Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Underground

Kusturica is a man of many exceptions and seemingly no rules. It makes sense, then, that his films would be sprawling comedic epics which permit few comparisons to other works. This is not to say that his sensibilities are wholly unique, and in fact there are a number of Eastern European filmmakers whose sensibilities are in line with Kusturica’s, but I don’t know of any that match his scope. Perhaps Juraj Jakubisko in his prime would have been able to match Kusturica’s grand visions, but it seems that only Yugoslavia had conditions which permitted this sort of grand lunacy to flourish. The rise of radical comedy in Czechoslovakia was quickly stamped out, and the same situation is happening with China’s present crop of crazed comedic minds, so it seems to be that Yugoslavia nourished a singular situation for irreverence to bloom on a grand scale. Between Dusan Makavejev, Slobodan Sijan, and Emir Kusturica you have the face of Yugoslav cinema, with a few other filmmakers residing somewhere in the obscure background – I can’t think of any other country with three less depressing filmmakers serving as the face of the nation’s cinema, and this saddens me. There’s no use crying over spilt milk, though, and I will try to cover as much of this Yugoslav brand of craziness as I can, beginning with the incomparable Underground.



Jakubisko’s Birds, Orphans, and Fools begins with voiceover narration, one piece of which could just as well apply to Kusturica’s Underground: “This story has a tragic ending but laugh if you feel like it, as our heroes do until the very last moment.” Kusturica’s film outdoes even this point: the characters keep on laughing even after they all die because they represent a culture which is in the midst of an upheaval that will outlast the individuals’ lives in some form or another. Kusturica does not craft empty vessels which serve to represent something greater than themselves and nothing else, though, and the relationships between characters are vivid even to the point of excess. The three central protagonists run through a broad range of physical comedy both violent and sexual. When the bombs first begin to fall Marko is shown masturbating, probably encouraged by the carnage on display, and his future wife Natalija makes repeated use of her sexual appeal, including finding herself in the iconic poster which I found incredibly alluring before I saw the film as some sort of uniquely romanticized version of the terrors of war – I could not have been more wrong! But, then, there really is a certain romanticism to her behavior, there really is a certain danger and cruelty that comes across, and the film is nothing if not expansive in both content and tone. There are enough storylines within the film to create 7 or 8 distinct films, surely. The film’s opening sequences depict the type of material that Melville depicted in Army of Shadows, the images of the city under siege could make their way into Wajda’s Kanal, the communities living underground crop up in Machulski’s Sexmission, the harrowing nature of the Yugoslav conflict is depicted in Dragojevic’s Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, and the film’s concluding jubilation could fit right along with any pastoral celebration, as with Havetta’s  Celebration in the Botanical Garden – and that’s just scratching the surface. There is also a film-within-a-film, a delusional renegade on the loose in a time of peace, a secret underground roadway, and a few other major points that the film touches upon. This is matched by the film’s mix of slapstick comedy, nefarious duplicity, doe-eyed naivety, bitter domestic rivalry, bleak realism, and unfettered jubilation which results in a mind-bogglingly intricate web of contrasting tones which create a rich tapestry of material that a certain American filmmaker with his own Palm d’Or tried for and missed completely, in my opinion.

Given all of this contrast in tones and variation in setting it is difficult to pin down any single element that isn’t composed of contrasts. The film may have numerous satirical targets, but the overriding point of the film seems to be to convey a certain lamenting recognition of the overwhelming absurdity of what Herzog might call a ‘harmony of overwhelming and collective murder’, or at the very least gross exploitation. While the film ends on a jubilant note, any implications of optimism are colored by the necessity of a great shift in behavior to achieve those ends, and thus I don’t put too much stock in the idea that this absurd and heavily exaggerated tragicomedy serves, with respect to a stance on the regional conflict, as anything more than an ambivalent defense of Serbians caught up in the same mess as the rest of the Yugoslav nations. It is interesting to notice the unquestionably secessionary implications of the film’s finale given the United States’ unpleasant history with that idea, an idea which seems to have worked to ease tensions in the nations which used to make up Yugoslavia. If the film was Serbian propaganda to some degree at the time of its release then I find the issue to be not only opaque to those who can’t determine any ethnic differences between characters (such as myself) and interesting as an expression of Kusturica’s own viewpoint on the matter. On the DVD there is a short interview with Kusturica at Cannes where he seems to imply that the film is a reaction against the outside view of the Serbs as evil, and the film portrays a clear stance against the treatment of any ethnic group as innately evil with its absurd shenanigans involving the film crew with a clarity that seems to me to supersede any claims of particular ethnic condemnation. There are some elements which come across clearly in the film, like the potential for human cruelty and the terrors of war, but most of the other issues broached by the film seem cloaked in a thick fog of ambivalence which gives the film lasting relevance and separates it from mere propaganda. In the midst of all of the film’s complexities it should not be lost that the film reaches great heights of bizarre comedy, pathos, atmosphere, and jubilance rivaled by few other films.

To those who can't remember: Blacky is cleaning his shoes with a live cat in the image below. Yep.

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