Friday, 26 February 2016

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Notes for a filmclub screening.

Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a Czech film made in 1969, the year after the Prague Spring and its brutal suppression by the Soviet Union. It’s a colourful fantasy, both rooted in its time and place (it’s very central European and very 60s) and with a universality which gives it broad appeal. Part surrealist serial, part folkloric fairytale with elements of gothic horror it is the story of a young girl’s first steps towards the adult world. Her dreamworld is populated by a strange cast of characters, grandmothers, monsters, minstrels and missionaries whose identities are constantly shifting as if they were all part of some carnivalesque parade or harlequinade. Through her adventures she learns more about the world she inhabits and becomes more confident in negotiating her way around it, more sure of herself. Throughout it all she remains magically protected, partly through the agency of her magic earrings; her unassailable innocence is like a protecting veil, repelling those who would assault and corrupt her. It is a story about the usefulness of stories, the value to be found in fairytale fantasies which help us find our place in the world and warn us of its dangers without ever losing our sense of enchantment with its manifold wonders.

The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim wrote about the value of fairytales in guiding children towards the adult world in his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment, taking a Freudian perspective on their scarcely concealed subtexts. He suggests (and I’ve changed his use of male pronouns to make it more relevant to the context of Valerie) that ‘in order to master the psychological problems of growing up – overcoming narcissistic disappointments, oedipal dilemmas, sibling rivalries; becoming able to relinquish childhood dependencies; gaining a feeling of selfhood and of self-worth, and a sense of moral obligation – a child needs to understand what is going on within her conscious self so that she can also cope with that which goes on in her unconscious. She can achieve this understanding, and with it the ability to cope, not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of her unconscious, but by becoming familiar with it through spinning out daydreams – ruminating, rearranging, and fantasizing about suitable story elements in response to unconscious pressures. By doing this, the child fits unconscious content into conscious fantasies, which they enable her to deal with that content. It is here that fairy tales have unequalled value, because they offer new dimensions to the child’s imagination which would be impossible for her to discover as truly as her own. Even more important, the form and structure of fairy tales suggest images to the child by which she can structure her daydreams and with them give better direction to her life’.

Angela Carter was a little more wary of finding useful guidance for negotiating life’s universal dilemmas in fairytales. She liked Charles Perrault’s no-nonsense variations on Little Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots. But she remembered bed-time readings of Hans Christian Andersen with horror. ‘Please make it stop, I used to say…but they kept on assaulting my sensibilities with Andersen’s fairy-tales with a grand air of self-satisfaction. Weren’t these dreadful stories Children’s Classics? Weren’t they only doing their cultural duty by forcing them on me? Isn’t the function of a good fairy-tale to instil fear, trembling and the sickness unto death in the existential virgin, anyway? And why should children have a good time? The sooner you learn your own impotence in the face of universal despair, the better’. She sought in her own revisionist fairytales, collected in The Bloody Chamber and elsewhere, and in her anthologies of traditional folkloric fairytales, to find examples which reflected women’s experiences; stories which might be of use to women and girls alike, presenting them with heroines they could identify with and learn from. In her introduction to her Virago Book of Fairy Tales collection she wrote ‘that I and many other women should go looking for fairy-tale heroines (reflects) a wish to validate my claim to a fair share of the future by staking my claim to my share of the past. She notes of fairy-tales that ‘on the surface, these stories tend to perform a normative function – to reinforce the ties that bind people together, rather than to question them. Life on the economic edge is sufficiently precarious without continual existential struggle. But the qualities these stories recommend for the survival and prosperity of women are never those of passive subordination’. Carter certainly found something of value in Valerie. She saw it when it received it premiere in the National Film Theatre in London, emerging in the 80s after a long period of obscurity languishing on the shelf of the banned. She loved it, and it was a strong influence on the writing of the screenplay of The Company of Wolves, her adaptation of her own Bloody Chamber stories, and her subsequent adaptation of her early novel The Magic Toyshop for a TV film. The Company of Wolves is a close cousin to Valerie, created very much in the same spirit.

Valerie is often thought of as being the last of the films emerging from the so-called Czech New Wave, a group of filmmakers emerging from the FAMU school which had been established in Prague in 1947. Having been banned for many years by the authoritarian Communist government, with its reforged iron links with the Soviet Union, it has been rediscovered in the west in recent decades and has steadily built up a cult cache fostered by a dedicated band of proselytisers. Many of these have emerged from the musical world, amongst them Andy Votel of the Finders Keepers label, who organised a number of screenings and who released Lubos Fiser’s luminous score on Finders Keepers, and the late Trish Keenan of the group Broadcast. Trish had a particularly personal relationship with the film and voiced what many perhaps feel in her sleevenotes to the soundtrack release. Watching the film and subsequently listening to her cassette recording of the soundtrack, ‘it was like a door had been opened in my subconscious and fragments of memories and dreams rejoiced right there in my living room’. Broadcast have been a favourite band of mine for a long time and it was Trish’s reverence for Valerie, expressed in a number of interviews, which made me seek it out. I found a copy on an old Redemption dvd, a label which mixed horror and Euro exploitation, the self-produced photographic covers no less lurid for being in black and white. The print they used was faded and dust-flecked (they had no resources for restorations) but the magic shone through nonetheless. I was immediately entranced. It’s magical central European fairytale world seemed to work according to a dream logic all its own, but I felt wholly attuned to it, not worrying about whether it made any sense or had any overt meaning. Its spell was cast, its enchantment made manifest on some deeper level than the rational. I knew I would be returning again and again to the town square with its central fountain, to the strange underground crypts, the labyrinthine house, the surrounding fields and lakes. Trish wrote about being ‘confirmed by the church of Lubos Fiser’. I was a convert too.

The film is an adaptation of a novel by the poet and surrealist writer Viteslav Nezval. Nezval was a creative force in a number of artistic fields in the early twentieth century. He was instrumental in setting up the Poetist movement in the 20s, whose writers aimed to lyrically portray the Czech landscape and to view the world through a heightened, imaginative perspective. It was essentially the direct opposite to the socialist realist outlook which would predominate from the Stalinist period onward. Inevitably there was a manifesto, the Poetist Manifesto, which was written in 1924. It set out the poetist beliefst thusly: poetist art should be ‘playful, unheroic, unphilosophical, mischievous, and fantastic’, and offer ‘a magnificent entertainment, a harlequinade of feeling and imagination…a marvellous kaleidoscope’. The sense of playfulness, of a kaleidoscopic masquerade of the fantastic is certainly characteristic of the film Valerie. It is also shot with a beautifully lyrical eye, full of sun-dappled lakes and mist-hazed meadows, evocations of the sensual world in its landscapes and its small details (and there is indeed something very Kate Bushlike about Valerie). The lyrical feel is beautifully captured in the cinematography of Jan Curik, who collaborated regularly with Valerie director Jaromil Jires. The scene in which Valerie runs through the morning meadow has an almost mystical quality to it, the light and mist suggesting a heavenly otherworld. Curik manages to convey the feel of summer with an almost palpable warmth and freshness. His evocation of summer moods is particularly impressive given the fact that it was apparently raining for the greater part of the shoot.

