Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 12, April 2004



Brian Bernard Karl


Capturing Kusturica:

On Gocic's _The Cinema of Emir Kusturica_



Goran Gocic

_The Cinema of Emir Kusturica: Notes from the Underground_

London: Wallflower Press, 2002

ISBN 1903364167

192 pp.


Emir Kusturica career has been a rare recent example of a latter-day film director of an auteuristic mode who manages to cross-over -- at least to some degree -- to audiences at the fringes of art house venues. Critics have dealt with various aspects of his output, celebrating or attempting to deflate a growing reputation built on a series of films that have grown in production value (and budget), as well as shifted in tone from an almost neo-realist style with light touches of magical realism embedded, to more frenetic exercises with cartoon-ish plot-lines and characters who sprawl into the realm of caricature and *mise-en-scenes* that can be seen as either ambitious or over-the-top. Only in the last two years, however, have book-length monographs devoted to Kusturica and his work seen the light of day, one being, Goran Gocic's _The Cinema of Emir Kusturica: Notes from the Underground_, part of a series called, 'Directors' Cuts', which 'focus on the work of the most significant contemporary international film-makers, illuminating the creative dynamics of World Cinema', according to the book's back-jacket blurb.


The 'World Cinema' category, while potentially too arbitrary and diminishing a label, could also serve as a likely one to launch an initial foray into considering Kusturica's evolving praxis, since he has very much moved from being a type of regional exemplar to an global stage where he manages to still represent something typical to his (former) Yugoslav origins while appropriating from (and responding to) ideas of more internationally developed style and technique in film. And certainly the accomplishments (and controversies) of Kusturica's career make a longer, more in-depth study of him more than overdue.


Gocic's book is, in one sense, a book that tries to do too much. There is a plethora of information within in it on a range of subjects including some basic elements of Kusturica's personal biography (especially his formative years with regard to film), Kusturica's production history, Kusturica's films themselves, as well as various contexts of contemporary feature films with which some overlap is claimed for Kusturica by the author.


Early on, however, it becomes clear that most of these contexts will remain only summary in the use Gocic makes of them. The mass of information yields surprisingly few detailed considerations of any specific topics. In this sense, Gocic's attempt at explicating what might be some phenomenology of Kusturica and his film work does not do enough, falling short on its own goals, unable or unwilling to go beyond quickie claims, and often glib and tossed off theorizing.


No doubt some of this is due to the author's choice of style -- an attempt at displaying an that is knowing but breezy and fast-paced, skipping from trope to trope with little apparent interest in structuring coherent discussions, much less pointed arguments -- despite the periodic, casual sprawl into jargon-rich moments of critical posturing. One attribute -- and possibly cause -- of this style, is the author's predilection for fannish ejaculation, signaling the presumption on his part that Kusturica is not only worthwhile as a subject of study (reasonable enough) but also a figure worthy of a mythologizing of the most over-reaching hype from a hero-hungry press and Kusturica himself.


By dint of mere repetition and the simple taking up of a descriptive history (however fragmented) of Kusturica's film work itself, some sense of measure is gained of the work overall. But any larger contextualization gets lost in the details of Gocic's stabs at analysis and his tendency toward a partisanship that often approaches cheerleading on behalf of the director.


The author's apparent knowledge of East European cinema is wasted with only sporadic, passing references to exemplars of it and an apparent disinterest in generating a greater geocultural regional setting for understanding Kusturica. For the reader with a lack of familiarity with cinema or other recent artistic phenomena from Yugoslavia or the Czech Republic, this book will provide little additional information since often no more than a title of a film or sometimes a title and director will be mentioned without indications of from where or when the referenced film stems or even what a particular film might be about.


