NINA POWER revisits five radical, mixed-genre films from 1965–74 that explore sex and revolution
DUŠAN MAKAVEJEV - Mysteries of the Organism
Sex is boring: Michel Foucault’s claim in an interview from 1983, from around the time of his History of Sexuality project, is as good a summation as any of our current predicament. What was once seen as a force for radical change—political, physical, social—is now nothing but a tacky consumer addon: “sex appeal” is smeared on everything from shoes to chocolate, from models to cars, and one buys it as one would a cauliflower or some toilet roll. At the same time, despite a general atmosphere of permissive hedonism, the very idea of questioning the sanctity of one’s “private life” is unthinkable: the couple, straight or gay, forms the only acceptable goal of human sexual behavior, even if one sleeps with hundreds of people on the way. The current obsession with “the One,” the perfect lifetime partner—a key motif of supposedly emancipated television shows such as Sex and the City and Ally McBeal—demonstrates that in fact desire is indifferent to whether its object is another human being, a handbag, or a pair of shoes. Sex is boring. But not so very long ago, in an age we are meant to believe was much sillier, fucking was a revolutionary activity and the nuclear family was a nightmare from which the twentieth century was about to wake up. Radical feminism, in particular, in the work of Shulamith Firestone and others, foresaw a world in which technology would free women from the burden of reproduction, liberating true sexuality and permitting as many different kinds of relations, sexual or otherwise, as humanly possible. But despite the accuracy of Firestone’s predictions regarding contraception, IVF, and a certain loosening of everyday morals, no social revolution has occurred. Sexual liberation did not bring with it a corresponding social revolution. We are living, as Alain Badiou often puts it, in the age of the restoration, where creeping moralism and normative models of behavior are sold back to us as objects of desire.
Contemporary cinema is, at times, haunted by the memory of these failed aspirations. Some recent films, such as Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience and, in a quite different register, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, have examined the contemporary state of sex, reduced as it is to an unstable combination of consumerism and morbid inwardness. Both are morality tales for a depressing age: but there is another story to tell, one which represents a course not taken by cinema or the world at large. The films of Dušan Makavejev long for and hint at a society that would not be blind to human pleasure, that would celebrate sexuality without commodifying it. Makavejev’s exploration of visual form, what we might call mixed-genre montage (fiction, documentary, inter views, performance, parody, propaganda), similarly alerts us to the possibility of a new kind of cinema, one that would be able to bridge the gap between big ideas and minor lives. Makavejev is far from mourning lost dreams or reveling in wistful fantasies: what his cinema proposes is not simply “socialism with a human face,” but, as Daniel J. Goulding puts it in his chapter on Makavejev in Five Filmmakers: Tarkovsky, Forman, Polanski, Szabó, Makavejev (Indiana University Press, 1994), “with a human body as well” (236). Maka vejev’s films should also be included in the small but important category of mid-twentieth century feminist films. Indeed, one of Makavejev’s very great strengths is his portrayal of “modern” young women, beginning with Rajka, the strong-willed, independent heroine of Man Is Not a Bird (1965). While it would be easy to read Makavejev’s women as ciphers for all that is left out in the Soviet vision of humanity—playfulness, desire, and a certain carefree autonomy—they are also fleshed-out, engaging characters in their own right. When violence is meted out to the women in Makavejev’s films as it invariably is (the image of a man pushing a woman over features in almost all of the films discussed here, and murderous rage claims the lives of several women), we should not simply understand it as part of the long and dreary history of cinema’s desire to revel in the punishment of women, but as the realization that the long-term goal of changing the world is an awful lot harder than it looks. If it is women who are “going to bring us freedom,” as Makavejev claimed in an interview for Village Voice with Jonas Mekas in 1972, this would have to happen all the way down: the feminist phrase “the personal is political” has never had a filmmaker so willing to try and understand what this might mean as Makavejev. In an age where sex is as dull and omnipresent as any other consumer item, and where western feminism itself is all too often complicit in reinforcing this consumerism, we should ask: what does Makavejev mean to us now?
Hypnosis, soap, sugar
Man Is Not a Bird (top). Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (bottom left). Sweet Movie (bottom right). © 1965, 1967, 1974 Dušan Makavejev. DVD: Criterion.
