Examining the Influence of History of Central European Cinema on a 21st Century American Filmmaker

By Melanie Feliciano

I came to Prague to shoot a short film called “The Boob Tube.”

Inspired by Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” it is about a woman named Katka who wakes up one morning with eyeballs on her chest. She starts to see people, places and things through her heart and involuntarily projects videos on walls.

She spends the bulk of the story trying to understand why she has been cursed – or blessed – with these eyeballs. At first, she blurts out her insights to everyone, especially those close to her, and they become upset because what she tells them is the ugly truth. By the end of the story, through the guidance of her magical auntie Rosaura, she learns how to convert the ugly truth into beautiful video projections that inspire and educate…until she meets a strange robotic woman who offers to pay her for her talents, thus opening yet another Pandora’s Box.

After spending a semester studying Central European Cinema, the story has evolved. This paper shall discuss the storylines, film language and psychology of certain films from Czech, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia during different eras in the 20th century, and how they have influenced and strengthened the script and storyboard for “The Boob Tube.”

First we shall discuss story:

“Professor Hannibal,” by Hungarian filmmaker Zoltán Fábri in 1956 is a definite influence on the story since it is about truth vs. mob mentality. The story takes place in the 1930s, during the fascistic regime of Hungary’s Admiral Horthy. The protagonist becomes a hero for publishing a groundbreaking essay on Hannibal and the Punic Wars, but then the people turn against him, isolate him and then change their minds again until the professor has lost all faith in humanity.

The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive reviews the film with a statement that sounds very similar to the story I am trying to tell: “When the mild-mannered pedant refuses to back down, a Kafkaesque nightmare begins, replete with vigilantism and the public self-criticism that is the ultimate debasement of an individual life.”

In “The Boob Tube,” Katka is a peaceful, caring spirit who works with her aunt Rosaura inside a spiritual bookstore in Prague where she dabbles in science and alchemy experiments. Her classmates at university already think she is eccentric and weird so when she wakes up to discover she has eyeballs on her chest, she is scared, worried and confused.

EXT. STREET – DAY

KATKA, a woman in her 20s, speed walks frantically uphill against the flow of proper girls walking in the other direction downhill.

We see her reflection in a storefront window as she walks past, but we don’t see her head.

She pushes past the other girls carrying designer purses and wearing shiny shoes, stylish scarves, glamorous sunglasses.

Katka runs.

INT. SPIRITUAL BOOKSTORE – DAY

CLOSE UP: EYEBALL BLINKING.

A light shines into the eyeball. Indian sitar music plays.


Camera zooms out slowly.

ROSAURA

Can you see through them?

KATKA

Yes.

ROSAURA

All the time?

KATKA

No. When I got dressed, everything was normal again.

ROSAURA

That makes sense. Just imagine if everyone walked around with eyeballs on their…

Camera zooms out and reveals that the eyeball is actually on Katka’s chest. She has two eyeballs, directly covering her nipples.

POV OF KATKA – BLURRY.

Lens of camera quickly “blinks” three times then clears up.

The room looks like a palm reader’s surroundings.

Crystal ball.

Beads hanging from a door.

Incense burning.

Tarot cards.

A cat laps milk from a saucer on the floor.

LENS OF CAMERA “BLINKS.”

A dog laps milk from the saucer.

LENS OF CAMERA “BLINKS” TWICE.

A girl laps milk from the saucer.

MEDIUM SHOT

Katka pulls shirt down. Stands.

Eventually Katka displays her “Boob Tube” at an art show and her classmates are impressed and hold her in high respect the same way as the politicians in Hannibal. The unusual attention boosts Katka’s ego, but when her classmates move on to a different trend, she is no longer the center of attention, and Katka is again a quiet, eccentric nobody.

