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the garden

Warning: Contains one spoiler, the film's final, magical scene.

Slovak director Martin Šulík's film 'Záhrada' ('The Garden', 1995) was rereleased in cinemas in the Netherlands this summer to coincide with his new film 'Cigan' ('Gypsy').

A new look at 'The Garden' reveals a poetic fairy tale that satirizes saints and philosophers alike in favor of a simpler life in the country. It's the magical-realist atmosphere, though, with its warm, golden light and languid pace which really makes this a memorable film.

'The Garden' tells the story of Jakub, who feels stuck in his life in the city, and bored with his affair with a married woman. When his father kicks him out, he decides to visit the house of his late grandfather, a delapidated farmhouse with a large garden in the country. Once there Jakub discovers the joys of a country life, and starts working to reclaim the garden and make the house liveable again. He also finds his grandfather's diary, in mysterious mirror writing, which contains a map to a hidden treasure in the garden: a large bottle of slivovitz.

Zahrada - the Garden - 1

In extolling the virtues of a simple country life, 'The Garden' recalls 'Candide, ou l'Optimisme', Voltaire's sarcastic picaresque which attacked the fashionable Leibnitzian optimism of its time and concluded that we must "cultivate our garden". In another reference to such classic, didactic literature, the film is divided into fourteen short chapters, each introduced by an ironically oldfashioned narrator.

Chapter three, in which Jakub decides to put things in order, experiences a dog's insidiousness, and meets a mysterious maiden.

Meanwhile, Jakub starts getting strange visitors in his garden, including this "mysterious maiden", Helena. A dreamy teenager who lives next door, she brings magic into the garden, and Jakub soon falls under her spell. In one scene she shows him the healing power of an anthill by standing in it with bare feet.

Other visitors include Benedict, a shepherd who wants to be a saint, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose car breaks down on his way to attend a weddding ("This new technology just gets on my nerves"). Even more explicitly satirical is his next visitor, Wittgenstein, a real-estate agent who wants to buy Jakub's land. Wittgenstein tells him a parable which just seems theoretical and trite - it is a lesson Jakub learned long before when he opened the garden gate.

When a man has a problem it's like staying in a room he can't get out of. He tries the window but it's too high. He tries the chimney but it's too narrow. And then he looks around and sees that the door has been open the whole time.

And when Wittgenstein asks whether Jakub has any problems, he counters with the philosopher's own maxim, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Zahrada - the Garden - 2

But these episodes are really entertaining distractions in Jakub's newfound life, which follows the rhythm of the seasons. His father comes to visit him, and their renewed relationship makes him, too, see the life he lost when he moved to the city.

It leads to the film's final scene, a breathtaking piece of cinema that reminds of Tarkovsky, and shows how magic is really an accepted, even expected part of everyday reality for those who cultivate their garden. At the same time the film completely transcends the philosophical debate on the nature of good and evil. And Jakub's father concludes with a line that is echoed in Šulík's next film, 'Orbis Pictus' - "Finally all is as it should be."

the language of the absent

The concept of 'the extensions of man' is usually associated with media theorist Marshall McLuhan and his 1964 book 'Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man'. But here is the same idea some 30 years earlier, from Sigmund Freud's 'Civilization and Its Discontents', and with a characteristic psychoanalytic twist to it...

With all his tools man improves on his own organs, both motor and sensory, or clears away the barriers to their functioning. Engines place gigantic power at his disposal, which he can direct, like his muscles, wherever he chooses; the ship and the aeroplane ensure that neither air nor water can hinder his movements. By means of spectacles he can correct the defects of his ocular lens; with the telescope he can see far into the distance; and with the microscope he can overcome the limits of visibility imposed by the structure of the retina. In the camera he has created an instrument that captures evanescent visual impressions, while the gramophone record does the same for equally fleeting auditory impressions; both are at essentially materializations of his innate faculty of recall, of his memory. With the help of the telephone he can hear sounds from distances that even the fairy tale would respect as inaccessible. Writing is in origin the language of the absent, the house a substitute for the womb - one's first dwelling place, probably still longed for, where one was safe and felt so comfortable.

Of course McLuhan took the idea one step further, or rather circled it back to Freud, by declaring that:

...all media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment. Such an extension is an intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a self-protective numbing of the affected area, insulating and anesthetizing it from conscious awareness of what's happening to it. It's a process rather like that which occurs to the body under shock or stress conditions, or to the mind in line with the Freudian concept of repression. I call this peculiar form of self-hypnosis Narcissus narcosis, a syndrome whereby man remains as unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in. As a result, precisely at the point where a new media-induced environment becomes all pervasive and transmogrifies our sensory balance, it also becomes invisible.

From the long Playboy interview (1969) with "the high priest of popcult and metaphysician of media".

a garden in the evening

Things are happening here and I am the only
one who knows which

I shall name them and also say why

there's an old garden seat standing under the apple-tree
an old football lying in the grass
old sounds are coming out of the house
there is old light in the sky

this is happening here: a garden in the evening

and what you don't hear and don't see - the places
where we dug holes
and filled them up again, weeping

I tell you this because I do not want to be alone
before I am

- Rutger Kopland

Translated from the Dutch by James Brockway, who introduces in English the poet's "simple language that is not simple at all, but often leaves one guessing".

Here's also a low-fi version of Kopland's 'Descent in Broad Daylight', translated by J.M. Coetzee for his collection of poetry from the Netherlands, 'Landscape with Rowers'.


Here's a little known animation classic from Poland called 'Tango' (1981), directed by Zbigniew Rybczynski.

Whereas the essence of animation is often seen to be that it can break the laws of space and time in ways that film can't, 'Tango' almost could have been a live action film. Its fitting title conveying the film's elegance of movement and formal restraint, there are no special effects whatsoever, just a breathtaking choreography of human activity in a room...

Btw, the ZKM in Karlsruhe currently has an exhibition titled 'The State of Image. The Media Pioneers Zbigniew Rybczynski and Gábor Bódy'. Could be interesting.