The five main features under discussion here, Man Is Not a Bird (1965), Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967), Innocence Unprotected (1968), WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), and Sweet Movie (1974), all recently reissued with new subtitles by Criterion (the first three as a boxed set under the Eclipse imprint), share important similarities, even as they cross from blackand-white to color, from Yugoslavia to America, from simple love story to complex cacophonic delirium. If by 1974’s Sweet Movie, Makavejev had “gone too far” as many thought, and still think, including censors the world over, it should nevertheless be understood as the culmination of a decade’s rumination on sexuality, politics, and the cinematic form. But how do we get from a sweet, if painful, love story set among the harsh lunar landscape of a mining town near Bulgaria (Man Is Not a Bird) to sex murder and the seduction of children on board a boat bearing a papiermâché Karl Marx figurehead drifting down the canals of Amsterdam (Sweet Movie)? To some extent, the more difficult Makavejev found it to be institutionally accepted—by his native Yugoslavia, by international censors—the more he pushed at the boundaries of “acceptable” avant-garde cinema. Just as Wilhelm Reich’s books were burnt in the 1950s and 60s by the FDA in America after first being denounced by the Nazis in the 30s, so Makavejev too was scorched twice over, once by a socialist nomenklatura unamused by his sexualized and irreverent take on supposedly serious political matters and later by a western audience perfectly at ease with his depiction of the pomposity and absurdity of communism but rather less happy with his ambiguous and explicit portrayal of sex, particularly the scenes of child seduction in Sweet Movie. This latter prurience had significant consequences both for the distribution of the film and for the lives of its participants: the British Board of Film Censors denied the film a U.K. cinema certificate in 1975. One of the film’s main actresses, Anna Prucnal, was exiled from Poland, her native country, for seven years on the basis of her role as the revolutionary seductress–murderess. The erotic scenes she performed with several boys offended audiences who would prefer to see children as delicate creatures to be protected from desire rather than sexual beings in their own right. If Makavejev feels a kinship with Wilhelm Reich, however inexactly he depicts Reichian ideas, it is because he too finds himself at odds with the prevailing morality, even as it twists and turns into the twenty-first century.
Although some of Makavejev’s ideas and formulations now seem outdated, particularly the gauche depiction of sexual expression, his wilful refusal to provide a secure answer to the problem of how to reconcile the imperfections and contradictions of human desire with the drive toward fault less systems—whether they be socialist, fascist, or capitalist— remains deeply relevant. The materiality of Makavejev’s work, its blunt cuts and disconcerting juxtapositions, as well as its damaged utopianism, remind us that beneath the surface of both the everyday and the universal lies a dark force—like a mischievous child, hopped-up on sugar and desiring destruction. Revealing this barely concealed chaos is, Makavejev slyly posits, only the starting point if one is to harness sexual instincts for organic and nonviolent social ends. If Yugoslavia represented a now-defunct way out of the libidinal dead ends of communism’s striving for perfection and capitalism’s commodification of desire, then Makavejev, as perhaps the republic’s most important director, is the lost prophet of a more hopeful age, never mind that his Yugoslavia was itself a fantasy. In a New York Times interview with Cynthia Grenier from 1971, Makavejev remarked: “The whole world is obsessed with the United States today, the USSR above all . . . Ideally, the perfect society would combine all the pleasures of the American consumer society, which Americans themselves don’t yet know how to enjoy, and the joys and creativity of the October Revolution—pure and truly communal.”
Man Is Not a Bird, Makavejev’s first feature, was made in little more than a month on a tiny budget in Yugoslavia in the mid-1960s. Industry rumbles along in the background as a doomed love affair, marital strife, drunken violence, and every day poverty play themselves out in crowded bars, marketplaces, street circus performances, and housing estates. But, as with all of Makavejev’s films, Man Is Not a Bird quickly reveals itself to be far more than this bare description would indicate. Its subtitle, A Love Film, might lead us to believe that the film is chiefly concerned with its two main characters, Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec), a highly skilled mechanic brought into the town (the film is set in the copper-mining basin of Bor) to oversee a project, and Rajka, a tough-minded and humorous hairdresser (played by the astonishingly beautiful Milena Dravic, who will also star in WR: Mysteries of the Organism). While the pair do fall into an odd sort of love— with Rajka renting out a room in her parents’ house to the silent and dour older Jan, and seducing him after a hypnotist’s display before having an affair with a younger man— there is nothing “classical” about this romance. Indeed, its very modernity forces us to rethink what cinema understands a “love story” to be.
