Read This! Andrew Bujalski Talks The Coca-Cola Kid – Jan 29 & 31 at the AFS Cinema
On January 29 and 31, AFS presents THE COCA-COLA KID in 35mm as part of its World Cinema Classics series. Very few could have seen this raucous but insightful comedy coming from transgressive Serbian master Dušan Makavejev. Eric Roberts inhabits the part—an Atlanta-based marketing wiz given the assignment to prop up slow Coca Cola sales in the interior of Australia—with great gusto and massive entertainment value. Released in 1985, the film has very slowly gained cult status thanks in large part to Roberts’ gonzo performance and Makavejev’s go-for-broke approach to the subject matter.
Makavejev’s former student and great admirer of his work filmmaker Andrew Bujalski (COMPUTER CHESS, SUPPORT THE GIRLS) will join us to introduce and discuss the film on January 29. Ahead of the screenings, we asked Bujalski to share his thoughts on time with Makavejev.
What has been your experience with the films of Dušan Makavejev?
I think I’d seen THE COCA-COLA KID on the video store shelf and been intrigued by it, but didn’t really know anything about Dušan until I had the extraordinary good fortune to take his production class in college. All of the professors in those hallways seemed like living legends to us, in part I guess because many of them were—and this stooped over Eastern European madman, who seemed somehow simultaneously a lumbering bear and a mischievous kid, was a huge presence. Some of his films screened on campus back then, others I caught up to later in life, and others yet I still hope to encounter. W.R.: MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM probably has the greatest reputation, and it does seem to me one of the great moments of alchemy in cinema history—I suspect it’s just as mind-blowing and unique today as it was 50 years ago, because it’s totally unrepeatable. INNOCENCE UNPROTECTED and MONTENEGRO also knocked my socks off….
What has been your experience with Makavejev himself?
As an artist and as a person he had a deep affinity for the anarchic, which as you might imagine made him a rather divisive teacher. Students who craved structure and coherent directives tended to be flummoxed and frustrated in his class. And inevitably I think the students he liked personally had better experiences in the class than the ones he found less interesting. But he was deeply engaged with teaching and generally quite sweet—I adored him, even as I was surely intimidated, and had a blast in his class. When I read some of his writing today it occurs to me that a huge chunk of what I think of as “my” filmmaking philosophy is cribbed wholesale from him…Certainly he was doing nothing to set us on the path to “professional” careers, he was happy for us to risk looking incompetent so long as we looked alive, and that was intoxicating for me.
The last time I saw him in person was shortly after I’d moved to Austin in my early 20s—he was participating in some kind of conference with other Serbian artists and dissidents at UT, and somehow, he knew my address and sent a student to come retrieve me. I remember sitting in my living room trying to figure out how to do my taxes—not sure why that detail sticks—when suddenly there was a young woman standing at my screen door telling me that Makavejev was in Austin, he wanted to see me, and she would lead me to him. What a delightful day. I met some students then that I’m still friends with, and somehow ended the night sitting next to Dušan at a party full of Serbian exiles three times my age having heated political and aesthetic debates with each other that I could not understand a word of, riveted.
THE COCA-COLA KID is very different from Makavejev’s other films. Can you identify as a filmmaker with taking big chances and leaving your comfort zone?
Y’know, back in college I think we all considered THE COCA-COLA KID to be his “sell out” movie, the one with Hollywood performers in it, the one that had been a great commercial success, and the one that was clearly less outwardly provocative and transgressive than, say, SWEET MOVIE with all its writhing, chocolate-covered orgies, etc. But I happened to see it again a couple years ago—one of the last things I saw on a screen before the Covid lockdown—and couldn’t believe how fucking wild it was. I’m not sure if it speaks to how rigid commercial cinema has become since then, but it’s really hard to believe that it was within my lifetime that a movie this delightfully bananas could have been an actual hit, or considered “sell out” in any way shape or form. Certainly, there are aspects of the production that would have been unusual for Dušan, but frankly I don’t know if he had a “comfort zone” per se, I have to believe that he was happiest when things were teetering right on the verge of chaos anyhow, and certainly the resulting movie seems entirely, unmistakably his own. It’s not like a studio director sneaking in the occasional personal touch—it’s top to bottom Makavejev.
How does THE COCA-COLA KID tie in, say, W.R. or SWEET MOVIE? Are the similarities as profound as the differences would seem to be?
Of course. Makavejev was a brilliant dude with a unique mind. Some of the outward signifiers of his supposedly “purer” films may be missing, but the anarchic joy is present and uncut.
How would you describe THE COCA-COLA KID to someone who has never seen it before?
Eh, there’s no preparing anyone for it. Just crack open a refreshing Coke and strap yourself in?
THE COCA-COLA KID screens January 29 and 31 at the AFS Cinema. Get tickets here.