Thinking Film:

Thinking Film:

Cinefied Materiality in Slobodan Šijan’s Fanzine Film Leaflet (1976-1979)

Author
Aleksandar Bošković
Abstract
The study focuses on Film Leaflet, Slobodan Šijan’s single-page, double-sided fanzine, created and distributed monthly from 1976 to 1979 in socialist Yugoslavia, examining it as an alternative platform for propagating new critical experimental film practice and interdisciplinary explorations of the medium. Conceived as a platform for the free use of film history, mass media, and pop culture in critical practice, Šijan’s fanzine exercised direct appropriation—re-signification, re-combination, and re-production—of content from different media to articulate the new critical practice of thinking film. I argue that Šijan’s fanzine, as a ciné-dispositive for thinking film, is contingent upon the “schema, a dynamic play of relations” that articulates discourses and practices of its three basic elements: spectator, representation, and medium materiality. I examine the mutual relations between these three elements in order to both illuminate and critically assess the effects Šijan’s Film Leaflet aimed to produce. Such an alternative critical practice of thinking film represents not only investigation into the material ontology of different reproductive media, but it also extends the notion of fiction by investigating where the ontological levels of media’s reproductive power and human body (our physio-psycho-sociological actions) eventually convene.
Keywords
Slobodan Šijan; Tomislav Gotovac; paracinema; cinema by other means; fanzine; ciné-dispositive; ciné-apparatus (dispositif); prosumer; Yugoslavia; New Art Practice; Black Wave; experimental film; Hollywood; kitsch; cinephilia; Americanophilia; general cinefication; thinking film

“The cinema has become synonymous with fiction. This is astoundingly obvious.”
Edgar Morin (2005: 75)

Slobodan Šijan is well known, both domestically and internationally, as the director of critically and publicly celebrated early-1980s Yugoslav black comedies, Ko to tamo peva? / Who’s Singin’ Over There? (1980, Yugoslavia) and Maratonci trče počasni krug / The Marathon Family (1982, Yugoslavia). In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, he explored the cinematic potential of experimental film and of paracinema forms that transcend the habitual understanding of what constitutes a film. His single-page, double-sided fanzine called Film Leaflet, created and distributed monthly from 1976 to 1979, was conceived as a samizdat project of serial “paper movies.” Following ideas of the influential film critic and scriptwriter, Branko Vučičević (1998: 20-21) who introduced this term, the film theoretician Pavle Levi (2010, 2012) calls such combinations of text and image “cinema by other means.”1 The full set of 43 Film Leaflets was recently acquired by The Museum of Modern Art Library in New York, and is now available to researchers.

This article focuses on Šijan’s Film Leaflet examining it as an alternative platform for propagating new critical experimental film practice and interdisciplinary explorations of the medium. Conceived as a platform for the free use of film history, mass media, and pop culture in critical practice, Šijan’s fanzine exercised direct appropriation—re-signification, re-combination, and re-production—of content from different media in order to articulate the new critical practice of thinking film.2 Following Levi’s concept of “cinema by other means,” I suggest that Šijan’s fanzine can be understood as 1) a ciné-dispositive for thinking film, and 2) a real, concrete, experiential form of the Yugoslav 1970s cinema apparatus (ciné-dispositif).3 The Yugoslav 1970s ciné-apparatus included a network of ciné-clubs, a number of film festivals of both mainstream and experimental film (such as the Genre Experimental Film Festival [GEFF] in Zagreb, the Interclub Authorial Amateur Film Festival [MAFAF] in Pula, and the Belgrade Documentary and Short Film Festival), state-funded institutions for producing, making, and distributing films, along with “individual authors, formal and informal networks, links with other spheres of arts, and in some cases even politics.”4 They all formed a particular “network of relations”—a network of discourses, practices, and institutions, reciprocally linked and governed by strategies of power within the 1970s socialist Yugoslavia—which I call the Yugoslav ciné-apparatus (dispositif). The ciné-dispositive, on the other hand, is understood as “the mechanism of a device, instrument or machine” which allows spectators to attend to a representation.

I argue that Šijan’s fanzine, as a ciné-dispositive for thinking film, is contingent upon the “schema, a dynamic play of relations” that articulates discourses and practices of its three basic elements: spectator, representation, and medium materiality. I examine the mutual relations between these three elements to both illuminate and critically assess the effects Šijan’s Film Leaflet aimed to produce. Such an alternative critical practice of thinking film represents not only an investigation into the material ontology of different reproductive media, but also extends the notion of fiction by investigating where the ontological levels of the media’s reproductive power and the human body (our physio-psycho-sociological actions) eventually convene. I demonstrate that Šijan’s radical practice of thinking film aims to harmonise the subject and the object, the internal and external rhythms of behaviour, and to bring the reality and the film onto the same ontological level, which may be called the cinefied matereality. Rather than engaging with a particular definition of fiction among the multiple existing ones, my paper aims to reflect on the nature of their diversity arguing instead that any definition or theory of fiction is a relational function of dispositive/dispositif.

From Critical Inquiry into Cultural Reproduction to Physically Entering the Filmic Reality

Although conceived and printed during the late 1970s, Film Leaflet both reflected and embodied Šijan’s decade-long experience of living as an emerging artist in the increasingly westernised cultural milieu of socialist Yugoslavia.After graduating from the Fine Arts Academy in Belgrade, Šijan enrolled in Belgrade’s Academy of Theatre, Film, Radio, and Television in 1970 to study with Živojin Pavlović, a well-known Black Wave film director. In 1972, Šijan witnessed the reactionary reversal of the political climate of the film school triggered by the controversy surrounding Lazar Stojanović’s Plastični Isus / Plastic Jesus (1971, Yugoslavia). He graduated several years after the witch-hunt at the school settled down, at the time when artistic freedoms among filmmakers were drastically curtailed.5 Šijan’s art practice was inspired by diverse cultural phenomena, including the 1960s counterculture and psychedelic art, the idea of the “junkyard” promoted by Leonid Šejka (an established visual artist, writer, and founder of the Mediala group in Belgrade), and both American underground and Hollywood films. But Šijan was even more influenced by his close friendship with Tomislav Gotovac and the experimentation with time-based arts—photography/slides, video, film, and performance.6 These practices developed within the conceptual paradigm in experimental art, established within the framework of the Yugoslav New Art Practice of the 1960s and 1970s and promoted around the youth and student cultural centres in Novi Sad, Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Belgrade.7

Šijan started Film Leaflet in 1976—“out of frustration” (Šijan 2009: 7)—as an intermediary step between his work with experimental films (from 1970 to 1976, he directed and assisted in the making of about twenty experimental and short films) and his first TV films, while trying to break into professional Yugoslav cinema. Influenced by the conceptual art and the New Art Practice that were emerging from the Student Cultural Center (SKC) Belgrade, Šijan’s Film Leaflet was a conflation of his work with the “time-based arts,” in a form that enabled him to combine his knowledge of visual art and cinema in a moment when he was moving from one to the other. He began his fanzine as a way to continue his painterly practice after he stopped making paintings and drawings and started Xerox copies of his graphic works:

Film Leaflet is a sort of “fanzine” or “do-it-yourself” newsletter, halfway between poor graphic and samizdat, created with the idea of making, once a month, a visual and textual statement about film, or related to film (conceived in the broadest possible sense). It was printed using whatever technology was available to me, on one A4 sheet, and distributed to friends and other people interested in film (Šijan 2009: 7).

