At the risk of generalization, The Criterion Collection is probably best known for packaging two types of films: celebrated canonical works that deserve pristine treatment; and comparably worthwhile but overlooked or unavailable films in need of a resurrection. Two of this week’s DVD/Blu-ray releases from Criterion – Harold Lloyd’s iconic silent comedy Safety Last and Czech auteur František Vláčil’s largely unheard-of-in-the-US Marketa Lazarová – exemplify the very best of both these tendencies, giving cinephiles an opportunity to “discover” in various ways both an undisputed classic and a challenging, largely unknown masterpiece of form and tone.
In his book “The Thrill Makers: Celebrity Masculinity, and Stunt Performance,” which covers the acts of 20th century daredevils whose public performances quickly became the stuff of American cinema, historian Jacob Smith explains how and why the famous image of Harold Lloyd dangling from the hand of a clocktower came to be during the early 1920s:
Indeed, Lloyd’s death-defying climb in [Safety Last (1923)] resonates with a whole culture of early twentieth-century spectacular performance wherein men climbed public buildings without the help of any mechanical or safety devices: human flies. Lloyd’s biographies describe how he struck upon the idea of using a human fly in his film when he saw one in action at the Brockman Building on Seventh Street in Los Angeles in July 1922… (48)
The “human fly” in question, named Bill Strothers, appeared as a version of himself in Lloyd’s film.
Smith goes on to describe the human fly phenomenon as a particularly urban form of gaining publicity in an ever growing post-industrial architectural landscape. The brazen risk-taking of the human fly permitted something of an opportunity for the city-dwellers to take command of a city rapidly growing around them, to “walk on the city” if you will. Smith continues with a tragic, darkly ironic detail that accompanied the history of Safety Last:
That Safety Last owes a debt to the human fly performance is clear enough, but the film has further connections to that public spectacle. Consider an aspect of the film’s publicity not typically mentioned in Lloyd biographies: a human fly named Harry Young plummeted to his death as he scaled a building in New York City in order to promote Lloyd’s film. (48)
While it’s certainly something of a downer to think of the promotion of Lloyd’s delightful comedic spectacle as painted with an entirely unwarranted dance with death, it’s also important to use this history as a way to consider the nature of Lloyd’s spectacle. One of the most spectacular images of the silent Hollywood era was not rooted in fantasy or exaggeration, but emerged from the particular spectacle of everyday life in early 1920s metropolitan America.
Safety Last not only speaks volumes to a rich, fascinating, and disturbing history of dangerous acts of modern publicity, but also to the life of the urban working class and the difficulties of upward mobility, even in the prosperous, pre-Depression era of the Jazz Age. When one feels like a cog in a machine, being able to overpower the architectural structures that regularly overpower you can be an enlivening feeling, and one only slightly less dangerous than, say, working in a factory all day. (Of course, such practices were quickly co-opted in order to promote things other than the human fly himself, like Lloyd’s Hollywood film.)
Lloyd’s sympathy for the everyday man is potent and important. Over time, his popularity has receded as the posthumous reputations of contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton have grown. The Criterion release’s essayist, Ed Park, credits this comparable cultural invisibility to the fact that Lloyd and his ensuing estate have owned much of the multi-hyphenate’s work and have exercised incredible selection over the years regarding when to release what.
Keaton is the cartoonish contortionist, a master of making cinema do what looks to be impossible. He took just as many physical risks as (if not more than) Lloyd, and both performers suffered their respective injuries. But Keaton’s gift was making the impossible look easy. Chaplin, similar to Lloyd, possessed undying sympathy for the menial worker, but Lloyd’s portrayal of the commodification of ordinary human life emerged thirteen years before Chaplin’s Modern Times.
Lloyd’s inimitable gift was his nuance, his deceiving banality. He’s able to pull off small gestures and subtle movements that have great comic weight, like sneaking behind his suspicious boss’s back, pretending to have been working the entire time. It’s this subtlety that makes the final stunt of the film so powerful. One could imagine Keaton beginning a film with such a stunt, but Lloyd explores every possible detail, every dangerous maneuver after over forty minutes of making the audience laugh at only the lift of a finger or a sly passing glance.
