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.
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.
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
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
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.