Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Olde Review: Closely Watched Trains

This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW Film series back in the '70's. Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the snarky, clueless kid I was back in the '70's a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.

This Friday's films in 130 Kane Hall at 7:30pm are "Closely Watched Trains" and "Lacombe, Lucien."

"Closely Watched Trains" aka "Ostre sledované vlaky" (Jirí Menzel, 1966) "Closely Watched Trains" is a wry, sometimes hysterical Czech film by Jiri Menzel, a person you've probably never heard of and have already forgotten.* It tells the story of Miloš Hrma, an insignificant young man in the scope of WWII, whose father was retired at 48 and now spends his day lying around and keeping track of the comings and goings of the train. Another relative was a hypnotist and a couple years back, he tried his skills on an advancing Nazi tanke-gruppe and was promptly crushed to a pulp (I am telling you this because there is no way in Hell that you'll be able to read the sub-titles in the opening minutes).** These are only two examples of Menzel's comedy-of-errors style of telling his story.

Menzel takes little incidents of the story of Miloš's work-a-day situation standing at the train platform—a job he wanted "just so he could strut on the platform." And his stories are sometimes hilariously satirical (for an example, there is an hysterical look at a town Nazi explaining the war situation and in a blase manner explaining that withdrawals from the American forces are such wonderful tactical maneuvers). Sometimes (most of the time), the stories are very ribald; one of the sub-plots is Miloš's constant failure with women, which, in context with the habits of a fellow platform-strutter, makes him turn to a suicide attempt in a dilapidated hotel. The hotel is being worked over by a fellow with a pile-driver. In this scene what is going to happen—how the two will intersect—is very apparent, but the sequence's effect is that it displaces the humor of the situation (which passed with the audience's first realization of what, inevitably, will happen) with suspense. Will it happen before Miloš is dead? It's an effective sequence because it anticipates viewer reaction and changes it to the further effect of the film.

In the last half-hour, Miloš is used like a pawn in a chess game in an attempt to head off a Nazi munitions train. It's outcome is consistent with the rest of the film, but there is no sense of real tragedy at the end, more an explosion of fulfillment. You may find "
Closely Watched Trains" a very entertaining film.

Just a reminder (he said, slapping his forehead with his palm) I wrote this back in February 1977, and, although sorely tempted, I didn't change anything besides punctuation (and had to get fairly creative with that!). "Closely Watched Trains" won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1968, and is one of three films I remember most fondly from the Winter ASUW series—the other two being "Hari-Kiri" and "Il Posto"—"Trains" probably because it's crack comic timing reminded me of my beloved Warner Brothers cartoons, with a dash (a mad dash!) of Buster Keaton thrown in for good measure. And the comedy came from character, not from out of the blue.

This review is more than thirty years old, but it's heartening—in fact, a bit miraculous—that Jiri Menzel is still making movies, his last being "
I Served the King of England," which was also about young professionals learning their craft to uproarious results.

* This was near the end of the series and I was getting a bit punchy by this time, but that's no excuse for insulting the audience that one is trying to "encourage" to go see a film.

** As I recall they were "white-on-white" and virtually indecipherable. Criterion has put out the DVD of "Closely Watched Trains" and they're more scrupulous in their translations and making sure that they're legible. Criterion is a great DVD publisher.

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