Blesok no. 34, September-October, 2003
Gallery Reviews

Sorrow for Guerreνικα

Robert Alagjozovski

“Dust”, written and directed by Milčo Mančevski, camera by Barry Ackroyd, edited by Nick Gaster, music by Kiril Dzajkovski, cast: David Venham (Luke), Adrian Lester (Edge), Rosemary Murphy (Angela), Joseph Fiennes (Elijah) Anne Brochet (Lilith), Vlado Jovanovski (The Teacher), Nikolina Kujaca (Neda), Salaetin Bilal (the Turkish officer)

A small theoretical framework

Thinking over what a theoretical–analytical frame should I give to this study, I decided for the classical Barthesian (post)structuralist dichotomy – work/text – since I hold that’s the most adequate way to explain my positions and solve my dilemmas related to the movie. According to this, a generally accepted point of view in the theory is that the text, or the intratextual reality, is an order of signs generating a meaning. That’s the one material and non–material side which, in the movies, in particular, starts from the opening shot sequence, the credits and cast and goes all the way to the closing  cast (quite often the credits and cast also, i.e. the frames of the text, intextualize, with their displacing, the absence, their way of presentation, the visually–typographic styling and together with the other segments they generate meanings that are essential to the text. The work is a product of this contextual, subtextual, extratextual instance that overlooks, analyzes, contextualizes the text, selects and defines its meanings, gives judgements, gives it a line, impoverishes it or enriches it. The work is created by the tension of the pragmatic axle, the relation – author (the team working on the movie including the producers) – text – recipient (the critic or the scientist as a special, privileged recipient of the art work). The text, although is materially finished and given, on the meanings it generates or can generate, it’s open, unstable, multivalent; and the work feigns stability, judgements, situating, materialization of the established meanings and values of the text, and can be changed, though not so often, with every new reading of the text and its transformation i.e. turning into a work.

Work (Sorrow for Guerreνικα)

The reception of the movie, at least as the reporters say, divided the recipients into two gangs: the one that liked the movie and the one that didn’t like the movie. I would put myself in a new gang: among those who both liked and disliked the movie i.e. who neither liked nor disliked the movie. I have to admit that the rigorousity i.e. the extension of my judgement was created directly from the increased horizon of expectation that, above all, the author gained with his work in a longer period of time and of course with the high status that his previous art text, the movie  “Before the rain” achieved. The same as the author quite obtrusively wished in an interview, I also expected to see the “Macedonian Guernica” in ”Dust”, but no matter the focusing and the benevolence I had, that kind of epiphany was left out. The film regarding the level of a textual segment, the one that one critic metaphorically called “choreography of violence” is quite successful, even brilliant, intermedial ecclectic renovation of the Picasso’s cubist masterpiece. But that’s not enough for forming judgement on the category work. The film (the text) ”Dust” from an aesthetic aspect can’t be disputed. That’s, above all, because the postmodern aesthetics to which the film belongs isn’t normative but it’s inclusive, even radically opened, ”anything goes” (this last one  doesn’t  relate to the category work, i.e. the binary of value good/bad but to the category text, there is no proscription which can and which can’t enter in the textual, sign relations). From another point, the postmodernist theory, which I consider to be the most adequate for a critical analysis of a film that belongs to the postmodernistic aesthetics, does not have clear, consensual opinions what is and what isn’t postmodernistic aesthetics. The things that some theoreticians don’t approve, others approve. E.g. almost everybody hails the deconstruction of the subject, one that is brilliantly made in “Dust”, but some of the most significant theoreticians of the Postmodern, as is Linda Hutcheon, holds the return of the subject for a legitimate postmodernist strategy. The film ”Dust” can be disputed, above all, from the aspect of poetics, wherein the poetics is a fusion of art and art theory of Postmodernism.
Concerning the poetics i.e. the self-consciousness for the art, the director of the film, Milčo Mančevski, above all, consciously i.e. confusingly uses avant-guard – modernist concepts: he speaks of destroying cliches as a “mean of progress”; whilst the postmodernistic poetics markedly speaks about renovation, eclecticism and art between the cliches, and the idea of progress is the most disputed modernistic topos; he makes scandals and causes shocks strongly defending the partition of high and low art, whilst the Postmodern blatantly eliminates the modernist dichotomy and plots for a  peaceful “polycentric coexistence” (L.Miodynski), and Aleš Debeljak defines the Postmodern as ”Modern minus shock aesthetics”; Milčo Mančevski highly values the category author and his autonomy ironically saying that he has become a director so as no one touches and changes his scripts, and exactly the authorship, through the widely spread intertextual practice, is flagrantly disputed by the Postmodern. Another generally accepted definition for the postmodernism is that it’s modernism plus self-consciousness. I.e. Postmodernists are only those who are conscious of the delusions and the limits of the modernism  and who are self–conscious about their postmodernist belonging. The unconsciousness, the mixing and the vagueness regarding the Modern and the Postmodern, which results in significant presence of modernist elements in ”Dust” and which the inclusive postmodernist poetics allows, the benign theoreticians (Misko Suvakovic)

