Today I watched The Fireman's Ball, directed by Milos Forman in 1967. It was pretty fantastic. Forman directed this movie in the Czech Republic, right around when there was an uprising against the Soviets. Directors and films like this on were banned, seen as subversive and as an attack on the Soviet system. Like many directors who lived in the Czech Republic during this time, he found great success in America. He had a great career, and directed some of my favorite films like Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I really loved this movie. It has fascinating historical meaning, but it still is funny and interesting today.
The movie is about a group of local fireman who organize a ball - with a big raffle, and a strange beauty contest. They also plan to present a gift to their former chief, who has been diagnosed with cancer and is 86. They spend much time in the film planning for the event, but they sort of have to survive it over the course of the movie. The prizes from the raffle are stolen, constantly, throughout the night. The men in charge of the beauty pageant select girls that don't really want to be any part of it. The fireman sneak around through the crowd trying to locate pretty girls, who end up fleeing the whole thing since they don't want to do it. It sounds sort of...not funny now that I've explained the plot. I don't have a great comparison for the sense of humor that this movie has. I would say the closest thing I can think of is A Christmas Story or a Christopher Guest movie like Best in Show, where the movie is just focused on bizarre, small events and individual stories. However, Guest makes fun of the characters in his movie, but Forman doesn't.
The target of Forman's film is the Soviet regime. Ebert says that he "is not making fun of his characters, but of the system they inhabit" (Great Movies II, 146). The problem is the way that everything operates in the film. not the people. It's hard to watch movies like this now, because we have a hard time understanding what their original intent was (at least for jerks like me who were born after this era). I think you can see some of this if you watch the film with Forman's intent (or debated intent, since he claimed that his film had no double meanings). Ebert points out some scenes that we can see the criticism in, writing, "The film's climactic scene could easily be seen as a perfect symbol for the paradoxes of Soviet communism: During the ball, a local barn catches fire, and the firemen race to the scene. But their truck gets stuck in the snow, the barn is engulfed by flames when they get there, and when the farmer complains that he is cold, the firemen do what they can: They move his chair closer to the flames" (Great Movies II, 144). The fireman's committee operates stupidly, and solutions to problems in the film are pretty much as dumb as the one I mentioned above. I personally think it's really interesting to watch movies and think about what they meant, historically, but that takes some time, occasionally research, and it's not always the most fun way to watch the film.
I didn't read anything about what this film was interpreted to mean before I watched it, but it still was funny and interesting to me. It really survives the test of time - had meaning for a certain era, but still is entertaining today, even if you don't notice the historical context. I love stories that focus on normal, everyday characters, and the whole movie is full of them. Ebert mentions that Forman didn't cast any actors, and I love the feeling that this choice gives the film. It's engrossing to watch the people, because they seem so shockingly normal! For me, I just loved the people, and the way the movie made me feel like I was really there. The humor wasn't absurd at all - it was so funny to me because it was so realistic.
I loved the old man who guarded the raffle table, and his disgust when he realizes even his own wife was stealing the prizes. His gestures just reminded me of my grandpa, and pretty much everyone's grandpa - his angry, dismissive hand wave that only old men can do, his raspy sounds of surprise and shock (sort of Eastwood-y). There were just so many funny moments that I've seen happen, or I could imagine happening. There is a scene where a girl's pearl necklace breaks, and as a young man helps her get the beads, she realizes many of them have become caught in the front of her dress, and avalanches them out onto his head. Things like this have basically happened to me before - and it was more of a situation where you laugh with her, than at her.
This is a really great movie, and I never would have thought to rent it on my own. I seem to really love Forman -his movies just strike a chord with me and they all seem to feel right, you know?I think I'm developing a bit of an obsession with him from this project. I really had fun watching this, and I think anyone who rents this movie will as well. I personally really like movies that can have a bit of a double meaning like this, and I love how well it has held up. It might not be relevant, but it is still very funny and charming, and not dated at all. Let me know if you check it out!
Have any of you see The Fireman's Ball? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on The Fireman's Ball
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