There’s a common misconception with regard to various cinematic “new waves.” By identifying multiple, and in some cases upward of a dozen, filmmakers as a single artistic entity, we run the risk of shortchanging the progression facilitated by certain stylistic experiments and, more importantly, the specific filmmakers who helped realize them. After all, nouvelle trends have historically been spurred on by a certain ideological intent rather than aesthetic proclivity. There’s an overlap to be sure, but the distance between, say, Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut or Kaneto Shindo and Nagisa Oshima is more vast than blanket assessments naturally suggest. Similar political, economic, or cinematic circumstance may have led each individual toward a similar means of realization, but the extremity of the collective output shouldn’t be taken for granted.
The breadth of such a cinematic model can perhaps be seen most blatantly in the maverick work done in the former nation of Czechoslovakia between the years of 1963 and 1969. Without a centralized artistic outlet such as the young turks had with Cahiers du Cinéma, the fresh-faced yet righteous personalities of this mounting Czech renaissance arose through the various pursuits embarked upon by each at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (a.k.a. FAMU) in the early part of the 1960s. The Academy’s list of alumni is impressive, including such well respected names as Miloš Forman, Agnieszka Holland, and Emir Kusturica, but the heart of the movement lies with a strain of more restless innovators, who, while often times at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum, banded together, however briefly, to outline the philosophical parameters of this nascent community.
This idea manifest early on in 1965 with the portmanteau film Pearls of the Deep, which brought five like-minded former FAMU students together to create a collection of short films based on the writings of Czech author Bohumil Hrabal. Beyond that thesis, however, the results could scarcely be more disparate, with the handful of directors employed effectively representing the ambition and freewheeling disregard which would come to mark the entirety of the Czech New Wave: Jiří Menzel’s Mr. Baltazar’s Death utilizes an almost documentary-like approach to capturing motorcycle racing as a prism through which to refract musings regarding death and nostalgia; Jan Němec’s The Imposters deals with similar themes in a stripped-down, conversational style, concerned more with words than actions; Evald Schorm’s The House of Joy is a color-coated comedy that turns life into art and art into the absurd and on and on; Věra Chytilová‘s hallucinatory The Restaurant the World works intuitively, subverting the joys of a wedding party into something nightmarish; while Jaromil Jireš‘s Romance proves uncharacteristically tender, if still politically pointed, contrasting the budding emotions between a Czech plumber and an exotic gypsy.
Each of these directors, save Menzel, had made features prior to Pearls of the Deep, but many of their most notable accomplishments were yet to come. Věra Chytilová‘s Daisies came first, and it’s perhaps the best-known and most widely seen dispatch from this short-lived movement. A feminist polemic par excellence, a formally radical, surrealistic classic, a kind of twee Thelma & Louise, Daisies remains a touchstone, transcending genre tags and any sort of definable labels. Like the rest of the film, the climatic food-fight sequence—which plays like Monty Python’s “Mr. Creosote” skit as directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini—is highly symbolic and teeming with anger, but Chytilová‘s infectious experimentation keeps the message and the medium on equally noteworthy ground.
Other filmmakers weren’t quite so shrewd in their allegory. Jan Němec’s A Report on the Party and Guests and Jaromil Jireš‘s The Joke confront political and social repression head-on. The former, an austere indictment of forced conformity set in a beautiful Czech countryside, was immediately banned, while the latter, emerging after the Prague Spring of 1968 and the invasion of the Soviet Union, met better fortune and immediate acclaim and stands as perhaps the most lucid invective concerning these waning days of oppression. However, Němec’s formal rigidity, theatrical staging, and dislocated temporal gait (which seems to have more than a little in common with Straub-Huillet) are set in stark contrast to Jireš‘s raw sense of social realism, which works first to identify with character and allows it’s screed to manifest itself naturally through the narrative, which follows a man through forced labor, a stint in the army, and a prison sentence, all for an offhand written remark to his lover.
By this same token, there were others still that were concerned primarily with character and social mores as a natural outgrowth of the political landscape of the time. Evald Schorm’s underrated Return of the Prodigal Son details the aftermath of a young man’s attempted suicide and his journey back into societal and matrimonial good graces. As one of the more linear, compassionate works of the period, it may be easy to overlook, but the devastation from misplaced emotions and the unfortunate attempts at reconciliation and rehabilitation are universal. Jiří Menzel’s Capricious Summer, by contrast, is a lilting tone poem, an almost screwball sex comedy with undercurrents of aching nostalgia imbued with lifetimes of regret. The three aging men at the center of the narrative feel a rush of youth and unencumbered freedoms of sexual awakening when a traveling circus comes through town with a beautiful young girl in tow, setting off an array of humorous situations in a kind of Midnight Smiles of a Summer Night Sex Comedy.
The tinges of sadness and heartache that seep to the surface belie the farcical nature of much of the story, but speak sharply to the notion of realizing your dreams while still young, no matter the obstacles or potential setbacks. Not a bad metaphor, actually, for the entirety of the Czech New Wave, which saw artistic and personal satisfaction birthed from an imaginative, uncompromising approach to life and our daily discourse with and about it, repercussions be damned.
All six of the films included in Criterion's 32nd Eclipse set look quite strong in their original 1.33.1 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, however, Capricious Summer is interlaced, and with the film being shot in a light pastel color palette, it certainly doesn't help mask that particular fact when characters start moving swiftly within the frame. Nevertheless, grain is noticeable on all the transfers, with the black-and-white features probably looking the best overall. Sound, meanwhile, is presented in each instance in their original mono mixes. These films, mostly dialogue-based, don't really necessitate much more, and the voices and various effects are clear, properly separated, upfront, and about as good as standard definition DVD can relate.
Per Eclipse standards, there are no digital supplements included. There are, however, extremely informative liner notes (printed on the inside of the inner sleeve for the one-film discs; collated on four page inserts for the dual-film discs) for each film by Michael Koresky.
Six unique, groundbreaking films from the late 1960s Czechoslovakian cinematic renaissance—all but one making its Region1 debut—find a proper home in Criterion's vital Eclipse line.