I watched Daisies last week. I didn’t know what to make of it. I allowed the film to roll around my unconscious for a few days in the hopes that it would sort the whole thing out for me. In a feat of magical thinking fueled by procrastination, I believed that an essay on the movie would form itself in my mind without any effort on my part. That didn’t happen. What was I to make of this film where two teenage girls play with scissors, throw food at each other, con dirty old men out of meals, and get crushed to death by a chandelier that they’ve just finished using as a swing? What did Vera Chytilova want to say by interspersing the film with images of butterflies and roses and war? What’s with the apples? Why does Daisies keep using different colored camera filters? I juggled these pieces, and more, as I struggled to come up with something interesting to say about the film. Maybe I could write about the film’s take on anarchy or consumption or creativity or sex. As I tossed these ideas around I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing a single thread that would string the anarchic energy of the film into a coherent whole. That string remained elusive. I grew frustrated. That’s when it hit me. During my first viewing of the film, I was so wrapped up in figuring out what the movie meant, that I didn’t give myself any space to enjoy it.
There’s an unstated assumption associated with movie watching that that we must consciously understand a film to enjoy it. That understanding might be thematic or narrative, but whatever it is, without that thread, the assumption goes, there’s no point in watching a movie. It’s too obtuse, too opaque, too weird. What’s the point of watching Vertigo if we can’t understand Scottie’s obsession? How much would we enjoy Raiders of the Lost Ark if we didn’t understand why Indiana Jones was gallivanting around the world with his trusty whip? Humans are narrative creatures, and we want our entertainment to have a unifying structure to hold it all together. It’s easy to confuse this experience of understanding as the goal of watching a movie. And yet, if you think about it, we also enjoy movies as experiences in the moment. Humans are also feeling beings. I could watch the melting face scene from Raiders all day long. I don’t need any context to enjoy the aesthetics of the moment. Watching the skin drip from those skulls, my thoughts are free to wander where they please. There’s a joy to the balletic movements of action scenes in and of themselves. I can’t tell you how many times I watched the lobby scene in The Matrix as a teenager. Beautiful images, completely divorced from their context, can take the mind to new places. I could stare at the desert vistas of Lawrence of Arabia all day, and take it as a starting point to rove the globe through my mind’s eye. There’s value to having your mind wander in response to a sound or an image or a snippet of dialog. Movies don’t necessarily need to have a goal. We’re free to enjoy them however we want.
I consider myself an intelligent, articulate, analytical person. I pride myself in my ability to extract rational meaning from the world. I love finding that thread that links everything I’m seeing into a neat theory or narrative. I proudly explain the narrative of Mulholland Drive to baffled first time viewers. With Daisies, it turns out that I couldn’t enjoy the film because my pride was on the line. I’d set myself a goal of understanding this film, and as the minutes wore on and I couldn’t find a unifying theory for it, I felt like I was failing. But what if I watched Daisies without this self-serving goal? What if, instead of fighting through each scene in search of a unifying meaning, I let myself enjoy it? Perhaps Chytilova didn’t even have an explicit thread weaving the whole thing together. After all, many 20th century art movements were fascinated with expressing the unconscious. They wanted to express the world without the constraints of logical meaning imposed on the world by our conscious minds. Do we need to understand the meaning of a Miro painting to enjoy it’s whimsy? How about the splashes of a Pollock or the color fields of a Rothko? When I look at these paintings, I resonate with them without understanding them. They make me feel a certain way and awaken ideas. If logical meaning is the string I’ve been describing, these paintings contain clouds, with no beginning, and no end. They’re something you breathe in. Perhaps Daisies too is a cloud which I should marinate in rather than a puzzle to be pieced together.
And so, I watched Daisies again, doing my best to clear my mind of a need to understand anything. Where my first viewing of the film was filled with anxiety, my second viewing was infused with joy. These two girls, Marie I [Jitka Cerhová] and Marie II [Ivana Karbanová], express such pure emotion as they act out their absurd lives. A scene where the two wreak havoc in a nightclub had me grinning from ear to ear. The two just looked so happy. Another scene, where the duo stands in the middle of the street, unseen by a mass of cyclists passing by them, left me with an unexpected dose of melancholy. Perhaps more interestingly, though, unconstrained by a need for logical meaning, my mind started wandering to new ideas. For example, I gradually started to consider the role of consumption in our lives. Perhaps it was all the eating in the film. Maybe it was the girls’ disregard for all other people. Whatever the case, as the girls wandered down the street, unnoticed by hordes of people, a thought crystallized in my mind. Ignored by everyone, the pair can only prove their existence to themselves by pointing to a trail of corn husks that they’ve left behind after eating. They only exist in the world through their consumption. Is that how we live today as well? Are we simply hedonists that leave behind wrappers and garbage as proofs of our existence? Was Chytilova thinking these same thoughts as she made the film?
I’m free to wonder about the director’s thoughts, but perhaps more importantly for a film like Daisies, I’m also free to watch this collection of vignettes any way that I please. That’s how I can enjoy a movie like Daisies. I don’t need to be an expert on the Czech New Wave or the history of cinema. I don’t have to know about the Czech spring or Soviet film. That knowledge would help with a deeper understanding of the film, but they aren’t prerequisites for enjoying it. Daisies helped me understand that my ego is often the main obstacle preventing me from enjoying challenging films. As I chilled out and let Daisies wash over me for a second time I melted into the fog that the film created, and emerged with an understanding I’d never expected.