The Final Countdown

Exactly one week from my writing of this, I should be somewhere in the air over the Atlantic Ocean.  We’re entering our final week of Prague, which will hopefully be at least as busy as the last week has been.

We’ve been busy with both classwork and excursions to places around the city.  This week of class has been fairly typical, with the exception of the fact that we’ve started reading screenplays in class.  Fortunately, as one of the students in the Advanced section of Screenwriting, my script is getting read on the last day of class, giving me plenty of time to scramble and make last minute edits so I don’t want to disappear into my chair while classmates are reading it.

Actually, that puts both of my classes in a similar place right now–both are filled with a scrambled, last minute writing.  For Screenwriting it is, obviously, my screenplay (although at this point it’s less writing and more ‘editing my hastily cobbled-together dialogue so people don’t sound like robots).  For Film History, it’s a five page essay on modernity in the Kurasawa film “High and Low”, which is an interesting enough topic.

Outside of class, we’ve been very busy.  On Wednesday we took an excursion to yet another historic theater (Prague has a lot of those) and got to watch a classic American comedy called “Hail the Conquering Hero,” which was actually one of the funniest movies that I’ve seen in a very long time.  It made me think a lot about how the standards for comedy have changed–we seem to be a lot more reliant on wise-guy schticks and actors’ force of personality rather than actually good writing and storytelling.  I’d definitely recommend the movie to anyone who is able to find a copy.

This past weekend, some friends and I went to both the Ossuary about an hour from Prague and took advantage of Prague’s Museum Night, in which something like 50 museums opened their doors free of admission from 7 to 1am.  The Ossuary, for those who haven’t heard of it, is a church that for some inexplicable reason has been decorated with bones.  Literally thousands of them.  As in, it is estimated that the remains of 40,000 people are in the Ossuary.  For frame of reference, that is approximately the entire student body of NCSU.  In skeletal form.

Honestly, I felt weird going to the Ossuary.  Paying to enter a church was odd enough, but then seeing those bones everywhere, and tourists gawking at them…there was something simultaneously reverent yet disrespectful about the place.  You could not deny that extreme care had gone into displaying the bones artistically (from a strictly aesthetic sense, the place was amazing), and that there was a way to interpret it as defying Death’s sting in the face of faith and God…but when I’m looking at literally hundreds of human skulls, some of which have coins in them that people have tossed, it was hard to feel that it was respectful of those people’s lives.  I don’t know.  It was a strange experience, and definitely something to see, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable.  I guess that’s a natural enough reaction, though.

The museum night was also interesting, though also unsettling (for much more entertaining reasons).  The first museum we went to was called Futura, and may have been chosen entirely for the fact that it offered barbecue.  Going inside, we learned that it was the home of a large collection of modern art.  Most of this art was nice, but the building itself was almost as interesting–there were stairways that led nowhere, and walls with parts taken out and rotated, and generally lots of creepy hallways and unexpected twists.  I still have no idea if this was intentional for the museum, or simply a byproduct of old Prague architecture.  Some highlights of the actual art included a creepy mural over a raised platform–the platform had a hole in it with about a dozen long, thick pieces of black human hair trailing out from it for several feet.  It looked like the girl from the Grudge was in there or something–I didn’t get close enough to find out.  There were also two statues outside.  They were about thirty feet tall, and shaped like people bent over 90% at the waist, but above the waist the torso tapers down to a formless blob.  However, the lower half of the statue was completely correct, with well shaped legs leading up to an accurately sculpted butt–complete with a hole.  There were ladders leading up the statues legs, which you could climb.  You then could stick your head in the hole to see a video that featured two people wearing strange old-person masks feeding each porridge in a strangely sexual way, all while Queen’s “We Are The Champions” played in the background.  It was, without a doubt, the strangest art I have ever seen.  There is also now a picture of me with my head apparently inside a statue’s butt on Facebook, so I guess I have the artist to thank for that.  Never let it be said that I am afraid to sample other cultures (though all the Czech natives I saw at the museum seemed equally amused/terrified by the exhibit, so I’m not even sure where to lay the blame/credit for this).

The other museum we had time to go to (there were enormous lines) was a museum of African, American, and Asian Culture.  It was a much more typical museum, though it does have the distinction of going into more detail with African history pre-colonialism than any other source I have seen.  It makes me realize how little African history is actually covered in most American educational systems–something that should definitely be corrected.

