WR: Mysteries of the Organism and Sweet Movie
Reviewed by Michael Bronski
WR: Mysteries of the Organism
Produced, written and directed by Dusan Makavejev. Cinematography by Aleksandar Petkovic Predrag Popovic (as Pega Popovic). Edited by Ivanka Vukasovic. Production Design by Dragoljub Ivkov. Original Music by Bojana Marijan. Staring Milena Dravic, Ivica Vidovic, Jagoda Kaloper, Tuli Kupferberg, Zoran Radmilovic, and Jackie Curtis. DVD, color. 85 minutes., in English and Serbo-Croatian with optional English subtitles, 1971. A Criterion Collection release, distributed by Image Entertainment.
Written and directed by Dusan Makavejev. Produced by Richard Hellman, Vincent Malle, Heléne Vager. Cinematography by Pierre L'homme. Edited by Yann Dedet. Original Music by Manos Hatzidakis. With Carole Laure, Pierre Clémenti, Anna Prucnal, El Macho, Jane Mallett Roy Callender, John Vernon. DVD, color 98 minutes, in English, French, and Serbo-Croatian with optional English subtitles, 1974. A Criterion Collection release, distributed by Image Entertainment.
Watching Dusan Makavejev's 1971 WR: Mysteries of the Organism and his 1974 Sweet Movie today—recently reissued on Criterion Collection DVDs nearly three and a half decades after their filming and initial release—is a disquieting experience. Both of these films show Makavejev at the top of his form as a master of avant-garde filmmaking—especially his collage technique and manipulation of the shocking image (and there are scenes here that still may stun, even offend, audiences) whose work is reminiscent of the best of Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc Godard, and Kenneth Anger. Both WR and Sweet Movie defined cutting-edge cinema in the early 1970s. They spoke clearly and directly to deeply held sentiments in both radical and, to a large degree, mainstream culture about the importance of eroticism, the inability of ideologues of both the right and the left to successfully incorporate a full understanding of sexuality into their theoretical framework, and were predicated on mordant critiques of capitalism and political fanaticism. Of course, they had their detractors—social conservatives were appalled by the overt sexuality of the films, more traditional leftists balked at the films' demands that sexuality be taken seriously as a political issue, and canonical Reichians felt that WR completely, and grossly, misrepresented the theories of Wilhelm Reich.
Today these specific criticisms are going to be muted: in a world in which hard-core Internet porn is common, Makavejev's images are less shocking, thanks to feminism leftists now understand that sexuality is a political issue; and canonical Reichians are probably a little less canonical than thirty years ago. But the question remains: how do we view these films that were so much a product, and mirror of, of their political times? Do they still speak to us as boldly as they did in the Seventies? Or has their political potency faded, leaving us with only a feeling of nostalgia for a more radical past?
Makavejev, and his radical vision, did not spring out of thin air. He had been making films in Yugoslavia since the late 1950s and scored some minor success in U.S. art houses with Man Is Not a Bird in 1965 and An Affair of the Heart, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator in 1967. But it was in 1971 that he was elevated to cultural-icon status with the release of WR: Mysteries of the Organism. It is not surprising that Amos Vogel, in his 1973 Film as a Subversive Art, claimed WR was "unquestionably one of the most important subversive masterpieces of the 1970s" but mainstream reviews were equally positive. Reviewers in such mainstream publications as The New York Times, Time, and Newsweek also praised the film.
It was a remarkable response to what was essentially a feature-length experimental film based on the theories of psychologist and political philosopher Wilhelm Reich and promoting a critique of both capitalist and communist erotophobia using the theatrical antics of Andy Warhol diva Jackie Curtis and Fugs founder Tuli Kupferberg juxtaposed with a series of interconnecting, vaguely anagogical, fictional plots. The praise continued, albeit somewhat moderated, with the release of Sweet Movie four years later. When Sweet Movieopened, at the New York Film Festival, in 1975—missing four minutes of scatological material that made it a scandal at Cannes the year before—The New York Times's Vincent Canby called it a "courageous example of a personal kind of film making" although he felt that it sank under the weight of its ambitions.
