Archive for the ‘EastEuro’ Category

Private Vices, Public Pleasures

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Miklos Jancso’s PRIVATE VICES, PUBLIC PLEASURES (this is how it is listed on IMDB, although “pleasures” doesn’t seem the right translation of the last word in the original Italian title “Vizi privati, pubbliche virtù”) is a severely underrated movie, and one that I need to watch again. Made in Italy in 1976 and spoken in Italian, it doesn’t quite have the formalist rigor of Jancso’s Hungarian works in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it is still powerful and provocative. There are some dazzlingly orchestrated long takes (which is Jancso’s arthouse trademark); but there are also sequences with more conventional editing. Also, the lavish outdoor scenery  (apparently the film was actually shot in what is now Croatia; there is a large Yugoslav presence in the supporting cast and in the crew) is very different from the stark Hungarian plains.

The film is more or less based on the Mayerling Incident, an 1889 scandal in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which the Crown Prince Rudolph, heir to the throne, and his lover Mary Vetsera apparently killed themselves, supposedly because they could not be married. At least that was the official version, though conspiracy theories abounded; the movie proposes that Rudolph and Mary were murdered by order of Rudolph’s father, the Emperor Franz Joseph. Through this, the movie works as a kind of 1960s/70s counter-culture allegory. Rudolph and his friends Sophie and Franco, a brother-sister couple whose mother was at one point Franz Joseph’s mistress, form a cheerfully incestuous menage a trois; they are mostly interested in sex and drugs, and in overthrowing the puritanical older generation represented by their parents, and by the uniforms and stuffy rituals of Austro-Hungarian official culture. Most of the film takes place during an orgy that they organize, inviting as their guests the young aristocrats of their own generation, who dance around nude, make love in various combinations (there is some sort of sexual activity involving lturkeys as well), and humiliate the various Austro Hungarian soldiers and bureaucrats who show up. It’s during the orgy that Mary Vetsera appears, and the menage a trois quickly becomes a menage a quatre. The film’s version of Mary (apparently this is not the case in the actual historical record) is a hermaphrodite, with fully formed both female and male genital organs, which allows for an expansion of the erotic possibilites.

In terms of actually depicted sex, it isn’t all that explicit; the film is barely even soft-core. But there are lots of nude, cavorting bodies, of all genders and genitalia. The soundtrack has music almost continually; much of it is diegetic, as Rudolph continually has bands playing both indoors and out. The moving camera often circles around these fully clothed musicians, in contrast to the partially-clothed or altogether nude aristocrats. The overall effect is rather hysterical (if I can use this word in a descriptive but non-pejorative sense) as we have long sequences where the frame is filled with continually dancing undressed bodies, with a restless camera either roving through the shrubbery or from room to room, but sometimes simply tracking back-and-forth, all overlaid with the sonic  bombardment of everything from brass band military marches to Eastern European traditional dances to “God protect the Kaiser” (often sung mockingly) to an English-language rendition of “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” With the dialogue in Italian, at times I was reminded of Fellini; there’s even a circus that shows up at one point, but alas not much is made of it (there are a few quick shots of a circus lady cavorting with two chimpanzees, but we never get to see the troupe of Hungarian dwarfs who are much talked about). But overall, Jancso’s vision of excess and exhaustion is very different from Fellini’s — I’m not sure how to phrase this — Jancso is far less surreal than Fellini, but also more aggressively carnal.

There’s a ten-minute-or-so sex sequence near the end of the film, which removes the huge supporting cast and only gives us various combinations or subsets of the foursome. Disappointingly, and in contrast to everything else in the movie, this is shot more or less in cliched Eurotrash style, with lots of upper-body and head-and-lips closeups, and nondiegetic, conventionally “romantic” music — instead of the roving camera and incessant brass bands. Despite the conventionality of this sequence (is it meant to be ironic? or was it forced upon Jancso by the Italian financiers of the film?) it does look (as far as I could tell, given the lack of explicit pornographic detail) like first Rudolph penetrates Mary, and then she penetrates him.

