Crying of Laughter. Black Comedy as the Generic Language of Reflective Nostalgia in Srdjan Dragojević's Films


Master's Thesis, 2019

37 Pages


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Table of Contents

Introduction
Problem Statement
The Films
Relevance of the Study

Theoretical Framework
Nostalgia for What?
The Two Nostalgias
Restorative Nostalgia
Reflective Nostalgia
Black Comedy - the Genre of Imagined Communities

Methodology
Structure of Analysis
Caricaturized Characters – Born of War
The Camera Speaks – Framing the Context
Mockumentary Miniatures – Spoofing News Broadcasts
The Songs Speak – Mirroring with the Music

Discussion
Final Remarks
Potential for Future Research

Reference list

Filmography

Abstract

The purpose of this study was to look at black comedy as the generic language of choice in depicting qualities of reflective nostalgia, in the context of Yugoslavia’s break-up and as present in the films of Srdjan Dragojevic. The key theoretical foundations of this study were found in Svetlana Boym’s (2001) distinction of nostalgia-building efforts and sentiments, as well as in Juan F. Egea’s (2013) research on the presence of dark humor in the Spanish comedies of the post-Franco era. Based on insights gained, a textual analysis of four of Dragojevic’s films (Pretty Village Pretty Flame (1996); The Wounds (1998); The Parade (2011); and Holidays in the Sun (2014)) was conducted, as means of identifying and investigating the main filmic devices that Dragojevic employed in expressing one (nostalgia) through the other (black comedy). Tools such as character caricaturizations, shot-framing, presence of mockumentarized content, and the selection and use of musical choices were employed as factors of analysis. Although thematically and chronologically (i.e. the time of production) different, the films were all found to represent such common features, further enhancing the idea that black comedy’s potentialities for expressing nostalgic feeling are broad in nature and form of expression – as well as valid in inspiring future research on the topic.

Introduction

Problem Statement

This film is dedicated to the film industry of a country that no longer exists.”

The above line is the dedication which opens Srdjan Dragojevic’s Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996). The reason why I employ it at the outset of this thesis is because it curiously sheds light on a couple of crucial elements of this research, the first quite obvious and the other perhaps more implicit – the entity of the post-Yugoslavian Serbian film, and a lingering presence of nostalgic attitude for the country that no longer is. Considering the themes of some of the other feature films in Dragojevic’s oeuvre (also included as subjects in this thesis), such an opening line comes as not too big of a surprise, as his authorship has largely been defined by repeated efforts to broach the theme of Yugoslavia’s break-up and its aftermath from a variety of vantage points. That is also the reason why the subject of this research are Dragojevic’s films specifically, as he is the only Serbian author who has tackled the themes of the aftermath of the old country’s break-up and ensuing nostalgia throughout his output thus far, including in the time immediately after the war conflict (Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, 1996; The Wounds, 1998), and more than a decade afterwards (The Parade, 2011; Holidays in the Sun, 2014). Having said that, it is the goal of this research to look at the films’ above noted thematic (nostalgic), as well as generic similarities (black comedy), and investigate how they work against the differences in perspectives taken and the time in which they have been produced. By doing this, one of the goals of this research is meant to come to light – the ways in which aspects of the restorative nostalgic elements in the films have evolved over time, and the generic choices Dragojevic has made in order to use them in achieving omnipresent reflective qualities – in line with and founded on Svetlana Boym’s (2008) distinction between the concepts of restorative and reflective nostalgia. However, before engaging with the theoretical framework required for the pursuit of these goals, I will first turn towards providing a short overview of the synopses and thus the generic traits of films themselves, as means of building an informative enough foundation for the arguments that would then follow. Keeping this in mind, ordering and presenting the films in chronological fashion makes the most sense.

