Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Three times food: Czech surrealism in cinema

Fetishization/obsession with food is one of the leitmotifs of the Czech New Wave kind of surrealism. It has definitely a lot to do with the legacy of Czech surrealism, which had some of the most interesting art and artists in that spirit. Food gains new meaning within socialist economy and culture: it's precious, you're not supposed to waste it or play with it. Waste is a crime against the working people and ultimately against the state. 

Yet there's also no excuse for wasting food within capitalism, at least according to the early, protestant ethics, which can be also traced paradoxically in American Pop Art, with its gigantisation of food, a specific "food porn", where within the mass market, consumerist capitalism becomes monstrous and breeds all sorts of pathological relationships we have with it - especially women, whose activities have been endlessly associated with preparing/making/eating it. Maybe in this, in denying the food the usual meaning it has (including sacredness!) there lies a power to subvert both systems, or any system? The anarchic food waste and obsessing about it finds also amazing effects in Czech feminist art. In communism, famous for food shortages, gathering food was often extremely difficult, and it was also on women, where lay the responsibility for keeping the family alive. In capitalism, we have no shortage of food anxiety and insecurity.

Resulting from the physical, oral, "wet" contact with food is its sexualisation, pornography of food, where both the sex and the neurotic activity of capital are present. Food as fetish, and woman as an object to consume, an 'edible woman' is a renowned motif in feminist art, including the difficult relationship between food and woman's body. Which, according to the punishing, coercive beauty ideals, simply can't have a proper relation with the food, she can never do right.

This and many other uses is at play with the outstanding "food art" or food anarchism we encounter in Czech experimental cinema.

I will highlight only a very few here. In Jan Svankmajer food becomes basically "existential" and stands for the general hopelessness of human existence; the hopeless mundanity, the routine and repeatability of everyday activities, such as eating three meals a day; which is deeply felt also in the 'Meat love', a motif of which he repeats in his late film Lunacy, or The Loonies, which was partly inspired by Marquis de Sade, a huge influence present also, in a sardonic way, in his Conspirers of Ecstasy. The world in Svankmajer is always impossibly twisted and distorted to the degree we merely recognise any familiar elements, stripped down to the libidinal rudiments of id, all consuming, violents and unpredictable:

Quite different is food for Vera Chytilova. Daisies features a lot in my future book, Poor but Sexy, so here only briefly: Daisies is and isn't about working/not working, laziness and boredom; it also hints at the all encompassing futility of existence, but with much stronger feminist and anarchic/(anti?) socialist accents. It questions what the citizens do and not do under socialism, it also questions the seeming liberalisation in Czechoslovakia and possibilities for womens' lib. It's a praise of laziness and boredom as reclaiming of time from under the political regime, and at the same time it questions this as means of feminist or any other liberation. And it's dedicated to those, "who cried over the potato salad". Women laughing, women eating, women destroying:

The two Marias do a lot of feminist transgression: they not only waste food, burn meat etc, they also cut their dresses, ‘deconstruct’ them, the necessities for women’s fashion. They walk on food, crush it with their high heels (an analogue scene is repeated by Ulrike Ottinger in her Portrait of a Drunkard, with the character walking on broken glass). They want desperately to break free, but it’s always illusionary what they do, it lasts two seconds and then the jouissance goes away, much like under capitalism.

After the disaster they promise to themselves: “We will be hard working and everything will be clean, and then we’ll be happy”.

The screenplay for Daisies was developed together with Pavel Juracek and Ester Krumbachova, two amazing artists in their own right. Especially Krumbachova, a strikingly original costume designer, writer and director, interests us here, as a somehow tragic, unfulfilled figure, who made several astonishing films with Chytilova, like Fruits of Paradise, and co-wrote The Party And The Guests by Jan Nemec, Karek Kachyna's The Ear and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Jaromir Jires, but then, as a self-relying director didnt have similar success. Watching her only film, Murder of Mister Devil (1970) we already see, what in Daisies belongs to Chytilova, and what to Krumbachova and that only by working together these women could bring the best in their art.

In Murder, which I only watched in Czech, the visual means overshadow the actual content. We see a perfect bourgeois woman in a perfect flat preparing a real feast for her rather unimpressive functionary partner/husband. The feast is completely unproportionate to the small scale of the evening, yet the dishes just keep coming and coming, more and more breath-taking, and the whole film reminds me rather of Marco Ferreri's La Grande Bouffe or any transgressive anti-capitalist 70s fantasy. Yet given the title, and the superb poster, in which the screaming man is to be drowned and eaten in a ice-cream sundae by a smiling Medusa-woman (by Eva Galová-Vodrázkováin the best traditions of Czech and Polish school of poster, with excessive irony and surreal/dada spirit, from where Linder Sterling must've learned some of her technique too), it was a strongly feminist statement playing with anti-feminist semtiments, of a woman who's using her only 'weapons' - food, as a way to make everything in the world implode.


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