Friday, July 20, 2007

Citizen Vaclav Havel Goes on Vacation

2006, 77 minutes, documentary, directed by Jan Novak and Adam Novak, Czech Republic

I generally don’t expect a documentary on living under Soviet-style repression to yield many giggles, but Citizen Vaclav Havel Goes on Vacation is so jammed with anecdotes of state-sponsored absurdity that at times it seems more like a descendant of The Good Soldier Svejk than a historical document. In August 1985 Vaclav Havel tipped off the attorney general of Czechoslovakia that he was soon to embark on a summer vacation visiting friends throughout the country. Part publicity stunt, part protest, part “entertainment for my friends,” Havel’s trip was alternately shadowed by what he later calculates as 300 StB (the Czechoslovakian secret police) agents. Along the way Havel is detained twice, the last time under suspicion of “preparing to commit the crime of disturbing the peace.” His friends are harassed and sometimes detained as well. One white-haired compatriot recalls the StB breaking into his home and accusing him of “harboring a subversive document,” the Charter 77 petition that called for government recognition of human rights. A poster that reads “Fuck for (peace sign)” hangs in the background.

Havel maintained a cordial, if condescending, coexistence with his minders. One of his friends recalls him startling them awake in their cars one night with an offer of tea. Watching Havel and his fellow dissidents yuk it up about the bureaucratic idiocy they were subjected to made me wonder if their irreverence and broad perspective contributed to Czechoslovakia’s revolution being a velvet one. I can only assume it was part of their psychological survival. I also kept thinking that it’s no wonder that this is the country that produced Kafka. The danger here, of course, is that it's easy to forget that a buffoonish government can also be a treacherous one (read: George W. Bush and company). I think that’s why filmmakers Jan Novak and Adam Novak include the story of a young poet and dissident Tomas Petrivy, who was found mysteriously dead in his home two weeks after meeting Havel at one of his vacation stops. “The people who weren't known had it the worst. The StB took it out on them,” says an acquaintance of Petrivy.

Like summer vacation itself, this film starts to sag about midway through and I found myself yearning for more depth and insight into Havel and his country. I often find absurdist comedy to be too broad and too one-note to be sustained for very long and sometimes it seemed like the humor was getting in the way of the larger and more interesting story. As an exercise in irony—a slice of police-state life—this film succeeds, but I wish the filmmakers would have aimed a little higher.


Kirk Johnson said...

As good progressives in the west, we can't help but treat "dissidence" as a holy word, whatever the context. We see the events of 1968 -- at Columbia, in Paris, in Prague -- as aspects of single impulse: heroic resistance. Like Brando, in "The Wild One," when asked what we're rebelling against: "What have you got?"

The years of state persecution that Havel genuinely endured are a kind of credential, but not enough to guarantee the near-iconic status he's attained. It's his after-career as a "Philosopher King," or artist-politician, that makes him a unique case. And the record there is rich with ironies and ambiguities. I wonder if the filmmakers' choice to focus on the bad-old days didn't foreclose an opportunity that might have relieved some of the "one note" sag you remark in the film.

Zizek says somewhere that the scandal of Havel's "Third Way" is that it secretly means there is no longer a "Second Way." Capitalism or capitalism: that's all we got. And nostalgia for the days when the state was obviously repressive -- villainously and buffoonishly so -- doesn't much help with that dilemma.

It's the humor of dissidence -- its dissonance -- that keeps it wild. What to do when the joke turns predictable and stale?

FlickFlake said...

Havel does come across as the "'Philosopher King,'" or artist-politician" in this film (probably more the latter). I wouldn't go so far as to call it a paean to him, but there was the sense that the filmmakers couldn't be bothered much with nuance.
I don't know enough about Havel or about the history of the Czech Republic to take issue in any specific way with their portrayal. I would just say that it was a bit too neat and tidy to be of much interest.

Speaking of an option other than capitalism or capitalism: Are you encouraged by a leader like Hugo Chavez, who says he's trying to develop a "new socialism?"

