A Guide to Picking Daisies (1966)

DAISIES (1967)

Following up on my look at one of my favorite films of the Czech New Wave, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), it seems only appropriate to follow up with another astonishing film from that period told from the perspective of young women: Daisies (1966). However, this one’s a bit different as I’d also rank it as one of the most fascinating films ever from a female director, in this case the endlessly creative and unpredictable Věra Chytilová, who would likely have prime placement in the pantheon of great world directors if all of her films were easier to see.

There’s been a lot of discussion about diversity in cinema over the past few years, with a particular focus on female directors since Kathryn Bigelow’s breakthrough Oscar win for directing The Hurt Locker (2008). However, while American filmmaking has certainly made some progress in recent years (and we definitely have a healthy number of highly accomplished American female directors), Europe has been ahead of the curve for a much longer period thanks to helmers as disparate as Lina Wertmüller, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Agnès Varda, Lucile Hadzihalilovic and Susanne Bier, to name but a few. There’s no way you could ever confuse any of their films for the work of anyone else, and that applies especially to Chytilová, who managed to make avant garde techniques fun, accessible, and even dangerous at a time when it was needed most.


Coming of Age with Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

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I’ve been on something of an Eastern European tear lately with the release of the third (and final, for now) boxed set of “Martin Scorsese Presents” Polish classics, which had a tremendous run in New York and (in more scaled-down fashion) Los Angeles a while back. However, with all the attention Poland has been getting the past couple of years from cinéastes, let’s not forget that Czech films have an astonishing history as well and could easily merit a months-long retrospective. But where to start? If you’re browsing around FilmStruck, I’d like to point in the direction of one obvious and very irresistible candidate streaming on the Criterion Channel: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), a beguiling supernatural fantasy that also happens to be one of the finest films ever told from a young girl’s point of view. [...MORE]

Cinematic Cat-egories

Postcard of Luna Park

I was going to write about The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), because it’s screening tomorrow on TCM and, also, because the latest Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), opens theatrically this coming Friday. Instead, I got stuck on the Inside Llewyn Davis poster. There is something about its composition that I find very striking. To notice it, you’ll have to ignore the top and bottom, which are lame in the ways that most movie posters are routinely lame: emphasizing celebrity names up top, and then all the normal credits at bottom. The middle section, however, is inspired. I can’t stop looking at the cat. There are several reasons for this, and the first is due to the sight-lines, which immediately reminded me of the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) painting by famous German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. It’s a classic example of a visual construction where all the lines lead to the center. Except in Friedrich’s case the lines of the natural landscape converge on man, whereas with the Inside Llewyn Davis poster, the sight-lines provided by the New York City streetscape converge on the cat. I think this is great because, in my humble opinion, any movie poster is immediately improved with the addition of a feline presence. Since our furry little friends are said to have nine lives, in this post I’ll be looking at how cats have been depicted throughout cinema in nine different categories. [...MORE]

Star-childs: From Soviet Union era Czechoslovakia to Kubrick

A copy of Ikarie XB 1 was recently put in my hands along with an enthusiastic recommendation. “It’s a game-changer,” my friend said. “Its influence on Kubrick is obvious.” As most people know, the seed for 2001: A Space Odyssey came in the form of a short story by Arthur C. Clark written in 1948 called The Sentinel (first published in 1951 as Sentinel of Eternity). However, it’s probably more accurate to say that the bulk of ideas that contributed to the end product of Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece came to the filmmaker and Clark during 1964. That was the brain-storming year when both were reading, watching, and doing as much homework as possible that might be relevant to their project. Watching Ikarie XB 1 now it seems self-evident to me that this  Czech film from 1963 directed by Jindřich Polák, based on a story by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (who wrote the novel Solaris in 1961), was clearly on their radar.  [...MORE]

Taking a “Distant Journey”

Yesterday, April 11, was Holocaust Remembrance Day, and one path taken to insure this horrific event will never be forgotten has been the chronicling of the stories, the nightmares, and the history of the Holocaust on film. From the testimonies of actual survivors documented for the Shoah Foundation to the dramatization of life in the concentration camps in fictional movies, the horrors of the Holocaust have been recorded and interpreted via the cinema. Of course, any mention of Holocaust dramas brings to mind Steven Spielberg’s highly regarded Schindler’s List, which continues to be the barometer for measuring the artistic value of other films with Holocaust subject matter.

