11 November 2009

Closely Watched Trains

In class today, we watched yet another Czech film (the last of the three countries we are looking at as part of Central European cinema). The film was Jiří Menzel's Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky, 1966).

The film was, as most Czech films seem to be, a mixture of comedy and tragedy. This "Czech sense of humour" is generally described as dealing with serious topics in a joking manner and is often called bitter and sarcastic. I can see a similarity between this sense of humour and what I would consider the Icelandic sense of humour. Certainly, there are differences, but there is a certain mending of humour and horror that occurs in both. I think in particular of the humour in films by Dagur Kári and comics by Hugleikur Dagsson. As far as the later is concerned, it's interesting to note that when his comics were translated into English for an American audience, the book was renamed from the Icelandic title of Forðist okkur (Avoid us)—a collection of the three previous works Elskið okkur (Love us), Drepið okkur (Kill us), and Ríðið okkur (Fuck us)—to the English title Should you be laughing at this?. Most of his subsequent books in Icelandic continued the trend of "[Verb] us," while their English translations have been Is this supposed to be funny? and Is this some kind of a joke?. The English titles presumably act as a means of preceding American reactions of Hugleikur's comedy (which is on the darker side even for Icelandic tastes).

I seem to have diverged from the original topic a bit, but I assure you it is to prove a point. That is that there is certainly a level of "nationality" to any work of a particular language. Despite what translations may suggest, languages aren't all just "different ways of saying the same thing." Each language will suggest its own nuances of thought. For example, in my studies into Icelandic, I have found it to be a bit more metaphorically inclined than English (perhaps in part because of the prevalence of kenning in Old Norse poetry). The language seems to lend itself to more of an intellectual and abstract mindset than English, and in my discussions with Icelanders I have noticed this trend in their own thoughts. Of course, if we were to instead compare English to Chinese, we would see even great examples of different processes of thought, but as I know next to nothing in that language, I cannot speak from experience.

That said, perhaps the hardest thing to translate is humour. Even British humour is regarded in America as something "different." When you add in another language, with its own wordplays, modes of thinking, and so forth, this can only exacerbate the situation.

Certainly, in viewing Closely Watched Trains, I was able to catch a lot of the humour, and much of the class was caught laughing and some particularly easy-to-catch jokes. I did feel like some of them fell flat for the audience, though. Since I felt a bit closer to the comedic style of this film due to my experience in Icelandic comedy, it seemed I would sometimes pick up on jokes that many of the others in class simply didn't catch, leaving the professor Marek and I some of the only ones letting out a chuckle.

I don't want to dissuade anyone from Czech comedy, though, and make them feel like they just won't "get it," because I still think there is a lot to appreciate and laugh about in them. They certainly do involve a bit of a sensitivity to bitter sarcasm and dry delivery, though, so those of you prone to extremely slapstick based humour may be less thrilled.

As a sample of Czech humour, I will reproduce for you here the very first lines spoken in the film, in which the main character describes his family history:
My name is Milós Hrma. They often laughed at my name.* But otherwise, we were a happy family. Our great-grandfather Lukas, as a tambour, fought on the Charles Bridge of Prague, and when the students threw cobblestones at the soldiers, they hit great-grandfather with such aim that he was getting a pension ever since. One gulden per day. He didn't do anything after that, except buy a bottle of rum and a pack of tobacco every day. My grandfather William was a hypnotist and the whole town believed his hypnotism was prompted by a desire to go through life without any effort. My father, an engine driver, has been retired since the age of forty-eight, and people are mad with envy since dad is healthy and will draw out his pension for twenty, maybe thirty years... without doing a thing. Great-grandfather Lukas bought a bottle of rum and two packs of tobacco every day. Instead of staying home, he went to see the workers and made fun of the hard-working men. So every year, grandpa Lukas would get beaten somewhere. And in 1930, great-grandfather boasted in front of stone cutters whose quarry had just been closed, and they beat him so badly he died. And when the Germans crossed the frontiers in March and proceeded towards Prague, grandfather William decided to face the Germans on his own with hypnosis and stop the advancing tanks by the force of his thoughts. With outstretched hands and eyes glued to the Germans, he tried to get them to turn around and go back. Actually, the first tank stopped and the entire army stopped, but then the tank started forward again and grandfather wouldn't move—so the tank went right over him, cutting off his head and nothing more stood in the way of the Reich's army. And I went through a preparation course and I'm going to be a train-dispatcher, and the entire town knows I want to be a train-dispatcher for the simple reason that I don't want to do anything, just like my ancestors, except to stand on the platform with a signal disc and avoid any hard work, while others have to drudge and toil.

*His name can be translated as "pubic hair"
I hope that made you laugh as much as it did me.

P.S. Apparently, the Netflix Streaming Disc is on the way. Expect the horrors of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus sometime this weekend...

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