How We Loved America: The Significance of Rock’n’roll and American Movies in the Serbian Film Industry

By Ivan Velisavljević (Belgrade)

© Ivan Velisavljević, 2009

In the mid-1990s, a whole generation of Serbian film critics was engaged in the defence of American cinema. In 1995, when Emir Kusturica’s Underground was released, a film critic for a Belgrade magazine Time of Enjoyment (Vreme zabave), Goran Terzić, refused to watch the film which won the Golden Palm in Cannes. He sarcastically described the “enemies of American cinema”—critics who used to defend Kusturica inspired by his anti-Hollywood views and relevant today in the wake of the symbolic “burial” of Live Free or Die Hard, 2007, at Kusturica’s Kustendorf Festival in 2008.

One can say that the dialectic “for and against American/Hollywood cinema” and the ambivalence towards it in Serbia since 1991, have been perpetually leading Serbian film, polarizing it and pushing it forward and back. At least this used to be the case, as in the last few years the situation in film criticism and practice has changed somewhat. Of course, the concepts of “American,” “genre” and “Hollywood” cinema are too broad, but the source of the stated dialectic lies in the fact that these notions have not been defined, that they are imprecise or too simplified, and often colored politically and ideologically. Rock’n’roll and genre cinema, two important attributes of the American film industry—combined with a broadly taken notion of Americana, which has been an inspiration to many Serbian filmmakers—are the basic elements of this relationship.

The Foundation of Criticism
The abovementioned film critic belongs to the generation of the so-called “Pajkić group” (a problematic grouping which brings together a number of original individuals who write film criticism in the shadow of one man). The name is Nebojša Pajkić, professor of screenwriting at Belgrade’s Academy for Dramatic Arts (FDU), who has been an inspiration to and professor of this group of critics, and editor of magazines and collections of essays. For the Serbian public this name has become synonymous with the first generation of critics, cinematically educated, authentic film buffs, ardent defenders of genre cinema, especially American. In socialist Yugoslavia this kind of cinema was characterized as “kitsch” by the mainstream critics (often without valid arguments or an elementary knowledge of facts), because it was not in their opinion, engaged, mimetic and serious enough; these were the demands of the then-dominant “Marxist criticism” supported by the government. Dejan Ognjanović talks about this in the introduction to his book In Hills, Horrors: Serbian Horror Cinema, (U brdima, horori: Srpski film strave, Niš, 2007).

The “Pajkić” generation had quite a different approach: very well educated in cinema, through the miracle of video-tapes in the 1980s, they were finally in a position to carefully watch genre films. They disturbed the prevailing opinion about film in Serbia with the premise that genre and author, entertainment and art were not conflicting concepts, something that, until then, had been taken for granted. With numerous articles in journals, books, and a key collection of essays, A Light in the Dark: The New Hollywood (Svetlo u tami: Novi Holivud, 2002), these critics presented their own heroes: John Milius, Walter Hill, Brian De Palma, Larry Cohen, Philip Kaufman, George Romero...

In fact, American filmmakers were dominant in forming the taste of these critics: in their opinion, the only industry that could match America’s was Hong Kong cinema. Their fascination with American directors could be seen in two random samples. A book by Aleksandar D. Kostić, Field of Dreams (Polje snova, Belgrade, 1997—the title relates to Kostić’s personal taste, personal field of dreams in cinema) has a typical American image on its cover. It is a picture of two young men in front of Jimmy Hendrix’s grave from the film Singles (1992, Cameron Crow). The book contains articles mostly about American directors—John Badham, Ron Shelton, Michael Mann—and rock’n’roll and jazz in cinema (again, mostly American variants).  Likewise, the first issue of the magazine Happy Ending (Hepiend, Belgrade, 1996, edited by Pajkić) contains articles on John Woo and transvestism in cinema (with mostly American examples like Ed Wood and Andy Warhol), while the critic’s list of ten favorite films, on the last page of the magazine, contains, with the exception of John Woo’s The Killer (1989), exclusively American titles.

