Saturday, May 29, 2010

WR: Mysteries of the Organism

This 1971 Yugoslavian film by Dusan Makavejev has long been on my "to see" list, so long it's almost embarrassing. I became aware of this film through the radical left film journals, especially Cineaste, that I used to read in the early 1970s. It was also an art house and campus favourite of the era. But dang if I never got to see it until now......And I wasn't disappointed. The film is about the radical psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, who died in prison in the United States in 1957. His books were in fact burned at the request of the U.S. Government as late as 1960. Reich, an Austrian and onetime member of the Communist Party, who later moved to the United States (so was persecuted in Europe and Stateside) sought to reconcile the philosophies of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. While Freud thought neurosis developed in childhood Reich said social conditions (the economy, government) were a prime reason for an individual's emotional problems. He also believed people were repressed sexually, which reduced personal happiness. He argued that authoritarian societies like Nazism and Communism were an outgrowth of repressed sexuality. He wrote a series of highly regarded books. He was a renegade from the traditional psychiatric establishment but adopted by the New Left in the 1960s among other radical psychiatric therapists like Fritz Perls's and his Gestalt Therapy and Arthur Janov's Primal Therapy. Some of his ideas seem far-fetched, like the famous orgone accumulator - a sauna-like box which allegedly accumulates "orgone" energy and thereby restores body and soul. Through deep breathing and other physical exercises, often creating intense emotional responses, a person can regain health through catharsis......Makavejev's film explores these ideas but not in any dry documentary style. His was guerilla filmmaking so characteristic of the late 1960s and early 70s, where traditional story lines are broken up with a collage of images, some highly abstract, others such as bits of documentary but still disassociative or even jarring......The film was shot in Yugoslavia and in the U.S......It opens with a hippie-like character walking along a street in New York, changing into theatrical garb like a soldier, emblematic of the peace movement's mocking of the Vietnam War. The movie then flashes variously to scenes of Reich's farm in Maine, his early life in Austria. The collage counterpoints images of 1970s consumer America (including Coke and Coppertone commercials) to the authoritarianism of Stalinist Russia (though I don't think he's saying they're on the same plane but both exert abstract control over an individual). Meanwhile a Yugoslavian farce-like story plays out among several characters, representing Reich's life-giving philosophy versus the oppression of Communism.....There are many of the era's counter-cultural images along the way, including Tuli Kupferberg of the rock group The Fugs, transvestite Jackie Curtis of Andy Warhol's Factory, and the editorial staff of the infamous underground newspaper Screw walking around the editorial offices nude......Some may be more familiar with Makavejev's films Montenegro (1981) starring Susan Anspach and The Coca-Cola Kid (1985).....The Criterion DVD I rented is tremendous. Besides the film there is another version with commentary overlaid from film critic Raymond Durgnat, and another film Hole in the Soul, a comic treatment of Makavejev's Yugoslavia at the time of its war torn disintegration in 1994. There are two excellent interviews with the filmmaker - one from Sweden in 1972 and the other for Criterion in 2006. There are even clips from the film's "improved" version to allegedly conform with one time British censorship laws.....As Makavejev himself says, unlike Hollywood his films are not "wish fulfillment" but are like a "little machine for self-confrontation." Or as film critic Durgnat says, quoting Hitchcock about Strangers on a Train, "isn't it a beautiful pattern? You could analyse it forever."

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