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Karlovy Vary

     Goethe went to Karlovy Vary, not Casablance, for the curative waters, and so did Karl Marx, where he penned bits of Das Kapital by the Europe-renowned spas. Every 19th century composer worth his salt-Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Dvorak-took some time out at Karlovy Vary (also called Baden Baden). In the 20th century, Nazis on horseback occupied the cobblestone streets, "freeing" Czechoslavakia, and the Communists grabbed control after World War Two, making Karlovy Vary a beloved politburo vacation spot a convenient two hours from Prague.

     In 1965, a film fest was started there, but, along with Czechoslavakia's hopeful Spring Revolution of 1968, it was stopped dead from liberalization. The fest stumbled on for several decades, run by Party hacks. Even after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the Karlovy Vary Film Festival was in disarray from all those debilitating Communist years.

     "In 1994, we prepared to revitalize the good name of the Karlovy Vary Festival, battered after years of stagnation during the former regime," recalls Eva Zaorolova, the Artistic Director for the last ten years. "Wherever we turned, people shook their heads in disbelief. 'The festival has no future in Karlovy Vary.'" But a rival fest in Prague failed after two years running. Bit by bit, Karlovy Vary not only took a foothold in the Czech Republic (people come from everywhere for the Fest, including hundreds of backpacking students) but around the world.

     In 2003, in its 38th incarnation, the Karlovy Vary festival can make a legitimate claim to being the best in Eastern Europe. Almost 250 features were shown this mid-July, including inspiring retrospectives (Maurice Pialat, Yansujiro Ozu), screenings of this year's interesting output of Czech films, showings of about a dozen recent American indies, and, ahead of all US fests, a display of the most acclaimed works from May's Cannes Film Festival.

     It was here that I saw Gus Van Sant's Elephant, which won Cannes' two most coveted jury prizes, the Palme D'Or for Best Film and the commendation for Best Director. In the off-year at Cannes 2003, Van Sant's take on the massacre at Columbine--transferring the murderous events to an unnamed liberal high school school in the director's home town of Portland, Oregon-seems as worthy of these awards as any work in Competition. Elephant is gorgeously shot in telling long, long takes, following various kids through the maze of high-school hallways, and the non-professional student ensemble are just fine talking real-life, middle-class, high-school-speak. A constant in Van Sant's oeuvre (My Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, etc.)has been his affection for young people, and it shows here, how relaxed his teenagers are before his camera.

     A typical day at school. Different from, say, in a melodramatic TV movie-of-the-week or a slasher flick, the teen conversations in Elephant are not portentous, containing foreshadowings of a massacre. The kids don't know what's going to happen. Even our duo of killers are pretty subdued about what's about explode, beginning with chowing down a normal breakfast. As one says to the other as they pull out their rifles at the schoolyard, "Whatever you do, have fun!" As if, they were a team hitting the basketball court.

     The title Elephant? It's the animal in everyone's living room that we choose not to notice. In other words: repression. Why nice boys from a nice neighborhood kill. Also, blind people touching various parts of an elephant will describe it in totally different ways. For the latter, Elephant's most arresting conceit: a cubist way of looking at the high-school shootout, from the completely at-variance POV vantages of different students, depending where they are about the school. For some, it's only an odd explosive noise in the background, for others the perplexing sight of fellow students in shock running past them, for still others, it's a rifle pointing in their faces.

     About those new Czech features shown at Karlovy Vary. Several I saw took place in the 1980s, and showed how Communism ground down the spirit of stubborn alternative-minded artists, poets and sculptors. (But the Czech geography didn't help: in both films, gloomy characters whined about living in a country without a seashore.) An acidic satire, Small Town, showed a Dogpatch-like Czech village switching in 1989 from drunken Communism to debauched porno capitalism. The best Czech film I saw, Some Secrets, Alice Nellis's warm, very funny, contemporary tale of a problem-laden family on an auto trip to Slovakia, seems ripe for American distribution.

(Boston Phoenix, July, 2003)


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