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.
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.
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?