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Bad weather, manly doings

By Gerald Peary

JULY 27, 1998:  Everyone concurs that the most significant film festival in Eastern Europe is at Karlovy Vary, a historic, fairy-tale spa town (formerly Karlsbad) several hours west of Prague in the Czech Republic. But did such famous earlier visitors as Goethe, Marx, and Freud, who traveled there to improve their health, have to deal with such dreary, dispiriting weather as for this July's 33rd Film Fest, on which cold rains fell for all 12 days and nights?

The endless storms made everyone in attendance downhearted. It was obviously a debilitating context for this year's crop of films from the Czech Republic, many of which were exceedingly gloomy in their own right -- a documentary about the Czech-situated Nazi death camp at Terezin (Theresienstadt), or one that interviewed stooped, elderly women who had wasted their prime years rotting away in Communist prisons.

Are Czech Republic fictional films just as melancholy and oppressive? You bet.

Here, from its broken-English pressbook, is a description of the most-praised new Czech film at Karlovy Vary, the aptly titled The Way Through the Bleak Woods: "The community of people from the village is various: the widow Hudlerová, her unhappy son Victor, and always drunk postman Kokesh . . . the wooded man Blahout in his cottage with ants. . . . The hatred and everyday cruelty also exist in the village microclimate."

Don't expect a Miramax pick-up.

Ditto for the unhappy Dutch-produced film Winter '89, which was shot in Prague and set there during late Communist times. This movie concerns the foolish, eventually abysmal marriage of an artsy, liberal college girl and a secret-police man whose day job requires him to be a cold-hearted torturer.

Karlovy Vary was lightened up a bit by movie-star visits from Michael Douglas and husky-voiced Lauren Bacall, she telling too-familiar Bogie stories. The most popular film event was a cool retrospective of Takeshi Kitano cop flicks. Lou Reed was supposed to have been there for a day. I didn't see Lou.

And then there was the Incident.

Its background: at least three Czech directors and two producers have been squabbling over who has the rights to make a film of Bohumil Hrabal's novel I Served the King of England. Among the three Czech filmmakers is Jirí Menzel, who's certain he's the only appropriate choice to direct. After all, he won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture in 1966 with his superb adaptation of Hrabal's Closely Watched Trains.

But, as I heard it (there were many theories), Menzel's producer, Jirí Sirotek, decided to drop the veteran filmmaker from the project and go for the Czech Republic's most with-it young filmmaker, Kolya's Jan Sverak. Too bad for the producer!

At Karlovy Vary, just before the screening of a German film, Menzel went after Sirotek with a riding crop, whipping him again and again, driving the freaked-out victim from the theater. There were hundreds of aghast witnesses. One witness described the Incident to me: "Menzel was wearing a white suit. The stick was the same color. He whipped the producer in the back, not the face. The producer was wearing a grayish suit . . . no, a reddish suit. Afterward, Menzel broke the stick in a beautiful gesture. He's a very good actor."

The Aftermath: the producer consulted a neurologist and is planning to take Menzel to court for what was patently a premeditated act of violence. An unrepentant Menzel told the press, "It was the manly thing to do." Some say the Oscar winner could get two or three years in prison.

Oh yes, I had an altercation too, though no blood was shed. I got annoyed with the smug pomposities of zillionaire American producer Saul Zaentz (Amadeus, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, The English Patient), who was lecturing a roomful of young, underfunded Eastern European producers on the wonderfulness of the international free market. I challenged him, noting that American studios control virtually all the screens around the world now, and that the so-called "free market" means audiences have no way to see, for instance, that there's a splendid new new wave of French filmmakers.

Zaentz mumbled something nasty about me, something about "film critics who don't like movies," then declared -- as if he'd know! -- that there aren't any good French films anymore.

I interrupted him: "Not true! But people will never find out because your English Patient was playing on every screen!"

It was the manly thing to say!

I am honored to report that I have been appointed the Guest Curator of the Harvard Film Archive for one year, through June 1999. I'm already involved in the planning of some exciting series, including "Masterpieces of Gay and Lesbian Cinema" (November) and retrospectives of Wim Wenders (October), Paul Morrissey (December), John Ford (spring), and Robert Bresson (spring). This means, of course, that for the next 12 months I will not be commenting on the HFA's programming in this column. Now someone else can write about me!

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