Kalamita / Calamity (1982)

14 05 2014

Despite making one of the most transgressive and unique films during the 1960s, Vera Chytilova’s career never really gained much from the momentum of Daisies. Her 1966 film is rightfully beloved, as one would have a heard time erasing any of the images she crafts in her bizarre, kaleidoscopic and kinetic assault on the senses. Her political sensibility remains in Calamity, made 16 years later, but her method is a little different. On the surface, Calamity is overwhelmingly quaint and almost typical in how closely it matches the mold of an arty movie about a sad dude. But that’s Chytilova’s point: that the “rebellious” rhetoric of arthouse cinema is hypocritical and it has left us with the same old images. One where the plight of the young, white, heterosexual male is the center. By making a film so mundane and unremarkable, Chytilova challenges the impulse that makes us return to the well time and time again to mine pathos from a group who is least in need of representation.


Johnny takes the train home from college early. He’s not exactly willing to announce the matter, but he’s dropped out of school. He suggests that he’ simply impatient with the college experience, but one gets the sensation that his lack of motivation lead to less than stellar performance. Whatever the case, he immediately tries to become an engine driver. While many question his ability, he seems to get through the training process and almost immediately becomes a driver. In the process, he finds himself unintentionally involved with three women, two of which he doesn’t seem particularly interested in. What makes Johnny so goddamn exceptional? Nothing really, he’s unmotivated and lacking in education, but he can’t seem to cross the view of the opposite sex without something happening.


If there’s something lacking in Chytilova’s biting critique, it’s that she hasn’t made a film that is particularly, uh, pleasant. It has it’s moments, in a technical sense, but because she is mocking a style of film that she (and I myself) believe to be dull and lifeless. As is the case, the trajectory of Johnny is somewhat, well, dull and lifeless. When the film isn’t saving us from his presence with dialogue undermining his character type, there isn’t much to appreciate. Sure, Chytilova loves to whip the camera all around a location, which is interesting, I guess. The stylistic flourishes are too fleeting, though, and seem like conscious attempts to make things seem exciting. It’s a uphill battle, because the crux of her critique is that what is happening here is not remarkable, and the repetition of such images and narratives limits us as an audience.


The film ultimately work because it does manage to bite at times. During one potentially physical relationship, a woman, in reference to Johnny, declares that she “just loves sick idiots.” Those the context of the film tells us that Johnny himself is physically ill (with a cold), out of that context its hard not to see Chytilova playfully jabbing the bellies of countless arthouse classics (Closely Watched Trains is referenced) in which women seem to gravitate towards otherwise miserable male character. Yet, she is also critical of the very fact that we’re sympathetic to these men, because like Johnny, they are ultimately not that fantastic. The film ends with a train, driven by Johnny, getting stuck in an avalanche. It’s not hard symbolism, but the suggestion is that like the passengers on the train, we are all stuck in the storytelling centered on the heterosexuality of white dudes. The fact that these stories are present even in a cinema that is meant to jar and clash with the conventions and molds of the mainstream is disappointing.


One can’t help but get the impression that although she crafts a valid satire, that Chytilova would have liked to devoted her attention elsewhere. Following 1966, the government made it nearly impossible for her to make a film and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 only worsened the situation.  She was forced to pursue a safer, more easily digestible form of cinema. Simply stated, her expression was stunted by the political climate. One wonders how Chytilova’s planned biopic of Božena Němcová would have turned out, but she was never given the opportunity to go ahead with that project. Even a film like Calamity was only shown in limited theaters, and the publications who were daring enough to write about it, were usually censored. Calamity as a film is remarkable because it gives us a woman, jumping through all the deliberately impossible obstacles for the sake of self-expression. The end result heavily critiques the same type of control that limited her creativity.




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