A few related questions arise: First, why was the "Pajkić" generation so fascinated by American (and) genre cinema? Second, why did they consider the most relevant directors those American filmmakers who had not, even in their own country, been treated very seriously or reverently, for example, John Milius, Abel Ferrara and John Carpenter? And how did their critical views influence films that were produced in Serbia after this generation of film buffs reached their zenith, that is, between the mid-1990s and the present?

The answer to the first question partially lies in the perpetual influence of the famous generation of the French New Wave probably on all the film critics in the world, but especially European ones. Interpreting the American film industry, the largest and most popular in the world, revalorizing the author, discovering new names and polemicizing with American critics such as Andrew Sarris—all this indeed presented a challenge for a Serbian critic who finally had the opportunity to see all these films multiple times and to analyze them in detail. A part of the answer also lies in the debt to the postmodern age and theory in addition to the critics being fed up with socialism’s didactic demands that cinema should be a part of high culture and that it should primarily look up to the European canonized auteurs such as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Andrei Tarkovsky. (One of the essays in A Light in Dark was called“Why I like Steve Carver, and not Ingmar Bergman”).

The answer to the second question is somewhat more complex. It perhaps partly lies in the rebellious, non-conformist, even “loser” status shared by the above-mentioned directors in the American industry, with John Milius leading the group. The Serbian genre cinema buff, a rebel in the world of socialist realism and highbrow culture could identify easily with that status. The society in the former Yugoslavia, liberal compared to other “communist” countries, in the 1980’s had a great rock’n’roll scene, a more liberal economy than the eastern bloc countries, and was already infected by the myths of individual freedom, the free market, the abundance and other joys of American capitalism. The importing of American cultural goods, including a McDonald’s restaurant which opened in Belgrade in 1989, was not obstructed. No wonder that the young critics wholeheartedly embraced this spiritual baggage.

It is also indicative that in Serbia in the beginning of 1990s, at a time of the departure of communism and the preparation for a market economy, as well as a time of awakening nationalism—Hollywood and Hong Kong, two very “patriotic” and anti-communist industries in their dominant ideology, with right-wingers such as John Milius, were in fact the source where the young critics formed their taste in films.

The Walls of Practice

promisingboy As we can see, the first elements that Serbian directors and critics of this orientation adopted from the American film industry were rock’n’roll iconography and the spirit of rebellion. The process had already started in the 1980s with the film The Promising Boy (Dečko koji obećava, Miloš Radivojević, 1981), whose screenplay writer was Nebojša Pajkić himself. Rock’n’roll and beat music intermittently appear in earlier Serbian cinema, such as When I’m Dead and Gone (Kad budem mrtav i beo, 1967) by Živojin Pavlović, The Naughty One (Nemirni 1967), by Kokan Rakonjac, First Degree Murder (Ubistvo na podmukao i svirep način i iz niskih pobuda, 1969) by Žika Mitrović, and others. The Promising Boy is a story of a youth prophetically named Slobodan Milošević, a strange synthesis of director Miloš Radivojević’s creative obsessions and the aesthetics of the French New Wave in the first half of the movie, and the subculture iconography of American rock’n’roll cinema—bikers, rock bands, parties, arty characters, homosexuals and self-destruction—in the second half.

fall of rocknrollThe second film with a similar rock’n’roll attitude, The Fall of Rock’n’roll (Kako je propao rokenrol, 1989), again had Pajkić on its team (as a scriptwriter), as well as a part of the crew from The Promising Boy (the composer, for example). This omnibus film by then-young directors and writers has since gained a cult status. In the first story, through a clash between local folk music, which was the road to fame, and rock’n’roll, whose time was up—a true demise of rock’n’roll during the so-called Wars for the Yugoslav succession is foreseen. Through that, it is obvious what, actually, rock’n’roll really meant for the hip Belgrade circle of filmmakers and artists—a spirit of rebellion of the young, smart, urban, different and critical people against peasant, populist culture which was speedily flooding the ruling discourse. Unlike Sarajevo, where rock’n’roll always went hand in hand with the folk spirit and especially Balkan folk music (the reading of rock’n’roll which generated Kusturica), Belgrade offered more westernized, New York-type of "good entertainment" created by urban types who did not have much to do with the "crowd."