call Modern in the Postmodern or Modern after the Postmodern and that’s a strategy through which, together with using the modernist and the postmodernist expressive methods and techniques, modernist goals are accomplished. But concerning that the unconsciousness, the vagueness and the mixing of the Modern and the Postmodern is not a conscious Habermas’ return to the abandoned ”unfinished project of the Modern”, but it is literally what it is, a discrepancy between the ”cultural strategy and the artistic tactics”, I would accept the malicious understanding of the Polish macedonist Lech Miodynski who, studying the similar tendencies in the Macedonian postmodern prose in the eighties (whose authors, later, reviewed their poetic standings a lot); concludes that’s a product of not having a historical continuity, ungrounded environment in the western discourse (more about the last in Branislav Sarkanjac’s latest book “Macedonian Catehrezis”). Anyway, with this kind of poetic myopia, I’ m not inclined to consider the phenomenon “Dust” as a great work of art.

As said before, the film (the text) “Dust” on the things we can count out, explicitly belongs to the Postmodern aesthetics i.e. to its segment called Modern in the Postmodern, or Modern after the Postmodern, because of the mixture i.e. the significant presence of modernist techniques, but in a new postmodernist frame. The Modernism after the Postmodernism characterizes by a few important aspects which are different from the typical postmodernist text: utopian project, reductionism, formalism, originality. The utopian project consists of, diegetically, into the text, in the final triumph of the man over the nature with the help of the culture. No matter the “essence and the form” of the narration, that way the man succeeds to put a trace in time, a trace of his existence, i.e. he conquers the time. The film tells us where do our voices go when we are gone and no matter all the arbitrariness, that is not a bad thing, on the contrary. The memory of Angela continues in the power of narration of Edge and after he accepts the holy secret in a kind of initiation, the technique and also the passion of narration, he continues to remember Angela, but already knows and makes space for a new story, his own. The narration, i.e. the film is a recipe, a utopian project, how should the man come out as a winner over the death. The formalism of “Dust” is perceived through the enormous interest for the formal aspect of the text and it's emphasizing, through the wondering (-ostranenye) and the constant destruction of the illusion of the fictional world. The reductionism is the main conduct through which Mančevski paints (i.e. he doesn’t paint) the characters, by which he doesn’t give or gives very few characteristics of the intradiegetic context, also of the formal film picks: the way of framing the sequences, editing, racourse. The originality, as we have said before, belongs to the extradiegesis, i.e. the consciousness and the intention for an original work to be made , something new, something unseen and superior  in respect to the already seen.
Let’s try now to locate the text by genre. The overstepping of the genre and the poly-genre is the main feature of the Postmodernism, i.e. translocation  of the genre of one discipline into another and implementation of different genre characteristics into the basic and beginning genre scheme. The hybridization of two or more disparate genres is the most common manner. That’s why Milčo Mančevski defines the film by genre as an eastern – western or as baklava – western. I.e. on an intrafilm level he tries to merge the tradition, the film practice of two completely different areas: Hollywood and Skopje, the western pattern with the pattern of the Macedonian rebellions (“komiti”) films. But while the Postmodernism uses the disparate models to cause a short circuit, willing to show the ontological instability and the existence of more parallel, uneven worlds (according to Bryan Mchale), the strategy of Milčo Mančevski is epistemological, modernist, using that kind of combination he tries to create more implicit or explicit analogies, to show that behind the disparity of space there is unification of time, i.e. that both the Macedonian rebellions films and the cowboy films follow the same formatting patterns. And here again, the strategy is not that to be shown through eclectic pastiche of the both genre models. The basic models are given intertextually, in absentia, and in praesentia, it aims to their destruction, through a renovation of the modernist authors who have once destroyed the “classical” (cliched, stereotyped, kitschyfied) patterns: ”The mountain of rage” by Ljubisha Georgievski, or the “Wild bunch” by Sam Peckinpah.

