Tag Archives: Emir Kusturica

207. ARIZONA DREAM (1993)

“Hollywood bureaucracy has been established precisely to prevent films like this from being made.”– Roger Ebert on Arizona Dream

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, , Faye Dunaway, , Jerry Lewis

PLOT: Axel, a fish-tagger in New York City, dreams of an Eskimo boy who finds a fish with both eyes on one side of its head. His old friend Paul, an aspiring actor, visits him and tricks him into returning to his childhood home in Arizona to attend the wedding of his uncle, a Cadillac dealer, who wants Axel to join the family business. Axel decides not to return to his old life when he becomes romantically entangled with an emotionally unstable older woman and her suicidal stepdaughter.

Still from Arizona Dream (1993)
BACKGROUND:

  • This was Serbian director Emir Kusturica’s first (and so far, only) American film. For some reason, Warner Brothers threw gobs of money at a Yugoslavian director known for his surreal political art films, then was surprised when the result wasn’t a typical romantic comedy. The film was completed in 1991 but Warner sat on the property, not releasing it in the US until 1994, after a successful European run. Warner also cut 20 minutes from the film so that it would come in under 120 minutes. Kusturica and Hollywood did not make a good match, as both parties would surely agree.
  • A 12-minute final sequence that featured Uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis) flying to Earth from the moon in a Cadillac was cut from the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Clearly, as every film poster and DVD cover for the film demonstrates, the halibut swimming through the desert air past a Saguaro cactus is the movie’s unforgettable bit. Kusturica himself agrees: “Isn’t this image of a fish swimming in a deserted architecture… the image of what we are? Dumb fishes, unable to do anything essential for their existence…”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eskimo dreams; floating fish; pantyhose suicide

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With intrusions of magical realism and cod-philosophizing by a cast of fish-counting dreamers, madwomen who dream of flying, and suicidal turtle-loving accordion players, Arizona Dream plays out like a European attempt to make a Coen brothers comedy. It’s quirkiness magnified to a metaphysical level.


French trailer for Arizona Dream

COMMENTS: Gently floating by, Arizona Dream winds up nowhere in Continue reading 207. ARIZONA DREAM (1993)

CAPSULE: BLACK CAT, WHITE CAT (1998)

Crna Macka, Beli Macor

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Florijan Ajdini, Srdan Todorovic, Bajram Severdzan, Branka Katic

PLOT: Dadan, a local gangster, promises to release Matko’s debts if he will marry his son to Dadan’s sister.

Still from Black Cat, White Cat (1998)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a great movie, but we have to make our way down a long list of more appropriate adjectives—eccentric, madcap, farcical, etc.—before we get to “weird” as a way to describe it.

COMMENTS: Black Cat, White Cat is almost Shakespearean in its comedic plot: you have two sets of young lovers and a horde of older, money-obsessed fools whose scheming complicates the youngsters’ chances for happiness. Set in a village on the banks of the muddy Danube, the main plot is set into motion by 17-year old Zare’s father, the irresponsible Matko, who hatches a harebrained scheme to try to steal several train cars loaded with gasoline—a caper which requires the assistance of not one, but two sets of gangsters. Things predictably go awry, leading Matko to promise Zare’s hand in marriage to coke-addled Dadan’s short and shrewish sister, Ladybird. But Zare is in love with a feisty barmaid, while Ladybird refuses to marry a man she doesn’t love; Dadan, however, insists that his family honor requires Ladybird’s marriage, and is intent on staging the nuptials at gunpoint, if need be. This leads to a festive but awkward gypsy wedding that is further complicated by a corpse on ice in the attic and a pending visit from a more powerful mobster. Quirky characters abound, from the crime boss with bad teeth and a love of Casablanca to Zare’s thoughtful grandfather, who figures that his own demise may save his grandson from his no-good father, but it’s Srdan Todorovic who dominates as Dadan. With an open-necked shirt revealing his gold chains, a pair of live-in groupies, and a crucifix filled with cocaine, Dadan seems to have stepped out of a Seventies disco movie: Serbian Night Fever. Amped up on nose candy, he constantly pumps his fists from nervous energy, sometimes to a thundering beat that echoes only inside his own coked-out skull. He’s also fond of firing automatic weapons into the air and juggling hand grenades for sport, so despite his ridiculous appearance, he’s not the kind of guy you want to trifle with. A bride disguised as a tree stump and a booby-trapped outhouse provide slapstick interludes. There are a few weird touches here, as well, such as dead people coming back to life, a thoughtful grandson who brings a seven piece band to visit his sick grandpa, and a pig who inexplicably eats a car. With a small town’s worth of Eastern European eccentrics, a knotty romantic plot and grotesque and vulgar comic details (like the woman who pulls nails from a board with her clenched buttocks), Black Cat, White Cat is an amphetamine rush that never lets up. Thick and spicy as goulash, it’s the kind of script Leonard Elmore might have written if he’s been born a Bosnian gypsy.

Stung by politically-motivated criticism of his previous movie, Underground (1995), Emir Kusturica had publicly announced his retirement from filmmaking. He changed his mind to start working on a documentary about gypsy music, a project he never completed but which sparked the idea for the story that became Black Cat, White Cat.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a mad scramble through the Felliniesque realm of Mr. Kusturica’s imagination, and it proves nothing if not this much: give this man the Danube, gypsy musicians and a camera and you’ve got a party.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Dr D, who described it as a “joyously insane gangster-wedding-crime movie!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: ARIZONA DREAM (1993)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Lili Taylor, Faye Dunaway, , Jerry Lewis

PLOT: Axel is a fish-tagger who reluctantly moves to Arizona to help his uncle run a car

Still from Arizona Dream (1993)

dealership; there, he becomes romantically entangled with an emotionally unstable older woman and her suicidal stepdaughter.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  The fish swimming through the desert past a Saguaro cactus and darting in and out of a Cadillac window certainly helps.  With intrusions of magical realism and pretentious pseudo-philosophizing by a cast of fish-counting dreamers, madwomen who dream of flying, suicidal turtle-loving accordion players and the comic tics of Jerry Lewis, Arizona Dream plays out like a European attempt to make a Coen brothers comedy.  It’s quirkiness magnified to a metaphysical level.  Considered scene-by-scene, the movie’s almost always interesting and funny, but it doesn’t stick together to create a satisfying vision, and its weirdness isn’t thorough enough to justify the lack of coherence.  It just misses making the List on the first ballot.  Mr. Kusturica need not sweat, however; even if Arizona Dream is ultimately denied admission to the Halls of Weirdness, he has plenty of other contenders on his resumé (Time of the Gypsies, Black Cat White Cat, and Underground) and he’s unlikely to be left out in the cold.

COMMENTS:I don’t want to completely false impression that Arizona Dream is a bad movie, but, given its considerable assets—a peak cast sinking their fangs into crazy characters, a visionary director, and some humdinger scenes—it’s fair to start out a review by defining what holds it back from being a great movie.  Arizona Dream is a movie that’s obviously eager to say something profound about the human condition, but has trouble spitting it out.  Instead, we get a parade of aphorisms that progress from “People think that fish are stupid, but I was always sure that they weren’t because they know when to be quiet and its people that are stupid, and fish that know everything and don’t need to think” to “even though I no longer felt like a fish, and realized I knew nothing, I was happy to be alive.”  There’s lots of talk about Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ARIZONA DREAM (1993)