THE COMIC GENIUS, KUSTURICA
This blog post appears a day early. They normally appear every Monday, but as I am going to the UK to see Monica my girlfriend and Ione my daughter, then teaching here for a week, there will be no new post till Monday 25th April. Meanwhile, you can always contact me about anything, including unique Bargain Online Fiction Tuition at email@example.com. I have published 10 books in all, and was longlisted for the Booker with Jazz Etc.
My daughter Ione put up a recent Facebook post while she was staying here in Kythnos, which joyously announced, ‘Greece is great! You get free cats!’ You certainly do. Whenever I walk down the centre of the port, because I feed the numerous strays supermarket ham, I can have up to about 15 of all shapes, sizes and advanced ages, following on with loud embarrassing greetings from one end of the harbour to the other. At the moment there are also two well fed dogs, Rex and Zara, father and daughter, who are also impressed by my charity, and hang back politely for their share of the spoils. Rex is a huge black Alsatian cross who looks moderately frightening, but is gentle as a lamb, and it was a remarkable sight a few weeks back to see him and a reckless kitten about the size of one of his paws, fighting furiously over the same bit of ham. The kitten won with some brilliantly persistent manoeuvring, and Rex honourably and without any bitterness retreated. Meanwhile back at home, my own cats, all originally strays, are also day in day out providing an education in the unexpected and even in the supernatural.
Those of you not crazy about cats, might be relieved to know all this is intended only as a preamble to talking about some very funny films by an exceptional director. What I observed a few days ago could have come straight out of one of the movies of someone I believe to be the greatest comic film-maker ever, Emir Kusturica, I would say greater even than Fellini and the admirable Coen Brothers at their best. Two of the cats, year old Leni (formerly Lenny, but then one day he appeared to be pregnant, and then I knew he was more than likely to be a girl) and Wally, who is only a few months old, were just inside the back door staring with unbelievable concentration at a completely empty food bowl, and this was immediately after they had dined copiously, not before. This continued for at least five minutes, and as I say it was simply gazing at the bowl, not vainly scraping for non-existent flecks, as is Leni’s regular wont after she has ravenously polished off every last atom of her high tea. Eventually it dawned on me what was happening. The two of them were evidently trying by amateur psychic means to make the food magically reappear. The point is they never moved their position, but stayed six inches from the perimeter of the bowl, waiting patiently and with every evidence of practising advanced hypnosis in the hope that that insentient bit of plastic would suddenly yield what life was all about… a bowlful of food ex nihilo, qv the ancient alchemists trying, always in vain alas, to turn worthless stones into precious gold…
Emir Kusturica, the Serbian director, musician and actor, born 1954 in Sarajevo, clearly loves cats and dogs and geese, and even Balkan bears, and has a rather similar scene to gawking Leni and Wally, in the 2004 film Life is a Miracle. A cat who belongs to the hero, a railway station master in a remote part of Serbia close to the border with Muslim Bosnia, is staring hungrily and poignantly at a pigeon perched inaccessibly off the ground. There is no clue as to what is about to happen until suddenly the endless staring pays off, and the pigeon having been successfully hypnotised, drops down dead at the ingenious feline’s feet. This extraordinary film is a rumbustious, compassionate and inordinately hilarious epic set in 1992, at the time of the outbreak of the Balkan War. The railwayman’s teenage son is a genius footballer, destined within a few weeks to be taken on by a major Serbian team, but unfortunately he is called up for combat just as the war breaks out. Worse still he is soon captured by the Bosnian Muslims, whereupon the local Serbian army handover to his father a beautiful young Muslim nurse they have just caught. He is told to keep her imprisoned in the station house until she can be ransomed and exchanged by UNPROFOR for his son. As it happens the railwayman’s wife is a highly strung opera singer who suffers badly with her nerves, and she has just run off with a comical Hungarian musician, infatuated principally by his erotic but wholly unintelligible language. That leaves the stage empty for the deserted Orthodox husband to fall irreversibly in love with the Muslim girl, which he duly does.
One of Kusturica’s highly original insights, also of course visible for comic effect in the early American silent movies, when they had no easy dialogue to distract them, is that in real life there are always mundane and awkward hindrances getting in the way of supposedly smooth and seamless dramas. So when he gets into bed with his captive the gorgeous nurse, the pair of them are accompanied by the cat and the little station dog, who can’t bear to left out of the cosy domestic scene. On the whole Kusturica’s characters instinctively love their animals, and the lovers tolerantly accommodate these two while they get down to business, rather than boot them harshly out of the bed. The same is true of his 1998 masterpiece Black Cat, White Cat (yes, that name) which is a hectic tale about another unfortunate young man, a Bosnian gypsy whose hopeless Dad is a crook and a shameful liability, being pressganged into an unwanted marriage because of his father’s enormous debts. Once again the frantic movement and squawking and perpetual intervention of animals into the drama, makes for excellent and touching and authentic farce. At whatever point of high tension, for example where the boy is seeking to evade the bride at the thronging marriage feast at the eleventh hour, there are always domestic ducks and geese galore careering across the screen as a kind of ironically farcical counterpoint. It is as if Kusturica, who once was dubbed ‘a tender barbarian’, is urging us humans not to take ourselves too seriously, if only because the geese and cats and dogs will inevitably refuse to do so, not least because their own needs are so much more immediate. Foolishly ignoring the irreverent and always inconvenient, and innocent spirit of the animals, can lead to everything from forced marriage to family feuds, and the variant known as bloody civil war, and the tragic concomitant of genocide.