This Czech lyricism found visual realisation in a number of films in the late 20s and early 30s on which Nezval collaborated with director Gustav Machaty. He wrote the scripts for Erotikon and From Saturday to Sunday and was also involved with the 1932 picture Ecstasy. This achieved a certain notoriety due to the scenes in which its female star, Heddy Kiester, goes skinnydipping in a Czech lake. No big deal in its homeland, where the lyrical feel for landscape was often accompanied by a sensual connection between character and natural environment. However, when Heddy Kiester relocated to America, changed her name to Lamarr and became a major Hollywood star, such innocent pleasures were seen as scandalous in the censorious climate of the post-Hayes code era. The Hayes Code had been written by Will Hayes in 1927 and subsequently revised in 1930, when it was given more clout in order to save the great American public from being corrupted by the movies and led into the ways of sin. With covert input from the Catholic church, its puritanical conservatism is ironically similar to the censorship imposed by the Soviet state (and all authoritarian regimes). Valerie would fall foul of such censorship, its anti-clericalism and depiction of a younger generation vampirically fed upon by a corrupt elder generation interpreted as veiled anti-authoritarianism. Its very lack of readily identifiable plot and morally unambiguous message was enough to outrage the philistine overseers of the iron state. If they failed to immediately understand a work of art, they deemed it ‘elitist’, assumed it harboured a dangerous subtext and banned it.

Another collaborator on these three films from the late 20s and early 30s was an artist called Alexandr Hadkenschmied. His role was fairly loosely defined but he brought an experimental and exploratory aesthetic to bear on what was largely straightforward narrative drama. He emigrated to America in 1939 (he was obliged to leave the country after working on an anti-Nazi documentary), where he adjusted his name to Alexander Hammid and married the writer and filmmaker Maya Deren. They collaborated on the 1943 film Meshes of the Afternoon which bears some resemblance to Valerie in that it is a film which proceeds according to dream logic, shifts from domestic spaces to natural environments (the beach in this case), features magical objects and tokens, is filled with an atmosphere of heady surrealism and is viewed from a female perspective. There is a shot in Meshes, often reproduced, in which Maya Deren (who takes the dreamer’s role) stands at a window, hands pressed against the glass, looking pensively to one side, her face merging with the reflections of foliage and branches in the pane. This pose is almost exactly reproduced when Valerie gazes out from an oval carriage window. A conscious homage perhaps? You can sometimes see Maya peering up from the basement of the Cavern Club in Exeter when the door opposite the Boston Tea Party is open for bar deliveries. Incidentally, Meshes of the Afternoon, like Valerie, has been influential on a number of musicians. The group Pram, who emerged from the same Brum scene as Broadcast titled and EP Meshes and, in case this didn’t sufficiently spell out their love of Maya Deren, also wrote a song called Meshes of the Afternoon for their Helium LP.

Valerie and Maya Deren - on the threshold of dream
Viteslav Nezval was also a founding member and leader of the Czech surrealist group, which grew out of the concerns of the Poetist movement, and was officially established in 1934. Czechoslovakia was a significant site of surrealist activity, a satellite with a strong connection to the mother planet of Paris. This was perhaps unsurprising given the tradition of the fantastic in late 19th and early 20th century Czech literature; a tradition whose most renowned proponents were Franz Kafka and Gustave Meyrinck (author of The Golem), even if both did write in German. The novel Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a product of Nezval’s surrealist period. It was completed in 1935 but not finally published until a decade later, in 1945. By this time, Nezval had utterly renounced surrealism, poetism and any form of art which delighted in the unfettered imagination. He’d long been a communist, but he now grew more hardline and followed the Stalinist credo that socialist realism was the only valid form for art to take. Art which formed a useful social function or provided emotive propaganda for the state. Films about socialist martyrs were perennially popular. Jaromel Jires would make one in the wake of Valerie’s post-Prague Spring disappearance, And Give My Love to the Swallows. Nezval even sank so low as to pen a poetic paean of obsequious praise to Stalin. Like most manifesto-writing artistic tyrants, Nezval wasn’t content merely to follow his own artistic path. He wanted everyone else to travel it as well, with all alternative routes to be barricaded with road blocks. He attempted to dissolve the surrealist group in 1938, but fortunately failed to exercise his reductive authority. The group went underground during the war and the subsequent Soviet dominion but re-emerged during the Prague spring of the 60s. One of its major creative talents was the artist, filmmaker and animator Jan Svankmajer, whose superb, surrealist take on Alice in Wonderland, simply titled Alice, screened at Studio 74 in the Phoenix as part of the Animated Exeter festival last Friday. Alice was established as part of the surrealist canon from the early days of the movement, and its influence can certainly be felt in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, the film in particular. Alice was also a firm favourite of Trish Keenan, who particularly loved Jonathan Miller’s dreamy summer of love version for the BBC, with its languorous score by Ravi Shankar.

