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November 2, 2008

Disintegration in Frames by Pavle Levi

disintegration_levi.gifPavle Levi's insightful and well-argued book, Disintegration in Frames: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema examines the evolution of the national Yugoslav and regional post-Yugoslav cinema within its shifting political and cultural landscape - initially, in the context of individual expression under the repressive government of Josip Broz Tito, then subsequently, as a reflection of ideologically motivated historical revisionism that sought to reinforce the myth of deep seated ethnic conflict and selective representation as a means of defining national identity through the artificial creation - and consequently, justified persecution - of the other. Rather than a natural regression towards pre-existing ethnic factionalism and decentralization resulting from Tito's death in 1980, Levi proposes that the factionalism itself is the artificial construction (rather than the notion of a Yugoslav federation that was only bound together by Tito's strong arm leadership) - created as a means of cultivating regional autonomy, solidarity, and empowerment in the political vacuum of post-Tito Yugoslavia.

In the chapter, The Black Wave and Marxist Revisionism, Levi frames the emergence of the new Yugoslav film (also called the Black Wave) in the 1960s within the cultural context of rejecting the social realist aesthetic that characterized the country's postwar cinema. Integrally connected to the evolution of the Soviet cultural doctrine of Zhdanovism from the 1930s, this aesthetic rejection reflects the country's broader sentiment of striving to achieve greater autonomy from the Soviet Union. Represented by such diverse filmmakers as Dusan Makavejev, Bostjan Hladnik, Aleksandar Petrovic, Zivojin Pavlovic, Ante Babaja, Vatroslav Mimimca, Kokan Rakonjac, Krsto Papic, Matjaz Klopcic, Bato Cengic, and Zelimir Zelnik, the movement not only becomes a critical assessment of the nebulous, artificial nature of the "realism" embodied by these early partisan films, but also proposes, as Levi argues, the idea of subjective realism as a filmmaker's individualist expression against restrictive cultural policies (leading to an idiosyncratically subjective, "psychological" aesthetic that is embodied in Hladnik's Dance in the Rain and Klopcic's Paper Planes):

In no small measure, this critical dimension was, in fact, a quality generated out of a desire to assert the autonomy of the subjective truth and of the independent authorial vision (even if, as was often the case, the filmmaker chose to produce 'ambiguous images,' to speak in open metaphors'). It was born, inevitably as it were, out of that 'valuable characteristic of the new Yugoslav film,' recognized by film theorist Dusan Stojanovic, in the fact that 'on the philosophical, ideological, and stylistic planes, it [the New Fiilm] offers a possibility - which in practice it realizes on a daily basis - to replace one collective mythology with endless individual mythologies'.

Within this idea of subjective, independent authorship, Levi further examines the cult of personality inherent in Dusan Makavejev's third film, Innocence Unprotected. Reworking footage from the eponymously titled first Serbian "talkie" by strongman and acrobat Dragoljub Aleksic with documentary footage featuring Aleksic's daredevil stunts, Makajevev captures the illusive nature of representation that speaks directly to the mythology of proletariat hero, Tito.

With the 'Hymn to Aleksic', composed in the spirit of Yugoslav Partisan songs and repeatedly played throughout the film, the sense of the acrobat's bravura being mythologized in a manner reminiscent of the methods used by the Yugoslav socialist cultural establishment is given its final touch. As such, the film seems to ask, how can these acts still be experienced as liberating? How can they still symbolize unbound human freedom?

Levi examines the national uncertainty and inertia left in the wake of Tito's death in the chapter, Aesthetics of Nationalist Pleasure, citing Emir Kusturica's When Father Was Away on Business as a metaphor for a country figuratively sleepwalking (as embodied by the young boy Malik) in the absence of the father (who, in the film, has been sent a work camp after being denounced by relatives):

When Father Was Away on Business is ultimately an emotionally charged lesson on political maturation: on the necessity of Yugoslavs dismantling and leaving behind the myth of the omnipotent Tito (who, not unlike Mesa, widely enjoyed the status of a loving patriarch, of a powerful and at times strict protector, but not a tyrant).

