Allegory, symbolism, fantasy, and surrealism are often the refuge of artists working under the oppressive thumb of authoritarian regimes. Usually, it works, thanks in large part to the average censor being unable to process art on any but the most literal of levels. To them, a cigar is always just a cigar. This short-coming of the censorial mind is a blessing, allowing artists to slip all sorts of subversive work under the nose of watchdogs. Sometimes, however, an artist has the bad luck of running afoul of a censor who is a little more savvy to the trick, either being more creative of mind than fellow censors or having perhaps been burned enough times after a work was heralded for its subversive nature by critics in other countries. That sort of thing eventually gets back to the native censors. And that can breed over-sensitivity. In the case of Polish director Wojciech Has’ confounding, bewildering, and wonderful 1973 film Sanatorium pod klepsydrą — The Hourglass Sanatorium, everything was reversed. Censors perceived a political film in what was meant to be a personal film. Censors saw concrete criticisms of life under Soviet rule and were upset by it, decided it should not be seen. Has had intended to screen the film at Cannes but was forbidden from doing so. He did it anyway.
When it comes time to make a fairytale movie in the United States, we tend to either take a macabre old story and scrubbing it relatively clean of shocking aspects and trolls yanking the thumbs off a child and forcing the poor tyke to eat them (pretty sure that’s a real story), which are replaced with singing home appliances and household pests; or we go the “21 century gritty and edgy” route, where the picture itself is digitally filtered and color tinted, the costumes showcase a lot more cinched-waist leather and absurd weaponry (almost always a rapid fire “machine gun” crossbow), there is more gore and computer generated blood, and the dialogue is made more modern and peppered with a greater amount of foul or modern language. This is not to say that entertainment cannot be wrung from these sorts of films. Wearisome devotion to the same color alteration, leather outfits, and general tone aside, the modern “dark and grim” fantasy genre has produced some winners, or at least some films that were perfectly acceptable entertainment. But it’s much more impressive to unnerve, chill, enchant, and disturb the audience in the bright, cheery light of a sunny meadow full of flowers. And that’s exactly what is accomplished by Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu), an allegorical Czech fantasy film which on the surface is about a teenage girl just trying to get a decent night’s sleep.
People unfamiliar with genre films sometimes have this weird idea that the movies all carry themselves with an air of complete seriousness, that a particular type of film can’t possibly be aware of its own cliches and pitfalls until some smarmy mainstream director steps in and makes a spoof. That spy movies, even James Bond, can’t be aware of their own absurdity. Or that horror has never noticed its own cliches. The fact of the matter is that genre films are far more aware of their own short-comings and trappings than most mainstream films. For better or for worse, genre films — science fiction, horror, sexploitation, action, and so forth – have been self-referential and satirizing themselves since the early days. The Italian sword and sandal films that were so popular during the first half of the 1960s were no exception.
One of the great joys of watching movies from countries and cultures with which I have maybe, at best, a passing familiarity is discovering their language of film — both in their mainstream as well as their fringes. There is a thrill in discovering how differently one country, one region, one filmmaker can interpret how to employ this medium we love so dearly. How something familiar — a movie — can become something enigmatic, how the concept of what constitutes a narrative and for what purpose it should be employed varies so greatly. They draw on local customs and theatrical styles, local folklore and legends, and of course local tastes. How to frame a shot, how to deliver a line, how to interact with the camera, how to make a set or film on location, what constitutes a cinematic narrative — it’s amazing how many different ways these things can be done.
The Devil used to have a lot more to do on Christmas Eve than he does these days, having been supplanted more or less in the Christmas time evil business by retail store owners and Black Friday stampedes. There was a time, however, when Ol’ Scratch regarded the night before Christmas as prime soul-stealing time, what with so many panicked, distressed, depressed, or otherwise vulnerable humans ripe for temptation. Depending on whose folklore upon which we rely, Satan’s midwinter rascalry was combatted by a variety of traditional characters. In Mexico, since time immemorial, they have told the tale of how Pitch the Devil was thwarted in his efforts to corrupt the young and innocent by Santa Claus, who lives on the moon and employed the assistance of his most trusted friend, Merlin the Magician. In The Ukraine, which these days is more concerned with contesting the antics of Vladimir the Bare-Chested Yuletide Goblin, the corrupting efforts of the more unsaintly of the famous Nicks had to be foiled by a hearty peasant in a big furry cap.
