Kusturica's Salute to World Cinema in an Age of Television
Coppola's Godfather films build on the whole American tradition of crime genre films. But Kusturica cuts a much larger territory of cinematic border crossing with direct and indirect references to over forty directors, ranging from the surrealism of Luis Buñuel to the straightforward, clean, narrative visual style of John Ford. Part of Kusturica's cinematic makeover strategy in Time of the Gypsy results in an anthology of allusions and homage to Yugoslav and European cinema, as well as to classical Hollywood movies. When Perhan becomes a godfather and dons the appropriate looking clothes, he winds up appearing remarkably like Al Pacino. At one moment, he stands in front of a movie theater playing Citizen Kane . As Perhan goes to light his cigar, he sees a still of Orson Welles with an unlit cigar in his mouth. Before lighting his own cigar, Perhan holds the match up to Orson Welles's Havana in a double allusion and tribute to Welles and, we can add, to François Truffaut, who staged a similar Wellesian homage in his first
feature, 400 Blows (1959), as well as in his later hymn to filmmaking itself, Day for Night (1973). Thus, while the overriding nod in The Time of the Gypsies is to Coppola's two films, Kusturica is at pains for us to understand that he is involved in a much larger cinematic world of influences and allusions.
It is significant that two of the most important European films of 1989 concern a double interest in the odyssey of young males trying to come of age and in the presentation of their narratives within a cinematic context that pays homage to, and asks for authentication from, a tradition of world cinema. I am speaking, of course, of Time of the Gypsies and the Italian-French Oscar-winning production of Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso . Like Perhan, the young boy in Cinema Paradiso must grow up without a father. But unlike his gypsy counterpart, the Italian boy has a grandfather figure in the character of a small town movie projectionist played by Philippe Noiret.
Even more striking, however, is the way in which both films embrace through allusions, film clips, and cinematic quotations their respective national film traditions and that of classical Hollywood and world cinema. Of course, in casting a narrative around, and in, a movie theater, Cinema Paradiso allows for a more overt dialogue on cinematic homage and a simultaneous need for authentication. But before discussing particular cinematic influences contained in Kusturica's makeover, we need to understand that both of these European films announce themselves as nontelevision at a time when television has not only supplanted cinema as the major entertainment form but has done so in an age when cinema has, in order to survive, in many ways become television. Kusturica wishes to celebrate particular masters of the cinema and their works—Yugoslav, Hollywood, and European—but he is also necessarily making it clear that he wishes to be authenticated and included in their company, in the family of national (Yugoslav) and world cinema.
The dilemma of world cinema today is well captured by Todd Gitlin when he notes: "More and more, movies themselves have turned into coming attractions—fodder for TV (and radio) morning shows, local and national TV news, syndicated shows like Entertainment Tonight, national magazines from People to Vanity Fair, USA Today and the newspaper style sections, novelizations, comic books, theme song records, toys, T-shirts, and, of course, sequels. The sum of the publicity takes up more cultural space than the movie itself" (15–16). Cinema Paradiso might more aptly be retitled Cinema Nostalgia , and Time of the Gypsies as Time of the Filmmaker as Gypsy . For in every way, Kusturica's film announces itself as a film and not as television. The allusions starting with Coppola and The Godfather are many, but 99 percent are to cinema and not the tube. And they may be called hymns to the movie-going cinema experience as well, for it is more than a sense of narrative closure that requires in Cinema Paradiso the blowing up of the
local cinema (and thus the main character's youth) to build a parking lot: a way of life has gone and the age of video and television has triumphed. Similarly, the very beginnings of love and sexual awakening take place in Kusturica's film as Perhan and Azra watch an important Yugoslav film (Rajko Grlic's The Melody Haunts My Memory [Samo Jednom Se Ljubi , 1980]) in a makeshift open-air cinema and try to imitate the passion on the screen while Perhan's pet turkey looks on.
Thus in our post-postmodern media times, when even American presidential candidates communicate with their audiences via television by mentioning television in the form of shows such as Murphy Brown, The Simpsons , and The Waltons , Kusturica places his Balkan-Hollywood film (produced and released through Columbia Pictures during the closing days of David Puttnam's reign) squarely within a realm of reference that champions the cinematic experience for filmmakers and viewers alike.
Within this context, Kusturica's vision is one that includes both a realist and a surrealist tradition: thus does John Ford meet up with Luis Buñuel within this gypsy cinematic caravan. These extreme borders go beyond individual filmmakers, of course, for to mention Ford and Buñuel is also to embrace the classical Hollywood tradition and the anarchistic European avant-garde at the same time.
Kusturica has often spoken of his love of Ford's films. And there are many scenes in Kusturica's films that share a general set up of straightforward dramatic confrontation with simple camera work reminiscent of Ford's approach. Furthermore, there are direct allusions to Ford's work, as in the closing scene of Kusturica's first feature, Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (Sjecas Li Se Dolly Bell? 1981). In the final shot, a Bosnian family is loaded into an open truck with all of its belongings, and they begin to drive toward a new home. The direct reference to The Grapes of Wrath is not just cinematic but thematic as well: the family has suffered but will survive, despite all odds.
There is much in Time of the Gypsies that echoes the playful surrealism of Buñuel. We can sense something of Buñuel's spirit in much of the absurdity that Perhan encounters, in the use of dreams and visions, in the unexpected plot twists and digressions (Buñuel, "Digression Seems to Be," 166), and in an atmosphere of magic realism in which forks fly and whole houses can be pulled from their foundations by a simple pickup truck. Kusturica, like a gypsy, has stolen from everyone, including from his native Bosnian and Yugoslav tradition for folk surrealism and magic realism (Horton, "Oedipus Unresolved," 68–74). Remember, for instance, the appearance of the Virgin Mary a few years ago in the little town of Medjugorje in Bosnia, an appearance that may well owe just as much to folk surrealism as to religion.
At heart, however, there is more of John Ford's style in Kusturica's work
than there is of even Coppola, Buñuel, or any other cinematic father figure. John Ford's darkly humored acceptance of people goes beyond the sense of tragedy, loss, and alienation pictured in Coppola's trilogy. These words of Ford's could easily be Kusturica's: "The situation, the tragic moment, forces men to reveal themselves, and to become aware of what they truly are. The device (a small group of people thrust by chance into a dramatic situation) allows me to discover humor in the midst of tragedy, for tragedy is never wholly tragic. Sometimes tragedy is ridiculous " (Gallagher, 81; italics my own).
Taken together, all of these intertextual, Hollywood, European, and other national cinematic "quotes" strongly suggest that Kusturica wishes his film to be taken as a member of a club that includes not only Hollywood but world cinema itself.