Valerie’s Week of Wonders

Czech New Wave filmmaker Jaromil Jireš’ 1970 art-fantasy Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) is as luscious as it is incomprehensible—its story (something about magical protective earrings, the title heroine coming of age, and a family of fairy + folk tale tropes: evil grandmothers, vampires, and a brother-hero) being merely a canvas on which the film un-paints itself. And those un-paintings are beautiful and wonderful, sometimes erotic, and often imaginative, though it’s up-close (in close-ups: still lifes, portraits) that Jireš and cinematographer Jan Curík excel; when the camera slides too far back, control and beauty are lost. The film particularly relies—and re-re-returns—to the face of Valerie, the face of actress Jaroslava Schallerová,

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whose eyes express a depth of understanding and maturity that contrasts with her age (as actress and as character), so that whenever she’s shown in long-shot, when it becomes clear that she’s still only a young girl, the film loses this [illusion of] depth, along with some of its magic: poetry turns to narrative, and the narrative isn’t enthralling.

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Other characters are also given enchanting close-ups. I was especially taken with Helena Anýzová, who plays Valerie’s grandmother (among other characters) and who has acted in only one other film: Juraj Herz’ The Cremator. Her other film career, as a costume designer, was slightly longer (5 films), but I don’t think she designed costumes for Valerie. I don’t know if she’s still alive; her last IMDB-documented stint as costume designer was in 1982. In Valerie, she is simply stunning!

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I was also impressed by the film’s shots of objects, which aspire to symbolism, but more often achieve “only” beauty. It’s up to the viewer to work out their meanings—if any—but it hardly matters. Like other aspects of the film’s style, these still lifes are best when accompanied by little or no motion. Jireš cannot keep up his sense of elegance when faced with cameras and characters moving. His plans, his compositions are for static objects. When they move, the film begins to creak. This is not a big complaint, because only the rarest filmmakers truly think in terms of cinema, in terms of moving images, but it is enough to break the spell.

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The film’s mood is hard to pin down: at times horrific, at others benign. Things are not constant. Villains fade from evil to tame, and Valerie’s own journey veers from serious to playful. Camp is not a dirty word, so Valerie can be described as campy. Over the course of the entire film, however, the progression is certainly from the ominous to the joyful and life affirming. The final scene is a vast celebration in which all characters (dead or alive, good or evil) take part as equal and equally-free participants. It’s the big, rousing finale—from Wonderland, albeit without Alice.

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Inspired by Cream? The curtains aren’t the right colour.

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I included this image, of Valerie perched like a gargoyle (or a bird, if you prefer), because I don’t remember too many shots of the sky. For such a fanciful film, Valerie sure is Earth-bound. Along with the close-ups this gives it an interior, boxed feel. The shot above the shot of the sky is of the villain, a vampire with funny ears!

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Now I have a confession to make. Despite Valerie being an enticing film, equally playful and fantastic, presented as a parade of [mostly] amazing images, I was happy that it wasn’t a second longer than it’s brief seventy-odd (else: seventy odd) minutes. I’m not sure why—maybe the barrage of narrative-lite weirdness is aggressive and tiring, or else I need some substance behind my pretty pictures—but I was happy to turn the film off and get out of its world. And while I like all the screen caps I took and admire their visual artistry, that world didn’t haunt me like other film-worlds have haunted me. Still, I’ll leave you with its final image, which might just fit yet with Ginger Baker on drums, Jack Bruce on Bass, and Eric Clapton on guitar:

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I’ll sleep in this place with the lonely crowd, Lie in the dark where the shadows run from themselves…

Berlin 1913

The last days of the Belle Époque, before the alliance system collapsed and sent Europe tumbling into the Great War. These were the world’s last days. This is my English translation of another poem by the Polish poet Julian Tuwim.

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Oh, dismal, snowy nevermore!
Days lost and adored!
I see you again in the Café du Nord
On a frosty, foggy morn.

Fear, sweet fear from head to toe,
The quiver of blue and tender nerves,
A dream came so, and a letter came so:
Fog of legendary perfumes.

Though I am not and I am not,
And I will never be.
In a letter caught; in a dream, caught
In a gentle, snowy mythology.

You know not of this. Only wait, trembling.
As the day sleepily spills and whispers.
Oh, this heart of mine, this youth,
You carry with you in your silver purse.

Yesterday? But what was that?
Carmen, coaches, wine, and waltzes…
Flash before my eyes. No—a bird,
Sewn onto the veil around your hat.

It’s empty and warm in this café.
Winter frosts the glass like skin,
I won’t come. You won’t see me. Go away.
…Great, great is the city of Berlin.

—Julian Tuwim
(Translation by me)

A May Night

Here’s my English translation of a poem by the early twentieth-century Polish poet Bolesław Leśmian. The original title is “Majowa Noc”.

You come like a May night…
White night, a night a-slumber in jasmine…
Jasmine-scented your words take flight…
Moon silvery dreams flowingly spins…

I love you…
I don’t promise you much,
Much as near-nothing,
At most Spring green—such,
as the warm days that it brings,
At most a smile on your face,
And a hand in need,
So it’s not a lot, you see,
Because I promise you only me…

I love you like the wind.
Like a hole in a well-worn cardigan.
Like a tree grown large inside a grove,
Simply, I love you… my love.