Nezval’s loyalty to the party had one advantage in subsequent years however. It meant that director Jaromil Jires was able to get his long-planned film of Valerie passed for production by the communist authorities who dictated what was or was not acceptable. The presence of Nezval’s son Robert in the cast (he plays the check-suited drummer who leads the players into the town square) lent a further air of official sanction to the project. It’s certainly not the kind of thing which Nezval himself would have approved during his tenure as head of the Orwellian Ministry of Information film department from 1945-50. However, he was safely out of the way by 1969, having died in 1958, his reputation for unswerving loyalty intact. Sadly, his son, born out of wedlock and presumably unrecognised by his father in the hypocritically puritan climate of the party hierarchy, committed suicide in 1971, shortly after the film’s release.

Jaromil Jires was part of the Czech new wave movement which emerged in the 60s, taking advantage of the new spirit of post-Stalinist liberalism which led to the Prague spring of 1968. This was the year in which the reforming president Alexander Dubcek attempted to outline a new form of socialism and free his country from totalitarian control. A number of important talents emerged from the FAMU film school, including directors Frantisek Vlacil, Jiri Menzel, Vera Chytilov, Jan Nemec, Milos Forman and Ivan Passer. The new wave films of the 60s often had a spirit of youthful rebellion which fitted in with the more general worldwide sense of generational conflict which characterised the decade. The assumptions and authority, moral and political, of the older generation were brought into question, and the emerging generation attempted to forge a new worldview, a new way of living. Forman’s Loves of a Blonde and The Fireman’s Ball, Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains and Larks on a String, Juraj Jakubisco’s Birds, Orphans and Fools and, in particular, Vera Chytilova’s Daisies and Fruit of Paradise all partake of this spirit, as does Valerie. This congruence with wider countercultural trends is one reason why the films of the Czech new wave, and Valerie above all, have found such favour with musicians in the modern alternative rock sphere. Indeed, some of you may remember the Exeter collective Birds, Orphans and Fools, named after Jakubisco’s film, who brightened the city with music, art and screenings of strange and wonderful movies a while back. Another collective formed around members of the American psych-folk group Espers, going by the name of the Valerie Project. They got together to record an alternative soundtrack to Valerie, having already performed it live at several screenings, thus proving the transatlantic appeal of the film. The recording was released on the Drag City label in 2007, so you can cue it up and experience the film in an entirely different way. Although this does seem sacrilegious given the sheer sublime beauty of Lubos Fiser’s luminous score.

Several of the filmmakers associated with the Czech new wave left the country after the Soviet invasion of 1968 and found a natural place in the independent American cinema of the 70s, which had also emerged from 60s countercultural origins. Milos Forman made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Ivan Passer the underrated Cutter’s Way, a brilliant post-60 lament which heralds the dawn of Reaganite America. Valerie was made after the Soviet tanks had rolled into the streets of Prague in 1968, ending the brief, bright spring promising the summery air of freedom to come, now crushed beneath rumbling, clanking treads and smothered by iron grey clouds. It’s often regarded as the last film of the Czech new wave and therefore has a certain valedictory air to it (valedictory Valerie). Its summer idylls are dreams of what might have been, and in their universality, also serve in general as a requiem for the softer kind of 60s utopianism.

