Saturday, March 29, 2008

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Several people in Nashville, where I live, have been trying to grow a real cinema culture in our town for several years. There have been lots of unique screenings at our local art house theater, and today's was perhaps the most unusual film that I've ever seen in a theater in Nashville - a rare slice of Czechoslovakia's short-lived "new wave" called Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. The movie is based on a 1935 novel by Czech author Vítězslav Nezval, and it was supposedly inspired by the gothic romances of the 19th century (in other words, it would be right up Catherine Moreland's alley!). This film was part of a series of "staff picks," and the staffer who'd picked it talked to us a bit about it before the lights went down. The print we were seeing was actually part of a private collection, and the owner brought his own projector and showed the film himself.

The reason the Czech "new wave" was short-lived is because it started not too long before Prague Spring, and by 1970, when this movie was made, artistic freedom had essentially been bound and shackled by the new Russian regime. Some filmmakers, like Miloš Forman (Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) took refuge in America and had thriving careers in Hollywood. Others, like Valerie's director Jaromil Jireš, stayed and saw either their work shelved or their artistic endeavors strangled by a government that was suspicious of the allegorical and the experimental.

Many of you know my deep and profound love for a film called The Unbearable Lightness of Being, directed by Philip Kaufman, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, and Lena Olin, and based on the novel by Milan Kundera. Kundera was Czech himself, and based the novel on his own experiences surrounding Prague Spring. The film was made in 1988, just before the fall of the Soviet Union, and the government absolutely forbade this movie (or any other film that criticized the regime) filming in Prague. Several of the Czech actors and crew members involved with the film did so with full knowledge that their careers, their livelihoods, and perhaps even their lives would be in jeopardy for doing so.

With all of this in mind, then, I sat down to watch Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, probably the last film of its kind before the artistic and experimental impulses of Czech filmmakers was snuffed out for the next twenty or so years.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

I'm not going to lie to you. This is one weird movie. There's no internal narrative logic, and everything that happens in the story seems to be more symbolic than literal. I suppose Jaromil Jireš could have just saved himself some time and energy and simply said "Sexual awakening is scary, yo! The End," but then we wouldn't have this beautiful and strange film. The whole film works very much like a dream (or nightmare, rather), and if you try too hard to make it make sense or figure out exactly what's going on, you're going to miss the film. So the only thing you can do is just sit there and let it seep into your brain cells.

The eponymous Valerie is 13, according to the story, and so is the lovely young actress who plays her. One of the first images we see is her walking through a field and suddenly getting her first menstrual period, making her "a child no more." It may seem gross or TMI, but there's something rather gorgeous and profound about the image of blood drops staining white daisies. Hardly subtle imagery, but powerful nonetheless.

It would be folly to try and explain the story, because there is no story. Even the characters are somewhat fluid. The vampire with the really bad teeth may be Valerie's father, and then again he may not. The grandmother seems to be the same person as the mother ... or maybe not. The boyfriend seems to be the same person as Valerie's brother. There was a highly significant and very symbolic pair of earrings. And I don't know WHAT was going on with Valerie the newlywed woman Hedvica. There are all kinds of blurred lines, and the film seems a perfect metaphor for how frightening and confusing a young girl's coming of age can be.

The movie was recently released on DVD and is available on Netflix. I'm pretty sure you can also watch it online somewhere (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). But if you don't feel like it's your thing, I'd at least recommend watching the trailer below (made, I presume, by the Belcourt Theater staffer who introduced it to us this afternoon), just to get a brief glimpse of how beautiful this film is.

I should also make mention here about the music used in the film (part of which you'll hear if you watch the trailer). There's a group of called "The Valerie Project," and they've made a mission out of screening this film and providing their own re-interpreted soundtrack. While I admire their efforts, though, I can't help thinking that it would be tragic to replace the original music (though I understand the print they have has a damaged soundtrack anyway). The music is incredibly haunting and, like the film itself, very dreamlike. I was very happy to learn that this is available on CD (there's a vinyl copy on eBay, which I would LOVE, but it's a bit pricey).

What a pleasant surprise of a film. Now I'm dying to see some of this director's other films, like The Joke, which was based on a novel by Milan Kundera.

Monday, March 24, 2008


Since Manitou turned out to be so bizarrely awesome, I was excited about this month's Final Girl film club movie, Scarecrows. There's lots of hit-and-miss with the scarecrow sub-genre - you've got great stuff like this movie and Dark Night of the Scarecrow and then you've got crap like ... well, pretty much everything that came out of the 1990s and later.

Okay, so five robbers have ripped off a military base. Or something. Actually, I can't remember very well, because I was too busy being creeped out by the opening credits that these facts were being spoken over. It starts with a wide shot of this thing:

The movie cuts back and forth between the credits and increasingly closer-upper shots of this Seriously Creepy Scarecrow Thing.  I found myself unable to even look at the screen because I'm expecting him to suddenly go "RWARRR!" and make me have to hit pause while I go change my pee-stained pants.  We find out about the robbery from a radio broadcast that's being played over the credits (it wasn't until after the movie that I realized where the radio noise was actually coming from, which is a whole 'nother level of creeps).

Anyway, five robbers have stolen about $3.5 million, or so we're told on the radio.  We don't see any of the robbery - the first we see of the robbers is that they're on a plane.  They have commandeered the plane and are holding the pilot and his daughter hostage.  One of the robbers betrays the others by bailing out and taking the money with him, along with the plane's only parachute.  He lands in a tree close to what looks like a farm.  It's hard to tell, though, because it's verrry dark.  Thank goodness for night-vision goggles or else we the viewers would hardly see a thing.  The other robbers force the pilot to land the plane and they go looking for the traitor in a game of cat-and-mouse.  They happen upon an old farmhouse, and that's when things start to go horribly wrong.

Because the farm is guarded by scarecrows.  Evil scarecrows.  Magic scarecrows that have awesomely scary powers.  And here's something I really liked about the movie.  We're never told any backstory about where these scarecrows came from.  At all.  We only know what the characters in the movie kind of surmise from their surroundings and what ultimately happens.  The best we can tell is that the three people who lived in the house were Satanists, and now they've become magic-demon-scarecrows.  And they've probably turned previous trespassers into magic-demon-scarecrows as well.  These guys have all sorts of powers.  They're super-stealthy, they can replicate the characters' voices, they can do things like make phones ring and doors close and decapitated heads talk.  And they use some of the classic scarecrow-movie tropes, like impaling people with pitchforks and lopping heads off with sickles.  So the decks are seriously stacked against our, for lack of a better word, protagonists.

The characters are killed off, one by one, until only the pilot's daughter and one of the robbers is left alive.  And then there's a somewhat spectacular escape sequence.  The closing credits are intercut with reverse footage of the shot that opened the movie - getting farther and farther away from the Seriously Creepy Scarecrow Thing pictured above - and another radio broadcast (presumably coming from the SCST itself) explaining about the robbers who are now missing.

This movie is downright awesome and genuinely scary.  I love that we don't get all this mythology about where the scarecrows came from.  That makes them scarier somehow.  Like the killer in Black Christmas that we never see.  Another thing that contributes to the chill factor is Terry Plumeri's musical score.  And then there are these shots of the scarecrows that are sprinkled throughout the movie, and once in a while, if you're looking hard enough, you can see them breathing.

The acting is ... not great.  And some of the lines are painful.  But the atmosphere, gore and overall creepiness of the movie more than makes up for it, I think.  Great 1980s supernatural slasher fun that may cost you a night's sleep.

Oh!  And I didn't even mention the movies TRULY awesome tagline: "Trespassers will be violated."  Indeed, Scarecrows.  Indeed.