Szolnok Conference 04: Trans-Europa Express
Nation - In Fashion Again?
By Balázs Varga
The question of national cinema has been present
from the very beginnings of film history. But before I get tangled in
the difficulties of defining it ('national' as a construction; what makes
cinema national; do we consider the notion of national a productional,
cultural or other category), I would like to make some remarks on the
relationship between film history and national cinema.
Cinema is usually called the most international
form of art, and if that's true the universal and global nature of motion
picture culture works against national peculiarities. This apparent contradiction
is usually resolved by stating that outstanding movies stand their own
ground both in national and international context, or by putting the
productive tension between national and universal into the focus of filmic
While expounding the first statement we should
elaborate on how this dual, both national and universal context works,
whether the same elements of a movie become valued on the local and international
market. And while expounding the second statement we will have to examine
whether the stability or rather, the critical nature, liability and continuous
revision of the self-image can make a nation's cinema interesting in
a given moment.
These ideas should be examined in a historical
cross-section as well. From this point of view there are deep dividing
lines between modern and postmodern cinema. To cut it short, while during
the modernist period movies were the medium of national self-knowledge
or self-consciousness in the postmodern era national stereotypes represent
the connecting point between national and global culture. In the first
case it is the critical attitude and autonomy, in the second case the
integrative features are the determining factors.
The conflict between national peculiarities
and the universal language of motion picture culture became the sharpest
during the fifties and sixties, in the most important period of modern
cinema. In these years the relation between centre and periphery was
redefined. All of a sudden the world opened up. What was periphery before,
is the centre now. The festivals, critics and not the least the audience
discovered the Eastern-European and Latin-American cinema. In the sixties
movies were the most capable to represent and ride on the spirit of the
era, but modernist cinema was still tied very strongly to different cultural
traditions everywhere in the world. Therefore accomplishment and differentiation
were present parallel to each other in this period.
For the so called developing countries the
conflict of modernization (joining the circuit of the world market) and
tradition was decisive. It is not by chance that folklore had such a
fertilizing effect both on new Latin-American cinema (magical realism)
and on the modernist artists of the European periphery (Angelopoulos,
Iosseliani, Paradjanov, Jakubisko, Jancsó).
In general, we can say that the nouvelle vagues
of the period appeared when the given country or nation faced the problems
of autonomy (the disintegration of the colonial world, the search for
new ways in the Soviet bloc). Thus this concept links up the politically-socially
critical concepts of national self-consciousness with the renewal of
the cinema history.
The question is: what is the new situation
in the postmodern age in the beginning of the millennium in the global
audiovisual world? Where is the place for national and what is the role
of national stereotypes in this system? It appears that it is highly
successful to build on national stereotypes in contemporary European
cinema. Remarkably and efficiently. In an exaggerating and sometimes
in a parodist fashion. In a way that the end result can be instantly
recognized by a foreign audience and also acceptable and entertaining
for the local audience. Kaurismäki's heroes, always wordless, morose
and gulping down enormous quantities of vodka, those Finns so nostalgic
about the rock'n roll era, Almodóvar's hysterical, unbearable,
temperamental Spaniards, his women, always at the edge of nervous breakdowns
and his uproarious matador-men, Kusturica's glass breaking, unruly Romas
of untamable vitality - are only a few examples from the latest offer.
The national stereotype seems like the perfect
intermediate notion, because it gives both the chance for identification
and identifying: outwards it makes everything recognizable, inwards it
strengthens. It identifies and separates at the same time. One of the
basic statements of social-psychology regarding stereotypes is that people
accentuate those of their features that distinguishes them from their
surroundings - and national stereotypes work the same.
When describing national characteristics social-psychological
studies brought up the question of a specific pair of contrasts. We can
talk about poles from the view of self-discipline, dimension of tight
and loose (discipline and correctness vs. passion and easiness and liberation).