The Films

Although the dissolution of Yugoslavia and all of its constituting republics (Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Macedonia) had already been made official three years prior in 1992, at the time when Dragojevic was shooting the first of the four outlined films (Pretty Village Pretty Flame) in 1995, the war over still-disputed territories along the Bosnian-Serbian border was ongoing. This fact carried additional weight when considering that it was shot on location, but even more so because of the main storyline of the film, one that is based on the relationship between two men (one of Bosnian, the other of Serbian ethnicity), in a Bosnian village located close to the same border. The two men, Halil and Milan, are first depicted through a flashback of the early 1980’s, during which we see them being classmates in the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, participating in the usual boyhood activities, freely co-habiting the rural geographical space and enjoying the seemingly utopian society of the unified country. The film then jumps back and forth in time to another three timelines, the moment when the war is breaking out in 1992 – where we see them in their early twenties, still maintaining their friendship but with the first traces of ethnic animosity now visible, then to the ‘present’ moment in 1995 (the one taking up most of the film’s runtime) – where the full blown war conflict has been going on for years, and the two men are now members of their respective armies at the moment when Halil’s troops trap Milan in a tunnel with his comrades. In this sequence we also get the chance to meet all of Milan’s Serbian comrades, as well as their diverse back stories on how they came to be involved in the war. The last timeline that the film cuts to and fro is the moment right after the tunnel conflict in 1995, when Milan survives and we see him being treated for his injuries at a Belgrade hospital.

The second film that will be used in this research is The Wounds (1998), a film that is similar to Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996) in its initial approach to telling the story via a childhood friendship between two characters that then extends across different points in time (from 1991 to 1996), thus also being set against the break-up of the country and its immediate aftermath. However, where the story of The Wounds is different is mainly when it comes to the issue of perspective – the entire film is set in an urban Belgrade neighborhood, and we follow the war conflicts through its spatially “far-reaching” consequences, rather than through its direct actions or depictions. In this case, we follow two friends, Pinki and Svaba, as they grow up under an auspicious system of familial, moral and political values, and amid severe economic turmoil, as they idolize the local gangster Ludi Kure (transl. Crazy Dickie), and gradually delve into a life of crime themselves.

The third film in this analysis, The Parade (2011), was produced after a lengthy break (in terms of thematically dealing with the country’s break-up) in Dragojevic’s filmography. Its story also features a different kind of an overarching tone – less on a tragic, serious note, and more in the vein of traditional comedy, as it follows the main character – an ex-Serbian soldier named Limun who has retired from active duty and the ensuing life of crime, and is now trying to settle in a suburban neighborhood of Belgrade with his wife to be, Biserka. The film’s premise further puts the homophobic Limun in contact with a gay couple, Mirko and Radmilo. Mirko, the wedding planner whom Biserka wants to hire for the wedding, is also an LGBT activist struggling to organize a Pride Parade in Belgrade amidst growing security concerns. The two couples reach an understanding under which Mirko will organize a “dream wedding” for Biserka, if Limun agrees to make the Pride Parade safe for the LGBT activists. Limun then, after being refused help by all of his friends in Belgrade, ventures on a chaotic road-trip across the former country (i.e. Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo), in order to, one-by-one, ask for help from his friends from the war (all of whom fought on the opposing side, with respect to their nationality), as means of holding his part of the bargain. Although the majority of the film, as previously noted, is done in the manner of a traditional comedy, the film ends on a tragic note as Mirko is killed during the Pride Parade by a faction of neo-nazis in Belgrade.

Finally, the last film that will be the subject of this analysis is Dragojevic’s – as of now – latest film, Holidays in the Sun (2014). Similar to The Parade, the film is set in present time, but its storyline and developments have fewer comedic elements. Set on the Croatian Riviera, Holidays in the Sun follows an association of greedy sales agents who are tasked with selling timeshare arrangements to an incoming group of potential customers who are hailing from all over ex-Yugoslavia. The story then pits diverse nationalities of the former country on both sides of this interaction, while mainly focusing on the character of Mladen, a Serbian from Belgrade who is recognized as the top-seller of the association, as he tries to pitch a corrupt, overpriced arrangement to Omer and his Bosnian family of limited means.