After that, there’s nothing left but the fairly quiet murder of Rudolph, Mary, and their friends, and the official coverup, so that order can be restored. There’s a lot of emphasis throughout the film on photography, as the mass medium of the day: Rudolph and his friends take orgy photos which they hope to release to the press to create scandal; and official photographs are taken of the dead bodies in order to support the fake narrative of a lovers’ suicide pact.

So the film can definitely be taken as an allegory of the affirmations and the ultimate failure of the 1960s counterculture, back projected onto the Austro Hungarian Empire and 19th-century decadent aestheticism. However, though the film shows no liking or nostalgia for the Imperial bureaucracy and hierarchy, its attitude towards its young libertine protagonists is decidedly ambivalent. The delirious orgies are at the same time sufficiently dry and acerbic that we get some of the same distanciation as we do with the horrors of war (in, e.g. The Red and the Black) and with the revolutionary dances (e.g. in Red Psalm) in Jancso’s earlier films. The result is that Rudolph and his friends come off seeming a bit too self-satisfied and self-congratulatory in their rebellion. It becomes hard to forget that they can only get away with all this because of their own aristocratic power and privilege (not to mention seemingly infinite supplies of money). Rudolph rightly imagines that his father will not dare to arrest him or cut off his allowance or anything like that; his position as Crown Prince puts him above the law. (Though he fails to conceive that the patriarchal order he is rebelling against can simply murder him and then cover it up). So the flaw of Rudolph’s ambisexual hedonism, appealing as it is, is that its enabling condition of possibility is the very order that it claims it wishes to destroy. Aristocracy will not be overthrown by the children of that very aristocracy using their class freedom to have an orgy. And carpe diem, by its very nature, cannot overthrow an enduring-through-time order, let alone produce its own counter-order. (This is driven home in a great sequence, during the orgy, where Rudolph proclaims his father dead, himself the new Emperor, Mary his Empress, and mock-appoints his party guests to various ministries. It’s all good fun, rooted in the carnivalesque suspension of the ruling order; but for this very reason, all it does is point up the post-carnivalesque restoration of the oppressive ruling order).

I mentioned Fellini earlier. But where Fellini is aesthetically haunted by the ultimate sterility of the seemingly bounteous carnivalesque, Jancso has a more socio-political take on this paradox. PRIVATE VICES, PUBLIC PLEASURES is the equally alienating flip side of the earlier Hungarian epics. Jancso has none of Fellini’s humanistic warmth, but rather (and to my mind, more impressively artistically) he casts the same cold eye on spectacles of liberation as he does on spectacles of slaughter and oppression.

On Gyorgi Palfi’s Taxidermia

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

Just out from Wiley-Blackwell: A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas, edited by Aniko Imre. However, the book for the moment is hardcover only, at the ludcrious price of $175.13 (this is the Amazon price, a bit less than the official list price of $199.95). My own contribution to this anthology is “Body Horror and Post-Socialist Cinema: Gyorgy Palfi’s Taxidermia.” It is an expanded and vastly improved version of the article, which initially appeared in the open access journal Film-Philosophy. Since the book is so expensive, I have made the revised/expanded version of the article available here.

Life and Death of a Porno Gang

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

I’ve submitted my proposal for the SCMS conference next March. It’s part of a panel that Zoran and I have organized on post-war Serbian film.

After Hope: Life and Death of a Porno Gang
Mladen Djordjevic’s Life and Death of a Porno Gang (Serbia, 2009) contains explicit depictions of sex and violence, including scenes of rape, murder, the making of “snuff films,” and suicide. In its extremity, the film shares many characteristics with the transgressive art cinema of Western Europe and East Asia that has received so much critical attention in recent years (e.g. Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, Takashi Miike’s Audition, Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy). However, Life and Death of a Porno Gang differs greatly from these other films for reasons that have much to do with its particular geographical and historical location (in post-socialist and post-civil-war Serbia), and with the types of economic and political investments that it explores. Djordjevic’s protagonists (an aspiring young film director, and the group of actors and sex-industry performers with whom he works) find themselves caught between the corrupt gangster capitalism of the new social order and the repressive traditionalism of the old peasant Serbia. In such conditions, what starts out as a voyage toward potential sexual and social liberation (implicitly referencing Dusan Makavejev’s great 1972 film WR: Mysteries of the Organism) turns into a nightmarish, nihilistic flight towards oblivion. But if Life and Death of a Porno Gang is not a liberatory film, it is also not a transgressive one. In contrast to the extreme cinema of Western Europe, it does not accord any aesthetic or moral efficacy to the excesses that it depicts. There is no self-congratulation at the rupturing of taboos. Rather, Life and Death of a Porno Gang portrays, and embodies, the aesthetic and moral impasse that results from a social atmosphere of cynicism and demoralization. This atmosphere is the result, not just of the horror of the nationalist wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia, but also of the general process under which the formerly socialist nations entered, upon unequal terms, into the world of Western capitalism. All this becomes apparent both in the narrative content of the film and in its stylistics (which combine a pseudo-documentary, hand-held-camera look and feel with an oddly elliptical editing strategy). Life and Death of a Porno Gang speaks of, and to, a time when hope has been exhausted, and when it seems that There Is No Alternative (what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism”). If it does nonetheless suggest a way out from the universal rule of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, this is only because it speaks so marginally and so obliquely, from a position of humiliation and opprobrium.

