’Europudding’ is a derisive term of the mid-1990s describing well-funded, but commonplace European film coproductions. Seeking to raise funds from several European countries, such coproductions feature far-fetched stories, justifying either the need to shoot in various territories and/or casts, creatives, technicians and professionals from different European nations. Such pictures are more often than not trite and intended just to feed production companies public funds and encourage the European policies of cultural diversity. *
Still, the least expected of a Europudding is lack of film professionalism. Except that professionalism is entirely concentrated in the technical components—vision, editing, sound—which in this particular movie are really of the European-class quality. Acting is decent though without particular flashes of brilliance and the music is ample enough to functionally serve the emotional curve. The screenplay also seems skilfully assembled and direction suggests confidence and professionalism. Everything looks well made until one starts asking what it is all about. Strangely enough, common audiences at Bulgarian cinema theatres are impressed and even surprised that on the face of it the movie appears all right, and it never occurs to them that it feels pretty hollow.
Those, however, who read Zachary Karabashliev’s novel 18% Grey, were probably shocked or at least confused by what they saw on the silver screen. The effect is similar to that of the rapidly descending into clandestinity ‘experiment’ with the book-to-film adaptation of Vladimir Zarev’s novel Devastation though the artistic devices used in these two cases are radically different. The storyline in director Peter Popzlatev’s Time Is Ours is deliberately clogged up with inadequate external literary subplots, which in fact sabotage writer Zarev’s narrative, filmable enough in itself, socially and politically committed and needing not any literary or other crutches.
In the case of the adaptation of Zachary Karabashliev’s novel, a method of truncation and distortion has been applied. It is not only about moving the action from the USA to Europe, which is in itself quite a radical transplantation, and Karabashliev has always stressed that the choices of places where the action unfolds in his works are not purely geographical; neither is it about the altered facts about the protagonist, nor about the story of his loved one, nor in replacing the sack of marijuana with a kilo of hashish. (By the way, the ‘magical’ surfacing of the drug and its even stranger evaporation from the screen narrative may well instil dramaturgic self-confidence in a number of authors of student films.) It is not even about the fact that the film version is devoid of suspense, which was one of the strongest cinematic elements in the novel. The spirit of the narrative, the protagonist’s way of expression and of thinking for that matter has been most blatantly replaced. Zack’s plebeian revolt in the novel has been replaced with haughty, almost aristocratic dissatisfaction of the film character. Zachary Karabashliev’s manner, strongly influenced by the telegraphic ‘anti-literary’ style of American fiction and modern indie films, is refashioned into a banal pseudo-artistic ‘made-in-Europe’ melodrama, which nowadays is difficult to squeeze even in TV programmes.
The most authentic and probably the most gripping when it comes to Bulgarian readers part has been amputated from the flesh of the novel: the account of the penury and chaos in the 1990s Bulgaria. This aspect was certainly deemed to be unsaleable to hypothetic audiences in Western Europe and this was the reason why it was completely eliminated from the action of the film. In Zachary Karabashliev’s novel, however, the character’s lofe in the 1990s, though short in terms of the pages it covers, is a key to the understanding of his American journey from the Mexico-United States border to New York. Presently, figuring out the 1990s intellectually is of paramount importance to Bulgarian society in making sense of our contemporary existence and interpreting the profiles of the protagonists of that first decade after the political change.
Still, let’s not get engrossed in what is missing for one reason or another, but see what we have and what meaning it conveys. A great deal of the novel’s plot that has survived in the movie 18% Grey is the story and experience of a parting: initially, spectators are led to believe that it is a temporary split to be shocked in the end at its terminal finality. The surprise is necessary to conceal the triviality of the relationship and the ensuing vicissitudes: happiness, banal everyday life, a feeling of lacking reciprocity, suspicion and jealousy, disappointment, separation, death. Some brotherly love has even been superimposed, of which there is not the slightest trace in the novel. Possibly reminiscent of the producers’ bios?
Trivial, however, are not the emotions, but the melodramatic contexts in which these emotions are situated, and above all, the cinematic techniques used to represent them. The same feeling of secondariness, the unsophisticatedness of which in the slipshod low-budget Niki Iliev’s movies seems agreeable, here is annoyingly pretentious. Notwithstanding the big-budget (for a national production) state-of-the-art vision, the film 18% Grey lacks an ingenious psychological interpretation of contemporary human relationships. The personages the protagonist encounters during his trip are quite clichéd and it is little wonder that you’ve seen them in other European coproductions in the road movie genre: an English moderately drug using liberal intellectual; a slightly retarded Belgian and his warm-hearted sister; a Scottish wandering small-time petty criminal; a German provincial girl in pursuit of a sexual adventure. To Zack, suffering quite badly from the break-up, these encounters are meant to be something of an eye-opener for ‘the pain and life of the others’, making him a better man and artist. If you didn’t notice, this was the lesson the film holds for us. Thank you!
I do not know how much of this lesson will spectators draw, but indirectly, the film poses this increasingly discussed by our society question: what it takes to emigrate nowadays and what kind of emigrants are Bulgarians. A parallel supertask of Zachary Karabashliev’s novel is to vindicate the choice of emigrating, to show it as a normal decision made by a contemporary man looking for an opportunity to develop, unwilling to be poor or corrupt, rather than as an escape, weakness or betrayal. A vague echo of all this is discerned in the film but only by those who have read the novel.
It was far more important to the filmmakers to instil in the spectators’ subconscious minds the air of superiority assumed by the Bulgarian migrant over everyone else. And has he got the goods to back it up except that, being a photographer, he is well aware of the importance of 18% grey to the colour balance? In the novel, photography is first of all a metaphor for the life of the protagonist, while in the film it is rather a tool in his pursuit of success, Alongside all this, the movie is making its best to try and reassure us that Bulgarians are the most intelligent, the most sensitive, the most gifted (creatively and generally) both as migrants and in any other capacity. And this, in addition to betraying complexes, is far too sugarcoated even for a happy ending to a Europudding.