Sunday, August 17, 2008

Emir Kusturica

Every once in a while we here at RFC chime in on a director, actor, writer, or someone who we think deserves a spotlight. (You can read my brief and very incomplete ramblings about the undeniable kick assery of Paul Verhoeven here and Paddy's introduction to Nicolas Provost here) Today we'll take a look at Serbian filmmaker, musician, sometimes actor (all around John C. Reilly lookin' dude) Emir Kusturica, a guy who's work isn't the easiest to find here in the US. In fact, his one venture into American film isn't even available on DVD in the states. But that one film, Arizona Dream, stuck with me from the day I first saw it around 1994 until over ten years later when I found a VHS copy at Hollywood Express and made it a point to hunt down and watch everything I could get my hands on. (Translation: do a search on Netflix and queue up the other 3 films of his that are available on DVD in the US.)

Arizona Dream is a movie that a good number of people might remember encountering around the mid 90's. If you've seen it you surely don't have to jog your memory to recall it. No other movie sets loose the combined talents of Jerry Lewis, Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Vincent Gallo and Lili Taylor and I doubt any movie ever will come close to capturing the singular anarchic spirit that results from this combustible collaboration. Arizona Dream is really only considered an American film since it was shot in Arizona and features an American cast. Aside from the fact that people are speaking English (and Innuit), everything else is pure Kusturica. In fact, it was given a European release before it was shown in American theaters and even though I can't get a DVD of the movie in my region, there are numerous DVD versions available in Europe. (I might have to dust off my weathered Polaroid DVD-PAL player and get my hands on one of these if there's any sort of decent making-of or interviews in the bonus features.)

The theme of Arizona Dream is, naturally, dreams. And not just in the sense of bedtime dreams, although these play a part as well. All the characters in the film have longings. Uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis) wants Axel (Johnny Depp) to take over the family Cadillac business, to see his dream live on in Axel after he passes. At the Cadillac dealership, Axel meets Elaine (Faye Dunaway) and her step-daughter Grace (Lili Taylor) and quickly their dreams become his own. Axel moves into their huge house in the Arizona desert and tries to help Elaine with building a flying machine and even tries as best as he morally can to help Grace achieve her dream of dying and being reincarnated as a turtle. On the outskirts of the story is Vincent Gallo as Axel's cousin Paul who loves movies and dreams of becoming an actor (see his memorable talent show effort below). Axel is simply a dreamer, period. We first meet him as he's woken from a daydream involving Eskimos and one eyed fish -- and if he were to have one dream it would be to live in Alaska. He tries to share his vision with Grace but there isn't much in the way of happy endings for any of the characters in this film.

While Arizona Dream may rank somewhere in the middle of his filmography, it's a great gateway movie. It has more than a couple perfect Kusturican moments -- moments where the movie's wheels start rattling and you think it just might fly completely off the tracks and that's just fine because there's such an infectious, exuberant chaos going on that you simply want to throw yourself at its mercy. These scenes usually involve music and the camera barely being able to contain the action going on within its frame. In Arizona Dreams it happens early on when Axel and Paul first visit Elaine and Grace's house in the desert. The camera slides along the diner table as flirting goes on underneath. Soon, even with only four people in the scene there seems to be four separate conversations going on, escalating with the help of a pesky turtle and the words Papua New Guinea, while Paul and Elaine go from flirting to very bad table manners and Grace tries to hang herself by jumping from the hallway on the second floor into the dining room only to find herself bouncing, bouncing, bouncing until the ceiling fan comes crashing down. It's a scene of pure anarchy and Kusturica excels at capturing the live wire sparks in scenes like these.