But will you allow me to say…
In brief and in silence…
That I shall give to you and open…
In the quiet of hearts, in a streaming glance,
Three words kidnapped by a dream…
Taken by time… hidden by the evening…
Three words that sound like songs do…
Three simple words… I love you.

– Bolesław Leśmian
(Translation by me)

Woodfall

The sun burned the fog but the fog persisted. The sun faded. Twilit clouds of birds, each spreading its wings, alighted on the lake’s surface. The trickling darkness encouraged the bird-clouds and the crickets, whose chirping rippled the water.

There was no more sun. There were no more people.

The crickets sang about wanting wide wings, too, like the birds, which kept descending in columns until the last bird found the last patch of lake and the crickets came out to see a lake of birds, as the birds looked at the crickets covering the land and vegetation, forming a landscape of crickets.


Musk Ox is a Canadian Neofolk band from Ottawa. They play dark and beautiful chamber music. Their self-titled debut album came out in 2007. Their second, Woodfall, came out this June.

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late schoolboys and sour ‘prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the King will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shoulds’t thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me?
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, ‘All here in one bed lay.’

She’s all states, and all princes, I;
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here, to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.

“The Sun Rising” by John Donne

Stalin v. Auteurism

From Evgeny Dobrenko’s Stalinist Cinema and the Production of History: Museum of the Revolution, page 5:

Konstatin Simonov describes in his memoirs a noteworthy scene. In 1940, on Stalin’s orders, the film The Law of Life (Zakon zhizni) was banned, and the author of the screenplay, Alexander Avdeenko, was subjected to acute criticism. After a meeting of the Central Committee, Stalin was asked what should be done with the directors, Alexander Stolper and Boris Ivanov, who were in fact present. Stalin, carelessly turning his fingers in the air to show how film revolves in a camera, observed, ‘And who are they? They only turned the reels on what he wrote for them.’

And from Teresa Torańska’s Them: Stalin’s Polish Puppets:

Stalin didn’t take part in our games and appeared only later, for supper or a movie, which he projected especially for us. He liked American [movies], ultra-political [movies], he lit up then, made comments.

Perhaps never has a historical figure been more a champion of the American screenwriter. Truffaut and Andrew Sarris be purged!

The Hampdenshire Wonder

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Not the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg but sad eyes, too.

My library’s edition of J. D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder is part of The Garland Library of Science Fiction (“A collection of 45 works of science fiction selected by Lester del Rey”) but this 1911 novel about a big headed freak-child has more to do with cricket and philosophy than science fiction.

The narrator is a journalist writing a book about the son of a supremely talented bowler with gorilla-long arms whose career was cut short by injury. At first, the cricketer appears to be the titular Wonder. Then we discover the truth: the Wonder is the child, purposefully bred to become a better bowler than even the father. The purpose doesn’t pan out, however. Victor Stott is no bowler. He’s too delicate and aloof. His gaze, so penetrating and intelligent, frightens all upon whom it falls. He is a new species—a human evolved.

But this is not a horror story. Or at least not in a bloody sense. Victor does not rampage. On the contrary, he says little, processes information at an incredible pace and is seemingly perpetually bored. He lacks emotions. For example, his father leaves the family; Victor doesn’t bat an eye. Yet the scene does present a neatly scary power play: Stott Sr. has a favourite chair. He sits in it daily, obsessing over cricket. One day, Victor sits in the chair. The father tries to command the son to move; their eyes meet; and the father lowers his head and walks away forever. He has been defeated. The mother treats her son as a god.

What Beresford focusses on the most is the disconnection between Victor and his surroundings. The Wonder or “freak” is solitary. No one understands him but he understands everything. He has no companionship and no interests. The novel ends on a philosophical discussion (“The Uses of Mystery”) that suggests humanity is in its infancy and the enjoyment of life comes from the process of learning, step-by-step, at working for and then experiencing revelations. Had we all knowledge, it’s not the knowledge itself that would destroy us, but the fact there wouldn’t be more knowledge to pursue. We’d waste away like Kane in Xanadu: arrived at our goal; now what?

This places religion in an interesting spot. One of the novel’s characters is a priest. The Wonder offends him (presumably by undermining the foundation of his religion,) and the priest then tries to destroy the Wonder. The priest is not a villain—the novel has no villains—but he, the spiritual father, much like the Wonder’s biological father, ends up emasculated by the boy. Indeed, the only one untouched by the Wonder’s powers is a true idiot, a blabbering mental retard (Beresford is unkind to him.) I won’t spoil the mystery.

Although much of The Hampdenshire Wonder is journalistic, Beresford is capable of sudden shocking bursts of beauty. My favourite passage:

A spear of April sunshine had pierced the load of cloud towards the west, and the bank of wood behind them gave shelter from the cold wind that had blown fiercely all the afternoon.

It’s only one sentence but so vivid.

There’s no wrong in describing The Hampdenshire Wonder as science fiction and reading it solely because it’s a precursor to countless wunderkind stories, but it doesn’t do Beresford justice. The novel begins with the narrator in a railway carriage reading Henri Bergson and ends with a brief philosophy of knowledge. The chief emotion is sadness. Victor Stott’s life: tragic. And the presentation is always sober and understated. More than scifi, The Hampdenshire Wonder is good literature.