View and re-view: some thoughts on The Sun in a Net

Fayolo (Marián Bielik) is, much like other examples of the cinematic photographer (Blow Up’s David Hemmings springs to mind) introduced as being somewhat distanced from the world around him. Seen in the company of the beautiful Bela (Jana Beláková) he admonishes her, as though her expression of personality runs contrary to the image of her he has created. Like all sensible fifteen year olds who have bigger problems than self-absorbed boys, Bela quickly splits from Fayolo, leaving him to dabble in both physical labour and the arms of the welcoming Jana (Ol’ga Ŝalagová). bscap0025je5Thus is a simple, teen-movie interpretation of The Sun in a Net’s (1962) plot – one omitting to mention the naturalistic portrayal of rural and urban life, family melodrama and expressionistic use of sound and music. Director Štefan Uher was a graduate of the Prague Film School (FAMU) in the mid 1950’s, and his subsequent work is considered key within the Czechoslovak New Wave, primarily The Sun in a Net – his second feature. Here Uher combines a formal vigour and innovative use of sound that is truly remarkable, with the question of what is seen and unseen of vital importance. Not only does the film present a central character who mediates the world through the lens of a camera, but the opening scenes use the drama of an eclipse to frame the initial characterisation – with characters seen using blacked-out glass through which to view the event – whilst Bela’s mother (Stana) – played with sensitivity by Eliška Nosálová – is also blind, relying on a descriptive interpretation of her surroundings, provided by her son and daughter. As the film makes clear, Bela’s mother is rendered doubly blind – both due to her impaired vision, and the modified versions of her environment that her children provide. Mirrors are also key, with both Stana and Bela framed within their reflections, suggesting the distorted image to be more primary than their actual selves.  Alongside this, the rhythmic, almost a-tonal music by Ilja Zeljenka punctuates Uher’s compositions, and a rock and pop soundtrack has a presence in scenes largely via radio transmissions, yet another instance of the medium being just as – (if not more) powerful as that which is heard. bscap0031ei4This focus on what are essentially forms of communication, gives depth and poignancy to a simple tale of teen passions, a tragic marriage and the concerns of the social and working lives of the Slovak people. By giving such prominence to media – the television aerials, the radio, even (to an extent) the narrative of working life Fayolo provides in written form to Bela – Uher presents a distinctly post-modern vision of Slovak life, and one which was clearly too provocative for the authorities at the time, who judged it unsuitable.

Once again Second Run DVD have brought another previously unreleased, yet vital cinematic work to our attention – and might I suggest that it be viewed as a double bill with Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers, made two years earlier in Poland, with no less an infectious and charismatic portrayal of youth, jazz and sex.

My week in film: Knife in the Water and The Trouble with Harry

cap429Despite 2012 being the year Alfred Hitchcock was consistently celebrated; with a retrospective at the BFI in London, including restorations of his early, silent films – the ‘Rescue the Hitchcock 9’ project, which was part of the Cultural Olympiad; and two films The Girl (Julian Jarrold) and Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi, released on 8 February), I still didn’t manage to catch up on the great director’s entire work. So, to continue my efforts The Trouble with Harry (1955) was this week’s Hitch selection. Set in a quiet and picturesque New England town, the film opens with Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) talking to himself as he seeks the victim of a morning’s hunt, whilst young Arnie (Jerry Mathers) plays alone nearby. The Captain’s chatter can be taken as an idiosyncrasy of the character or more likely – a self conscious way to guide the viewer as to his thoughts Trouble With Harry Hitchcock pic 1and motivations as he goes about trying to decide what to do with Harry’s corpse.
A true dark comedy in keeping with Hitchcock’s oeuvre, but without any pretensions towards being his usual thriller; the main attraction in this uneven film is the debut of Shirley MacLaine as Harry’s widow, Jennifer Rogers – mother to Arnie. MacLaine manages to raise herself above what results as an unnecessary romantic through-line, pretty much upstaging the arrogant (and annoying) Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) – at least until the inevitable matrimonial union. Its undoubtedly enjoyable and The Trouble with Harry may feature some gorgeous landscape shots, unusually for the studio-loving Hitch, but it can’t escape the throwaway nature of the script which tries too hard to tie up all loose ends. knife

Starting this week at Filmhouse and the BFI Southbank is a retrospective of works by esteemed director, Roman Polanski, including some lesser-seen early gems. Knife in the Water (1962), his first feature film as director is a tense tale with a very simple plot – a couple go sailing and take a hitchhiker with them. What results is a struggle of power as Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) essentially shows off in front of their student guest, testing the loyalty of his patient wife, Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka). The claustrophobia of the boat – staying onboard and being confined by the water surrounding them – is suggested perfectly in Polanski’s use of deep focus, never letting the immediate interactions lose association with the activities of the other character(s). tumblr_mc5z8twngl1qzbahzo1_1280

There’s also a wry sense of humour on display such as a visual gag that sees the unnamed ‘young man’ as Christ, implying the initial parent-child dynamic of this unlikely trio. At the screening I attended in Edinburgh the audience were also most amused by the jibes at Krystyna’s inflatable crocodile and her unexpected deception of her oblivious husband. With a screenplay by Jerzy Skolimowski, one couldn’t help noticing his influences elsewhere, such as Andrzej listening to a radio broadcast of a boxing match and the liberal use of frenetic Jazz on the soundtrack for moments of high tension. Skolimowski also co-wrote the screenplay for Wadja’s Innocent Sorcerers (1960) in which he appears as a boxer, (alongside Polanski as a musician) making Knife in the Water a clear product of the director’s then regular collaborators amongst the Polish Film School. trading-places-original

Also watched: John Landis’ comedic take on The Prince and the Pauper, Trading Places (1983) which brought to mind the legacy of slavery (now with added pop culture thanks to Django Unchained) in its depiction of men’s clubs staffed exclusively by African Americans.