My Twentieth Century

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

Ildiko Enyedi’s My Twentieth Century (1989) begins in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1880, as Thomas Alva Edison demonstrates his invention of the electric light bulb to an enraptured crowd. An enormous array of light bulbs, gleaming all over an architectural structure something like an enormous jungle gym, glows with a thousand points of light like a second heaven. Soon enough, we see the stars of the actual heaven; whispered voices from the stars urge us to look eastward, all the way to Budapest, where a young woman is giving birth to twin baby girls, named (in titles above their heads) Dora and Lili.

The voices from the stars will continue as a motif throughout the film; meanwhile, we cut from one scene to another, spanning the globe. In Burma, a white explorer tells his “native guide” about the wonders of Edison’s displays of light in America. In Hamburg, a man tells his companions that he is from Hungary; the others dismiss this as an imaginary country, perhaps invented by Shakespeare. We return to Budapest to discover Dora and Lili, now seven, selling matches in the midst of a snowstorm; the entire sequence is visually reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s silent film The Little Match Girl (1928). The girls finally fall asleep, with heads together, lying against a fence. Two top-hatted gentlemen come up; they flip a coin, then each of them takes one of the twins, and they head off in opposite directions.

I’ve described the first few minutes of My Twentieth Century in such detail because it is the only way to give even a slight sense of what the film is like. Shot in highly luminous black and white, and set (after these introductory sequences) in Budapest and other parts of Central Europe, just at and shortly after the turn of the century (from the 19th to the 20th), My Twentieth Century could be described as a sort of Hungarian equivalent of Latin American “magic realism”, except — though this may be no more than what has to be the case, when Garcia Marquez’s Columbia is exchanged for Enyedi’s Hungary, or when the novel as a medium is exchanged for film — that My Twentieth Century‘s fantasmagoria is altogether more spectral, more hauntological, than that with which we are so familiar from South American fiction. The ghosts of old Europe continue to stalk through the fabulous inventions of modernity, even as Enyedi makes what is perhaps the first post-Communist film by hearkening back to the pre-Communist world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Film itself — another astounding modern invention for which Edison can claim at least partial credit — is, of course, a part of this fantasmagoria. One striking scene in My Twentieth Century shows a movie house, with an audience seated in front of not one, but a whole series of screens (each of which is illuminated by back-projection, by a series of projectors on the other side of the screens from where the audience sits), showing subjects that range from Lumiere-like documentary to Buster Keaton comedy to objects that are entirely anachronistic (like a helicopter– something that evidently didn’t exist in 1901 or 1905). My historical knowledge about early cinema is extremely limited; but I don’t think that films were actually shown like this, in the first decade of the twentieth century (or at any other time, for that matter). But the multiple screens fit in with other evocations of the mystery of images, and of the history of cinema, throughout My Twentieth Century. Most notably, there is the funhouse hall of mirrors — recalling Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai — near the end of the film, when the two sisters are finally reunited.