Yet, through my job as a researcher and writer for the Facets DVD label, I have discovered a number of films about the Holocaust that I personally find more interesting and compelling. I am fascinated by some of these films because they were made just a few years after World War II and so convey a sense of immediacy in lieu of the retrospection inherent in contemporary Holocaust dramas. Also, these films were made by Eastern European filmmakers, some of whom had personal experiences in which they or family members were interred in concentration camps, giving the storylines a tragic authenticity. Unfortunately, few of these films are known to movie lovers or even mentioned in film histories, largely because they were produced by communist countries that were satellites of the old Soviet Union. Much of the culture of countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary was hidden behind the Iron Curtain and victim to the whims of the communist-dominated bureaucracies that controlled the arts. Even scholars who may have heard of these titles had little opportunity to see them because there was little organized distribution of such movies to the West.  Since the dismantling of the Soviet Union and its satellites, some of these films have been rediscovered and brought to light by companies such as Facets and Polart Video.


Private Century: Home Movies as Living History

with-kisses-from-your-love-0211My job at Facets Multi-Media in Chicago offers great access to some of the latest foreign films, documentaries, and other alternative movies. Between our theater, rent-by-mail service, and DVD label, I have seen hundreds of films most people don’t even know exist. Some of them are terrific; some enhance my understanding of the possibilities of film as an art form;  while others belong to the “watching-paint-dry” school of filmmaking. But, at least none of them are directed by Michael Bay, or include geeky male characters in suspended states of adolescence, or feature major stars wasting their talents jumping around in superhero costumes.

 Recently, I have been working with a documentary series from the Czech Republic called Private Century that has become one of my favorite titles. It is not only a moving viewing experience but it really stretches the boundaries of what many think a documentary should be. Private Century is an eight-episode series consisting entirely of home-movie footage from the 1920s through the 1960s.  [...MORE]

Movie Star Favorites From Someone Else’s Past

Lilian Harvey and John Boles in Fox's 1933 film "My Lips Betray"

When my husband was cleaning out his parents’ apartment in Santiago, Chile, after their deaths last year, one of the things he found was a well-worn leather satchel, crammed full of postcards and dinner menus from his mother’s 1938 ocean journey on the Hamburg-Amerika steamer Rhakotis when she and her family fled Germany for a new life in Chile.  She was a teenager then, and among the cards and mementos of the trip were a selection of movie star postcards which she had obviously collected, faces and autographs of personalities probably unfamiliar to most of us, but the stuff of a young fraulein’s dreams.  There were several photos of stars we would recognize — a couple of Shirley Temples, a Greer Garson, a Gary Cooper — but it was those other stars who caught my eye.  Who were these intriguing unknown celebrities?  John Boles I know, but who was, for instance, Lilian Harvey?


Czeching Out Milos Forman

forman1I am always impressed with the biographies that my fellow Morlocks Moirafinnie and Medusamorlock often pull together for this blog site. Thorough, well researched, and entertaining, these bios are far more informative than most of the blurbs found in film encyclopedias or dictionaries. Inspired by their dedication and sincerity, I thought I would try my hand at writing a bit of biography. 

Not too long ago, I saw Milos Forman’s last completed film, Goya’s Ghosts, on DVD. I had wanted to see it on the big screen, but in all of Chicago, it played on only one screen in one theater. It is a crime that big-screen access to a film directed by the man behind Amadeus, Hair, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was so limited, when garbage like The Transformers or Iron Man was shoved down our throats on multiple screens in thousands of cineplexes. Well, I best not get started down that path. 


Who Needs the Dark Knight When You Have . . . Jessie???

In an earlier post, I admitted a fondness for quirky foreign films, particularly foreign versions of popular genres such a science fiction, westerns, or horror movies. (Maybe one day when I am feeling brave, I will explain my love for live-action talking-animal movies.) I am actually more curious and open to foreign genre films than I am to the serious foreign fare that receives all of the awards and acclaim. While I appreciate the Bela Tarrs, Krzysztof Kieslowskis, and Alexander Sokurovs of world cinema, I am entertained by the Julius Machulskis and Vaclav Vorliceks. And, a good genre film can be as artistic and meaningful as a drama — sometimes more so. Like their American counterparts, foreign genre films are too often overlooked because they are formulaic, entertaining, or just plain fun.

In the wake of the media blitz surrounding the opening for The Dark Knight this past weekend, plus the recent news of a remake of Barbarella in which Robert Rodriguez will attempt to rework Roger Vadim’s 1968 cult classic, I am reminded of one of my favorite quirky foreign flicks — Who Wants to Kill Jessie? [...MORE]

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