The '68 Comeback Special: A Report On The Party And The Guests

When I was maybe 20 some friends of mine were arrested. No crime had taken place, someone had simply seen something that looked fishy and the police had been called. I thought it was due to a slight case of theft. The previous night we'd all gone out to buy flowers, it was one of our birthdays, only to find that the market had closed. Someone had left all the flowers outside the shop and we thought, well, why not? We wrote a note explaining the situation and slipped it under the locked doors, along with 20 dollars, much more than the flowers were worth. We left and thought nothing of it. At the end of the night I went home, my friends stayed out. The following morning I got a phone call telling me that three of them had been arrested. My mind went to the flowers but it was something else. One of them had been shooting at trees from the backseat of a car with a plastic six-shooter purchased at a K-Mart as a joke graduation gift for me. Someone had seen this, thought the gun real, and called the cops. Not 100% unreasonable, though I still hold a grudge against the witness. The friends who'd overpaid for flowers when they might have just stolen them had been arrested. All of the accused had never done anything close to an arrest-able offense before and to this day are all harmless. Indeed their social conscious and kindness is what defines them. They're going to make real differences and real changes and make lives better. They believe in positivity, in the power of one person in an overcrowded system and I believe they'll achieve it. I'm biased, but I couldn't get over the fact that these people, friends of mine who always radiated warmth and understanding, had been arrested.
I drove to the police station. I didn't know what else to do. The parents had been called and they were inside the tiny station lobby trying to talk to the desk sergeant, trying like hell to reason with him. I couldn't make out most of it because I thought it best not to intrude. What could a twenty year old do but make things worse? But one thing I heard very clearly: laughter. The desk sergeant was laughing. That didn't make sense. I stood up and walked over to the door to get a good look at what was happening. My friend's mother and her lawyer were trying to get this man, this stranger, to essentially let a woman talk to her frightened son. All she knew was that two armed police men had walked onto her property, guns drawn, made her only son get on his stomach where they handcuffed him, and then driven off with him. How does a mother make sense of that?

The crime had been explained to her, she knew it was bullshit, the gun her son had been waving around like a little kid was in fact plastic. The cops knew that; it was sitting in evidence after all. Though never did they mind that. The police took it all seriously until they didn't. This man, whose face I will always remember as having a mustache and no hair, but who knows what it really looked like, was looking at a scared mother and laughing at her. They would talk, the officer would pretend to empathize with them, then make a joke. A "Well, sure, that's why we're here," type joke, one of those things that says "this is on you, my hands are tied and I'm just as happy not helping you". In other words a joke with no punchline. He cut the lawyer off to make these jokes time and again. While they stood there talking I heard a door slam around the back of the building and realized they were taking my friends to their arraignment and the desk sergeant had no intention of telling the parents until they'd left the building, giving the cops a headstart to the courthouse. I sincerely feel he would have kept laughing at them all day given his druthers. We all arrived at the courthouse in time to hear charges read; if we'd arrived later and bail hadn't been posted in time they would have been sent to prison and because it was Friday they'd have had to stay there until Monday. Three days in prison because of this horrible man. Luckily it didn't turn out that way. Damage was done but I know I'm grateful there wasn't more, that the cop hadn't kept interrupting the lawyer and laughing. 

Very few films have ever captured what that experience felt like to me, what it's really like to deal with the law when it's one man in front of you wielding power he's so drunk with that he doesn't seem to remember what it was like to be a human being before he'd been given a badge and a gun. I was feet away from that kind of corruption, I know what it sounds like, what it does to your brain. It actively rejects logic and does not let anything make sense. That kind of power has no master, no sense of fair play or compassion. It just laughs at you, at your pain, the fact that your attachments have left you open to harm. How foolish were you that you let this happen, that it's affecting you so badly? Franz Kafka got the ghoulish surreality of law and order. The word 'Kafkaesque' is funny to me because it comes from fiction - anything 'Kafkaesque' in life is meant to be compared to The Trial, but fiction can't compare to the mocking condescension that law enforcement agents have for the suspected criminal and anyone with the shit luck to be related to them. The Trial isn't prophetic speculation like 1984, it's a no-bullshit rendering of the way law works, outsized for the sake of maintaining something like safe distance from how scary the truth is.
Jan Němec's A Report on the Party & the Guests is one of the only films that has ever managed to convey that sense of abject horror I felt listening to the desk sergeant laughing at a woman trying to see her innocent son. The film has two acts. In act one, a group of seven people are killing time before a wedding party. They picnic and then wash up and walk through the woods to join the revelry. Through the woods come several menacing-looking men in suits. They quickly outnumber the picnickers and usher them off to some secluded corner of the grounds where a desk is placed and a man begins interrogating them. The man, played by Jan Klusák is absolutely terrifying. With his awful posture, his tics and his round but pointed features, he resembles a human weasel. He's the perfect embodiment of random, reckless, unearned power. He makes the seven guests get in line for no reason and then his men draw a line around them to keep them contained. They are never told what they've done. He seems to talk in riddles, making strange pronouncements that feel like threats thanks to Klusák's queer gesticulating and petulant expression. His eyebrows always give the impression that he's reacting to a dirty joke he's forgotten to tell and betray his clear attempts to seem like an imposing force and buttress his complete unwillingness to give these people the comfort of knowing why he's tormenting them. "What have we done?" "Don't you know?" I imagine Bradley Manning's had that conversation a few times. Klusák is never less than totally infuriating. When one of the women asks to go to the bathroom, he rolls his eyes like he was given too much information about her sex life. One of the men attempts to leave and Klusák dances around him and tries to assure him he should stay of his own volition. When that fails he cries and screams and has the men in suits apprehend him by force. His affect most resembles a jealous, bratty child, a kind of bureaucratic Lord Bullingdon. I assume Němec, like the rest of the Czech new-wavers, was no stranger to feeling completely impotent when faced with a body given power it cannot handle. 

And then just as soon as it started, the host of the wedding party (Ivan Vyskocil) arrives and forces Klusák to let them go. He asks forgiveness of the detained and they grant it to him. Just like that. They explain exactly what it felt like to have been waylaid so forcefully, almost like they're used to constant inquisition and it's important that Vyskocil understand the difference between this and any other sort of official harassment. And then it's onto the party and act 2. Briefly; if I haven't mentioned any aspect of the filmmaking it's because Němec might have been the least showy of his peers, at least grammatically. I'm still too much a novice to know for sure and have many, many more films to watch, but the whole point of a film like A Report on the Party and the Guests is to tweak reality in the slightest ways possible. People have to know something is up, that this isn't based on a true story, but all the stories of Czechoslovakia in 1967. It's meant to bypass the brain and head straight to the blood and bones. If one wants proof of the ease with which we can dissociate the truth behind The Trial and the way it's told just look at Orson Welles' excellent adaptation. It might as well take place on another planet. One can look at the diseased looking streets, the possessed lighting, the claustrophobia alternating with agoraphobia with such frequency you could get spatial influenza and say "How horrid...good thing we don't live like that!" A Report doesn't let us off so easy. If it had cut together with the Godardian, manic lust of Vera Chytilová's Daisies, possessed the bombastic dry humour of Miloš Forman, the pastoral romance or ebullient sexuality of Jiří Menzel, it'd distract you from the banality of evil. The film's most beautiful image, a candle-lit banquet in the middle of a forest, has to be as symbolically charged as it is staggeringly pretty or it wouldn't be here. Still, this must have felt like security camera footage to fellow dissidents. Not that any of them likely saw it; it was banned in Czechoslovakia.
Act 2 concerns a guest's sudden disappearance after everyone realizes they're sitting in the wrong assigned seat (the film's funniest joke). The host wants answers, but all anyone seems capable of supplying him with are resigned glimpses into the missing guest's character. Němec could be said to be playing in Buñuel's sandbox, but he has a single-mindedness that Don Luis abandoned when he started letting his first love, surrealism, creep back into his narratives in the early 60s. What we have here is the closest we've ever come to seeing Eugene Ionesco on the screen. The expressions of the actors and the things they say rarely match up. Anger explodes at a moment's notice, only to go completely unrecognized. People talk into a vacuum, knowing very well there words will only obfuscate the situation and enrage the host more. People don't just talk over each other, they talk past each other. When hound dogs are called for to hunt down the missing groom, it suddenly appears as though we've been watching a horror film the whole time and had no idea. A neat trick, and absolutely how it feels in reality. One minute you're watching the nicest kid you know buy flowers for his friend's birthday. The next morning a man in a uniform is treating him like a criminal and laughing at your attempts to make sense of the change. Maybe the joke is that there is no making sense of the change because that man knew that deep down that no one's actually guilty, so anyone can be and thus should be. Everyone makes mistakes, so everyone can be held accountable at all times for something. Original sin as law. The missing guest flees not just dinner but a way of life that can detain you for no reason because of an ideal you didn't know you were being held to. When questioned the vanished man's wife says, chipper as a lark, "He said he didn't want to be here. That here, no one likes anyone." Klusák returns to form a posse to hunt the man down and terror reigns supreme. The world's natural state is chaos in A Report on the Party & the Guests and after brief, false hope and celebration, it's time to return. Maybe Kuroneko wasn't the scariest film in competition...

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