Sunday, June 29, 1980.
MAGICIANS OF THE SILVER SCREEN (Báječní muži s klikou. a.k.a. Those Magnificent Men and Their Cranking Machines). Co-written by Oldřich Vlček. Music by Jiří Sust. Co-written and directed by Jiří Menzel. Running time: 90 minutes. Mature entertainment with no B.C. Classifier’s warning. In Czechoslovakian with English subtitles.
THE TIME IS 1907. Willie Pasparte (Rudolf Hrušinský), a travelling showman, makes his living in the towns and villages of Bohemia. A magician by trade, he also includes moving pictures in his program.
One afternoon in Prague, the highly flammable nitrate film in his projector catches fire. Though he manages to extinguish the flames, Pasparte's hands are severely burned.
His career as a sleight-of-hand artist is over. The movies, he learns, can be a dangerous business.
The time is 1968. Jiří Menzel, a Czechoslovakian filmmaker who came to maturity during the Eastern European de-Stalinization period, is enjoying the benefits of an international reputation.
In April, the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles announces to the world that Menzel's feature, Closely Watched Trains, is the best foreign-language film of 1967.
In Prague, during August, the Soviet Union announces that Czechoslovakia's flirtation with Western-style liberalism is over. At the "request" of the Czech people, Warsaw Pact forces occupy the country to "help" in the “restoration of order.”
Some of Menzel's colleagues, perhaps recalling the restoration of order in Hungary 12 years earlier, beat it the hell out of there. Men such as Ján Kadár, Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer have since found themselves places in the world of English-language directors.
Menzel, who was working on a feature in 1968, stayed put. His picture, called Skřivánci na Niti (Skylarks on a String), was completed in 1969.
And then it was banned. Movies, Menzel learned, can be a dangerous business
Nevertheless, movies were also his business. Recalling, perhaps, the "safe" period pictures made in French during the German occupation, the young director turned a whimsical eye to the past.
Filmgoers beguiled by Les Enfants du Paradis, Marcel Carné’s 1945 romantic look at life on the boards in 19th century Paris, are almost sure to enjoy Báječní muži s klikou (freely translated as Those Magnificent Men and Their Cranking Machines, but being shown here as Magicians of the Silver Screen).
Together with screenwriter Oldřich Vlček, Menzel has created a tale of imaginative obsession, a light and lovely comedy about the birth of filmmaking in Prague.
The film opens in what appears to be a museum. As the camera slides by tables laden with vintage moviemaking machinery, we hear voices reading lists of movie titles.
When the two men come into view, we realize that the colour is being deliberately muted. We are not in a museum but a shop, and the delicate sepia tones are there to help us move back to a time remembered. Pasparte, Menzel's travelling showman, is haggling for new product.
He is a 19th-century man attempting to cope with the new age. He keenly feels the press of circumstances and, though a film enthusiast, he resents the fact that virtually all of the films he shows are Italian, French or American imports.
Part visionary and part con artist, Pasparte senses the potential in his sideshow. In his mind's eye he "sees" life as a film scenario and, because he is part patriot and part responsible parent concerned for his daughter's future, he develops a plan to make Prague a filmmaking centre.
To realize his vision, he must bring a number of elements together. He courts his capital, in the person of rich widow Evzenie Slovik (Blažena Holišová).
He attempts to convince both popular cabaret comedian Slapeta (Vladimir Menšik) and a reluctant doyen of the Czech National Theatre, Emílie Kolárová-Mladá (Vlasta Fabianova) that they owe the public photographic recordings of their performances.
"There’s no way of stopping time,” says the aging actress sadly.
"No,” counters Pasparte at his most eloquent, "but a second, a minute can be preserved.”
The final element in his plan is an intense young photographer named Kolenatý (played by director Menzel). Inventive and agressively nationalistic, the would-be moviemaker is busily making improvements on the basic technology.
