Unproductive art

Nonsense is the biggest offence

There is a late 1960s Slovak film that got censored and locked up by the socialist party in Czechoslovakia because, in their words, it contributed nothing. It has no political message or content whatsoever, but it is fairly nonsensical and that proves to be offensive enough to a lot of people. It's colourful and loud and too artsy in a way that simply does not square up with socialist realism. All of that is on the surface, easily visible. Over the last several weeks I have been thinking about what makes this film so unproductive. What started as a view point presented by a political regime, ended up being a useful magnifying glass.

Celebration in the Botanical Garden is a crude utopia taking place in a small, imaginary village in Eastern Slovakia, Babindol (more like Babylon). It's a ship of fools getting by with the help of locally produced wine. There is not much of a story; the character development is almost non-existent. Instead, there is a lot of shouting and arguments. Things get trashed. Bottles are broken; planned weddings never happen. Walls are vandalized. Postman's delivery gets thrown into the fountain.

People rarely work. And when they do, the work often ends in a prank, a slap in the face, an escape, or walking out. Once, the work of weeks-long preparations for a theatre play literally catches on fire. Things are left to their own devices. They eventually happen, but you get the sense that people would rather be on the go, and leaving, rather than finish their work. It is hardly reflective of the political regime of Czechoslovakia, a centrally-planned economy where everyone was lawfully employed.

In one of the most memorable lines, a local drunk in the pub says, “here everyone can make miracles happen, as long as they are not afraid to try.” The miracles in question are not economic. They are miracles of abandon and emotional zest and unpredictability, that act as cherries on top for those directly involved. It is not hard to understand how such an innocently-sounding proclamation could be grating to the censorship board.

Work is not the only thing that constantly shifts. The characters forever come in and out of spaces, and nobody has privacy. Everyone mingles all the time. Nobody is ever settled in a life situation, but instead is being thrown about in an emotional whirlwind. It's reactivity on steroids. One moment, the characters act as coy lovebirds, the next they shout and cry. I mentioned that the character development is non-existent, which is surprising given that the characters are exposed to so much action. There is the forever-bride and mother of seven daughters, whose husband-to-be always escapes their wedding. There is the husband-to-be, who guards his humble abode with a gun, but is partial to being clothed and fed (but of course) by his almost-wife. There is their daughter who wants to get married but the boyfriend is also an escapist, neither of them able to make up their minds. They keep chasing each other around the village, physically and metaphorically. There is Frenchman Pierre who rolls into the village one day and engages himself in public life immediately (is this a wonderful take on uninvited foreign intervention?). There is a travelling band who pass through, routinely sleep rough outside and provide the soundtrack that we get to hear (breaking the fourth wall).

Everyone's unproductivity is expressed in a wholly undirected, intuitive, playful and emotionally driven movement. They welcome the sways of life and are beholden to whatever comes their way. Psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés reminds us that it is “play, not properness, that is the central artery, the core, the brain stem of creative life.” I think Elo Havetta, the director, knew that sitting still and being meek won't lead to much creativity and innovation. After making only two full-length films that were censored, he was banned from ever directing cinema again. He passed away because of a combination of alcoholism, depression, stress and pills at the age of 36. As one well-known colleague of his remarked, Havetta died of “normalisation.”1


Pun intended: normalisation as the political climate in the post 1968-Soviet-occupation Czechoslovakia, and normalisation as in the opposite of creativity and flair that Havetta brought to Slovak cinema.