Czech Republic 1997

Reviewed by Julian Graffy


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

A film of six stories, the first set in Kokura, Japan, on 6 August 1945, the other five in Prague on 6 August 1995. In 'Kokura Lucky', a Japanese returned from California to rain-drenched Kokura praises the weather in the US and the ingenuity of American swearing. Overhead the two pilots of the Enola Gay argue as they prepare to unleash their bomb. While the Japanese teaches his compatriots to curse like Americans, the pilots receive instructions to change course and bomb Hiroshima instead.

'Taxi Driver': Franta picks up a woman and a young man who want to make love in his cab. Franta's next fare, Pavel, gets him to drive him to a flat where, he is convinced, his wife is betraying him, but the woman isn't his wife. (She is actually Franta's wife; the first woman was Pavel's.)

'Rituals of Civilization': a young man tells a psychiatrist his wife has left him. The psychiatrist insists that only the "rituals of civilisation" will save him. In another part of town a young couple are appalled to see an older man kill himself under a train. Later the psychiatrist accidentally forces the couple to crash their car, causing their deaths.

'The Last Decent Generation': Franta drives a middle-aged bourgeois couple, Jirí and Marta, to the home of another couple, whose daughter is to marry their son. Over dinner Jirí is oddly preoccupied. Later, as he rises from an antique sofa, all see he has mysteriously removed its buttons. The discovery of this strange proclivity leads his hosts to reveal their penchant for re-enacting aerial combat.

'Fools': a working-class couple living by the railway bicker about his incompetence while watching a television documentary about a project to launch frozen human sperm into space. Tired of his wife's taunts, the man goes out, lies down between the railway tracks and spits on the train as it passes over his unharmed body.

'The Ghost of an American Pilot': four young girls holding a seance summon up the ghost of the Enola Gay pilot Robert Lewis, who's shocked to learn what he did in 1945. One of the girls takes him in Franta's taxi to the radio station, where her father is presenting the programme heard throughout the film. Robert broadcasts a plea for forgiveness and the psychiatrist rings to forgive him. Back in 1945, Robert prepares to bomb Hiroshima.


Each of the stories in Buttoners offers its own sly ironies. 'Kokura Lucky', for example, dates the beginnings of the modern Japanese love affair with the US to the very evening of the dropping of the 'A' bomb on Hiroshima. But Petr Zelenka's film is at its most absorbingly inventive when it's intricately weaving threads from story to story. Zelenka gives us a dense network of visual and verbal pointers - a doll, a blue shirt, recurring names, photos, car radios and references to Japan - and we delight in picking them up, colluding in his knowing game. As the film advances, so the threads become more closely interwoven. But other clues seem gratuitous and some events remain obdurately unexplained - how did Pavel come up with the address where not his but Franta's wife was in bed with her lover? Clearly Zelenka is alert to the pleasure of the tease, to the joy we can derive from being taken for a ride, like passengers in Franta's taxi.

The radio conversation that makes the film's philosophical concerns explicit rejects contemporary reliance on logic, on cause and effect. Instead it insists on the power of the kind of contingency that absorbed Kieslowski in such films as Blind Chance, while Jim Jarmusch has also explored coincidence in the three Memphis hotel stories of Mystery Train and the five simultaneous taxi rides of Night on Earth. Zelenka's characters act as if they are in control of their lives, but their words and actions are repeatedly based on misunderstandings, with varyingly lethal consequences. Robert Lewis doesn't know that he's going to launch the first atomic bomb. The young lovers assume the railway worker is going to kill himself. In fact he is merely about to spit, with heroic accuracy, at the last number on the plate of an oncoming train. In fact, death is stalking the lovers. Their parents discuss a marriage that will never take place. The psychiatrist, a model of contemporary suavity in his antiseptic consulting room as he counsels the "rituals of civilisation" - brushing your hair, cleaning your teeth, accepting a consoling lie - has no idea that soon he will be a murderer. The Japanese, on the other hand, do not realise the bad weather they are cursing with such gusto will actually save their lives.

