Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Sunday Matinee: Daisies


Daisies, Czechoslovakia, 1966, dir. Vera Chytilová, starring Ivana Karbanová, Jitka Cerhová

Story: Bored with their lives, two young girls (Marie and Marie) go on an anarchic and increasingly destructive spree of eating, drinking, partying, ridiculing conventions, while burning, cutting, or stealing every object in sight.

...Though I'm not sure I'd call it a "story."


Daisies opens and closes with images of war. The opening credits intercut the grinding mechanisms of wheels and cogs with shaky aerial footage of bombardments. The film ends suddenly with one last image of a (Vietnamese?) countryside being strafed, along with the slow-boiling, deadpan tribute of the filmmaker to her would-be censors: "This film is dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is a messed-up trifle." The visual carnage is appropriate, for seemingly contradictory reasons. On the one hand, it gives a real-world analogue to the devilish destruction unfolding throughout the movie, and perhaps suggests that the aggressive but not physically violent behavior of its heroines could eventually lead in this deadlier direction - or at least that it's part of the same continuum, selfish decadence leading to bloody chaos. On the other hand, there's an apocalyptic tenor to the war footage, which contrasts sharply with the free-spirited bonhomie of our leading ladies - the suggestion is that this ugly world is what they're rebelling against. Seen this way they are the embodiment of the contemporary countercultural ethos, thumbing noses at conservative social forces be they masked as American imperialists or Stalinist bureaucrats.

And on yet another hand (anatomically incorrect perhaps, but in the spirit of a film which shatters all rules of propriety and perspective) the documentary authenticity of those fleeting shots casts a gloom over the completely and flagrantly fabricated playfulness of the protagonists, giving it an unreal and desperate air. So perhaps there is no direct relationship (either positive or negative) between the world's war and the girls' anarchy, but rather a tension unresolvable in their favor - this grim reality lends a certain fragility to their antics, justifying their aggression and threatening their larks with an air of impending doom. All of these interpretations are, of course, valid but ultimately interpretations are - if not beside the point - at least after the fact. This is a film to be experienced more than "understood" - a wild ride through colors, cuts, iconic images, jagged suggestions, lavish set pieces, roundabout dialogue, and alarmingly incessant and aggressive noises (the sound collage "score," mixing speedily-played classical compositions, random sound effects, and avant-garde atonal exercises, is as much a part of the experience as anything onscreen). It's a tale told by an imp, full of sound and fury, signifying everything.

Indeed, Daisies is one of the true gems of the decade, an aesthetically radical film that sums up the era both stylistically and thematically. Chytilova employs an intensely irrational, non-narrative approach to her screenplay (co-written with her inventive costume designer, Ester Krumbachová, and fellow New Wave director Pavel Jurácek) - these "characters" do not exist in a world of plot, motivation, or development, but rather in a series of gestures, expressions, and impulses. The unfolding of sequences is dictated by a pictorial/kinesthetic sense of the flow of images, with the tempo set by a musical spirit rather than a dramaturgical mind. There's a sequence in the film when the two Maries begin snipping scissors in the air and through barely-concealed optical effects we see their heads detached from their bodies, dancing around over the beds while the rest of their figures leap about like decapitated chickens. Soon the frame itself is sliced to bits and pieces, dozens, hundreds of fragments swarming before our eyes in a cacophony of blurred colors and disjointed shapes. Such an image suggests the movie as a whole - yet beneath the seeming chaos is a disciplined sensibility and fiercely sharp mind.

The assembly of the film (which, astonishingly, was mostly planned ahead of time rather than improvised in the editing room) betrays a powerful instinct for which images will work in which spot, when to switch between color and black-and-white (as the film does continuously throughout its running time), where to place a given sequence, and how to shape the whole. A gripe among those who don't understand the avant-garde is that it's sloppy, but in privileging an intuitive appreciation of form over a hyper-conscious rationalistic approach, an artist is in fact increasing the pressure on him or herself: upping the stakes as it were, and doing away with the crutches of an obvious organization. To hear Chytilova discuss the film is surprising, as she often does so in deeply intellectual terms - something necessary to defend herself against the philistine politicians who wanted to suppress her work (complaining that she wasted public funds, even though their very system allowed no other options for filmmakers). But the structure of Daisies is not expressed in a coolly "logical" fashion but rather in a passionate, overriding hot-blooded frenzy of brilliant instincts and winking larkiness.

This is not to suggest that Daisies is pronouncedly sophisticated - at times it approaches a gleeful crudity (the dialogue in particular is a string of non sequitors) and an elemental, brutish simplicity to its images, all part of its immense charm. It's not the sort of movie to show off as a posh art object, elegantly "experimental" while still respecting the obvious tenets of good taste and decorum. On paper, the girls should be unbearable and the whirligig of techniques and approaches obnoxious, yet instead it's all irresistible - in part because of the aforementioned, underlying sense of discipline, in part because of the overall shape and direction of the movie. About halfway through, the antics may start to grow a little tired - but it's the characters themselves who announce this and restlessly up the ante. Until this point, they have mostly been speed-dating elderly sugar daddies, hopping around in bikinis, and teasing earnest young lovers over the phone while snipping the ends off of phallic-shaped food. But forty minutes in, their impatient energy becomes focused on one another: they calmly swear their antipathy towards one another and have the aforementioned scissor fight (which seems to release the tension - after this, they're a team again).

