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Carry On Czechoslovakia

July 21, 2010

I mentioned elsewhere Belfast’s incredible urban redeveloped. To walk along the River Lagan today is to witness a city that has been physically transformed. The Waterfront Hall, the Odyssey, the conference centres, office blocks and luxury apartments once seemed to manifest the city’s new found optimism. Now the sight of empty high rise office blocks poses serious questions about the durability of the ‘peace dividend’ at a time of severe recession. Still many would argue that the remaking of Belfast is an aesthetic improvement (some are not so sure) even if important socio-economic questions remain unanswered, such as, how do the people of Belfast fit into and find a place in this new environment?

By chance a similar question is at the heart of Věra Chytilová’s film Panelstory (Prefab Story, 1979), screened last night in Belfast Exposed*. Chytilová is a pioneer of Czech cinema, part of the New Wave in the 1960s, her films banned for a time by the Czech authorities.

Panelstory is a satiric depiction of life in Prague at the end of the 70s, where housing is in sort supply, so people are hastily moved into prefabricated high-rise estates that are still under construction and all but uninhabitable. Here the water is supply intermittent, the lifts don’t work, the central heating is broken and the roads aren’t laid. Most alarming of all, are the huge concrete slabs that swing precariously from cranes above the unprotected heads of the residents. This is a picture of bureaucratic inefficiency and institutional stupidity.

Chytilová’s cinéma vérité adds to the frenetic atmosphere, while dizzying shots of imposing tower blocks locate the film’s multiple characters in a mise-en-scène that dwarfs them and looks potentially oppressive. However what emerges is the residents’ casual resilience. For instance, when the water is turned off, one housewife simply fills a kettle from the toilet cistern to make a cup of tea.

Far from being a debilitating environment, Chytilová depicts the chaos as pregnant with opportunities for shiftlessness, mischief and sex: workmen skive and drink all day, a young boy roams ferile-like through the dirt and debris; while a housewife enjoys a fling with a decorator. No one seems to be in-charge; no one seems to be responsible. Even the estate’s one policeman is a bit of a Keystone cop.

The full extent of officialdom’s impotence is summed up in one scene where a husband confronts both his wife and the man he suspects is her lover. She pleads that she has never laid eyes on the other man in her life before. But rather than corroborate the woman’s story, the suspected philanderer, replies indignantly, ‘What do you mean you’ve never seen me before? I’m the caretaker on the estate!’

There is an element of Carry On about Panelstory, in the way it pitches libidinal energies against bureaucratic stupidity and incompetence, although the Czech film is more social pointed and satiric. It not only pokes fun at the ambitions of the authorities in that period and their policy of ‘normalisation’, it offers a more general rumination on the hazards of trying to impose order on unruly human material.

In an Q&A session in London in 2001, Chytilová said that what she wanted to say in the film was that ‘man creates something with one breath and with the second breath destroys it.’ Perhaps there is a salutary lesson in that for Belfast’s urban planners and developers.

Model of the proposed development of Belfast's Titanic Quarter. Now try to image it with some people living there...

* There’s an interesting analysis of Panelstory here.

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