Wednesday, 30 July 2008

A Close Watch On The Trains

My parents' generation remembered The War. They still call it "The War" even though there have been a few more wars since. My Nana, when she was alive, said there was another war, before "The War", that she thought was even worse.

Anyway. I grew up in peacetime. I was very relieved that I wasn't going to have to join the army, unless I wanted to. I was, however, worried, that compared to my father, I was growing up soft. My father worried about this, too. (Let's be honest. I learned to worry from him. But because I was a child, I thought it was all my own idea, and, of course, all my fault. )


When I was a boy, I liked trains. Then later on, I liked girls. In my teens, I liked both together, and - things being the way they were - I especially liked the older, better looking ones that I couldn't catch. (The trains, that is. And the girls.)

Eventually, I went to university, where I fell in love with a woman who was older and madder and interesting and Eastern European and politically active. (And a self-harmer. Pity about that. ) So, I got to see lots of interesting films from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (and plenty of dull ones, too. Pity about that.)


Jiri Menzel's Ostre sledované vlaky was one of my favourites. It was made in Czechoslovakia during the mid-sixties period they called the Prague Spring, when people were confident and artistic, and reflective and critical about society and the possibilities for the world, in a positive way, until the Russian tanks arrived, and they all had to wait another twenty years before Václav Havel became President and met Lou Reed and Frank Zappa.

It's a film about trains and The War - I don't know what my father would have made of it - and a young man trying to lose his virginity.


Milos, the teenage protagonist, is an apprentice at a small railway station in provincial Bohemia, and the trains he is supposed to watch often contain Nazi troops and equipment being sent to the Eastern Front. The Nazis are, of course, the enemy, an occupying army, and in the film we follow young Milos as he learns, in different ways, what he has to do to be a man: how to survive under Nazi occupation, how he can resist it, how to be courageous and heroic, how men behave around women, and how to get the girl he wants.


Milos watches an older colleague as he flirts with and seduces a girl, and thinks he knows what sex is all about. But his dirty weekend with a beautiful train conductor doesn't go to plan, and in despair, Milos tries to kill himself. I can never forget the scene in the hospital, where Milos shows his bandaged slashed wrist to a visitor and says, with a straight face :
"The doctors say it's called premature ejaculation."
A Close Watch On The Trains is a comedy about being a man, being a hero, and being good enough. Milos' sexual awakening goes hand in hand with his political development.

Appropriately enough for a film set in Bohemia, orgasms are an act of freedom and defiance. Orgasms will defeat fascism, if we have enough of them.

We can imagine that Menzel's tale of resistance to the Nazis was also meant to encourage 1960's Czechs and Slovaks not to stand for any crap from Moscow. Certainly, the Russians banned the film after they invaded provided fraternal assistance in 1968.



My father was right about me being soft, compared to him. But his mother died when he was five, and he was raised by an alcoholic father for a few years, before he died, and left his sons to be raised by someone even more brutal. So my dad didn't have a lot of opportunities for softness in his life.

He made the most of the opportunities he had with me when I was little, but the older I grew, the more talkative and curious and energetic I became, the less he knew what to do. I guess my dad's life forced him to toughen up a lot sooner than he would have liked, and we both lost something on account of that.

4 comments:

Perfect Virgo said...

Stepping from behind the curtain a little, Gordie. A fascinating and revealing piece.

I, like the view said...

oh, the guilt I aquired from listening to my mother's tales about the war

I was guilty about having a bed to sleep in (she'd slept Underground), a house to live in (she's lost three, due to the bombing of Docklands), possessions of any sort (her's ahd all gone with the bombings)

the list goes on

and on

but she had fun stories too

"got any gum, chum?" she used to ask the GIs

curiously, tho, I wasn't allowd to ask for anything - and the one time I was given something (an ice-cream) spontaneously - she made me feel so guilty for just existing in the first place

parents, huh, they fuck you up

(christ knows what I'm doing to my kids)

KAZ said...

This film sounds good.

Did you see 'W.R. Mysteries of the Organism'. It was a weird Yugoslav film (70s?) which was all about orgasms.

Gordie said...

Kaz - yes! I will try and devote a post to WR ehen I'm in the mood.


I,LTV - these were our crimes: just existing, being comfortable, accepting what our parents gave us, not being comfortable (after all we'd been given), not accepting our parents' need to compare themselves with us.

PV - The most important part of writing is showing up, and not getting in the way. I'm steadily clearing the obstacles in my path.