I lost yet another argument with my Grandad a couple of years ago when I sneered at the idea that Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style‘ was the most influential cultural export ever from Korea and that the South Korean New Wave surely was. To be fair, I was undoubtedly being a snob and sadly, Gangnam Style probably is the most culturally influential thing they’ve given us. However, Grandad’s argument was that if a lot of people hadn’t heard of the thing then it couldn’t be influential. About an hour later, I had the answer but I wasn’t at my Grandparent’s house anymore.
The Czechoslovak New Wave affected how we see even the biggest blockbusters today. They were the first major film movement to shoot dramas in a documentary fashion. Key to this, was the use of natural lighting to create sympathetic portraits of anybody and everybody. The idea being that no matter what a character does, seeing them in a realistic, normal setting will help us to better empathise with them. This idea was spearheaded by cinematographers such as Miroslav Ondříček and Jan Curík aswell as Hungarians László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond, almost all of whom would escape to America and the UK in the wake of social upheavals in their own countries. Zsigmond and Kovács went on to become integral parts of the second Golden Age in Hollywood in the 70s and Ondříček went to the UK and became a huge influence on the British Social Realism movement.
“This is life!” says director Mike Leigh, “Life, people, with all their faults and all!” In The Firemen’s Ball, we have a big shindig being organised in honour of the Chairman on his 86th birthday. Everything that can go wrong, however, manages to do so as the incompetent Firemen lose all the raffle prizes, screw up the beauty contest and generally conduct a network of miscommunication.
This is one of the great films that survives and encapsulates the universal language of cinema. Much as that phrase could make your teeth spin round, there is a great truth to it. Why would a 27 year-old New Zealander in 2016 care about a bunch of Czech people living in the sticks, in the 60s? Because through all the surface differences, I recognise those characters. I know those people. Bickering couples, teens getting off with each other under tables, over-protective parents, clueless old men, do-gooders, etc. The genius of Forman and screenwriters Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papoušek’s scenario is that through having the entire township at the ball, we have almost all corners of life. All ages, sizes, conditions and tastes. Even the pervy firemen judging the teenage girls for the beauty contest are just clueless prats and if the scene seems gross, that’s because it’s meant to be but there isn’t a middle-class character thrown in there to tell you how and why this is wrong and evil. The film presents these situations in an unobtrusive and innate way. As they would play out in real life.