Relevance of the Study

After having outlined all of the films used as subject for analysis, I would like to again highlight the elements that will be focus of this research, before delving into a suitable theoretical framework for their investigation. As tangentially evidenced by the key plot-points above, these elements belong to the individual categories of reflective and restorative nostalgia (via the audio-visual and storytelling cues that Dragojevic employs) and genre (the pervading embededness of black comedy), as well as the ways in which the two interact and evolve across the spectrum of the four films in question. Through investigating this interplay, the aim is to identify (from the Serbian perspective, considering Dragojevic’s nationality) the benefits of employing the genre of black comedy as the tool to represent the qualities of reflective nostalgia.

Theoretical Framework

Nostalgia for What?

Nostalgia, in the related sense here, and especially Yugoslav nostalgia – as the derived term – refers to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Yugoslavia), a country that was founded in 1946, in the aftermath of the Yugoslav partisan victory in Second World War, and ceased to exist in 1992, amidst a series of violent army conflicts that disintegrated and disunited the federal republic. Yugoslavia comprised out of six republics – Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro – and was, as Volcic (2007) notes, founded under the basic notion similar to that of other Eastern European countries of the time – that of the country’s shared class identity (the so-called ‘comradeship of the proletariat’).

However, as Volcic (2007) further observes, an important tenet that distinguished Yugoslavia from other Eastern European countries of the time – and simultaneously contributed significantly to the forming of national identity, in an external sense – was its positioning in the context of the East vs. West geopolitical distinction. More precisely, Yugoslavia achieved this by disentangling with the Soviet Union in 1948, then following it up by legalizing international travel for its citizens, and introducing the socialist model of self-managed workers’ economy that combined elements of both the Soviet system and the Western free-market economy, or in Volcic’s own words, “Yugoslavia decentralized some aspects of power on regional levels, and created a more open society with regard to both communication with the outside world and the expression of different opinions internally.” (p.23). At the same time, what further distinguished Yugoslavia from other Eastern European countries, was the idea of “brotherhood and unity” – the principle that was supposed to transcend the more local forms of identification present in the six republics, or as Volcic puts it, those forms of identification that stemmed from diverse ethnic and religious identities within individual republics (i.e. Bosnia & Herzegovina with the majority of Muslim population, Croatia and Slovenia being Catholic nations, and Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro being Christian Orthodox). These differences were superseded by an overarching identification with the Yugoslav state (perpetuated by the previously outlined aspects of its socio-political system), and according to Volcic, held together by a combination of its leader – Josip Broz Tito’s – personal charisma, and a specific kind of cultural space that formed the pan-Yugoslav identity through news media outlets, distinctly Yugoslavian consumer products, films, music, and sports. Denitch (1994) further expands on this idea of the Yugoslav cultural space, by emphasizing the role it had in specifically linking the youth cultures of the constituting republics, predominantly via the music industry and rock bands such as Elektricni Orgazam (Electric Orgasm), Bijelo Dugme (White Button), Idoli (the Idols), etc. that were universally popular across the country. News media outlets played a crucial role in mobilizing a sense of Yugoslavian identity, as they positioned and addressed the citizens of six member-nations by attaching them to a common Yugoslav space. Daily newspapers such as Borba (transl. The Fight), and news agencies such as Tanjug and Radio Yugoslavia, all had the kind of programming that Taylor & Kent (2000) describe as – although never critical of the government – showing the commonalities of the Yugoslav people, rather than focusing on the differences.

