Monday, November 16, 2009

How alike small towns are

IFC is showing the MiloŇ° Forman movie The Fireman's Ball tomorrow morning at 7:00 AM, with a few more repeatis later in the day. Although it's set in the Czechoslovakia of the mid-1960s, a lot of what happens is reminiscent of small-town politics in America.

The story deals with the local fire department. Their old chief, who served for over 50 years, is turning 86 and dying of cancer, although nobody wants to tell the poor old man he's dying. The fire department decides to hold a ball in his honor, and provide him with a ceremonial fire axe at the end. However, everything that can go wrong does, starting in the very opening scene when one of the firefighters, trying to give the banner a "cool" burn effect, gets stuck hanging from the banner when the ladder falls out from under him. You can tell this is going to be a funny movie.

Funny it most certainly is, although a lot of it is also dark humor. As part of the ball, the fire department is holding a raffle of donated goods -- but one by one, the items off the raffle table keep disappearing, and it seems as though anybody, or everybody, could be in on the petty larceny. The firemen want a nice young lady to present the fire axe to the old man, so they decide to hold a beauty contest and have the winner perform that pleasant duty. So they dragoon all the young ladies at the ball into trying to take part, even though none of them wants to be involved, and they're all average-looking at best, anyway.

Just when you think things couldn't get worse, the party is interrupted -- by an actual fire. The fire department isn't entirely competent, and when they finally get to the fire, they find an old man's farmhouse burning down, with him outside next to his few remaining possessions. There's not much they can do for him, so they turn his chair around in order that he won't have to look at the fire! It's also winter, and the man is cold, so the firemen decide that the only thing they can do about it is to move the chair closer to the fire. The poor old farmer.

The Fireman's Ball got Forman in a lot of hot water with the communist authorities because they quite rightly saw it as a biting satire on the communist system and how it forces people into petty corruption in order to make their way through life. What Forman probably couldn't have realized is that a lot of this happens to a greater or lesser extent in small towns everywhere. Having grown up in a small town myself where everybody knew everybody else and the volunteer fire department and the ladies' auxiliary were two of the main social clubs, with the attendant penny socials and pancake breakfasts, I know how easy it is for such small town institutions to attract people who seem to want to be petty tyrants, or at least have their own little fiefdom to have control over. It's funny because it's true, as they say.

The Fireman's Ball is available on DVD, but as with a lot of foreign films, it's a more pricey DVD than Hollywood studio movies.

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