Thursday, December 22, 2016

On Looking to the Periphery

Taking a break from Library of Congress toil, to take some notes vaguely related to my dissertation, some of which may become a paragraph in the final product, but probably won't.

When you start writing about the Balkans, you end up repeating cliches in your attempt to explain why the region is unique and worthy of study. Much of the secondary research I've been doing the past few days acknowledges these cliches, while also more or less accepting them and trying to qualify them.

A short list, mostly on Croatia:

1. The Balkans exist at a cross-section of various cultures, religions, and linguistic groups, and therefore its identity remains in flux. 2. The Balkans is in a constant state of transition. 3. National identity is confusing and the orientation of various parts of the Balkans often shifts towards and away from various major cities. Zagreb, for instance, at various moments of its history looked to either Belgrade, Budapest, or Vienna. 4. The attempt to create a true national identity in any particular artistic tradition is all but futile. There are too many influences and the cultures are never as static as, supposedly, the cultures of France, Spain, or the U.K. 5. Croatia exists at the periphery of major powers, whether they be the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, socialist Yugoslavia, or, most recently, the European Union.

A scholar I read quoted Ljubo Karaman, a historian of Dalmatian and Croatian art, who argued that Croatia's art tradition stemmed from the "freedom of the periphery," its place at the edge of empires rather than at the center. By being situated far from economic support and political authority, artists are allowed to "draw from two or more sources and to make creative synthesis in auspicious moments." These quotes are taken from a lovely essay by Eve Blau, "Modernizing Zagreb: the Freedom of the Periphery," which can be found in the book Races to Modernity: Metropolitan Aspirations in Eastern Europe, 1890-1940.

The anti-Disney movement grew after World War II, a movement that supposedly rejected Disney's hyper-realism in favor of earthier, messier, and more experimental forms of animation that was, more often that not, produced on lower budgets. When I interviewed Bordo, one of Zagreb Film's animators, in 2014 he told me that the anti-Disney movement was a misnomer. He believed that his colleagues were just following a non-Disney philosophy. They were doing their own thing. And most of them liked Disney. The School was hanging out in the freedom of the periphery. They ran a film festival, and helped define various animation movements and styles in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in North America (read: National Film Board in Canada). In other words, they invented their own center.

In film studies, scholars have been struggling with their own ideas of the periphery since the 1970s. At this point, the cliche is so banal in my field that our theorists have successfully complicated it through transnational theories so as to deny its significance. Still, beneath all our knowledge, there is something romantic about placing Canadian animation (which survived on government funding), Hungarian animators, and Polish animators as working on various kinds of peripheries far from the centers of Hollywood, Moscow, and Japan. Whatever the intentions, the joys in so many of these less well-funded films forefront their crudities and can't smooth over the mistakes. Maybe we're tourists, admiring those brilliant artists who aren't as rich as we are. Or they're just looking at the centers, evolving in their own ways.

Blau uses Karaman's argument to define the development of the Green Horsehoe, a giant stretch of two long greens surrounded by major museums, public buildings, and the city's major train station that occupies Lower Zagreb. a construction that imitates Vienna's Ringstrasse. The Green Horseshoe was developed over decades, essentially from the bottom up by clever city planners who added suggestions that would allow the plan to emerge seemingly organically. The Ringstrasse was created from the top down. I think her argument is strong.

In film studies, however, we have come to consider analogous ideas to the "freedom of the periphery" unfortunate, unduly romantic, outright insulting. It's hard not to see the silly romanticism in their argument. Karaman's claim can be applied to artistic creation of minority cultures that exist within power centers. I mean, isn't this the Croatian version of "Jim Crow gave us the blues"?  Still, it's a beautiful fiction, one that will persist for cinephiles outside academia even as cinephiles within academia reject it. And to be honest, even as we reject it, our subconscious demands that we accept it. Whether we like it or not, there's a part of us that falls in love with these films based on our love for the primitive, the authentic, that which we have lost but somehow exists in these faroff exotic lands...

We're idiots.

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