I’ve long been a fan of the underrated Czech director Ivan Passer, who emigrated to the US after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but who has never attained the fame of his compatriot and colleague Milos Forman (with whom he worked as a screenwriter and assistant director on Forman’s pre-1968 Czech films). In the US, Passer has directed one film I really love, the brilliant and downbeat neo-noir Cutter’s Way (1981), and several other interesting ones, like Born to WIn (1971, starring George Segal as a self-deluded junkie who is never able to pull himself together) and Haunted Summer (1988, a melancholy, surprisingly absorbing, and psychologically rich drama about Mary and Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, and Mary’s writing of Frankenstein).
But I had never before seen Passer’s best-known film, Intimate Lighting (1965), the one feature he made in Czechoslovakia before he left. Intimate Lighting is a beautiful film, which creates an odd feeling of stasis or suspension, both because of its gorgeous high-contrast black and white cinematography, and because it’s a film in which almost nothing happens. I don’t mean by this that it’s a film that somehow embodies pure duration, the form of time passing, of temporality in its pure state (which is how I would characterize the films of Antonioni and of Bela Tarr). But rather, Intimate Lighting dwells entirely within the quotidian, a time that is ordinary rather than extraordinary, overtly uneventful, and yet filled with the microscopic actions and passions and happenings that fill and consume our lives, often without our even noticing.
The plot of Intimate Lighting, such as it is, is quite simple. A musician, no longer young, but just starting to push middle age, with his chic younger girlfriend in tow, comes from the city for a weekend, to visit an old friend of his in the provinces. The friend lives with his wife and kids, and his old but still active parents, and has pretty much given up on his musical career — he works, instead, as the headmaster of a small music conservatory out in the sticks. Various personal interactions ensue, but nothing that’s the least bit “dramatic.” We go to a funeral, at which the provinical son and father play mournful music, followed by a wake, at which they play energetic, upbeat tunes while elderly peasants drink and dance. The girlfriend wanders the grounds of the house, plays with some semi-feral cats, and has a sweet conversation with the “village idiot.” The provincial friend is always complaining to his wife and mother about how the hens are always getting into the garage, and trying to lay their eggs under his car. The two friends get drunk together, act silly and dumb, and reminisce about their old times as music students.
And so on. We are left, not with anything tragic, nor even with the sort of global sense of disillusionment and disappointment that we find, for instance, in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, but only with a series of local, trivial, transient irritations and frustrations (and also fleeting moments of minor pleasure), that stubbornly don’t add up to any sort of bigger picture. There are hints of the contrast between the pretentious cosmopolitanism of the city (where the visiting musician and his girlfriend come from) and the weary traditionalism of the country; but this distinction is never directly articulated, and never comes to a point of conflict. And neither of the alternatives seems that attractive, anyway.
I’ve been describing Intimate Lighting in terms of what’s “missing” from it. But such a description is a bit misleading. For the film doesn’t withhold anything (in the way so many modernist narratives do). Nor is it empty (in the sense, mentioned above, that Antonioni’s and Tarr’s films are deliberately “empty”). Rather, the film is quietly contemplative, and (how do I say this?) entirely immanent to, on the same plane as, its subject matter. Quotidian. The everyday is subtly aestheticized — as much on account of the luminousness (if I can put it this way) of the lighting as anything else.
But aestheticism itself is de-idealized and drawn into the quotidian. I am thinking especially of a sequence where the two protagonists, the country protagonist’s father, and a friend of theirs from the village (an older man, a retired pharmacist) are playing a Mozart string quartet. They do this for themselves, without an audience, just for their own pleasure. The performance is not a polished or concentrated one — they are continually interrupting themselves, engaging in teasing banter and petty bitching and quibbling, and ceaselessly complaining about one another’s performance — not to mention irritated outbursts at any of the women who interrupt them for so much as a moment. And yet, we get the sense that playing this music, getting absorbed in it, is one of the few pleasures in life that these men have. And yet, on the other hand (for, in this movie, there is always an “on the other hand”), this aesthetic pleasure is itself ordinary rather than extraordinary: it doesn’t bear any meanings beyond itself, it doesn’t valorize itself as a superior instance of “culture”, it is fleeting and entirely unredemptive.
In an interview that comes as a bonus feature on the DVD, Passer says that he had hoped to make a film that people would watch many times; that he wanted the experience of watching it to be like visiting old friends or family: you already know exactly how these people will act, what they are going to do, and yet you get pleasure in seeing them again anyway. Exactly.