' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Firemen's Ball (1967)

Friday, June 01, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Firemen's Ball (1967)

The eponymous “Firemen’s Ball” of Milos Foreman’s 1967 Czech New Wave comedy of errors is intended to honor the 86 year old ex-chairman (Jan Stöckl) of a small Czech town’s fire brigade. But we do not see the chairman as the movie opens, eavesdropping instead on the firefighters’ committee lamenting how they forgot to honor the chairman more appropriately a year earlier on his 85th birthday, signaling not only the organization’s inherent haplessness but how their haplessness, and selfishness, will repeatedly take center stage over the person they are ostensibly honoring. Indeed, the chairman becomes something less than a hero in the film’s rendering, more like a recurring butt of myriad unintentional jokes, all the way up to the end where his big speech is undercut by the ceremonial axe with which he is to be presented going missing at the all-important moment. This reveal is fairly obvious and yet, to a modern viewer such a foregone conclusion is in lockstep with Foreman’s critique of the country’s Communist experience. After all, only a year after “The Firemen’s Ball” was made, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia.

“The Firemen’s Ball” betrays its political commentary by forgoing even cursory attempts at spotlighting individual personalities to instead focus on the two opposing masses. There is the noisy reverie of the ball-goers and then the squabbling, dithering firefighters committee whose overblown sense of power is comically exposed as the party gradually goes awry. And when Foreman does cut to an individual, he makes it count, not only with the honored, theoretically, chairman but in the film’s concluding shot, which is draped in a humorous melancholy. Occasionally Foreman even picks out individuals amidst the crowd, like the young man who seems to be the date of a woman who winds up in the ball’s ersatz beauty pageant. This young man’s disheveled hair and jaw in hand air demonstrates a complete lack of interest in the whole affair, bringing home its pointlessness, which the aforementioned ersatz beauty pageant makes even clearer.

The beauty pageant reveals itself as less an exercise in finding a proper presenter than an excuse for the committee to ogle women. In the manner of so many big-headed men, however, they are disappointed in the appearance of the contestants, not that the contestants seemed entranced by the big-headed men. The women mostly stand there with stone-faced disinterest or giggle like they know the whole ordeal is a joke, while the fire brigade keeps looking toward the door, hoping someone else will show up, two parties entirely un-committed to a process playing out only because of pointless ceremony. This transpires simultaneously with the ball’s raffle prizes being stolen right under everyone’s nose, which the brigade seems determined to pin on the attendees, though it eventually becomes clear that the brigade’s own also has its hand in the cookie jar, demonstrating the innate corruption within a civic institution that is nominally for good. But that institution is never put on notice any more than the pivotal moment mid-ball when a rural home catches on fire.

Being that I bring everything, including movies, down to movies, this movie moment could not help but remind me of the moment in “Roxanne” when Steve Martin’s updated de Bergerac, fire chief C.D. Bales, sniffs out a fire and leads the rescue mission. There a bumbling mass of idiots steps up to save the day, which is quintessentially American, always believing the best about ourselves even when experience, history and gut intuition tell us not to, a comedy suddenly giving rise to whimsical heroism. In “The Firemen’s Ball”, however, set in the cold-hearted, communist-ravaged post-war Europe, comedy gives way to something blackly comic. The firemen get their firetruck caught in the snow, and are forced to try and douse the fire with the same snow that prevents their putting out the fire in the first place. And as the old homeowner watches his house burn down, he is overcome by a nighttime chill, moved closer to the fire by the firemen to get warmed up by the blaze, an irony so wicked that you laugh through tears.

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