Despite its small scale—the print run of the original leaflets ranged from 50 to 250 copies—the fanzine was ambitious in the range of issues it covered. From the start, it addressed the social potential of cinema as both a countercultural form and a practice promoting the free development of socialist culture. The first three leaflets, for example, propose a critical re-thinking of the history of both experimental and popular cinema in international as well as domestic contexts. Thus, the inaugural leaflet represents a reaction to George Maciunas’ December 1969 Diagram, in which the Fluxus artist offered his own classification of the newest trends in avant-garde cinema. Šijan adds to Maciunas’ classification the most important films made in 1963-64 by structural filmmakers Mihovil Pansini and Tomislav Gotovac, thus enhancing understanding of the Yugoslav “anti-film” movement in the wider context of Western avant-garde cinema.8 Leaflets 2 and 3 respond to domestic issues and represent Šijan’s reaction to the communist witch-hunt surrounding the Black Wave film movement.

Šijan’s fanzine displays and articulates a transition from understanding cinema as a subversive instrument for social change, characteristic for the Black Wave filmmakers, to seeing it as an instrument for critical inquiry into cultural reproduction. Many examples of Šijan’s fanzine show how they reflected and responded, both affirmatively and critically, to the practice of either revealing his penchant for mass culture, kitsch, and camp aesthetics, cinephilia and Americanophilia, or the reciprocal relation between his involvement with the State-funded cultural institutions (Yugoslav Cinémateque, SKC, Studentski Grad Film Club) and his Film Leaflet practices (selecting films and awarding authors), or his take on the movie star phenomenon.9

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Slobodan Šijan, “Ho(l)lywood or Bust.” Film Leaflet No. 6. November 1976. Xerox, 29,5 x 21 cm. Image courtesy of the author.

Šijan’s 1973 manifesto “Ho(l)lywood or Bust,” printed in 1976 as Leaflet 6, is emphatic in ascribing equal importance to both “experimental” or underground film and “commercial” Hollywood cinema, through an imagined discussion between Šijan and Andy Warhol (“Me: Hollywood is beautiful. Andy Warhol: Hollywood is beautiful. Me: Underground is beautiful. Andy Warhol: Underground is beautiful.”) that includes quotations from Jack Smith.10 “My taste at that time,” explains Šijan in 2009, “inclined towards extremes like underground and ‘trash.’ I could not stand the middle ground; those films which were here [in Yugoslavia] and all over the world considered great works. I loved esoteric, highly personal experiments or products of mass culture” (Šijan 2009: 7; translation modified).. Šijan’s work with a series of kitsch postcards, which has been instrumental in promoting the image of the consumption-centered “good life” in socialist Yugoslavia, perfectly illustrates his peculiar taste at the time.11

Furthermore, a number of Film Leaflets make unambiguous statements about the importance of American cinema for Šijan and subsequent generations of Yugoslav moviegoers.12 Šijan went on promoting American commercial cinema out of his belief that significant ideas are often born in the domain of popular culture.13 It is hard to overestimate the roles of cinephilia and Americanophilia in Šijan’s thinking about cinema.14 For example, the November and December issues of his Film Leaflet were conceived, respectively, as “official selections of film festivals” and awards to the experimental film authors or journals participating in the “competition.”15 The guiding concept behind the November and December issues of Film Leaflet resembles that of FEST, an annual international film festival in Belgrade established in 1971 to assess the films of the previous year. Nonetheless, these issues focus exclusively on the films distributed in cinemas and highlight what official awards ignored. With the introduction of the Film Leaflet Award, Šijan continued to recognise and promote Yugoslav experimental filmmakers and alternative film critics while mimicking a mainstream practice of the Yugoslav ciné-apparatus.