Valerie was Jaromil Jires’ third film. The first, made in 1963, was The Cry, whose central protagonist is a TV repairman who gains glimpses into the lives of the customers whose homes he enters and who also reflects on his own life. It’s loose, playful and full of incidental observations and incorporates dream and fantasy sequences in a way that Richard Lester would in his 60s movies with or without The Beatles. The year before making Valerie he shot The Joke, an adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel of the same name. A real product of the Prague spring in that it was unthinkable that it could have been made earlier, it cast a bitterly ironic and straightforwardly critical eye on the Stalinist period of the 50s. Its central character suffers terribly for a throwaway quip on a postcard sent to his girlfriend which reads ‘long live Trotsky’. The film was still shooting when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. Inevitably, it didn’t fare well with the new regime.
Valerie was unlike anything Jires had previously produced. This undoubtedly owes a great deal to one of his key collaborators on the film, Ester Krumbachova. Krumbachova was a figure of major importance within the Czech new wave. The fact that she only directed one film herself (The Murder of Engineer Devil of 1970, surely due for rediscovery and re-release) merely serves to undermine the French auteur theory which would ascribe the director as the singular creator behind any given picture. She wrote, or co-wrote, a number of scripts for the landmark films of the new wave, including Jan Nemec’s Kafkaesque The Party and the Guests, his lyrical Martyrs of Love, and collaborated most fruitfully with Vera Chytilova on two films towards the end of the 60s, Daisies and Fruit of Paradise. These surreal, highly colourful pictures both feature wilful female protagonists who act out their desires in a manner both strident and playful. Fruit of Paradise in particular has a lyrical sensuality and feel for landscape and palpable texture which is very reminiscent of Valerie. The symbolism of the forbidden apple and the fruit of paradise, of the Edenic garden also links the two films. Valerie cheerfully crunches into one of the apples which have been lined up around her funeral bier. Indeed, she eats a variety of fruits throughout the film, as does the protagonist of Fruit of Paradise. This natural sense of pleasure, the pleasure in the natural, is very different from the conspicuous consumption of the doll-like automatons of Daisies, who self-consciously ‘go bad’ to fit in with a world which they have decided has no meaning or purpose. They end up cramming their face full of rich meats, creamy desserts and cakes from a banqueting table which they raid and thoroughly trash.

Krumbachova was, in addition to being a writer and sometime director, a costume and set designer, roles she fulfilled for Valerie. Clearly she was a woman of manifold talents and her creative influence over Valerie was considerable. This female signature on the film is important given the sensitive subject matter of a young girl’s coming of age and her vision of the adult world of sexuality through the symbolic lens of folkloric fairytale. Her authorship and her creation of the film’s visual look noticeably transforms the tone of the book and avoids any element of exploitation which might otherwise have tainted the story. This is Valerie’s film, Valerie’s dream, Valerie’s useful fairy-tale. We see everything through her eyes. She may be subject to various threats, confronted with disturbing and even horrific sights, assailed by vampires, wereweasels and perverted priests. But she remains magically protected throughout, either by her enchanted earrings, or by Orlik, or increasingly be her own command over every situation. Her adversaries try to bind her to the machineries of time, but she soon masters the mysteries of dream logic. She becomes a lucid dreamer, recognising that ‘it’s just a dream – I’m dreaming it all’. And if it’s her dream (the dream of life) then she can control it, wander through it and watch, learning all the time. Valerie observes her own story with curiosity and even, later, amusement (the moment where she sticks her tongue out at the priest whose about to burn her at the stake is priceless). The adult world is initially frightening and bewildering, with its secrets, hypocrisies and contradictions (represented by the shifting nature of the familial characters, their ever-changing masks). But as she learns, loses her fear and gains command of her environment, it becomes something to anticipate with equanimity and pleasure, stripped of its secrets and lies. The final parade and circle dance offers a world of guiltless pleasure ,the repressive, hypocritical priest penned in a domed cage like a squatting black toad to keep him from doing any further harm. But Valerie isn’t ready yet. She wanders around the sunny glade, watching and smiling before retreating to her familiar white bed, drifting into peaceful sleep to wake from her dream.