It is at this point that Katka must learn to value her own talents without the approval of her community, which is illustrated quite well in “This Sporting Life,” a story about a talented boxer, who undergoes the same struggles as  every artist, athlete, business person, or any human in any type of economic system. Just like Katka discovers her talents and must figure out how to use them to survive in the world (without selling her soul), the boxer in this film must also navigate the world of greed, jealousy and hubris. He is inspiring at first because he stands his ground when his investors try to low-ball him and when an investor’s wife tries to  seduce him. The irony is that while he wins the sports of life in the world, he is failing miserably at home. The widow he is in love with feels scandalized by the community as his “kept woman” and she is tormented by her need for the boxer’s income to keep a roof over her children’s heads. The story ultimately dwindles into a melodrama of the torn lovers’ battles with each other, but overall, the story teaches us the lesson of integrity through archetypical characters: the devil, the seductress, the jester, the martyr and of course the hero.

While the above films explored themes that rang true for “The Boob Tube,” such Czech films as “Eve is Fooling Around,” “Loves of a Blond,” and “The Fireman’s Ball” did not provide any particular inspiration, although they helped me understand better how to tell a story with a message wrapped inside very simple plots. Simplicity is underrated at this point in time of grandiose productions like “The Hobbit” and James Bond adventures.

Next, we shall discuss the film language of Central European Cinema and how it has influenced “The Boob Tube” storyboard.

Video editing software allows filmmakers and media producers to flash multiple cuts of video in rapid succession, thus penetrating a viewer’s subconscious before he/she even has time to thoughtfully digest the information in a critical way.

Contrast this to minimally edited films which provoke viewers to think. For example, the long, continuous shots of carefully choreographed moments of the Russian Civil War in “The Red and the White” directed by Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó in 1967 puts a modern viewer into a trance, as if war is a romantic dance. Most of us are accustomed to graphic violence in films with quick cutting, extreme close-ups of stabbing, shooting and fists to the head, so when watching this film, where killing happens in long shots or even off screen, the idea of war becomes more thoughtful as the viewer can subjectively contemplate his or her own wars with family, friends, or colleagues.

Likewise, the Romanian film, “The Stone Wedding” by Dan Pita (1972) was like a meditation on marriage – its meaning in the past, as an economic match-up to keep society’s structure, and its meaning now for a woman who may not need a man to survive but rather “win” a man as a trophy to show other women she can indeed get a man to commit to only HER in a post-feminist world.


ROSAURA

Has anyone else seen them?


KATKA

No. Jan was still sleeping when I discovered them this morning.

Rosaura stands. Walks to a sink and fills a kettle with water.

ROSAURA

I never told you this, but you have been with Jan for many lives. You are very good for him, but…I don’t know if he’s good for you.

KATKA

OK, auntie. I’ve heard enough. He’s been sick so things have been tougher. True love is about sticking it out…and not giving up like you…I mean…just because you can’t keep a man does not mean everyone else should be miserable.

ROSAURA

Do I seem miserable?

KATKA

No. You just have a lot of cats.

ROSAURA

No I don’t. There aren’t any cats here.

Katka’s eyes blink. There are no cats.

KATKA

I am happy with him and without him, auntie, so lay off.

Female identity is an important theme of “The Boob Tube.” Katka is an unusual woman in society – does she stay with a man who requires all of her energy for his own survival, or can she live on her own terms and ignore society’s label of such women as old maids or witches? Therefore, the film language must linger on images longer and allow the viewer to contemplate.

Both “The Red and the White” and “The Stone Wedding” were difficult films for my young, American classmates to sit through because they were not being entertained. They are accustomed to being passive viewers, whereas these films required viewers to “read.” The filmmaker forces the viewer to contemplate the image for an indefinite amount of time, causing the viewer to stare much longer than they would at a photograph. Why?

1. Because it is video – the viewer expects it to change. He or she anticipates something to “happen” and when nothing does, he or she is forced to fill the mise-en-scene with his/her own content.
2. A photograph is usually on a wall/ in a frame or / in an album and the viewer can walk away from it after they decide they are done looking at it. In this case, they are a captive audience.
3. To notice the audio, whether it is music or voiceover.
4. To notice there is almost no editing and in some cases no acting.

