Center and Periphery, or How Karel Vachek Formed a New Government 1. New Hyperion (Nový Hyperion), the first film in Czech documentarian Karel - PDF

A. Lovejoy, KinoKultura Special Issue #4, 2006, p.1 Alice Lovejoy Yale University Center and Periphery, or How Karel Vachek Formed a New Government 1 New Hyperion (Nový Hyperion), the first film in Czech

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A. Lovejoy, KinoKultura Special Issue #4, 2006, p.1 Alice Lovejoy Yale University Center and Periphery, or How Karel Vachek Formed a New Government 1 New Hyperion (Nový Hyperion), the first film in Czech documentarian Karel Vachek s Little Capitalist Tetralogy, begins with the following title: A real and incomplete story of philosophers, heads of state and church, artists and party secretaries, scientists, ministers of the Federal Government and the governments of the Republics, pensioners and prisoners, trades-unionists and officials, dissidents and the twilight zone, priests and armed men, the radical right and left, past and present, citizens and their representatives concerning the free election comedy Czechoslovakia This paragraph is a concise reduction both of New Hyperion, which documents the Czechoslovak elections of that year, and of the Tetralogy itself, which is populated by characters ranging from politicians in the highest positions to ordinary citizens. Taken together, the Tetralogy s four films New Hyperion or Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (Nový Hyperion aneb Rovnost, volnost, bratrství, 1992); What Is To Be Done? A Journey From Prague to Český Krumlov or How I Formed a New Government (Co dělat? Cesta z Prahy do Českého Krumlova aneb Jak jsem sestavoval novou vladu, 1997); Bohemia Docta or The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart (Divine Comedy) (Bohemia Docta aneb Labyrint světa a lusthauz srdce (Božská Komedie, 2000); and Who s Gonna Watch the Watchman? Dalibor or The Key To Uncle Tom s Cabin ( Kdo bude hlidat hlídače? Dalibor aneb Klíč k Chaloupce strýčka Toma, 2003) are an impressive document of the shifts that took place in Czech politics and society from the Velvet Revolution to European Union accession. Each over three and a half hours long, garrulous and philosophical, Vachek s A. Lovejoy, KinoKultura Special Issue #4, 2006, p.2 films are nonetheless hardly political documentaries in the traditional sense. In fact, as the Tetralogy progresses, the films move away from these heads of church and state and come to focus on a set of characters in the political periphery artists, intellectuals, and former and current dissidents. In this process, Vachek interrogates the very constitution of the Czech periphery, delineating a virtual second society, or what might be termed a post-communist underground that represents the director s own philosophical and idiosyncratic blueprint for an ideal and ultimately fictional state. Fig. 1: Karel Vachek Major and Minor, Nonfiction and Fiction The many characters who occupy the Tetralogy can be divided into two principal categories. First are the major, politically central, characters, those involved in the Historywrit-large that the films capture: the concrete political and cultural events that mark the Czech lands transition from communism to democracy and free-market capitalism. These are figures like Václav Havel, Alexander Dubček, and Václav Klaus; characters whom Vachek films in government chambers, receptions, and official meetings, as they go about the task of creating and governing a new state. The second category of characters in the Tetralogy, and its most important, are its minor, or peripheral, figures; individuals not involved in the political actions the films capture but who nonetheless exemplify the questions and complications of the political transition at hand. This set of characters can be further categorized according to their relationships to both the communist and post-communist regimes. Some, like sculptor Milan Knížák, a former underground figure who now curates Prague s National Gallery, have, like Havel and others, become members of the cultural center, but unlike Havel, maintain a maverick stance within it. Others, like musician Jim Čert and philosopher/poet Egon Bondy, A. Lovejoy, KinoKultura Special Issue #4, 2006, p.3 are former members of the underground who remain on the periphery of post-communist Czech society, but were nevertheless accused of collaboration with the communist Secret Police. Still others, such as philosopher Ivan Svítak and writer Eva Kantůrková, are formerly peripheral characters who became central to life after the revolution; Kantůrková through her involvement with the Society of Writers (Obec spisovatelů) and Ministry of Culture, and Svítak as both a politician and public intellectual before his death in Finally, and most essentially, are individuals who were on the periphery of society under communism, and who remain decidedly on its outskirts. Primary among these are poet and art critic (and former manager/spiritual leader of the Plastic People of the Universe) Ivan Magor Jirous and poet Andrej Stankovič. 