Better Off Dead
On Jovan Jovanović’s 1984 'Pejzaži u magli' ('Foggy Landscapes')
The following piece, which discusses a film on which there has been to my knowledge practically no in-depth writing in the English language, would have been impossible without the assistance of friends who know much more about the former Yugoslavia and its cinema than I do. I owe a debt of gratitude to Greg de Cuir, critic, translator, and programmer at the Alternative Film Video festival in Belgrade, Serbia, among other venues; Veton Nurkollari, the artistic director of DokuFest in Prizen, Kosovo; and Mila Turajlić, filmmaker, for their input.
Jovan Jovanović’s 1984 film Pejzaži u magli opens with a scene of a rally in a stadium, one of those features of the Communist world which seem as strange to those of us raised in the United States as a college football game must have seemed at the time to the children of the Eastern Bloc. The structure is the former JNA Stadium, today the Stadion Partizan, the home field of the Partizan Belgrade football club, built between 1948 and 1951 by the Yugoslav People’s Army. The event is the terminus of the annual Youth Day Slet, a traditional relay race carried on in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1957 to 1988. The relay would typically begin in Kumrovec in present-day Croatia, the birth town of Yugoslavia’s wartime hero, and president from 1953 to 1980, Josip Broz Tito. Children from all over Yugoslavia, representing all its republics and diverse ethnic groups, would carry a baton inscribed with a birthday greeting to Tito. On May 25th, the day of the Great Man’s birth, the baton would arrive at the stadium in Belgrade, to be presented to Tito himself by some lucky youngster, this climactic moment to be followed by coordinated gymnastic routines and folk dances. To be able to participate was every patriotic young Yugoslav’s ardent desire.
Jovanović, however, keeps us at a distance from the fanfare and jubilation, focusing on a trio of sardonic teenagers perched in the nosebleeds, sneering at the pep rally below. “What are we doing here, anyway?” asks one, a longhaired boy in shades. “I had to show up or I’d get ten truant hours,” replies another, a sloe-eyed brunette with choppy bangs. What was once an honor is now mandatory. The stands are empty, the event staged for television viewers rather than firsthand witnesses, all overseen by a burly, bearded, middle-aged man barking orders over the PA system to the children on the field (“Hold hands. Hold hands!”) Tito is gone, dead a few weeks before his 88th birthday in 1980, present now only in the form of a massive bone-white effigy overseeing the ceremony, seemingly purpose-built for the occasion. (I can find no photographic record of it elsewhere.)
Pejzaži u magli is a movie about the opt-out kids in the stands, not the eager participants on the field. The nearest thing it has to a central identification character is the girl with the bangs, Lela, played by Anamarija Petričević, in her first and only feature film. (She had previously had a recurring role as “Dunja” on the television show Smogovci [1982-1996], a surrealism-tinged sitcom about a large family living in a fictitious Croatian suburb.) While the Slet ritual continues, Lela announces her intention to drop acid with a friend before heading to a show by Bijelo Dugme, a Sarajevo-based hard rock act who were for a long time the most popular band in Yugoslavia. (The band is seen here not long after a decisive pivot in image in sound, dropping their high ‘70s Balkan hesher aesthetic to keep pace with emerging Yugoslavian punk and new wave scenes.) The film’s digressive, anecdotal narrative follows Lela as her early drug dabbling leads her to trying and becoming hooked on hardcore heroin, a monkey on her back that she sheds and picks up again repeatedly until finally she suffers a fatal overdose in the same dingy apartment building sub-basement where one of her friends is seen OD-ing early in the film.
