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