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Serbian porno gang takes show on the road

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"The Life and Death of a Porno Gang" is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Synapse films.

Cinema, that traditionally aristocratic medium, has always found unlikely ways to commiserate with the working man and the poor. In America, King Vidor's "The Crowd" showed us a man trapped on the treadmill of lower middle class survival in the big city. A few years later, Frank Borzage's "Man's Castle" gave us Spencer Tracy as a street hustler who learns that Depression-era struggle is no excuse to turn his back on a chance at family life. It's the same in every country, every era: Societies that place the bulk of their economic burden upon the low man's shoulders often send that man scrambling in the opposite direction of happiness, in the name of happiness. A random spin of the world cinema wheel will turn up great directors whose finest work touches on this phenomenon: Ken Loach, Ousmane Sembene, the Dardenne brothers, Ulrich Seidl, the Italian neorealists, the blacklisted Americans, and so on.

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I go off on this little film school tangent as a way of explaining why "The Life and Death of a Porno Gang," from Serbian director Mladen Djordjevic, is well worth suffering through. "A Serbian Film," Srdjan Spasojevic's notorious tumble through the fictional making of an underground child porn/snuff flick, is crammed with despicable business, elegantly filmed, and so is the earlier but lesser-known "Porno Gang." As with Spasojevic's widely banned shocker, Djorjevic's point isn't the gruesome stuff on display (or viscerally suggested) but the way the film's hedonistic but fundamentally moral protagonist, in the name of protecting or starting a family, winds up in a quicksand of exploitation and moral ruin.

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In "A Serbian Film," the man who goes too far was a porno actor coaxed out of retirement for a chance to earn a final, liberating cash-out. In "Porno Gang," it's Marko (Mihaljo Jovanovic), a filmmaker who wants to secure a future with a beautiful failed actress (Ana Acimovic) he's falling in love with. His first attempt at high-minded, politically coded sci-fi porn squanders his gangsterish producer's money and patience. Marko stubbornly pursues his vision: He and his girlfriend draft a band of misfits to perform artsy live sex shows in Belgrade; when the film producer and his dirty cop brother come after them, they take their show on the road, through the Balkan countryside. Poor, listless farmers and townspeople appreciate the comical displays of T&A and D&B but scratch their heads at Marko's pretentious flourishes. Along the way, he picks up another loving (but drug-addicted) couple, a transvestite farm boy and two gay, HIV-infected porn stars.

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The shows aren't taking in enough peasant money to support them all, so Marko accepts a mysterious German's offer to shoot snuff material for his secret, wealthy clientele. As desperate and depressed as they often are, none of the porno gang volunteer to be a subject. No matter: They have no problem finding volunteers among Serbia's rural poor -- folks tired of living who believe their death will be the only way to get their loved ones out from under.

It's all a metaphor for Serbia's corrupt and turbulent political situation, of course, but how much pseudo-snuff, animal sacrifice, suicides, rapes and police beatings does it take to make the metaphor sink in? Never too much, Djordjevic seems to believe. These days, with audiences worldwide gorging on terror and anomie as popcorn entertainment, he might be right.

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There's a smirking quality to the whole enterprise, as if the film is tittering at its own absurd stakes and payoffs. Even as Djordjevic appears obsessed with death and degradation, his filmmaking bursts with a sensual appreciation of unruly life. Touring in a van done up in classic psychedelic colors, the gang lives like Woodstock-era flower children, except with harder drugs and rougher sex. In the film's delirious satirical height, they respond to being robbed, raped and beaten by a town official's goons by laughing their sore asses off. It's the starkest evocation of "Got to laugh to keep from crying" that I've seen in a good while. If you've ever felt, um, screwed by government or big business to such an absurd extent that it actually tickled, you might laugh with them.

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That moral quicksand quickens the further Marko's gang gets down the road, and performers start to drop like slasher movie teens in various sorrowful ways. Yet the only one wielding the knife is the invisible hand of the market.

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Nobody drops in Djordjevic's 2005 porn industry documentary, "Made in Serbia," which is included on the "Porno Gang" Blu-ray. (Data capacity limits keep it off the DVD.) Where Djorjevic's fiction film explores the most extreme underbelly of adult films, MiS chronicles the relatively mundane practices of hardcore-but-legal porn. Among its four subjects, the one Djordjevic is most likely to adapt into a narrative feature is the schlub who enters the porn industry as an indirect way of tracking down the starlet who used to be his girlfriend. It's like Paul Schrader's "Hardcore," with much lower stakes or conflict. (See Wicktor Grodecki's heart-stopping 1996 documentary "Body Without Soul" for a truly shattering glimpse of pornography at its most venal and predatory.) It's fascinating to see Djordjevic employ a more deadpan style that emphasizes his absurdist sense of humor. There's even a pornographer who fancies himself a serious filmmaker forced to pay the bills with porn -- clearly a model for Marko in "Porno Gang."

There's no blood and degradation in "Made in Serbia," just sleazy hustle, but Djordjevic's political convictions are just as evident: Serbia's porn stars are working it like an entry-level job, earning just enough to scrape by.

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Despite all the blood and degradation and scraping by in "Porno Gang," the most astonishing act of cruelty is a verbal one. The porno gang is a coarse bunch, but its members are generally mindful of each other's feelings and space. The outside world offers far less consideration: At one point, the gang's version of an MVP, a plump amazon who's probably more inspired and daring an actress than Marko's girlfriend, suffers verbal abuse from beady-eyed cops at a stationhouse. They say she's fat and ugly and desperate for sex. Over here in the West, a media-indoctrinated viewer might be inclined to disagree with the cops only on the matter of style. Of course she's fat, of course she's ugly, but don't use these facts to torment the poor girl. But Djordjevic's camera shows us how robustly beautiful she is, not much more than average size, with a sweet, luminous round face. Whether it was his intention or not, this is Djordjevic's most radical visual statement in "The Life and Death of a Porno Gang," evidence that the outliers society tends to purge or render grotesque by economic exclusion are often the only truly beautiful people in sight.

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