On a wider, poetical level, the film represents a historiography metafiction (the model by Linda Hutcheon). Some researchers (Venko Andonovski) have classified the film (the script) as a metafiction, giving quite right the characteristics of a metafictional text. But a little more precision is needed: the text belongs to the model historiography metafiction, because of what is denied in the film is the history, the relation between the present and the past, our presentation of what has gone, our formation of what we have seen or haven’t seen and quite little to the relation between the faction and the fiction. Indeed, the first, the basic story in the film is made into the limits of the realistic model, it represents a model of the extradiegetic world and there are almost none metafictional interventions in it; and even if there are (as when Edge puts himself among the cowboys on the photography), it’s again a try to witness the past, to make its self–position in the history. Therefore, it is more correct for this film to be considered as a historiography metafiction. The historiography metafiction is a critique on the traditional understanding of history, in which the language is accepted as neutral and the both have non-problematic discourse character. (look over at Alison Lee). The traditional history novel or film, looks at the history as to a naked fact, it never makes a problem out of it, it’s thought of as a sum of extratextual facts. But in the Postmodern, a theory prevails that the historical texts can’t catch the past anymore, but only the ideas and stereotypes we have of it  (Frederick Jameson). The faith that the reality can be reached and represented in the picture is lost. There is no external truth which can verify and unite, but only internal truths. The referenciality has always been written in the discourses of our culture. The Postmodern understands that we are epistemologically unable to cognize the past and disputes the relation between the events and the facts. The events become facts through conceptual patterns they must get in so they can become facts. Thus, according to the postmodernist theory, the history has its relation to the referential, to the reality, but it also underlines the discourse of history, it examines the nature of extratextual reference, considers that the memory can produce only text, there is no reproduction of events. The meaning of the past has its textualized character and means a personal choice, a selection of facts, mediation of the historian himself as an analyst. (Šeleva, also Hutcheon). So the History and the Language are verbal fictions that use narration strategies and manipulate the recipient.

That kind of strategy also conveys Milčo Mančevski in “Dust”. The historiography in the film lies in the effort, the desire of the old Angela to create a story, to tell history. But as the New Historicism says, her effort is not, both by the intentions and the result, to create History but Her Story. Her history is a product of her own world, it is internalized, intimated, far from the official versions of the consensual community. That history is built on the principle of the bricolage, everything that can be used in formation of a story, a version, is used. Excerpts from newspapers, old photos, the money as a numismatic means, the old movies (Milton Manaki’s old rarities), the stories from the closest. Where a loop misses, and there is nowhere to borrow from, to misuse, the ”historian” Angela to add, freely invents at the same time quite conscious for the inventions. (the scene with the question about  the number of the soldiers: 2000, 200 or 20).
The result is a patchwork that is open even to new (re)interpretations (the incorporation, the foundation of Edge in that history). Thus, an apocryphal history, which substitutes the official one, is being created, trying to incorporate what is left out or missing; a history that operates in the dark taints, that demystifies and revises. Therefore, there is room in that history for both Corto Maltese and Josip Broz-Tito, even for such unbelievable combinations like cowboys against bashibozuk (illegal Turkish army), komiti, and andarti (Greek rebellions). Following the trail of Brian Mchale’s research, who speaks of the postmodern discovery of the Mexican border and Middle and South America as a different zone, a zone of passion,  life-span, madness, overdrawing, against the Yankees’ North America, we can say that we deal with a similar postmodern redesign of the map of Macedonia against the tendency of official history which tries to