2 In accordance with their former or current outsider status, all of Vachek s minor characters function as critical or thinking presences in the Tetralogy, offering a complex and nuanced perspective on the movement of periphery to center that the films capture. Their criticism takes different forms, depending on their métier: Jirous reads from his Swan Poems in New Hyperion s opening moments; in the same film, Ivan Svítak delivers philosophical speeches and Pepa Nos sings off-the-cuff folk tunes that comment on politics, both in Czechoslovakia and in the world at large. Often the most trenchant critiques of the country s political transition are legible in these figures biographies, which challenge the neat division between past and present, communist and post-communist, that the revolution of 1989 and its consequent political developments attempted to impose. Vachek, however, does not choose his minor, peripheral characters merely on the basis of political conviction, but also according to his own philosophical taxonomy of character. There is a clear hierarchy of figures in the Tetralogy, with characters like Jirous and Stankovič occupying its highest ranks. The most important characters in his films, the director says in a 2003 interview in Revolver Revue: A. Lovejoy, KinoKultura Special Issue #4, 2006, p.4 are absolutely dignified. I took great care about this, because [my films] compos[e] a particular and defined image of positive thinking in the Czech Republic. For me, this image is made up of a number of things about which we do not talk much. In [these individuals], there are many seeds of change for the future. (Krumphanzl and Vašícek 169) The notion of dignity corresponds with Vachek s category of centeredness, a state of being in which a person listen[s] to an inner intuitive sense (wisdom) until [they] begin to say important things, even when the time does not want to listen to them and what they are saying appears totally stupid to the time. Centeredness depends on the fact that I do what I have to do (listening to the center of my being, not to fate). (Krumphanzl and Vašícek 170) The films of the Tetralogy, the director says, are focused around moments in which individuals display centeredness, in which they talk about issues that are not generally discussed, despite the fact that in doing so, they mark themselves as out of step with the world around them (Vachek, personal interview). These moments allow us to read dissent in Vachek s films as a philosophical, political, and deeply personal state of being; a general condition of outsiderness. A final character in the Tetralogy is the director himself. Vachek is the protagonist of his own films: he is present in many of their scenes, either in conversation with his subjects or in acted set-pieces in which he explains philosophical concepts to the camera. In the Tetralogy s episodic and deliberately non-linear structure, which weaves narrative fragments in and out of one another, the director is a uniting element. Misanthropic and often combative in his conversations with his subjects, he relies on his own history of exile to create the image of the ultimate outsider. This image is hardly fictional: Vachek was forced A. Lovejoy, KinoKultura Special Issue #4, 2006, p.5 to leave Czechoslovakia in 1979, after two banned films Moravian Hellas (Moravská Hellas, 1963), a satirical, partly-staged documentary about the Strážnice folk festival, and Elective Affinities (Spřiznění volbou, 1968), a film about the Czechoslovak elections of that year left him unable to find a job in the film industry. After sojourns in Germany and France, he emigrated to the United States, where he worked, at one point, in the darkrooms of The New York Times. Vachek returned to Czechoslovakia in 1984, and worked tending highpressure boilers and as a truck driver until his return to filmmaking in In the last paragraph of his book, The Theory of Matter (Teorie hmoty, 2004), he summarizes this experience: I leave when no one is leaving and I return when no one is returning, and I think that that is my fundamental life situation (128). Vachek s continued outsiderness is also visible in his stubborn adherence to somewhat anachronistic aesthetic standards in filmmaking. All of the Tetralogy s films are over three hours long and all are shot in 35mm, a type of film more commonly used to shoot fiction films than documentaries. 