There is no doubt that commercial film culture in the early Seventies was more open and permissive than it is today. While audiences, and distributors, are now moderately accepting of "normal" forms of sexual representation, Makavejev's celebration of excretory functions and (in Sweet Movie ) overt sexuality that includes children make it unlikely that even the most ambitious of independent theaters would easily welcome him today. But in the Seventies mainstream film culture was not just willing but rapaciously hungry for films that pushed political, social, emotional, and sexual buttons and boundaries. And equally surprising was audiences' ability to grapple with and delight in Makavejev's fractured narratives, drastic use of collage techniques, and giddy, often contradictory, stew of political messages. By pushing to the extreme both political content as well as narrative form, Makavejev bombarded audiences with extraordinary, and anarchic, material that demanded both instant, as well as reflective, synthesis. It was a brilliant combination. But for audiences today—particularly those who did not experience the excitement and frisson of film culture in the late Sixties and early Seventies—Makavejev's films may often feel like a grand, if often gratifying, puzzlement.
It is impossible to watch WR and Sweet Movie today and not be impressed by the sheer audacity of Makavejev's filmmaking. The power of both films relies on a rowdy, shrewd, and completely unpredictable mix of sedate, straightforward documentary footage. In WR, Makavejev uses interviews with followers of Wilhelm Reich as well as Soviet propaganda films; in Sweet Movie he uses graphic newsreel footage of the exhumation of the bodies from the Katyn Forest massacre. In both films he contrasts this footage with brightly colored, boldly filmed cartoonlike narratives that are a cross between Andy Warhol's and Roy Liechtenstein's pop art and (often) not very subtle parodies of commercialized and mass culture. Makavejev's visual and narrative trademark here—which is not present in his later, more commercial films Montenegro (1981) and The Coca-Cola Kid (1985)—is a fairly simple, but highly effective series of juxtapositions of the real and the fantastic.
One of the reasons that these films were accessible to audiences on their initial release was that the basic material was fairly recognizable in the context of early Seventies culture. After a decade of exposure, audiences were comfortably conversant with the bold visuals of the New York art world as well as exposed on a daily basis to shocking newsreel footage, specifically of the Vietnam War. In addition to this, since the mid-Sixties U.S. audiences enjoyed similar (if less shocking) political satire on television shows such as That Was the Week That Was, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and even Laugh-In. More sophisticated audiences were also familiar with the sharp, ironic political commentary of Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Tom Lehrer. It was, however, Makavejev's yoking together of attention-grabbing, often sexual, visuals with overt political content that was a major cultural breakthrough and that still works viscerally today.
If audiences were moderately comfortable with Makavejev's visual style, his political content was more foreign, although it certainly resonated with contemporary sexual liberationist thinking. In WR and Sweet Movie Makavejev insists on the primacy of an authentic sexual liberation in a progressive political agenda. He is also insistent in demonstrating to us how political ideologies—of both the left and the right—have used and distorted human sexuality so that it becomes an agent of harm, even death. These arguments, wonderfully spun out by Makavejev as he contrasts his documentary footage with ribald and absurdly fabulist fiction narratives, are central to both films, although they take very different forms.
WR is centered on the mostly comic erotic misadventures of Milena (Milena Dravic) and Jagoda (Jagoda Kaloper), two young Yugoslavian communist house mates who believe that "the October Revolution failed by not excepting free love." Milena's ideology fails after she falls in love with Vladimir Illych (played by Ivica Vidovic), a champion Soviet figure skater whose staunch party politics prohibit him from understanding true sexual liberation, and who eventually decapitates Milena with the blade of his ice skate. Makavejev's presentation of this story is a gleeful, and mostly effective, jamboree of musical theater, soap opera, and over-the-top Sirkian tragedy.
The plot of Sweet Movie is far more ambitions and serious, even as it maintains a comic tone. Here, again, the erotic adventures of two women are juxtaposed. Miss Monde 1984 (Carole Laure)—chosen for her exemplary virginity—is shuttled off to marriage to Mr. Kapital (John Vernon), millionaire of the milk industry, but after resisting him she is shipped off to Paris in a suitcase and ends up meeting and becoming involved with a vain Latino crooner, El Macho (Sami Frey), and then becomes a member of a sexually active commune where anything goes and shame, guilt, and conventional modesty are nowhere to be seen. This experience leads her to personal and social liberation. Her story is contrasted with Anna Planeta (Anna Prucnal), who captains a candy-and-sugar-filled ship—sporting a huge bust of Karl Marx on the prow—as she sails about seducing and then killing a sailor named Potemkin (Pierre Clémenti) as well as several male children.
