A reservation to begin with: I think that there is no harm to art in a well-calculated dose of bad taste. A recent good case in point is Lars von Trier. Obsessions with poor taste are a sort of an aesthetic paranoia, emotionally draining criticism and art alike. Pierre Bourdieu proved conclusively that tastes are based on differences in culture, education and deficiencies produced and enabled by the mechanisms of social domination. Very much like culture, bad taste is a product of the society and the dominant social relations.
Poor taste is a fact of life, and at times an important fact too and do we need art bearing no relation to life? In this sense, displays of bad taste, both in art or elsewhere, are the least of Kamen Donev’s Cosy problems. These displays are neither that shocking, nor that abundant, but just part of his characters. They are not he. The author just spots them and understanding their drama, attempts to give his personages words, faces and presence. Initially, on stage and now, on screen.
Bulgarian film has a tradition in representing such characters, though this tradition achieved a culmination four decades ago, in the pictures by Ludmil Kirkov, Eduard Zahariev and Ivan Andonov; writer Georgi Mishev: from A Peasant on a Bicycle to Villa Zone to Ladies’ Choice. After the 1990s, this tradition waned for many reasons, including the ‘punitive action’ taken by the critics against The Danube Bridge (1995) TV series and I still feel guilty about my humble contribution to it. Led by the imperative of a radical reorientation of values, we believed that the best possible choice for Bulgarian film’s development was that of European art cinema, and that the folk tradition ought to be interpreted exclusively in the vein of Magic Realism. Flimflam.
Reality and society are difficult to change, while the ways of life and the national mindset can’t undergo a magical metamorphosis, neither are they manageable by officials and editorial offices. At the same time, Bulgarian film, years after the transition, failed to provide an arena for the representation of the trend dealing with the national mindset in terms of everyday life. Which does not mean that the national psyche has Europeanised to such a degree that to become something quite different from what is known from the films of the 1970s and the 1980s, far from that. Not least because we witness it on a daily basis in the streets and on TV.
Theatre was the first to satisfy the audiences’ curiosity about such characters. This is not about derisive voyeurism or haughty didacticism alone. Spectators are keen on identifying with the characters, with their lifeways, views and behaviours. This increases their self-confidence. Brecht was greatly astonished that the vulgar nouveau riche were crazy about their own unmasking in Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) and immensely enjoyed their own cynicism and vulgarity.
Yet in Cosy, Kamen Donev is neither snide nor sarcastic. He always find ways to forgive his characters and his audience, pretending to be one of them even when disliking much of what they really are. They are ordinary people, whom both bad and good catch unawares. All they want is feeling cosy and would readily replace it with anything creating such a mood: drinks, primitive patriarchy, innocent infidelities and above all, hitting the jackpot. All these though just accompany the main thing that in Kamen Donev’s interpretation materialises the theory of cosiness for Bulgarians: the festive mood. An unsatisfactory life, a crippled soul, however, leads to typical Chekhovian disappointment over a might have been, but impossible feast.
Why then such a ‘popular’ film by such a well-liked author failed to receive public funding? The reasons are in the very mechanisms of national film funding. For the reasons mentioned several passages above, public funding is available to very limited types and genres of films, represented by a coterie of applicants favoured by the funding scheme. All those, seeking to make different films, rely on private funding. Presently, half of the Bulgarian films distributed to Bulgarian cinemas do not enjoy public funding.
Perhaps the fact that the Commissions of the National Film Center have been rejecting Kamen Donev’s film projects for a decade now could be explained by the purely cinematic qualities of his film debut. At the time, an esteemed Bulgarian critic referred to such a film made outside ‘the usual suspects’ winning funds, as an ‘unprofessional kitsch’. Still, almost no one takes the trouble to mention the professional kitsch benefiting from generous public support.
Not to stoop to whataboutism, we should agree that Kamen Donev’s Cosy is in fact a filmed dramatic work. In the context of film aesthetics, it is a fault, but for the communication between Bulgarian film and its audiences, it might be a plus. These are the plots of several one-act plays, comparatively skilfully united into a dramaturgic whole and performed with great devotion by the actors, who are well seen and heard, perhaps in some instances better than it is possible onstage. Unfortunately, the arsenal of film artistic mediums has not been used to the full. Underfunding is certainly one of the reasons for this. The closing credits suggest that the performers in the movie have more often than not greatly outnumbered the staff behind the production. Apparently, men like Kamen Donev are regarded from behind the protective walls around Bulgarian film, or rather around its public funding, as invaders claiming their share of public funding, who should be kept as far away from this piece of cake, as possible just to be on the safe side.
The major problem is in that the screenplay is insufficiently cinematic, which means to depict and produce effect using film imagery rather than just actors playing their text. It is not about money any more, because the same flaws are witnessed in the pictures by much more experienced Bulgarian directors. Bulgarian film suffers from a fear of not being wasted on a ‘simpleminded’, ‘poisoned’ with trashy pop folk spectator. That is why a humble message is conveyed in the earliest layer of the dialogue to be then repeated by the actors and once again accentuated by the music and cinematography.
After his debut Cosy, the author will probably get to know that film audiences not only differ in profile from those at theatre, but also watch differently. Their expectations are greater than just for a film as they compare to the best of world cinema. It is impossible to peddle or control film audiences from the screen in the same way in which it is done from the stage, because they need film arguments.
Still, Cosy is a rewarding experience both for the audiences and the author who would hopefully further maintain his ‘extramarital’ relationship with film. He has the guts and the potential to contribute to the broadening not only of his own audience, but also of the range of his own subjects, plots, and possibly of his artistic mediums.