Film

Lazar Tag

Lazar Stojanovic, Plastic Jesus, 1971, color, sound, 73 minutes.

IN 1971, before it had a first run in its native land, Plastic Jesus was confiscated by the Yugoslavian government of Josip Broz Tito, and its young director, Lazar Stojanovic, was thrown in the clink by a military court for “anti-state activities and propaganda.” His stay lasted several months or a few years, depending on the account, but at any rate it was plenty of time to think over what he’d done. Well, Tito died before the dawn of MTV, Yugoslavia began its anguished atomization not long after the fall of Communism, and now Stojanovic is presenting the New York premiere of his Belgrade Academy of Dramatic Arts thesis film at the Museum of Modern Art, which goes to show that if you can’t beat ’em, the least you can do is outlive ’em.

The sacrilegious title of Stojanovic’s debut feature comes from the American novelty song written by Ed Rush and George Cromarty—one of the folk ditties of all nations which the film’s soundtrack is papered with—but it’s the graven image of the secular God, Tito, that’s implicitly receiving the razzing in Stojanovic’s scattershot satire, which whip-pans between a mock-heroic past and a louche, loutish present, between found-footage documentary and a lightly fictionalized portrayal of the New Morality as it was functioning in contemporary Belgrade.

Things like this weren’t supposed to happen in Yugoslavia, where the ruling single party avoided alignment with either Moscow or Washington, progressively mixed aspects of free-market capitalism and socialism, and poured state money into avant-garde art. This was the country where communism swung, where the young people wore dungarees and laughed at socialist realism, the home of young Marina Abramović and the New Art Practice and the animations of the Zagreb Film Company and the Black Wave films of Dušan Makavejev, whose 1958 short Monuments Should Not Be Trusted recently lent its title to a recently wrapped survey of Yugoslav art at Nottingham Contemporary.

What did Plastic Jesus do to crack the veneer? At the center of the straight narrative is a picaro played by the Croatian performance artist and experimental filmmaker Tomislav “Tom” Gotovac, a hulking figure with a humongous beard and receding hairline who is first seen, wearing a peace button pinned to his denim jacket, reading the credits in a singsong voice. Tom, a native of Zagreb living in Belgrade, thirty-three years old like Christ at the time of his death, is a film director, though what we see of his work is mostly arty underground cheesecake stuff, and the narrative is driven more by his troubled relations with women than by his tortured aesthetic ambitions.

As the movie begins Tom is keeping company with an American girl—she’s the one who warbles the title tune, and most of their interactions seem to consist of batting around their respective national songbooks, though they also pay a visit to Saint George’s Church, where she’s eager to see the crypt containing the Karađorđević Kings. When his little Yank takes a powder, Tom takes up with his blonde landlady, whose husband is abroad, only to have her bounce him out onto the street when things go south. (The problems begin when he runs rushes of a softcore shoot while her young daughter is hanging around his room.) Tom hits rock bottom from here, slipped a mickey and stripped by some shady associates, after which he runs nude along Sremska Street in the city center and is picked up by the police, who forcefully shave his scalp and beard as punishment for his failure to resemble his ID. Despite the fact that he now looks like a Holbein, Tom manages to get in with his ex’s husband’s sister. She tries to set him up with a television producer for work, he repays her by playing grabass with her brother’s wife on a trip to the provinces, and she shoots him dead in a pond at the end of a rather gorgeous mock-pastoral long-take—as his corpse bobs on the water’s surface, the panicked siblings are trying to decide how to dispose of the body.

In addition to these narrative vignettes—mostly single-shot scenes in shadowless rooms filmed from a stationary camera, sometimes condensed with jump-cuts—there are interjections in which Gotovac direct-addresses the viewer, offering such bon mots as, “The only connection between politics and sex is under the bedsheets” or abruptly standing up to let his limp cock dangle into the frame. Throughout the film there is a glee in provocation for the provocation’s sake, which is fairly typical of art-school kids anywhere—when Tom announces his pleasure in filming homosexuals, Stojanovic cuts to his star smooching another man—though the difference here is, of course, there happened to be real-world repercussions for playing the game of épater les commissars.

Politics and sex are the two items that Plastic Jesus seems most to have on its mind. Shuffled into Tom’s story is a sort of history of Yugoslavia during World War II, as told through the cinematic detritus left behind by all involved parties—a combination of documentary footage with original material similar to that which was almost simultaneously undertaken by Dušan Makavejev in his far-better-known examination of politics in the boudoir, WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971). Most of the films from which Stojanovic is lifting material are straightforward propaganda, in which we hear calls for courageous sacrifice from Tito’s Communist Partisans, the nationalist Chetniks, Ustaše fascists, German conquerors, Soviet saviors, and so forth, often in full-throated marching songs using lyrics that seem to have been bought from the same wholesale anthem dealer. (That these factions seem indistinguishable when so viewed is very much the point.) In some cases, the archival and original footage interface playfully, as when Nazi motorcade victory laps through flattened landscapes are intercut with a joy ride through the outskirts of Belgrade, which look as though they are in the midst of being excavated or razed. There are also several pieces of found footage that pertain to the German worship of physique and Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture), opening into wider reflections on the relationship of the state and the sovereign body which end with a fatal assertion of ownership.

A censor might have taken issue with any number of items in here, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was a seemingly innocuous scene depicting the wedding of two of Stojanovic’s friends, Ljubiša Ristić and Višnja Poštić, who happened to be related to Generals in the Yugoslav People’s Army. The inclusion of pseudo-surreptitious footage of high revolutionary officials milling about at a bourgeois ceremony under the benevolent gaze of a bas relief Tito was one piss-take too many, and Stojanovic was caught up in what would be a quiet crackdown. Gotovac, who would reproduce his streak down Sremska Street ten years later for a performance in Zagreb, had his art school matriculation delayed for years. Aleksandar Petrović, the professor who had been instrumental in completing Plastic Jesus, found his latest film, an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, suddenly withdrawn from distribution, around the time that a “Letter” issued by Tito in September 1972 recommended a rollback on liberalism in the wake of the Croatian Spring.

I haven’t seen Stojanovic’s later film work, which apparently includes a 2008 documentary incorporating footage of the war crimes of a Serbian paramilitary group during the Bosnian War. It’s certainly true that nothing would achieve the notoriety of Plastic Jesus—the communist nations, like the capitalist ones, produced their share of filmmakers too insubordinate to thrive within the system. But freed of its original, oppositional “use-value,” Plastic Jesus is more than a time-capsule, a counterpropaganda equivalent to the newsreels from which Stojanovic freely clips. Brimming with youthful bellicosity, it’s a live-wire with some crackle in it yet.

Lazar Stojanovic’s Plastic Jesus plays April 15–21 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The filmmaker will be in attendance on Friday, April 15 and Saturday, April 16.

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