In both cases, Makavejev seems to be arguing, extreme political ideologies—capitalism and communism—run the risk of distorting the authentic ideology of sexual liberation and free love. But even such a careful statement feels incautious. The reality is that both WR and Sweet Movie—in spite of using a rhetoric of polemic—lend themselves to, even demand, multiple interpretations. Like Brecht—in works such as Mother Courage (a play that resonates, in part, with segments of Sweet Movie) and the opera Mahagonny—Makavejev is careful never to paint himself into a simplistic, or even clearly defined, ideological corner. The genius of the films is not that they resist easy interpretation—a bad filmmaker can do that easily enough—but that they continually suggest to us myriad, often serial, political, and esthetic readings.
Makavejev's parables (and if you need to pigeonhole his rhetoric here, parable is as close as you'll comfortably get) are a giddy mixture of overt political rhetoric, naughtiness, and deeply transgressive sexuality, but because they are rooted in a historical specificity, they are difficult to transpose into our contemporary social climate. Not that his concerns about sexuality, repression, economics, and personal and collective freedom are not as pressing as ever—in many ways even more so—and can certainly be read by many viewers as pointed and pertinent today, but his political language feels set in a very specific time period. Drawing heavily on visual variants of Brechtian alienation technique, a New Left agitprop style that emerged from Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies (it is no surprise that Tuli Kupferberg is in the film), and heightened with sexually trangressive content that owes more to Screw than to Dada, Makavejev has created what feels like a grand, glorious political vaudeville. One of the reasons WR and Sweet Movie felt so visceral and exciting at the time was that Makavejev was reinvigorating the already fading radical semiotics of the moment. Now, if some viewers may feel his theatrical rhetoric dated, his audacity and sheer nerve are still thrilling.
The question, then, isn't so much, "Is Makavejev dated"—which is a tedious question—but rather, "How do we view him now?" Certainly global politics have radically shifted. Not only is Soviet Communism over, and capitalism—that protean beast—has undergone many changes over the past three decades. Makavejev's often Punch-and-Judy style sexual politics has a much different feel than it did in the early Seventies. It is not that they feel "wrong," or antifeminist, but they were made prior to three and a half decades of radical and mainstream feminism and gay liberation.
One of the major projects of second-wave feminism over the past two decades, for example, has been to explore the endless possibilities of pleasure (sexual and otherwise) through a feminist lens. Feminist artists and thinkers as diverse as Monique Wittig, Teresa De Lauretis, Ruby Rich, Ulrike Ottinger, Chris Straayer, Erica Jong, and Della Grace have produced works that have mapped out new ways of discussing and understanding the importance of sexual pleasure in our lives. Makavejev's analysis of repression and sexual freedom were of course part of that long feminist history—some of WR for instance resonates with the feminist "sex wars" of the Eighties and debates in feminism today—but it also stands, and at times feels, apart from it as well.
While the politics in WR and Sweet Movie can be interpreted in new ways today – more or less less relevant depending upon your point of view—both films remind us that a vibrant political cinema that raised serious questions about the relationship between sexuality, pleasure, capitalism, and political ideology was not only possible but also valued thirty years ago. This raises the vital question of where this political cinema is now. As our understandings of sexuality, consumerism, commercialism, and freedom have transformed over the years, the reflection of this in our cinema has not evolved as quickly. WR and Sweet Movie are reminders of the boldness, courage, and audacity that making such films entail.
As always these Criterion Collection editions are pristine in their transfer – the bold color, so important here, is quite glorious—and come with a host of helpful features, including new and improved subtitles. Raymond Durgnat's audio commentary on WR, taken from his book on the film, is excellent, as are the interviews, both contemporary and archival, with the filmmaker. The addition of Makavejev's Hole in the Soul, a fifty-two-minute autobiographical film, long unobtainable, is invaluable to understanding the man and his work. Sweet Movie includes new interviews with Makavejev and Balkan film historian Dina Iordanova.
Michael Bronski teaches Women's Studies and Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and publishes regularly on film, politics and sexuality.
Copyright © 2007 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1