Free-associating with a master of free cinema
“Free cinema” has the dull ring of an oxymoron. The extreme level of control required and the mass of pressures that collide in the preparation, production, and marketing of a movie have conspired against a certain kind of unfettered vision, and those who have attempted to create features that dispense with linear narrative, sympathetic characters, and other supposed givens of the artform have generally been relegated to the marginalized “experimental film” category.
During the heyday of the counterculture in the ’60s and ’70s, a few brave souls crept out of formula filmmaking and found surprisingly wide audiences – along with notoriety and censorship – for their work. Chief among these was Dusan Makavejev. Born in Belgrade in 1932 of Serbian parents, Makavejev, like his French counterparts in the late ’40s and ’50s, was a product of the local film societies, screening a wide array of works from British documentaries of the 1930s to important Russian silents and absorbing their influence. He made his first 16mm film, The Journey to Old Yugoslavia, in 1953, at a time when he was also studying psychology and writing film reviews. Starting in 1958, he made more than a dozen documentaries for Zagreb and other Yugoslav companies, a process that culminated in his first feature, the 1966 Man Is Not a Bird. This is one of six of his features (out of a mere nine, excluding a film he contributed a sequence to and a 50-minute self-portrait) released on VHS by Facets Video, four of which were screened.
Makavejev’s interest in political and sexual liberation, which he believed could not be separated, was evident early in his career. His second short, Spomenicima Ne Treba Verovati (1958), won praise at Cannes but censorship at home, when the Yugoslav authorities held it back for five years because of an “overly erotic” seduction scene. This would be the first of many run-ins with the censors that would plague his career and, arguably, keep him from being recognized as a major postwar film artist.
Makavejev has been more intimately involved with his productions than most directors, and Man Is Not a Bird (1965)is no exception. Scripted by the director, the film follows Jan (Janez Urhovec), an engineer who goes to work in a copper factory in eastern Serbia. He rents a room from the parents of sexy hairdresser Raika (Milena Dravic), with whom he has a passionate affair. Makavejev loves to poke holes in pomposity, and while Jan is accepting an award for being a good communist worker, Raika is screwing a rather sleazy truckdriver. Typical of the director, this scene is visualized in unselfconscious montage, with the swelling music (Ode to Joy) accompanying Jan’s ceremony cross-cut with the sensual details of Raika’s tryst. Makavejev’s comments on his style – a word he disowns – are apropos here: “The guerrilla can use whatever weapons he likes, paving stones, fire, bullets, slogans, songs. The same with movies. We can use everything that comes to hand: fiction, documents, actualities, titles. ‘Style’ is not important. You must use surprise as a psychological weapon.” Man Is Not a Bird indeed intermingles ‘fiction, documents, actualities” in its vivid location shooting – Jan’s copper factory is a real one – and striking interpolations such as what looks like an improvised scene with a smalltown circus that includes a hypnotist and snake eaters. Makavejev’s use of handheld camera deepens the viewer’s sense of engagement with what’s happening, from Jan’s ceremony with what appears to be a cast of thousands of well-wishers, to the violent attack on Raika by her parents in their cramped apartment when they discover she’s been making it with their boarder. A motif seen frequently in his work is introduced here, the coupling, or contrast, of a monumental work of state-sponsored art (architecture, a giant poster) and the individual dwarfed, threatened, and in a sense consumed, by it. Man Is Not a Bird has been called a “cornerstone of Eastern European cinema,” and the director’s “collage” method that pulls together disparate materials into a pleasurable whole, along with a strain of unabashed eroticism, validates that status.
In his next film, Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967), Makavejev expands his canvas, adding a brilliant manipulation of time to his repertoire. The film opens outside the diegesis, with a crusty old sexologist lecturing on sexual liberation and surveying phallic worship across centuries and cultures (a sequence the director illustrates with classical erotic art). Moving into the story proper we meet the title character, Isabela (Eva Ras), who talks often about sex with her friend Ruza (Ruzica Sokic). Isabela meets a sensitive rat catcher, Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudic). From this homely scene, the film cuts jarringly to a black well from which a girl’s body is removed. Following this action a criminologist displays murder weapons and other gruesome paraphernalia. It’s not clear at this point who the girl is, and the film then switches back to the budding romance between Isabela and Ahmed. Makavejev ties a free-association format that includes images of a huge banner of Lenin and footage of the fall of the Romanovs to sweetly understated scenes of the lovers getting to know each other. Another switch to mortuary and autopsy telegraphs the dead girl’s identity: Isabela. Again this is followed by further developments of the very living Isabela and Ahmed. The film’s seesawing between the rise of a relationship and its grim decline gives a tragic potency to an affair that culminates in the disastrous encounter at the well.
Love Affair humanizes its characters in its natural love scenes and simple moments in which little appears to be happening – Isabela playing with bubbles or baking a pie, Ahmed proclaiming his goodness (and worthiness for Isabela) by saying “I get drunk only once a year, when I get sick of everything.” Makavejev’s casual simpatico toward the two makes it all the more unsettling when it becomes clear that both the affair and Isabel herself are doomed. The film also excels in its juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated elements, arguably replicating human consciousness with its twists and turns in scenes that mutate abruptly across the director’s nonlinear narrative. Throughout, hoary “revolutionary” film clips are used to contrast the pompous ideals of the communist state with the lives of ordinary people who can’t escape a malevolent fate. A baleful ode to a poisoned rat that scrolls down the screen shows how brazen Makavejev could be in his effects and presages the more chaotic films to come.
His next film, Innocence Unprotected (1968), opens with a typically witty Makavejev introduction: “New production of one good old film arranged, decorated, and supplied with comments.” Here the director takes his penchant for introducing clips of other films to its extreme. The first Innocence Unprotected was a 1942 potboiler made secretly during the Nazi occupation by, and starring, “locksmith and acrobat Dragoljub Aleksic. The story concerns a woman who hates her stepdaughter and wants to marry her off to a man the girl doesn’t love. Meanwhile, the girl’s in love with Aleksic, aka “mighty boy” (per one of the revolutionary songs included). Makavejev’s reinvention of the film quotes extensive excerpts (hand-tinted) intercut with commentary by Aleksic, newsreel footage, and interviews with some of the actors. The original film was a huge success, considered the first Serbian-language feature, but modern viewers will respond to the combination of Aleksic’s shameless ego – his acrobatic exploits, banned by the Nazis, occupy much screen time – and Makavejev’s whimsical “decorations” to it, as when he shoots an amusingly long close-up of Aleksic’s muscle flexing. Makavejev’s delight in transforming this material is evident throughout, particularly in his tinting of small objects or parts of the screen. During a scene in a bar, for example, while the entire frame is blue, every glass of beer is yellow. Such whimsy is mixed with great affection for a plucky man Makavejev has said was a childhood hero.
Makavejev’s most famous film is WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1968-1971), and while some critics – notably Robin Wood – have argued that here the director’s collage approach has finally gone out of control, the match of subject and director is ideal. The “WR” of the title refers to Wilhelm Reich, the controversial psychologist and philosopher whose “orgone box” alleged to cure cancer and other diseases landed him in a Pennsylvania prison, where he died in 1958. Reich was, like Makavejev, an unapologetic liberationist, disgusted by both communism’s hatred of creativity and capitalism’s idolatry of consumerism. For both men, to quote Reich as quoted in the film, “Fascism is the frenzy of sexual cripples.” Makavejev’s paean to Reich is a kaleidoscope of constructs and effects, a wild mélange that’s variously a heartfelt tribute to a martyred pioneer, a screed against war and more personal brutalities, a satire of communism, and a plea for liberation on all levels. Shot in both Yugoslavia and the United States, WR includes a rich sampling of Reich quotes, a bit of footage of Reich and his wife, interviews with family members, devotees, and Maine locals who knew him as an okay guy who was slightly eccentric. His influence is indicated in voiceover quotes from both Reich and Makavejev (“Comrade-lovers, for your health’s sake, fuck freely!”), scenes of a bioenergetic workshop in New York, a penis plaster cast being made, and a rare sighting of one of the (then) “ten or fifteen orgone boxes left in the country.”
The film is a crazy quilt of visual quotes, ranging from the ironic hagiography of an old Russian melodrama about Stalin to the grisly horror of Nazi medical footage of electroshock therapy. WR’s weapons against these atrocities are whimsy, satire, and sex. He skewers war in the person of poet Tuli Kupferberg, seen prancing through the streets of New York in a comic costume holding a fake gun and quietly rattling passersby. Most impressive in this regard is a recurring story of Party faithful Radmilovic (Zoran Radmilovic), Reich enthusiast Milena (Mileana Dravic), and her roommate Jagoda (Jagoda Kaloper). Hilarious indeed are Milena’s arguments with a canny old lady, who dishes the Reichian ideal as practiced by a couple nearby: “To me it’s just a fuckfest!” When her boyfriend Radmilovic upbraids her thus, “Now that you’ve passed a Party course, you snub intimate proletarian friends!” she replies in perfect communist-speak: “That’s a slanderous lie, you irresponsible element!” In a brilliant stroke, when a perfect orgasm leads to Milena’s beheading, she continues to dispense Reichian homilies from the little white pan in which her head sits. Not surprisingly, WR had its share of censorship problems; in fact, Makavejev left the former Yugoslavia in 1971 when the film was banned there.
Makavejev’s post-WR career has been halting at best. Sweet Movie (1974) was widely reviled both critically and commercially, and banned in Canada after the leading lady walked off the film in disgust. Montenegro (1981) garnered mixed reviews, while Coca-Cola Kid (1985) was seen as a failed attempt to make a commercial film. Manifesto (1989) won kudos but not audiences; The Gorilla Bathes at Noon (1993) was criticized for its aimless plot; A Hole in the Soul (1995) is a rarely seen self-portrait less than an hour long; and Danish Girls Show Everything (1996) is a comic anthology to which he contributed an entry, unscreened.