Likewise, Gocic's approach to the political background and possible interpretations of Kusturica's work and attitude. Though Gocic seems to possess much knowledge about the ins and outs of what has gone on in the political maneuverings of the region since the breakup of Yugoslavia, little ultimate insight seems to cohere in his read on how Kusturica himself might be read through his career -- praxis, again, seems a suitable term here, since Kusturica has deliberately chosen settings and narratives that develop around political issues (e.g. _Underground_ and the earlier _When My Father Was Away on Business_) and has alternately coyly courted, tersely dodged, and inflammatorily acted out through the attention of a more and more attentive media.


Gocic does better in explaining occasional focused socio-cultural phenomena such as the East European concept of *sevdah*, a sort of ecstatic melancholy associated with a specific musical genre, but he ultimately muddies it when considering Kusturica's take on it. Much worse, in referencing occasional, arbitrarily chosen films from other, usually more Western locales, a spotty conceptualization of more global cinematic practice leaves this consideration of Kusturica's output even more isolated. His comparison of Kusturica's use of *Naturisch* non-professional actors to that of Pasolini is close enough perhaps if not fully apt, as are the connections he suggests among Kusturica's work and that of Bunuel and Fellini. The suggestion that Kusturica's attitude toward nature and 'Slavic mysticism . . . owes a lot' to Tarkovsky is a different story since, even if imagery borrowed from Tarkovsky abounds in Kusturica's work, the tone and theme of the context in which these appropriations become embedded within Kusturica's work are notably different. Likewise, Gocic's assertion that Kusturica's take on spiritual faith as demonstrated through his films' playful magic realism corresponds in any substantial way with that of Paradzhanov (90) is exaggerated at best.


Gocic's take on music in film is weak to a point that is embarrassing, since he dwells at some length on the use of music in Kusturica's work (and digresses to celebrate Kusturica's own role as a musician -- admittedly in the context of the film Kusturica made documenting that band's tour, though the address to the film itself is minor. The 'inside' information he has on the relationship between Kusturica and some of his musical collaborators is only tangentially pertinent and defaults to the arena of gossip and fandom. Elsewhere in Gocic's exposition of music in film, the crude claim he puts forward -- that Indian directors 'have developed an instrument to express . . .' -- glaringly spotlights his lack of knowledge of musics in other locales and their various uses in film (as it also spotlights his uncritical/unproblematized attitude toward musics of the world and 'world music' in general).


Even worse is the essentializing of various religious groups' filmic responses in which Gocic indulges when discussing Kusturica and casting is ignorant, meaningless and downright shameful: 'While Protestant cultures, it seems, cannot relate to the problematic 'exploitation' of the handicapped, Catholic (or even more Orthodox) cultures experience actors posing in such roles as somehow phoney . . .' (64).


Similar questions arise in Gocic's attitude toward Kusturica's own figure, especially in relation to the film industry. What is the 'top league' which Kusturica has 'penetrated' (44)? This would seem to be Gocic's notion of international directors who manage to produce popular films with budgets approaching the lower end at least of Hollywood productions, albeit with some artistic credibility retained. There is no attempt to examine the notions of integrity to which he refers, beyond his vague implication of the corruptness of the system of internationalized production (and of distribution as well -- since Gocic also criticizes attendees of film festivals and other audiences and critics).


He does spend two or three pages considering the significance of various European festival's support of Kusturica's work, but his speculations remain just that -- speculations, without any real investigation of the facts according to principles involved, nor with these speculations yielding any substantive conclusions. When Gocic isn't presenting others' theories on the politics behind Festival decisions regarding Kusturica (only to knock these strawmen down with simple assertions of his own), he defaults too easily into characterizing the festivals as somehow agentive themselves, as if the institutions themselves make decisions monolithically, without the contingent political processes that no doubt often inform them. More generally, any real engagement with issues of reception could have saved the book from reading most like an extended, somewhat informed account by a fan. Any of Gocic's impulses toward a critical stance are overwhelmed by much stronger impulses to mythologize Kusturica in terms such as: 'came back a hero'.


Gocic embraces the iconoclast he sees in Kusturica's posturings and his work, but he does not investigate the director's relationship with the Hollywood movie industry he insists Kusturica is somehow countering. Only one of many such claims is Gocic's statement that though Kusturica 'has been backed by Western producers . . . the narrative preferences in his films are still positioned and kept in contrast to the most ruling industrial, semiological and ideological standards' (161).


Some other interesting ideas generated by Gocic are lost during the piecemeal approach in which the author picks them up -- and lets them drop. A consideration of the filmed motif of cigarettes or smoking in Kusturica's films, for instance, as well as of 'animals', become lumped into careering lists of their various (and often divergent) purported symbolic import and are thus obscured and over-burdened with the detritus of the author's random and murky observations.


In another stylistic tic, which has decided impact on the book's content, it is difficult to decide which is more distracting: the author's hyperbole in proclaiming certain truths or the checked hyperbole ('systematically challenging practically all of the 'superior' attributes' (161). Much of the author's more intriguing observations become awash in this sea of confusion, as in Gocic's thrown away claim that Kusturica 'rather closes the traditions on which he bases his work, seeing them as the doors to their conclusions' (162).


Further obscuring the sometimes intriguing perspectives offered to approaching Kusturica is a extremely poor editing of the author's use of the English language. Hardly a paragraph goes by without awkward or mixed metaphors ('How the filmmaker manages to keep on carving notches by gathering all these successive laurels' [132]), irrelevant asides, overstated rhetorical locutions, bad grammar ('here are a running gag' 107), and word choices that are odd or even wrong. Even a mediocre proof-reading would have helped eliminate some confusion caused with typographical errors (example on page 83: 'transfigured' instead of 'transcend', 'grovel' in lieu of 'gravel', 'confided' in lieu of 'confined', and 'satanised' where the author apparently meant 'sanitized'), but the entire text could use not only basic copy-editing, but also a thorough rewrite.


This extends not only to on-going grammatical sloppiness, but also lapses and contradictions in logic, all of which, again, contribute to undermining the sometimes insightful identification of specific attributes within Kusturica's output that are salient. If these moments of insight were supported so that they achieved a greater momentum, the book might have produced some sense of larger analysis. Perhaps the author's intent is to produce a document whose free-wheeling behavior mimics that of Kusturica himself; it lacks, however, not only the bravura and finesse of Kusturica's work, but also its coherence and its relative rigorousness of thought.


Gocic's poor rhetorical turns in English at times reach to levels nearing incomprehensibility, as in the following passage, part of the conclusion of the book:


'One can alternatively define transgression as stepping over a lower limit, as breaking the rules downward. We understand transgression in this respect as a kind of negative transcending. Its basic characteristic in Kusturica's case is its direction -- it starts from the 'core' to be seen at 'periphery', from 'superior' to inhabit 'inferior', from 'higher' to reach 'lower', but only to claim those back for humanity' (161).


Or this: 'Kusturica's hero is someone a world apart, yet symbolically accepted and inaugurated into post-modern imagery' (161). And later: 'the prevailing dark tone reduced Kusturica's potential break in Hollywood practically to zero' (164).


Beyond these details in the text, generalizations and unsupported attributions abound: How does Gocic know, for example, that 'the audience subscribes to his view in spite of its own prejudices'? (101). Is Kusturica's preservation of ''natural' ambiguities' truly a 'negation of genre cinema'? And if so, what is the actual significance for the work? Are the supposedly 'peculiar destinies' of 'Kusturica's actors' after filming really relevant to a reading of the characters they portray? Is either sleepwalking or flying in a glider really an instance of the supernatural? These types of assertions are in keeping with other questionable, arbitrary claims such as: 'In other words, unlike *sevdah*, which is a completely organic element in Kusturica's films, the supernatural is more of an accessory.' Or: 'The preference for the sick anti-hero over the normal and healthy also arrived in Hollywood' (160).


