Ivan Passer was the 1st AD on Milos Forman’s narrative debut, Black Peter, but it feels like he may have had a script hand as well. The film feels so much like Intimate Lighting, and also like later Forman works, Loves of a Blonde and (my personal favorite) The Firemen’s Ball.
The film is talky in the best way and really relies on long set pieces. Ladislav Jakim plays Peter, and he can be no other than a non-professional actor. Everything about him just screams everyday guy. It’s such a great performance and a real testament to Forman, who gets a precise malaise from Jakim that is so funny and relatable.
Peter works in a shop. As everyone tells him: no men work in shops anymore. The opening sequence supports that as the shop owner lets in woman after woman after woman, before we see Peter, lurking (which he does a lot of) outside. Peter is the security at the shop. He’s totally unequipped to be in that position and so an early scene is of him hilariously trying to spy unobtrusively (and doing the opposite), and then following a suspected thief in an elongated sequence that owes much to silent comics and their rhythms.
1960s Czech films love a good drinking scene and this film is no exception. The unbelievably funny Vladimír Pucholt plays Cenda, another teenager, and a mason-trainee (he’s very proud of his job; it’s quite masculine compared to Peter’s employment). In the best scene of the film – at a dance hall where Peter has brought a date – Cenda gets increasingly drunk, woos a young woman in a pitch-perfect-teenage-awkward way (i.e. he doesn’t woo her), and alternates between aggression and camaraderie.
The scene is also noteworthy for how Forman shoots it. He fills it with close-ups of party-goers and frequently cuts to the musicians. It feels like a warm-up for the entire film of The Firemen’s Ball.
Black Peter is also really insightful about parent-children relationships. Peter’s father paces constantly (a great example of blocking that is nearly as funny as the script and performances!), hands on his suspenders. His mother is always cooking. Peter is constantly at their mercy, but when he complains about them to his crush Asa (Pavla Martinkova) his grumblings feel entertainingly petty.
I wonder about the reception of Black Peter. There’s certainly an element of spying – albeit clumsy surveillance – that I think could be read into, but that doesn’t come to the forefront.
The Shop on Main Street
This is a remarkable film for so many reasons, but one is the way in which it moves from something like comedy into basically the opposite.
Like Black Peter, I wonder how Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ film was received. On one hand it speaks pretty poorly of the Nazis, and I don’t think that would be banned or even looked down upon at the time. On the other hand, it doesn’t speak too well of the citizenry, and includes a whole lot of paranoia and suspicion.
This is the same year as Passer’s Intimate Lighting, but the style is so different. It’s one of the many, many things I’ve come to appreciate more and more about the 1960s Czech output (and, as to be expected, there’s a fantastic drinking scene in this one): there’s such a variety of styles from director to director, film to film. The Shop on Main Street feels so fluid, very nearly Hollywood at times. And then it changes to something surreal and ephemeral later. It’s also so unlike Black Peter, which is after a different sense of camera-realism.
The dominant style early is to pan off of people and things to find others. It’s not a whip pan, but something like a mostly-motivated move on a beat to find someone’s reaction. The dolly is quite active, too. In the latter part of The Shop on Main Street, though, we get something that feels like it may have inspired The Double Life of Veronique: a really ghostly, personal camera. One that pursues the main character but also feels entirely intangible.
Jozef Kroner has such a heavy lift as Tono, the lead. He’s in every scene, and really has to make a long one at the end totally work, where he’s in one-location and more-or-less by himself. The performance is so good. Throughout the course of the film Tono evolves from comical bumbler, to angry drunk, to sympathetic villain, to tragic figure. It’s the writing, direction, and performance that pull this together and Kroner is totally game. His tired face and frantic eyes do a lot. That ending scene is so long and is mostly just about Tono reacting to things. Not an easy performance.
I was lucky enough to catch this on a 35 print, and it’s gorgeous to look at. A sequence that just precedes the final act of the film, where we move from a bar to a building being erected outside is so richly detailed.