Nevertheless, despite the apparent nationalist perspective of post-Tito Yugoslavia in When Father Was Away on Business, Levi argues that Kusturica's cinema evolved towards a more ethnocentric stance that culminated in Underground, creating a paradoxical elegy for the dissolution of a Yugoslav national identity even as it reinforces ethnic stereotypes and cultural division. To this end, Levi cites the inclusion of two distinct documentary footages, implicitly linked by the use of same German song accompaniment, "Lili Marlene": one capturing the terrible aftermath of German bombing in Belgrade, Serbia during World War II, the other showing Germans marching into Maribor, Slovenia and Zagreb, Croatia amid cheering crowds:

The 'message' embedded within this sequence could not possibly have been missed by 'domestic' audiences - whether in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, or Bosnia. Its primary function is to cinematically empower the discourse on 'Serb victimhood' - one of the pillars of Serb nationalist resentment ever since the late 1980s - while discrediting other Yugoslav nations... For, in the context of the 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia along ethnic lines - in the immediate aftermath of the conflict in Croatia with the war in Bosnia still raging - Underground's documentary 'reminder' about the ordinary, everyday Croats greeting the Nazis could hardly be seen as having any other effect but that of suggesting, as Stanko Cerovic notes, 'a continuum of Croat fascism from World War Two to the present day' and, by extension, a continuum of the Serb national victimhood.

The idea of an indefinable enemy as an ethno-nationalistic justification for war has led to what Levi calls the abstract representation of "ethnic enemy as acousmetre" in post-Yugoslav cinema, an aesthetic that is reflected in Srdjan Dragojevic's Pretty Village, Pretty Flame through the metaphor of an abandoned tunnel once dubbed as the "Tunnel of Brotherhood and Unity" that Serb fighters find themselves trapped in - hearing (but never seeing) the voices of the enemy above them. To contrast Dragojevic's use of acousmetre while retaining an essentially ethno-nationalistic stance, Levi also considers its visually analogous role in the final sequence of Muhamed Hadzimehmedovic's Bosian television feature, After the Battle, where a sniper is unable to determine the ethnicity of his target, having earlier witnessed the Muslim fighter assemble a makeshift cross to mark the grave of his Serb companion (who had also deserted):

What the viewer witnesses in this scene is the alignment of the sniper's perspective - visually conveyed by means of the cinematic point of view structure - with the gaze of ethnic hatred directed at the 'other'. And, as the sniper's puzzlement with what he sees suggests, the object of his hatred is first of all a fantasized other - an idea, a notion mapped across the empirical reality, 'superimposed' over the actual individuals existing in it.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 02, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Film Related Reading


Seems like an interesting read Acquarello. I had enjoyed Kusturica's Underground and largely saw it is a division of a nation, highlighted by the breakaway of the island in the film's final scene. I considered that scene as showing how a nation broke away from the motherland (either seeing how Serbia broke away from the Yugoslav nation or collectively the Yugoslav nations splittling from Europe) while dialogues such as "a war is not a war until a brother kills a brother" made me think of the unifying nature of the film. But reading the above paragraph shows that I just took the documentary footage at face value and only considered it showing just another "war" scene.

Is there anything in the book regarding Macedonia and their cinematic identity? I remember Theo Angelopoulos' film Ulysses' Gaze showed how the different Balkan nations had an equal historical claim on a missing film reel. I had wondered while watching that film if Macedonia would be more closer to Greece and Albania in the Balkan label or would still be considered at home in the former Yugoslav tag? I have only seen 2-3 Macedonian films and know too little to form a more informed view of their cinematic history.