Their gaze also becomes fixed on the outside world for the first time, as they wander among peasants and workers, wondering why they are suddenly no longer the center of attention, pouting and wondering if they're "real" as they chow down on corn stolen from a farmer's field. This could be read as a socialist critique of the girls themselves, self-centered and consumerist (albeit through thieving rather than buying). Or it could be seen as a sympathetic generational concern - the girls, in their immature way, projecting an entirely healthy if unrealistic sense of frustration with the settled, plodding life of their elders. The former interpretation seems stronger, yet given the hostility of the climax one can't be sure. The film concludes with the two Maries, who have all along been eating and ripping apart meals and snacks in equal measure, stumbling across a banquet. They tuck in to a feast but can barely settle down for a second before moving on to the next plate, tossing napkins on the floor, shattering glasses, mushing the food with their hands, and eventually engaging in the inevitable food fight.

Ripping curtains off the wall, smashing bottles, dancing across the table and stepping into pies with their bare feet, eventually swinging from the beaded chandelier, this is the perfect conclusion to their escalating madness. In an ironic (?) gesture towards moralistic denouements, Chytilova drowns her heroines in a pond and then resurrects them to clean up the mess (yet as they hastily reassemble broken plates and pile up broken cups in front of overturned chairs, the girls only seem to be adding insult to injury). Even after this redemption, they are crushed by a falling chandelier. Ultimately, the film - which was decried by Communist officials as elitist, disrespectful, and pointless, and defended by Chytilova as a cogent critique of the girls' selfishness as against sterling socialist ideas - is more ambivalent than its detractors realized or its creator allowed. The girls are indeed brainless sociopaths, but they're so much goddamn fun! Besides, the movie sets up no coherent rebuttal to their impulsive anarchy (probably a tacit acknowledgment on Chytilova's part that even if she does believe in some form of socialist ideals, she doesn't see them represented in the hidebound Czechoslovakian dictatorship). Movies are always quite kind to narcissists, and so we go along on their ride with a giddy sense of liberation.

Daisies was shot in 1966, and "released" in 1967 though it was quickly suppressed. The following year, Dubcek came to power and the Prague Spring, already presaged for five years by the Young Turks of the Czech New Wave, finally came to fruition. By the time it was crushed, hippies, radicals, and activists the world over saw the event as yet another example of authorities stamping out the energy and freedom of youth - gone were the old divisions of the Cold War, and to many eyes the Chicago police and Soviet soldiers were part of the same brutal system trying to nip the future in the bud. Chytilova, with her defiance of righteous ideologies left and right, was a fully representative figure in this milieu, and as such she didn't work for many years after completing one more movie in 1970. It was only after a brave and scathing letter to the Czech president in 1975 that she was given permission to continue her career. Though it couldn't have known what was on the horizon, Daisies' building energy and pessimistic conclusion reflects not just the fate of its director, but also the very historical structure of the sixties, not only in its individual works, but in the flow of its cultural events and moods.

Like the mid-60s films of Godard and the later American New Wave classics like Bonnie and Clyde or Easy Rider, Daisies punishes its rebels and outlaws with violent reprisal, less a fulfillment of the old Hollywood Production Code (in which the criminal always gets his just desserts) than a fatalistic outlook on the prospects of those who buck the system. And in its movement from sheer heady rebellion to more aggressive shticks, to an eventual embrace of dark psychedelia and violent destruction, Daisies echos the development of the decade itself. In music: from the gleeful, liberating, and relatively innocent mood of the British Invasion to the denser sonic experimentation and thematic maturity of 1966 and 1967 to the sliding off the end of the world into album-length experimentation, apocalyptic and cryptic lyrics, and a druggy swirl of sound by decade's end. Or fashion: from a looser look and shaggier hair to a psychedelic parade of cheeky timelessness to a ragged assembly of long beards, stringy hair, and random outfits (or no outfits at all). Or in politics: from the idealism of the civil rights era to the growing discontent and frustration expressed in antiwar protests to the eventual embrace of militancy and revolution, a complete loss of faith in any possibility of reform from within and a descent into the violent destruction of the 70s terrorists.

Or, of course, in film itself: starting with the fresh zeal of the French New Wave and the earnest social criticism of the Brits, usually in black-and-white but with a testing of the formal waters, to a more experimental cinema of the mid-sixties, eventually to a full-blown invasion of the castle, with tepid Hollywood falling pretty to the spirit of the times and unleashing radically cut, shot, and scored (often with rock music) movies. By then, even mainstream movies were closing in on characters with a subjective telephoto view of the world, preferring jump cuts and montages to continuity editing, and embracing a more nihilistic, tragic outlook - one which sought to passionately embrace the moment even while acknowledging its fleetingness. To this tribe Daisies certainly belongs, less moodily melancholy to be sure, more ambivalent about its antiheroes, and coming up against a more challenging set of restrictions than artists in most other countries had to face. One of the first scenes in the film has Marie and Marie in a garden, plucking a ripe apple from a tree and biting in with gleeful abandon. Probably unlike her characters, and certainly unlike their literary/theological predecessors, we can be sure that Vera Chytilova knew exactly what she was doing when plucking that fruit. And you can bet she wasn't one bit sorry about it either.

For a visual tribute to the banquet scene, visit "No Such Thing as a Free Lunch"

Cross-posted at Wonders in the Dark

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