A Home-Movie History of the Twentieth Century

09/24/2009 2:48 PM |

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With Home Movie Day only three and a half weeks away, now is a fortuitous time for Facets to release Jan Sikl’s epic ode to domestic documentation as cultural history, Private Century (2006-2008). Originally an eight-part miniseries for Czech television, Sikl’s cycle recollects the history of Czechoslovakia throughout the twentieth century by using different families’ home movies with narration based on memoirs, diaries, and interviews with surviving friends and family. Each episode tells a distinctive story (though a couple are related), and together they form a powerful alternative to any notion of an official history that privileges politicians and isolated demographics. Instead, the only milestones celebrated here are births, first loves, family gatherings and other minutiae that capture joys both banal and transcendent. The tragedies, however, are inexorably linked to the larger political climate, and Sikl’s microcosms bring much-needed specificity to the ambiguities of history’s annals.

Private Century is anything but a scholastic exercise, and in many ways the text-driven narration is but a mere context for something far more revelatory and engaging: the home movies themselves. Perhaps it is just because film was more expensive than video, or that Sikl and his editors were highly selective, but the material chosen reflects more than haphazard, clumsy documentation (though, like all of our birthday and holiday VHS tapes, this is sometimes the case). There’s an awareness of the film language, the way it works, and the way it can be manipulated. Many of the amateur filmmakers seem to have absorbed the conventions of various cinemas (narrative, experimental, erotic), which reappear throughout Private Century in surprising and surprisingly effective manifestations.

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In “See You In Denver,” the fourth and arguably best episode, a family of film exhibitors reacts to the nationalization of Czech cinemas by hoarding prints of American Westerns and holding secret basement screenings. Using all the available film stock they can find, they also embark on their own moviemaking adventure, a Western homage called “Black Jack Rodeo Film,” complete with a post office robbery, mountain gun fight, and dramatic death-tumble down into a rocky gorge (an example of highly skilled editing, as the footage came from a print of an American Western they had managed to hold onto). Even their home movies show ingenuity, using reversed footage and painted backdrops.

Other episodes also exhibit homemade mini-narratives: “With Kisses From Your Love” (about a photographic studio’s futile efforts to maintain independence and hold on to their controversial archive) features an unfinished film about the adventures of “Chestnut Man” who floats down streams on a raft; in “Statuary of Granddad Vinda” (about a marginalized sculptor’s struggle for acceptance and employment both before and after the rise of Communism), everyday dinner is rendered extraordinary through sudden appearances of guests, plates, and food, in the manner of Georges Méliès; and in “Daddy and Lili Marlene,” we are privy to the private moments of a husband’s softcore portraits of his wife.

The vital importance of home movies to their makers comes to the forefront in the last two episodes, “Small Russian Clouds of Smoke” and “Low Level of Flight,” both of which concern the same circle of Russians exiled to Czechoslovakia after the Revolution. In the former, the insular community of émigrés is so assured that the political tide will soon change they never bother to learn the language of their new home, yet still they document their passing days, months, and eventually years, imbuing this seemingly transitory period with an otherwise unacknowledged significance and permanence. And in the latter, a pilot’s illegal aerial footage suggests that the danger of being caught was more than worth the ability to relive a transcendent experience time and again, and that as a filmmaker he was able to create that perfect cinematic sensation that he sought as a viewer. Such is the rare satisfaction that few viewers, or indeed makers, are ever able to achieve.

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Also on DVD this week:

Like You Know It All (2009) (Region 3 NTSC DVD) – Last year, Manohla Dargis blasted the New York Film Festival for including Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day, writing that “programmer loyalty seems the only explanation for [its] inclusion… a meandering, bloated bore.” One year later, we are deprived of his latest film, about a drunken filmmaker on a journey that (in Hong tradition) winds up being more about him than his work. Maybe there isn’t a connection and I’m just bitter that I can’t watch it in the newly finished Alice Tully Hall. Now is when you should be glad you (or your new best friend) has an All Region DVD player.

Tulpan (2008) (Zeitgeist, Region 1) – Kazakh filmmaker Sergey Dvortsevoy’s movie fuses ethnographic and narrative styles to tell a story of a young man’s attempts at both love and sheep herding.