Posted by: Sachin on Nov 03, 2008 3:41 PM | Permalink

Hi, Sachin, it sure was an interesting read. I picked up the book after the Slovenian cinema series to get a bit of a primer, and getting a different perspective on history was an added bonus. I had also read Underground the same way, so I was fascinated by Levi's argument about harboring dual sentiments too. You're right, to my untrained eye, it was just showing the absurdity by welcoming the occupation with open arms. It was almost like a displaced revolution, where the object of their grievance (Tito) was projected on other groups instead.

Ah, good point. Macedonian identity isn't really covered in the book, so I guess that's the implicit answer. :) The only possible reference that I can think of is maybe during the analysis of Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain (wasn't the monk in Macedonia?). But that was more in line with the theory of "enemy as acousmetre" where the menace was everywhere. Angelopoulos does address the Balkan association more directly, doesn't he? I remember that he talks about Alexander the Great being Macedonian and how that history connects the question of Greek identity to the broader question of Balkan identity. That's a blind spot for me too.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Nov 03, 2008 8:24 PM | Permalink

Hi Acquarello, I assume you got the hardcover edition of the book as that is the only one I can find on the net?

Actually last year I had quite a good time focusing on Eastern European cinema. I thought I had got a better handle on the region but then when I decided to focus on some Greek films, I realized I had it a bit wrong as I never considered the Balkan region as its own entity. I think Cineaste had an issue on Balkan cinema last year which was a good read as well. I can't find the issue on their website, so I will dig up my copy of the magazine and send you the issue number plus some of the topics they covered, in case you didn't read that issue.

Posted by: Sachin on Nov 04, 2008 6:48 PM | Permalink

Hi, Sachin, yup it is a hardcover. Borders had a coupon for something like 40% off one item so I picked it up for a decent price. Film Society of Lincoln Center planned/is planning a multi-part series on the post-Yugoslav cinemas. The first one was last year on Croatia, which I missed since it was right after NYFF. The second was Slovenia earlier this year. So while I'm waiting for the Serbia, Bosnia, and Macedonia installments to surface, I figured I'd read up.

Speaking of Eastern European cinema, I had a blast with the Romanian cinema series this year too, not a bad one in the bunch. Too bad I couldn't play hooky longer, I wanted to see all of them.

I must have missed the Balkan focus on Cineaste. I'd definitely be interested in checking it out.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Nov 04, 2008 8:13 PM | Permalink

I remember seeing the line-up for that Romanian series wondering when I will be able to see any of those films. I think they also had shown 12:08 East of Bucharest, the only film I had seen. So that Cineaste Issue on "Contemporary Balkan Cinema" was in the Summer of 2007, Vol. XXXII No. 3. The feature was about 30 pages of articles with another 15 pages dedicated to films of notes. I found this table of contents link: http://www.cineaste.com/323balkan-toc.htm

This website lists all the articles but I didn't try to register to read them for free:

Came across this article as well, which was not part of the issue: http://www.cineaste.com/articles/is-there-a-balkan-cinema.htm

Also, one of the articles in the magazine was written by Dina Iordanova: http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/filmstudies/staff.php?staffid=2
Just found that she has a blog which might contain some info regarding Eastern European cinema: http://www.dinaview.com/

I guess I also found myself some new website reading material :)

Posted by: Sachin on Nov 05, 2008 12:58 AM | Permalink

Cool, thanks for the links! Boy, that Highbeam is awfully evasive about how much their subscription actually costs. Every link I click on looking for more information on membership takes me to the sign up page.

I was eyeing Iordanova's "Other Europe" or Cinema of Flames book as well, but couldn't decide which one to pick up since there was scant information on the actual content at etailers (even a table of contents would have helped). That's pretty cool that she has a blog.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Nov 05, 2008 10:47 AM | Permalink

after watching underground, it can be said that it is a black comedy about economic problems faced under the dictatorship of comrade Josef Broz Tito and , can also be hightly related to, the german occupation of.

Posted by: nitin gowda on Aug 17, 2011 12:15 PM | Permalink

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