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The Aesthetics of Nullibiquite

Review of Pavle Levi, Disintegration in Frames: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007); x + 203pp. Hardcover ISBN 0-8047-5368-7 [ISBN-13: 978-0-8047-5368].

Sanja Bahun

Pavle Levi, Disintegration in Frames: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema, cover image
Other Voices, 4.1 Aesthetic Violence
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One of the more vertiginous passages in Pavle Levi’s Disintegration in Frames: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema reads:

“Yugoslav-ness” is … to be thought of as a kind of (Lacanian) nullibiquite—located at the crossroads of “nowhere” and “everywhere,” at that place where, because of their arbitrary nature, the “stable” reified categories of national identity begin to signify their own inability to totalize the dishevelled (“surreal”) multiethnic spirit, which they, nonetheless, through this very inability, invoke. (73)

If you belong to those in whom the circumbendibus (or the mere mention of the perhaps-once-existent category of “Yugoslav-ness”) provokes dizziness, Levi’s Disintegration in Frames might not be your cup of tea. If, however, the (circuitous!) ways in which cultural artefacts both reflect and create national identity intrigue you, or if you are professionally or personally engaged with the Yugoslav nullibiquite, Levi’s book is a must read. A product of passion and wide erudition, the volume is, to my knowledge, the first sustained analysis of the movement of Yugoslav cine-culture from state socialist to ethnoessentialist, and beyond.

Ever since the wars of the 1990s wretchedly inscribed the region in global memory, the disintegration of Yugoslavia has been a hot topic in cultural studies. Yet, cross-cultural and cross-generic reports on the ideo-languages of Yugoslavia and its successor states are rare. Redressing this state of affairs, the five chapters of Levi’s book trace the dissemination of multiethnic or chauvinist ideologies in the (post) Yugoslav cine-cultural products—as heterogeneous as avant-garde and mainstream film, short film, amateur film, television series, street protests, and the pro-life movement. With the commendable aspiration to expand the discourse on cultural products of the region beyond postcolonial theory, Levi imbues these diverse critical exercises with historiography, psychoanalysis, theories of ideology, and formalist film analysis. The result is the delineation of three groups of cine-symptomatic responses to the dissolution of Yugoslav nationhood: ethnophobic nationalism; responses which underscore not so much the “undesirability” as the “impossibility” of multiethnic identity; and, genuine attempts to imagine an inter- or trans-ethnic community.

Levi’s examination of the cine-textual symptoms in the Yugoslav countries has few predecessors. The sole comprehensive account of Yugoslav cinema published outside former Yugoslavia is Daniel J. Goulding’s Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience, 1945-2001; excluding Goulding’s text, there are only a few comparative studies of the Balkan and East European cinemas and a small number of books dedicated to individual filmmakers, most notably, Emir Kusturica and Dušan Makavejev.1 It is also noteworthy, that, save for Slavoj Žižek’s brief engagements, no international discussion of Yugoslav cinema has utilized the methodology of psychoanalytic theory before Levi’s book. Both the accomplishments and the problems of Disintegration in Frames stem from this singular lack of developed critical environment.

Rather than tracing Yugoslav cinema from its inception to its demise/dissolution, Levi concentrates on a cluster of cinematic works which he deems particularly suggestive of the socio-political and cultural issues relevant to the life and disintegration of Yugoslavia. Disintegration in Frames thus opens with the analyses of some cinematic feasts of the so-called “black wave,” a radical film movement which compellingly placed Yugoslav cinema on the international map in the late 1960s and early 1970s and exposed its authors to different levels of governmental persecution: Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected (1968) and WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), Živojin Pavlović’s When I Am Dead and Pale (1967, misdated by Levi), and Lazar Stojanović’s Plastic Jesus (1971) (the chapter “The Black Wave and Marxist Revisionism”). Foregrounding the issues of spectatorship, Levi convincingly relates the “black wave” authors’ promotion of individual freedom (as a thematic crux) and “spontaneous montage” (as a structuring principle) to the concerns of the Yugoslav Marxist intellectuals associated with the journal Praxis (Gajo Petrović, Milan Kangrga, Mihailo Marković). The assertion of multiple individual truths and an active engagement of spectatorial/readerly subjectivities emerge as coalescing points for the Marxism revisionism of the late 1960s and the New Yugoslav Film.