On the other hand, the most obvious and ubiquitous example of the cultural reproduction among the cinemagoers is the collective obsession with the movie-star phenomenon. Šijan states that it “is the main ingredient that makes up the seductive nature of mainstream cinema. The audience eagerly anticipates a chance to inhabit the image of their favourite ‘star,’ no matter which character they portray. […] The childish need to identify with the ‘stars’ and join the harmless adventure of the ‘imitation of life’ may be at the core of our fascination with cinema” (Šijan 2009: 226). Although Šijan saw the movie-star phenomenon as universal, the examples in Film Leaflet suggest again the dominant presence of American over other foreign cultures in Yugoslavia at the time.16

More importantly, Šijan’s approach to the phenomenon of stardom reflects his constant interrogation of the essence of cinema and its complex relationship to mimesis. This is best illustrated in Leaflet 41, featuring John Wayne (born Marion Morrison) in a well-known 1954 Camel tobacco advertisement, and its Hustler magazine parody which inserted a 1979 photo of Wayne, then dying from cancer, into the original ad. Taking its title from Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976, USA), Wayne’s last film, the Leaflet not only alludes to the iconic status that “the Duke,” as Wayne was called, had achieved during his fifty-year career in Hollywood, and the intriguing parallel between Wayne’s life and the life of his character in The Shootist. Both are aging and facing terminal cancer. An important difference, however, lies in their respective deaths: while the gunman in the film decides to die in a duel instead of in bed, John Wayne died from abdominal cancer three years after making the film. By referring to The Shootist as a film that fuses real life with “on-screen life,” Šijan’s leaflet turns Hustler’s tobacco ad parody into the vehicle for generating conceptually stimulating questions regarding the relationship between John Wayne’s cinematic and Marion Morrison’s lived life: Which part of his life was more palpable? What kind of life and what kind of death are registered on celluloid? What is the essence of cinema and its mimetic nature?

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Slobodan Šijan, “The Shootist.” Film Leaflet No. 41 (back side). October 1979. Digital print (additionally printed in 1999), 29,5 x 21 cm. Image courtesy of the author.

These questions remain a constant of Šijan’s engagement with cinema and, simultaneously, represent the springboard for his practice of thinking film. As his Film Manifesto (1972) states, lives on and off the screen are both real and have porous borders: “1. The truth of a film is not in simulating life but in the fact that it exists as a natural phenomenon. 2. Film is an extension of our behaviour and we can behave outward and inward” (Šijan 2010: 8). Not only does Šijan align with the preceding radical thought of general cinefication of reality, which considers reality as always a cinefied reality that is “thoroughly mediated by the all-subsuming dynamics of cinematography” (Levi 2012: 82), but he also comes close to Edgar Morin’s concept of cinema as the world with “double and syncretic nature, objective and subjective, […] the function and the functioning of the human mind in the world” (Morin 2005: 204). For both Morin and Šijan, cinema externalised the imaginary process: the dreams are projected and objectified in the external material reality by the means of cinema, by the machine (dispositive), while we simultaneously reabsorb them through the consumption of images and thus reintegrate the imaginary in the reality of our (human) mind.

Finally, Šijan sees The Shootist as “a magnificent essay about cinema” which grapples with the above questions and hints at possible answers: “‘On-screen life’ thus becomes as real as life off the screen since the conversation between James Stewart and Wayne’s character about the latter’s terminal disease in the film may belong to both worlds. This story about filming one’s death in order to conquer death through a film’s monumentality surpasses all other film stories, maybe because its hero is the greatest film star of all time” (Šijan 2009: 233). One of the most important qualities of fiction, according to Šijan, is inseparably connected with the human fear, courage, and desire to overcome our own mortality. Šijan recognised the task of conquering death by entering filmic reality as both a challenge and a venture of his future explorations of the film and its medium specificity.

It is as if our fascination with cinema, at the core of which lies our obsession and need to identify with the movie stars, prompts us to ponder “the possibility of directly entering the filmic reality,” which is, according to Levi (2012: 127), a key question that has persistently motivated Šijan’s work. Many issues of Film Leaflet tackle this question, starting from those that examine the limits of the medium of film, (Leaflet 4 and 11) to those that embody the so-called graphic-visual statements about the characteristic rhythms of shot progression in the films of renowned Hollywood directors (Leaflets 32-36), to those conceived as storyboards (Leaflet 8) or comic strips (Leaflets 12, 27 and 37), to those that conceptualise the act of watching films as a latent, continuous process of film creation (Leaflets 26 and 28).