Magicians of the Silver Screen is a film that can be enjoyed on several levels. Film buffs will delight in the early film history brought to life in a series of scenes recreating the traveling showman's wares.
Political sociologists can argue the pros and cons of the underlying politics. What is Menzel really saying about life in contemporary Czechoslovakia in his choice of comic targets?
Most of us, though, will be satisfied with the grace, charm and humour evident throughout this appealing import. On view here for one week only, Magicians of the Silver Screen comes complete with the Ridge Theatre management’s guarantee of satisfaction or money refunded.
With this film, I doubt that the Ridge will have to return many admissions.
The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1980. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.
Afterword: I’m adding two Jiří Menzel pictures to the Reeling Back archive today. Click on the title My Sweet Little Village to read my review of his 1985 celebration of community in the Czech countryside. Made seven years earlier, Magicians of the Silver Screen offered a look at how his own creative community came to be. It recognizes that a great many people are fascinated with the film business, perhaps none more so than the filmmakers themselves.
Over the years, craft-consicous artists such as Menzel have made movies-about-movie making an actual sub-genre, with as many examples as there are days in the year. Perhaps the best remembered is director Stanley Donen’s 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, the Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds feature that found its comedy in the moment when Hollywood was making the painful transition from silent to sound production.
Menzel, of course was in the European tradition of great directors musing on their craft. Federico Fellini collected a Foreign Language Film Oscar for his 8½, the story of an Italian cinéaste, played by Marcello Mastroianni, who suffers “director’s block” during the making of a big-budget science-fiction film. It was released in 1963, the same year that Jean-Luc Godard directed Brigitte Bardot in Le Mépris (Contempt), the bitter tale of a playwright who suffers the indignity of adapting a screenplay for an American movie producer. Rather more fun was François Truffaut’s 1973 Oscar-winner La Nuit américaine (Day for Night), which the French New Wave director created as his love letter to the movies.
Not unexpectedly, we are most familiar with Hollywood’s version of the story. In 1975, Donald Sutherland starred as pop culture’s original Homer Simpson, a retired accountant troubled by his close-up view of the business in John Schlesinger’s adaptation of The Day of the Locust. So too All That Jazz, the 1980 backstage fantasy in which Bob Fosse muses on life, death and the creative process.
Drawing on his own action-oriented career, stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham framed 1978’s Hooper as a comedy. He cast his good buddy Burt Reynolds in the title role, a stunt-coordinator on the set of a big-budget spy-thriller. His picture could be double-billed with Richard Rush’s 1980 feature The Stunt Man, a more dramatic and insightful take on the same world. Peter O’Toole stars as a film director determined to finish his picture despite a death on set.
In 1980, when people were still taking him seriously, Woody Allen offered up his Stardust Memories, remembered as the writer-director’s parody of Fellini’s 8½. Allan Alda’s third feature as writer-director was the 1986 comedy Sweet Liberty. The story of a movie crew on location on the East Coast, it’s told from the perspective of a historian who sees his novel being turned into an exploitation film. A year later, Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle took a satirical look at the experience of black performers in the American film industry.
Just when you’d think there was nothing left to say, four pictures came along to take the conversation in new and fascinating directions. Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), a film brimming over with star cameos, insists that screenwriters matter. Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) eulogizes marginal moviemaking through the story of the man who made the “world’s worst movie,” Plan 9 from Outer Space. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997), a mainstream Hollywood feature, celebrates the “golden age” of pornographic picture production. And, finally, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) goes All That Jazz one better, offering a feature-length Hollywood death scene that could be a graduate course in motion picture grammar.
Finally, it would be out of character for me not to mention my favourite Canadian movie about moviemaking. That would be 1994’s Paint Cans, Halifax-based director Paul Donovan’s adaptation of his 1992 comic novel. His story is focused not on the production, but the funding process. Its satirical target is the federal agency charged with supporting the feature-film industry, and its “hero” is the career bureaucrat dithering about approving new projects.