Friday, September 9, 2016

On Dušan Vukotić's Cowboy Jimmy




Plot summary of Cowboy Jimmy (Dušan Vukotić, 1957) for those uninterested in watching the movie. (You can skip the next three paragraphs if you watch the clip): The first five minutes of Cowboy Jimmy are standard Wild West parody. Most of it isn't very clever. The small frontier town is represented as on-set facades from a movie set. Cowboy Jimmy is the full-chested hero, whose body sways from side-to-side as he rides a horse. The villain is in black. The first dead body is represented as a coffin which shoots out of a saloon, followed by a cowboy hat filled with bullet holes. A wasp-wasted woman descends a staircase singing a blues song. During a chase scene, the camera pulls back to reveal a movie audience watching the movie. A small boy, dressed as the hero, imitates Cowboy Jimmy. Cowboy Jimmy defeats the bandit. The bandit, in a clever gag forces Cowboy Jimmy off the screen into the movie theater, into the "real world."

From here, the cartoon turns sadistic. The boy feels up Cowboy Jimmy, recognizes that he's real, and then leads him from the movie theater. Outside, we see the first marker of Zagreb in the sign that reads "Kino" that stands atop the movie theater. The English word "saloon" with an arrow points to the makeshift children's toy-saloon that sits in the middle of an empty city space, surrounded by dilapidated apartment buildings. Inside, a young boy leans against the counter, dressed as the bandit in black.  of the city's apartment buildings. A boy in glasses plays the harmonica, as a young girl descends a ladder, imitating the love interest in the original film. Cowboy Jimmy enters with his biggest fan. The boy imitating a bandit steps up to him and Cowboy Jimmy teases him. The bandit responds by stepping on Cowboy Jimmy's foot revealing the movie hero's essential weakness. The children visit all sorts of cruelties upon the poor man. They hang him on the light, electricute him so that he turns into the outline of neon lights, reduce his body to jelly. On a Cowboy Jimmy poster that hangs on the wall, the image comes to life, watches what happens to the real Cowboy Jimmy and then blows his brains out in shame.

The children tie up their former hero and return him to the movie theater. They toss him through the screen and then all their cowboy toys, marking their break from the childish fantasy represented in the theater, as well as their break from the constraints of American culture.

This is one of the earliest films of the Zagreb School. And it announces itself as distinctly Yugoslav. These children watch an American film in a Yugoslav theater. They are fans of American culture. But when the American hero can't live up to his image, they torture him, punish him for disillusioning them. And then they return him to the movie theater, where he belongs. These boys don't need American fantasies. Yugoslavia doesn't need American films. They now have their own films, among them Cowboy Jimmy.

In other words, this is a literal rejection of American filmmaking. And yet, unlike other films of the Zagreb School, among them Vukotić's own Concerto for Sub-Machine Gun (1958), Cowboy Jimmy does not attempt any innovations in the realm of animation aesthetics or storytelling, and very little new in the realm of criticizing Hollywood norms. Bugs Bunny had tortured many Hollywood heroes, overpowering them in the world of animation where he could be the lord of chaos. What is new, if anything, is the setting. What is new is Zagreb.

How conscious is this film of its Yugolsav-ness? The film is cool with using English words like "cowboy" and "saloon," but a poster on the wall reads "Pucaj brzo," which literally translates as an imperative, "Shoot quickly," but may be the Serbo-Croatian translation of "quick draw." The city of Zagreb is portrayed with buildings as non-symmetrical, and goofy as the Wild West set of the Cowboy Jimmy movie. And the childrens' clubhouse is as goofy for its child-like reimagining of the Western fantasy as it is for its Yugoslav-ing of American culture. From my own perspective as a fan of these things, I feel a bit of joy anytime I see a mid-century theater marquee with the word "Kino," which reminds me of the many theaters of the former Yugoslavia which are closing down, making way for the cineplexes, which have better sound and more comfortable seats. But in the context of the film, the word "Kino" announces Yugoslavia, the experience of theater-going in Yugoslavia. Although Zagreb Film would become a distinctly internationalist studio, often with more non-Yugoslav than Yugoslav viewers, here in Cowboy Jimmy it describes an ideal audience.




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