Panelstory or Birth of a Community ★★★★

You'd think that given the absolute love that Daisies inspires among cinephiles that more would search out the other films of Věra Chytilová, but that is likely an issue of access. A general search on Amazon reveals not a single other feature of her work has been put out on a Region 1 DVD. Rather than "blame the cultural gatekeepers," this is just one of the lasting effects of the digital transition and the paradox of film history, which seems to be simultaneously expanding and shrinking. American studio rarities are slowly resurfacing as best they can through the DVD-instant programs by Warner Brothers and the other majors, while the select major works of national cinemas that have been handpicked by Scorsese and the rest of the World Cinema Foundation aims to keep global film history in a malleable state of reinterpretation.

But works like Panelstory, a very funny and dystopic satire about Soviet architecture and community, sit essentially in a purgatorial state. You can get a Czech VHS from the libraries at Mount Holyoke or Stanford (if you have borrowing privileges), and then hopefully you can pull up a player, find subtitles online to download, and sync them up. That's a lot of work to do for The Cinephile Cause, and a search for the film on Google doesn't produce pieces by even the usual suspects (Rosenbaum, Martin, etc), meaning the knowledge to even create the desire to follow through on such a project is supremely limited. This is a prelude that I'm extremely grateful to Jon Dieringer of Screen Slate and Spectacle for not only giving this film a space, but working to secure a quite fine 35mm print.

Panelstory's abstractness is at the heart of its human comedy. It's a film literally about the architecture of the world falling apart—every building in need of desperate renovations, on top of the fact the streets are all mud and every apartment complex looks the exact same, creating a kaleidoscope maze. In keeping with Marxist principles, base creates superstructures, so the community and eccentric personalities that emerge out of this community are just as crazy —the pregnant teenager, the troublesome toddler, the saucy and washed up actor, and the dying old woman. “Man reflects his surroundings," someone remarks. These are somewhat familiar types that we've seen in other films, and their familiarity to us is part of the key, but we recognize them as products of a paradoxical bureaucracy (double feature with Brazil), a Kafkaesque system that's designed to confuse and stunt social mobility, both figuratively and literally.

Chytilová is more grounded in her shooting here compared to the avant-garde surrealism of Daisies—closer to handheld realism, but numerous sequences are still edited together with jarring abstractness, making the world seem less grounded than it perhaps actually is; the huge expansive shots of the skylines feel like gasps of air in a world of sameness, and it's hard not to think of the disorientation that Altman creates in Nashville, except there's no sense of community here—just individuals accidentally and literally crashing into each other. The old woman turns out not to be dead (and thankfully given how horribly the attempts to get her an ambulance goes), but listening to tapes from her son in Madagascar with a map sprawled next to her. It's hard not to imagine Chytilová seeing both life and death here: her physical state almost expired, but thankfully retreating a world of imagination, finding order within the chaos.

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