Lela drifts into the orbit of a constellation of drug users, most of them like her young, aimless, alienated from the old order represented by Slet and Tito, uninspired by the beckoning new world of global capitalism and regimented professionalism. There is Ivan (Tihomir Arsić), Lela’s LSD trip partner, a college boy studying engineering who seems desperate to come off to Lela as hipper than he is—when she comes over to trip he airily shows off his LPs of Tibetan music and slides of psychedelic art, and you get the feeling that half of the reason he gets into the hard stuff is just to impress her. There’s the longhair from the stadium, Zoki (Ljubomir Todorović), usually found in his vampiric shades, and his girlfriend, Vesna (Jasmina Terzić), introduced begging for a fix at the methadone clinic—Heptanon was the brand in use in ‘80s Yugoslavia—with the same violence that she displays when getting cash by shaking down her kindly, addled grandfather (Karlo Bulić, a Croatian actor working in films since the ‘50s, in one of his final roles.) There’s Ljilja (Stasa Teofilović), the one who almost overdoses dingy basement early in the film, and who’s left waiting in vain for Lela on a train platform at its close. And there is Charlie (Ratko Tankosić), a little older than the others, who’s been around the block, has spent some time in jail, and who organizes drugstore cowboying excursions with Steve (Ljubomir Todorović), a lantern-jawed bantam cock who’d previously served time in Mardelj.
While the 1980s in Yugoslavia were a period of skyrocketing debt, a devalued dinar, and ongoing economic crisis, these kids, from what we can tell, haven’t been driven to the needle by destitute despair. Lena’s parents, played by Rade Šerbedžija and Milena Zupančić, are prototypical Belgrade yuppies of their vintage—he an architect, she a fashion designer, neither particularly fond of the other. Ivan’s dad lives in more modest quarters than they, but he, too, has entrepreneurial ambitions, greeting his boy at breakfast with the salutation “Good morning capitalist,” and discussing his plan to open and operate a café bar with the boy, to whom he enthuses: “The future lies in the private sector. I realized that when I was in Germany. The communists seem to realize it, too.” Lela is seen sitting in on an art academy class, and as she and her fellow students work at their projects, a bearded lecturer carries on about the market value—or lack thereof—of the skill sets they’re practicing: “The modern world appreciates good design. Successful export is usually based on good design. These students’ works are brilliant, so it’s quite peculiar that only a small percentage get a job in their sector designing merchandise, our homes and workplaces.” Lela mocks Ivan’s ambitions and the straight future of a sedentary “successful business type” that awaits him, proclaiming “I don’t want to live a day after thirty.”
As she pursues this wish, the film follows Lela and her group in the random swervings that they take while beating a retreat from the trappings of adulthood and social responsibility. Lacking any stronger motivating factor, most of Lela’s decisions are inspired by her relationship with heroin—either getting it, or trying to get away from it. After a kind of initiation that consists of recruiting a middle-aged square to pick up a prescription for friends, it’s not long until she takes her first shot and advances alongside them into full-fledged junkie-dom. She goes into rehab for the first time after her parents find her overdosed in the family bathtub, then backslides on her first day out, sniffing heroin with Ivan. At the encouragement of Vesna, several of the gang try a different voluntary clinic, but there’s only bedlam there—the patients attack an unguarded supply of Heptanon like Romero zombies—and soon they all filter back onto the streets. Lela makes amends with her parents, and with them takes off on a retreat to the island of Mljet off the Croatian coast, there to soak in the sun and swim in the Adriatic waters and get healthy, but then Steve shows up out of the blue and resolutions go right out the window. Next thing you know she’s running from the cops in nearby Dubrovnik, escaping to live in exile with Steve, first in Vienna then in Istanbul, before she returns again to Belgrade, this time with a condom full of dope snug inside her. Busted by the cops, she’s sent to sweat it out in a cell again, then starts using anew while playing at domesticity with Ivan, working together at his father’s threatened café bar, a tacky joint lined with discotheque-style mirrors. At the film’s close, she’s headed for another fresh start that seems no more or less likely to stick than the rest, but finds herself instead in the only condition that’s incontrovertibly permanent.
Friendships and romances form and break apart throughout these comings and goings, but these relationships are entirely subservient to convenience and the push-and-pull of addiction. Lela drifts from Ivan to Steve, then from Steve to Ivan, and then back and back and forth again, with a bit of heavy petting with Ljilja in Vienna in-between, though there’s never any sense given of overwhelming romantic abandon on her part. When Ivan comes to visit Lela at the clinic she quickly loses interest in him and is about to blow him off entirely when he offers to buy her heroin, at which point she pivots back, exclaims “You’re so sweet!” and, beaming, throws her arms around him. Lela and Steve at one point appear as the picture of a contented young couple—she heavily pregnant, them out together to shop for an engagement ring—but it’s only a parody of the real thing, a subterfuge to snatch the ring from under the unsuspecting shop girl’s nose and sell it for the cash to buy fake passports and a quick egress out of the country. “I don’t know whether I liked Steve for who he is or for the drugs he was giving me,” she tells Ljilja, and we’re not exactly sure either.