Botched suicides by hanging is a recurring motif in Kusturica's films (along with a suitcase full of others including flying fish and red balloons). In his film When Father Was Away on Business one of the father's mistresses tries to end it all by hanging herself with the pull cord from a toilet. A character from Kusturica's undisputed masterpiece Underground fails with a darkly comic effect very similar to Arizona's Grace. I don't have too much to say about When Father Was Away, which along with Underground won Kusturica a Palme d'Or. It has some fantastic sequences, which I'm guessing all Kusturica movies do, but it is so rooted in Serbian history for me to connect with it like I do with the other films. Told from the perspective of a child during Yugoslavia's 1950's transformation away from Stalinism -- the story is about the father of a family getting sent to a labor camp due to an off-handed on-the-job comment. Perhaps out of guilt that this detention might be more the result of a vengeful lover, he tells his family that he is simply going away on business. The films of Kusturica, at least the earlier ones that I have seen are all very much concerned with the effects communism had on Yugoslavia. The idea of family and community are very much at the core of the Kusturica films I've seen (aside from Arizona Dreams) and there's always a line drawn between the adults who are 100% concerned with the politics that are surrounding them and the children who simply live their lives regardless. Politics of course do affect everyone to some degree and When Father Was Away on Business shows how it can trickle down to even the sleepwalking six year old at the center of it all.

(The sleepwalking is of course a not-so-subtle metaphor for a generation of Yugoslavians during this period but it also adds a bit of that surreal edge that would later become Kusturica's calling card. In fact the beautiful last shot of the film, with the 6 year old literally walking off into the sunset, could be seen as Kusturica saying goodbye to the kitchen sink melodrama and entering a new world of his own creation that follows his own rules.)

Before When Father Was Away on Business, Kusurica created a very similar world in Do You Remember Dolly Bell? And as it is his first feature length film, it is something of a stunner. Again told through the eyes of the youngest child in the family, this time in the 60's with a teenager named Dino, Dolly Bell is a more straightforward coming of age story; a genre of film that I hold in high regard -- which may be why I enjoyed it much more. Like the exquisite Austrailian film The Year My Voice Broke that came 6 years later, we have a young teenager in a small town trying to come to grips with his first love and first heartbreak while juggling all the other hang-ups of being a teenager and learning to grow up quickly. Just so happens this first love is in the form of a burlesque performer/prostitute that Dino is helping the local hoodlum stash for safe keeping in his family's barn. The few scenes of the two of them in the barn, Dino trying to comfort the young woman and at the same time come to grips with her brazen sexuality are remarkably touching.

The movie is filled with this type of delicate touch. It should be noted that Dolly Bell has some great comedic moments - much more so than Father (which was billed as "A Very Human Comedy"). The movie starts with one of its funnier B-stories involving the local town leader's getting together to discuss as seemingly dire situation only to have it turn out to be their desire to get a rock n' roll band started. "All the other towns have them! Come on, we have delinquent teenagers too!" It's an amazing movie filled with universal themes and situations: young teenagers spending their time lying and being confused about sex, forming a band, dealing with mortality, confronting your first girlfriend's pimp, etc. There's a humanity in how all these themes are dealt with that is frightening to think came from a 26 year old who hadn't made a film before.

Again, this being a very early film for Kusturica, it doesn't have that manic spirit of his later work -- but it does show his talent for nuance that might get lost (and according to some vocal dissenters of his more recent work is all but gone). His eye for detail in both Father and Dolly Bell that makes every character and every interior and exterior so completely organic and is something that stays solid through every film I've seen, even when the most bizarre moments strike.

Those moments come fast and furious, relatively speaking, in Underground. Kusturica's homecoming of sorts after Arizona Dreams is an epic filled to the breaking point with wildly imaginative allegory and anarchy and won Kusturica his second Palme d'Or (putting him on a very short list of six directors who've been able to accomplish that feat). Trying to describe Underground is like trying to describe 2001 to somebody. The movie goes everywhere. It's completely unpredictable and just when you think you've gotten a grasp on it it grows even bigger and stronger. The short, very short, story is that two ne'er do well friends (Marko and Blacky) are rivals for a beautiful actress (Natalija) during the beginning of the Nazi invasion. Blacky ends up in a coma from fighting the gestapo and ends up with the rest of their friends and family in a huge bomb shelter. They manage to create a somewhat self sufficient society while the other friend Marko, played by the amazingly expressive Miki Manojlovic (a frequent Kusturica collaborator and the Father of When Father Was Away on Business), keeps the rest of the community under the impression that the war is still raging while he rises the ranks of the liberated Yugoslav party with Natalija by his side. Blacky, who's being memorialized as a fallen hero above ground, eventually wakens from his coma and the movie really takes off from there. Blacky is played by a force of nature named Lazar Ristovski. He is a revelation in the movie -- when Blacky walks into a room there's a energy to his (often drunken) swagger that practically has people stepping out of his way.

