Vaclav Havel’s Film, Odchazeni (Leaving)

(posted by Greg)

The film version of Vaclav Havel’s play Odchazeni (Leaving) – directed by Havel himself – premiered here in Prague a few weeks ago. I hadn’t had a chance to see the play, which Havel wrote in 2005 and which has been the only play he’s written since turning to politics in the wake of 1989. I was quite interested in seeing the film, in part because Havel’s political career, to the surprise of those who knew his earlier work, has taken such an “establishment” turn. He has not only fully backed the policies of the world’s sole superpower but, in addition, the politics of some of its most conservative, and powerful, political groupings (such as the neoconservatives). Thus, he fully backed the United States invasion of Iraq, the stationing of American soldiers and radars on the soil of the Czech Republic as a part of a Star Wars anti-missile system (and opposed the holding of a referendum on the issue), and has refused to condemn the American policies and practices in the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. How then, would this film, which was about the chancellor of an unnamed country leaving office, as Havel had just done, play out, given Havel’s continuing accommodation to the kind of establishment forces that he treated so ironically in his earlier plays? Curiously, in the play, no accommodation is made to these forces at all. It is in fact quite savage in its treatment of all the compromises and deceptions that one must make to keep one’s position in the world of establishment politics. Havel does this quite brilliantly, and the fact that he utilized the best traditions of Absurdist Theater and the Theater of the Grotesque to accomplish this goal was quite gratifying for an irrealist such as me.

But the film does raise the question as to whether Havel, who continues to this day to play the same political game (now in the role of the revered ex-President statesman, very similar to what the protagonist in Odchazeni, Chancellor Vilém Rieger,  was aiming for) that he so savagely condemns in the film, might not be a terribly conflicted person.

Revolt of the Means Against the Ends

[posted by Greg]

In the citation that appears on the homepage of The Cafe Irreal, Jean-Paul Sartre  describes how, in a particular cafe of a fantastic nature, the “means” (e.g., cups of coffee) rebel against the “ends” (i.e. the purpose for being in the cafe), making the world topsy-turvy for the cafe’s patrons. In fact, the setting of his description and the irreality that follows from it inspired us to name our publication The Cafe Irreal. I have been thinking of this citation as I’ve watched a strike (and the reaction to it) unfold in Tucson, the city to which I’ve returned after my recent trip to Prague. Specifically, the bus drivers and mechanics here have gone on strike over the city’s reluctance to guarantee a certain level of job security, and the reaction of some members of the public to the strike is, true to form (I have noticed this during other strikes), similar to the way the patrons in Sartre’s cafe would have reacted. That is to say, they are astonished and appalled that this “instrument” (e.g., the workers) who normally fill their assigned role of being a means to end (in this case getting from point A to point B), have suddenly refused to fulfill this function, causing some people’s world to go topsy-turvy. (Many other people who ride the buses are sympathetic to the drivers, and their main concern is how to get around now that their primary means of transportation has been disrupted.)

Of course, the scenario I’m describing here in Tucson, unlike Sartre’s fictional cafe, isn’t irreal: it may be a rebellion by what some people would regard as the “means to an end,” but in this case the means are human agents seeking a comprehensible end (job security), and thus lacks the irreality of the rebellion Sartre describes. In this very specific way the strike here plays out rather more in the way that the worker’s rebellion played out in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, though with vastly less melodrama and action. That film – which is currently featured in an exhibition at the University of Arizona Museum of Art that no doubt also inspired me to write on this theme — rather famously portrays the instrumentality of workers in the bourgeois scheme of things, as can be seen in this clip.   Still, by the end of the film the factory owner has to acknowledge the human agency of the workers. In the same way, the people I’m describing here, once they recover from their initial astonishment, have to acknowledge the human agency of the strikers; unfortunately, this often takes the form of angry comments on, for example, the alleged greed of the strikers, or the belief that the strikers have their heads in the sand, or that they are communists because they’re members of a trade union or thugs because they’re Teamsters, etc.