While the film at times threatens to tilt over into afterschool special moralism—from Lela’s OD to Vesna’s institutionalization and shock treatment to Zoki’s last scene rampaging through his mother’s apartment, our addicts don’t end up happily—this is counterbalanced by an almost total absence of the usual problem picture elements. Most notably, there’s little that claims to psychologize or explain why Lela is the way that she is, or why she makes the decisions she makes when she makes them—clean in Mljet one minute, rolling up her sleeve on the ferry the next. Though she’s on the screen for a significant majority of the movie, Lela remains something of a mystery to her parents, to a viewer, and even to herself. As she tells a counselor in that first rehab stint, “Sometimes I think I’m a good person and sometimes I don’t. I’m trying to find my true self. Sometimes I feel like an object. Like everything that happens doesn’t happen to me… I want to be somebody else. Drugs help me understand who I really am.”
Whatever that true self might be, Lela guards like a secret. Given the writing prompt “Youth: It’s the most beautiful poem” in school, she leaves the page blank, then tears up the paper when the instructor hands it back to her. When her parents offer her half-assed vocational advice during lunch on their lovely patio terrace, she speaks with disgust of their “routine” then, finding herself tuned out when she begins to formulate an idea of her own, clams up again. Lela does read, but nothing related to school curriculum; a cutaway to her bedroom floor reveals a few selections from a library that betrays a taste for esoterica: A New Model of the Universe, the 1917 tome by P.D. Ouspensky; The I Ching, or, Book of Changes; and a Serbian-language edition of Alan Watts’s 1957 The Way of Zen. Shortly thereafter she meets with Ljilja, who enthuses to Lela about a book called Symbols of the Chinese Cosmobiological Cycle, and explains to Lela the significance of her being born in the Year of the Snake: “The most important thing for a snake is to find a cause, idea, or a person to whom he’ll dedicate himself to the maximum. The snake has a lot of inside conflicts due to suppressed emotions. Until he finds a purpose in life, a snake will be in conflict with himself and the world around him. But, once a purpose is found, the snake’s life will change. Everyday, trivial things don’t satisfy the snake.” At the voluntary clinic, she’ll walk the grounds talking astrology with a Roma woman and, not long after, back on the streets and suffering withdrawals, Lela staggers inside a church to take shelter.
Inasmuch as Lela shows conviction, it’s a conviction of her own helplessness before fate; inasmuch as she seems to believe in anything, she believes herself at the mercy of forces greater than her own puny will. The attraction of heroin, a God that demands readily understood sacrifices and in return for them hands out reliable rewards, is here evident, though the connection is never so explicitly made. Lela imagines herself as romantic, spiritual, and as such clashes with the materialist, rationalist ethos of Ivan, as in an exchange in one of their early meetings, which also suggests the film’s mordant comedy:
Lela: “People who think rationally about everything annoy me.”
Ivan: “People are usually annoyed by things they don’t understand.”
Lela: “It would do you good to learn about Mother Nature.”
Ivan: “Technology is an extension of Nature. It makes our lives easier. Do you understand that? It brings order to the entropy.”
Lela: “What’s entropy?”
Ivan: “A need for chaos.”
Lela: “Nature needs chaos. It’s spontaneous and mystical.”
Ivan: “Order is needed so that technology and nature can coexist. I’ll fuck you like a machine and you’ll have a mystical experience.”
Lela: “I have to go home.”
Such lulls of conversation, usually conducted by kids slumped back in bedrooms with walls covered by posters and LP sleeves, come between periods of frantic action, the material given a rough around the edges look and run-and-gun propulsion by Jovanović and his two credited cinematographers on the film, Radoslav Vladic and Miodrag Milosevic. This is a lean, hungry, prowling film, one that moves at the roving rhythm of street life—when they’re not sprawled out in doped-up satiety, the movie’s addicts are carving their way through milling crowds, working out the next hustle, hustling for the next fix. (One of the primary points of congregation for the gang is a sort of underground market which my friend Veton Nurkollari, familiar with Belgrade in the ‘80s, suggests may be the underground passage at Terazije St. near Republic Square.) An incidental effect of addiction is a narrowing of vision to pure essentials, and like so many of the better movies about addiction—dope, gambling, sex, you name it—the logic that Pejzaži u magli operates under is the logic of contingency.