The eighties also produced the two following films, which featured members of one of the best Serbian rock band—Ekaterina Velika: Black Maria (Crna marija, 1986, Milan Živković), a story of the rise and fall of a rock band, and Taiwan Canasta (Tajvanska kanasta, 1985, Goran Marković). The break-up of Yugoslavia in the beginning of the 1990s brought the film We are Not Angels (Mi nismo andjeli, 1992), a debut feature by Srdjan Dragojević, one of the most popular Serbian box-office hits, a cynical romantic comedy in which an Angel and the Devil are fighting for the soul of a bohemian city dweller and womanizer Nikola. The Black Bomber (Crni bombarder, 1992, Darko Bajić), done under the notable influence of Walter Hill’s stylization in Streets of Fire (1984), is the story of a radio journalist whose provocative show and conflict with the police causes political demonstrations in Belgrade.

We are Not Angels summarizes the experience of Belgrade's post-new wave punk aesthetics. By combining the urban spirit, humor and stylization, based on thoughtful use of kitsch, and playing with the genre conventions of romantic comedy—it was successful with audience and critics alike. The Black Bomber, on the other hand, made allusions to the cult Belgrade radio station B92. With its open rock’n’roll iconography and aesthetics, the music of The Electric Orgasm (Električni orgazam), one of the most important Belgrade rock bands, and the appearance of numerous personalities from the Serbian rock scene of the day, The Black Bomber laid claims to being “the movie of the generation”—but it failed, though gloriously, both in quality and with the audience.

packageWith such a “thin” heritage of rock’n’roll film, and rare and distant models in using Hollywood formulas in Serbia (as in films of Žika Mitrović in the 1950s and 1960s), but with film buffs’ big appetites and their tastes formed on Americana, as Serbian filmmakers and young critics  in large numbers turned into filmmakers—Serbian cinema entered the second half of the 1990s and the new millennium. At the very edge of this period, another work of the rock sensibility was created—The Package Tour (Paket aranžman, 1995), again an omnibus of three student films based on a screenplay of Djordje Milosavljević, a member of the Pajkić group and a fan of Michael Mann.

no angelsThe heroes of this omnibus come from rock bands and the storylines of The Package Tour were created under the influence of John Dahl and Frank Zappa. This movie introduced two young directors, Srdan Golubović and Dejan Zečević, who would become among the most successful in handling genre patterns and using the language of Hollywood cinema. This film also introduced the scriptwriter and future director Djordje Milosavljević who was persistent in his attempts to make a good Tarantino thriller. It sounds peculiar, but it would take another decade to make the next rock’n’roll film in Serbia—We are not angels 3: Rock’n’roll strikes back (Mi nismo andjeli 3: Rokenrol uzvraća udarac, 2006), co-written by Srdjan Dragojević and Dimitrije Vojnov. That movie toys with a comedy of errors: soul-selling, mistaken identities and the hardships of a rock band, all sub plots within the folk-rock conflict.

On the other hand, the Tarantino-virus infected the Serbian film industry as well: Quentin Tarantino bore the same attributes as the Pajkić group—a film fanatic, drowning in video tapes, a fan of genre and trash cinema.... And he managed to become perhaps the most influential American director of the 1990s, recognizable precisely for his self-conscious use and revitalization of the stylistic patterns of American kitsch films. Looking at him, Serbian film authors saw their chance. Srdjan Dragojević was the most inventive. Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Lepa sela lepo gore, 1996) and Wounds (Rane, 1998) presented him as an already mature author who, in the first place, knows perfectly well contemporary American war films (by Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone) as well as MTV aesthetics and the thriller, mastering their expressive potentials. These two films brought him major success in the US and a two-year contract with Miramax, during which, unfortunately, he did not manage to make a feature film in Hollywood.

