The further we get from it, the clearer it seems that the Age of the Waves — the '60s and '70s, roughly demarcated — was film culture's own belle epoque, glowing with post-teen hoochie-koo and experimental piss and vinegar practically wherever movie cameras churned. It still seems shocking, the crazy degree to which film changed, worldwide, from industrial-narrative orthodoxy to open hedonistic rebellion. For the first time, movies weren't celebrating the past or idealizing the future; they had their horny mitts on the youth-drunk, rule-rewriting now.
The Czech New Wave, given a sweet salute each Saturday this month at the Silent Movie Theatre, was one of the most poignant, fueled by the "Prague Spring," partying hearty into the '60s, and then ostensibly ending in '68, when the Soviet tanks rolled in. Among the safe Oscar bait such as Closely Watched Trains and Loves of a Blonde, cine-anarchist/protofeminist Vera Chytilova got busy dropping bombs. The other New Waves of the time never had anything resembling Daisies (1966), an epochal exercise in individualistic (and feminist) resistance, executed with a frenetic degree of norm-meltdown that's still exhilarating to watch. Of course, it's actually just a prank, but Sasha Baron Cohen owes everything to its simple non-narrative: Two giggling, semidressed young women, both named Marie, irrationally cavort at high speeds through conventional society, treating trad norms and rituals and food and their own bodies like so many meaningless feathers in the wind. It's not a story, it's a scary dance party, a message of complete freedom, and it's hard to imagine a communist bureaucrat who wouldn't want to hide it in a vault forever. I've often thought that it should be remade as the most reckless American reality-TV show ever, but as of now it stands utterly alone, on shaky, peanut butter–smeared legs.
Ivan Passer's acclaimed Intimate Lighting (1965) is a gentle, perfectly observed, meticulously realist small-town comedy, and though it deserves to be seen more, it's rather middle-class compared to Jaromil Jires' Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), an utterly loopy movie that should've been locked away after the Soviet invasion but somehow slipped the censors' noose. In fact, it's arguable that no one film so succinctly captures the time, when movie lovers could have impulsive sex in sunlit fields, when plots could be discarded like Victorian morals, and when the thigh-squeezing passage of a pubescent girl's daydreams could not merely inspire a movie but become a movie in and of itself.
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Whatever his subject, Jires had a distinctive style — fragmented, impressionistic, stuffed with crass Czech gusto but always hyperreal. But with Valerie he opened up his id-box, and in the decades since, it's become a trippy cult fave in Central Europe and in the U.K. It's not difficult to see why: A scramble-bag of vampire horror and soft porn and flower-child largesse, the film is a parable on menstruation, a dream-in-a-dream collage of medieval fantasy and sexual predation that leaps shruggingly from episode to episode in a daze, always tumbling into the next tableau, the next seminude violation, the next wild daisy dribbled with menstrual blood. It's not easy to unravel Jires' symbology — demons become fathers become lovers become priests become weasels — but the titular heroine (played by an often nude 14-year-old Jaroslava Schallerova) does happily admit, as she's being carried over someone's shoulder, "I am dreaming." So are we all.
But the world-beater here is the rarely seen, DVD-forgotten, best-Czech-movie-ever (according to a 1998 centennial poll of Czech cognoscenti) Marketa Lazarova (1967). Its director, Frantisek Vlacil — also cinema non grata — was the Czech New Wave's arch formalist, its postexpressionist wrecking ball, the Czech Welles. Vlacil was known for having pursued what he termed "pure film" — a chimerical ambition shared by everyone from Von Sternberg and Brakhage to Lynch — and fittingly, his best movies display a hypnotic plastic originality. He spent some five years adapting Vladislav Vancura's novel, Marketa Lazarova, and he emerged with a crazed musk ox of a movie, a nightmare epic about warring medieval tribes, which brands you with images and passages of one-of-a-kind pagan muscularity. The least that could be said is that it's the most convincing film about the Middle Ages ever made anywhere.
Vlacil's strategy with such a reportedly huge and complex novel was to lyrically elide whole wedges of plot, to counterpoint image, narration and chapter title into smushes of dialectic lyricism. Dropping us down into the wilderness among dozens of characters at seemingly indiscriminate intervals, Vlacil achieves a rampaging forward momentum — never has an impenetrably plotted movie been so riveting. This is what's "pure" about it — the film's flow of primitive-Gothic passages and constant state of throat-ripping conflict scald us and reduce narrative clarity to cinders, leaving only dread and sword blood and that watchful wolf pack standing in the snowy wastes.
CZECH YOUR HEAD | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | Saturdays, through Feb. 27 | cinefamily.org