Saturday, March 18, 2017

On Neboder

Neboder / Skyscraper, the story of the day-in-the-life of a large apartment building, is an animated version of what would otherwise be an enormous splash page of a comic book. Neboder has strong similarities to Mad magazine, untranslated versions of which circulated among the new generation of comic-book writers in Zagreb in the late 1970s.[1] In comic-book form, the reader fetishizes various sections of the page, developing his own narrative based on where his eye voluntarily rests. In Neboder, Marušić guides the viewer to the parts of the building he would most like him to see, fitting the space of the building within a clear time frame for the narrative. The details overwhelm. Marušić planned the film as a series of 120 jokes[2], piled one atop the other. The most attentive spectator would be unable to catalogue half of them after two screenings.
The first spectators of Neboder at international film festivals would likely have had only one chance to screen in the film and would have been granted only a limited opportunity to absorb what they were watching. Since the 1960s, films which elude the spectator’s wish to master every detail of the mise-en-scène were ubiquitous in animated film festivals. The inability to absorb the world of Jan Švankmajer’s puppet films is terrifying; the horror of the films lies in the suggestion that not every image can be known in full, that sounds emanate from objects that can never be understood. Yellow Submarine’s (George Dunning, 1968) use of the approach turns the world of the Beatles into an endless playground. In Neboder, each joke becomes a suggestion of a larger and more complex narrative. The secrets of apartment life, of what one's neighbors do and don't do can never be learned. 
Many of the Zagreb School films are manifestations of the Menippean Satire. The genre has roots in antiquity. Without detailing the Menippean Satire’s history, it would be better to summarize its features. “The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes,” Northrop Frye writes. “Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior.”[3] Pride and Prejudice is a novel. Gulliver’s Travels is a Menippean Satire. Frye continues, “The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect, as a kind of maddened pedantry which the philosophus gloriosus at once symbolizes and defines.”[4] In live-action film, the Menippean Satire can find obvious manifestations in the dissections of American culture and violence, and the role of the European filmmaker to capture such, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) and Federico Fellini’s cartoonal imaginings in his semi-autobiographical Roma (1972) and Amarcord (1973). P. Adams Sitney connects the Menippean Satire to American avant-garde film of the 1970s and 1980s, but also glances towards Woody Allen’s early films. “The more general issue has usually been discussed as ‘postmodernism’ and includes a rejection of distinctions between high and mass culture, an iconoclasm of artistic authority, relentless politicization of all themes, and an insatiable desire to unmask ideology.”[5] The genre may be so generally defined as to lose meaning, but if we consider certain basic concepts, the use of human figures as ideas rather than figures with fully realized psychological or moral complexity, a depiction of insanity and the absurd at the expense of the organic and the grounded, we can see the foundations for the vision of apartment life offered in Neboder.
The film depicts a skyscraper, made up of 20 floors, in a cross-section. It’s a claustrophobic community, made up of evenly-distributed block-shaped apartments. The apartments are connected by two arteries. The bedrooms lie on the right side of the apartment. In the middle of the building runs the first artery, a thick, vertical plumbing line through which courses urine, excrement, and other fluids and objects. The rooms on the left side of the apartment serve either as bathrooms – there’s a toilet in each one – living rooms, or kitchens. An elevator, the second artery, occupies the far left portion of the screen. In the course of the 10-minute short, Marušić cuts to specific sections of the building, and captures tiny vignettes, and then cuts back periodically to extreme long shots of the apartment as a whole. The body of the building, its flow of blood in the form of human filth through plumbing and the mechanical travelling of the elevator, works in a rhythm with and against the choreography of its inhabitants. Mikhail Bakhtin’s thorough dissection of the Menippean Satire offers a succinct description of this stage. “A special type of experimental fantasticality, totally alien to the antique epos and tragedy, appears in the menippea: observation from an unusual point of view, from a high altitude, for example, coupled with radical changes in the scale of the observed phenomena.”[6] The spectator is given a privileged position to see the full workings of the human beings/ideas before him, to immerse himself in the carnival in a manner that no one within the film could ever contemplate. Throughout Neboder, men and women defecate, have sex, invent machines, go to work, come home, read newspapers, watch television, eat, play with their pets, and calm their babies, all while a mere few feet of screen space -- assuming the projection of the film on a movie-theater screen -- gravity pulls their neighbors’ filth to the ground.
Day dawns. A lone man walks up to a giant curtain. He pulls it up to reveal the whole building, and at least 20 naked bodies, all lying in bed. The alarm clocks ring, and 19 alarm clocks are thrown out the window. Only one continues to ring, and the apartment dwellers, in increasing annoyance, and with increasing frequency bang their brooms in unison against their ceilings. They are defining their membership within a group and demanding compliance from all of its members. A group of men runs to the elevator and rides up to the apartment with the still-ringing alarm clock. A man lies dead. They toss the alarm clock, remove a chamber pot and then find a coffin beneath the bed. They put the corpse in the coffin and then leave. No one has eaten breakfast yet, but already this is a world of death and decay.  
Despite the reliance on what would be seen in a Western context as heteronormative – the woman stay at home and the men go to work -- the film upsets the assumptions of classic gender roles. In one of the film’s gags, three wives send their men off with three different signs. The sign on the man at the top reads “sold.” The one in the middle reads “Do not disturb.” The one at the bottom, “Gratis.” After the three men leave, a man slips into the middle apartment to have an affair with the woman. The husband returns to the apartment after travelling only two floors down on the elevator, walks in on the affair. The two men start to spar, taking off their clothes. When the cuckold is naked, he chases the clothed man, a gay gag. The absurdity of the gender roles, the various approaches to marriage, and the ways these various approaches affect other marriages all form suggestions, surfaces of apartment life, in which no one follows a correct pattern, as the correct pattern does not exist.
The civilization of the apartment which relegates the elements of human experience to a proper place is always under threat. In a long shot, a crude, thin line protects the inhabitants from their neighbors’ filth. In close-up, the line is broken, crude, anemically thin, drawn at slightly, uneven angles against one another. In a self-reflexive gag, an inhabitant collapses two floors of the apartment, effectively disappearing the apartment between them, cutting out the equivalent of a comic-book panel. Still, the film is also exuberant in its comical rendition of the collapse of the separate human experiences. The individual compositions in Neboder turn the building into a body, and that body into an evocation of Bakhtin’s concept of the grotesque, in which the essential variant bodily functions “destroy the old picture of the world that had been formed in a dying epoch…to create a new picture, at whose center we have the whole man, both body and soul.”[7] 
Marušić’s composition captures the Bakhtin-ian carnival. One frame captures three full apartments, as well as the bottom part of a fourth. At the top of the screen, a man sits ready for work with his suitcase, his pet parrot’s feathers a hint of animal life. In the floor below his the group of men who picked up the dead body in the beginning of the film, stand solemnly with their coffin, in prayer, in complete stillness, also awaiting the elevator. In the floor below them, an alcoholic systematically drinks and empties red liquor bottles as they pile up at his feet, some of them spilling into the piping through which the human filth descends. And in the bottom floor, a man constantly prepares to have sex with a large-thighed woman, who lies reclining, bored, on her pillow, a pillow which itself spills into the plumbing line as well. The man removes a series of shirts, first blue, then yellow, then blue again, delaying his performance. He’s impotent. In time, the alcoholic drinks and empties his bottles. The men carrying the coffin are as still as the corpse inside it. A poster of a clown, sits atop the wall in the lower left section of the screen. A spectator willing to take in the entirety of the screen, fetishizing every detail, would be alternatively drawn by solemn faces, the happy face of the drunk, the bored eyes of the naked woman, and the flat eyes of the clown, letting his eye wander from one part of the screen to another. Though there is a diagonal of blue cut through by a horizontal red line, Marušić’s composition offers little direction for where the eye should settle, and it’s possible for it wander only along the immobile, inorganic red bottles in the left and middle. And yet the sense of the other jokes, the jokes that refer to the decaying corpse, sex, and sexual frustration inform and inhabit the joke inherent in drunkenness. The viewer invents the contours of the Bakhtinian experience for himself, feeling the grotesque on his own terms.
Miljenko Dőrr’s soundscape is the source for the film’s narrative thrust, as each sound event marks the beginning and the ending of a specific gag, a moment of screen-time, gags which collapse one atop the other. Sound effects invent a layered soundscape, in which all sound becomes encapsulated within the world of the apartment. A cock crows. The film’s opening credits are layered with heavy snoring. The man who pulls the curtain enters the frame speaking gibberish. The opening of the blinds strikes a note and the beat of the brooms sets a rhythm for the rest of the film. Most of the Foley sounds have direct corollaries to the images on screen, and every sound must be connected to a movement, such as giant fart which almost destroys the building and the whirring of television screens at night. Due to the composition, however, and the spectator’s uninhibited eye, sound events meant to connect with certain images inform the images that are not defined by the Foley effect. The sexually frustrated man removes his shirts and each removal contains a figured whooshing sound, a sound event that comes to describe the man who lies drunk in the frame as well as the gentlemen carrying the coffin. Sounds which emanate from one body come to inhabit others. 
It is only when a musical soundtrack enters the world of the film that Neboder nearly exits the world of comedy for the briefest of moments and captures the melancholy of Marušić’s earlier films Iznutra i izvana / Inside and Out (1978) and Perpetuo (1979). At dusk, a man climbs to the top of the building and places a phonograph on the roof. A synthesizer starts playing and almost all the inhabitants of the apartment stop their movements, and stand in complete solemnity, with their eyes closed and their hands on their hearts. There are still gags. A woman stands naked. A man is perched outside his window trying desperately not to fall out. The herders with their farm animals enter the screen and join the ritual. Still, the moment suggests a unity of feeling, that the animus and horrors and brutality of the opening of the film might also have the potential for a quasi-religious experience.   
            The skyscraper of Neboder does not exist in any one country, neither clearly in a capitalist nor socialist state, in Yugoslavia or elsewhere. The uniformity of the building, and the seeming uniformity of the inhabitants, particularly in regards to their similar choice of clothes suggests Western stereotypes of socialist conformity and Marušić claims to have been inspired by the building where he himself lived.[8] At the same time female characters stay at home where they take care of their apartments, while their husbands go to work.[9] When the inhabitants of the building call for an elevator, they scream lift on the soundtrack – the word for elevator in Croatian – while the words for elevator appear in bubble white fonts in Croatian, American English, French, and German. The absurd appearance of farm animals in the film could be read as a Balkan joke; this modern apartment cannot escape the bucolic world of the countryside. The iconography suggests modernist fears of the collective, but the collective could be both a product of capitalist as well as socialist engineering. The film appears late in the history of socialism, and Yugoslav socialism in particular, but the images of the film transcends ideological assumptions.

