There is a quaintness to the formerly avant-garde. What once shocked and appalled often resembles hair pulling and potty-talk with the passage of time. It is difficult to imagine what might jar the senses in a future tense, and so agitprop art becomes, by necessity, a barometer of the times.
In this, Serbian director Dusan Makavejev’s W.R. Mysteries of the Organism succeeds in bottling the heady musk of revolution that must have wafted through the youth movement in the late ‘60s. In doing so, his film has the shelf life of a magazine. A nudie magazine, at that, with political tracts covering up all the good bits.
J. Hoberman may be right when he tagged this film “the most Godardian flick Godard never made”. What starts as a (relatively) straight-forward documentary about controversial psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich soon gives way to a frenzied collage that throws in footage of Stalinist propaganda films; a google-eyed hippie (Tafi Kupferberg) stalking Wall Street dressed as a US soldier to the sound of his own screamingly bad poetry (“Kill for peace! Kill for peace!”); New York artists concerned with capturing the clutch of orgasm (or, failing that, erections in plaster); and a fictional sub-plot involving a Communist free love proponent, her sex-crazed roommate and the doltish Soviet ice skater who seems immune to their overtures.
The film shares many opinions with Wilhelm Reich, in particular the energetic properties of orgasm and the economic independence of women. And yet defenders of Reich (and there is much to defend), cry foul at what they see as Makavejev’s perpetuation of an endemic misinterpretation of Reichian ideas. When your ideological figurehead pronounces the healing powers of an ‘orgone accumulator’ (a wooden box with a galvanized metal lining, all the better to harness ‘primordial cosmic energy’ a force that is a bluish colour, wouldn’t you know), I think you have bigger battles to face. Such as explaining why said figurehead also claims to have done battle with UFOs and created a ‘cloudbuster’ that can initiate rainfall by its manipulation of ‘atmospheric orgone energy’.
Other than the shaggy political sermonizing, the quaintness of the film is cemented with the recording of Reichian-inspired therapy sessions that involve guttural whooping and doctors given to inappropriate touching. Clearly a progenitor of Gestalt and primal therapy, the sight of desperate men and women grunting in their underclothes—to unlock shakras, orgones and whatever the hell else—only elicited giggles. The footage foreshadows a decade-long Poor Me zeitgeist, and might have served as a training film for snake oil salesmen to profit from it.
It’s easy to poke holes in such new age hucksterism (although Reich attracted stable salt-of-the-earth followers such as William Burroughs and Norman Mailer, so shame on me), and Makavejev doesn’t play an easy game. Like the best satirists, he plays his true beliefs close to his chest. When Milena, the Czechoslovakian agitator denounces the ‘Red Fascism’ of Russia, it’s a term straight out of Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism. That this quotation is delivered by Milena’s severed head (even death can’t stop the proselytizing) only complicates the matter.
Makavejev is not one for pat answers. He thrills in creating collisions of fact and fiction, rhetoric and satire, and then is quite happy to step back and gleefully record the carnage. Questions lead to more questions, followed by self-serious pronouncements and then a musical number.
The sting of satire lingers long after viewing and perhaps vaults past this reviewer’s earlier estimation that the avant-garde is bound for obsolescence. At times, it feels like a lampoon of the revolutionary, self-important, groundbreaking, navel-gazing ‘60s. A film that has its head and heart in the right, although vastly different, places.
Then again, what do I know? Maybe someone will look at this review in 30 years and laugh, and call me ‘quaint’.