CC BY krozruch

Loners / samotáři

28-08-18


I first watched Samotáři in my first steady flat in Prague. It was 2004 and I was in Prague 4 by Michelská bakery sharing with a woman I used to call (in my rudimentary Czech) pink lady for the bright, childlike colours she used to wear. She taught sign language at a university, replacing somebody who was on maternity leave, and did little but watch soap operas and read the tabloids. On the other side of me was a guy with a mullet and a moustache who had a sad little kangaroo sign on his wall because he grew up in Australia, was learning the fretless bass and worked for a telecoms company. We were now a few years on from the period the film was set in and those few years could be felt - the whole, new country (the Czech Republic was just over ten years old as an entity at this point) was moving as if on a steam catapult.

I was in my mid twenties and in a mess which was as yet ok since I was in my twenties. I had by now been in the Czech Republic for some months and I was just about keeping afloat with work as an English teacher, though, since it involved conversation, and since I was autistic and didn't yet know it, it terrified me. If I didn't know I was autistic, and had not yet guessed that I had an extreme case of ADHD, I "knew" I was manic depressive and perhaps I was. I knew too that food and nutrition was important, that I ought to avoid bread, yeast, sugars, dairy products and a whole range of other foods to sleep well, improve my concentration, and keep me as functional as I was possible. But then I was living in prague, those first few months of living on the edge of the rapidly-expanding city with one of those German-style toilets with resting places (a direct translation) where you could inspect your stool before flushing it, had demonstrated the horrors of the vegetable-free cuisine, I had known, mullet boy lived in the kitchen where I did not disturb him, and so I ate muesli in the mornings (invariably going in wheezing on the Metro into work), ate from the Golden Chicken Chinese next to the internet cafe by the Budějovická metro station where I wrote disinhibited emails, read about 9/11, prepared lessons, and downloaded soft porn. This diet, and the beer I kept on drinking long after the time I realised, after the end of my first two year stretch in Prague, that I don't sleep, at all, after drinking beer.

It was a good time to watch the film. The Polish have a phrase "czeski film" for situations where nobody knows what is going on. This is not unfair, but since Czechoslovakian film began with genial madcap comedies and the gentle musical romances of the First Republic, progressing through several waves of not only communist propaganda but also the kind of genial madcap comedies the commies commissioned when they were trying not to talk politics and, of course, the justly famed Czech New Wave of the 1960s, the reputation is mostly apt for those films of the postcommunist period. At this time, nobody knew what the fuck was going on in the whole of Central Europe, I don't doubt, but the Czech Republic might have been a special case. From January 1st, 1993, Czechoslovakia broke up and the centre of gravity of the new country moved towards its urban centre. Foreigners arrived. The second story in a collection called The End of the World ("Konec světa") published by Emil Hakl in 2001 is called The First Foreigners in Prague.

The, to "us", rather unexceptional Palác Flora shopping complex built in 2003, was described as a UFO in Hakl's On Flying Objects in 2004. David Ondráček's previous film, his first, the Whisper ("Šeptej") from 1996, ended with a UFO which I always remembered as resolving the film with the promise of a heteronormative fairytale. Loners features this leitmotif of the Czech Republic's bewildered birth: Vesna first says she came to Prague from Macedonia because it is the best place to see UFOs.

Loners is about an atmosphere more so than a plot as such, and I am not sure I have grasped the plot in real time any of the times I watched the films. We meet a handful of characters. Vesna was always the one for me who pulled the film together. Vesna is working as a barmaid in an exploitative bar, though she doesn't seem to notice or to mind, and she changes her story later, saying she has come to Prague to find her father. We find out nothing more and it might miss the point if we did. Meanwhile, we find breakups and over-involved mothers and meet Jakub, a moronic stoner character, Ondřej, a believably obsessive stalker who works as a brain surgeon, Petr who works as what is supposed to be a rather edgy radio DJ, Hanka, his girlfriend who he breaks up with, and her parents. In one of the kind of scenes that earned Czech film its reputation at this time, we see a group of Japanese tourists recording Hanka's parents as they eat their dinner.

For anybody who knows a little of Prague at this time, and perhaps anybody who doesn't, Loners is an enjoyably flawed film. I don't remember anything about Reality Bites (Ben Stiller, 1994), but remember a review of it which compared it to Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991) and had it that the former encouraged young people to take the mainstream path. I am not wholly sure that it is that simple with Loners, but it seems clear that many of the people experiencing the changes after 1989 and in a position to express their feelings about it, were shocked and discomfited by what they saw happening around them. It is not to be doubted that there must have been people drifting around Prague in the early 1990s with their minds bent out of shape, but Jiří Macháček's Jakub does not give the impression that anybody involved in the film had ever met one. Half of the problem here is that Macháček has always been the kind of actor and performer to indulge the worst instincts of a specific demographic of the Czech population, but the result is so slack as to be absurd next to the suggested depths of Vesna's character and miss the better representations of the marijuana experience by a country mile. Neither is the time given to this character quite funny enough to dislodge the suspicion that the impulse was primarily conservative. The film does leave a few strands open, most notably with Vesna, and this is in its favour, but the manner in which some of the plot strands are tied up leaves the viewer with the sense that this film, though it appears to look ahead, is in fact an exercise in nostalgia. If some of its suggested threats to the Czech way of life (which it at least gently satirises), such as Ondřej's intrusive use of video cameras to record intimate dialogues, and indeed Petr's recordings of his mother which he plays on air, may be seem to have been just, and if indeed it is certain that the sudden influx of drugs left many casualties as it all appeared as if on a switch without the folk knowledge that might come with it, the film appears to be more comfortable with the exploitation of women in the otherwise gloriously 1990s bars. If any of these might be considered as flaws, myself and Woodstock talked about the film for perhaps hours afterwards; unlike Reality Bites, the film might work best projected outside in a park in an intimate film festival with the smell of marijuana in the air and a cheer or two drowning out the dialogue now and again. As a document of those times, of what the Czech Republic, and Prague, has been, it is one of the better films I have come across since I first came here.




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