Monday, April 11, 2011

Birds, Orphans, and Fools

“This story has a tragic ending but laugh if you feel like it, as our heroes do until the very last moment.”

This statement comes amidst a few other aphorisms relating how Birds, Orphans, and Fools fits into the world of the viewer, but for my purposes I think it is the most important. Significantly, it ‘spoils’ the ending, to some degree. For a plot based film this would perhaps be a problem, but for a film that is built on tone it actually prevents the film’s tone from becoming spoiled by its drastic tonal shift. Stripped of this awareness the viewer would be presented with a story filled with chaos and zaniness that certainly approaches farce, if not revels in it, before being confronted with a wildly divergent tone of unflinching despair and degradation. That the viewer is informed quite explicitly of the shift, if not its implications, in my mind not only strips the power of the tonal shift as a shock (which is not to say that the behavior of Yorick is not shocking even on repeated viewings) but also alters the tone of the film’s earlier events by infusing them with the knowledge of their inevitable and perhaps untimely end. I feel that the end actually betrays these earlier words to some degree, as the heroes don’t seem to be in the mood for laughter at the very last moment, but in terms of tone there is little discrepancy. As such, even though the majority of the film consists of the most free-spirited, hilarious, and ridiculous shenanigans I have encountered in a film, the underlying implications of inevitable doom cement the film in my mind as a shining example of black comedy, perhaps even fitting the mold of a straight tragicomedy more neatly than the tragic farces like Dogtooth and Devils at the Doorstep that the film’s structure superficially resembles. But maybe not. By breaking the ‘rules’ of dramatic tension, in addition to a number of methods of ‘breaking’ cinematic grammar including unexplained ellipses and a recurring and unexplained altering of the frame, the film betrays standard methods of narrative construction but may in fact enhance its similarities to the loose ‘standard’ of black comedy (which in itself is essentially an equilibrium of superficially contradictory modes).

I don’t want to get too deep into this idea of contradictory modes creating a soothingly tense equilibrium, but it is an idea which comes up quite often with these sorts of films and perhaps it will put everything else into the proper context. In fact, the point of breaking the fourth wall and cinematic grammar is often to shake the viewer from passive participation and engage with the work with full knowledge of the artifice on display. Greenaway’s films do this blatantly throughout, with rarely a moment of doubt that what is being shown is staged and of a high degree of artifice. In Greek theater extreme events tend to be chalked up to the work of the gods, and this approach works in black comedy as well. The gods, or the film’s creators, are often noticeably manipulating what is seen in order to create certain catastrophes, catastrophes whose content is important within the context of the story but whose tragic implications should not overwhelm the audience’s ability to contextualize the events. As such, when Jakubisko ‘spoils’ the film’s plot he is really just giving the audience the distance they need to relate the film’s tragic events to the earlier comic ones. There is no psychological explanation given for the film’s tragic events, and so they can really only be understood within the film’s context, not the character’s. In Greek tragedy the audience knew the events of the myths they were seeing played out before them, so this sort of ‘spoiler’ has a long and fruitful history behind it. To get back to Greenaway, the noticeable artifice of his films creates a situation where the audience always has a strong sense of distance from the ‘reality’ of the characters, and only through actively bridging that distance can his films’ tragedies affect the viewer, but the continual awareness of artifice always keeps events contextualized within the frame of a deliberately staged affair. Jakubisko exposes the film’s backdrop through the opening narration and continually contorts ‘realistic’ film grammar with staged antics, disorienting editing, and an unrelenting barrage of bizarre imagery, all in the service of creating a tragic distance from the film’s comedy and a comic (or filmic, or cosmic) distance from the film’s tragedy.

What is most memorable to me about Birds, Orphans, and Fools is the film’s opening hour, where the uniquely Slovak aura of chaos infuses every moment and their reckless abandon slowly and imperceptibly tips toward ruin. The film’s pivotal moment occurs rather casually, as a police officer pulls up and Yorick willingly accepts punishment on behalf of the other two – but up until this point there were few indications that their behavior’s increasingly destructive nature could have any real-world consequences. This is a point that Chytilova’s Daisies never reaches, and as such it remains detached and abstract where Jakubisko’s film achieves a tragicomic tension. Both films depict a string of joyous shenanigans, though, and the close relationship between the protagonists is a central issue in both films, but especially in Birds, Orphans, and Fools. Whether Yorick’s later behavior is inspired by a possessive jealousy or a self-destructive reaction to change I can’t quite figure, but when they are building an atmosphere of cohabitation there seem to be no problems which won’t eventually be ironed out through familiarity and understanding. Andrej initially shows some hesitancy toward Martha, either because of her ethnic background or simply using it as a façade to cover his true feelings, but through the sheer pleasure of enjoying each other’s company all differences become ironed out and the three achieve a mutually beneficial if sexually tense equilibrium. Between the sexual tension of Yorick’s libido, Andrej’s timidity, Martha’s anything-goes attitude, and Jakubisko’s blistering forward momentum the film has anchored itself in my mind as a shining example of potent yet nuanced blissful delirium. To identify individual moments would be redundant, since you may as well just watch the film (over and over), and in fact I suggest you go do it now.


  1. What a fantastic film! Thanks for a great recommendation. Some of my favorite things you didn’t mention: the piano playing, the old women who keel over in the woods, Yorick’s surreal walk through the grave-digging orphans. It’s interesting to compare this to Chytilova’s Daisies, which I wasn’t crazy about. I think the fact that there are real-world consequences in Birds, Orphans is just one piece of something bigger. No matter how crazy the antics are here, they somehow hang together in a narrative way. Yes, Martha is lying naked in a bed, in a bathroom, in an orphanage. But, we know the reason she’s doing it; it’s not just a crazy image. It’s like building a house out of beer bottles. It’s silly material, but the structure is all there – motivation, conflict, character development, etc. It sounds like you may disagree, but it’s that structure which made me love these characters and their complicated relationships, making the ending (distance or not) that much more tragic. But Jakubisko’s final word is at the beginning of the film: “Yes, the world is pretty, but not always nice; not happy, but not truly unhappy; crazy and full of love. Everything changes back again and there is no ending without beginning.”

  2. It's sad that Daisies is some sort of cinematic staple while Birds, Orphans, and Fools is deep in the ranks of Czechoslovak canon. Even a blogger far more reputable than me thinks it's great:

    I don't know how I feel about the supposed tragedy in the film. I think I feel the tragedy of the end of the film more than the tragedy of the end of the characters' lives. I have plenty of distance from the characters but I hold the film very close. I can only take solace in knowing that I can watch it again and again. The film's greatest moments are often rendered through gestures and spontaneous feeling acts that are better watched than described, so I'm sure I missed a lot of great details. The camera is often as free as the characters, so describing any of the various convergences of aesthetic streams just takes so much detailing that it belies the essential element of incorrigible comic flow, sapping the lightning in a bottle of all its charge. Perhaps in a dance, but not in text. I am glad you loved it, although I fear for anyone who doesn't. It's so lovely.