place it in a privileged space, in a rational world where the victim, and the life, are reduced to a state of creating a myth which later serves as a legitimization. “The history” of Angela serves as legitimization as well, though her own; but it is not formed by the principles of the mythological, official history. An element with which Mancevski deviates from the historiography metafiction is the lack of “genuine”, “realistic” characters, apart from the totally marginal usage of the known Manaki’s documentaries, and the allusion to Froyd, Tito, and Maltese. The movie is based on invented, fictional characters, as a result of which the numerous tensions and effects typical of the historiography metafiction when the “invented” and the “genuine” characters face each other, are missed. With this inclination towards invented events and people, towards a simulated action amongst a “concrete” historical chronology (Macedonia, 1912, facing the Balkan Wars),”Dust” approaches an allegory. It contains in itself an alienation of the sense as a result of the time alienation, an estrangement between the source and the actual, (Jencks). The unattached and partial reminiscences, the story without action, the giving of an illusory sense where the hues are coordinated, leads to a particular kind of enigmatic allegory. As a result, due to the awareness of the distance of the past, and the desire it to be saved for the sake of the present, the form of palimpsest is being adopted, the text is being doubled, one text is being read through another (Craig Owens), based on a “genuine”, documentary matrix (“New York Times”’ clippings), a retro, a remake, a replay is being done, desperate attempts to usurp the vanishing past (Jameson), all which results in a disagreement with the real history.
Thus, the metanarrative as an ironic annulment of the categories –fiction/life exists, above all, on the level of the second story, on the level of the reminiscence of the past, narrating a story. The basic story, the one between Angela and Edge, follows a realistic strategy where the metafiction is placed and treated solely as a fabrication (Edge’s reaction to Angela’s exaggerations and, later, the reaction of the girl from the plane to Edge’s exaggerations). Actually, we deal with a projective type of metanarrative – the narration is dislocated to another (Boris Gregoricic), i.e., the narrator Angela takes over the author’s role, and through her own story of the past she turns the attention towards her own status of artefact, aiming to place on a higher level the mentioned questions within reality, i.e., the past and the fiction (Patricia Waugh).
The projective type of metanarrative, i.e., the dislocation of the narrative in another, gives us the freedom to place the movie “Dust” even among the postmodern autobiographical works. Taking into account that it is a feigned autobiography, Angela narrates her story in which the first part, as we had mentioned, is completely realistic; it has to simulate the real extradiegetic life.
The postmodern autobiographies bring us back to the actual act of writing (the motto “where do our voices go when we are gone”); the public self – demonstration (“this is my story and I will do whatever I want in it” – Angela says); exhibitionism or a documentary reconstruction of the fragments of her own life (the usage of family photographs and clippings from “New York Times”), where the focus is not on the stories, data, facts, but on the writing language, the self-demonstration. On a syntactic level, the autobiographical postmodern letter is absentminded, fragmented. It is being achieved in “Dust” with the interweaving of the two narrative lines where ludistically and ironically are incorporated a number of intertextual traces, fragments, like the direct quotations from the silent movies, and simulation projections of the individual mythologies, i.e. the pseudo-quotations, the pastiches of the silent movies, the hypothetical Teacher or Froyd’s travelling. So the text circles from the metalanguage (the speech for the speech, the speech for the internal fantasies, the speech of self-disposure) to the burst of subjectivity, the hypothetical, the desire, presentation of other (the thinking of the cowboy Luke on his opinions against the Macedonians “live your own life because everyone lives his own death”, through the despise by which the Turkish officer refuses to speak on the cowboy's barbarian language) and self–representation in the discourse of the other (Edge trying to put himself among the cowboys of the photo at the Alamo battle).

