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The Last Yugoslav: On Dusan Makavejev | The Nation

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The Last Yugoslav: On Dusan Makavejev

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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?

About the Author

Richard Byrne
Richard Byrne is a journalist and playwright who lives in Washington, DC. He blogs at Balkans via Bohemia.

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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.

Numerous critics panned Sweet Movie on its release. Mortimer points out that even today, there is a palpable discomfort about the film--even among ardent Makavejev fans such as eminent film scholars Peter Cowie and Ian Christie. (She even uses her flat assertion that "Sweet Movie went too far" as a springboard for her own excavation of the film's merits and challenges.) Many writers have suggested that the film's scandals and bans derailed Makavejev's career. A seven-year gap did pass between Sweet Movie and Montenegro (1981), an engrossing character study of a bored housewife who is culturally and sexually liberated from her bland suburban milieu--indeed, a bit too liberated--by a chance encounter with a group of Balkan expats. (Makavejev also had a minor art house hit in 1985 with The Coca-Cola Kid, and in 1988 he directed Manifesto, a period comedy adaptation of Émile Zola's novella For a Night of Love.)

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