Ristovski completely sells this power on screen and when he wakes up from that coma you know things aren't going to end well for Marko but you have no idea the lengths the movie will take you to get to that point. Like I said, the scope of this picture is epic. It's telling the rise and fall of Yugoslavia in this story about these two friends. If I knew anything about Yugoslavian history I'm sure I would enjoy this movie even more, but I have little to no knowledge and yet there is simply so much to cinematic exuberance and joi de vive in this and all his films that I can't help but be bowled over by them. In Underground Kusturica shows us a weird sort of anti-stylization. I can only think of Robert Altman as a comparison. You have this sense of the actors being given complete freedom and yet you know in the back of your mind that it's 100% Kusturica.

There has been a lot to read about people's opinions on his films since Underground and I wish I was able to take part in that discussion. Unfortunately US DVDs stop cold here. From what I've read his films since then have gotten more and more into simply capturing this anarchic spirit and less and less into telling a story. From what I've read his follow up to Underground, Black Cat, White Cat toed the line in this regard and is quite good but since then plot has gotten away from him. I could write a whole post about the difference of importance between plot and story and bore us all even more, and maybe I will some day. I get the impression some Kusturica fans want him to return to the fables of his early work while he wants to see how far he can go on letting loose with his brand of cinematic exuberance. I for one will be queuing up whatever I can.

Paddy, I know you were able to catch one of his latest films, Zavet/Promise Me This, during its release in Belgium. I know you aren't really familiar with Kusturica's work, and went because of some prodding on my part, but can you add any thoughts to this?


Padraic said...

Promet-moi definitely hits on a lot of the themes you mentioned - told from the perspective of a kid, a generational gap - and seems in line stylistically: lot of anarchy, lots of just crazy shit going on.

I think you put it best when you say that there are "moments where the movie's wheels start rattling and you think it just might fly completely off the tracks."

I'm a big fan, normally, of filling the screen with as little as possible, but I appreaciate all the time and effort it must take to pull of some of these convoluted shots, and as a purely visual experience, it's incredible.

There was a bit too much of letting things lapse into grotesqueries just for the hell of it a la Gilliam, and too much slapstick*, but at the heart of it was a very basic and charming coming-of-age story. A little too focused on childhood, possibly, but still nice.

It was certainly an unforgettable film, but that's not always a good thing. I think Kurstica is probably as good at expressing himself through the medium of film as just about anyone out there (the voice is just dead on consistent), but (based on one film), I'm not sure how much I'm digging what he wants to express. Put another way: artistically it was genius, but intellectually, it was a little shallow.

*I know, I'm a loser. I don't like slapstick.

Sean said...

Comedy doesn't travel. US comdies included, do not perform well overseas. I'm assuming that this is why us Yanks don't receive any release for Kusturica's later films. By all reports they've become more comedic since Underground and I'm sure that his comedy is rooted in Serbian culture which may have a tradition of slapstick.

Every culture has its own style of comedy that resonates the most, as I'm sure you know. I think a good portion of Europe still holds some regard for slapstick, while I think it's generally considered too lowbrow to be given much thought in the US. But a lot of his European critics are also grumbling about these post-Underground daliences with lowbrow humor and can't even look past it.

I will say though that you shouldn't let Promet-Moi discourage you from checking out any of the movies I wrote about as they are all quite intellectually rich.

Padraic said...

No, I'm interested in seeing a couple of the movies you reviewed.

Promet-moi is a very fun movie in some instances, but it's hard to see how this guy was a two-time Palm D'Or winner at Cannes, because it seems nothing like the critical darling stuff that usually wins (Van Sant, Dardenne, Coen, Lynvh, etc)

I am surprised that this couldn't find some overseas market, however, as aside from the dreaded subtitles, there isn't much that is inaccessible to the American audience.

My thinking is that it might be that the American types who like subtitles won't dig this kind of humor/anarchy, and that the people who dig this kind of humor don't go in for subtitles.

But the guy is at the point, I guess, where he can do whatever he wants and the critics and academics can figure it out in twenty years.

Padraic said...

I should also add that it got panned over here, at least in a couple of the Belgian dailies.