Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Flowers of youth (Daisies)

When I resolved to participate in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club, it was partly to make sure that I stayed on-target with my movie consumption in order to justify my continuing Netflix membership, but it was also a conscious effort to broaden my horizons, or more specifically to match my actual consumption with my horizon-broadening intentions. Because of course there have always been Japanese films and French films and old black-and-white Hollywood classics and whatnot on my Netflix queue, it’s just that they always seem to get leapfrogged by the latest comic book adaptation that I didn’t quite manage to catch in the theater. A little structure and a few deadlines for specific reviews really does wonders for my efforts to be a little more eclectic in my viewing habits.

They look like cyborgs!
Which brings us to Daisies, which is about as far from my usual brain candy as you can possibly get. In fact an equally apt title for the movie might be Lima Beans, to continue the (already overwrought, I know) metaphor that some movies are the equivalent of mental junk food and others are akin to eating your vegetables, good for you but not necessarily inherently pleasant. Although, of course, some people like lima beans. Including me.

Lima Beans might also be a good alternate title for the movie because it’s a bit nonsensical, as is Daisies, an experimental avant-garde surrealist experience, a product of 1966 Czechoslovakia self-described (in the post-script dedication) as a trifle. Also a great deal of Daisies revolves around food – granted, not lima beans specifically but a wide bounty nonetheless. Enough about my attempts to re-title the film, though.

Daisies, in the early going, seems like the artiest of art films, a pile-up of scenes that are disconnected except for being contained within the movie (and starring the same two actresses), like discrete exhibits in a themed wing of a museum. But gradually something like a narrative evolves, and despite all the camera tricks from colored filters to stop-motion, what takes shape becomes all the more realistic. The story of Daisies is the story of two young women giving up on trying to make sense of a world gone mad (which is of course the world that all of us live in) and indulging in their whims and worst impulses, all the while fighting without much success against the fact that it’s kind of an inescapable element of the human condition to constantly try to impose reason and order and meaning on life. That conflict gets literalized on-screen, and what else would it look like? The average person’s life does not usually have a well-defined character arc; much more common is a life that seems more like random accumulation of experiences. Instead of well-sketched supporting characters, we have people who drift in and out of the frame, unnamed, and if you’re not sure if by ‘we’ I am referring to the audience watching Daisies or all of us living our lives, then you are taking my point.

If you went your entire life without watching a subtitled New Wave film, the lack represented by that fact would be pretty slight. What truly makes Daisies worth watching, I think, is the historical geopolitical context. It was created within a Communist state-sponsored film industry shortly before the director, Věra Chytilová, was banned from further work because her films were too inaccessible and depicted wantonness. This of course sounds to me like something out of a sci-fi allegory: “Your art is too difficult to understand! Also it gives people the wrong ideas!” It’s a little too easy to forget, some two decades after the Cold War effectively ended, that things like this actually happened all the time in Eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century. (It probably still happens today in places like the Middle East, even if the proof won’t come to light until years from now.) Chytilová was (is, as she’s still alive as of this post) a proud provocateuse who believed in the inherent power of all art that forced people to think for themselves, which of course made her dangerous in the eyes of dictatorial state apparatus. It’s always worthwhile to expose yourself to the forms and ideas that make tyrants nervous.

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