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DVD Review: Eclipse Series 18: Dušan Makavejev, Free Radical

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Dušan Makavejev's most famous avant-garde film was inspired by a book called Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis. If that doesn't sound like a fun night out, you've never seen WR: Mysteries of the Organism. Criterion scored a hit with their release last year of Makaveyev's two best and most notorious films, WR and Sweet Movie. Now they've done us all a service by releasing his first three films in Eclipse Series 18:Dušan Makavejev, Free Radical.

Fellow iconoclast Jean-Luc Godard similarly pushed the celluloid envelope, but while Godard's narrative-busting seemed like so much calculated exercise, Makaveyev's approach was genuinely omnivorous, hungry for ideas and excited about the possibilities of going beyond narrative. "But don't you see how this is connected too?" you can imagine him waving his arms and throwing his shot glass down, drunk on filmmaking.


Dr. Zivojin Aleksic as Criminologist in LOVE AFFAIR, OR THE CASE OF THE MISSING SWITCHBOARD OPERATOR. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Makaveyev's films came out of and celebrated the sexual revolution with an equal accent on both words of the phrase. Within the first five minutes of Man is Not a Bird (1965) Makaveyev has set up his two major themes: Marxism and sex. After a credit sequence typeset in stark Gill Sans, "Opening remarks on negative aspects of love" offers a Marxist hypnotist itemizing and railing against the local superstitions. This leads into a sequence with a burlesque singer entertaining a rowdy bunch of factory workers. The film is one of his more straightforward but is peppered with striking imagery, as in a car wash that sounds like a roaring tiger.

Love Affair or: the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967) is based on a true story, though again Makaveyev's technique is leagues beyond that of Unsolved Mysteries. Part procedural, part collage, this is one of Makaveyev's more conventional works, though where this director is concerned that's a relative statement.

With Innocence Unprotected (1968), Makaveyev lights the fuse that would explode with WR. It is here that he hits his stride with his unclassifiable collage form – not quite fiction, not quite documentary. He wasn't the only one breaking free of narrative structures – Godard, Chris Marker – but nobody did it with this much fun (pace the preciousness of the Czech New Wave) – and this much sex. Here, he takes as his starting point copious amounts of footage from the first Yugoslavian talking picture, the 1942 film Innocence Unprotected. With just stock footage and a series of interviews, Makaveyev made something remarkable — and he was just getting started. He selectively tints and hand-colors sequences of a stiffly photographed, over-acted melodrama and frames it with interviews of surviving cast and crew members, and intercuts these with scenes of bombed-out occupied Belgrade. The effect is something like juxtaposing a Fred and Ginger movie with shots of bread lines. A work of brilliance and passion, sex and politics – and it's hilarious.

The original Innocence was made under German occupation in 1942. It was written, direct by, and stars  Aleksic Dragoljub, a stunt man and love interest. Contemporary footage of the grey-haired acrobat show him still unafraid to test the limits of physical endurance. At one point he takes a steel bar and bends it using his teeth as a fulcrum. He spits out the tooth or two that succumb to the show of strength. Cameraman and sound recordist Stevan Miskovic boasts "Our modern cinema today came out of my belly button." Makavejev's most famous films are joyously sexual; Innocence may be less so, though it is no less a celebration of the human body.

 

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.