Books Around: Eastern Ley Lines

By Olaf Möller

Originally I wanted to pick things up where I left ‘em last time: in Japan, deep inside genre-land, by praising the brilliance and beauty of Jasper Sharp’s hefty tome on Japanese sex cinema, from whence I intended to commence t’wards a similarly calibrated labour of love, Jack Stevenson’s study on erotic cinema in Scandinavia. But helas! the latter still hasn’t materialized (postal problems, perhaps?), so I’ll keep that for another day.

In the meantime, while waiting for dem Danish delights, some rewarding works on choice moments in some cinemas of that other East, the (Cold War-)European one, found their way onto my bedside floor. A collection of texts on the Vojvodina’s finest, Želimir Žilnik: For an Idea—Against the Status Quo: Analysis and Systematization of Želimir Žilnik’s Artistic Practice (Eds. Branka Ćurčić; New Media & Playground produkcija; Novi Sad, 2009); a tricky essay in revisionism, Polish New Wave: The History of a Phenomenon that Never Existed (Eds. Łukasz Rodunda, Barbara Piwowarska; Center for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle; Warsaw, 2008); and the ‘illustrated screenplay’ (it’s something else, actually; I’ll explain later) for Mikhail Romm’s 1966 classic of political agit-art Ordinary Fascism, Der gewöhnliche Faschismus: Ein Werkbuch zum Film von Michail Romm (Eds. Wolfgang Beilenhoff, Sabine Hänsgen, in collaboration with Maja Turowskaja; Vorwerk 8, Berlin 2009).

Žilnik, as some might recall, is a pantheon auteur of mine: a maverick Marxist hell-bent on changing things through filmmaking. Žilnik doesn’t just want to be right (like certain directors he’s sometimes compared to, chiefly Godard), he wants to actually do right by his fellow man—can’t do better than that, at least in my book. That said, it shouldn’t be too surprising that shelves aren’t exactly collapsing under the weight of works devoted to the man, as he’s as marginalized as many of his protagonists (though to my knowledge there are more books on Žilnik than on Joe Dante …). Fittingly, For an Idea—Against the Status Quo is something of a self-published work: the genius behind Playground produkcija is Žilnik’s partner, Sarita Matijević. The main attraction here is probably the DVD-ROM that comes with the book: some 5GB of press clippings, pictures, film excerpts, and a video documentation of Žilnik’s legendary, and only, stage production, Gastarbajter opera, performed in 1977 in collaboration with Peđa Vranešević, all drawn from Žilnik’s own collection—and useful mainly to those who know Serbo-Croatian and/or one of its bases. But there’s still the bilingual book, whose English section has been done with commendable care, unlike a great amount of current book and DVD releases whose translations border on the surreal. Too often, it seems, the felt need to obtain an international appreciation for one’s subject is larger than the miniscule translation budget—see for example an earlier book on Žilnik, Želimir Žilnik—Above the Red Dust, published in 2003 by the Institut za film, Belgrade.

While we’re talking ‘international’, For an Idea—Against the Status Quo contains contributions from writers originating from several Central and Eastern European countries, which is a point worth making considering that quite a few of Žilnik’s later works deal with the perplexingly complex history of this helplessly intertwined region which was “reorganized” several times in the span of merely a century (a Croatian eighty-something might have lived through four different countries and political systems). The eight texts by six contributors (including Pavle Levi’s piece which is only featured in the book’s Serbian half—the English original will be published elsewhere) are of varying quality—or, let’s say, natures. Marina Gržinić’s, for instance, might be called either an agreeable example of academic writing, or just the kind of academosolipsistic blah where ‘the discourse’, i.e. referencing the right names cum catchphrases, is more important than the subject at hand. Similar things could be said about Branislav Dimitrijević’s contribution, although it’s far more informative than Gržinić’s and has at least a few ideas worth pondering, mainly on Žilnik’s rather unique ideological position in Yugoslav cinema in particular and world cinema as such.

Preferable to both is Jurij Meden’s punchy, pleasantly playful paean (panache is the name of game) to Žilnik’s Kenedi Trilogy of Kenedi Goes Back Home (2003), Kenedi, Lost and Found (2005) and Kenedi is Getting Married (2007): here’s a sensibility that’s cineromantically in sync with the subject and deeply interested in contributing to its cause. By far the worthiest piece in the book is Dominika Prejdová’s examination of Žilnik as a paragon of socially engaged cinema (though her interview with Žilnik, on the other hand, is a bit useless). Let’s mention as well that Prejdová is the only contributor who discusses at somewhat greater length Žilnik’s TV plays from the ‘80s, a sub-body of work whose importance to Žilnik’s oeuvre is frequently acknowledged but rarely discussed (Ž.Ž. himself considers them among his finest achivements). For an Idea—Against the Status Quo is (still) not the study a master of Žilnik’s proportions deserves, but it’s a step in the right direction, especially due to the DVD-ROM.