Pejzaži u magli has a quality that’s often invaluable in the portrayal of criminality on screen, which is that it feels itself illicit, like a stolen film, something snatched on the sly. This impression is strengthened by the documentary slivers embedded in the weave of the movie—the coexistence and overlap of documentary and fiction impulses here being a continuation of explorations along the same line in Jovanović’s feature debut, 1971’s Mlad i zdrav kao ruza (Young and Healthy Like a Rose). Rivulets of real blood run in the injection scenes, and when Lela and Ivan go to see Bijelo Dugme, the footage is quite evidently from a real live gig, replete with a cutaway of an unconscious girl being carried out of a crowd patrolled by uniformed policemen.
The song the band plays is “A milicija trenira strogocu,” which translates as something like “The police train with rigor,” and so the cutaways to the cops aren’t wholly incidental. Being a film about youth, Pejzaži u magli has music—and anti-authoritarian energy—at its core. The score, which ranges from sleazy sex scene noodling to the persecutorially driving synth, is the work of Aleksandar Habic, better known as a rock producer than a film composer, and a couple of bands for whom Habic had twiddled the knobs—Bebi Doll and Dorian Grej, whose “Zoveš me” is heard blaring in a Vienna disco—both grace the film’s soundtrack. Early on, when Lela and Ivan walk the streets of Belgrade in a psychedelic fog, the visualizations of their hallucinations—undercranked street scenes that pass with kinetic zip; smeared-and-stuttered step-printing interludes; and passages using color negative photography—are accompanied by the cacophony of “Ja ne bi, ja ne bi,” a speedy rave-up courtesy Belgrade band Du Du A. Not part of the Eastern Bloc and free of the Soviet cultural dominance that affected nations that were, Yugoslavia was open to pop culture influences from the west and beyond, and throughout Pejzaži u magli the influence of punk and new wave are evident, in music as well as fashion: Zoki, modeling the blazer-over-a-Henley neck shirt look, with requisite 1” button on the skinny lapel; Steve, introduced wearing a Joe Strummer bandana; Lela with her kohl rimmed eyes, pyramid stud bracelet, jagged fringe, and succession of outfits combining the bulky and the sulky, including a pretty daring kimono top.
Cinematographers Vladic and Milošević—the latter on his first feature in the DP slot—operate from right in the thick of things, often giving the subjects the sort of looming quality that comes of shooting in close spaces with short lenses. (There are moments during Lela’s final gasping, ghastly rehab stay that suggest Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 Possession.) The action can give the impression of being barely kept up with rather than choreographed in advance, an effect very often achieved only through a great deal of preparation: the drugstore robbery sequence, for example, is captured in an impressive single take. It begins by following Lela and Ljilja as they approach the building and gain access by begging the pharmacist on duty for an aspirin, follows the pharmacist behind the counter as he goes to fetch a painkiller then, on tracking his return walk, picks up Charlie and Steve newly concealed on the other side of the counter, to watch them spring into action when their prey rounds the corner. For Greg de Cuir, an American programmer, critic, and translator based in Belgrade, much of the significance of the film is in Milosevic’s contributions. Says de Cuir, “You can actually trace Želimir Žilnik’s late style to Pejzaži u magli, via Milošević”—after Pejzaži u magli, Milošević would begin a fruitful ongoing collaboration with Jovanović’s rough contemporary Žilnik which began with 1988’s Tako se kalio celik (The Way Steel Was Tempered) and continued up to the 2015 documentary Logbook_Serbistan. (The Žilnik films make up the better part of Milošević’s credits as a DP, though he also worked once with another giant of Serbian cinema, Dušan Makavejev, on his 1993 Gorilla Bathes at Noon.)
