Change in the Central-East-European Concept of Film Culture

Imre Szíjártó

Theoretical Framework: Canon, Canonisation, School 

The political transformation in the East-Central-European region, which began in the second half of the 1980s and ended in the early 1990s, connected in two countries with the establishment of souvereignty, seems to be a perfect period – or to be more precisely, a perfect milestone in history – to analyse the constructedness of the canon. Although it is clear that changes in values systems do not occur from one day to the next, neither can they be understood as effects of historical milestone events, unless we pause the ever changing reality of culture. 

1. The Concept of Canon

The Origins and Interpretations of the Concept of Canon

Canon as a comprehensive category describes the communal use of cultural products, which on the one hand serve as a point of orientation for making sense; while on the other hand, it continuously allows us to revise and rearrange our judgements on artworks. The canon receives its full meaning in the context of cultural discourses: the canon is a concept which establishes a link between the past and the present, the artwork and the recipient and even between two different interpretations. At this point, let me point to the following paradox: every canon is normative (exclusive), what is more, it is discriminative, and yet it is continuously re-created. At the background of this paradox lies the social conflict for collective memory. In my essay I will examine the double movement of inclusions and exclusions which were present in the cinema of the examined period. In other words, the main goal of my analysis is to make visible how fragmentation and continuity are present in the canon after the political transformation.

According to Jan Assmann, in ancient cultures texts that were authoritative were also untouchable. This is underlined by the fact that the community was willing to preserve the text in its original form. The closed nature of the canon’s concept, its strictness in handling texts and different interpretations of the canon, originates from this strong determination. (Assmann 2009:121) Today, the term canon is endowed with religious overtones which it received in the early periods of Christianity. The plural form of the word proves that it is shaped through continuous debates: the original strictness of the canon is weakened by both its use and the passage of time.

Harold Bloom claims that the communal use of the canon is closely linked to the ideology of the political elite in power; therefore its scope is beyond aesthetics. However, from the perspective of the recipient, the canon is nothing else but a battle against the mortal nature of man. (Bloom 2001:195)

As for the role of collective memory in canonisation, we have to inquire about the origins of the process: who starts to create a canon? In the following chapters we will see that both professional and non-professional initiations and judgements play a significant role in the process.

 

Change in Historical Periods: Transformations of the Canon

If we accept that the canon both limits and preserves the system of knowledge in a certain historical period, we also have to consider social changes and their effects. These effects do not definitely coincide with stylistic and artistic periods. As a matter of fact, it is not true that landmarks of social history cause similar transformations in the field of culture.

The political transformation in the East-Central-European region, which began in the second half of the 1980s and ended in the early 1990s, connected in two countries with the establishment of souvereignty, seems to be a perfect period – or to be more precisely, a perfect milestone in history – to analyse the constructedness of the canon. Although it is clear that changes in values systems do not occur from one day to the next, neither can they be understood as effects of historical milestone events, unless we pause the ever changing reality of culture. Having said that, canons can be fixed without suspending historical progress. I claim that the process of the political transformation (the series of events leading to state independence) had a great impact on both culture and cinema. Its effect can hardly be grasped through aesthetic terms; analyses of the canon pay little attention to aesthetic questions. Whenever I make reference to period boundaries and the resulting changes, these are – first and foremost – connected to the interpretation and reinterpretation of texts (films), the classification and the positioning of certain movies, that is, the social function of artworks. This line of inquiry will hopefully unveil a new understanding of film culture which emerged as a result of the change in political regime– itself a constructed phenomenon. Thus, we have to work with plural frameworks of reference: the first one concerns the contrast between the national and the universal; the second one is defined by the fields of the professional and the non-professional, while the third one is based on the dynamics of continuity and fragmentation. The canon is a form of reception; as such it makes possible such a method of interpretation which respects the national and the global, the communal and the individual just as much as the traditional and the innovative.

 

Canon, Interpretative Communities, School

Education is one of the institutional forms of connoisseurship; therefore the members of the school enjoy the status of a professional interpreter. At times authority and power may even pose as a temptation for them.

Since canon has lost its religious and universal legitimacy, it became ever more accepted that lists of important artworks are meaningful only for certain groups of people. Thus, canon turned into a catalogue of recommended secular readings and a set of guidelines for designing school curricula. If we identify the canon as a catalogue of texts, which refers to a particular discipline, historical period or subject matter, etc., we do not have to go further than educational institutions which plays a mediatory role between the whole of culture and the students Because of the spread of compulsory education, the social role of educational reading lists has also changed.

Up to the pre-Modern Period, the school and the canon presumed each other’s existence, their relation was characterised by a mutual definiteness: the school was the institution of preserving and conveying texts, whereas the canon received its form and stability from schools. According to Buck, the canon is the canon of the schools, thus schools are institutions which are closely linked to certain kinds of canons and therefore the school is always the school of a specific canon. Consequently, without the canon or the eo ipso educational canon, no school can exist (Buck 2001:203). Nevertheless, normativity – the curricular discipline with aspiration for completeness – seemed to decline from the beginning of the 20th century and was replaced by the controversial but lasting idea of free choice.

The school canon can be thus understood as one possible result of canonisation strategies politics, attempts or practices, and henceforth it serves as the cross-section of cultural products. This cross-section is one of the most exciting fields of film analysis and it is in the focus of the present essay

 

2. Challenges of canonisation in the Cinema of the Eastern- and East-Central-European Countries after the Political Transformation

After the change of political regime, the regions’s film industry entered a completely new era; the conditions of state subsidization, production and the distribution patterns have all changed. According to Dina Iordanova, the Bulgarian film historian presently living in the USA, the changes can be summarized as follows: the exclusiveness of state-support has ceased, and consequently film financing had to gradually turn to foreign or private funds, furthermore profits became the filmmakers’ primary concern. The distribution of the films has also been taken over by international companies or private distributors, resulting in the closure of small town cinemas. After the years of political changes, the number of completed films decreased in all of the previously mentioned countries, having very important effects on film culture. The reduction in the number of spectators is in positive correlation with the decrease in production figures. Since professionals had less and less work, generation gaps have widened. The public television channels – except in a few countries – have cut back on their orders; therefore, filmmakers had fewer opportunities to make movies for the small screen. In contrast with the previous eras, the debates on national film resources forbade the television channels to serve as a distribution platform for the latest movies in almost all of the countries. National cinema industries are unable to compete with the well-promoted and attractive foreign movies; consequently the audience’s faith in domestic films perishes. This fact also contributed to the weakening of cinema’s social significance. The continuous competition between foreign and domestic films has been intensifying with the appearance of the new (first analogue then digital)media. At the same time, the growing international interest towards the region resulted in great festival successes in many of the countries. However, films from East-Central-Europe hardly get into mainstream distributions abroad. As a matter of fact, only audiences at national and international film festivals have information about these movies. With the help of international funds, cinemas of the East-Central-European aspired to offer competition to foreign – especially the American – cinema. Indeed, the conditions of national film production have changed; consequently both the role of film culture within national culture and the concept of national cinema have been renegotiated. In the wake of these events, the idea of the European film is still in the process of transformation (Iordanova 1999:45-46). The most important factors of canon-construction are:

1. The changing film acts in certain countries. Continuous legislation (in the form of film acts) works with a well-defined definition of national films; at the same time, it determines the legal environment, in which the national film can exist.

2. The role of the re-organized institutional system (Polski Institut Szuki Filmowej, Slovenský filmový ústav – Národné kinematografické centrum, Filmski sklad Republike Slovenije, the Motion Picture Public Foundation of Hungary etc.) .

3. The influence of international and national awards on public judgements on films.

4. The votes of the critics and the votes of the audience, which are often translated into lists of “important films”.

5. The role of cults. Cults of different actors, directors or films inform us about the process of reception, inasmuch as they allow us to comprehend the logic behind interpretation and reinterpretation, how ‘reading communities’ relate to one other and what collective modes of self-identification exist among the recipients.

6. Changes in proportions of popular and art movies. The place of the new wave of genre movies within the concept of national cinema.

7. The role of generations and other groupings of filmmakers.

8. The question of interpretative communities: debates and discussions on filmmakers, oeuvres, movies and different tendencies.