Gocic's statements often beg more questions than they answer, as when he states: 'If we want to confine ourselves to the art of moving images, we have to explore 'underground' cinema to find more radical and consequential films of transgression' (161). This underscores the lack of any clearly defined schema by which Gocic might be measuring his judgments in presenting Kusturica as some sort of iconoclast -- save the simple assertion that Kusturica's oeuvre -- and attitude -- somehow works against (while sometimes operating within) the Hollywood system -- however vaguely defined that is in relation to the larger realm of international cinema by later-day *auteurs*.


The vague allusion to a field of activity (experimental or 'underground' cinema) which remains totally unexplicated, calls attention to the lack of a larger framing of Kusturica's work within historical cinematic practice on the part of the author. Such references call for a more explicit and determined reading in how productive certain of Kusturica's stylistic choices can be -- or do not end up being -- for instance, even a slight investigation into the 'numerous contradictions and oxymorons [that] manifest formally in Kusturica's films' (161).


By analyzing the recurring theme of nostalgia he identifies as frequently engaged with by Kusturica, Gocic might have gotten more to the heart of both how the films are meant to function -- and how they are actually read. But he invests considerably more time to embracing instead his own recurring but vague references to 'ethno-cinema' as a base context from which Kusturica is operating (and by which Gocic seems to mean to have it both ways: indulging in exoticism and critiquing others' supposed essentializing). The only specific examples he offers to define this category are a handful of big budget Hollywood films involving Native Americans.


The pursuit of certain themes in conceptualization and/or production or at least more substantial quotes from Kusturica or some of his many significant collaborators (e.g. writers, directors of photography, composers) could have shed more light on the processes and intentions that went into producing his work. The press release for the book hails the author's use of exclusive interviews with Kusturica, but little apparent use is made of them, since most quotes are taken from other publications (and are often accompanied by a glib, if ambivalent, tendency toward superficial psychoanalysis).


There is an oddly parallel publication in the recent _Emir Kusturica_ (2002) by Dina Iordanova, another film critic who attempts to tackle Kusturica and his work in the British Film Institute's 'World Directors' series of monographs. Like Gocic, Irodanova's take tends toward a history of production, sporadically sprawling into a cataloging of various components of the work. More organized overall -- her chapter titles of 'The Man', 'The Film', 'The Artistry', and 'The Ideology' (the chapter on Ideology is particularly focused) are more immediately accessible and relatively more coherent, actually containing a greater quantity of direct considerations of the material of Kusturica's films themselves and their possible interpretations. Iordanova is strongest in her consideration of intertextual reference as it appears in Kusturica, with relatively detailed examples from film, but also from visual art. At least, she is certainly stronger than Gocic, who also attempts at least a short list of quotes and allusions in Kusturica's work but with no depth or apparent direction.


On the negative side, Iordanova, too, succumbs to the superficial psychoanalysing game, while also checking her impulses in that direction. She is especially maddening in acknowledging some issues more explicitly than Gocic, but still refusing to deal with them, as in her deliberately unexplored reference to Kusturica's widely noted filmic misogyny.


The problem of genre is something both writers trip over: Kusturica is referred to by both writers as representing several different categories of film definition, among them pre-modern, post-modern, baroque, and magical realist. And certainly, none of these must be exclusive of the others, but neither authors' invocation of them is particularly productive in understanding what the result in Kusturica's work is. The failure to consider audience reception to any substantive degree is one indulged in by both authors, despite occasional unsubstantiated invocation of it to bolster a claim.


More sober and steady throughout, Iordanova provides a basic entry point to Kusturica's place in contemporary cinema to a slight degree more than Gocic's sometimes amusing, often distracting, occasionally annoying and even incoherent sprawl into the subject. But neither effort digs into the issues within and surrounding the film work itself. For that, readers will have to wait for another round with this admittedly challenging subject.


Columbia University

New York, USA



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004



Brian Bernard Karl, 'Capturing Kusturica: On Gocic's _The Cinema of Emir Kusturica_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 12, April 2004 <>.


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