Clouds of Glass
directed by Frantisek Vlácil
starring Petr Cepek, Jan Kacer, Vera Galatíková, Zdenek Kryzánek
screenplay by Vladimír Körner and Frantisek Vlácil
directed by Frantisek Vlácil
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover I approach this review with trepidation. It's hard to judge two films by a director when a) he's completely unheard of in this country, and b) you're shown different times and places in his career, but such is the issue of my having seen a short and a feature by Frantisek Vlácil in preparation for an upcoming Cinematheque Ontario retrospective. The lack of noted scholarship on the subject gives one no background to help understand him, and while one can relate him to his godfather status to the 1960s Czech New Wave, his smooth and chilly style relates little to the shaggy-dog feel of his cinematic descendants. So I must look over my shoulder and say that he's a man of some talent, to be sure, but with some obvious ideas that weigh him down; while Vlácil's good in a professional sense, he doesn't know how to make images come alive with the same meaning as the narrative drive, giving his films a hard sheen that clamps down on sensuality. He's more than a schlepper but less than a master, worth one look but hardly a second thought.
Ironically, the strongest film on this lopsided double-bill is a wordless 18-minute short from 1958 called Glass Skies (Sklenená oblaka, a.k.a. Clouds of Glass), which takes some potentially clichéd material and turns it into something mysterious and disturbing. There's the usual dreamy child you can find in myriad art films by upstart directors, at once adorably cute and precocious beyond his years, and I feared the worst when his penchant for flying includes in a kindly old man who operates, as the "Glass Skies" of the title, a series of greenhouses. But this is no cloying statement about the hope of the future meeting the wisdom of the past: when the boy smashes a window with a toy glider, it jolts the old man back to his days as a war flier and triggers a sequence of encounters with aircraft that is at once awestruck and terrified. The planes on offer allow you to fly, but they also have the capacity to kill, and as man and boy gaze upon planes on take-off they seem helpless even in their play. An IMDb review referred to the film as "heart-warming," and maybe on the squeaky-clean surface it is, but underneath lie weird subtextual undertones that are hard to shake.
After this unusual hors d'oeuvre, the main course needed to be even more spectacular, but it unfortunately wasn't quite up to the task. Where Glass Skies shook you up enough to reconsider what you were watching, 1968's Valley of the Bees (Údolí vcel) asks you to play along with the narrative; the result is far less suggestive or engrossing. The 13th-century story is fairly simple: after befouling his father's re-marriage to a teenage bride with a gift of bats, young Ondrej is forced to enter a severe brotherhood of Teutonic knights. There he trades symmetries with his friend and opposite number, Armin, who believes the righteousness of the crusading cause and implores the unimpressed Ondrej to keep on the very straight and painful narrow of the Order. The back and forth is entirely predictable, spelled out in big didactic letters: all fundamentalism is bad, individual expression is good, and the ambiguities of the choices between total doubt and total belief are passed over without a word.
The film cries out for more imagery to sell its intellectual deal, but as the exposition flies thick and heavy the pictures never come--we are dragged down the narrative road when we ought to be made to find our own way. This doesn't mean that there aren't compensatory visual pleasures. While there isn't much along the lines of imagery on hand, there is a certain chilly satisfaction to be had from its design and cinematography, all of which have a certain hands-off nature. The director's admitted love of "Buñuel, Bergman and Bresson" shines through in this sense, as all three have a confrontational stance about one's place in the universe and each is notoriously uninterested in rapid montage.
Here, the crisp black-and-white images make us feel the cold snap in the air that is indistinguishable from the knights' total suppression of desire, the monochrome imposing an austerity that Bresson himself would admire--reminding us, if nothing else, that Valley of the Bees would make a great double bill with Lancelot du lac. The austerity also makes sure that the film doesn't descend into histrionics, which is astounding when you consider that two scenes are devoted to people being attacked by wild dogs. There's certainly much to admire, at least, and the general level of craftsmanship is high, meaning that whatever else can be said against it, it's the work of people going the limit.
But as I watched Valley of the Bees, I found myself wishing to be watching a feature-length Glass Skies, which understood what it was up to less and thus made you think and feel about it more. If my unfamiliarity with Vlácil has coloured my judgment, I apologize, but it seems to me that the discovery of this director comes with it a discovery of the disparate nature of works out of context--which can only be satisfied with more curiosity. Valley may not succeed in being the meal we desire, but I can say that Skies whetted my appetite for more. Originally published: November 3, 2002.