The other day, a film forum open to the general public in Belgrade hosted an interesting dispute. The opponents debated whether the title of “greatest Serbian film director ever” should go to Dušan Makavejev, deceased last January, or Emir Kusturica, who is still among us and seems to have conclusively abandoned his Bosnian Muslim roots. (Other contenders, including Aleksandar Petrović, dropped out early on in the second round.) This time, there was a very welcome absence of acrimony over whether a person of Muslim faith can be regarded as a Serb at all. The more or less peaceful consensus that emerged apparently made sense: Makavejev was named as the uncontested champion of all surfers riding the Yugoslavian Black Wave back then, as well as the creator of clearly more enduring works for the annals of motion picture history, despite the fact that younger generations tend to be more familiar with Kusturica. Dolly Bell – a main character in a 1981 film by Kusturica – has mud-wrestled and wiped the floor with the amorous post girl, relegating her to the cobwebbed obscurity of archives, wherein she still languishes as we speak, waiting for happier days to come. Then again, as usual, you could count on dialectics to be the last to go. For it is precisely the fact and motif of death that redirects the limelight to Makavejev over and over again, and in this light we quickly glimpsed the outlines of plans for a string of grand screenings and events commemorating his work. Indeed, a society is rumoured to have been founded for the very purpose of fostering a Makavejev Renaissance of sorts, not only locally but embracing an international context. Even some deadlines were mentioned, but they are unimportant. Let us see what comes of it – this is what experience bordering on wisdom advises us to do.
The obituary, echoed in the Hungarian press, identified Dušan Makavejev, passed away at the age of 87, as a preeminent, widely recognised film director, screenwriter and producer from Serbia–Yugoslavia. In a nutshell, Makavejev was born on 13 October 1932, in the Serbian capital, where he also obtained his degree in psychology subsequent to immersing himself in the teachings of Wilhelm Reich. In motion picture history, he is renowned as one of the founders of the so-called Yugoslavian Black Wave who made films marked by profound social commentary coupled with a peculiarly grotesque brand of surrealism (think Reichian orgon versus Stalinism). An equally enthusiastic critic of Communism and capitalism, Makavejev was initially snubbed, banned, and trampled under foot, until the levee broke and the surf catapulted him to domestic and international recognition: a Silver Bear in Berlin, a Silver Arena in Pula, as well as awards in Cannes and Chicago. As icing on the cake, he was inaugurated as a Legend by the jury of the South European Film Festival in Paris.
Back home, he was elected Honorary Doctor of the Art Academy in Belgrade, somewhat in hindsight, to unwittingly become a sort of alternative academic eternally beset and beleaguered by the powers that be. At the end of the day, this is infinitely sad, cheerful, laughable and unrealistic at the same time. Better late than never, however. And while there may well be – there will be – things escaping the attention of yours truly in this connection as I digress à la Makavejev (oh, my dear Maestro!), his film Gorilla Bathes at Noon is certainly not one of them. And while we are at menageries, animal fables and offbeat parables, we might as well recall a title by our very own Hungarian poet Kassák: The Horse Dies the Birds Fly Away. Kassák’s thesis has been supported perhaps most eloquently by Makavejev himself, as if to predict the puzzling times that fell upon the Balkans, this strange corner of the world, after the death of Josip Broz Tito – along with his own fidgety Napoleonic eaglets.
Some movie-goers had not been born, and others have long forgotten the times between ’68 and ’71, both in the East and the West, when this man of law onto himself, a future outcast from the Yugo Paradise, shot the nihilistic, anarchist, deeply pornographic pinnacle of his oeuvre in Yugoslavia and in the United States, which railed against all received values of the working class, socialism, universal mores, normalcy and plain common sense. Indeed, this sums up the contemporaneous domestic reception of the cinematographic monster entitled W. R.: Mysteries of the Organism, to say no more about other assessments and reactions. As it happened, the comrades debated the phenomenon obeying higher orders, and came to the conclusion that Makavejev had better leave the country, and the sooner the better. Later, though, he was allowed to sneak back to his homeland, but the ensuing phase of his life – one of considerable length and seclusion – cannot form a subject of this admittedly brief collage of remembrance.
In any event, the Party wasted no time in adopting a thoroughly negative position on W. R. Without for a moment suggesting that every single member sitting on that tribunal was a complete idiot, I am convinced that the “unanimous majority” that pointed a downward thumb included a fair number of men utterly unfamiliar with the name of Wilhelm Reich, the Austro-American shrink who proclaimed the power of sexual energy to influence the course of the universe, hand in hand with the notion of a global sexual revolution that can fundamentally transform power relations across the planet and liberate the individual. In ways other than Communism, naturally, and then capitalism and all other power-based social arrangements. The judges did not have the time to pick up a book (not that it was their wont); they simply followed orders. Beyond “ideological detriment”, these circumstances were hardly conducive to discussing the film on its merits in terms of innovative imagery, subversive perspectives, shifts of ingrained angles, the seminal influence of Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov in terms of the character and dynamics of cuts, and so on and so forth. The poor blinkered arbiters must have been blind to anything resembling dark humour, parable, travesty and twisted perspective, particularly when they felt they had a raw nerve hit. Unnerved, in short.
Ultimately, they had no choice but to see Makavejev the way they did, burdened as they were by the massive pressure from above. It is essentially the same pressure that weighs down on the individual today with all its bodies, associations and functions. It is simply a weapon always possessed and wielded to good effect by the powers that be, whenever there is a chance. It is none other than intimidation and bullying, which cause the intolerable anxiety of the individual. Yet this is a case of the snake biting its own tail. The circle closes in: You get a short circuit. This is what Makavejev and Reich talk about. We need to find a way to escape from all that pressure before succumbing to irreparable psychological deformation. This is the issue at stake in the functioning of the organism, the eternal, lonely despair of the individual, in W. R., and in all other films of Makavejev, including Sweet Movie, another highly controversial work.
Note: I own a book published in the mid-1970s that I have read to shreds. I had picked it up in San Francisco when it was hot off the press. It is called Film as a Subversive Art, and it praises Makavejev as the most subversive director of them all. It was written and edited by Professor Amos Vogel, the acclaimed film historian, “movie-man”, and evidently a devout aficionado of Makavejev (the same Makavejev whom our own Ágnes Koltay hails as a “bizarre saint” in her farewell article for Filmvilág). Well, the cover of Vogel’s book features, posing against a burgundy-striped background, the Yugoslavian actress Milena Dravić, who made famous appearances in partisan films but was particularly memorable in her role in W. R. The photo where Milena reaches an arm out of a picture frame she is holding up against her face attained emblematic status over the years, and is the most frequently used still from the film. On a closing note, let us recall that, as of last autumn, Milena Dravić is no longer with us, either.
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel