Friday, August 3, 2012

The Firemen's Ball (1967) Spine #145

There are some works of art that in and of themselves are not particularly aesthetically pleasing or emotionally stirring.  However, the social / political / economic / cultural context they are produced in elevates the work to a point of significance that, on its own merit, it would not have achieved.  This seems to be one end of a spectrum where artistic merit alone stands on the other end.  In the middle, you can have a movie that is both (like Children of Paradise).

Fireman’s Ball.  Is this a great movie?  No.  It’s amusing.  It’s very much in keeping with the 1960s European push towards neorealism (using real people and real locations instead of actors or sets).  What happens?  A group of firemen are celebrating the retirement of their chief.  They get the party ready, the party happens, it is interrupted by a fire that they do not put out, the revelers return to the ball, there is an unsuccessful raffle where all the prizes disappear, the ball ends.  There are moments of poignancy, like the man who lost his house being given a jacket in order to enter the ball because almost everything he used to own about an hour ago is now gone, and one cannot be without adhering to the dress code. The fireman who’s in charge of making sure the prizes don’t disappear returns the head cheese that his wife stole on her watch and is chastised for it.  But the movie largely paints the firemen as loveable drunks who are pretty horrible at their jobs and the Czech people, at this point in history still on the cold side of the Iron Curtain, as a bunch of thieves necessitated by the economy of scarcity that was communism.  But none of these people look like they are starving (in fact, the majority are quite portly) and the beer pitchers that are masquerading as steins seem to have no trouble staying filled to the brim.  Are things really all that bad?

What’s important about this film is when and where it was made.  Milos Forman’s commentary on making the film and trying to get it shown to the Czech people is insightful and heartbreaking.  It is noted that this film and its difficulties are the impetus for Forman fleeing Czechoslovakia for the United States, for it was indeed his last Czech film.  Do not watch this film without listening to Forman’s interview on the disc.  It is invaluable for a glimpse at censorship in communist Eastern Europe.

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