Most of the film, after the introductory segments, involves the adventures of the now adult Dora and Lili (both played by Dorotha Segda, who also appears as their mother when they are infants), around the turn of the century. Dora is a stylish fake aristocrat; she uses her sexual charms to live off various men. She manages both to charm everyone (the audience as well as her men), and at the same time to make the throes of sexual passion appear (to the audience, if not to the men involved) pretty much ridiculous. In one highly amusing sequence, she steals some expensive jewelry by convincing the jeweler to deliver the items to her at an address which turns out to be a mental asylum; she convinces the rather creepy, proto-Freudian asylum director that the jeweler is her brother, who is in desperate need of psychiatric treatment to cure his out-of-control obsession with diamond necklaces. In this way, as also in her more direct seductions, she performs a kind of feminist jiujitsu, turning the very sources of patriarchal power (psychiatry, phallic authority, the sexual ‘double standard’) against the men who wield that power.

Lili, on the other hand, is a bomb-throwing anarchist terrorist. This means that she is not at all stylish, but rather a woman of the people. She is highly moral, where Dora is cheerfully amoral. In the language of feminine stereotypes, Lili is the “virgin” to Dora’s “whore.” Lili directly protests the political conditions that Dora inverts to her advantage. In fact, Lili’s terrorist acts are more symbolically expressive than they are actually effective; her “politics of the deed” is actually a politics of images. She bombs the movie theater, but fails to kill the Minister who was her target. Later, she confronts this Minister face to face, but cannot bring herself to actually throw the bomb. Perhaps her grandest moment is when she shimmies up a tall, phallic factory smokestack, in order to rain down political leaflets upon the crowd below. For this she gets sent to Siberia (another deliberate anachronism, since Austria-Hungary and Russia were scarcely political allies in 1903); but the voices from the stars guide her safely back to Budapest.

In the course of the narrative, Dora and Lili both become involved, unbeknownst to one another, with the same man, identified only as Z (the Russian actor Oleg Jankovsky). Z is first seduced by Dora, who romps in bed with him after stealing the money in his wallet. Subsequently, Z meets Lili in the park, and — thinking she is Dora — propositions her. Lili does not disabuse him — in fact, she doesn’t speak at all — but follows him back to his chambers, disrobes, and services him, as if his voice had put her under some sort of hypnotic spell. It’s hard to say who is deceiving (or using) whom, at this point. It’s only in the funhouse hall of mirrors, towards the end of the film, that Z learns of the deception, when he sees both sisters together for the first time (though he cannot be sure this isn’t just some sort of mirrored deception). Dora and Lili fall into each other’s arms; all the time since they were separated at age seven is abolished. Their bond with one another evidently means more to them both, than any relationships either of them might have with any men. I am inclined to say that here — if I may (ab)use Lacanian parlance — the Symbolic order altogether collapses; it is just too ridiculous to endure. But the “Imaginary” order that replaces it (with all those mirrors, and with the dual female protagonist) is not the morass of narcissism that those Lacanian moralists are always sternly warning us against. It is rather a zone of play, and of imaginative creation; it is the realm of Freedom, as opposed to the (capitalist and patriarchal) realm of Necessity. There is no narcissism here, because the “subject” of this playful freedom is always (at least) two, rather than one. Dora and Lili, in their mirrorings of one another, which also means (according to the film’s non-binary logic) their differences from one another, are reminiscent of the two “Maries” in Chytilova’s Daisies, and of the eponymous heroines of Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating.

Almost precisely in the middle of My Twentieth Century, there’s a sequence in which Otto Weininger — author of the notorious, over-the-top misogynistic rant Sex and Character, a book that was an intellectual sensation in its day, and (inexplicably?) had a profound impact upon such crucial figures of Central European modernity as Freud, Kafka, and Wittgenstein — gives a speech to the Budapest Suffragette Society. The ladies applaud boisterously when Weininger declares himself in support of giving women the vote; but this changes to hisses, disapproving looks, and walkouts when Weininger goes on to speak, more and more hysterically, about the inferiority , irrationality, and sexual voraciousness of Woman, who can only enact the roles of Mother or Whore. Lili sits in the audience; the camera keeps on returning to her. As Weininger gets more excessive and outrageous, Lili looks ever more stricken and ashamed. She has internalized the oppressive duality enunciated and theorized by Weininger (rational Man versus irrational, affective Woman), and feels subjected to it even though it doesn’t characterize her at all (she is largely rational, which is what gives a disturbing edge to her submission to Weininger’s judgment, as it does as well to her almost hypnotic submission to Z’s seduction). This is precisely why she has dedicated herself to fighting against male and capitalist domination politically — submitted to the Law, she can only transgress it. Nothing could be a sharper contrast to Dora, who laughs at the masculine Law while using it opportunistically for her own ends.