wheelsOther films sought the formula of a good little movie in the manner of "chamber" thrillers: Rage (Do koske, 1998) by Boban Skerlić, with a lot of Woo-Tarantino shoot-outs, violence and foul language, as well as Wheels (Točkovi, 1999) and The Mechanism (Mehanizam, 2000) by Djordje Milosavljević—are all glorious failures.... Far more successful, at least on the international festival circuit (the FIPRESCI prize in Venice and World Prism in Santa Barbara), was Cabaret Balkan (Bure baruta, 1998) by Goran Paskaljević. Fragmenting its dramaturgy into ten stories, it commented on the dead-end “spiral of violence” of Balkan/Serbian reality.

After 1999: Goodbye America, Good Morning America
The fascination with American films and Americana which grew out of film criticism gave only partial results in film practice. That realization combined with other, historical reasons—such as the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, the fall of Slobodan Milošević’s regime in October 2000, which triggered a painful process and eventual change of the social order, that is, the process of transition and brutal privatization—influenced the attitude of young Serbian critics and film authors towards American cinema and the U.S. in general. Uncritical adoration grew into cautious consideration and critical re-evaluation.

one on oneAt first, the western was the most suitable genre for such a process. Golubović’s Absolute Hundred (Apsolutnih sto, 2001), was a western with a revenge motif about two brothers, two marksmen, one who is a step away from becoming a champion, and the other who used to be a champ, but became a drug addict who sold his shooting gallery and owes money to criminals. One on One (Jedan na jedan, 2002) by Mladen Matičević is a story of a basketball player who also faces a showdown with criminals. Both films mirror the time in which they were made: the problem of criminal gangs, of a disappointed generation growing up under Milošević, of keeping one’s pride, and major economic upheavals.

At the same time, a new generation of critics and film authors steps on the scene with a concept of the New Serbian Cinema. But their role models are a little different, more eclectic, more international and less “Americanized:” Dimitrije Vojnov, one of the most distinguished authors of that generation, lists five titles pivotal for the New Serbian Cinema, only two of which are American productions. These are Irreversible (2002, Gaspar Noe), Visitor Q (2001, Takashi Miike), Hot Fuzz (2007, Edgar Wright), American History X (1998, Tony Kaye) and The Last Boy Scout (1991 Tony Scott).

Having absorbed the experience of the “Pajkić group,” but far more careful in their approach to American and Hollywood cinema (even though still madly in love with it), disappointed by the situation in the national film industry, but with youthful energy invested in its change, these critics and filmmakers come at the moment when the Serbian film industry produced a few intriguing titles made under the influence of the American cinema. The first is Film noir (2007), directed by D. Jud Jones (alias) and Risto Topaloski, an animated, full-fledged thriller based on American noir and the video game Max Payne (2001), completely in English and with little indication that it was shot in Serbia. The second, called The Trap (Klopka, 2007) by Srdan Golubović, a Serbian film which made the short list for the Oscars, is also a thriller, with a storyline similar to that of John Q (2002). The third is The Fourth Man (Četvrti čovek, 2007), a spy thriller by Dejan Zečević, on the footsteps of The Bourne Identity (2002). The Fourth Man brought to Serbian cinema the first, in terms of genre, relevant treatment of the provocative subject of the National Security Police and the first film of its kind seriously taken by the public and the critics.

Only time will show whether in the dialectics surrounding the influence of American and Hollywood cinema in Serbia the thesis and antithesis of Americana are finally overcome in a productive synthesis. It would mean that Serbian cinema, if it lives up to this potential, is looking at an upsurge and return to its glory days when Serbia was the leading film industry in the region.

Translated by Goran Gocić with Vida Johnson

Works cited

Ognjanović Dejan, In Hills, Horrors: Serbian Horror Cinema (U brdima, horori: Srpski film strave), Niš, 2007.
Pajkić, Nebojša, A Light in the Dark: The New Hollywood (Svetlo u tami: Novi Holivud), Belgrade, 2002.
Kostić, Aleksandar, Field of Dreams (Polje snova), Belgrade, 1997.