“Everyone does what they can to avoid thinking,” stated Vera Chytilova in a Take One Magazine article published in 1978. “Laziness is the most basic human trait. People don’t want to think—they can’t make the connection between entertainment and thought. They want immediate kicks. People will not be human until they get pleasure from thought—only a thinking person can be a full person.”

It was Věra Chytilová’s “Daisies,” the opening scene shows the two characters, Marie I and Marie II, being manipulated by “the machine” of the system in which they live. Their robotic movements paired with the sounds of a squeaky door opening and closing, take the viewer, especially a present-day American audience, out of their film comfort zone and into a new reality.

Chytilová states that she structured Daisies to “restrict [the spectator’s] feeling of involvement and lead him to an understanding of the underlying idea or philosophy”.

Rosaura stares at Katka for a moment.

ROSAURA

Are your eyes on your face seeing at the same time?

KATKA

No. But they stay open. You know when you space out, you don’t really see? It’s like that.

The best places to find present-day “thinking” films in the U.S. are not on TV or even on film screens, but on web sites like Vimeo and YouTube, and inside art galleries which exhibit video installations.

Next, we shall compare the points of entry for Central European Cinema and how it has informed me as a filmmaker with intent to produce “The Boob Tube.”

Russian community Vladamir Lenin said, “Film is the most important art.” It’s no wonder, since dictators and power-hungry people are most attracted to film.

During communist and fascist rule, the citizens of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia knew their communist governments controlled their entertainment and used it to disseminate their propaganda messages that supported their agendas; in the U.S., however, the capitalist system assumes media is a free market with free speech. While it started out as free, as the Internet did in the late 1990s, it has quickly become a propaganda machine that directly supports corporations and our so-called democratic government.

“In reality, the military has been deeply involved with the film industry since the Silent Era,” states a 2008 article published on Alternet.org, a non-profit media organization based in San Francisco. “Today, however, the ad hoc arrangements of the past have been replaced by a full-scale one-stop shop, occupying a floor of a Los Angeles office building. There, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and the Department of Defense itself have established entertainment liaison offices to help ensure that Hollywood makes movies the military way.”

Three generations – Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials – have been subconsciously programmed through their favorite films and TV shows to be consumers rather than citizens. We live vicariously through celebrities and fictional characters. Most of us don’t know we’re being brainwashed, which is most likely the reason the rest of the world thinks we are stupid.

But with the advent of satellite cable and the Internet, the American psyche is now being exported to an international audience. Programmers in India, housekeepers in Brazil, British students at Oxford and Central European Gypsies dancing hip-hop on the streets, no longer need to apply for complicated and expensive Visas to attain the “American Dream.” Everyone all over the world now has the opportunity to become addicted to “Friends,” “Desperate Housewives,” and Bravo’s myriad reality TV shows…and become as dumb as the rest of us Americans…and consumers of American corporations.

A researcher named Herbert Krugman, who later became manager of public-opinion research at General Electric, decided to try to discover what goes on physiologically in the brain of a person watching TV. He elicited the co-operation of a twenty-two-year-old secretary and taped a single electrode to the back of her head. The wire from this electrode connected to a computer.

Flicking on the TV, Krugman began monitoring the brain-waves of the subject. What he found through repeated trials was that within about thirty seconds, the brain-waves switched from predominantly beta waves, indicating alert and conscious attention, to predominantly alpha waves, indicating an unfocused, receptive lack of attention: the state of aimless fantasy and daydreaming below the threshold of consciousness. When Krugman’s subject turned to reading through a magazine, beta waves reappeared, indicating that conscious and alert attentiveness had replaced the daydreaming state.

The effect is even more drastic with cinema.

