Friday, 25 February 2011

Cassandra Cat / Az Prijde Kocour
(Vojtech Jasný, 1963)

A pioneering Czech family/fantasy film that I’m sure is fondly remembered by many people of a certain age in that part of the world, 1963’s “Cassandra Cat”, aka “When the Cat Comes”, confronts the modern viewer with a basic question:

How much whimsical small town life are you prepared to sit through, in order to see a cat wearing new wave sunglasses?

Assuming your answer is “a fair amount, I suppose”, read on!

The film opens with a jovial old geezer who lives in the clock tower in the middle of a small market town. Using a makeshift spy-glass, he observes his neighbours, passing oblique comment on their endearingly eccentric ways. You know the drill: ho ho ho, it’s ten o’clock, and here comes so and so as usual, arsing about in a broadly comedic manner as befits his or her single personality trait, etc etc.

In fairness to Vojtech Jasný and his collaborators, I suppose this stuff wasn’t quite so much of a face-punchingly played out cliché back in 1963, but still, the need certain filmmakers seem to feel to present their fellow countrymen as a bunch of lovable, simple-minded goofballs never really sits well with me.

In particular, we are introduced here to marginally bohemian school teacher Robert, who wears a baggy beatnik sweater and tries to encourage ‘imagination’ and ‘fantasy’ in his young charges (whatta nice guy!). Robert’s opposite number is the smarmy headmaster, who hates fun and enjoys science and taxidermy. We see him shoot a stork out of the sky as a crowd of gawping townsfolk look on (whatta prick!).

The headmaster’s ever-present henchman is the school janitor, who I mention simply to point out the fact that he’s played by the same guy who played the school janitor/friendly vampire guy in Václav Vorlíček’s “Saxana”, nearly ten years later. Looking at actor Vladimír Mensík’s CV on IMDB, he seems to have appeared in just about every Czech film ever made, and has at least a few more janitors, handymen and caretakers to his credit. Talk about typecasting!

When the headmaster has completed his stuffed stork, there is a scene in which the janitor picks up the bird and runs round and round the room at high speed with the camera following him, seemingly in an attempt to make the audience dizzy. So that was kinda cool.

A lot of rather vague faffing around follows, during which I began to seriously question the processes by which I ended up owning a copy of this movie and watching it. Things do eventually look up though, beginning with a scene in which Teacher Robert invites the old clocktower geezer into his classroom to model for the children (I’m all for crazy, creative teaching methods but I’m not sure I can really see the logic of the ‘drawing an old man’ lesson-plan). Asked by the children to regale them with a story from his sea-faring days, the geezer launches into a fine example of the kind of dazzlingly aimless, surrealistic old man story that really does brighten my day.

He tells of how he was once shipwrecked on a foreign shore, where for the lack of anything better to do he wandered into a performance by a travelling theatre show, and fell hopelessly in love with a dancer named Diana, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. So infatuated was he that he proceeded to tag along with the show, helping them out and trying to ingratiate himself with the fair lady. Diana though preferred to lavish her attentions on her pet cat, who wore his own pair of special cat eye-glasses. The travelling show’s primary rule was that the cat’s eye-glasses should never, ever be removed. But, piqued by jealousy and curiosity, our hapless sailor naturally did just that one day, and suddenly, everybody caught in the cat’s gaze changed colour in a way that revealed their true nature – so ‘unfaithful people’ turned yellow, ‘liars’ turned purple, people in love turned red and so on - causing considerable hullabaloo that saw the cat killed by vengeful citizens and sailor-man expelled from the travelling show, after which he never saw Diana again!

Inspired by this curious tale, the under-stimulated Eastern Bloc youth begin drawing pictures of beautiful ladies and visually-impaired cats, and clap along as the old man dances a merry jig and sings a song for them, much to the chagrin of the crusty old headmaster, who is spying through the keyhole.

Just then, right on cue, a brightly coloured wagon pulls into town, carrying a trad jazz band clad in head-to-foot black bodysuits, a top-hatted magician (played by the same actor as the old man, for reasons that are never entirely made clear – I suppose the implication is that the travelling show has been ‘summoned’ into reality by the children’s imaginations?), and – YES! – this is the reason I’m watching this damn movie! The beautiful Diana and her prophetically attired pussycat!

Indeed, that is literally the case. Whilst browsing the selections at first class rare-movies emporium All Clues No Solutions recently, I happened across some pictures of this trend-setting moggie, saw that they emanated from another one of those reliably stupendous Czech fantasy movies, and thought, well, why the hell not, y’know? This one’s bound to be worth a look.

And sure enough, the arrival of the cat and his crew heralds “Cassandra Cat”s undeniable highlight – the extraordinary set-piece sequence in which the townsfolk fill the town hall to watch the magical travelling show.

The show begins as Mr. Top Hat presents a black-lit puppet show in which animated objects and empty suits of clothes enact strange and beguiling scenarios. The crowd are initially delighted, but then rather perturbed when it becomes clear that the objects on stage represent some of the town’s more prominent citizens, and that the story being enacted sheds light on their shameful secrets and general foolishness. After a few moments of stunned silence, the crowd slowly begins to applaud.

For the second act, the beautiful Diana descends from the rafters on a swing, holding her cat. With a dramatic flourish, she removes the cat’s glasses, and the people of the town find themselves bathed in a bright glow that reveals their true nature. For the next five or ten minutes, everything goes fucking nuts, as people leap from their seats and begin dancing and fighting and running around in a gloriously choreographed display of pseudo-psychedelic abandon. Kenneth Anger-like super-impositions are used to create fuzzy blurs of movement as patterns of brightly coloured human ebb and flow through the darkness of the grand municipal hall, interspersed with close-ups of the all-seeing eyes of the feline oracle, as the cutting and the music speeds up to a frantic, disorientating pace.

It’s pretty darn great.

As a film produced in the heady political climate of ‘60s Czechoslovakia, one might reasonably assume that there is some sort of deeper allegorical meaning to the colour-coded revelation of inner feeling going on here, but if there is, I’m damned if I can figure it out. Given the vague nature the film’s narrative logic, I suspect it’s equally likely that the filmmakers just came up with the idea for the sequence, thought it would look cool, and went with it.

At this point, I should probably draw the readers’ attention to the long-running phenomenon of more imaginative/subversive Czech filmmakers often choosing to work within the realm of children’s films and fantasies during the Communist era, on the basis that such films would be less liable to run afoul of official censorship – a tactic that can maybe be seem as one of the main factors playing into the creation of the playful, surrealistic aesthetic that went on to define much of the country’s best cinema during the later ‘60s and early ‘70s.

It is into this lineage that “Cassandra Cat” can easily be seen to fit perfectly. Though it carries no concrete ‘political’ message as such, the film has a more broadly subversive agenda that is actually quite extreme in its uncompromising anti-adult, pro-fantasy stance. For all the whimsicality on display, it is somewhat shocking to realise that, via the gaze of the cat, Jasný is essentially passing divine judgement on all of his characters, damning them as liars, adulterers, hypocrites and thieves, limiting the audience’s sympathy solely to the select few who are seen to be redeemed by their child-like ‘purity’ or their belief in love. Heady stuff for any movie really, even if it is only an explicit expression of the same ideology that can be found bubbling below the surface of thousands of kid’s stories/movies.

The anarchic spirit, visual splendour and general strangeness of “Cassandra Cat” certainly help secure it a place as a defining early example of the Czech New Wave that would emerge later in the ‘60s - a filmic movement rendered a lot more exciting than it sounds thanks to the participation of such prime celluloid dynamite hurlers as Vera Chytilová, Jaromil Jires and Václav Vorlíček (oh, go google them for chrissakes). In particular, it is notable that “Cassandra Cat”s director of photography Jaroslav Kucera went on to work on many of that movement’s defining films, perhaps accounting for the familiarity of the bright, hazy, intoxicating atmospherics that characterise many of the best sequences in this film.

But to return to the distinctly out-of-time appearance of our Devo pussycat (the English sub-titles simply call him “Tabby”, although perhaps he had a more exciting name in Czech?), my guess is that that these glasses were simply the only shape of frame that the art department could manage to balance properly on the cat’s head. Furthermore, I would theorise that the cat was still less than co-operative, as direct shots of him wearing his glasses are frustratingly rare, despite being the film’s most distinctive image, and the one used on just about all posters and publicity materials.

Anyway, in case you were wondering, Diana falls madly in love with Robert the teacher, and is distracted to the extent that she leaves town without her cat, who is left wandering around town. Naturally the adults, led by the headmaster, want to do away with the embarrassing truth-revealing varmint, and try to lock him in a bird cage with a stocking on his head. The town’s children though are very much taken with the multi-coloured chaos wrought by the cat, and begin to treat him with cult-like veneration, plastering the town with delightful cat-based artwork, and at one stage liberating the moggie and marching through the streets holding him up before them, pointing the animal in the direction of grown-ups, who flee from his transformative gaze.

How will this generational conflict resolve itself? Well…. pretty inconclusively to be honest. One problem with “Cassandra Cat” as a film is that it’s various themes and story ideas are sketched out so haphazardly that they never really manage to coalesce into anything much. As mentioned, Robert and Diana ‘fall in love’, but whilst they have a lovely time going for a boat-ride and playing checkers with wine glasses, giving much exposure to Kucera’s exquisite cinematography in the process, we are never given any inkling of what they actually see in each other. In fact Diana is never really assigned any kind of personality at all, beyond being beautiful and owning a magic cat.

On second thought though, it’s worth remembering that this IS meant to be a magical fantasy romance or whatever, and so maybe that’s exactly what her character represents – the personification of romance, as defined by our male protagonist’s imagination, with a red dress and a big, easy smile. Shallow and fleeting as you like, their scenes together have a certain apprehensive, ‘fairy gold’ quality to them, and it is by employing this kind of fantasy vs. reality logic that one can maybe get the most of what is on some levels a pretty infuriating film.

Still though: how is life in the town affected by the arrival of the cat and its aftermath? Does anything change permanently, or do things remain the same after his departure? Does the film even have a happy ending, or a sad ending? Again, I’m not really sure. Everything is so under-developed that it is often difficult to really become engaged by the film’s story beyond the level of “well.. some stuff happened”.

True, many of our favourite strange films make up for such narrative deficiencies by simply throwing so much demented chaos at us that logic ceases to matter, but sadly “Cassandra Cat” is not one of those films. In fact it is very sparing in its use of fantastic imagery, emerging instead as a faintly perplexing experience in which the viewer’s attention is directed toward a somewhat meandering story that, just like the tale told by the old man, doesn’t seem terribly concerned with making much of a point about anything. And who knows, maybe the message of the film is simply that: that telling a wacky story that fires peoples imaginations and pisses off the grown ups is its own reward, and the hell with anyone who demands some kind of contrived ‘significance’.

Half-baked scripting and anti-authoritarian magical feline antics are not usually the sort of things that endear a film to the critical establishment, but nonetheless, “Cassandra Cat” apparently made sufficient headway to see it winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in the same year that Fellini’s “8 1/2” and Polanski’s “Knife in the Water” were released. And if it is less well known to fans of European cinema these days than such an achievement may suggest, “Cassandra Cat” is still rich in weird and singular imagery, and an important stepping stone on the path that led a few years later to glorious, otherwordly mayhem of “Daisies”, “Valerie..” and “Saxana”. If you can stomach all the whimsical peasant stuff, it certainly makes for an interesting evening’s viewing, and if you can’t, well… I guess it really does just come back to how badly you want to see the cat wearing new wave sunglasses.


Jenn said...

I would sit through a LOT to see a cat in new wave sunglasses. But there seems to be plenty involving feline friends here to enjoy in the meantime.

I would also sit through a fair amount to see a cat in a gold lame bib and party hat sitting in a high chair (THE SENTINEL).

Excellent post. I"m seeking this out immediately =^..^=

Ben said...

Well I hope won't be too disappointed - as noted, there is suspiciously little primo cat footage here, for a movie with 'cat' in the title...

But yeah, I too feel irresistible urge to watch just about any movie that prominently features cats... have you seen the Disney TV movie "The Nine Lives of Thomasina"? - it's absolutely brilliant - I once randomly turned on the TV during the "cat funeral / cosmic journey" sequence and thought I was hallucinating.

Similarly, my brother can hold forth at length about the hidden virtues of "The Cat From Outer Space"... maybe someone should write a 'Destroy All Movies' style book about Cat Movies?

Scumbalina said...

This is so weird. I watched this for the first time last month. I did some image searches just because it's so colorful! I'm pretty sure most of the pictures I ended up saving came from this blog. This is a separate event from my finding your blog a few days ago and adding you. What's even weirder is that I just got another copy, this one with subtitles, I just re-watched it TODAY and was planning on reviewing it in the next day or so. Didn't search for it this time, I was just admiring your work and saw this review...for the second unrelated time. Nice bumping into you again...on your own blog :-)

God, was that a mouth full??

Ben said...

Ha - no worries. Groovy coincidence.

I think this movie has grown on me since I wrote this review - thinking back on it, it's pretty damn great all things considered.