With Safety Last, one can not only be introduced to a larger history of the early 20th century American spectacle of the everyday but come to appreciate the value of a performer who has long been underappreciated, even if he created one of the best-known images in cinematic history.
In Criterion’s illustrated booklet accompanying Marketa Lazarová, film scholar Tom Gunning and translator Alex Zucker describe in considerable detail their own personal experiences of watching the film. Gunning readily admits that he had to view Marketa Lazarová four times before he could make sense of the film’s semblance of a plot. It seems difficult to approach Vláčil’s film outside any terms other than the immediate and the experiential. The film barrages the viewer with a set of images, characters, and circumstances – all of which are perpetually intriguing and don’t make any of the film’s sprawling 165 minutes feel prolonged – but they rarely cohere in a consistent sense of the entire picture of the film. This, by the way, is a word of praise.
To watch Marketa Lazarová is to experience a perpetual immersion into the ever-fleeting present, to take what is given to you at each aesthetic moment before it is yanked away in place of another. Yes, one could describe the film (as the description on the back of the packaging does) as the “depiction of a feud between two rival medieval clans” (I’m not sure if even this modest distinction was entirely legible to me while watching), but this admittedly necessary shorthand would misleadingly suggest that the film is interested in “depicting” plot or circumstances or even character relations.
That the film is titled after a character (a blonde, objectified young woman who exists either in the film’s most ethereal margins or in its moments of starkest brutality) is perhaps its own initial means of misdirection. Marketa Lazarová is a film of texture, a film that paints through its use of music, camerawork, on-screen text, and anything else available in the medium.
Its setting, year of release (1967), and widescreen black-and-white photography make Marketa Lazarová reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, but Vláčil is interested in virtually any technique other than the long take, allowing cathedral music to freely move in and out of the soundscape and treating his camera as a device that can move readily between subjectivities. Marketa Lazarová is a stunningly beautiful film. It’s also an incredibly difficult film, working through aesthetic contradictions that both permit the viewer to immerse themselves in its deep layers of style while also alienating her/him in its abstruse (but never fully abstract) approach to narrative. As stated by Gunning:
Most films lay out a journey for us, take us for a ride, exhilirate or charm us, but give us some idea of where we are going. Marketa Lazarová sweeps us up in a rapture before we even get our feet on the ground. František Vláčil directs with a symphonic variation of tone and pace, moving with assurance from the frenetic to the contemplative, the horrific to the erotic…Marketa Lazarová may be an aggressively avant-garde and experimental film, but it never becomes abstract or sublimated. It twists our ideas of how stories are told, how space and time interrelate, and what a film image looks like.
Gunning also states in his introduction that Marketa Lazarová “may not be a film for everyone” – and this is exactly where the film gets its strength, daring to pursue cinema’s unique properties, audience be damned, in ways that other films won’t, supposing they could even think to do so.
It’s little wonder why this film (which was deemed the greatest Czech film ever made in a 1998 Czech critics’ poll) has been little-seen in countries outside that of its origin – its obscurity in circulation effectively summarizes the experience of watching the film itself. But the experience of seeing something so rare and incomparable is an exponentially more elusive experience for the 21st century cinephile, especially when one has been consuming the work of a company that’s nearly 700 titles in. Marketa Lazarová is a discovery in the purest, most devoted sense.
The 46-year-old Marketa Lazarová has effectively become introduced to American audiences through this release, and it presents both a challenge and an opportunity. This isn’t simply a film that fills in a gap of an Eastern European cinematic canon; it’s a film that will offer revelations, provocations, and micro-discoveries for years (and viewings) to come.
Safety Last and Marketa Lazarová are now available through The Criterion Collection on DVD, Blu-ray, and Hulu Plus.
For more straightforward reviews of these discs, see my Criterion coverage on this week’s entry of Rob Hunter’s Blu-ray/DVD column.