Parables of Impossibility
Goran Paskaljević: A Film Retrospective, The Museum of Modern Art, Jan. 9-31
“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Stephen Dedalus’s line in Ulysses perfectly describes the characters in the films of Goran Paskaljević, the Serbian director who, not coincidentally, chose Joyce’s Ireland as his second home. In the retrospective of his works at the Museum of Modern Art (January 9-31)—the first in the U.S. dedicated to this, “one of Europe’s most respected directors”—nightmares not only torment the characters in the dark, but haunt their daytime life as well.
Lazar, a soldier in Midwinter Night’s Dream (2004) who deserted his brigade after witnessing the atrocities committed against civilians, is still traumatized by nightmares of this experience ten years later. In Time of Miracles (1990), the recurrent reappearances of the frescoes on a church wall not only torment the schoolteacher made to teach in the building, but disturbs the traditionally devoted villagers as the Red Army is trying to force a new devotion. The story of How Harry Became a Tree (2001) starts and ends with the protagonist’s nightmares, in which Harry, a cabbage farmer in the tiny village of Skillet, Ireland, is transformed into a tree and then chopped down for wood to make coffins.
Paskaljević uses few flashbacks. He doesn’t indulge in fragmented horror scenes we expect to accompany a movie dreamscape. Instead, his stories present themselves as self-conscious parables. It is not hard to detect the surreal nature of Harry’s nightmare and the absurdity of his hatred and fear (How Harry Became a Tree), or the symbolic significance of Lazar’s attempt at awakening Jovana, his autistic foster daughter (Midwinter Night’s Dream). Nor would we miss the irony when Time of Miracles reenacts the Red Army’s conquest against the background of the biblical stories of miracle and the crucifixion. However, a closer scrutiny suggests that the parables are out of place. All the stories are built on a disjuncture between interior space and exterior landscape, with an alienating effect that’s almost schizophrenic. The characters are often seen confined in their dark, suffocating rooms through claustrophobic close-ups, while the revealing actions take place at night: the confession of the past, the investigations and conspiracies, the revenge and killing, even the farcical “crucifixion” in Time of Miracles. The outside world, on the contrary, is often represented through long shots as cold, bleak, and indifferent. Although Harry is a cabbage farmer, he has lost the connection with nature we expect of farmers. His closest contact with nature occurs when he imitates the bare tree branches in his nightmares with his hands, while the scene of real trees only trigger his—and our—fear. When his outraged rival finally rips all the shingles off Harry’s roof, the exposure brings not sunshine and singing birds, but a bitter rain leaving him unable to light a cigarette. In Midwinter Night’s Dream, when Lazar returns home after ten years of exile, he finds himself in a wintry Belgrade with silent, emotionless fishers beside a frozen Danube; no one remembers the bar on the site where he killed his best friend. His effort at teaching Jovana to draw flowers fails to bring them closer to nature. Ironically, Lazar’s final drive to a blooming grove, with Jovana and the corpse of her mother, is a journey of no return. The film ends with an off-screen revolver shot, while the camera remains on the tableau of a beautiful yet merciless nature.
Paskaljević’s strategy of absence is not only his homage to the Greek dramatic tradition, but, together with the tropes of displacement, means to portray his nation’s attitude toward history. Time of Miracles, a candid examination of the bitter legacy of communism, depicts the new reign’s attempt at the eradication of all collective memory, starting with the eradication of God. In How Harry Became a Tree, the violent past of the Civil War with England seems to have disappeared from the memory of the villagers. The protagonist Harry withdraws himself from the flow of time. We see him alone in his tiny room smoking, sullen at breakfast or anxious to talk to his son at night when he is in bed with his bride. Only through his ever-maddening plans to overthrow his “enemy”, do we find ourselves profoundly trapped in medias res, whose cause has been consciously forgotten. The attempt at distancing the past and the present is best embodied in the autistic Jovana. Having lost all connection with the world around her, she is, like the ghost in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the return of a painful past, who forgets where she comes from.
Discussing his art, Paskaljević once said, “The beauty of film for me is its closeness to life. And if it is going to reflect life faithfully, it has to draw on metaphor, just like poetry.” He studied cinema at FAMU, Prague’s celebrated film academy at the heyday of the Czech New Wave. From his works we can see the influence of such New Wave directors as Ján Kadár (The Shop on the Main Street), Vojtěch Jasny (Cassandra Cat), and Jan Němec (The Party and the Guests), who did not use slice-of-life portrayals as their point of departure, but rather tell philosophical fables of universal morality. For Paskaljević, who lived through the dictatorships of Tito and Milosevic and witnessed some of the most hideous atrocities against mankind in the 20th century, fable is the means to depict an absurd world where life often imitates art. Departing from his precursors’ moral credo in evoking self-awareness and shared responsibility, Paskaljević expresses a darker worldview by demonstrating the impossibility of such depiction.
As the audience, we find ourselves involved in the impossible parables more than we would wish. In Midwinter Night’s Dream, we see most of the outer world through the eyes of Lazar and identify with his effort to heal the wound of the past and to challenge the suffocating present. Yet when he, in a desperate attempt to wake Jovana, leads the confused girl to follow a shaman-like priest in circles around dim candlelight, our outsider’s point of view breaks down. Earlier in the film, Lazar manages to send Jovana a mirror as gift—a self-conscious metaphor of the wish of self-awareness. Yet in the film, the real mirror is revealed when we watch the performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream by the disabled children of Jovana’s school. Seeing many of the former tropes—Jovana as Lazar’s “angel”, the falling flowers, flying and “kissing the sky”—echoed in the play, we are no longer detached observers who know better. Instead, we find ourselves, together with the enchanted parents downstage, both audience and performers. In the mirror against “reality” we see ourselves—and the mirror breaks.
It is typical of Paskaljević’s stark realism to ascend to allegories, bringing momentary enchantment and endless irony. How Harry Became a Tree refers to photography—another kind of mirror—three times, but the photos fail to frame the events against the maddening reality. Until the last time, when the real world and dreamscape overlap, and the film ends with the picture of an old, bare, lonely tree.
LU CHEN is a contributor to the Rail.