3 In keeping with their format, Vachek s films straddle generic boundaries. The Tetralogy hinges on the handheld, cinéma vérité style in which much of it primarily scenes in which major characters go about their political business (rallies, meetings, performances, etc.) is shot. Elections are, naturally, a major theme in both New Hyperion and Elective Affinities, and the latter, one of the first cinema vérité films to be made in Czechoslovakia, bears more than a passing resemblance to Robert Drew and Richard Leacock s Primary (1960), an idea to which I will return later. Furthermore, Vachek continually locates himself and his crew within the frame, a traditional device of vérité filmmaking, and one that appears for the first time in Moravian Hellas, in which young brothers Jan and Karel Saudek stand in for the director, conducting provocative interviews with folk artists and performers. A. Lovejoy, KinoKultura Special Issue #4, 2006, p.6 Whereas in some vérité films, the filmmaker s presence serves to authenticate the events documented, in the Tetralogy, Vachek s presence calls the documentary status of these events into question. The four films are filled with long conversations, often staged in symbolically resonant locations, between the director and minor characters, as well as periodic staged sections in which Vachek performs for the camera, demonstrating philosophical or literary concepts. In Bohemia Docta, for instance, Vachek films a conversation between himself and Egon Bondy among the massive canvases of painter Alfons Mucha s Slav Epic (Slovanská epopej). And in Dalibor, the director marches in riot gear, holding a shield and baton, as Jan Vodňanský sings the generals are coming. The fictional aspects of Vachek s Tetralogy are as, if not more, integral to its construction as the vérité aspects: the director refers to the four parts of the Tetralogy as film-novels, and the films take their names from books: Elective Affinities from Goethe, New Hyperion from Hőlderlin, What Is To Be Done? from Chernyshevskii, Bohemia Docta from Komenský, and Dalibor from Smetana s opera. Like other documentarians who are characters in their own films such as Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore Vachek is often accused of being unnecessarily provocative, manipulative or bullying. His detractors claim that the dialogues in the Tetralogy reflect the filmmaker s own views instead of his subjects, and that the films considerable length is pretentious or self-indulgent; that the Tetralogy, as a whole or in individual installments, is unwatchable. 4 This is, perhaps, the reaction Vachek desires: in provoking arguments and stating controversial hypotheses, the director aligns himself with characters like Jirous or Stankovič, centered outsiders with the agency to comment authoritatively on current events or, to return to a quote used earlier in this essay, say important things, even when the time does not want to listen and what they are saying appears totally stupid (Krumphanzl and Vašícek 170). Alternately, in keeping with the films literary nature, we A. Lovejoy, KinoKultura Special Issue #4, 2006, p.7 might read Vachek as a picaro, a traveler through the Tetralogy s various episodes and the consciousness through which its viewpoints are refracted. More specifically, Vachek might be described as a Švejk, in keeping with the importance of Jaroslav Hašek s novel to the Tetralogy s structure, its version of nationalism, and its iconography. 5 Indeed, as the Tetralogy progresses, Vachek leaves less and less room for the contingent moments of cinéma vérité, and comes to rely increasingly on these literary or fictional strategies. The director describes his ostensibly nonfiction films increasing resemblance to fiction as a progression towards total theater (personal interview, September 2002), and this progression, in turn, reflects Vachek s gradual abandonment of the Realpolitik of the Czech state in favor of the philosophical second society that the four films metaphorically build. From Center to Periphery New Hyperion, filmed in 1989 and 1990, captures a moment in which it seemed possible for the dissident community to merge with official state structures and institute new, democratic rules of governance. In this film, the narrative of political reversal that the Tetralogy as a whole captures is established: the old guard of apparatchiks and collaborators leaves politics, and a new guard enters the government. We meet such a formerly-central politician in Josef Bartončík, who was forced to leave office after Secret Police files demonstrated a history of collaboration. Vachek films Bartončík in a hospital bed, as he shows the director and his crew a copy of the newspaper that claims his history of collaboration and points out the article s errors and inconsistencies. Conversely, the previously invisible Czechoslovak cultural and political underground becomes visible again, as former dissidents move into politics: Petr Cibulka, the creator of Cibulka s List, a list of political figures who (Cibulka claims) collaborated with the communist Secret Police, 6 is present in government chambers, debating the rules for the new election and claiming that the A. Lovejoy, KinoKultura Special Issue #4, 2006, p.8 voting system is corrupt; and the newly-presidential Havel awkwardly addresses his entourage, wearing a T-shirt and holding a beer. Throughout New Hyperion, Vachek remains optimistic about the political potential of the movement of the periphery to the center; about the possibility for centered individuals to become the core of Czechoslovak politics. Simultaneously, the Czechoslovak political system, with the institution of