Alone in the Ciné-Dispositive

As a ciné-dispositive for thinking film, Šijan’s fanzine is contingent upon the “schema, a dynamic play of relations” that articulates discourses and practices of its three basic elements with one another: spectator, representation, and medium materiality. The examination of mutual relations between these three helps illuminate the effects Film Leaflet aimed to produce.

Leaflet 37, “An Outline for the Cinema of Socialist Yugoslavia,” represents Šijan’s graphic-textual statement about the leaflet’s formal features, i.e. medium specificity. The leaflet is a reproduced page from a 1946 pioneer magazine featuring a storyline about a boy fighting on the side of “the people” during the Second World War and reproducing an ideologically proper narrative favoured in Yugoslav Partisan war spectacles. Yugoslav Partisan films, known as the Red Wave cinema, created a multilayered image of the enemy: German and Italian soldiers fit the category of the “foreign occupiers,” while the Ustashas and Chetniks fit the category of “domestic traitors.” Representation of Chetniks in Leaflet 37 resembles one of the most salient examples of this film genre, Veljko Bulajić’s Bitka na Neretvi / Battle of Neretva (1969, Yugoslavia), in which we see almost neutral Italians and bad Germans, along with the brutal Ustashas and almost demonically evil Chetniks. Such relativised treatment and gradation of the enemy can be explained in different ways. For example, the producers’ ambition to sell the film on various international markets very likely influenced the depiction of certain groups of enemies. Simultaneously, their portrayal, stressed especially in the longer version of the film that was made primarily for domestic consumption, can be explained with the notion of two different enemies, introduced by Susan Buck-Morss in her book Dreamworld and Catastrophe. According to Buck-Morss (2002: 12, 31, 34) one is a normal, safe enemy which behaves as the enemy in its own imaginary terrain, while the other is the absolute enemy which represents the threat to a collective primarily in the ontological (rather than physical) sense, because it questions the very concept upon which the identity of the collective is formed. The absolute enemy becomes the symbol of the absolute evil, because they, in the ideological-ontological sense, so to speak, represent the absolute opposition to Yugoslav communists: the Ustashas, as ultra-nationalist fascists, and the Chetniks, as the representatives of monarchical capitalism. That is one of the reasons their demonisation had to be (and was) more prominent than the demonisation of the rest of the enemies.

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Slobodan Šijan, “An Outline for The Cinema of Socialist Yugoslavia.” Film Leaflet No. 37. June 1976. Xerox, 29,5 x 21 cm.  Image courtesy of the author.

Yet, it is the leaflet’s quality as a type of comic strip, which, according to the author, creates almost a “shocking mental experience as your mind struggles to switch back and forth from ideograms to words, which is the ideal effect that the Film Leaflet should cause” (Šijan 2009: 214; translation modified). As this example illustrates, the conceptual task of Šijan’s Film Leaflet series is to generate, by juxtaposing pictographs and text on the page, an effect on the reader’s perception that is similar to the one projected moving images have on their audience. Film Leaflets that resemble storyboards produce the similar effect. Following the principles of Fluxus and conceptual art, these storyboards are created as a series of research projects into the language, structure, and semiology of cinema that was practiced and realised by other means, to use Levi’s notion. Leaflet 8, for example, displays the visual facts of materialisation of the process of thinking film, by being formed of a collage of scribbled storyboard frames in the margins of the shooting script for Šijan’s first professional TV feature, Šta se dogodilo sa Filipom Preradovićem / What Happened to Filip Preradović (1976, Yugoslavia). Another example is Leaflet 28, made by putting together a drawing from 1973 and a strip of the photo-performances realised in the medium of photo-booth photography of Šijan himself. This Leaflet refers to George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (USA, 1951) and also registers immediately the physical presence of Šijan the artist and cinephile. Its storyboard quality, sequential narration, and collage juxtaposition turn it to yet another example of Šijan’s pervasive cinematic thinking about and with the phenomenon of cinefied reality.