Levi makes the 1980s (the decade following the death of the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito) his next stop in what is now revealed as the conjoined history of Yugoslav cinema and Yugoslav nationhood. Surprisingly, the author decides to pass over many ideologically compelling films of the decade and to devote his attention to what he believes epitomizes the 1980s spirit of “Yugoslavism without Limits” (the chapter’s title): the Bosnian subcultural movement New Primitivism and its mainstream manifestation, the television series The Top List of Surrealists (TLS). Allied with Sarajevo-based performers and rock bands such as No Smoking and Elvis J. Kurtović and his Meteors, this youth movement advanced an exuberant exploration of identity politics through performative play with the ideological and formal excess of Yugoslav mainstream cultural products, such as Hajrudin Krvavac’s 1971 film Walter Defends Sarajevo. Levi’s dynamic analysis of the New Primitivists’ appropriation and reinvigoration of cultural signs is assisted by Fredric Jameson’s theory of dereification and the psychoanalytic critique of ideology as practiced by “Ljubljana Lacanians” (Rastko Moćnik, Renata Salecl, and Žižek). Levi correctly recognizes in the performative practice of TLS the surrealist impetus to dereify cultural signs, but he surprisingly fails to relate this humorous questioning of identity politics to its actual mediators in the Yugoslav cultural space, the BBC television series Monty Python Flying Circus.2 While this is a minor (if surprising) omission, it is indicative of a problematic side of Levi’s methodology, which I will address later.

In the chapter entitled “Aesthetics of Nationalist Pleasure” Levi traces the development of Kusturica’s poetics from the seriocomic fusions of the quotidian and the surreal in Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (1980) and When Father Was Away on Business (1985) to the controversial performance of the surreal nationhood in Underground (1995). Foregrounding the director’s strategies to stage (constructive and destructive) “eruptions of enjoyment into the social sphere” (85), Levi identifies the libidinal cruxes of Kusturica’s cinema in the formal qualities of such scenes, for instance, in the patterns of rotational movement in Underground. Oleg Novković’s film Say Why You Left Me (1993), a restrained drama set in the hyperinflation Serbia of the early 1990s, is introduced as an artistically responsible counterpoint to Kusturica’s masked ethnocentrism.

The general capacity of cinematic works formally to exteriorize their ideological contexts turned blatant in the post-Yugoslav cine-products of the late 1990s. Appropriately entitled “Hatred Explained, Hatred Legitimized,” the next chapter of Disintegration in Frames is devoted to generically diverse manifestations of this development, from the two barefaced (and structurally similar) cases of promotion of ethnophobia, films made by a Serb and a Croat, respectively (Miroslav Lekić’s Knife and Jakov Sedlar’s Four by Four, both in 1999), through an amateur action film by the Croatian war veteran Stjepan Sabljak (Surrounded, 1999) and Želimir Žilnik’s documentary Tito among the Serbs for the Second Time (1994), to the diverse manifestations of profane religiosity in Serbia of the 1990s, the resurrection of New Primitivist/subculture spirit in Slovenia in Andrej Košak’s The Outsider (1996), and the imperfect parody of nationalism in Vinko Brešan’s How the War Started on My Island (1996). In the twin-chapter, “Of Ethnic Enemy as Acousmetre,” Levi utilizes Michel Chion’s theory of the voice in cinema to probe the “ethnoessentialism” of the anti-governmental street protest in Belgrade in the winter of 1996-97 and Srdjan Dragojević’s popular feature Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996);3 these are contrasted with the “ethnoefferent” creations by Bosnian authors—Muhamed Hadžimehmedović’s video drama After the Battle (1997), Ademir Kenović’s feature The Perfect Circle (1997), and Srdjan Vuletić’s short film Hop, Skip, and Jump (1999). The juxtaposition of these critical vignettes makes Disintegration in Frames an eloquent contribution to the contemporary theoretical shift from the consideration of national-particular cinemas to transnational or, better still, trans-ethnic cinemas. That this objective also speaks well to Levi’s intimate concern—the establishment of an “imaginary community” of post(trans)-Yugoslav cineastes invoked in the “Post Scriptum”—is only too fortunate.

Levi is professedly less interested in an exhaustive study of (post) Yugoslav cinema than in the denouncement of what he describes as “the entirely unjustifiable murder of transethnic solidarity in the name of phobic, ethnoessentialist identity politics” (145). In effect, Disintegration in Frames takes the form of a free movement across varied historical and artistic Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav frames, chosen in part by their relevance and in part by hermeneutic proclivity. In this light the very title of the book appears to be a misnomer. And this is where problems begin. If one understands Disintegration in Frames as an attempt to trace the continuity of certain aesthetic-ideological dynamics in Yugoslav cinema from 1945 to 2000—as suggested by the title and the organization of the text—, one cannot help noticing omissions in Levi’s book, diachronic and contextual gaps that may be detrimental in the situation of a relative shortage of international scholarship on the subject. For instance, Levi covers the ideological development of Yugoslav film from 1945 to 1965 in a one-page survey, and Slovenian and Macedonian cinemas get cursory treatment, the consequence of which is the perfunctory (or non-existent) discussion of some authors who have been expressly committed to the formal examination of ideology, such as Karpo Godina (The Medusa Raft [1980], Red Boogie [1982]) and Milće Manćevski (Before the Rain [1994], Dust [2001]). However, the most striking omission in Levi’s book is the lack of discussion of some internationally renowned authors, such as Aleksandar Petrović (I Even Met Happy Gypsies [1967], The Master and Margaret [1972]), Rajko Grlić (The Melody Haunts My Memory [1981]), and Slobodan Šijan (Who’s Singing Over There? [1980]). These films have acquired the status of recognizable aesthetic cogitations on ideology in both (post)Yugoslav and international film criticism and thus their exclusion resonates loudly.

