Judge Gordon Sullivan is heading to Prague with a surfboard.
"Singular expressions from a remarkable time and place."
World War II devastated a significant portion of the European continent. After all the problems caused by the war, pretty much every country was looking to rebuild, both economically and culturally. For some it was an excuse to retrench old ideals, while other (usually younger) artists looked to break out of the stodgy confines of the culture that led to the war. Many of these younger artists turned to cinema to realize their postwar dreams, starting in the 1950s. Thus, we got the series of New Waves that proliferated around the globe. There was Godard and company with the French New Wave, Shohei Imamura and the Japanese New Wave, and Lindsay Anderson and the British New Wave. Though many of these movements started in the 1950s, it took a while for the ideas of a youth-oriented cinema to make their way across the world. One of the later new waves (not really getting started until 1963) was the Czech New Wave that occurred in Communist Czechoslovakia. Numerous things separate the Czech New Wave from other movements in international cinema, but one of the main ones is the fact that the Czech New Wave was actively associated with a democratic movement in Czechoslovakia, and was repressed after Russian invaded the country in 1968. That makes these Pearls of the New Wave some of the most delicate films of the period, little seen and with few (if any) home video releases. Now, Criterion has brought us their thirty-second entry in the Eclipse series, documenting six of the most significant films of the Czech New Wave. It's a chance for longtime fans to own a great-looking copy of these films, or for new fans to discover some of the weirder examples of New Wave filmmaking.
Pearls of the Czech New Wave contains six films on four discs:
• Pearls of the Deep—a compilation film, where five directors (all of whom were friends in FAMU, the national cinema school in Prague) each take on a short story from beloved Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal.
• Daisies—an anarchic comedy about what happens when a pair of young women set out to show how spoiled the world is by living a hedonistic life.
• A Report on Party and Guests—a parable film about an idyllic picnic that's interrupted by strangers who act with authority.
• Return of the Prodigal Son—the most existential entry in the collection, Return of the Prodigal follows a young engineer who's alienated from society.
• Capricious Summer—a story of the pastoral landscape interrupted by the arrival of a carnival as middle-aged men deal with getting older.
• The Joke—an adaptation of a Milan Kundera novel, this film follows the life of a man who tells a political joke that gets him thrown out of the Communist party. This leads to his "rehabilitation" and eventual revenge.
I won't pretend to have seen every New Wave film out there, but I've seen a sampling from most of the major international movements, and they all share something (including Pearls of the Czech New Wave). Whether they're filmed in Japan, Britain, or in Czechoslovakia, these New Wave films share a similar feeling—that they're the first generation to discover cinema. Movies as a technical and artistic form had been around for two generations prior to the initial, but the directors featured here make movies like they're the first ones to ever pick up a camera. I don't mean that they're not skilled technicians; they're film school graduates and technically these films are fine. Rather, I mean that they maintain a childlike sense of wonder at the possibilities of cinema. A film like Daises could not have been made by a cynic. It's too delicate, too naïve (in a good way), and too drunk on what cinema can achieve.
However, unlike many other New Wave movements, the Czech New Wave was anything but naïve when it came to the political climate in which they worked. It would be a mistake to claim that other New Waves weren't politically oriented, but the ratio of cinephilia to politics is usually skewed much more in favor of cinema than politics. Not so with the Czech New Wave, which created such strange, anarchic art under a Communist regime. With the exception of The Joke, none of these films are particularly political, either, but they're obviously engaged with what it meant to live in a Communist country in the 1960s, especially A Report on Party and Guests.
Though all the films included here are worth watching for those interested in the movement, two stand out. The first is Pearls of the Deep. It serves as both a handy introduction to the whole movement, but also one of a handful of anthology films that works from beginning to end. By combining the most prominent voices of the Czech New Wave with one of the country's most famous authors is a combination that does an effective job of setting up the rest of the series. The second essential feature is Daisies. Not only is it an enjoyably anarchic comedy, it's a landmark in feminist cinema that lampoons pretty much everything. More importantly, it still holds up (unlike many other anarchic Sixties comedies). These are the films that have the widest appeal and serve as a great introduction to the larger world of the Czech New Wave.
As with other Eclipse series releases, these films have been transferred from the best materials available but not heavily restored. Given their age and origins, they all look pretty impressive, with the black-and-white features looking a little better overall. There is, of course, a bit of print damage, along with the occasional interlacing artifact in these 1.33:1 transfers, but compared to the bootlegs of these films previously circulating, this set is a revelation. Original mono soundtracks accompany all of the features. Dialogue is generally clear, and music is well-balanced. These aren't particularly impressive tracks (largely because of the Sixties recording technology), but they're fine for these films. Optional English subtitles are included.
As with (most) other Eclipse series, extras are limited to short essays in each of the four slim-line DVD cases that comprise this set. However, unlike many Eclipse sets, three of the four essays are long enough to warrant small booklets instead of being printed on the back of the cover. They're enlightening pieces, giving an informative overview of the production history, cultural context, and aesthetic merits of each of the films.
For most cinemagoers, these are not essential films. They're formally experimental, filled with wild imagery, and aren't concerned with any "normal" movie conventions. They require patience. Although they will likely reward that patience for many, they're not the kind of films that should be put on without a bit of foresight.
On the flipside, some viewers will be left wanting more, and the only place to turn is the Criterion Collection release of Closely Watched Trains (by director Jiri Menzel, whose film Capricious Summer appears here), which is similarly extra-less. Though the essays included here are great, more extras would also be a boon.
Pearls of the Czech New Wave (like all Eclipse releases) is a bit of a niche product, but for those who have any interest in the international New Waves that spread across the world in the Fifties and Sixties, this is a landmark release that makes five of its six films available in Region 1 for the first time. For those viewers, this set is a no-brainer. For the unconvinced, the set is worth a rental just for Daisies. Chances are if that doesn't get you hooked, the rest of the set is not for you.
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Scales of Justice, Daises
Perp Profile, Daises
Distinguishing Marks, Daises
Scales of Justice, Pearls Of The Deep
Perp Profile, Pearls Of The Deep
Distinguishing Marks, Pearls Of The Deep
Scales of Justice, A Report On The Party And Guests
Perp Profile, A Report On The Party And Guests
Distinguishing Marks, A Report On The Party And Guests
Scales of Justice, Return Of The Prodigal Son
Perp Profile, Return Of The Prodigal Son
Distinguishing Marks, Return Of The Prodigal Son
Scales of Justice, Capricious Summer
Perp Profile, Capricious Summer
Distinguishing Marks, Capricious Summer
Scales of Justice, The Joke
Perp Profile, The Joke
Distinguishing Marks, The Joke
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