This coming week I intend to finish up all of my work and leave myself free to enjoy the last few attractions I’ll get to see in Prague.  This includes some souvenir shopping, as well as perhaps a zoo trip and climb up a cell phone tower that has creepy baby statues crawling up the side.  I also know that there is going to be an Institute party on the last Thursday, so I’m sure the week will be eventful.  In the meantime, I shall do my best to learn what actually happens in the World Cup so I can keep up with what’s going on in the bars.

I hope to post at least one more time before going home, and then to have a wrap-up post in the US.  I’ll keep you all posted!

Lights, Camera, Action!

It’s probably about time for me to talk about movies.

Not just because I’m here taking Screenwriting and History of Film classes, but also because we’ve been on a lot of excursions and activities centered around movies in the past week or so.  This week we went on a trip to the Czech National Film Archive, and then we were able to take a tour of Barrandov Studios–one of the largest studios (and costume/props departments) in Europe.

The film archive was a bit of a trek from where we were staying, pretty much on the other side of Prague.  We almost missed it, despite having a map, because the buildings hosting the archive are…well, pretty run down.  During the tour they mentioned that they were moved here as temporary housing while the Archive secured a better building.  This temporary move was more than five years ago.

Despite outward appearances, the Archive itself was pretty cool.  We got to see their editing rooms, for both tape and digital, in which they restore movies and analyze them for metadata to add to their records.  For example, one man was looking at a documentary while we were there so they could add a more accurate description of the documentary’s content to their records.  There were massive storage piles of reels of tape of various sizes, organized by whether they were originals and if they were meant for screening or for preservation.  We also had a pretty interesting discussion about the move in film towards digital storage, and the various drawbacks and benefits associated with that.

After the tour we got to sit in their theater room and watch two very old movies from the Archive.  The first was a post-WWII educational short about driving safety in Prague, which was actually pretty funny.  The second was a Nazi propaganda film that was only screened privately for SS Officers, chronicling the physical destruction of the Czech town of Ludice, and ignoring (but implying) the murder of most of its citizens.  This was decidedly less funny, but a very powerful experience to watch.

Our second excursion was even farther from the Pension, requiring multiple tram/metro rides to reach the outskirts of the city.  Barrandov studio was located high on some very pretty hills on the outside of Prague, and actually gave us a pretty good view of the city itself.  Soon, though, we were inside and thoroughly distracted by pretty costumes.  Apparently it is one of the biggest costume departments in Europe, and it had pretty much everything you could imagine.  There were medieval outfits, armor, ridiculous dresses, and a pretty wide selection of military outfits that we sadly could not photograph because of the presence of Nazi regalia.

After looking at the costumes we went to examine the props–lots of mirrors, clocks, paintings, and so on.  We found out that the studio has provided materials or sound stages for The Tudors, The Borgias, Casino Royale, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Mission: Impossible, which I thought made for a fairly impressive spread.  We even got to walk around a set from The Borgias, which I imagine was only allowed because the show is now cancelled.  It was a lot like being in a real, authentic, medieval village that happened to be built form plaster rather than real stone and was full of houses that had maybe 10 square feet of space behind their doors.  This might be how medieval people really lived.  I don’t know.

The same day as our studio excursion, our Film History class also went to go see a movie together–Petr Vaclav’s “The Way Out”.  Unlike most of what we have been watching, it is a Czech film that actually was released earlier this year, and was quite good.  It was about a Roma (which, if you were not aware, is the term for Gypsy that isn’t considered a racist slur) family dealing with poverty, discrimination, and other issues pervasive in the European Roma community.  While that sounds incredibly depressing on paper, I really enjoyed it.

I think that is a fairly complete summary of my movie experience while in Prague, with the exception of the screenplay I am currently writing for my class.  As I believe I’ve said before here, it is a modern day adaptation of Frankenstein set in South Africa, and it is progressing nicely.  I’ve gotten solidly into the introduction part of the film, and am working on getting to the juicy bits.  The dialogue still feels a little clunky to me, but that’s what revisions are for!  I’ll be sure to keep you informed as to how that progresses.

Hopefully by the time of my next post I’ll have had a chance to do some of the sightseeing around Prague that I’ve been meaning to do, and will have more to say about the city itself.  We will see!

Michael in Mikulov

This past weekend, the Film Studies and Design students all went on an excursion to the Czech town of Mikulov, located in the Moravia region.  On the way there we passed through the capital of the region, the city of Brno (pronounced pretty much like Beer-no, appropriately enough) and got to see a lot of cool stuff.

The first stop on our trip was on the outskirts of Brno, where we went to look at a villa that was designed in the 1920’s.  It was apparently a pretty big deal in terms of design stuff, but even as a lowly liberal arts/comp sci major I was able to appreciate that it was a very impressive house.  Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures inside, but it was really cool.  Having successfully found the crumpled up brochure in my jacket pocket, I can confirm that the house was the Tugendhat House.

After exploring the house, we got to walk around central Brno–which, apparently, was experiencing some sort of concert or festival.  To this day I do not know what the occasion was, but I do know that when we walked up the band was performing the theme from “Goldfinger,” which was nice.  I then proceeded to eat a McDonald’s burger for the first time in something like 6 years–you may be interested to know that, as far as I can tell, it was exactly the same.  Some franchises are the same everywhere, I guess.

And some aren’t!  For example, my friends and I stumbled across what we quickly discovered to be a Czech Barnes & Nobles–even though, for some reason, it went by the name Barvic & Novotny.  We walked around there for quite some time, and it was really neat to see the similarities and differences.  Most of the sections you would expect to see in an American B&N were there, and it was surprising to see which authors had been translated to Czech.  The store had the most complete Terry Pratchett section I have ever seen in a store, for example.  There were also lots of technical manuals, some of which I can only imagine must have been a nightmare to translate.

Later that evening–for yes, this was all in a single day–we went to a wine tasting.  Apparently, the analogy goes that what Prague is to beer, Moravia is to wine, and the wine we tasted definitely seems to support that claim.  In addition to getting to try a lot of different wine (and yes, we drank it, there was none of this American ‘spitting it back out’ nonsense) we also got to learn some of the etiquette and technique of wine-tasting, as well as go on a trip to the place where the wine was made.  It is possible that some of us (naming no names) may have, in fact, eaten all of the cheese and bread at our table that was meant to be a palate cleanser, because there had been no opportunity for dinner and it was approaching 8 o’clock.  If this were to have happened, it would certainly have been a group effort by the table, and not the responsibility of any one individual.

At the end of this day/night of revelry, we found ourselves in Mikulov.  This is where we spent the rest of the weekend, exploring and generally entertaining ourselves.  Most of us explored the castle in the center of the town at some point, as well as climbing the nearby mound of land that seemed to straddle the line between hill and mountain depending on whether one was climbing it or not.  The castle itself was really cool, and pictures of it are all over facebook now.  The most interesting thing about it, I think, was the amount of space that was not castle–there was more empty space than I would have expected.  There was an art exhibition hosted in the castle that was pretty cool, though I am still convinced that I may have accidentally walked through it in reverse order without paying for a ticket, as I never really did find an entrance.  That night in the castle courtyard was a showing of The Artist, which is an incredible movie that I recommend to everyone.  I personally finished our excursion to Mikulov by going with a group that woke up at 3:45 AM to climb the previously mention mountain-hill and watch the sunrise.  Unfortunately, the sun was a bit obscured by clouds, so it was really more just watching the spread of a general sort of glow, but it was still very awe-inspiring.

The trip back to Prague had only one stop rather than three, but it was worth it.  I am still a little unclear on where we stopped, or why.  All I know is that there was another large estate sort of building, that may or may not have been a castle–and that there were falcons.  For whatever reason, our teachers took us to a Czech falconry exhibition on the way back from our trip.

I’m going to be perfectly honest here.  I don’t know if the Czech people have a long and colorful history with the fine and noble art of falconry.  I don’t know if the people we went to go see are part of some sort of environmental conservation program that protects falcons, or a historical society, or what.  I really don’t know.  It’s possible that someone said it in Czech during the show and I missed the translation.  All I know is that we got to see about 40 of the coolest/scariest looking birds ever, and they flew around and chased targets and landed on people’s arms.  Then, I got to take a picture of one sitting on my arm.  I am a simple man.  Sometimes I don’t need to be immersed in culture.  Sometimes, surrounding me by terrifying birds of prey is enough.

I may also have made several references to Animorphs and My Side of the Mountain, for those privileged enough to have read these childhood gems.

We arrived back in Prague on Sunday evening, at which point I promptly shattered two of the six glasses I had bought that weekend for convenience ( but also for less than $5, so no great loss) and pretty much collapsed immediately into bed.  It was an exhausting, but great, weekend.