Friday, 20 June 2014

Intimate Lighting (Ivan Passer, 1965)

(written for the Autumn 2006 issue of Vertigo magazine)

This is the place to start as it was the film that changed my thinking about how I could approach writing about cinema. Mehelli sent me a copy to review, but after watching it a couple of times I was at a loss as to what to write. A standard approach seemed wholly inadequate to the freshness and spirit of the film. I turned it over in my head for a couple of days and, before long, found myself addressing the main character, Bambas, in a poem. It  began, 'Do you remember Bambas / how our weekend was full of light?' - and I had a way in to the film.


Do you remember Bambas,
how our weekend was full of light?
In your children’s hair
and in the dancers at the funeral
and in your old man’s eyes
and in the slivovice.
I swear the sun shone the whole weekend.

It is appropriate to think of Intimate Lighting as the memory of a visit. Conversations cut across each other, children disrupt mealtimes and a meeting between two old colleagues has to take place among the confusion of preparations and the goings-on of the day. It is only later that events come to infer the patterns of daily lives with their triumphs and disappointments, and only later that half-remembered phrases take on significance.

Passer talks of visiting a film the way you visit relatives; conversation and reactions have become things of habit but you visit them anyway, partly just because they are familiar and you know what to expect. Intimate Lighting may well become familiar over time but there will always be something unexpected about its candour. From the screenwriter to the characters and from the director to the cameramen, no-one is hiding anything. There are few films of which this can be said.

Do you remember Bambas,
how our weekend was full of music?
The breeze in the barley,
your father and the pharmacist
sawing their way through Mozart
and complaining about their joints,
the snores of a sleeping house
and the dogs barking in the night
as you talked of taking to the road
with your violin.

According to Passer, Intimate Lighting was made with no commercial pressure and minimal political pressure. It certainly has the look of a blessed film with a general sunniness in its aspect. Despite this, the authorities found enough in it to have it banned for twenty years – a religious song here, the revealing of hardship there, the name of a professor then interned. More than anything though, what got up the backs of the Party members was also one of the reasons why the film remains so fresh today: it simply ignored them and found its subject elsewhere, in the daily life of people getting by, in their arguments, their rhapsodies, their dreams and their music.

Though attempts at music-making in the film may at times be painful, they are honest and the players know as well as we do how they sound. We are in no privileged position towards them. Throughout the film, we can laugh, smile or shrug our shoulders with people, but we never laugh at them.

Part of Intimate Lighting’s atmosphere comes because the film is allowed to breathe through its lightness of touch and its editing. Subtle connections are made but no points are laboured. Of countless examples throughout the film, here are just four:

At teatime with their guests, Bambas drinks from his cup with his little finger lifted, then glances briefly towards his wife to check that she has noticed. Whole stretches of conversation about the arrival of their guests are replaced by this one small glance.

When grandfather praises Stepa’s pretty eyes, Bambas matter-of-factly tests the shock absorbers on the car (previewing grandmother doing the same to Stepa’s bed-springs later) and declares that they aren’t working properly. Grandfather is unfazed and has a spring in his step on the way to the funeral.

Vera waits in the car outside the funeral and is passed by a group of women on their way to the fields. The shadows of their rakes pass across her face. Inside the men sing ‘and the lovely young girl/left this world too’ as an old woman with beautiful eyes stares at the lightly discomforted girl. All the connections between youth, age and mortality are there but any ominous nature of the scene is punctured by the women’s laughter as they head down the lane. Intimate Lighting touches on seriousness the way that the shadows of rakes touch Vera’s cheek.

After drinking long into the night, Petr and Bambas actually get as far as walking down the road with their instruments in cases. In the morning, Bambas wakes, having fallen asleep in his car with the lights on and the gate open. He stands, scratches and shuts the gate.

You know Bambas,
so much of that weekend went by me then
what with meeting you again
and Stepa near me
and the concert ahead.
Now I think I remember everything
and I raise my glass to your memory.

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