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The Films of Makavejev [Nov. 25th, 2009|10:20 am]
Reviews, Quotes, Bibliographies from Jerry Monaco


[Current Music |ACB Radio Treasure-Trove]

Terror and Joy: The Films of Dusan Makavejev
by Lorraine Mortimer

The Last Yugoslav
A Review by Richard Byrne

From "The Nation" magazine:

The chapter on WR couples the NATO bombing of the Serbian town of Novi Sad in 1999 with the fact that WR was produced in that city. The chapter on Innocence Protected opens with an extended meditation on a short film made by Srdjan Vuletic during the siege of Sarajevo and the wounds of the city and its citizens, and then leaps into discussing a disturbing scene from Makavejev's film of a child near death. There is even a six-page "Interlude" that tackles various aspects of the Yugoslav wars through anecdote and political history with no substantive reference to Makavejev's films at all. "I want to come back to the conception of the human being as indeed rational, a maker," Mortimer writes in that section, "but also mad, prone to delusion, both an undoer and a producer of fantasies with consequences ranging from the benign to the truly malignant." That doesn't leave much out at all. If Makavejev had kept making films about Yugoslavia after 1969, Mortimer's argument might be more convincing.

But precisely the opposite happened. Makavejev used his position as a filmmaker from Yugoslavia -- the country of the "middle way" -- to leap audaciously into a critique of the grand conflict of capitalism and communism. The WR in the title of that film stands not only for Freud disciple Wilhelm Reich but for world revolution. Makavejev sought -- and commanded -- an international stage. Both WR and his next film, Sweet Movie (1974), share a number of qualities: sexual frankness, political courage and a dazzling array of powerful and disquieting images that prove almost sacramental in distilling the era's competing ideologies into flesh-and-blood characters. Indeed, the two movies are so often linked -- and they do belong together, stylistically and thematically -- that it is instructive in some ways to examine their differences.

WR's power resides in its relentless interrogations of authority and its power to suppress freedom and dissent. Makavejev approaches Reich's theories -- and in particular, Reich's notion that humanity is corroded physically and enslaved politically and morally by its frustrated sexual urges -- as an avenue to investigate how power works to keep humanity in chains. What compels human participation in personality cults of a dictator such as Stalin? What happens when the Vietnam War is brought home through satire directly to Manhattan's office buildings? What is the relationship between sexual liberation and political power?

Makavejev provides no answers, just tantalizing clues in cinematic hagiographies of Stalin; the comic street theater of Tuli Kupferberg (founding member of the Fugs), who wanders through Manhattan toting a rifle and helmet; and a fatal romance between a liberated Yugoslav woman named Milena (who conveniently spouts Reichian maxims) and a Russian ice skater who decapitates her with his skate in a spasm of sexual excitement and repulsion. These elements and scores of others -- including a documentary on Reich -- are sliced and diced together, creating a riot of juxtapositions.

The outsized reaction against the film by Soviet and Yugoslav authorities in part served to obscure Makavejev's stinging critique of capitalism. Communism represses sexuality or channels it into a personality cult. But capitalism? Whether it is Kupferberg comically masturbating his rifle, or the crass commercialization of sex in pornography, or the fetishization of plaster casting, Makavejev's lens lays bare the priapism of war and commerce in American life.

And despite the savagery of his attack on Soviet communism, Makavejev's documentary on Reich slyly reminds us that it was not communism -- which the psychoanalyst embraced in the 1920s and '30s but then bitterly rejected -- that ultimately led to Reich's personal destruction. Rather, it was officials at the US Food and Drug Administration, egged on by doctors who believed Reich to be a quack. The chain reaction of bans and prosecutions ended only with Reich's death in jail in 1957 and the immolation of his books in two separate episodes by FDA staffers.

If WR is fueled by its relentless questioning, Sweet Movie has the air of a filmmaker who knows it all. Yet despite the controversy kicked up by Makavejev's taboo-busting in the film (urination, theatrical castration, a vigorous exploration of childhood sexuality), Sweet Movie is at its heart a simpler and much less complex film. Sweet Movie 's dual plotlines rigidly parallel the cold war siege lines. And though these narratives are laced with a succession of startling images (nakedness in chocolate, sex, sugar and blood), they are in fact simple and straightforward. Communism is a pirate boat with the face of Marx, piloted by the gorgeous, seductive and murderous Anna Planeta. The evils of capitalism are found in the rise and fall of the virginal Miss Monde 1984 (Carole Laure), who is married off to the fabulously rich but twisted Mr. Kapital (John Vernon, later Dean Wormer of Animal House fame) and then runs away into a succession of increasingly savage and demeaning escapades.

In any era, Sweet Movie would be powerful stuff. It was banned in even more countries than WR, including in Britain, largely because of Anna Planeta's clearly allegorical but very edgy seduction of four young boys and an unbridled scene filmed in the radical self-expression commune run by artist and therapist Otto Muehl. One almost gets the sense that Makavejev is trying to outdo WR and ends up somehow overdoing it. Even Sweet Movie 's bravest political moment -- Makavejev's use of Nazi footage of the exhumation of the Polish victims of a massacre by Russian forces in the Katyn forest, fourteen years before the Russian acknowledgment of the massacre -- feels more gestural than integral to the film. Sweet Movie's essential flaw is that it dilutes the complexities that make WR so effervescent. Communism seduces and kills. Capitalism degrades humanity and drives it mad. Instead of pursuing questions, the movie is content to rest on those answers.