Marketing categorizes viewers according to the content they consume on a daily basis. Since the advent of the Internet, marketers can now go even deeper into a viewer’s interests by the hour and the minute, based on the viewer’s clicking habits.

I, personally, am a member of the American “Generation X” classification born between 1965-1975. The TV was the centerpiece of my household, and I spent hours watching what was happening in the world through a TV screen. Like most children of my generation, my reality was cartoons, Barbie dolls and fairy tales, but not in a healthy way. The 1980s was the Reagan era of trickle down economics and children were as much targets, if not even better targets, for corporations as their Baby Boomer parents. They fed us content that addicted us, sandwiched by commercials for toys that brought the cartoons to life in our bedrooms.

It wasn’t until I was 10 years old, 1985, when a hurricane stirred up from the Caribbean waters to my family’s suburban home in Long Island when the same image in the TV was the same outside my window for the very first time.  And finally, I snapped out of my trance.

Muzne hry (Virile Games) by director Jan Svankmajer in 1988 includes some social commentary about our addiction to violent games & to television & the supplanting of the life around us with what we only observe through the boob tube.

These ideas about corporate and government brainwashing and freeing the mind is what “The Boob Tube” is all about. Katka and the eyeballs on her boobs is a metaphor for the world’s’ biggest addiction: American media. I have been making various commentaries about it since 2006 with a fleet of female robots I created called “The Femmebots.” Being outside the US while being surrounded by American students almost 20 years younger than me, have allowed me to “see” the situation more clearly.

This realization is when the screening of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) began to add many layers to the process of developing the “Boob Tube” story – the question of what makes one insane, especially. Is merely challenging the accepted, dominant system of authority grounds for calling a person insane? Is not getting along with other people, especially those so fixed into their own system of thinking, grounds for calling one insane? And do people truly want to see the truth so they can become better people or do they need to be scared, shaken, or threatened in order to make them see themselves more honestly?

These are important questions Miloš Forman asks in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the second film he directed after emigrating to the US, and they are the same questions I contemplated when pitching “The Boob Tube” to my American classmates and the professors at FAMU. While the idea piqued the interest of many, it ultimately failed to fit into the structure set by my program. My classmates were not teammates, but rather, young dictators all trying to assert their own voices in a cut-throat competition. Jealousy, greed and double-speak became the norm over the course of four months, and because of this, I was labeled crazy and eccentric.

I ultimately became silent, realizing that sharing my insights was pointless in this community. I was pushed into isolation, a condition illustrated quite clearly in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by the silent giant Native American character. Forman’s use of Native American music to open and close the film is so subtle that Jack Nicholson’s loud character seems to be the focus of the film, but when looking deeper, the viewer understands that the hero could not be successful without the help of the Native American. Forman tells the story of European invasion of North America with a story about a mental institution. And it is obvious that he recognized his Czech underdog identity embodied by Native Americans who have been systematically pushed off their lands by foreign invaders.

Beneath the commentary, the Boob Tube is also a story about the different messages I received over the course of my life from friends, family and lovers. When they are positive, I thrive. I expand, I love. Big surprise. When they are negative – and not in the constructive criticism kind of way – I contract. I shrivel. My heart breaks.

When you go to www.thefemmebots.com and click on “Memoirs of a Femmebot” most of the images are happy and shiny. But the music is haunted. In between the bright moments on camera, there were moments of darkness behind it. But why focus on the negative? That was version #1.

So then I started editing the images to different kinds of music to experiment with the psychology of sound to change a story. The exercise enabled me to view my own life/memories from different perspectives.

Version #2: Ray Barreto to highlight 1970s Brooklyn where my parents fell in love.
Version #3: New Age hip hop music from Miami to highlight transformation and evolution.
Version # 4: Dubstep to give the images an underwater feeling.
Version #5: Diplo to create a Broadway musical kind of feeling.
Version #6: www.virtualgypsyz.com – the second bit of my life, when I started college and began seeing the “World In MY Eyes” (INXS)
Version #7: Boomtown Fever
Version #8: unFiction
Version #9: Story of the Eye
Version #10: The FACTory

These stories have become the content of “The Boob Tube.”