My latest on The Cultural Gutter is Punching Cthulhu in the Face. Pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard is best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian. His stock in trade were fearless, muscular super-warriors who feared nothing and loved the red rage of battle against foes both human and supernatural. He was also a friend and fan of H.P. Lovecraft and tried his hand from time to time at stories set within the “Lovecraft mythos.” But how does Lovecraft’s style of vague dread and horror experienced by perpetually terrified academics hold up when the main player is, say, a skull-cracking Pictish king who laughs at the eldritch horror of the Elder Gods?
There is little in the short story “The Magic Sword,” part of the compiled writing of Chinese author Pu Songling known as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, that sets it apart from any other story in the collection. Written over the course of many years in the latter portion of the 1600s, Pu’s stories explore the world of ghosts, demons, monsters, spirits, and otherworldly folklore, usually with an eye toward tsk-tsking its audience over immoral, non-Confucian indiscretions. “The Magic Sword” takes up just a few pages and relays the tale of a young scholar named Ning who, upon finding himself unable to obtain lodging for the night, takes up residence in an abandoned temple. In the temple, he encounters another traveler, a man named Yin, and later that night witnesses a meeting between a couple mysterious people before being visited by a beautiful young woman named Hsiao-ch’ien who attempts to seduce him. Because Ning is righteous and has a sick wife at home, he banishes her from his makeshift chamber. He learns during a subsequent visit that she is a ghost cursed to prey upon men for her boss demon, and that Yen is a magical swordsman who fights devils. Impressed by the purity of his heart, the ghost implores Ning to help free her from her ghoulish master. From this rather humble story has grown practically an entire film genre, the leading light of which is Ching Siu-tung’s 1987 masterpiece of the Hong Kong New Wave, Chinese Ghost Story.
Hell has always been popular cinematic fodder. Italian strongman Maciste has conquered it (twice, at least), Claude Rains has managed it, and Nollywood has done its best to make a basement look like it (see Die Danger Die Die Kill’s review of 666: Beware! The End is At Hand). Still, when it comes to off-the-wall interpretations of the subject the countries of Asia have something of a monopoly. That all seems to have begun with the inimitable Nobuo Nakagawa (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan — reviewed on Teleport City here, and WtF-Film here), who persevered against a studio in a death spiral to produce Jigoku, an avant garde guignol masterpiece and perhaps the quintessential “hell” movie. Twenty years later acclaimed Nikkatsu roman porno director Tatsumi Kumashiro paid his respects to that film with The Inferno, a lavish Toei epic that matched Kumashiro’s own experimental flair with gobs of big studio production value.
Recently, we posted a look at the films of Czech animator and filmmaker Karel Zeman. Since basically every frame of each of his films is an amazing screencap, we went a little overboard. However, in an effort to keep the article itself from reaching epic lengths and load times, it included only a limited number of pictures. Since the films deserve indulgence, here are all the screenshots we made.
I was strolling across Prague’s Karluv Most, as is the way of a jetsetting international gentleman such as myself, admiring the irreverent and disrespectful birds who insist on perching atop the heads of historical and religious figures of considerable import, when out of the corner of my eye I spied something somewhat more appealing to my temperaments than a procession of earnest and tortured looking popes, saints, and saviors. Nestled into a cozy looking cobblestone cul de sac at the western end of the bridge was a wooly mammoth. “My word!” I exclaimed at this unexpected but not unwelcome sight, “this looks just the sort of thing in needs of a more detailed degree of exploration.” On a stone arch above the gate that opened into the mammoth’s courtyard was a sign: Film Special Effects Museum. And below it the sub-head: Muzeum Karla Zemana.