The lack of domestic and international contextualization of the Yugoslav film and media industry, already indicated with regard to Levi’s discussion of The Top-List of Surrealists, broadens this unwitting obfuscation of the formerly Yugoslav cine-space. While it is true that the economics of Yugoslav film has been successfully discussed by Goulding, the complete absence of this type of information in Levi’s book leaves the reader with a false image of Yugoslav cinema as a playfield of (more or less) talented individuals, a domain fundamentally unrelated to funding bodies, foreign (financial and artistic) influences, and even the audience itself.4 In the context of an under-discussed cinema, it would be prescient to highlight national and international film industry connections, for they can situate the phenomenon Levi is talking about precisely for those readers whose knowledge of Yugoslav culture is limited. Finally, the potentially most problematic consequence of Levi’s idiosyncratic selection deserves to be mentioned: as all the works and acts utilized as case-studies wear their politico-ideological badges conspicuously, one begins to suspect that, for Levi, the workings of ideology are vivid or active only in those aesthetic products that deal with national identity politics in an explicit manner. The consideration of some previously mentioned films would amend this impression, and there is no doubt that Levi is capable of a nuanced formalist analysis required for such a task.

As a result of its cross-disciplinary position, Disintegration in Frames addresses (with unequal force) two kinds of readership. To those interested in the slippages of national and cultural identity, Levi’s book can offer unique fecundity of critical insights and a refreshing look at the audio-video production of the Yugoslav nullibiquite. Those seeking a comprehensive history of Yugoslav film or an exhaustive analysis of cinematic workings of ideology in Yugoslav cultural space might be disappointed by the fragmentary nature of discussion and the lack of contextualization. Yet, Disintegration in Frames should be recommended even to the latter group: for it is rare that what Andrew Horton has termed “one of the most vibrant, imaginative and provocative cinemas anywhere” is given such a serious and passionate treatment as in Levi’s book.5

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1. Daniel J. Goulding, Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience, 1945-2001 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002 [1985]); Michael Jon Stoil, Balkan Cinema: Evolution after the Revolution (Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1982); Dina Iordanova, Cinema of Flames: Balkan Film, Culture, and the Media (London: BFI, 2001); Anikó Imre, ed., East European Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 2005). On Kusturica and Makavejev, see, among others: Goran Gocić, The Cinema of Emir Kusturica: Notes from the Underground (London: Wallflower Press, 2001); Dina Iordanova, Emir Kusturica (London: BFI, 2002); and Raymond Durgnat, WR-Mysteries of the Organism (London: BFI, 1999).

2. TV Sarajevo broadcast Monty Python Flying Circus for the first time in 1979. At the time of its second broadcast in the mid-1980s, the show had already achieved cult status, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

3. Cf. Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

4. Truth speaking, Levi does mention “popularity” of certain films and series—parenthetically and without specification.

5. Andrew Horton, “Laughter Dark & Joyous in Recent Films from the Former Yugoslavia,” Film Quarterly 56/1 (Autumn 2002) 24.

About the Reviewer:

Sanja Bahun is Assistant Professor in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, University of Essex. Her area of expertise is international modernism, and her research interests include comparative literature and film, psychoanalysis, and women’s and gender studies. She has published articles and book chapters on a variety of related subjects, and she is the author of Modernism and Melancholia: History as Mourning-work (forthcoming) and the joint editor of The Avant-garde and the Margin: New Territories of Modernism (2006), Violence and Gender in the Globalized World: The Intimate and the Extimate (2008), From Word to Canvas: Appropriations of Myth in Women’s Aesthetic Production (2009), and Myth and Violence in the Contemporary Female Text: New Cassandras (2010, forthcoming).

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Bahun, Sanja. "Daniel Reynolds, The Aesthetics of Nullibiquite: Review of Pavle Levi, Disintegration in Frames: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema" Other Voices 4.1 March 2010. April 25, 2019 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/sbahun/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Sanja Bahun, The Semblance of Materiality: Review of Pavle Levi, Disintegration in Frames: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema. Other Voices 4, no. 1 (2010), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/sbahun/index.php› (accessed April 25, 2019)

APA Style Citation:
Bahun, Sanja. (2010, March). The Semblance of Materiality: Review of Brigitte Peucker, The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film (Cultural Memory of the Present). Other Voices, 4.1. Retrieved April 25, 2019, from http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/sbahun/index.php


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