or engaging in an Eastern European variant of Orientalism. Tiptoeing around the questionable premise that it's possible to isolate a single national voice, much less a sense of what makes a good joke, I've wondered if there isn't a connection between the following things:

1. My dad's love of puns and double entendre in the English language, which he came to relatively late in life

2. The "travel" of Czech film into new language contexts, i.e. issues of translatability and legibility

3. Restrictions on Czech film under the Soviets, forcing the use of substitutions and misdirection in order to pass governmental review

... none of which leads me to a solid answer, but instead to the sense that with Forman's early films, "enunciation" takes on dimensions and activity beyond the tutor-codes of semiotic film theory. CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS, though not one of Forman's, is also interesting in this regard.

weepingsam said...

One interesting thing about the collective identity of the people in the film is the way they are also individualized - they don't have names, they act as part of all the little groups (firemen, the girls in the pageant, etc) - but so many of them do have distinctive faces and bodies - many of them get little bits of business that identifies them - look at how the girls being judged each seem to resist the grouping somehow. One giggles through the whole thing - the one strips... It's like everything in the story keeps trying to push people into their proper roles, but the actors themselves, the way they look, what they do, keep trying to pull away. That's exactly what happens in the beauty pageant - the women all rebel and run for it... the collective breaks down into chaos. Which happens again at the fire - everyone acts for themselves... Something keeps breaking all the pressures to conform.