9. The influence of the academic literature on popular perceptions of cinema. We have to examine monographs and technical books on the bases of their theme and the eras which they focus on.

10. The value judgements of different forums of publicity (trade papers, journalism, everyday criticisms).

11. The relationship between cinema and literature. The situation with novel adaptations.

12. The role of box-office figures in public judgements.

13. The role of the international co-productions in the reconceptualization of the notion of national film.

14. Cinema and the new audio-visual media: films of national cinema on analogous media, the state of the national DVD- market and DVD-editions.

15. The presence of the national film on television. What roles do TV-companies play in national film financing?

16. The educational curriculum as a depository of national culture. New school subjects have been introduced in the region’s countries which are connected to film culture, media, communication and issues of publicity. If we examine the course books, teaching aids and other publications of the curriculum made for educational purposes, we can get significant information about the nature of cultural knowledge disseminated through the education system. Furthermore, we can interpret the list of compulsory and recommended films as a unique canon.

Moveast

Jurica Pavičić

Stylistic Models

6. The Film of Self-balkanisation 1

The sixth part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Jurica Pavičić

Stylistic Models

5. The Film of Self-victimisation

The fifth part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Imre Szíjártó

Cinemas in Central-Eastern-Europe at the End of the 1980s

The historical framework

In this chapter we attempt to delineate the socio-historical background of the Central-Eastern- European cinemas of the 1990s. We treat the period directly preceding the change of regime, namely the "end of the 1980s" as a relatively neutral period reference and describe events of the  period relevant to film history. Since state socialism collapsed in a different rhythm and logic in each country, we will discuss each country separately. As in previous chapters the descriptive approach will be complemented by a comparative one, since we also try to formulate the regional message of the transformation that took place in each country.


Jurica Pavičić

The Development of Post-Yugoslav Cinemas and the Eastern European Context

4. The Eastern European and the Post-Yugoslav Situation: Similarities and Differences

The fourth part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Iván Forgács

The Concept

Could there be a full gap between a state's political function and its ideology and recordable values with a humane trend? If not, in what kind of elements can be revealed the link? Is the opportunity of the violence game for this humanism inside? Could that state oppressor machineries work in the context of the humanism? How much was the film art of the East European state socialism specific? How much can be the intellectual-artistic peculiarities of the region's film production derived from the ideological values represented officially in these countries? May we talk about socialist cinema art in any kind of sense?

Jurica Pavičić

The Development of Post-Yugoslav Cinemas and the Eastern European Context

3. The Context of Eastern European Cinema after the Fall of the Berlin Wall

The third part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Imre Szíjártó

Theoretical Framework: Canon, Canonisation, School 

The political transformation in the East-Central-European region, which began in the second half of the 1980s and ended in the early 1990s, connected in two countries with the establishment of souvereignty, seems to be a perfect period – or to be more precisely, a perfect milestone in history – to analyse the constructedness of the canon. Although it is clear that changes in values systems do not occur from one day to the next, neither can they be understood as effects of historical milestone events, unless we pause the ever changing reality of culture. 

Jurica Pavičić

The Development of Post-Yugoslav Cinemas and the Eastern European Context

2. The Development of Cinema in the Post-Yugoslav Countries

The second part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Krasimir Kastelov

Postmodernist Film Interpretations of the Communist Past

(The Bulgarian contribution in the context of the Central and East European cinema)

The proposed analysis of key films from the Bulgarian and the East European cinema shows, that their postmodernist specifics is not accidental, but it reflects the overall feeling of crisis, lack of meaning and absurdity which has engaged the minds of many filmmakers from our region – something typical for the transition between two eras, when one cultural paradigm is put aside, but a new one is still not widely adopted. On the other hand, the appearance of those films, in my opinion, refutes the premature conclusions of some Western theorists that the postmodernism is already dead. 
Thirty years after the first swallows of the postmodernist cinema in the West, the film art in the post-totalitarian East European countries takes advantage of its lessons in order to make sense of some of the unpleasant episodes of the communist past, “with irony, not innocently” by Umberto Eco’s definition. The wide international reaction to most of the titles, analyzed in the current overview, suggests perhaps the right path for overcoming the nostalgia of that era.