Furthermore, this duality can be almost projected to the map: empirical
researches found significant divergences among different nations on the
Northern-Southern line. (Too disciplined Northerners, passionate Southerners).
This Northern-Southern divide is supplemented
by the new bipolar world order after World War II on a Western-Eastern
line, regarding political and social settings. Comparing the two dimensions
the mentality (disciplined-liberated) and the social-cultural status
(modernity vs. traditions) we get four different fields. We can represent
the four possible poles in this way:
Almodóvar's and Kusturica's heroes
and movies are similar in their uproarity or vulgarity, but while in
the first case the milieu is the world of postmodern media and mass culture,
Kusturica's stories take place in a rough, untamed pre-modern world.
Kaurismäki's and Tarr's works stand close
to each other in their slowness, spleen and strong frustration, and although
the divide between East and West is less obvious (it's not by accident
that Kaurismäki's half-stoned heroes regularly raid the Russian
countryside), the ironic-playful form of reflection and the thick Eastern
melancholy distinguishes them.
The differences between the 'Northern' and 'Southern' mentality
cannot be dealt with in such rigidness. Precisely because they are built
on the notions of distinction and sameness and in almost every region
these reflexes can be set into motion between neighboring nations: the
Danes are the Bohemians of the North, while the Swedes are considered
insipid creatures by the neighboring Danes. So in this cross section
the Danish represent the 'Southern' and the Swedish the 'Northern' stereotypes.
(Lars von Trier's satirical-mystical hospital thriller-series Riget is
a shining example for this: the Swedish surgeon trying to cover up his
malpractice is in constant battle with his infantile Danish colleagues
and refuses to take part in the jovial rituals of the morning meetings
but takes pride in staring at the neighboring Swedish steel mills through
With or without the help of national stereotypes,
the post-Communist East-European cinema will have to find its own identity
in a radically altered new world. How can we make ourselves interesting
again? What kind of subjects, stories and heroes are needed today? Is
there a bridge between East and West? How can we make movies that are
equally relevant and popular in East-Europe and in the art cinemas of
the West? Should we compete with American movies or do quite the opposite
and go for movies meant for a smaller, select audience and swim against
the current? If the political peculiarities are gone, how can we make
ourselves interesting again? If a little bit simplified, these are still
the basic questions of the post-Communist years. And these are tricky
questions, because there is evidently no single straight answer for them.
Mixing solutions in global and local, universal or peculiar
spirit, there can be several options. One of the possible ways for today's
Eastern-European directors is to head towards the ever successful genre
movies, following international patterns (Hungarian crime story, Polish
action movie, Czech road movie, and Russian sci-fi). The universal patterns
are filled up with life through local colors and in this manner they
can become attractive for the local audience. The catch is that these
movies can perform well only on a local market, so by adding local colors
the filmmakers win (a local audience) and lose (a chance for international
distribution) at the same time.
In the case of movies mobilizing national stereotypes we
can say exactly the opposite. These films are not built on universal
genre codes but on strongly personal, auteur styles and open from this
starting point with the help of stereotypes and the patterns of alienated
similarity - used in a parodist, ironic fashion.
This is a dual game, between reflexes of the
different poles, the alienation and identification, and the essence of
this perpetual motion is postmodern culture integrating and coordinating
local elements into global culture.
If that's so simple then we can ask the question:
why are there no art-directors of Aldomóvar's cult level in Eastern-Europe?
On the one hand, naturally because this logic is only one dimension,
one twist in the sophisticated machinery of star-making, canon formulating
and international festival industry; on the other hand, because you need
a certain state of self-image or self-consciousness for playing with
national stereotypes. However, Eastern-Europe is politically irrelevant
and the activist-minded filmmaking of the sixties got into a vacuum anyway,
so it seems that there is nothing we can show in this present stand-off.
We don't need the distorting mirror of national stereotypes. Either because
there is nothing we have to come up with or because we don't want to
be different, to be distinguished from others. But then who will get
to know us?