the 1991 lustration law in which lists of Secret Police officers, collaborators, and informants was publicly published, and former officers and collaborators forbidden from holding public office for five years appears prepared to facilitate this transformation. Fig. 2: Alexander Dubček in the opening moments of Elective Affinities In its confident outlook, as well as in its vérité style, New Hyperion resembles Vachek s Elective Affinities, a film that, twenty years earlier, chronicled the rise to power of a government that promised a new and just form of governance. In the later film, characters from Elective Affinities (most notably Alexander Dubček) return, but in a more important sense, New Hyperion exemplifies the same striking intimacy with which Vachek approached the reformers in 1968, an intimacy enabled by the techniques and technology of cinema vérité. 7 Elective Affinities roving handheld camera captures moments that would have startled a contemporary viewer accustomed to mediated, distanced images of communist politicians: close-ups on the faces and hands of politicians at a cocktail party (a gathering that bears a striking resemblance to the aforementioned gathering in New Hyperion, in which Havel addresses the newly-successful government); unscripted moments with Josef Svoboda within governmental chambers. On one level, these moments exemplify, quite literally, Dubček s now-mythical ideal of socialism with a human face: in these images, the human aspects of politicians their faces, their hands, their voices became accessible to viewers. These shots, and their social import, echo similar moments in Primary, one of which is described by Brian Winston thus: the cutaway of Jacqueline Kennedy s hands, linked A. Lovejoy, KinoKultura Special Issue #4, 2006, p.9 behind her back seemed to convey an intimacy with the subject, a candour, which looked utterly fresh and new (152). Fig.3: A statue of T.G. Masarýk is removed from Na Příkopě Street in Prague (New Hyperion) On another level, in Elective Affinities, just as in the moment it captures, the political system itself becomes something with which everyday men and women can interact, a formerly-obscure institution whose workings are laid bare by the immediacy that vérité technology and style offered. The revolution of 1989 held similar promises of transparency, proximity, and accessibility for Czechoslovakia. Vachek has called the Tetralogy a process of waiting for something better (personal interview), an ideal whose political origins might be traced to 1968 and the Prague Spring, and, in this sense, it is not unreasonable to view Elective Affinities as the Tetralogy s zero hour, or, alternately, to view New Hyperion as simply a continuation, after an intermission, of the earlier film. The Tetralogy s second film, What Is To Be Done?, released in 1996, is markedly less optimistic about the prospects for post-revolutionary Czechoslovak government and society. By the time this film was released, Slovakia and the Czech Republic had separated, Havel had settled into his presidency, and the concrete tasks of state-building had become less pressing; the euphoria of 1989 muted. In What Is To Be Done?, which is subtitled A Journey From Prague to Český Krumlov, or How I Formed a New Government, Vachek brings many of New Hyperion s minor characters Jirous, Stankovič, filmmaker Jiří Krejčík, and others together in the eponymous bus trip from Prague to the South Bohemian town of Český Krumlov. During the trip, these minor characters engage in lengthy discussions of philosophy, politics, art, and history. This group comes to symbolize the new government that the film s title suggests, constituents and rulers of a state that is centered in the geographic and political periphery. A. Lovejoy, KinoKultura Special Issue #4, 2006, p.10 This peripheral government, however, ultimately redefines the very idea of the periphery, largely in step with Vachek s philosophy of character. This is most visible in a subplot of the film that centers on Ivan Jirous, who, as the film progresses, gradually distances himself from his fellow travelers in the bus, drinking heavily and insulting them. By focusing his film s narrative on Jirous, Vachek again holds up the ideal of centeredness that the former exemplifies, in the process shifting and narrowing his definition of the periphery to exclude formerly-peripheral characters who have gravitated to the center in the years since At the same time, figures like Havel and Klaus become further distanced from the film s action, visible only in distanced, media-ready images, often photographed at events designed for the press. Fig. 4: Centered figures from Vachek s hand-sewn flag, which makes its debut in What Is to Be Done? The shift in the constitution of Vachek s periphery that takes place in What Is To Be Done? is further developed in Bohemia Docta (2000), which also experiments with the idea of creating a new state and a new government. Here, Vachek seeks centered, peripheral characters i
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