Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Christmas Study of Goodbye, 20th Century! (1998)

This may come as a surprise to you, but a Macedonian arthouse film about Santa Claus bringing about the apocalypse actually has artistic merit! Tonight, I'll be presenting you with an essay I've written on what I believe Goodbye, 20th Century means...

In the year 2019, the world has fallen into chaos after a catastrophe. In the Balkan wastes, a religious tribe are about to execute a man named Kuzman, for heresy that they believe caused misfortune to befall them. However, when they gun Kuzman down, he gets right back up again. After further attempts, the tribe believe Kuzman to be cursed, and warn him to stay away from them. Later that night, he's approached by a mysterious barber and prophet, who cryptically tells of what Kuzman must do to learn how he can finally die...

In the year 1999, it's New Year's Eve, and still the Christmas season in Macedonia, due to their Orthodox beliefs. A rent-a-Santa goes back to his apartment, where his landlord and others are holding a wake for a dead man. The proceedings quickly and violently turn to chaos, and it's up to Santa to stop the entropy, by any means necessary...

Goodbye, 20th Century is part post-apocalyptic movie, part re-imagining of the Noah's Ark parable, infused with Macedonian culture and history. To briefly review the film, it's entertaining, thoughtful, and is very well paced! If you're just watching for a good movie, and don't want to have to read artistic themes and messages into anything, then Goodbye 20th Century does stand on its own, and the two stories it tells are extremely varied, and tie together well! The post-apocalypse segment is really only made up of four scenes, but takes up nearly fifty minutes of film. These scenes either have quite a bit happening, or are long dialogue exchanges, and to last as long as they do and remain compelling, never boring, is a great feat! The soundtrack to this movie is especially good. It's moody and evocative in some places. There's also a nice Christmas song! And then there's the licensed music, from Frank Zappa's Cocaine Decisions, to Sid Vicious' My Way, which fit in perfectly, the latter especially so! The effects are quite good too (minus when the Joker lookalike gets shot), and the locations great! The only problem I have with the movie is one really out-of-place extended fart joke, and what else happens during this brief moment. It's baffling! On that note, there's a scene fifty minutes in where the camera flies into a toilet while playing grand music, and emerges in space, where the title flies by, then is hit by a comet. This may too seem like a really bizarre and out-of-place scene, but it's right before a very flashy New Years TV presentation show, so this could just be the opening to that. Most importantly, Goodbye, 20th Century rarely feels pretentious. Not even the scene with the gun-toting Joker lookalike who quote's Bob Dylan's Death is Not the End!

Without further ado, onto the analysis of this film...

Goodbye 20th Century is divided in two large stories, with a very small, but important segment in-between. In the first story, set in the post-apocalyptic future, Kuzman, the man cursed with immortality, sets out to find the 'Wall of Names and Fates', where everyone's destinies are written. The second segment is a brief silent film, showing an incestuous wedding that ends in murder when the groom is shot to death by his family. The third and final segment is about Santa at a funeral wake that has devolved into disrespect and violence, leading him to 'push the button on doomsday', sparing one man to have him build an ark for the upcoming disaster. Numerous aspects connect these stories together, that I'll get into further down below.

Negative legacy seems to be a big theme in Goodbye, 20th Century. The world of this movie is not kind to children. Kuzman's 'lewd' acts in front of a fresco of a saint causes the tribe's children to die, while back in 1999, the children we see are rude, cruel, and willingly partake in the erupting chaos. This is why Santa kills them along with the older people at the wake, as while they may not have had enough time to mature and become genuinely rotten like the adults, Santa could see into the future, and knew that they would indeed get worse, and are therefore just as culpable as the adults. Also, the adults at the wake may be reflections of what the kids would grow up to be like in the future. And when Santa shoots the seemingly innocent old widow, it could potentially be because she represents the people responsible for the raising this generation that led to their current cruel nature.

Kuzman's problems with immortality seem to stem from his own encounter with Santa as a child, when he calls the polite jolly red man an ugly asshole. This could be evocative of the Wandering Jew story, about the man who insulted Jesus at the crucifixion, and was cursed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming. Meanwhile, the legacy of such acts seems to have long-lasting consequences in the future of 2019, where there are forums who view children as disgusting and cruel, and wish for them to be forced into a separate ghetto, away from everyone else.

The other big theme of this movie is cyclical time. The sins of the past carry on through the present and the future, mirroring each-other, as these same acts perpetually doom humanity and drag down its morality. This is represented through a building that we see has a perpetually violent history, from the silent film showing the incestuous wedding, and the murder it caused, and the wake that signals the apocalypse. But, this same location of chaos and violence also becomes a hallowed ground, housing the Wall of Names and Fates, from which humanity can potentially correct their mistakes, and break free from the negative cycle.

One particularly interesting motif is the recurring scream, which you hear in Kuzman's first  attempted execution, when he's traversing into the place with The Wall of Names and Fates, and when Santa kills the old widow at the end. The sound seems to signify the collective echoing anguish and suffering of humanity. ...Yes, I'm fully aware of how pretentious this is making me sound.

The character of Santa* likely represents God, showing resignation and apocalyptic fury at the violent and ill-natured state of the world, while the immortal barber who shows up in each segment is a prophet, who's despondent at humanity's mistakes, and seems to want to help them rise up over them and into purity.

*Technically he's only a rent-a-Santa, but if he's literally God, then I'm sure I can consider him as being literally Santa too. Plus, he plays Jingle Bells when destroying the world, so there.

Incest is another big theme in Goodbye, 20th Century, but I haven't the faintest idea what it's meant to signify.

Now to address a couple of potential goofs that could in fact be deliberate aspects to the movie. The first is part of the film's written opening narration, which talks of the apocalypse, and how only the animals survived, before immediately showing people. This could be mind-numbing stupidity on the part of the writer, or it could be a deliberate comparison, to show the savagery of the people of 2019.

The other possible goof is the fact that in this post-apocalyptic world, trees are said to be all gone, yet we clearly see trees in some scenes, and fruit figures very heavily into one scene (from what I can tell, apples were an aphrodisiac, or something like that, in Greece, so their use in that scene makes sense, and isn't forced pretentious imagery). Perhaps the reason for this is that Kuzman's tribe is in a self imposed life in the wastelands of the Balkans (just as Moses and the Isrealites did in the deserts of wherever) as part of a penance to God, and that's why they miss the trees. For all intents and purposes, they no longer exist to them, hence why the feel as if they're all gone, and thus refuse to talk about them. The dialogue doesn't explicitly say why they're all gone, and the wording of the establishing conversation is definitely accommodating to my theory, given its wording.

So, that ends this essay. Am I correct in my theories, or am I just looking into things too much? No idea, but speculation on art films is fun regardless. I seriously do dig art films, but for me to enjoy them, they actually have to mean something. Anyone who makes a movie that's two hours of a car driving who claims their work is high art is a fucking asshole, and needs to stay away from movies! I want things to actually happen in art films, that I can draw intelligently crafted themes and meanings from. That Goodbye, 20th Century is! If you're looking for an intelligent art film about cyclical time, or just a general insane Christmas movie full of post-apocalyptic antics, and Santa destroying the world, that'll leave you wanting to listen to some X-Ray Spex, then I recommend it!...


  1. This is one of many times where I've wondered where you found a movie or how you even heard of it! This one is sounding pretty random and bizarre. You had an interesting interpretation of it. Your interpretation sounds like it makes sense considering what you described. It's one of those times when the viewer is left wondering if they overanalyzed a movie. There had to be some meaning behind the scenes you mentioned. I can't think these were just a series of disconnected stories.

    Sometimes after analyzing a movie, I find out that the writer didn't intend much of what I saw. The same goes for interpreting lyrics. Often I prefer the way I heard a plot/song to what was meant! It would be interesting to read what other people thought of this movie. Maybe you could compare notes. Although, this sounds like one of those random movies that probably hasn't been reviewed by a lot of people.

    This sounds like a bleak one! There isn't a lot of hope when even the kids are a mean, chaotic mess and are forced to live separately from the rest of society. This movie may not be a fun watch, but it sounds like it will make you think!

  2. Sometimes I find movies so bizarre that if I reviewed them on April the 1st, my readers would refuse to believe they really exist! haha!

    It actually is fun in an odd way, and thankfully it's never depressing.

    I first saw this on Youtube years ago. It was a crummy VHS print, but it had English subtitles. That video is no longer on Youtube, but a High Quality one is!...In unsubtitled Macedonian! I had to...erm...acquire a terrible quality subtitled print, and watch the two versions side by side! I'd glance through a scene of the subtitled one, pause it, then I'd sit back and focus on the HQ one, ad infinitum about three dozen times!

    The film was first shown at the Academy Awards of all places, in the category of Best Foreign Film! It didn't win though. The snooty judges laughed it off the screen, viewing it as nothing but the work of 'incest and gun obsessed thirteen year olds', but others appreciated it more, citing that it effectively captured the country's wartorn nature. One positive review liked the film despiet not understanding a single thing, saying that it's "memorable for sheer idiosyncrasy alone".

    Thanks for the great comment, Justine!

  3. That's true - I probably would think some of these movies were an April Fool's joke, because they're these zany things I've never heard of. I guess at some point I'll stop being surprised and shocked by the new movies I hear about, but it hasn't happened yet.

    Really? This movie is never depressing? It sure sounds like it could go in that direction. There must be some kind of dark humor or maybe the fast, action packed pace helps?

    Wow, I can't believe you watched the higher quality version with no subtitles and the cruddier subtitled version at the same time! That's a lot of effort and dedication to put into watching a movie. You probably have it memorized by now. It's enough to make a person want to learn Macedonian. :)

    I'm amazed that this was shown at the Academy Awards. I'm less amazed at the part about the snooty judges. This sounds like the kind of movie you can appreciate if you get into the flow and style of it. Some movies with a strong artistic style are like that. If you like the vision and the way it's presented, you can get past some crazy parts in the plot. That sounds like the way the one reviewer felt, the one who found the movie memorable despite not understanding a bit of it!

  4. Yeah, they both help, as does the engaging dialogue that really pulls you in.

    I actually had about half memorized already before rewatching it, because the dialogue is that memorable! But yeah, I'm definitely glad I watched the movie the way I did, so I got the full effect. Here's hoping the movie gets a DVD release someday, with subtitles.

    What I find amusing is that so many mainstream arty films are absolutely meaningless, and just tracking shots of people walking or driving for two hours, while the art films I've seen that actually mean something are the really out-there crazy ones like Goodbye, 20th Century!