Closely Watched DVDs

A guide to Czech cinema on DVD


Filed under: General — Michael at 4:24 pm on Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Since this blog has effectively been in a coma for the last nine months, I’ve decided to put it out of its misery - and will be shutting it down once I’ve ported all the (interesting) content over to its successor.

In its place, Kinoblog was launched last night, and promises to be a far more wide-ranging (and frequently-updated) blog tracking my progress through a vast range of Central and Eastern European cinema. It’s available here - and there’s a lot more to come.


Coming soon

Filed under: General — Michael at 12:52 pm on Friday, August 4, 2006

I’ve just watched a double-bill of Miloš Forman’s first proper feature Black Peter/Peter and Pavla (Černý Petr, 1963) and Petr Zelenka’s recent Wrong Side Up (Příběhy obyčejného šílenství, 2005) - the latter largely confirming the promise of the delightful Buttoners (Knoflíkáři, 1997), which had a limited release in Britain a few years ago, and which I enjoyed enough to risk taking a punt on his newer film.

Full reviews of both are imminent, but in the meantime I thought I’d confirm that the Czech Filmexport Home Video edition of Black Peter leaves the US Facets edition for dust - after reading this comprehensive DVD Beaver slagging-off (complete with damning screengrabs), I took a gamble that the Filmexport edition couldn’t possibly be any worse, and it paid off handsomely - there’s still room for improvement on the picture front, and the extras are Czech-only, but at present this disc has to be a clear first choice.

UPDATE: I sent DVD Beaver matching framegrabs from the Filmexport edition, and they uploaded them today - so that link is now to a comparative review of both versions.

Fifty Filmmakers

Filed under: General — Michael at 10:57 am on Saturday, July 29, 2006

Over the past few days, I’ve been quietly updating my guide to Czech Cinema on DVD, and while I still haven’t come close to covering everything that’s available, one milestone has just been passed: it now features the work of fifty filmmakers - and 178 individual films.

All of which would be impressive enough in itself (when I first trawled through Prague video shops less than five years ago, the number of Czech features available on DVD barely scraped double figures), but it’s frankly astonishing when you consider that I’ve deliberately limited my coverage to DVDs with English subtitles…

UPDATE: Make that sixty.

Aaaargh! My eyes!

Filed under: General, Article Links — Michael at 10:50 am on Friday, July 21, 2006

Sorry about that - just getting over the truly eye-wateringly hideous colour scheme of this website. I suspect the reason it hasn’t been updated since 1999 is because its creator went blind shortly afterwards (or was driven mad by the accompanying pop-ups - if your browser offers that option, I recommend switching them off).

Presentation issues aside, though, there’s an almost book-length amount of information here about Czech cinema in general and the Sixties New Wave in particular, with articles and quotations from many leading historians and filmmakers.

Plzeň Finále

Filed under: General, Festivals — Michael at 10:28 am on Monday, July 17, 2006

One of the brightest initiatives that I’ve come across in terms of championing a single country’s film heritage is represented every spring by the Plzeň Finále Festival of Czech Films. Less renowned than the venerable, more internationally-focused Karlovy Vary festival, it’s arguably more important, as its aim is to screen every Czech feature film made the previous year, together with the best documentaries.  It therefore serves as a handy one-stop shop for anyone trying to keep up with Czech cinema, and my understanding is that the vast majority (if not all) the screenings have English subtitles.

Here’s an interview with festival director Ivan Jachim, and a report on the 2003 festival by Peter Hames.

Starter for ten

Filed under: General — Michael at 1:21 pm on Saturday, July 15, 2006

So, having decided to spend the next few months surveying Czech film history (see Introduction), the next question is: where to begin?

Of the 200-plus titles currently available on DVD in English-friendly editions, only a tiny minority have ever had commercial distribution in English-speaking countries, and the vast majority of those - understandably - date from the 1963-9 golden era. Most English-language criticism of Czech cinema covers a similarly narrow range: even the definitive text, Peter Hames’ The Czechoslovak New Wave, betrays its focus in its very title, though it does at least cast the net wider than that implies.

