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Weekly Films - Closely Watched Trains (Ostre Sledované Vlaky) (1966)

The goal of this column by F.R. Le Grand, which will be updated every one or two weeks, is to recommend films of great power and significance, regardless of the decade, the style, how many stars are present or how controversial it is. Non-Hollywood films will be given a slight preference, as the aim is to explore the creative, the innovative and the unknown.

Opening Dialogue: ‘’My name is Milos Hrma. They often laughed at my name.  But otherwise, we were a happy family. Our great-grandfather Lukas, as a tambour, fought on the Charles Bridge of Prague
and when the students threw cobblestones at the soldiers they hit great-grandfather with such aim
that he’s received a pension ever since: One gulden per day.  He didn't do anything after that, except buy a bottle of rum and a pack of tobacco every single day… My grandfather William was a hypnotist
and the whole town believed his hypnotism was prompted by a desire to go through life without any effort…My father, an engine driver, has been retired since the age of forty eight and people are mad with envy since dad is healthy and will draw his pension for twenty, maybe thirty years without doing a thing.’’

Closely Watched Trains (Ostre Sledované Vlaky) (1966)
Directed by Jirí Menzel
Oscar winner for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ in ‘68

Looking over a list of all the previous Oscar winners for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’, I stumbled upon an unusual title: ‘Closely Watched Trains’, a film from a nation that is no longer with us, (Czechoslovakia) puzzled me from the start. Made in 1966 but in black and white and with a plot that seemed too thin to spread over 90 minutes without boring the spectator, I wondered how good it could actually be. The story goes a little like this: Milos Hrma comes from a family of mediocre and lazy male role-models; his father and grand-father both went through life attempting to do as little as possible. Milos, continuing this ‘noble’ tradition of near uselessness, lands himself a job at the local train station, as an apprentice train watcher- hence the title -  a profession he feels will be all too easy. The motion-picture deals with the simple life of Milos and the problems of a small-town boy nearing manhood. Great emphasis is placed on portraying the erosion of sexual innocence and the difficulties Milos has in overcoming an introspective personality. ‘Closely Watched Trains’ is, above all, a human film- the characters have their flaws on display throughout the entire film, each one with a particular flaw. One is a coward, the other a traitor, and another a hypocrite; caricatures of people coming into conflict with who they wish to be and who they are. The highlight of the film is the oftentimes comical dialogue, the best part of which is narrated by Milos in first-person. Jirí Menzel directs a, touching, detailed, and brilliant film about the emotional problems which young men live through during their ‘awkward years’. The embarrassing and exciting moments all young men go through to reach maturity are intimately played out on screen as Milos Hrma surfaces as a young adult. The film faithfully recreates the ‘rituals’ which shy, confused boys stumble through during adolescence, most of which are kept as secrets for the rest of their lives. This is why this film is so fascinating, it reminded me of what I was like as a boy dealing with the onslaught of time, the need for maturity and the slow transformation of youth to man. ‘Closely Watched Trains’ is an ageless film dealing with a nostalgic part of our lives - sexual innocence- with a teenage anti-hero as a protagonist representing the humanity and emotional vulnerability of youth.

For me, 2011 was a year to forget. Tides rarely went my way- when they did I usually screwed up- so I often found myself wondering how everything had gone so wrong over the last 12 months. This isn’t a column about me, Francois Le Grand, it’s a column about what films can mean, the role they can play in giving an education and the sheer power overlooked masterpieces can have in changing attitudes. Everyone experiences extended moments of distress where days are no longer opportunities to grow but long, unending spaces of time; entire weeks are thrown away and consumed by sighs and the shrugging of shoulders. So although I write from a personal perspective, it’s about a wider issue; a lack of motivation, depression, whatever you want to call it. It’s the story of how I came to love films and what each one of them has taught me.

When I was in the dumps, I became what one could call a ‘film-hermit’. For a few hours I lived other lives, was in other places and could take refuge from the present and the coming days.  Me, a 12 pack of Brahma Beer, a dark room, an assorted collection of films- foreign, new, old, coloured, black & white, popular, cult and plain weird- were all I needed for the next 9-10 hours of suspended animation as the credits rolled and the music began.

Movies such as ‘Three Idiots’ by Rajkumar Hirani, which had me sobbing like a toddler lost at a supermarket,  ‘A Long Walk’, narrating the true, albeit contested, story of men escaping from a Siberian prison camp, ‘La Vitta E Bella’, possibly one of the most beautiful films of all time, by Roberto Benigni  and ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ featuring a stellar Anthony Hopkins as a simple New-Zealander willing to sacrifice everything for his lifelong dream, made me reconsider how I was living and what I wanted from life. Where were MY dreams? Great films would kick-start a desire to change; the emotion embedded in these motion pictures, had me rising from my bed, saying ‘Enough! Tomorrow will be different’. On occasions, films were all I had to turn to and so, they were not just entertainment, but motivation to stay afloat instead of sinking. One frequently hears of old men complaining about how the years have ‘flown by’ and how ‘so much time was wasted’. I’d like to think films bring a lifetime of meaning into a compressed extension of time, and that, even if only for a brief while, they give us the opportunity to see the world from a different perspective.

The goal of this column, which will be updated every one or two weeks, is to recommend films of great power and significance, regardless of the decade, the style, how many stars are present or how controversial it is. Non-Hollywood films will be given a slight preference, as the aim is to explore the creative, the innovative and the unknown.

F.R. Le Grand

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