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Magic Realist Cinema in East Central Europe.

Magic Realist Cinema in East Central Europe

By Aga Skrodzka

Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2012

190 pp; $104 cloth

In the third chapter of Magic Realist Cinema in East Central Europe, Aga Skrodzka explains that her book was inspired by a course in World Cinema that she was asked to teach. This genesis may help to explain why the book reads less like an argumentation of one scholar's unique position, and more like an exploration guided by a professor who is mainly there to help navigate through the material, but occasionally gives you the gift of her own insight.

On reaching the end of this book, you are left with the impression of having experienced, through description, numerous convincing examples of magic realism in East Central European cinema, and understanding why this style is useful to filmmakers from the region. What you don't come away with is an understanding of the scope of scholarly work that has already been done on cinematic magic realism, a clear sense of how magic realism in cinema relates to its predecessors in literature and the visual arts, and how this style is modulated by the formal specificity of cinema.

The author states in the preface that her study will focus on films made after 1989. She acknowledges predecessors of magic realist cinema in the region through a list of some "anti-realist" films, including Czech New Wave, Surrealist, and Expressionist cinema, as identified by Dina Iordanova. However, Skrodzka classifies magic realism as a "relatively recent tradition" (xi).

Skrodzka begins by explaining how magic realism in post-communist East Central European cinema has represented a form of resistance to the sudden transition to capitalist consumerism. The earliest theorist of magic realism, Franz Roh, described its "miracle of an apparent persistence and duration in the midst of a demoniacal flux" (21). Similarly, Fredric Jameson, in his 1986 essay "On Magic Realism in Film," noted that "magic realism depends on a content which betrays the overlap or the coexistence of precapitalist with nascent capitalist or technological features" (16). Magic realism's grounding in the past also reflects a fact of life in a region where some people continue to live relatively untouched by modernity, for better or worse. Indeed, many magic realist films do not wallow in stereotypical "East Central European miserabilism" (36) but find a determined pride, anarchic joy, and even transcendental wonder in their local traditions, lifestyle, and environment.

The first chapter contains one of the author's most lucid and sustained arguments, tracing East Central Europe's history as Western Europe's shadowy Other; Skrodzka suggests that the postcolonial theory of Said and Spivak can shed light on the relationship between Europe's East and West, as well as East Central European directors' choice of magic realism as a way to "destabilise" the dominant realistic discourse "from within" (1). It is also in this chapter that the author presents a necessary overview of magic realism, from its origins in interwar Western European art to its later emergence in Latin American literature. The reader is left wanting more detail, however.

In Chapter 2, Skrodzka continues to develop a defence of East Central European magic realist cinema's resistance to modernity, explaining why critics are misguided to classify films such as Zornitsa Sophia's Mila from Mars and Emir Kusturica's Underground as reactionary. Films that look to the past, or seem to idealize village life, are not automatically nostalgic and can even be progressive. For example, magic realist cinema made after 1989 has been notably unafraid to confront the communist past, while a more conservative genre such as the heritage film will elide this period, preferring to look further back in history at the privileged lives of the ruling classes.

Where directors seem to embrace regional stereotypes, as Kusturica does, it is with a knowing irony accompanied by anarchic delight in characters who break the rules. Similarly, films which advocate simple pleasures demonstrate resistance to both communist and capitalist ideals of ceaseless productivity and improvement. Skrodzka futher refers to Wendy B. Faris' use of Irigaray to characterize magic realism as a style that "enacts a form of post-patriarchal discourse" (83), and points to films such as Martin Sulik's The Garden or Kusturica's Time of the Gypsies, which place female characters in central positions of power. Finally, in Jan Jakub Kolski's films, a respect for the power of objects and the natural world is wise and timely given the growing crisis brought on by humans' historical disregard for the environment.

The power of objects becomes the focus of the third chapter, where Skrodzka makes a rare yet crucial observation on film form, specifically in relation to past theories of magic realism. While literary magic realism in Latin America shifted to a more socio-political orientation, Roh's original theory of magic realism in the visual arts placed a greater emphasis on objects, which Skrodzka says tentatively "may be more useful" when defining magic realism in the primarily visual medium of cinema (104).

Jan Svankmajer's animation endows objects with particular agency, as in Little Otik when a piece of wood shaped like a baby comes to life. In Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, the most mundane objects and surroundings take on a transcendental quality; the co-presence of the mundane and the sublime allows these two qualities to reinforce each with ineffable, otherworldly effect. In more playful films, there can be a political resonance in refusing the built-in obsolescence of consumer goods by keeping and creatively repurposing them. This is seen most frequently in Kusturica's work, with its love of the antiquated and obsolete.

In the final chapter, Skrodzka explores the natural affinity between magic realism and child-centred films. Cinema's tendency to be larger-than-life, its sense of omnipotence, and its ontological ability to resurrect the dead all correspond to both the child's vision of the world and to magic realism. Skrodzka's vivid description of such examples as Dorota Kedzierzawska's Crows and Kolski's Jasminium will make readers keen to get a hold of these films to watch for themselves. In this chapter, the author also points to an intriguing historical link between magic realism and cinema, giving the example of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's fascination with Miracle in Milan. This theme remains tantalizingly unexplored for want of space, as Skrodzka makes the general observation that European interwar magic realist artists and writers must also have been powerfully influenced by cinema.

The final chapter ends somewhat suddenly, leaving only an epilogue to give a sense of closure. This epilogue is avowedly personal yet nonetheless informative, and opens up new avenues of enquiry. Skrodza highlights "three encounters" that drew her to this area of study: her childhood experience of pre-modern pagan elements in Central Eastern European everyday life, and how they are "repressed in official discourses, including film scholarship" (168); the impact of the combination of the everyday and the magical in Wojciech Has's adaptation of The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (1973); and author Bruno Schulz's magic realist description of transformations of everyday life after the end of World War I, from the point of view of those living far from the centre of power (a different upheaval to the one experienced by the post-communist filmmakers discussed in this book, but nonetheless one that is analogoue to theirs). While Magic Realist Cinema in East Central Europe is flawed in its meandering presentation, the ideas it presents are nonetheless compelling and valuable; they will appeal not just to those with a niche interest in magic realism, but to anyone interested in the cinema and sociopolitical history of East Central Europe.
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Author:Frank, Alison
Publication:Film Criticism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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