According to de Cuir, Jovanović and Žilnik were both frontrunners for the honor of being considered the pre-eminent enfant terrible director of the Yugoslav Black Wave—a loosely-defined confederation of experiment-minded filmmakers of the 1960s, the pretty terrible Makavejev perhaps the most famous of them today—though of the two, Žilnik had enjoyed far greater public visibility. Pejzaži u magli was Jovanović’s second feature, though as far as much of the public was concerned it might have been his debut, for his Mlad i zdrav kao ruza had been efficiently disappeared from circulation after its debut at the Pula Film Festival in present-day Istria, Croatia, not reappearing to screen publicly until the late date of 2006.
Born in Belgrade in 1940, Jovanović enrolled at the city’s Academy of Theater, Film, Radio and Television in 1961, having previously studied classical philosophy at the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Philosophy. He completed his first films, including 1964 class exercise Students City, under the guidance of Aleksandar Petrović, a Black Wave filmmaker who almost certainly was an inspiration for the young Jovanović—Petrović’s 1967 Skupljači perja (I Even Met Happy Gypsies) is a prototype of the rough-and-ready style that his student would later pursue. Set in an impoverished Roma community on the sodden, muddy plains of Vojvodina in the flatlands of northern Serbia, the film uses the story of two goose feather dealers, competitors in love and commerce, to illustrate the system of palm-greasings and under-the-table deals that make up village economy—and, by implication, the Yugoslavian economy of graft and patronage at large. (One particularly memorable scene has Bekim Fehmiu’s protagonist negotiating with a nun for the baptism of a dead baby, in exchange for a favor to be named at a later date.)
Like the older Petrović and like Žilnik, Jovanović was drawn to individuals left behind by the official narrative of a unified and paradisal Yugoslavia, people living on the margins of Tito’s Utopian society, combining the best of both Superpowers. For Zilnik, the group of interest is workers, either the disenfranchised dregs of the working class or migrants; Jovanović, meanwhile, has set his attentions on the criminal caste. Mlad i zdrav kao ruža opens, like Pejzaži u magli, on the celebration of Slet, with the audio of Tito’s birthday address played over views of the Belgrade streets as seen from a passing automobile—after his debut was pulled from release, Jovanović apparently had no compunctions about re-using an introduction that had gone unseen. (Furthermore, a sort of rough draft of Mlad i zdrav kao ruža exists in the form of Jovanović’s raucous 1969 short Izrazito Ja, which contains a brigand protagonist much like that of the feature, and the same nose-thumbing paean to Yugoslavia’s “American quality of life!”)
Tito’s birthday speech, in which he exhorts the nation’s youth to “not only do what their parents desire, but be what our whole socialist community expects them to be,” introduces Mlad i zdrav kao ruža’s twentysomething anti-hero, Steve (Dragan Nikolic, sporting another Anglified moniker), a direct affront to that advice. Steve is picked up hurtling towards Belgrade in a succession of stolen cars, introduced by a rat-a-tat voiceover recitation of his very impressive criminal record. Once in town he straightaways gets busy consorting with and harassing prostitutes, picking fights at gay bars, black marketeering, looting and pillaging a department store with a small mob of cohorts, and generally double-crossing with a smile anyone who offers to cut him in on a deal, including a police inspector who wants to put his talents to work for the state. Wearing a Union Jack shirt and quoting from Richard Widmark westerns, Steve is the bastard child of Anglo-American pop culture and Pioneers propaganda, a patriotic smiling sociopath with a rock star’s strut who takes what he wants from the world without asking. Life for this amoral bandit is but a dream—or, perhaps, a movie. Encountering a corpse at a gas station early on, Steve shrugs it off (“It’s nothing… Just red paint over his nose, that’s it”), and throughout the film he’ll break the fourth wall to direct-address, or just plain berate, the audience.
Mlad i zdrav kao ruža is a nail bomb of a movie, a venting of cinematic spleen from someone clearly familiar with the essential ‘60s youthquake attacks like À bout de souffle (1960)—Godard is cheekily name-checked—and Lindsay Anderson’s if… (1968), which it recalls in its climactic, apocalyptic shootout. Even the most lenient of regimes might have found something to protest to in its omni-directional assault, though as dictatorships of the proletariat at the time went, Yugoslavia was justifiably considered fairly relaxed in matter of censorship. Following the Tito-Stalin split in 1948, Yugoslavia was an outlier among communist nations in innovating a mixed “market socialism” model of a sort pursued today by the People’s Republic of China, but in abandoning the then-ascendant doctrine of socialist realism, creating an official culture far more open to and encouraging of the avant-garde, be it modernist architecture at its most extravagant or the cinema of the Black Wave.