The cumulative effect of such an overall state set-up was the impression (whether valid or not) among the citizens of Yugoslavia that they belonged to a country that was positively unique in the global arena. A geographically rich and diverse country (with its sea access, mountains, lakes, and other natural benefits) that belonged neither here nor there (in terms of the East vs. West distinction, thanks to its attachment to the non-aligned movement), whose citizens were able to freely travel and consume foreign products, whose workers were committed to an innovative form of self-management, and whose cultural space was prosperously domestically sourced (and circulated), all together presenting fruitful soil for what Lindstrom (2005) refers to as the fantasy of the Yugoslav state, and simultaneously – in the aftermath of the country’s break-up – for the appearance of Yugoslav nostalgia. This sentiment perhaps most adequately echoed by an excerpt of Ugresic’s (1997) colorful preface (from her book “Yugoslavia 101”) that Lindstrom quotes:

“…the country was the most beautiful, the Adriatic Sea was the bluest, the fish was the freshest, the people were the warmest, the self-management was the most efficient, the brotherhood and unity were the strongest, and the army was the most courageous.” (p. 235)

However, at this point it is important to note how the same afore-noted principles of Yugoslav statehood and unity were the ones that led to its demise. Volcic writes how, in the aftermath of Tito’s death in 1980 (and the ensuing regression of Yugoslav economy), the country’s shared identity began to waver, and the internal diversity of Yugoslavia – especially among political elites in Croatia and Slovenia – began to be framed as “a barrier to the republic’s further development” (p. 23). Yugoslavia slowly came to be perceived as an incomprehensible mixture of incompatible civilizations, religions, and cultures (Bakic-Hayden & Hayden, 1992). Consequentially, it was precisely in the cultural space that the Yugoslav community was first questioned and contested. Mihelj (2004) observes how the entire range of nationally regulated decisions contributed to the general shift from a supranational sense of identity to the more local nationalisms of individual republics, examples of which included the formation of national cultural journals, the renaming of streets, the predominant use of national (as opposed to Yugoslavia’s) symbols in media representations, the resurgent popularity of local cuisines, the staging of theatre plays by nationalist playwrights, and the redesign of bank notes. Volcic remarks that in the later 1980s and early 1990’s, a new framework of internally unified and integrated nation-states emerged, focusing on assimilating or destroying anything Yugoslav, with particular emphasis on national television stations in all the soon-to-be-former republics that were inviting their viewers to become part of ethnically pure families. Slovenian national television was advocating for all ethnic Slovenes to unite into a Slovene nation, spurring their citizens to distance themselves from other republics which were presented (in comparison) as less civilized and barbaric (Volcic, 2007), while Milivojevic (2000) highlighted how reports in mainstream Croatian and Serbian news reports started to refer to their nations’ “glorious histories” as means of establishing superiority over other republics, en route to generating a sense of national pride. These growing antagonisms at the end of 1980’s, as Krstic (2002) points out, were creating a kind of “ideological disorientation” and presented a recourse to nationalism through the invention of ethnic traditions and histories, thus redefining the field of sociality and cooperation between the constituting republics.

On this note, having outlined the broad strokes of the Yugoslav supranational arrangement (and with it, the basis for the Yugoslav nostalgic sentiment), as well as the way it began to disintegrate into the warring conflict that followed, I propose to look at ways in which the previously mentioned concepts (and their historical context) correspond with Boym’s definition of the two kinds of nostalgia – the restorative and the reflective kind. In turn, by making this distinction, and by identifying the key elements of both, I further aim to uncover the tools for analyzing their role in Dragojevic’s films and choice of genre elements.

The Two Nostalgias

When Boym makes her distinction between two kinds of nostalgia, she stresses it is important to not consider either as absolute types, but rather as tendencies – different ways of giving shape and meaning to longing. The reason behind this can be found in the fact that the two might overlap in their frame of reference, but they do not coincide in their narratives and plots of identity (Boym, 2001). And while this is precisely why I find them to be relevant theoretical tools in a study such as this one – where the potential overlapping frame of reference is contained within a set of films – before jumping to their identification, I will first try to make the distinction between these two kinds of nostalgia more clear on a general basis, and see what kinds of differing narratives and plots of identity define them.

