Of all the important European auteurs who first made their mark in the countercultural 1960s, the Belgrade-born Dušan Makavejev was the most experimental, the most subversive, by some distance the cheekiest, and consequently the hardest to pigeonhole. When one of his films was first submitted to what was then the British Board of Film Censors in 1969, its distributor’s covering letter read: “I am sending you a film with a few tits in it. I don’t think much of it, but I can sell it to the sex theatres”. Unusually, given his record of spotting and defending artistic merit hitherto missed by distributors and exhibitors, BBFC Secretary John Trevelyan confessed that he “didn’t think much of it either”, and duly snipped it before passing it for public exhibition. One wonders what the raincoat trade made of it, given that the film’s first visible mammaries (assuming these survived Trevelyan’s ministrations) are sported by a corpse in an autopsy room.
Although best known by far for his internationally notorious, domestically banned fourth feature ‘W.R. Mysteries of the Organism’ (1971), Makavejev had already built a substantial reputation at festivals and more adventurous arthouses with his first three features. These neatly trace the development of his increasingly wild film mash-ups, which typically blended fiction, documentary, archive footage, graphic sexuality and political and social satire to stress, in his words, “surprise as a psychological weapon”. Cheerfully acknowledging the influence of Russ Meyer as much as Sergei Eisenstein or Jean-Luc Godard, he’s the most avowedly libertarian of major film-makers, a position that was far more than just a fashionable pose for an artist who came of age in communist Yugoslavia.
By the standards of what came later, ‘Man Is Not a Bird’ (1965) is almost conventional, though it clearly signposts future preoccupations, starting with the disarmingly jarring opening monologue by a mad-eyed mesmerist whose stage act later gives the film its title. Partly a quasi-documentary study of an actual copper factory and its workers (though including elements an authorised portrait would shun, such as a scene of petty thieving by the workers, who wrap themselves in wire under their clothes), partly a very Makavejevian tale of amour fou between a serious-minded engineer and his landlord’s slutty daughter, it caused a stir at the time for its suggestion that the alleged Yugoslav workers’ paradise may be more a case of mass hypnosis than anything chiming with reality.
The film Trevelyan tutted over, ‘Love Affair’ (‘The Switchboard Operator’ in the UK), revolves around a more intensely eroticised affair between a sexually liberated telephonist and an Albanian ratcatcher, whose narrative is regularly undermined by flashforwards revealing that it’s going to end very badly. Intercut digressions to revolutionary propaganda and lectures about phallus-worship and murder techniques by an apparently genuine sexologist and criminologist also form part of a chaotic but compelling collage that constantly emphasises the dissonance between dry academic analysis of human behaviour (and the ideals of the ostensibly benign, all-seeing socialist state) and the messy, impulsive reality. The romance at its heart is rendered all the more tragic by the fact that it’s so convincing, and also because a crucial detail undermining all the official interpretations of events is withheld until the climactic scene.
The most conceptually innovative film is ‘Innocence Unprotected’ (1968), whose calculatedly misleading opening credits bill it as “a new production of a good old film”. Actually, copious evidence reveals that the eponymous 1942 version was a dreadfully stilted, technically ropey melodrama whose main point of historical interest and domestic appeal is that it was Serbia’s first talkie, albeit initially unrecognised as such because it was made under Nazi occupation. Instead of remaking it (a futile exercise, since the original is parody-proof), Makavejev treats us to about two-thirds of the 1942 film, sometimes tinted or hand-stencilled as though he was unable to resist the temptation to scrawl graffiti on the celluloid. This is augmented by ‘footnotes’, including vainglorious reminiscences by surviving cast and crew members and newsreel flashbacks to what was happening at the time of shooting, in the process laying bare the complex politics underlying this outwardly lightweight fluff. Makavejev pays particular attention to the film’s star and inspiration, strongman-stuntman Dragoljub Aleksić, whose often extraordinary physical courage (the impossible-looking stunts seem unfaked) is offset by his decidedly murky morality.
The films are released in a single bargain-priced box as part of Criterion’s Eclipse sub-brand - which means a decent enough presentation (certainly comfortably ahead of the norm for eastern European material on DVD), but no frills apart from Michael Koresky’s liner notes. These do an invaluable job of placing the films in their contemporary context, if frustratingly at times given the inaccessibility of Makavejev’s early shorts or the work of ‘dark wave’ contemporaries Aleksandar Petrović and Živojin Pavlović. A future Eclipse box perhaps? (December 2009)
Discuss DVDs released in the Eclipse and Essential Art House lines and the films on them.
- Joined: Fri Aug 11, 2006 6:20 pm
- Location: Worthing
I just dug out my Sight & Sound review of the Eclipse box: