In the Lion’s Shadow

In 1967, Miloš Forman made a film together with Jiří Papoušek called The Firemen’s Ball. It was inspired by a failed ball in the town of Vrchlabí.  The film shows the celebrations for the 90th birthday of a member of the volunteer fire brigade and gradually we see the emptiness of the event, its omnipresent silliness and a desire for consumerism. This is confirmed at the very end of the film when the drunk firemen are unable to carry out their duties and prevent a fire that engulfs the home of the birthday celebrant.

Interpretations of the film mostly focus on the realities of East European State-run socialism. That, however, is a somewhat local and limited interpretation.  In a broader context, it is interesting to look at how the film was made at a time when a global criticism of modernity was beginning.  That criticism focused on the citizen’s living space divided into several blocks of time and spread out across several pre-defined spaces: for work, for leisure activities and for physical relaxation.  This social contract had been established at the end of the 1940s. It was a response to several wartime conflicts with a specific solution to workers’ issues and a tendency toward mass consumption.  On the western side of the Iron Curtain, it took the shape of a social welfare state; on the eastern side, it was called Real Socialism.  However, over the course of the next twenty years, it lost its social dynamism and was often thus reduced to a ceremony balancing between rigidity and farce.

The film Weekend by director Jean-Luc Godard can serve to confirm this opinion. It was made the same year as Forman’s movie.  Godard’s film, in contrast with The Firemen’s Ball mocks the stereotypical behavior of France’s majority population during the last two days of the week meant for rest and relaxation: Saturday and Sunday.  There is a significant difference in the political engagement of both directors. While The Firemen’s Ball operates mainly in the genre of satire, Weekend uses the satire format to send a clear political message.  This difference is due to the divergent historical experiences and political openness of the individual systems involved.

Otherwise, what both films have in common is their critique of the symbolic arrangements taking place in the context of leisure-time activities.  In the first case, it is the volunteer firemen’s association; in the second, it is a mixture of public and private infrastructure and institutions focused on providing recreational services.

The vast majority of these subjects find their roots in the gradual industrialization of the European continent that took place from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries.  In the case of the Czech environment, it mainly involves the second half of the 19th century, when institutions focused on recreation shaped the Czech national identity and the urbanist development of villages and towns in a fundamental way.

One example would be the omnipresent buildings of various associations like Sokol, Orel, volunteer fire brigades ... as well as museums, theaters, cinemas, galleries, libraries, cafés, pubs and clubs.  We also must not forget the athletic, soccer and hockey stadiums, gyms, sports facilities, tennis courts, parks, gardening colonies, swimming pools, swimming areas, firing ranges, race courses, golf courses, auto race tracks, camps and hunting grounds. Then, there is the technology hidden in our homes enabling us to receive radio and TV signals, to play computer games or to take part in activities on social media.  This list is not complete without mentioning cottage-owners, whose numbers reach 100% of the population in some villages.

The majority of the activities mentioned were appropriated from German, French, British and American environments and then took on a specific form in the local cultural milieu. Meanwhile, many of them find their origins in the emancipation movements of the 19th century. In the vast majority of cases, they involve activities that take place outside the space intended for production and manufacturing.  The activities take place in people’s free time and are meant to help one rest, relax and replenish one’s physical and mental balance after a difficult work day or work week. The better part of these subjects references the concept of the Czech nation.  Just look at their names.  With larger Prague-based and state-run institutions, we often see the nationalindicator.  In the case of other names, they refer to the given town or region. For associations, you see use of the term Czech to a larger degree.

Indeed, it was Godard’s and Forman’s generation that came up with a different concept of free time:  the idea of autonomous time, to which each individual has the right; completely independent of the world’s modern divisions.  Meanwhile, it references the lifestyles of Europe’s aristocracy, its bourgeoisie from the 19th century and the avant-gardists of the inter-war period and their definitions of art and culture: founded on leisure and idleness.  It is no accident that it chose as its model artist Marcel Duchamp who gained fame through his specific emphasis on slowness, even laziness, and his lifelong stance of calling into question production based on performance and sales. Two texts by actors directly involved in efforts of the day to bring about change can serve as examples:  Report on the Third Czech Music Revival by Ivan Martin Jirous dating from 1975 and the essay by Maurizio Lazzarato, Marcel Duchamp and Refusal of Work dating from 2014.

The idea of free time is still present among alternative cultural movements and sub-cultures such as DIY movements, the Indie scene, hacking and tuning, or cultural elites making claims on the heritage of the autonomous leftist movements of the 1960s and that of the rightist populism of the following decade.

After the 1950s, however, this vision of autonomous time proved to be societally limited and non-functioning. The groups mentioned were unable to transform the idea of free time into a clear, politically-viable concept. The goal was only achievable for those individuals who could use their social and cultural capital or had guarantees of long-term, sufficiently adequate income.  If an individual is unable to supply even one of the two (and this applies to the vast majority of people on the planet), then they are unable to escape existing production models.

The way we spend our free time holds the key to the social tensions in contemporary Czech society (and not only to it).  First of all, we have a large group of people here who do not want or who are unable to step out of the structures of classical modernism. They are members of clubs; they visit places and institutions reserved for free time activities. They travel on holiday to the sea or to the mountains with the help of travel agencies.  Alongside them is a smaller segment of Czech society that tries to spend its free time in a different way: outside the stable production models. They come together in tramping/hobo camps, they repair their cars on their own, they look for alternative distribution channels for their books, magazines or music.  If they decide to vacation at the sea, they make their own way and use contacts to local residents.

The way out of this situation is a change in perspective for the current discussion on free time and free time activities.  Both social concepts are built on an idea of the world in which it is necessary to divide up space or to fight for it.  Each of them reacted to the social and cultural problems of their age in a specific way.  Our societies have changed though.  They have been confronted with new types of problems: the rise of digital technologies, replacement of employment contracts with work based on concessionary licenses, dysfunctional education systems, aging populations, etc. For these reasons, it is high time to update our ideas of "non-productive" time.  One possible way to do so is the idea of care.  This appeared in Czech associations during the 1990s with the return to civil rights and values.  These organizations devote time to raising children, to environmental issues, to women’s issues and also to spending free time with disabled persons. This happens despite the fact that it involves associations whose interests often overlap with those of the professional not-for-profit sector.  A vast majority of them offer a positive vision for how to spend free time and appear to react to contemporary problems in the most interesting ways. The future will show if our societies are headed in the right direction or if they are lingering in today’s status quo.