Restorative Nostalgia

According to Boym, restorative nostalgia, in its essence, proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. As such, it has been a key characteristic of national and nationalist revivals all over the world, wherein as Boym notes, it works towards a myth-making out of history by means of a return to national symbols and myths. An immediate link can thus be made between the previously described trends in ex-Yugoslav republics in late 1980’s/early 1990’s, and the ways in which they can be interpreted as attempts at constructing (or reviving) nostalgic feeling of the restorative kind in respective individual nations. However, Boym is quick to make an additional distinction within the concept of restorative nostalgia, and how its understanding depends on distinguishing between the habits of the past and the habits of the restoration of the past. In this sense, she invokes Hobsbawm’s (2012) notion of invented traditions (recognizing them as tools of restorative nostalgia) that differentiates such traditions from simple age-old customs. More precisely, whereas traditional societies did not operate under age-old customs in an invariable or inherently conservative way, restored or invented traditions call for the opposite – they present, per Hobsbawm’s definition “a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual of symbolic nature which seeks to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition which automatically implies continuity with the past.” Hence, Boym points out how such new “old” traditions are characterized by a higher degree of symbolic formalization and ritualization than the actual traditional customs and conventions after which they were devised. Furthermore, and again in line with the aspects of the Yugoslavian break-up, Boym notes how these invented traditions are not an ex-nihilo creation, but are rather built on the sense of a loss of community and cohesion, as they offer a “comforting collective script for individual longing.” (p.43) The consequence of such acts – most of which can be identified in the nationally regulated decisions that Mihelj (2004) spoke of on the subject of national cultural spaces questioning and contesting the Yugoslav community (i.e. the renaming of streets, national symbols in the media, etc.) – is what Boym then sees as the constructed national memory, or more precisely, the way in which a national memory reduces the proverbial space of play to a single constructed plot. Finally, in the context of restorative nostalgia, Boym observes that while nostalgia – in a general sense – can be interpreted as an “ache of temporal distance and displacement”, its restorative kind strives to take care of both of these symptoms. Distance is recompensed by the availability of a desired object, and displacement is cured by a return home (preferably a collective one).

Reflective Nostalgia

On the other hand, when Boym talks about reflective nostalgia there is an immediate counterpoint to be found. More specifically, she defines reflective nostalgia as not pretending to “rebuild the mythical place called home” (p. 52), but instead as being enamored of distance, and not of the referent itself. Boym sees this kind of nostalgic narrative as inconclusive and fragmentary, and those nostalgics belonging to it as aware of the gap between firm identity and resemblance – or as she puts it – for reflective nostalgics the “the home is in ruins or, on the contrary, has just been renovated and gentrified beyond recognition.” These ensuing feelings of defamiliarization and sense of distance are then seen by Boym as drivers for them to tell their story, and thus narrate the interplay between past, present, and future. A logical potential partnership, then, between a reflectively nostalgic approach and the creation of a particular work of art is something that comes to mind as a fitting frame of reference. In this sense, Lindstrom (2005) talks about certain cases that sprung up in the nations of Ex-Yugoslavia (in the early post-break-up 1990’s) as illustrative of reflectively nostalgic attitude, such as music albums by the Montenegrin musician Rambo Amadeus and the Slovenian rock band Zaklonišče Prepeva, as well as the majority of the underground music scene in Ljubljana during the first years of Slovenia’s independence, as pioneering examples of a different approach to the memory of the old country. This trend was recognized by Lindstrom as something of a subversive undertaking, in which old Yugoslav rock songs and the themes of partisan ballads became a case of the “forbidden fruit tasting the sweetest” analogy. Lyrics such as “who wants to be German in a partisan film?” had a comical, sarcastic edge to them that simultaneously acknowledged the common past of the ex-Yugoslav republics and turned it into something that has an ambivalent, “multi-purposeful” way of being spoken of. As Boym clearly states in this regard, “Restorative nostalgia takes itself dead seriously. Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, can be ironic and humorous.” (p. 51)

