Blast to the Past


When Pinki, the teenage killer and governing conscience of Srdjan Dragojevic’s harrowing The Wounds, arrives at a hospital, shot nearly dead by his best friend, he identifies himself to the operating-room nurse hovering over him as “Bond, James Bond.” As he sinks under the anesthetic, he confides to us that it’s better to die as Bond than as himself.

Dusan Pekic, a scrawny, feral-faced 15-year-old with rotting teeth and no prior acting experience, plays Pinki with ferocious and disarming wit. Dragojevic, who also has practiced transactional psychotherapy, says he picked Pekic out of 5000 kids who auditioned for the film; he notes that the fledgling actor’s background has a certain similarity to the character he embodies. Pekic could become an Eastern European Tim Roth if he survives into adulthood in the former Yugoslavia.

Dragojevic makes Pinki the spokeschild for a generation that reached adolescence in the ’90s under the insanity of the Milosevic regime. The Serb director’s position is that kids are justified in taking revenge on adults in a society that took away their childhood. That the children also wind up dead in the process seems less problematic than inevitable. From the first image of a red crucifix to the final shot of kids lying dead in the rubble-strewn lot where they used to hurl stones at one another, The Wounds is a bit too invested in martyrdom. It’s a politicized and catholicized version of live fast, die young, leave a beautiful (or, in this case, not so beautiful) corpse. But that’s an easy critique for an outsider to make.

Based on the true story of two teenaged Serb killers, The Wounds follows Pinki and his buddy Kraut (Milan Maric, in a restrained debut performance) as they come of age in Belgrade when Serb nationalism is running amok and the economic embargo has brought the middle-class to starvation. By the time the boys are 17-year-olds, they’ve realized almost all their youthful ambitions and destroyed each other in the process.

Apprenticing themselves to the neighborhood smuggler and drug dealer, they take over his business and his girlfriend when he gets strung out on his own dope. Their first killing wins them a guest slot on The Street Pulse, a celebrity-gangster TV talk show hosted by Lidja (Vesna Trivalic), a schoolmarmish dominatrix who’s also the mother of a boy Pinki and Kraut love to scapegoat. Determined to give the audience something it has never seen before, the excited Kraut whips out his semi-automatic, and while Lidja signals the camera to keep rolling, shoots himself in the thigh. (Dragojevic says that The Street Pulse is based on Black Pearls, a show that ran on Yugoslavian TV
for five years.)

Their brains fried by coke and fame, the boys kill anyone who gets in their way or on their frazzled nerves. Pinki explains that killing mutes the pain of his father’s suicide. A former army officer, Pinki’s dad impulsively blew his brains out with one foot stuck in a toilet bowl. There’s a touch of Holden Caulfield in Pinki’s voiceover narration, which, I suspect, loses some of its subtlety in the English subtitled version.

Constructed as a series of flashbacks, The Wounds moves at an erratic, frequently frantic pace until the closing scene, which has a relentless, demented logic of its own. Dragojevic uses jagged cuts, oblique angles, and shaky camera moves, but there’s nothing gratuitous about the violence of his cinematic language. Catcher
in the Rye
aside, the film plays like a cross
between Los Olvidados and Dead Presidents;
it achieves its most surreal moment in the closing credits, where the McDonald’s and Fruit of the Loom logos are prominently displayed on the list of “sponsors.” Whoever thought The Wounds would be a promo vehicle for the youth market must have been disappointed when the Milosevic government banned all advertisements for the film.

At best a primer, at worst a hagiography, Chuck Workman’s The Source is a documentary about the Beat Generation that rehashes the basic history and relies on horse’s-mouth analysis. Almost all the usual suspects are present and accounted for in new on-camera interviews and/or archival footage. There are the Times Square/
Columbia/Downtown Beats: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Herbert Hunke, Amiri Baraka, Ed Sanders, and David Amram (the composer in residence). And there are the West Coast/North Beach Beats: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Ken Kesey. And there are others, many others, all exuding charisma and camaraderie. (Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s longtime companion, is a notable absence.)

Workman has also put together much home-movie footage of the elusive Neal Cassady (immortalized as Dean Moriarty in On the Road). Since most of it is of the back of his head (he was filmed as he was driving by someone sitting behind him), it doesn’t do much to explain the powerful hold he had over Kerouac and Ginsberg’s imaginations.

The Source opens in 1996 with Ginsberg leafing through a book of photographs of the Beats. In the background, we hear Philip Glass’s tender solo piano, which later segues into a Bach cello sonata. There’s a whiff of college-dorm transcendence in the air. Soon we see Burroughs through the window of his Kansas farmhouse and we hear his voice—like the sound of cicadas on a tape slowed to half-time. Someone could make a great film simply by analyzing the sound and meaning of Ginsberg’s and Burrough’s voices—arguably the most influential of the second half of the century.

But nostalgia, rather than cultural or aesthetic criticism, is Workman’s game. A flurry of movie and TV clips that send up Beat culture, a couple of Beat generation events on contemporary college campuses with many close-ups of worshipful young faces, and then we’re back in New York in 1944 where Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs meet and change history. The thesis, such as it is, illustrated by chronologically ordered archival footage, follows a familiar trajectory. The Beat generation rebelled against the conformity and creeping consumerism of American post-World War II society. Poets and novelists, they were part of an art movement that also included abstract expressionist painting, bebop jazz, and underground film. Disconcerted when they were made the butt of the mainstream media, they dispersed to various corners of the world, but returned to become spokespersons of the ’60s counterculture. Their celebration of the individual as outsider, bonded in rebellion with other outsiders, inspires successive generations of rock-and-rollers; their voices echo in the poetry slams of the ’90s.

Given that modesty was never a Beat virtue, it’s not surprising that a film relying on insider testimony would have a self-congratulatory ring. But if The Source isn’t informed with current reevaluations of the Beats, it does attempt to include a small acknowledgment of a feminist critique. There’s a clip of filmmaker Shirley Clarke saying, “They got away with murder because what they were proselytizing was the male artist hero.” It’s followed by a clip of Ginsberg countering, “I don’t think we were practicing machismo. Burroughs and I were queer, very sensitive and literary,” and a clip of Burroughs tossing out the sardonic rejoinder “Some of my best friends are women.” Since Clarke appears for 20 seconds quite early in the film and her argument never resurfaces, she is effectively silenced by everything that follows. I left The Source feeling as put down as I used to feel in the ’60s. It didn’t help that I knew why.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 24, 1999

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