Polish New Wave: The History of a Phenomenon that Never Existed is another decidedly mixed bag. Originally it was published as a catalogue for a touring film series inspired by Piotr Uklański’s Summer Love (2006), a sui generis masterpiece that, for the series curators (it’s the art world, after all), suggested links with certain prominent works from Polish film history, mainly from the ‘70s (the oldest film in the book’s selection is Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1964 Rysopis, the newest, depending on one’s view, either Bogdan Dziworski & Zbigniew Rybczyński’s 1981 Wdech–Wydech or Andrzej Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie, a work whose progress was cut short by the authorities in 1976 and finished only in 1987). In accord with this rather narrow view, nine of the book’s eleven pieces focus on one or several of the selected artists, while only two essays—a polemic by Mateusz Werner and a lamento by Tadeusz Lubelski—look at the exhibits in the wider context of (mainly) Polish film history.

The project’s central idea is that Summer Love continues/harks back to a more self-referential, materialist poetic of cinema whose pieces are scattered all over modern Polish film history, befitting an aesthetic of shards. This program actually could have been a bit bigger, as even this seemingly small vein of Polish cinema is wider than the book suggests (cf. Werner’s discussion of Tadeusz Konwicki), as well as somewhat more structured, as Lubelski reminds the reader by bringing up the “Third Cinema” designation en vogue in certain circles of Poland’s film culture at the end of the ‘60s. The stress on the genius of Grzegorz Królikiewicz, Poland’s greatest filmmaker—on par with Skolimowski and Żuławski—is more than welcome; eternal glory to the first film festival or museum/archive which presents a complete retrospective of Królikiewicz! (Or has somebody already done that?)

If read carefully and applied accordingly, Polish New Wave offers something like a counter-history of (not only) Polish cinema—although one has to say that the way this is argued by Rodunda, Lubelski, Werner et al is sometimes a bit forced bordering on the bizarre. Werner’s piece in particular is so vitriolic and hell-bent on discrediting the cultural politics cum realities of communist Poland that it’s difficult to take it seriously—let’s just mention his almost comical attempt to draw parallels between the Nouvelle Vague and the Polish Bunt Scenarzystów (Screenwriters’ Rebellion). In general, the whole project feels too often like an attempt to celebrate those films that are artistically on the level of “modern world cinema” without having to say that Communism in Poland, in whichever way (and there are indeed quite a lot them), might have something to do with their qualities. Which, of course, is not exactly the most sensible way of looking at all this, but it’s the one the EU’s Western head honchos like best…

Which somehow gets us to the truly splendid tome on Der gewöhnliche Faschismus, which, in contrast to the two above-mentioned books, is a monolingual affair: German and nothing but. However, there is a Russian demi-twin edition, Obyknovennyj fašizm: Avtorij szenarija: Mihail Romm, Maja Turovskaja, Jurij Hanjutin (Ed. Ljubov Arkus; Seans; St. Petersburg, 2006), whose core is identical with the German publication. And the core is a photo-text-book featuring choice frame enlargements from (likely) every shot of the film alongside the complete commentary (in a new translation for the German edition). The original work for the book—the picture selection, layout, etc.—was done by Romm himself, but he couldn’t get the book published in the USSR, nor was his family able to after his death in 1971, and things were not looking any better after the collapse of the USSR until this recent joint venture.

I can’t really say too much about the differences between the two editions: a piece by Romm, another by co-writer Maja Turovskaja, and a third by Turovskaja and her collaborator Jurij Hanjutin were definitely taken from the Russian edition, as was the selection of reviews from the USSR. As for the rest, one difference mentioned in Beilenhoff and Hänsgen’s introduction for the German edition is the page colour: in the Russian edition the pictures are reproduced on white, in the German on black pages. Beyond that, I guess the Russians didn’t need any German film academics to comment on the film. Once I get my hands on a Russian edition, I can get more specific about the differences. For now let’s just mention that the German edition is pretty excellent, that the selection of documents and testimonials accompanying the photo-text-book are mighty helpful, and that the pieces not immediately related to the making and reception of Romm’s film (e.g. Jörg Frieß’ essay on compilation films) are still of interest, and actually good reads despite being authored by local historians and archivists, a bunch not exactly famed for the esprit of their writings.

Damn, already lotsawords. The Geoff Pevere-edited Toronto on Film (nice one, that—will say that much for now) will have to wait for the next outing. . .

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