There are several recurrent motifs in Kusturica’s work, one of them being that of rampant Balkan gangsterism, both in peace and wartime, including WW2 in the 1995 epic Underground. Classically it is expressed in the form of the swaggering macho male, often the Bosnian gypsy variety, sometimes spreading its wings abroad to criminality in Italy, as in Time of the Gypsies (1989) which was later turned into a punk opera. Black Cat, White Cat also has an excellent example of extreme venality, in the form of the elder brother of the wife intended for the pressganged youth. He is a wonderful caricature of a buffoon with his enormous mansion, always bare gorilla chest, his constant snorting of coke that has him cross-eyed at the point of ecstasy, and of course his entourage of doting and willing women, three or four of them (obviously one isn’t enough) always sat next to him in his luxurious car. His manner of courtship is to say the least, fearlessly uninhibited. When he is not sat jiving in his bath to the sounds of raucous pop music and roaring in English that he is a Pitbull, Pitbull! he is fondling his many women (inevitably always compliant because of his phenomenal wealth) with consummate boyish crudeness. Should one of them stoop to rummage into her handbag, he will fondle and/or slaveringly kiss her behind, just as any time he hears live gypsy music he flings himself to his feet and throws himself about with the comic gusto of a little 4 year-old, or even you might argue, of an artless and ecstatic, though in his case not innocent, animal.
As an unusual and entertaining sub-motif of this generalised bawdiness, Kusturica movies regularly focus on the charisma and, how shall we say, fundamental basic anteriority, as opposed to posteriority, of the Balkan female bottom. In Underground, for example, set in Nazi occupied Belgrade, a genial local blackmarketeer, is sat in a chair in his bathroom enjoying the rear view of his naked girlfriend as she rises from her bath. As she bends to look for the soap, entranced by her beautiful behind, he plucks a flower from a handy pot and decides to insert it poetically in between the two cheeks. Unfortunately, just as he is set to put it carefully in place, with the floor being covered in soapy water, he goes flying hysterically on his own less glamorous backside. Note again Kusturica’s perceptive insistence on how things will always get in the way of the smooth intention, even if it is only a slippery floor that stops a man paying homage to his girlfriend’s divine rear end. A surreal variation on this rampant derriere motif occurs in Life is a Miracle, where the handsome sister in law of the railwayman, is having an alliance with a local politician who is so corrupt he has had his superior the mayor assassinated. The politician is not only ruthless, he has unusual sexual tastes, and hidden away in a bedroom during a massive celebratory party, we see the sister in law mysteriously unrolling a single boxing glove for him. As he smirks his oafish complacence, she fits it teasingly onto his right hand, and then goes to a nearby open window and bends invitingly into the aperture. Whereupon, and it is the kind of thing that might have you dying of laughter when you watch it, she invites him to lay on the powerful punches, which it transpires excite her sexually too. Cue the bent accomplice plying a succession of massive boxing blows to her skirted bottom, each one more powerful than the last. Finally, he announces there will be a master knock-out blow, and with that she goes flying head first through the window and would appear to have an orgasm as a result.
Finally, in Black Cat, White Cat there is the unglamorous if sumptuously dressed elderly lady who appears as star entertainment in the café run by a tough gypsy matriarch along the legendary River Drina (qv 1961 Nobel winner, Bosnian Ivo Andric, and his riveting masterpiece Bridge Over the River Drina). Her incredible speciality is that with suitably dramatic music and furious cries of admiration from the audience, she can pull nails out of a plank not with her hands, nor with her teeth, but with guess what? That’s right, the cheeks of her enormous backside…
Resonating throughout with the gusto of the great Rabelais, Kusturica’s anarchic spirit and reliance on the humble behind as a source of farcical mirth, also goes back to the pratfalls of Charlie Chaplin, or even to the slapstick of everyday circus clowns. On one level we are back to innocence and animal simplicity again, and the art is all the more powerful because of that. Emir Kusturica adds sex and erotic fascination to the basic ingredients, but of course in Chaplin’s day censorship effectively silenced all that. Apropos which I sometimes wonder if there had been no restraints then, what those great silent directors might have been capable of. The mind truly boggles.