This “shocking” effect is possible to achieve, however, only for those who allow themselves to experience it. It is the experience of film that allows for the effect of the Film Leaflet series to become operative. Šijan explains how one becomes initiated into this mental experience in his 1973 manifesto “Ho(l)lywood or Bust,” by quoting from Lazar Stojanović’s 1971 text “In memory of Spinoza”: “The experience of film is accessible only to the initiated… There is no way the uninitiated can be initiated except by voluntary permanent concentration on the search for film” (Stojanović 1971: 15; my emphasis). This is one of many informative quotes Šijan included in his 1973 manifesto. Another important quote in this manifesto is from the text on Leonid Šejka’s drawing “Intra Plus Extra”, which connects film to a “wedding,” while another section cites Gene Youngblood’s book Expanded Cinema (1970): “the objective and subjective become one.” Šijan combined both of these quotes in his earlier Film Manifesto (1972): “3. Film is a wedding: the object and the subject realise they are one” (Šijan 2010: 8), which is a variation of Tomislav Gotovac’s credo hinting at everyday reality having been thoroughly subordinated to cinephilia. Although Gotovac created his own experimental films characterised by their structuralist minimalism—whose importance in the international context Šijan acknowledged in the inaugural Leaflet— Gotovac’s main activity was related to cinephilia as experienced by a spectator. As his oft-used phrases “All is movie” or “As soon as I open my eyes in the morning, I see a film” suggest, Gotovac perceived everyday experience as film, and focused on the filmic way of thinking about art. It is not hard to recognise his influence on Šijan’s 1972 Film Manifesto, which asserts: “4. That is why making a film is watching a film and vice versa. 5. Anyone who knows how to watch a film also knows how to make one” (Šijan 2010: 8).17 The two manifestos from 1972 and 1973 are important for understanding Šijan’s cinematic credo, the effect of his Film Leaflet, and the experience of film that lay at the core of this radical praxis of thinking film.

Lazar Stojanović’s definition of “voluntary permanent concentration” resonates with that era’s discourse of contemporary psychedelic art in the Western Europe. Psychedelic art was inspired by psychedelic culture: sex, drugs, and Rock and Roll were the crux of an exciting counter-culture, with its magic realism and the spiritual climate of psychedelia aiming at “exciting one’s mind” (Timothy Leary). The experience of experimenting with psychoactive substances as stimulants for reaching these states of consciousness, along with music and Eastern philosophical, meditative, and religious practices, informed the psychedelic art that attracted many Yugoslav visual artists, including Šijan himself.18 “Those were the times,” as Nebojša Milenković (2013: 43) describes, connecting this culture to Šijan’s work, “of esoteric and pilgrim travels to India and Nepal to visit Buddhist gurus as spiritual interlocutors and teachers, who teach meditative techniques whose practice is necessary on the road of reaching higher states and forms of consciousness: therefore a whole series of Šijan’s work has as its central theme the guru presented in the meditation pose.”

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 Top (from left to right): Slobodan Šijan, Guru 1 (1973). Watercolour on paper, 24 x 15,5 cm; Guru 2, (1973). Watercolour on paper, 24 x 15,5 cm; Guru 4 (1973). Watercolour on paper, 24 x 15,5 cm. Bottom (from left to right): Slobodan Šijan, Guru 6 (1973). Watercolour on paper, 24 x 14,5 cm; Meditation 1 (1973). Watercolour on paper, 24 x 14,5 cm; Guru 3 (1973). Watercolour on paper, 24 x 15,5 cm. Images courtesy of the author.
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 Slobodan Šijan, Big Guru (1972). Watercolor on a grocery bag, 22,5 x 21,5 cm. Image courtesy of the author.