By David Phelps
In The White Dove, Frantisek Vlácil’s 1960, debut feature, the camera floats towards children and wharf-dwellers, perched against drift of sea and sky, and the action is staged through the windowpanes of hushed interiors. So, a consummate 60s film, its topos a clichéd dreaminess: black contours of faces and bodies swaddled by variegations of white in “atmospheric” fog and argentine raindrops; a suspended space and time out of which characters emerge as much at the auspices of the floating camera as a floating world. The calculated impression seems to be that the camera has created the world, one in which the only things that exist are those that are seen. The movie goes further than L’Avventura in some ways—an early cut, halfway across Europe, from one coastal village to another, unrelated, suggests time itself off its axis without a causal relation in place—only to work out a more traditional mechanism, a concatenation of planes that reveal a vast causal system between points in this seemingly flattened world. An artist gives a lost dove to a crippled boy who nurses it back to health against the encroaching presence of a black cat named Satan, who reigns from the tops of elevators over his prey, but the illustrations of past lives, dashed hopes and seeds of revenge, are interspersed throughout as though still unfolding from the fog of the primary action.
The question of why Vlácil decided to make his simple story kind of confusing doesn’t really arise when the movie’s cold fun is in seeing each shot as a puzzle piece laid parallel to one another, or rather, a series of puzzle pieces in which the action outside windows is a narrative frame that’s parallel to the action within. The White Dove quickly loses relation with any sort of 60s cinema of irresolution, in which the characters might inhabit some inner landscape beyond the frame, as it becomes something closer to ballet—Michael Powell, Busby Berkeley, Tex Avery—as the characters are such exteriorized pawns of the composition and music that the action is only a matter of the framing and montage. Unlike in Powell, Berkeley, or Avery, however, the vectors and rhythm of Vlácil’s visual music are not simply let to stand for themselves as prime movers of narrative. Instead, they become the expedients to a new, ornamental language that nametags the characters as symbols of innocence, evil, and redemption: to be functions of the swilling music, the characters must be stripped of all internal functions, and seen only against the blur of rain on the lens.
The White Dove resembles something like a geodesic mobius strip: its frames, shot to shot and within, collapse on themselves in the film’s flattened time and space—each scene a single shot, while life outside the windows play like extension of the pictures on the walls within. Neat parallels never responding to one another, Vlácil’s frames, within and between shots, are linked only by the film’s narrative maneuvering, as a far-fetched story operates to prove that the shots show spatial relations and the editing causal ones. An inescapable hunch sets in by the end that Vlácil basically wanted to speckle his frames with sudden forms out of light for pretty effect, a Cartier-Bresson abstraction, and that a sentimental, modern fairy tale was the easiest pretext.
Vlácil’s moral grappling seems like its own answer throughout his films. Men are beasts, the world is hell, and innocence can only exist as a symbol, dove or child, unplugged from a brutal reality and dwelling apart in celestial conjecture. Convenient for allegory, the point operates as pretext, subtext, and text of Vlácil’s movies. But in the three medieval passion plays—The Devil’s Trap, Marketa Lazarová, and Valley of the Bees—Vlácil locates a world historically whose citizens operate by same beliefs; where the repressions of family orders are as violent as the disorder in response.
The Devil’s Trap (1962), now both panning and cutting within scenes, forges a new relationship with the film’s world than The White Dove’s moral proofs. The camera, now inhabiting the world, becomes a surrogate viewer lost in chaos, but only seemingly: the outside action is still choreographed to a cosmic eye, through which we see its Berkeley-like abstractions only occasionally. Marketa Lazarová (1967) goes farther in mock-empricism, with handheld Cinemascope, a dubbed soundtrack of off-screen grunting, chanting, praying, and a montage that ignores any shot-to-shot relationships of time and space. The movie’s “visceral” by default, with its snowy canvas on which humans and wolves move without a trace, and without any coordinates to connect each moment to anything but itself.
But a friend, SE, who’s seen the movie four or five times, marvels at its buried webwork: the audience only locates the position of the main house in the movie’s world by the end of three hours with the realization (recognizing a cathedral spire in the distance) that it’s just on the other side of the hill in the final battle. And only by then have the original relations between incestuous characters been revealed. Vlácil spent five years developing the geography for his myth, and so immersive is his technique that the network can only be suggested by a few nodes, landmarks that point toward a more traditionally determinant world than Vlácil’s free-form surface movements imply. It’s only an extension of The White Dove: the interlaced subplots and spaces that take a film to connect; the world that seems to hang apart from gravity and time only because the director shot it as abstractly as possible without perspective lines in sight. The game is to find them in a predetermined world.
Still, in The Valley of the Bees (1967), a firm frontality and tight-pruned narrative of a monk breaking ranks moves through just a couple locations and a decade, and for maybe the first time it seems like these things are beyond the director’s control. By following natural orders of time (chronology) and space (architecture), these classical principles finally become the clear rules of the game instead of the bait of Vlácil’s shuffling. Characters, including dogs, grow up over scenes, and Vlácil lets in an eternal routine at the edges: the monk’s meals and chants.
One Two Three Four
From Adelheid (1969) on, Vlácil, under censor’s eyes, films modern fables as if subordinate to the script of these stories in which not much happens: usually at the edge of town, bordering a dark forest and field laced with landmines, an outcast or two wander around, contemplating their opposition to the town hicks until the inevitable, violent confrontation. There’s some question of what makes Vlácil’s style in these modern Westerns, allegories of anti-communist witchhunts, much different from Anthony Mann’s or Robert Aldrich’s, the images and the story now balanced as steady props for one another. Smoke on the Potato Fields (1977) works as if the comic paneling of The White Dove has been contextualized within a more familiar world of cheap, socialist institutionalism: the fog is now marked by ambulance minivans with red cross decals, and the windows reflect not silhouettes but women in checkered blouses and aprons. Vlácil’s cars become his main device to excuse his abstractions: the windshield operates as a flattened, mock-screen specked with rain onto the landscape. In looking through it, Vlácil gives himself a logical device for his career-long strategy of matching flattened still shots with sudden tracking shots toward an endlessly receding horizon.
The effect’s a sensible kind of prettiness. The cuts to the sky in The Little Shepherd Boy, as if enlarging the image outside the houses’ windows to overtake the screen, work restoratively like paragraph breaks of a sort. And there are shots throughout all these late films, particularly at night—and particularly in Shades of Fern—in which Vlácil almost recreates a depth effect on-screen not by perspective lines, but by letting a central point of light radiate across the screen to register the objects of the scene in a splay of fluctuating glows: as in The White Dove, Vlácil achieves a Vermeer sort of depth through flatness, in which the elements can be compared parallel to one another only as echoes of light, dimmer in spots and stronger in others. But not quite: there is always a pre-established space coordinating the characters’ movement towards each other, though interactions are rare, and it’s only the nascent possibility of violence—a town war that could trigger a bomb, or a bomb that could trigger a war—that really seems to matter to the characters or filmmaker. World War II becomes a symbol of horror in a landscape treated only for symbolic value. Where Aldrich or Mann would set up frames within frames, illusions within illusions, to break through them in violence, in the physical contact of flesh against flesh, bullets, and rocks, Vlácil, in something closer to echo chambers—of pure formalism? of censored storytelling?—has his characters recalling traumas in a cheap universe where each moment’s a new nadir, and every object is an accoutrement of dread and wonder.
— March, 2011/2013