Gotta check out Zizek. Can you recommend a book to start with?

Leopold said...


Get a job.

FlickFlake said...

Get a life.

Leopold said...

It's currently in a test-tube awaiting study.

In the meantime, I could do with a VCR.

Kirk Johnson said...

Am I interrupting something? Surely you two have better things to do on a Saturday night.

The U.S. press treats Chavez with such uniform hostility, it's hard not to wish him well. The Times has been especially vicious, and its slapstick reporting during the 2002 coup attempt, when it briefly became the house organ of the day-and-a-half Carmona government, is an emblem of the clouds of bias and distortion that surround his every move. I don't pretend to understand the intricacies of Venezuelan politics, but all the right people hate him. And so...

Chavez has a buffoonish, bully-boy side, but his contempt for Bush is open and often funny, and the reappearance of leftist trends in Latin America is generally encouraging. So I bite my lip and grit my teeth and mumble, "Viva Chavez."

Zizek has a gift for making unpenetrable and jargon-laden subjects -- Lacanian psychology or Hegelian dialectics -- seem accessible and even entertaining. He's noted for using Hitchcock and David Lynch and sizeable repertoire of old jokes to argue his thornier points. He can be glib, and he tends to recycle the same schtick from book to book. His little books on 9-11 and the Iraq war -- Wecome to the Desert of the Real, and Iraq: the Borrowed Kettle, might be good entry points. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) is an earlier classic.

I guess I like them both as provocateurs -- unabashed contrarians in an increasingly airless public space. Can one be too contrary? My old-school knee-jerk dissidence says no.

But so far, judging from the comments stream, provocateurs are all you got. No panelists. That too is a gift.

FlickFlake said...

Yeah, anyone who would say "Gringo, go home" to GWB is at least worth a hearing. I've had Tariq Ali's book "Pirates of the Caribbean," about Chavez, Evo Morales, and Castro on my list for a while now. He was interviewed on Democracy Now last year about it:

Gizmology said...

Not really about the movie, which I have not seen, January 1990, Vaclav Havel appointed Frank Zappa as "Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism." That pissed off then U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker (his wife was a co-founder of the PMRC!). Baker's famous quote was: "You can do business with the United States or you can do business with Frank Zappa." That pretty much ended the "official" relationship. In any case, Havel's friendship with Zappa continued to grow, and Zappa shared his ideas about increasing tourism to Czechoslovakia. He explained the concept of credit cards to Havel and Vaclav Havel, forever a big FZ fan, said, "Frank Zappa was one of the gods of the Czech underground."

DaInfomaster said...

Vaclav Havel? The following is a view from the other side. It is part of an article posted on the Internet in summer of 2006. Not everybody is in goose step with the "New World":
Only very superficial changes were made in governmental make up of all former countries of the Warsaw Pact. I will use the Czech Republic as an example to illustrate.

Czechoslovakia switched from being communist into being "democratic" under very suspicious and never fully explained circumstances on November 17, 1989, when the StB (the Czech secret police) organized "student demonstrations" in Prague. One youthful-looking StB officer, Ludvik Zifcak, even pretended to be "dead student
Ruzicka" so the news flashes about the "tragedy" could be sent out to the world by Marxist journalist (no accident here) Petr Uhl to drum up sympathy and get things moving. Today Ludvik Zifcak is the chairman of one of the many Communist parties in the Czech Republic and no longer hides his true colors.

Next came the moment for the future darling of western leftist media and western Marxist university professors, writer Vaclav Havel. It was not so obvious then, but with twenty-plus
years of hindsight, it is obvious that Vaclav Havel, a protégé from a prominent family, was groomed by the communist government for a big position in the future. That future started later with the so-called Velvet Revolution. The
prominence of Vaclav Havel under the communist regime was obvious not only from his uninhibited
traveling to the West at a time when ordinary Czechs had to stay put for decades (does nobody
remember the Iron Curtain anymore?), but also from his driving around in expensive western cars when his compatriots could hardly afford a bicycle to pedal. This was a little too well
known and therefore the communist planners decided to manufacture a plausibly deniable cover story for the future - for when the need would arise to present Havel as a martyr and opponent of the communist regime. So they imprisoned Vaclav Havel (well, it was more like a spa) to create an aura of a "prisoner of conscience". The world and the Czechs themselves took the bait.
Vaclav Havel later put a big dent into his manufactured “poor tortured prisoner” cover story
when his "Letters to Olga" were published. Letters to Olga were letters to his wife from
prison and in which he describes his prison life. For example "smoking cigars" (page 5),
"eating caviar" (page 16), "ordering cartons of different brand of cigarettes, the old one is not good enough" (page 61), "watching movies and TV"
(page 85), "eating chocolates" (page 98), and "getting shipments of foreign vitamins" (page 107). He led the life of comfortable vacationer in every sense of the word. On a page 7 he writes
about "getting massages". Poor prisoner Vaclav Havel ­ how could he have endured the suffering
of that hellish prison existence for so long?

On Dec. 29, 1989 the exclusively communist Czechoslovak parliament unanimously "elected" Vaclav Havel, an alleged enemy of the state until the day before, to the presidency of Czechoslovakia. Who says pigs can’t fly?

Then the events took a faster pace and started making even less sense. President Havel immediately pronounced a new policy of "Peace and Love" and ordered that there will be no prosecution or persecution of communists. Some of
them, like the hard-line commie and then Prime Minister Marian Calfa, became "close friends"
with Havel. During Havel’s 14 year presidency (which ended in February 2003) he never failed to
protect his communist buddies, while at the same moment preaching to the West about human rights.
Vaclav Havel gave lifetime tenure to old-time communist judges and presided over establishing "legal continuity" with the former communist regime and thus forever protected all communist criminals in justice, army, police and all
branches of the government from ever being punished for their past crimes.

After the Czech Republic became a member of NATO on March 12, 1999, Havel sent former Warsaw Pact
“ex-communist” officers as emissaries to Brussels - no other "senior officers" were apparently available! My guess is that all NATO military secrets reached KGB headquarters in Lubyanka Square about 15 minutes after they were entrusted to "NATO-Czech" officers. The same is true for all other "senior officers" from former Warsaw Pact countries that were sent to Brussels in
similar fashion. By allowing those snakes into the house, NATO rendered itself ineffective and
useless and can no longer be taken seriously as a military protective force and alliance. Whoever in NATO had the "bright idea" to allow Czechs, Poles and Hungarians into NATO to create a "buffer zone" between Western Europe did not realize that the Czechs, Poles and Hungarians are the proverbial Trojan horse. The enemy is no
longer at the gates - with this stupid decision the enemy is now inside the gates. And this is
how the United States lost NATO without even knowing it.

What’s the current situation? Vaclav Havel, a key player in the elimination of NATO, has since
"retired" and has become the world’s most successful collector of Honoris Causa doctoral titles from universities world-wide. If your school will plop another ridiculous title on him, yes, he is always willing to come and soliloquize a little. The power of communists and the influence of the Soviet Union (now Russia,
whatever) on the countries of Eastern Europe never waned and the KGB’s grip on events remained
firm. Communists switched the official names of their parties into something more acceptable to
gullible Westerners and continue to rule. Their formerly political power was smoothly transferred
into economic power in one amazing trick - company bosses, which had always been a political appointment, simply became company owners in a very smooth transition to capitalism. In the most recent Czech and Slovak elections, the renamed political parties of ex-communists won the elections. They promised the moon and stars and the populace believed them.

And you thought that Islamofascism was a problem? Have you forgotten about the Evil Empire? They knocked NATO out cold without a single shot being fired. Just wait and see what they come up with next...

As for Svejk whom you mentioned, to find more about him visit SvejkCentral. There is also a new English translation.