Krumbachova’s set designs contrast the clean sunlit rooms aboveground with the dusty crypts below; the sepulchral gothic world of tombs and cobwebs with the obsessively tidy and well ordered spaces of the grandmother’s house to which they are connected, providing a subconscious underside. Valerie’s room is a pure, unsullied white, her sanctuary and the outward manifestation of her inner world. It is briefly and shockingly invaded by the black-clad, predatory priest as he tries to possess her physically and colonise her secret self. But he is repelled by her power of innocence, confronted with his own monstrousness. His assault on Valerie’s innocence kills him, as will the weasel’s later on (although death is a relative state in this dreamworld).

Krumbachova’s costume for the weasel, with his lustrously black vampiric cape, draws heavily on traditional gothic elements. The monster make-up, with white face and bald head, pointed ears and prominent teeth, is a variant on the look of Max Schreck’s Nosferatu from FW Murnau’s 1922 classic (a film which Nezval hugely admired). The weasel (more literally translated in the novel as polecat) takes the vampire back to the peasant figure familiar from old Central and Eastern European folklore. Far from the aristocratic figure of Bram Stoker’s novel, these creatures of village superstition were more animalistic and more likely to be a threat to your livestock than your maiden daughter. Rather than fearing garlic, they were likely to reek of the stuff.

Krumbachova suffered like so many in the wake of the Soviet invasion, and retreated from the world of film for a while. She did return in triumphant fashion in 1976 however, designing the sets and costumes for Karel Kachyna’s wonderful fairy-tale film Mala Morska Vila (The Little Mermaid). Her creations include the incredible blue undersea hairstyles sported by the merfolk – resplendent impermanent waves. They’re the finest movie hairstyles since Ernest Thesiger’s Dr Pretorius grandiloquently unveiled Elsa Lanchester’s white-streaked art deco Bride of Frankenstein barnet back in 1935. The blue mermaid look was one which the singer Jane Weaver adapted for her 2010 album The Fallen By Watchbird, her own version of a Czech-style fairy-tale fantasy.

Mention finally has to be made of Lubos Fiser’s gorgeous score. With its lullabies and fanfares, gothic organ chords and delicately plucked lutes, children’s choirs and lusty male choruses, lyrical themes and crashing dissonant chords, music box waltzes and meditative harpsichord nocturnes it is the perfect accompaniment to Valerie’s kaleidoscopic dream and the constant abrupt transformations which occur within it. The lightly tinkling celeste motif which heralds the magical transformations wrought by Valerie’s earrings is a recurrent sound and perfectly evokes the aura of enchantment which surrounds her like a shimmering shield. Fiser went on to score another colourful gothic fantasy in 1972, Juraj Herz’s Morgiana. But he was also a prominent composer in the post-war Czech world of classical music, although he suffered neglect through his failure to conform to the requirements of the state. His piece 15 Prints After Durer’s Apocalypse gained him international recognition after it won a UNESCO prize in 1967. His classical work benefitted to an extent from a revival in the period after the Velvet Revolution, and the process of rediscovery continues to this day, some 17 years after his death.

Fiser’s lullaby theme for Valerie, the music we hear both at the beginning and end of the film and throughout in a procession of variations, was adapted by Trish Keenan for the Broadcast song Valerie, included on the 2003 album Haha Sound. This presented her own take on the film’s aura of enchantment, voicing her identification with Valerie and her wondrous adventures. I’ll leave you with the lyrics as a guide, Trish’s code for entering the dreamworld of Valerie:

Inside the mask another disguise
I fall to sleep before closing my eyes
Tiredness draws in my head a cartoon
Sun at the window, good things coming soon
Shake your earrings over my head
Lay down your dreams on my pillow
Before bed
The silence of ice at the borders of day
Sun in my face will not keep them away
Sinking me into the white of your room
Sky through the curtain, good things coming soon
Shake your earrings over my head
Lay down your dreams on my pillow
Before bed.