The subject of narration in the movie is only at first sight Angela, she has no unified and integrated consciousness and no matter how hard she tries to reach that, her Self constantly runs and slides, it's not coherent, the narrator is de-centered, multiplied, it's hard to be located, he is self–introspected, consists of many voices, part of them belonging to the author, can be located out of the intratextual world, they are manipulative, without an unique perspective, with plurality of view points (look at R.Ivekovic, A.Zlatar). The subject dissolves, it decentralizes, it distributes and multiplies, there is a retreat from the medial and privileged position of a strong master-subject.
That’s also implicated by the leaving of the straight line of the story. Trying for a unification to be attained, to build something, to shut the holes which can't be shut, an eclecticism, style mixtures, quotations, intertexts are used. Angela's need for producing and reception of the story is, above all, a need for producing a sense. But that's also a question of love, more like a metaobject, metatheme, love for the narration and the personal characters, a kind of narrative seduction. Angela tells with such a passion, that’s “more important then anything for her” and eventually she succeeds to cause the same feeling at Edge’s.

Some theoreticians, like Brian Mchale, look at the writing problem as closely related to the phenomenon of death. For a few, the writing is a runaway from the death, and not transcendence. But Mančevski is among those postmodernists who try to picture the transcendence, they even go over the imagined boundaries of the death itself, they try to project a discourse in death, a posthumous discourse, a fiction. The answer of the question “where do our voices go when we are gone” is facing, overstepping the ontological boundary, facing death. The writing about the death often converts into writing about the writing, depart from the Self through the metaphor of fiction. The posthumous discourse Mančevski realizes imaginary and ironically. Through the ironic standing he postpones the death of the main character Angela a few times and she, in the movie, postpones a few times the death of her main character, Luke, i.e. she strikes over the recent course of the diegesis, and starts over, continuing, no matter the non–logic of that. The phantasm is an imaginary world in which the artist-neurotic has plunged. He joins the diverse into an unique narration text, according to the Lacan's understanding of the phantasm as an unconscious script. The phantasm has two levels, a tableau, the one that can be seen and described, and a hieroglyph, the unspeakable, the shortage, what's lost, a hole. The phantasms at Mančevski (mostly in the scenes where Lilith shows posthumous), are a try to cover that hole, to present the unrepresentative, to create a discourse which would try to create what's lost. The phantasmic discourse Mančevski explicitly separates from the rest of the text and schematizes it; all the scenes in which Lilith shows up are pictured in white and black technique, with slow-motion camera, with eliptic framing  and with short and middle length cuts. The part of the story concerning Luke can be considered as an untypical Manipeic satire. The plot is typical as for the Picaro's novel, so a Picaro is included, Luke, who gets into a lot of adventures, but this Picaro is a sole adventurer, he doesn't ask himself the final questions, as it is in the Picaro's novel and the Manipeic novel. Luke stays on the surface, he has a criminal behaviour, he makes a social (head–hunter) and sexual (incest) excess, but he doesn't look for a utopia or a better social order, on the contrary. A thorough carnivalization of the second story has been made, the joyful relativity of things has been shown (Hasan), through the grotesque, moronic behaviour of the Turks in the dramatic moments and a desemantization of the ideological categories (Šeleva), the portraiting of the mythologicalized but unbold Teacher and the portraiting of the “ill at the Bospor” as a top European decadent.
One of the Mančevski's main narration strategies in “Dust” is the sense of schisophrenia, realizing the spaciousness of time or, as in one of the rare voice-overs is said “Macedonia is a country in which the centuries gile up and live one to another, not like in the West, one by one”. Surely, this segregation and schisodesigning of Macedonia is one of the most difficult and not defendable mystifications of Mančevski which he himself doesn't quite succeed to elaborate in the film as he should. That is, as mentioned above, self-representation in the discourse of the other. The linear, the progressive, modernist mind has a need to see himself as a teleological creature, opposing everybody else as schisophrenic and unable of telos. Mančevski accepts that kind of self-stigmatization, forgetting to present that the USA, (e.g.) are not less schisophrenic then the Balkans at the same time, at any time and everywhere. The centuries gile the way the ideological and the discourse pattern conceptualizes them, for the postmodernists panschisophrenic, anytime and everywhere, for the modernism as a telos, but only for the privileged. From the other side, even that Mančevski's delusion is not quite elaborated by him in the movie except through the Manaki's short fiction films; the complete other display of Macedonia looks modernist compact, in the limits of renovations of cubism, as an effort for once again expressing of that time “choreography of violence”. How Mančevski realizes the “Macedonian Guernica” with a specific reduction of characters and their approaching to one category: slaughters. In the movie everybody uses violence, severe and fascinating. As a matter of fact, their show up at the film screen consists only of preparation for murder and murder. Picasso's cubism is created of multiplicity of view points. The camera, hyperrealistically, i.e. introducing the reality in the most miniature details, but on such a believable level regarding the technical and the visual methods, that creates a new level of reality, hyperreal, more real then the reality itself, (Epstein), it follows the character's destiny, all the way to his dying. In the composition of the frame, all the limitations of the character's view of the world enters unrefined. The viewpoints change through the speed the characters die or get out from the battle.
The first narration line contains all the aspect of a realistic story. In it, cynically, using parody, spectacular, by simulation, an entrance in the hyperreality of the urban megalopolises is made. The film starts with a long sequence (some say it's an auto-quotation, though that's an old Altman's trick) in which the simultaneousity and the variety of living are catalogued (attributes according to David Lodge).
Here Mančevski again breaks the realistic discourse with a few postmodernist techniques (according to David Lodge): contradiction (a sentimental thief, a strong granny), a short circuit (a slash between the world and the text), permutation (refusing the obligation of choice, giving more, all the possibilities). He breaks the characterization cliches, but also supports them: ruthlessness of the doctors, the black as small thieves and the white as an organized mob. If the music is looked from the aspect of the homologous following of the thematic – genre model, and that’s the main thing it gets all the honours for, we’ll have to disagree and admit that from that aspect it functions only half-successfully, i.e. to say, the point is missed. Far more adequate would be the correlation between the rap as a music expression and culture of the black’s neighbourhood to which Edge belongs with “Teskoto”(slow macedonian folk dance) from the memory world of Angela, then the correlation between the “techno” and “Teskoto” which in the movie functions (as it is done) only with the marginal calling of the girl in the plane.

*  *  *

The postmodernism shows that there is not an original and genuine work, but there are only transformations and displacing of the already known language creations (quotations of the quotations, transfigurations of the quotations, language traces). The history of art and culture shows itself as a grid and a map of the ”language traces” which the artist arbitrary uses so he can produce momentary, unstable and open representations. (Mishko Shuvakovic)

Translated by: Biljana Ognenova

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