Nonetheless, in that first reaction — that first astonishment at the rebellion of the means against the ends — there is, I believe, an irreal resonance.

Alice has a father…so what?

[posted by Greg]

As we mentioned previously, we’re curious to see the new film version of Alice in Wonderland, which is opening this weekend in the United States. Or perhaps were curious is more the operative phrase here. Apparently director Tim Burton has said that he never felt a connection with the original Wonderland because it was always about a girl wandering around from one scene to another and so, he states, he has made it into more of a real story. And Alice, in the new film, is a nineteen-year-old woman “who doesn’t quite fit into Victorian society and structure” and, moreover, is grieving over the death of her beloved father. To me this sounds simply awful, as it introduces various standard melodramatic elements into the irreality of the original that will effectively ruin what made the original interesting. However, as with so many other film versions of books, it is probably a better idea to go into this film pretending that there never was an Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and instead imagine it to be a wholly original fantasy film by Tim Burton. It would, after all, be extraordinary if the absurdity, undermining of reality, and (to use Clayton Koelb’s term) alethic qualities inherent in the original survived a Hollywood production, and to focus on the lack of them would distract us from the interesting things that Tim Burton might be doing in the film.

One additional question comes out of this, however. Namely, what is it with this father theme? In the original book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll doesn’t see a need to even mention Alice’s father. And yet not only is there a father theme in this new film version, but it was also present in Syfy’s re-make of Alice: in that mini-series the father had seemingly abandoned Alice (who also is now a young adult, and so too fits into that key 18-34 demographic). This causes her great distress, until their later reunion in which he nobly sacrifices himself to save her life. The father theme was also present in the recent television remake of The Prisoner, in which a major theme is the responsibility Number Two feels toward his son. But, again, in the original series with Patrick McGoohan, the issue of offspring never comes up for any of the primary characters. And I could go on. In fact, most films (and TV series) made over the past fifteen years have worked this theme in one way or the other. Try the remake of War of the Worlds, where the divorced protagonist played by Tom Cruise looks after his son and daughter (for whom, of course, he feels great responsibility) as he flees from and fights the alien invasion, though the protagonist in H.G. Wells original had no children, is accompanied by his brother through part of the adventure and is striving to reunite with his wife. Most absurdly, the 1998 remake of Godzilla also included a kind of father theme when the title creature took responsibility for the little godzillas around him which he, yes, he, had begotten. It’s enough to make you wonder if there isn’t some Central Committee somewhere decreeing that the father theme must be inserted into a film if the film project is to get the millions of dollars necessary to make it.

Of course, it’s not the father theme per se that undoes the irreality of a work, Kafka’s great breakthrough work, “The Judgement,” contains an outstanding example of an irreal father theme. It is rather the forced imposition of the father theme onto so many films and TV shows, and its melodramatic, instructive nature, which is the problem for works of whatever genre. One suspects that if a modern day director were to make a film version of “The Hunger Artist,” he or she would be compelled to attribute the protagonist’s behavior to a lack of fatherly love. According to the text on the CD package for the film “The Search for Bobby Fischer” that I came across recently, the hero of the film “wasn’t afraid of losing a match…just his father’s love.” Perhaps for our film version of “The Hunger Artist” it would read: “He didn’t want to starve himself to death…he just wanted the nourishment of his father’s love.”

Alice in Wonderland: a world made from words?

After noticing today the popularity of the preview for Tim Burton’s upcoming film “Alice in Wonderland” (and we do have plans to view our tape of Sy Fy’s miniseries “Alice” tonight) we’ve been thinking about Clayton Koelb’s argument that Alice in Wonderland is the preeminent example of “logomimetic” fiction. In logomimetic fiction the reader knows that the words in the story don’t correspond to the world, but solves the problem created by that disbelief by enjoying the world created by the words. But then we wondered: How do you make a film about a world made from words? How does an incredulous reader become an incredulous viewer?