Saturday, October 20, 2007

Closely Watched Trains (1966)

Closely Watched Trains (Jirí Menzel, 1966)
Czech Title: Ostre sledované vlaky

Jirí Menzel's Closely Watched Trains opens with a narrated history of the Hrma family (it's a very amusing montage detailing the several unlucky circumstances that have surrounded the clan --- how his great-grandfather spent his riches on alcohol and tobacco, or how his grandfather met a brutal death trying to hypnotize Nazi tanks). The youngest Hrma, goofy-looking Milos (Václav Neckár), is off to apprentice as a train dispatcher in a remote station, following the footsteps of his father who has retired very early and earns pension money without doing anything. He dons his uniform like a royal robe and wears the dispatcher's cap like a crown. In full attire, he looks older than he really is. You can barely tell that underneath the overcoat and the boots, is a young man anxious to get laid for the very first time.

Menzel tells his story with a lighthearted daze. Jaromír Sofr's black and white cinematography, curiously soft and lovely in its simplistic elegance, lends an air of ease to the darkening narrative of our virginal hero suddenly awakening to the fact that there's a more conflicted world beyond his pitiful premature ejaculation. Menzel populates his film with comedic instances and charming visual cues (that famous shot of a little kiss with Milos' conductor-girlfriend stolen by her train's abrupt departure); it's really very easy on the eyes and undeniably adorable, even when events start getting drearier.

That remote station, depicted by Menzel with fanciful commitment to the absurd (the denizens of the station from the pigeon-loving station manager to Milos' oversexed superior and all the females in between), is more than Milos' place of employment, it is his personal train station to his coming-of-age. He enters that stage in his life by disappearing in a mass of dark engine smoke. There's more to watching trains regularly than pulling levers and reading telegraphs, it also involves being stuck in an office simmering with pheromones and sweaty memories of playful nights where rubber stamps serve a steamier purpose bigger than officiating documents.

The film seems ridiculously naive, as if Menzel is invoking the Milos in his world-view of a nation invaded. But this placid depiction of war, far from being childish and immature, is more childlike than anything. The reason Closely Watched Trains is so refreshing, so genuinely watchable, is that there's a fathomable transition from lighthearted to fatal, from coming-of-age to daring heroics, from quotidian comedy to utter pathos.

Milos grows up way before he realizes it. We see the world, currently being overwhelmed by violent battles, through the eyes of Milos who is bent on ridding his blossoming masculinity of a minor inconvenience, allowing him to finally consummate that mildly amorous feeling he has for his girlfriend. The film's biggest conceit and in my opinion, its claim to greatness, is its elegiac ending which not only satisfies Milos' interrupted coming-of-age but also his place in his war-torn country. Much like the way he disappears in the thick engine smoke to the duties of apprentice train dispatcher and the accompanying pressures of adulthood, he again disappears from a former life, this time through a powerful gust of darker smoke coming from an explosion he caused out of both extreme happiness from his recently consummated manhood and that fleeting, brash and almost unnoticeable sense of patriotism.


chard bolisay said...

I actually find it really boring. Everyone else around me is giggling whenever Milos mentions his "premature ejaculation." I wonder. And to think the film afterward lasted for more than three hours, and I never yawned even once, I believe my assertion is justified enough. (I lost my wit there. Haha)

sidehacker said...

I'd say that it's a nice, cute little film but really nothing more than that. The ending always felt like a slap in the face, though. Instead of being devastating, it's so clumsily executed that I can't even care about Milos anymore. I guess it's supposed to be commenting on how personal issues are less important that big political issues but the fact that Menzel has crafted an engaging character for a little bit over an hour, I end up feeling sort of betrayed when he *spoilers* ...dies just like that.

Just started reading this blog like two days ago and I'm already hooked. Great stuff!

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Chard and Sidehacker,

Chard, Closely Watched Trains is just a little over an hour and a half (maybe you're talking about Fanny and Alexander, which was fucking terrific) but maybe it really felt like three hours for you. I can't wait to read your review.

Oh, Filipinos, anything that has to do with ejaculation, sex, vagina, penis, scrotum, etc. will get us giggling like a virginal schoolgirl. Really annoying but you learn to live with it.

Sidehacker, thank you so much for the kind words. I loved the last bit --- a slap it is, but a really funny one, like a playful slap on the buttocks, painful but slightly ticklish (well, depends on what kind of slap on the butt really).

Noel Vera said...

I disagree. Light comedy is much more difficult to do than heavy drama and light comedy with a serious theme underneath that seems effortless is the most difficult of all. No one screams or yells or delivers extended speeches, but quietly, convincingly, the young man is transformed into a committed rebel. That's a miracle.

Good stuff. oggs.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Noel, and I completely agree.

Oggs Cruz said...

Chard, misread your comment... I apologize.

chard bolisay said...

Haha yeah -- I believe the end is abrupt and too contrived, but I guess that's the war really is all about. I just find it too pleasing it fails to deliver. And my review haha it's too short but will be posting it quite soon, when those thoughts are picked up. :)

Noel Vera said...

Not contrived at all, I feel. The subtext of repression has always been in the background (and not yelled out loud as in clumsier movies), and the young man begins to relate his own sexual frustrations with the frustrations of the country as a whole. When his heroism emerges, it emerges quickly, but not unexpectedly; it's something that's been forming in his (and ours, if we're sensitive to it) back of his mind, to step out at the right moment.

Something like what James Mangold was trying for in the 3.10 to Yuma remake (Ben's hundred and eighty degree turn in attitude towards going to prison), only Mangold does it louder.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Chard and Noel,

Chard, I didn't find the ending contrived actually. Milos was feeling like superman (having had sex with a hot rebel the night before), so it's normal to take one for the team... and of course he'll die, and die abruptly. But yeah, difference of opinion.

Noel, you liked 3:10 to Yuma, the remake? Which is better, that or the original?