So how best to decide which titles are worth exploring? Random selection would probably be an expensive gamble, so instead I decided to adopt a system used in Christopher Tookey’s The Critics’ Film Guide (1994), where he totted up the ratings given by the fifteen highest-profile film guides in order to establish a supposedly definitive “best films of all time” list (Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday was, for the record, the only title with a perfect 10/10 score). Obviously, there are all sorts of objections that could be made about these methods - not least statistical ones - but for my purposes it seemed to offer a reasonable model for what I was after.

So I entered all the relevant titles onto a spreadsheet and looked for sources of scores to tot up. I wasn’t seriously expecting to find fifteen, but I did find four that covered a reasonable spread of Czech cinema history: one book (Václav Březina’s Lexikon českého filmu, the only Czech equivalent of Halliwell’s that I’m aware of), and three online databases (Martin Pomothy’s self-explanatory Česko-Slovenská filmová databáze, the broadly similar České filmové nebe and the rather better-known Internet Movie Database).

All three databases feature scores averaging votes by individual readers, and all helpfully cite the number of votes - so I was able to apply weighting where necessary (for instance, if one source gave a film 6.7 from 131 votes and another 9.8 from just 2, this would average out at 6.75, not 8.25). However, I haven’t applied such weighting to Mr Březina’s scores as I felt this would overcomplicate matters - and it’s not as though this exercise is statistically robust to begin with.

Anyway, this rough-and-ready system generated this top ten:

1. My Sweet Little Village (Vesničko má středisková, d. Jiří Menzel, 1986)
2. The Hand (Ruka, d. Jiří Trnka, 1965)
3. The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, d. Juraj Herz, 1969)
4. The Elementary School (Obecná škola, d. Jan Svěrák, 1991)
5. The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze, d. Ján Kadár/Elmar Klos, 1965)
6. Lemonade Joe (Limonádový Joe aneb Konská opera, d. Oldřich Lipský, 1964)
7. Cutting It Short (Postřižiny, d. Jiří Menzel, 1980)
8. Once Upon A Time There Was A King (Byl jednou jeden král, d. Bořivoj Zeman, 1954)
9. The Witches’ Hammer (Kladivo na čarodějnice, d. Otakar Vávra, 1969)
10. Distant Journey (Daleká cesta, d. Alfréd Radok, 1949)

…which was exactly the kind of thing that I was after.

I’d heard of about half the titles on this list, but had only seen two already (The Hand and The Cremator). The Shop on the High Street, My Sweet Little Village and The Elementary School were all Czech nominees for the Best Foreign Film Oscar (the first-named went on to win). I first heard of - and nearly went to see - Lemonade Joe when it screened in the autumn 2003 Red Westerns seasons at the Leeds Film Festival and London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.

As for the remainder, I’d read Bohumil Hrabal’s novella ‘Cutting It Short’ (published in English translation in the collection The Little Town Where Time Stood Still) but hadn’t heard of the film before, while nos. 8 to 10 were entirely new to me (though Alfréd Radok’s reputation preceded him: he was the presiding genius behind Prague’s multimedia Laterna Magika theatre and a mentor to Miloš Forman, whose own films feature only just outside this top ten).

What I was particularly pleased about was the fact that the list offered a 42-year spread and that only half the titles dated from the 1960s. Obviously, I don’t wish to play down that decade’s significance, not just to Czech cinema but Czech history and culture as a whole, but I’m very conscious of the fact that international distribution and criticism has been so overwhelmingly biased towards it that other eras might as well not exist. I’d also picked up the impression that the period 1969-89 was more or less a write-off in critical terms, yet two titles on the list date from the 1980s.

So I ordered DVDs of all ten, and I’ll post my findings in due course. In the meantime, Andrew James Horton’s overview of Czech cinema for GreenCine provides the best beginner’s guide that I’ve come across online - and I’ll be discussing most of the titles he mentions over the next few months.

Welcome to Closely Watched DVDs

Filed under: General — Michael at 11:36 pm on Friday, July 14, 2006

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.

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