While in Prague, I have also made the following short films:

“The Chess Game,” a continuous shot of an oversized chess board with voiceover of a couple discussing their relationship.

“Three Days,” a series of shots of baggage claim conveyor belts and

Drahomira Víhanová made “The Killed Someday” in 1969 and it was considered to be one of the most beautiful films during the Czech New Wave. She characterized the world of the military with unique sensitivity but she was immediately banned and could not make films for 20 years but her ideas were antiquated by then so she was relegated to becoming a teacher.

This particular filmmaker’s story stood out to me because I fear the same thing for myself as an older student surrounded by 20-year-olds who have their whole futures ahead of them. Why? I have real stories to tell. They don’t. I understand psychology. They don’t.

Session 7
Father Knows Best
Perfect Thirds

Abandoned
In Bloom
Vampirinas
Pocket Knife

As American media is exported to more countries, media literacy is going to become more important to international educational curricula in order to preserve democracy and avoid mass consumerism that will further exasperate environmental climate change. Over the course of four months, I discovered “The Boob Tube” is not a film but a distribution platform for short films that will be marketed to new audiences. I will connect the art of the Czech Republic made before 1989 and Capitalism in the same way we see Jiri Barta’s manniquins mix up in “Club of the Discarded.”

INT. SPIRITUAL BOOKSTORE – DAY
Rosaura places tea bags into two cups and pours the hot water into them. She places the tea in front of Katka. Katka looks at the tea but she doesn’t drink it. She walks over to a mirror. Lifts her shirt. A princess tiara and beauty pageant sash appear. She sits. Bites her fingernails. Nervously plays with the Tarot cards on table.

KATKA
Why are they showing up now?

ROSAURA
Maybe they are a manifestation of your unique ability to see further than most of us.

KATKA
Yeah, right. I was so accurate with the cats. Rosaura stands, looks into a crystal ball. It swirls different colors in a fibonacci sequence.

ROSAURA (VO)
Saturn Return. In Hindu astrology, it is known as Saade saati, as the transit in a birth chart and takes approximately 7.5 years to complete. It is believed by astrologers that, as Saturn “returns” to the degree in its orbit occupied at the time of birth, a person crosses over a major
threshold and enters the next stage of life.

KATKA
That explains the last 6 months. But why today? What’s significant about today?

ROSAURA
2012? I don’t know, darling, retrace your steps – What did you eat for breakfast? What kinds of meds are you taking? Who did you fraternize with last night? I can’t do all the work for you. My goodness, your parents spoiled you.

KATKA
I slept with Jan last night for the first time since the chemotherapy ended.

ROSAURA
Maybe he’s radioactive.

KATKA
Right. Nice science, auntie. My boyfriend gave me eyeballs on my tits.
Katka paces in front of family photographs on a table.

KATKA
Are there others like me?

ROSAURA
Your grandmother. Your sister’s daughter. She is next. Katka picks up a framed photograph of a little girl. Examines it closely. Lifts up her shirt.

POV OF CAMERA
Little girl in framed photograph has four arms, eyeballs on her boobs and in the middle of her forehead.

WIDE SHOT
Katka pulls shirt back down. Picks up framed black and white photograph of a woman in her 30s.

KATKA
But did grandma have eyeballs on her…?

ROSAURA
No. Her vision manifested through your father. Just before she died, she showed him his path.
Katka puts photograph down abruptly.
Walks into bathroom.
Closes the blinds on the windows.
Katka’s Boob Tube projects images of green rings of light.
Flying trapeeze artists.
Sailboats riding across crests of waves.
Rosaura pokes her head through beads on door.

ROSAURA
It’s a neat party trick.
Katka quickly closes her shirt, kisses Rosaura and rushes out the door.

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