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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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Milena (Milena Dravic) in WR: Mysteries of the Organism

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

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It is one of the most perplexing mysteries of world cinema. In the early 1970s Dusan Makavejev was the brightest star in the avant-garde firmament. A breathless dispatch in the New York Times filed from a midnight screening of one of Makavejev's films at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival offers a glimpse of his glow:

Somewhere along in every film festival there comes that one film that electrifies everyone, that sets everyone from the man in the street to critics to the president of a major American company talking about it with the same passionate enthusiasm.... A standing-room-only audience...cheered and screamed and applauded for a good quarter of an hour at 2 o'clock in the morning.

Makavejev still surfaces occasionally for retrospective interviews and stints on the film-school and festival circuit, but he has not released a film in fifteen years.

His first three features--Man Is Not a Bird (1965); Love Affair, Or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967); and Innocence Unprotected (1968)--were key works of Eastern European cinema that also won international acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival along with a worldwide audience. (These three films were released as a boxed set by Criterion in October.) But it was the release of the film so wildly feted at Cannes in 1971--WR: Mysteries of the Organism--that sent Makavejev's burgeoning reputation into orbit. WR's political and libidinal epiphanies about the stalemated cold war were propelled by a dazzling kinesis of cinematic forms. Its clever leaps between documentary, doomed love story, agitprop and farce created revelatory juxtapositions: Nazi documentaries about the mentally ill collide with hagiographies of Stalin; street theater in New York City jostles with a documentary on the life of psychologist Wilhelm Reich. The film radiates a manic, subversive and inquisitive energy and carnality.

WR's scathing anti-authoritarianism did not escape the attentions of the authorities. Most countries in the Soviet bloc banned it outright. Yugoslav officials suppressed the film by choking it with red tape and then encouraged its director to make his movies in exile. Genius and notoriety usually ensure success for filmmakers--or at least a chance to keep making films. So what explains Makavejev's mysterious cinematic silence? Terror and Joy: The Films of Dusan Makavejev, a new book by Lorraine Mortimer, a senior lecturer of sociology and anthropology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, provides an opportunity to reopen this baffling cold case. Her primary argument is that there are deep connections to be made between Makavejev's films and Yugoslavia's bloody breakup in the 1990s. Her sharp analysis and exacting detail make the book comprehensive and useful, but her overall argument breaks down for reasons both thematic and chronological. Yet Mortimer's instinct to poke into the death of Yugoslavia is on the right track if you're looking to solve this mystery. As it happens, Yugoslavia's demise is also a prime suspect in the disappearance of Makavejev as a cinematic force.

Makavejev addressed Yugoslavia's dissolution in his last film, Hole in the Soul (1994)--an hourlong autobiographical work made for the BBC. Hole in the Soul has all the hallmarks of a Makavejev film. Juxtapositions and leaps in form abound. Couplets about his happy early childhood in Belgrade jostle with bleak accounts of America's soulless movie industry. A chilly cruise on the Sava River in Belgrade in the company of rock musician Rambo Amadeus ends with Makavejev stating his desire to make a film called Yugoslavia. Amadeus delivers a vulgar pitch for cash directly to the camera:

Bastards, morons, assholes, rich producers, idiots and what-not. You have a top-notcher here. So cough up a couple of hundred million dollars so the man can make his movie and make it right. You'll all die, we'll all die, but the movie will remain. So if you want to go down in history, like the Borgias, the Medicis, and a few other rich families, fork over the loot.

The world never got Yugoslavia, so Makavejev must have never gotten any backers. But Hole in the Soul hints in flashes at the film Makavejev might have made: there are blackly humoristic accounts of street protests against the rule of Slobodan Milosevic. (One of Makavejev's friends has a cobblestone that almost killed him during a March 1991 riot gilded, just like the cross on the roof of Belgrade's great unfinished cathedral of St. Sava. When Makavejev asks him if he had done it because it did not kill him, his friend replies: "No, because we'll beat them, finally. One day, they'll get hit on the head.") And there's footage of handsome youths diving into the Neretva River from a famous and beautiful Ottoman bridge in Mostar, juxtaposed with video of that same bridge as it is destroyed by Croatian artillery in 1993.

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