Even so, this didn’t prevent the boom from being lowered on certain works that drew the ire of those in power: 1963’s Grad (The City), an omnibus film by Marko Babac, Kokan Rakonjac, and Živojin Pavlović, has the distinction of being the only film officially banned in Yugoslavia, while Pavlović’s 1966 Povratak (The Return) was subject to an unofficial ban, as was, after initial screenings, Makavejev’s 1971 WR: Mysteries of the Organism, and Lazar Stojanović even did a stint in jail for his Plasticni Isus (Plastic Jesus) of the same year, a thesis film that was identified as a work of “anti-state activities and propaganda.” (Stojanović was, like Jovanović, a student of Petrović’s, and it’s been speculated that that connection caused Petrović’s 1972 adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita to be pulled from distribution.)
Explaining the reasons behind the banning of Grad, court documents state that “it contradicts our social reality and because it was obviously made with an intention to portray in a negative light the social development of socialist Yugoslavia.” For all the leniency of Yugoslavian censorship—of strongman regimes, perhaps only Italy under Mussolini was more liberal when it came to cinema—one could still find official disfavor through suggesting the existence of a Yugoslavia untouched by the healing warmth of Marshal Tito’s benevolence. Some time after the fact, Petrović would discuss the gagging of his Mlad i zdrav kao ruza: “During the period of Titoism… they were not willing to accept that beside Tito’s youth there were also criminals and drug addicts in Yugoslavia, that there was a different population. The film showed exactly that, it showed a real image. They didn’t want to admit that the SDB [the State Security Service] recruited these very criminals to be paid murderers. They didn’t want to admit that this kind of crime was going to spread around former Yugoslavia like a sort of cancer, and that a wide-ranging criminalization was about to take place.”
Mlad i zdrav kao ruža ends in a bloodbath, a final gun battle that lays its scene at the Hotel Jugoslavia, a five-star landmark on the banks of the Danube. (Visiting celebrities shooting films in Yugoslavia in the 1960s and ‘70s, of which there were many, preferred the Hotel Metropol, on the east side of the Sava River.) There Steve has set himself up as a louche potentate lording over a sprawling doped-up orgy and giving quippy press conferences—think Col. Kurtz meets The Beatles c. 1964—until the police lay siege, and he and his gang are forced to take to the rooftops and exchange gunfire with the authorities. Steve appears to be shot down while fleeing from the cops, only to be “reborn” in a final winking acknowledgement of cinematic subterfuge, found relaxing in an outdoor café where, now holding a microphone in shot, he gives his final address to the audience, a threat: “I am your future.”
The controversies of 1971-72 in Yugoslavia, the period that brought forth WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Plasticni Isus, The Master and Margarita, and Mlad i zdrav kao ruža, would be met with a push-back. Already in 1970 Tito, in his New Year’s speech, had announced a cultural “counteroffensive” that would correct some of the excesses of the 1960s, and in ‘72, reckoning with the aftermath of the Croatian Spring of the previous year and its objection to concentrated centralization of power and demands for democratization, Tito and his increasingly influential collaborator Stane Dolanc issued a letter to that called for the termination of “the toleration of views and political conduct that are at variance with the ideology and policy of the League of Communists.” The period of liberalization that had fostered the Black Wave was drawing to a close. As described in Mila Turajlić’s documentary Cinema Komunisto (2011), it was common knowledge that during the Pula Film Festival, Tito, a voracious cinephile even by the standards of typically movie-mad autocrats, would pre-screen all of the films at his island resort in nearby Brioni, and that his opinions were relayed to the festival jury via his projectionist, Leka, heavily influencing final decisions. It is a pleaure, then, to imagine the Marshal squirming his way through the opening of Mlad i zdrav kao ruža.
If nothing else, the experience was probably good for a case of motion sickness—among the features that distinguish Mlad i zdrav kao ruza are its pumping, pulsating zooms and its punchy cutting. And while the film may have scarcely been seen by the public, it seems to have sufficed to gain Jovanović a reputation among cineastes, and so throughout the ‘70s he continued to turn out shorts while working occasionally as an editor for persons other than himself and generally kept his head down. In his “comeback” feature, Pejzaži u magli, which he himself edited, he shows himself an inventive and occasionally invasive cutter, his unorthodoxies responsible for no small part of the movie’s convulsive energy. He’s given to jarring cutaways, like one to Vesna’s dog barking in the living room that interrupts as Lela’s about to spike a vein for the first time. Some of his edits have an almost free-associative quality, as when Ljilja asks Lela “You’ve cut off all contact with your parents?” and the question is followed by a single travelling shot of them together, perusing the walls at some slick art opening. The non-present presence of the parents is emphasized, too, in Jovanović’s occasional cross-cutting between scenes, for example his intercutting the first scene of the kids passing a needle around in the basement with Lela’s parents being feted at a nightclub, her father stuffing a dinar note into the emcees mouth. There are some snazzy little fillips here, like Lela collapsing in bed with three juddering edits in the style of the “Be My Baby” opening of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Street (1973), but more interesting than these are the movie’s erratic ellipses, its “timeline” that’s more like a loopy stagger, its cuts that might cover hours or months. Did Lela and Ivan just get back together, or is this ancient history? When did he start using again? And when, exactly, did Ljilja stop to have a baby?
The disorientation is part of the dopesick spell that the film casts, a movie that’s at once lethargic and electric. With Uli Edel’s Christiane F. (1981) and Nico D’Alessandria’s L’imperatore di Roma (1988), Pejzaži u magli belongs to a small canon of great European ‘80s films about the lives of addicts, but what reputation it has doesn’t extend much beyond the countries of the former Yugoslavia. English-language critical notices circa 1984 to be limited to one dismissive and poorly written write-up connected to the film’s appearance at the Montreal World Film Festival which appeared in the pages of Variety, and reads as follows: “Jovan Jovanović was last seen with a feature at Pula back in 1971, when he competed with Young and Healthy Like a Rose, the tale of an ex-con who goes off on a wild jaunt with a newly formed gang to set Belgrade afire with fear and trembling. Now, with Foggy Landscapes, he’s back to his old film tricks again. This time the focus is on the world of drug addicts and how they stay a step or two ahead of the authorities at all times. Some speeded-up, experimental-film-style clips at the outset hold the attention for a while, but in general this is a rehash of the oft-told drug scene and bored kids.” According to a friend who was a teenager in Pula in the early 00s, it played on television there at least occasionally. A cult film, then—even if the entire cult could fit in a Yugo Cabrio.
The closing titlecard of Jovanović’s first feature—a Godardian piece of iconic text-on-screen that reads first “No End,” then “No Happyend”—is replied to by that of his second and last to-date: “This is the Very End My Friend.” If Mlad i zdrav kao ruza was positioned as prophecy, Pejzaži u magli is fulfillment. “I am your future,” Steve sneers at the close of Mlad i zdrav kao ruza, and in Pejzaži u magli the future is here—not a new generation free of worries, as celebrated by Youth Day, but the return of the repressed, of everything swept under the rug in interest of putting on a front of strenuous happiness. The grandparents’ generation, the ones who fought fascism and lived sacrifice and know the partisan songs by heart, that generation has grown old and is dying, as their venerated leader has died, and as the world that they built under him is sagging and crumbling and dying. The luster of the origin myth has dimmed for the parents’ generation, who as seen here are indistinguishable from any other bourgeoise, if a little jealous of those in the west, and hoping to better emulate them. For the young people of Pejzaži u magli, caught between the exhausted authoritarian cult-of-personality represented by the Slet celebration and the one-foot-in-the-door arrival of unfettered market capitalism, the void offers the only avenue of escape. Perhaps you’ll recognize them.
If you’ve enjoyed this piece, please consider becoming a paid subscriber to Employee Picks, as that’s the only means I have to receive remuneration for researching and writing it.