Man Is Not a Bird opens with a curious indication that this so-called love film shouldn’t be understood straightforwardly. A bizarre figure, Roko, “the youngest hypnotist in the Balkans,” provides some “opening remarks on negative aspects in love,” warning against various kinds of superstitious behaviour. After reeling off a list of such practices—placing bats’ wings on chests to stop people moving, eating frescoes to aid fertility, and so on—he concludes, “you see how we unconsciously use magic in the twentieth century.” The film is a meditation on older and newer forms of hypnosis, on the mass control of people by powerful ideas. But the ambiguous role of hypnosis in the film points to a further problem: what happens when one superstition (or ideology) gets replaced by another? The role of magic, and the fine line between exceptional human activity—strongmen, circus tricks, swallowing snakes, and so on—and sheer manipulation means that all systems are under suspicion. This goes just as much for local cures for warts as it does for entire political regimes. Makavejev’s hypnotists, acrobats, and “men (and women) of steel,” who perform marvels to entertain but not to become role models, are in part a critique of the Stalinist images of Stakhanovite workers, with their perfected bodies and relentless drive. But they are also a more straightforward celebration of the absurdities and wonderments of embodied life. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s materialist question “what can a body do?” is also Makavejev’s: what are the mysteries of the organism? Or, as the intertitles ask in Love Affair, “Will there be a reform of man? Will the new man retain certain old organs?” But the question of bodies is not merely restricted to human beings, for it applies just as much to the many animals and objects captured by Makavejev, whose frames are joyously filled with broken eggs, soap bubbles, sugar, plaster, flour, milk, and chocolate, and, as time goes on, increasingly intimate substances. And Makavejev’s fascination with the limits of materials—how far they flow, how easily they fall apart, how they interact—extends to the material of filmmaking itself. How does a documentary interact with an allegorical fiction? How does propaganda footage relate to a closed domestic scene?
Against the backdrop of an intensely cruel and stark landscape, both in its nature and its industry, Man Is Not a Bird looks for moments of laughter and oddness amid the misery. Roko the hypnotist returns to perform his show in the town midway through the other stories of infidelity and burgeoning romance which unite the two main women, Rajka and Burbulovic’s wife (played by Eva Ras, who will go on to play the lead in Love Affair), in a shared enjoyment of watching men kiss one another, hypnotized into believing they are sweethearts. If Makavejev’s women up until Sweet Movie are almost uniformly liberated, modern, and playful, his men are often extraordinarily uptight. They are Party men, decent men, but men repressed and dampened by work and politics nevertheless. The hypnotist’s show induces those on stage to become afraid of nonexistent tigers, then to playact at being cosmonauts (“now we’re all cosmonauts . . . you are bodiless and weightless,” declares Roko) before asking his captive performers to flap their nonexistent wings like birds. The sublime leap between cosmic ambition—between, say, the Soviet space program during the Cold War, and the harsh realities of everyday scarcity such as that experienced by the residents of Bor—is beautifully illustrated by this scene. The hypnotized fail to be both weightless cosmonauts and birds: man is not nor ever could be a bird, however many times he sends himself into space. As Makavejev put it in an interview in this very magazine (winter 1971–72): “I was trying to explain [in Man Is Not a Bird] that you can have global changes but people can still stay the same, unhappy or awkward or privately confused.”
In Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, Makavejev tells another unconventional love story, this time between a minority Hungarian switchboard operator, Isabella, and Ahmed, a Muslim Slav who works as a rat catcher. Despite their potentially “outsider” positions, Makavejev doesn’t really play on their status in this sense—they are good workers, good citizens, and very fond of one another for the majority of the film. Yugoslavia, at least in its utopian moments, has risen above petty ethnic and nationalist concerns. Isabella takes in good cheer the one joke Ahmed makes about the supposedly over-sexed nature of Hungarian girls—she is indeed happy to be a sexual being. The shocking darkness of this film comes from the tension-destroying flash forwards in which we see Isabella’s body being raised from a well and carried into a mortuary. Before she even has sex with Ahmed she is dead: the love story is at the same time a tale of murder. The whole setting of the film takes place under the guidance and aegis of two experts, a sexologist and a criminologist, who cut into the story at key moments, including before the main narrative begins.
THE EARLY YEARS, 1965–68
In Man Is Not a Bird the sex scenes, as touching as they are, were extracted from their surroundings, shrouded in darkness, as if the couple were somehow removed from the everyday during the act of lovemaking. Here Makavejev takes a more realistic approach, and is all the more successful for it. When Isabella invites Ahmed back to her house (she lives alone after the death of her mother), she makes him coffee, resourcefully using an iron to heat the liquid as her oven is broken, before offering him a stronger drink and smilingly telling him to come through to the bedroom because “there’s a good program on television.” It turns out to be Vertov’s 1931 Enthusiasm, specifically the scenes of churches being toppled by the crowds which are themselves taken from Esther Shub’s The Fall of the Romanovs. Thus we have a fictional couple watching a documentary within a documentary as a form of seduction: the cinematically informed viewer is thus seduced three times over. “It’s more intimate” this way, Isabella suggests, resting her head on Ahmed’s shoulder as they watch Vertov. Makavejev’s signature technique should in principle undermine the narrative comforts of the love story and the linear progression of a series of events, yet his technique of layering “fact” or documentary footage over the top of fiction, what Dina Iordanova calls (in an interview included on the DVD) “associative montage,” serves only to reinforce the ambiguous domesticity of the modern relationship. Even within the frames of domestic life, images of political leaders are dotted around the walls: again, the personal is political—if the great systemic projects of the twentieth century attempted to transform humanity all the way down, then the bedroom is either the final place of minimal resistance or the place most symptomatically colonized: it is Makavejev’s unwillingness to force the issue one way or another that allows him to treat sex as a political allegory but also as an intensely private act.
