WR: Mysteries of the Organism Review

Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism is not an easy film to summarise. About half its running time is actuality footage, including interviews with real people identified as such, but it’s not a documentary as most of the other half is a fictional story. It’s a film that mixes languages, film stocks (16mm and 35mm), fantasy and reality, to potent effect. By comparison, much of today’s “experimental” cinema seems positively unadventurous. And, at its time, it found an audience. Godard was doing similar things at the time, but Makavejev is funnier.

The WR of the title is Wilhem Reich (1897-1957). Born in Austria, he fled Germany on Hitler’s rise to power and lived the rest of his life in the United States where he worked as a psychoanalyst. He is best known for his theories about the links between sexual repression and neurosis and also political repression. These ideas contributed to the “free love” ethos of the 1960s. Admittedly this seems more than a little problematic nowadays, with AIDS having been known to the public for a quarter of a century. Also, this philosophy has been questioned by feminists on the grounds that free love is all very well…but you’re still expected to put out or be damned if you don’t, and to suggest that sexual expression can be entirely without consequence is naive at best. Some of Reich’s ideas seem a little lunatic-fringe nowadays, such as his concept of "orgone energy”, and the box-like “accumulators” people could sit inside to harness this life-enhancing force. Reich was investigated by the US Food & Drug Administration, and was put on trial, resulting in his books being burned. He died in prison.

Makavejev’s film is more of a personal essay that uses Reich’s ideas as a springboard. Most of the first half hour is a potted overview of his life and works, including interviews with Reich’s children and friends and members of the commune he set up. Also in documentary vein we see poet and performance artist Tuli Kupferberg, dressed as a soldier and prowling the streets of New York, plus interviews with Jackie Curtis (drag queen, actress and Andy Warhol acolyte, also the subject of the final verse of Lou Reed’s song “Walk on the Wild Side”), artist Betty Dodson (who specialised in paintings of men and women masturbating). In what was to be the most contentious sequence for censors worldwide, artist Nancy Godfrey makes a plaster cast of the erect penis of Jim Buckley (editor of the underground magazine Screw).

All this footage is intercut into a fictional story set in Yugoslavia. Milena (Milena Dravic) and Jagoda (Jagoda Kaloper) are roommates. While Jagoda walks around naked and is happy to have sex morning noon and night, Milena avoids the attentions of Radmilovic (Zoran Radmilovic) and pursues the Russian artist Vladimir Ilyich (Ivica Vidovic). This whole storyline is allegorical – not for nothing does Vladimir Ilyich have the same first names as Lenin – and is intended to depict Reich’s linkage between State repression and sexual neurosis. If that wasn’t enough, Makavejev includes footage of Lenin (some of it from Russian feature films) and Mao. And the result is hardly realistic: not with a scene of a talking severed head, it couldn’t be.

There’s a tendency in film criticism to value the long take or sequence shot, to promote unity and the (relative) lack of editorial intervention, an aesthetic found in such directors as Renoir and Welles and more recently Angelopoulos and Tarr. Makavejev epitomises the opposite tendency, towards finding meaning in fragmentation. In a way this was nothing new: Eisenstein more than forty years earlier was the acknowledged master of montage, joining two or more separate images, meaning coming from their juxtaposition. But it’s fair to say that Makavejev takes this approach to an extreme. This technique was there in earlier films like Switchboard Operator, which presents its central love story as illustrations to a lecture on sex, and includes clips from a silent film and documentary material on rats. This “collage” form was in part influenced by Brecht, who used “alienation” effects in his plays to remind the audience that they were watching a play and hence a construct, and not “reality”, to distance the audience from the material so that they could judge it dispassionately and politically. (You can see Brecht’s influence in certain other “revolutionary” films of the period such as if…..) A heady brew indeed, but it’s also vital to point out that the film is often very funny, and Makavejev’s eye for a striking image is often in evidence.

When WR was released in 1971, there was a long-established audience for world cinema, or any cinema outside the commercial Hollywood system. (In the Fifties and early Sixties, anyone with pretensions to culture had to see the new Bergman, Fellini or Antonioni to be up to date.) In the Sixties, a younger audience had emerged, especially because European cinema was leading the way in a franker, more adult way of dealing with sex and sexuality. And so Makavejev’s film became a censorship milestone. It was banned in his native Yugoslavia, leading to his exile in 1973, and the film was not shown throughout the Eastern Bloc. It then arrived in Britain and was submitted to the BBFC.

Enter the then BBFC Secretary Stephen Murphy. Murphy was only in post for three years and didn’t have the public profile of his predecessor John Trevelyan or his successor James Ferman. By all accounts he was less media-savvy than they were and found it hard to weather the storm of controversy that battered the Board at the time. When he arrived, The Devils (actually passed by Trevelyan) was creating headlines, and soon after Murphy added to them by passing Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange. On the other hand, due to the media backlash against the violence in these and other films, Murphy found himself cutting and rejecting others and felt the need to go out on a limb with one liberal judgement. And so he insisted on passing WR entirely uncut for an X certificate (allowing over-eighteens). So the film reached British screens complete with Jim Buckley’s erect penis (far more graphically shown than Joe Dallessandro’s in Flesh, the only real precedent) but also Betty Dodson’s masturbation paintings, and the (faked) old film of a couple having unsimulated sex, just after the opening credits. Considering what has been passed since, this might not be remarkable, but at the time it was a breakthrough and – in the context of what was acceptable then – one of the most liberal decisions the BBFC has ever made.