[1] Bojan Krištofić. Interview by author. Digital recording, Zagreb, Croatia, March 9, 2017. Joško Marušić was part of this generation, but he denies the influence of Mad. Interview by author. Digital recording, Zagreb, Croatia, February 7, 2017.
[2] Marušić, 2017.
[3] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, ed. Robert D. Dunham, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 289.
[4] Ibid, 290.
[5] P. Adams Sitney, Visionary: The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 418.
[6] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Trans. R.W. Rotsel, (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1973), 95.
[7] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 205.
[8] Joško Marušić, 2017.
[9] I am grateful to Vladimir Kulić for pointing out this detail. Email to author, November 29, 2016.


  1. Very fine interpretation of Neboder!

    'The use of human figures as ideas' - good observation - does characterise especialy the first generation of Zagreb School animators, and Marusic, who started and continued to be politicaly and socialy satirical caricaturist, was in continuity with this strand. (The characterisation could not be allways applicable to second generation ZS animators).

    The presence of farm animals woud never be read as 'bucolic' at that time, but as a allpresent mixture of rural (treated as 'primitive', 'backward') and urban.

  2. Correction: the treatment of "rural" ('seljačko' in Croatian) as primitive and backward, has been (and still occasionally is) common conversational routine, and common attitude in ex-Yugoslavia and present day Croatia. But, to correct myself, there was a strand that tended to idealise rurality ('selo'), especially by some of the Praxis school sociologists (e.g. Rudi Supek) - they tend to idealise and contrast the 'humanity' of rural life to the 'estranged' urban life; so it may be that this attitude Marusic had in mind when introducing the farmer. It depend on the concrete presentation of farmer in the film that I can not check, not having the film at hand.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.