Tuesday, August 16, 2011

I'll buy that for a dollar: Cassandra Cat (Czechoslovakia, 1963)

It’s come time again for the least recurring of 4DK’s recurring features, I’ll Buy That For a Dollar -- the reason for the delay being that I haven’t found myself doing much dollar DVD diving of late. That state of affairs, given the current state of our economy, is, of course, susceptible to sudden and drastic change, as dollar DVDs containing fuzzy transfers of forsaken public domain films might soon be all that we’re able to afford.

Thankfully, my long experience of dollar bin foraging has taught me that the above scenario is not as dire as it may sound. A life of being limited to dollar discs does not necessarily consign you to a cinematic diet of Taiwanese kung fu films starring Carter Wong and the dregs of Fred Williamson’s oeuvre exclusively. For example, look what I found just recently: a disc featuring a dubbed print of a film from the Czechoslovakian New Wave by director Vojtech Jasny! Granted, I had to rifle through a lot of Carter Wong and Fred Williamson titles to find it, but I prefer not to dwell on that.

Vojtech was at one time a booster of Checkoslovakia’s communist regime, but had begun to sour upon it by the time of making Cassandra Cat in 1963. By the time of the Soviet invasion in 1968, he had become outspoken in his dissent, as expressed through one of his most acclaimed films, All My Good Countrymen, which was banned soon after the takeover. Vojtech would leave the country not long afterward, and would eventually, with help from fellow Czech New Waver Milos Forman, land a teaching position in Columbia University’s film department.

With Cassandra Cat, Vojtech uses a deceptively simple, fairytale like narrative in which to couch his antiauthoritarian allegory, and the result, as is often the case when such a strategy is employed, is an uneasy mix of cynicism and whimsy, sort of like a bedtime story read by a bitter, alcoholic dad. The story, set in a small town, is narrated by Oliva, the town’s old custodian, who begins the film by looking down upon his fellow townsfolk from his perch atop the clock tower, bemusedly enumerating their various foibles and peculiarities for us as he casually breaks the fourth wall. Whether Oliva strikes you as a wry observer in the mold of Our Town’s Stage Manager or simply a judgmental windbag depends, I suppose, on what you bring to the table.

Oliva is just one facet of a dual role performed in the film by Jan Werich, who was not only a well respected Czech actor, but also a politically engaged author and playwright. Despite all of those accomplishments, Werich may be best known among English speaking film fans for a performance that never even made it to the screen: that of Blofeld in the Bond film You Only Live Twice, whom Werich portrayed briefly, only to be unseated by Donald Pleasance once the producers deemed him too grandfatherly for the part. (A picture of Werich on YOLT’s volcano lair set, holding a cat much more iconic than the one in the film currently under discussion, can be seen here.)

During the film’s opening moments, Werich’s Oliva regales a room full of school children with a tale of his allegedly true encounter with a magical, bespectacled cat. Once this cat’s cheaters were removed, he tells them, all humans within its gaze were rendered in colors that revealed their true natures: the cowards yellow, the lovers red, the liars gray, etc. And in telling this story, it seems that Oliva has brought it to life, as no sooner has he finished than a traveling magician (also played by Werich) and his troupe arrive in town, among their number a four-eyed tabby just like the one in the story. The magician and his crew then treat the townsfolk to a performance that mostly consists of thinly veiled satirical jibes at them and their various hypocrisies.

For a rousing show closer, the Magician’s ever leotard-clad assistant Diana (Emilia Vasaryova) takes off the kitty’s tiny specs and gives him a good long gander at the berg’s assembled citizenry. As promised, the assembled are instantly cast in a wide variety of unflattering hues, exposing them for the assortment of craven crumbums that they are. That is, except for the lovers, who, in a surreal and balletic sequence, waltz joyously with one another as the rest freak out in pantomime around them. In the ensuing fracas, the cat escapes into the countryside, setting off a race between some of the town’s more unsavory adult elements, who wish to hunt it down and kill it, and the more virtuous inhabitants -- the children especially -- who wish to hold it and pet it and call it George. Or something.

Leading those aforementioned unsavory adults is the Schoolmaster, played by Jiri Slovak, who we last saw as the sympathetic male lead in Vaclav Vorlicek’s Who Wants to Kill Jessie? With this character, Vojtech demonstrates the efficiency of his fairytale approach as a means of ruthlessly cutting to the satirical bone, painting, with minimal strokes, a chilling portrait of malignant banality. A hunting and taxidermy enthusiast, the Schoolmaster is seen near the beginning of the film shooting down a stork which we’ve just seen flying over the town, much to the horror of some of the more principled onlookers. In his defense, he guilelessly protests about what a fine specimen the bird will make once stuffed. Later, once that process has been accomplished, he has his assistant run around his office with the stuffed and mounted animal in a mimicry of flight, clapping with childish delight all the while.

In telling his tale, Vojtech utilizes a visual vocabulary that blurs the line between high surrealism and the playfully indulgent theatricality of children’s fantasy films. Because of that, the one aspect of its dollar DVD presentation that least serves Cassandra Cat is easily its washed out color scheme, which leaves just enough of a glimmer of the original’s hues to let us know just what a very colorful affair it once was. This is frustrating for a number of reasons. While its charms are more than few, it’s unlikely that many of today’s viewers need an allegory like Cassandra Cat to illuminate the queasy relationship between tyranny and the truth. As such, I think it’s primary appeal lies in its status as a visual feast.

That said, it shouldn’t be forgotten the power that Cassandra Cat likely held in its original place and time, especially in light of the Soviets’ violent suppression of the Prague Spring a few years later. After all, I suppose the measure of any cat, once it’s out of the bag, is the amount of force brought to bear upon putting it back in again. Verdict: Well worth the dollar!


Michael Barnum said...

Looks like I need to be checking out the local Dollar Store more often. Haven't come across anything but the usual suspects in a long time!

TheDoug said...

Once again Amazon.com is offering this as a double feature budget dvd with CARNIVAL STORY; which I'll assume what the dollar stores are selling. At various Czech dvd retailers one can obtain the original film in all its widescreen glory but at a higher price point in the $20.00 range. Dollar store vs. foreign investment...

TheDoug said...

Wait a minute! There's a facebook page for this movie????