Further tangles with the censor would follow with Makavejev’s next film Sweet Movie, but that’s another review.

WR: Mysteries of the Organism is number 389 in the Criterion Collection. It is a single dual-layered disc encoded for Region 1 only.

The film is intended to be shown in Academy Ratio, presumably due to about half of it being documentary material originated in 16mm. (The two earlier Makavejev films I’ve seen, Man is Not a Bird and Switchboard Operator, are both in 1.66:1 if memory serves.) As is Criterion’s usual practice, the 4:3 transfer is windowboxed to avoid losing too much of the picture to overscan. Makavejev supervised and approved the high-definition transfer. Needless to say, the 35mm material looks sharper and more colourful than the grainier, flatly-lit 16mm documentary footage…but that is the way this film has always looked, and I say that as someone who has seen it projected in a cinema.

The soundtrack is mono, as is the original, which plays through your centre channel. There are two soundtracks available. The dialogue, with its mix of English and Serbo-Croatian, is the same on both. The difference is that the occasional narration is in English on one track, in Serbo-Croatian on the other. (Incidentally, the version of the film on this DVD has its opening credits in English. As is seen in the extras, there is also a Serbo-Croatian set of credits, which renders the title as WR: Misterije organizma.)

Optional English subtitles are available for the Serbo-Croatian dialogue. Alternatively hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the whole film.

The commentary is derived from Raymond Durgnat’s BFI Modern Classics book on the film, dating from 1999. Durgnat is no longer with us, so his text is read by Daniel Stewart. It may be Stewart’s reading, but Durgnat’s prose (which I’ve often found turgid on the page) comes to life when spoken aloud, and provides many fascinating insights into this film. He does move into some deep socio-political waters in places, but it’s a commentary well worth listening.

Hole in the Soul (52:41) is a short film Makavejev made in 1994. It formed part of a BBC series called A Director’s Place, comprising short autobiographical films made by a variety of directors. Here, Makavejev looks back at his childhood in Belgrade and his exile. He returns to a post-Communist, much-changed Belgrade. In between, we see some amusing scenes of Makavejev in Hollywood, talking to his agent (who explains his “positioning” in the marketplace). There’s a brief appearance from his WR star, Milena Dravic. It’s a wry film made at a time when its director seemed a spent force. This is divided into seven chapters, for which an index is provided, and is in 4:3.

Two interviews with Makavejev follow. The first was done for Danish television in 1974 (as per the copyright date – the introductory screen says 1972) and is in black and white and 4:3, running 28:15. Interviewed by Christian Braad Thomsen, Makavejev speaks in English, subtitled into Danish, with clips and stills from WR and his earlier films provided. Makavejev talks about cinema as a force for revolution and offers an interpretation of the film. The second interview is from 2006 with Peter Cowie, done especially for this disc. It is in 16:9 and runs 29:46. Makavejev talks about himself as an avant-garde filmmaker. Given the lapse in time, he discusses the effect that WR had on his life, leading to his long exile in France.

On 8 April 1991, WR had its first, and so far only, showing on British television. Channel 4 had owned the rights for some years, but had been unable to show the film due to regulations about unsimulated sexual material on non-subscription television, at whatever time of night. (This regulation still stands, though it was broken more recently with a C4 showing of Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots.) WR finally had its small-screen premiere as part of a season called “Banned”. However, there still remained the issue of making the film suitable for transmission. Makavejev was invited to re-edit his own film; his solution was unique. He superimposed computer-generated goldfish over the copulating couple at the beginning, though if you look closely you will see that – deliberately? – not quite all of the erect penises have been covered up. Elsewhere in the film, Jim Buckley’s penis was covered up by prismatic stars, and the masturbating men and women in Betty Dodson’s paintings were simply blanked out. Incidentally, this version is the one released on video by Connoisseur, which reveals where they had their master from. (A similar faux pas was made by their video release of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, derived from a Good Friday afternoon showing where Judas’s death scene had to be cut due to TV regulations about showing hangings before the 9pm watershed – a rare but not unique example of a film with a U certificate being censored for television.) Makavejev talks to Cowie about this, in an item that runs 4:55 and is in 16:9 format.

Criterion as ever provide a booklet. As well as a chapter list, credits and transfer details, it includes an essay on the film by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

So how well does WR: Mysteries of the Organism stand up today? If its concerns seem of an other age – Reich is certainly far less influential nowadays – as filmmaking, as a director, exploring the possibilities of his medium, it still has the power to excite. And although the Eastern Bloc no longer exists – it’s salutary to note that someone born the year the Iron Curtain fell becomes an adult this year – political repression is by no means absent from the world. Criterion have done their customary first-rate job with it.

8 out of 10
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out of 10

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