INNOCENCE UNPROTECTED: STRONGMAN LOVE STORY
© 1968 Dušan Makavejev. DVD: Criterion Eclipse.
Behind all of Makavejev’s playfulness is a relentless and politicized aesthetic project: what is cinema capable of showing? How can it affect us viscerally? Jean-Luc Godard’s claim that “I don’t think you should feel about a film. You should feel about a woman, not a movie. You can’t kiss a movie” is the very antithesis of Makavejev’s manifesto for cinema. Despite certain formal similarities between the two directors, Makavejev’s entire output, from the uniqueness and beauty of the early films to the later explicit film essays on sexuality and politics, we can say that Makavejev is, above all, going to get a reaction out of you, whether you like it or not: Makavejev is the anti-Godard.
But perhaps Makavejev’s best film about love is not really a love story at all. Innocence Unprotected (1968), which finishes with a kiss, is, more than any other of his films, Makavejev’s paean to cinema and Serbian cinema in particular. It retraces and remixes the story of the first Serbian talkie, the Innocence Unprotected of the title, which was released under occupation in 1942. Its director and star, Dragoljub Aleksic, is a strongman, a true “man of steel,” banned from performing by the Nazis, who uses a rather clunky romance to showcase his physical abilities. (Similar themes are later resurrected, knowingly or otherwise, by Werner Herzog in his 2001 feature, Invincible, in which a Jewish strongman grapples with the paradoxes of his position under Nazi rule.) Makavejev reunites the remaining cast of Innocence Unprotected, including Aleksi´c, who is still able to bend metal with his teeth and perform various hair-raising stunts, despite the inter vening decades. As Lorraine Mortimer points out in her extremely insightful and comprehensive recent book on the director, Terror and Joy: the Films of Dušan Makavejev (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), Innocence Unprotected represented a novel direction in his work: after the relative success of Man Is Not a Bird and Love Affair, Makavejev could have made a feature that extended his international profile. He would of course go on to do this spectacularly with WR: Mysteries of the Organism and Sweet Movie, but at this point Makavejev explored the touching, local story of one man, Aleksic, of “the artist as industrial laborer,” as Paul Arthur puts it (Cineaste, July 2005). But Aleksic’s story, and the story of the making of the original Innocence Unprotected, is not without its serious political dimensions: not only the dangerous nature of making a film under occupation, however seemingly lightweight its content, but also the subsequent disapproval for having released a film during this period meant that the film itself had been hidden from sight for many years. Makavejev’s “rescuing” of the film in the guise of an atypical making-of restores the humanity as well as the history surrounding the original release, particularly that of Aleksic, perhaps one of the most unusual directors cinema has ever had—neither particularly intellectual nor wealthy, yet able to make this film and get it screened in impossible circumstances. When Makavejev adds flashes of color to the older stock, he stresses the vibrant strangeness of Aleksic’s strongman universe, and the world of a cinema without context. Innocence Unprotected is a trip into the “publicly non-existing” realm of films without peers and without defenders: by focusing on this anomalous event in Yugoslav cinematic history, Makavejev unwittingly presages his own future nonconformity within even the most avant-garde circles.
NINA POWER is the author of One Dimensional Woman (Zero Books, 2009), a critique of contemporary feminism.
ABSTRACT A reconsideration of the fruitful 1965–75 period in Yugoslav director Dušan Makavejev’s career, arguing that Man Is Not a Bird, Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switch board Operator , Innocence Unprotected, WR: Mysteries of the Organism, and Sweet Movie raise questions about sexuality and politics which remain important.
Keywords Man Is Not a Bird, Love Affair, Innocence Unprotected, WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Sweet Movie
DVA DATA Dušan Makavejev: Free Radical [Man Is Not a Bird, Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, Innocence Unprotected]. 1965, 1967, 1968 © 2009 Dušan Makavejev. publisher: criterion eclipse, 2009. $44.95, 3 discs.
WR: Mysteries of the Organism. © 1971 Dušan Makavejev. publisher: criterion collection, 2007. $39.95, 1 disc.
Sweet Movie. © 1974 Dušan Makavejev. publisher: criterion collection, 2007. $29.95, 1 disc.