Welcome to Closely Watched DVDs, which I hope will become an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Czech cinema, both in a general sense and specifically in terms of the extraordinarily extensive range of DVDs available with English subtitles.
It’s also very much a personal journey, as this blog is the logical culmination of my realisation that although I often list Czech cinema amongst my main cultural interests, and have done so for a good couple of decades, my actual knowledge of its history is embarrassingly skimpy. It sounds deceptively impressive that I’ve seen about fifty Czech films - until I add the footnote that at least half of them are shorts and over thirty are by the same director, Jan Švankmajer.
This gap between delusion and reality had been niggling away at me for some time, but came to a head during 2005 when I made two important discoveries. The first was that I bought a copy of Peter Hames’ seminal The Czechoslovak New Wave, the expanded second edition of a long out-of-print original, which graphically underlined what I’d long suspected about my lack of real knowledge of Czech film history - and the second was when I attempted to find out how many Czech-language films were available on DVD with English subtitles.
I wasn’t wildly optimistic that I’d turn up too much: I knew that the much-vaunted Criterion Collection in the US had released a handful of 1960s classics (four, as it turned out) and that all of Švankmajer’s features and about half the shorts were available from various sources, along with a few other one-offs: a Jiří Trnka compilation, the Oscar-winning Kolya, Divided We Fall, Czech Dream and so on. I’d also been very encouraged by the launch of the Second Run DVD label in Britain, whose initial line-up included a number of Czech titles (Miloš Forman’s debut diptych Audition/Talent Competition, Karel Kachyňa’s The Ear) - but I didn’t expect to end up listing more than a couple of dozen.
In the event, I found over two hundred.
Although I was right about the relatively limited range available in Britain and the US, it seems that DVD distributors in the Czech Republic fully subscribe to the notion that the addition of English subtitles to their releases might boost their sales and export potential. There, Czech films available on DVD without English subtitles are in a distinct minority, and while many of the rest don’t exactly push the boat out (with very few exceptions, menus and extras are Czech-only, and the main feature’s English subtitles are often typo-riddled and clearly not written by a native speaker), the mere fact that they make at least some effort in that direction is something to celebrate.
But how best to celebrate it?
Well, this blog is my token contribution. Over the next year or so I plan to watch as many major Czech films as I can get my hands on and post my impressions here. Everything I discuss will be available on DVD in a form accessible to English speakers, and I’ll also offer information as to how best to get hold of it - along with a guide to ordering from monoglot Czech websites. Comments are most welcome, especially from people who know more about the subject than I do. Workload permitting, I’ll try to make sure that weekly visitors always find something new.
In the meantime, I’ve started compiling a list of available DVDs, which you can find here. At the time of writing, it contains just five names, but I plan to add five more on a daily basis until it’s grown into something useful.
And here’s a list of what’s actually sitting on my shelves - and I do take review requests.