But the film also offers broader pleasures. As Pavel and Franta sit smugly in Franta's taxi neither knows he has been cuckolded, though we do. Buttoners is also acute about the cultural differences between the US, Europe and Japan. 'Kokura Lucky', a wonderful black-and-white fabrication of an Ozu tea ceremony, includes a hilarious attempt to teach the Japanese to swear à l'Américaine. Their fond illusion that Americans swear inventively - something difficult for a European, and especially a Central European, to take seriously - is immediately negated by the numbing monotony of the pilots' curses. The film's visual sophistication is equally apparent in another interpolated sequence, a series of photos that accompany a sentimentally clichéd story of an all-American family in the Depression. Yet at the same time, US cultural and linguistic colonisation, from the Doors and Nico on the radio to a documentary on the television, is as pervasive in Prague as anywhere else.

By far the dullest of the stories is 'The Last Decent Generation', a laboured detour into sub-late-Buñuel territory, 'revealing' the discreet obsessions of the Prague bourgeoisie. Jirí, who pleasures himself by removing the buttons from sofas by means of a pair of dentures clamped between his thighs, seems but a poor relation of the obsessives in Svankmajer's Conspirators of Pleasure, while the story's conclusion is terribly lame. All in all, though, Buttoners is a triumph of invention and wry humour. The film is preoccupied with surface and illusion, with distortion and disguise. Franta keeps a collection of false moustaches in his car to hand out to passengers when necessary and sports one himself that makes him look like Lech Walesa. Yet he's also unwittingly duped. And as you watch you can't help thinking that the same thing is probably happening to you. Should I still be wondering why the seance is conducted in Russian?


Producer/Production Manager
Alexej Guha
Petr Zelenka
Director of Photography
Miro Gábor
David Charap
Art Director
David Cerny
Music Director
Ales Brezina
©Ceská televize
Production Companies
Ceská televize
Cestmir Kopecky Creative Group
presents a film by Petr Zelenka and his friends
Assistant Director
Martina Koulová
Script Supervisor
Helena Matusková
Olga Dabrowská
Special Effects
Jirí Vetron
Jan Novotny
Jan Uxa
Jan Mikula
Kamil Tomek
Lukas Syrovy
Stefan Theisz
Andrea Drlíková
Andrea Králová
Zdenek Borovická
Zuzana Bafková
Hana Simová
Music Recording
Petr Simák
"The End" performed by The Doors, Nico; "Hollywood" performed by Uz Jsme Doma; "That Is a Question" performed by Zbytky Charismatu; "You Ain't Me" performed by Frank Black; "Fuck Weather" series by Ales Brezina, performed by (violin) Ales Brezina, (guitar) Peter Binder, (keyboards) Richard Dvorák, (bugle) Michal Gera, (percussion) Jaromir Helesic, (bass guitar) Ales Charvát, (shakuhachi) Vlatislav Matousek
Michal Holubec
Pavel Zajícek
Radio 1 moderator
Jan Haubert
Stestí z Kokury/Kokura Lucky
Seisuke Tsukahara
Japanese man with spectacles

Motohiro Hosoya
Japanese man with beard
Junzo Inokuchi
young Japanese man
Svetlana Svobodová
Japanese woman
David Charap
Richard Toth
Taxíkár/Taxi Driver
Frantisek Cerny
Franta, taxi driver
Michaela Pavlátová
woman in taxi
Jan Cechticky
man in taxi
Pavel Lagner
Pavel, customer
Zuzana Bydzovská
taxi driver's wife
Jakub Mejdrícky
Pavel Lagner
Petr Zelenka
perverts on street
Civilizacní návyky/Rituals of Civilization
Vladimír Dlouhy
Marek Najbrt
David Cerny
Olga Dabrowská
Mirek Wanek
Uz Jsme Doma
group in club
Poslední slusná generace/The Last Decent Generation
Jirí Kodet
Honza, host
Inka Brendlová
Sylvia, hostess
Borivoj Navrátil
Alena Procházková
Rudolf Hrusínsky
unsuccessful man
Eva Holubová
his wife
Minna Pyyhkala
Artemio Benki
Siegfried Markovitz
Dennis Moran
people in television documentary
Duch amerického pilota/The Ghost of an American Pilot
Mariána Stojlovová
Bára Brodská
Julie Stalpovskich
Barbora Johnová
girls at seance
not submitted
Institute of Contemporary Arts
9,720 feet
108 minutes
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011