In addition, it should be noted that Boym makes further distinctions between the two kinds of nostalgia based on how they pertain to the notions of national and collective memory. Specifically, whereas national memory is seen as an essential aspect of restorative nostalgia (and has – as such – been previously described), the reflective nostalgic approach is dependent on collective memory (interpreted by Boym as being comprised of common landmarks of everyday life that construct social frameworks of individual recollections). Moreover – and in line with how a reflectively nostalgic approach can be presented via a work of art – is Boym’s assumption that perhaps the only way to discuss collective memories is “through imaginary dialogues with dispersed fellow citizens, expatriates and exiles”, especially when keeping in mind how, again according to Boym, what’s remembered best is what was colored by emotion, and thus how personal and historical events tend to be conflated in the emotional topography of memory.

However, to go back to what both kinds of nostalgia share with regards to the nature of this study – and at the same time to provide a bridge to the theoretical concept that follows – neither the restorative nor reflective kind of nostalgia explain the nature of longing, or its psychological make-up and unconscious undercurrents. Instead, as Boym defines it, the two kinds of nostalgia characterize one’s relationship to the past, to home, to one’s own self-perception, and in doing so, they both characterize one’s relationship to an imagined community. In this sense, I will be using the concept of the imagined community (as already employed by Egea (2013) in his study on the genre of black comedy in Franco and post-Franco cinema in Spain), as the linking factor between the themes of Dragojevic’s films and his choice of genre elements – in the context of the afore-presented nostalgic backdrop.

Black Comedy - the Genre of Imagined Communities

Before going into the relevant nuances that pertain to the genre of black comedy in this specific case, I should first outline the above mentioned connection between the concept of imagined communities – as introduced and theorized by Anderson (1991) – and how it corresponds with the idea of film genre. According to this seminal work by Anderson, a nation is a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who consider themselves part of that group – imagined, in Anderson’s words, because not even in the smallest nation can its members know, meet, or hear of most of their fellow members, but in their minds there exists an image of their communion. Egea (2013) presents his stance on this matter by pointing out how Anderson, in supporting his definition of imagined communities as perpetuated by the media, creates a schema that presents the process of imagining as hailing mainly out of printed material – the novel and the newspaper being what he uses as crucial “forms of imagining”. Egea further argues how, in Anderson’s (1991) work, “to imagine often means to assume rather than conjure up actual visual images” (p.12), and then proposes a way of thinking on this matter that would focus specifically on the role of actual visual images – or in this case – of cinema, in relation the idea of imagined communities. The justification that Egea offers in this regard is based on the social and discursive potential of film that is capable of constructing national subjects, if not less, then only more so in comparison with other media. Furthermore, and keeping in touch with what Egea refers to as the “spirit of Anderson’s book” (p.12), judging the possible role of cinema in imagining a nation is basically to consider the belatedness of film with regards to a community that has already been imagined, and thus, rather than collaborating in the creation of an imagined community, cinema can help in the “refashioning (or reimagining) of a community” due to its potential to supply the most forceful images, the kinds of images that – through affecting – participate in the process of imagining oneself as part of a geopolitical and cultural community. At this point, as a continuation of this line of thought, we can also introduce the notion of film genre in the discussion.

[...]

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Details

Title
Crying of Laughter. Black Comedy as the Generic Language of Reflective Nostalgia in Srdjan Dragojević's Films
College
Eötvös Loránd University  (Institute for the Theory of Art and Media Studies)
Course
Film Theory
Author
Year
2019
Pages
37
Catalog Number
V535759
ISBN (eBook)
9783346168474
ISBN (Book)
9783346168481
Language
English
Keywords
film, studies, theory, reflective, restorative, nostalgia, Boym, Yugoslavia, genre, comedy, eastern european, black comedy, srdjan dragojevic, almodovar, spanish cinema, cinema, yugoslavia war, croatia, serbia, bosnia, genre studies, film theory, cinema studies, nostalgia studies
Quote paper
Savo Bojovic (Author), 2019, Crying of Laughter. Black Comedy as the Generic Language of Reflective Nostalgia in Srdjan Dragojević's Films, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/535759

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