With its crucial placement in the center of the film, the Weininger sequence defines the issues at stake in My Twentieth Century as a whole: the place of women in modernity, with its promises of liberation and invention — promises that were largely not kept in the years beyond the confines of the film: years with the horrors of two world wars, and of Nazism and Stalinism. The promise of political emancipation, like the promise of miraculous changes from the new technologies of the late 19th and early 20th century, was still, in 1989 — as it is still today — an unfinished project; and My Twentieth Century works both to give an exhilarating sense of those promises, and a mournful reminder of their failure.

I am perhaps running the risk of making My Twentieth Century seem more linear than it actually is. The film’s logic is anarchic and associative; its sense of the marvelous is largely created by its continual digressions. On the one hand, these digressions often concern technological inventions. On the other hand, they often involve animals, which are associated with women by Weininger’s misogynistic logic, as well as by the experiences of captivity and confinement that women and animals share. At one point, we see a dog cooped up in a laboratory, with a strange formation of wires attached to its head. (Presumably the dog is a subject of Pavlov’s conditioning experiments, which were conducted precisely at this time). The voices from the stars pity the dog’s suffering, and release it from the lab; a long sequence follows in which the dog runs freely out of the city and through country fields. Later, there is a sequence at the zoo, in which a chimpanzee, apparently able to talk, recounts to Dora and her male companion the woeful tale of his captivity and exile, locked behind bars in the Budapest zoo, far from the jungle of his youthful freedom. (The story seems to echo Kafka’s “Report to an Academy”). There are also sequences with a magical donkey and with homing pigeons; and citations of cooperation among animals, taken from Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, written by the Russian anarchist in opposition to Social Darwinism (there is also a more ominous citation from that book, something about rabbits that play together so joyously that they forget to be afraid of the fox).

If the freedom and captivity of animals is one “line of flight” followed by the film, another is technological invention, and the consequent rrise of globalization. Just as the film begins with Edison’s electric light bulbs, so it ends by coming back to Edison, who demonstrates the power of the “wireless telegraph” by sending a message around the world, from station to station, until it returns back to him. As with Edison’s previous appearance in the film, this demonstration is equal parts wonder and hokum. We see the various stations, around the globe, at which the message is received and passed on, in a dead-on parody of the “telephone” montage sequences in 1930s Hollywood films. My Twentieth Century doesn’t ridicule, though it does point up, the naivete of both early-twentieth-century technology and classical cinema. Rather it simultaneously affirms wonder and disillusionment.

After this latter Edison sequence, the film goes backwards in time, returning first to the 7-year-old twins, and then to the mother holding them newly born. We have seen the (somewhat flourishing) actualization of modernity’s dreams, with only subtle hints of the disillusionment that was to follow. Now we return to the moment of pure potentiality –what Deleuze would call the virtual — the point (in time and space) at which all that energy, all that potentiality, was just at the point of its emergence, still mostly in suspension, so that all sorts of hopes and possibilities could be looked forward to, with heightened anticipation. The future, then, was open; now, of course (the filmmaker’s “now” of 1989, or our “now”, watching the film in 2007) it has been closed.

The film ends with a long, mysterious, brooding tracking shot; the camera glides slowly down a river or (more likely) a canal, with foliage on both banks, but no human beings in sight; then it reaches a larger body of water (a lake? the ocean?), extending to the horizion, though with islands (or some sort of land) in the distance. The camera continues out across the water. Mournful classical music plays on the soundtrack. We are left with a film that is contemplative and surreal, beautiful rather than sublime, and that is earnest and playful, hopeful and comedic and disillusioned, all at once. My Twentieth Century evokes a time of exalted, and ultimately disappointed, hopes; it was made at a time that was also one of exalted, and ultimately disappointed hopes, when “actually existing socialism” was not so much overthrown as (in Hungary, at least) it simply faded away into irrelevance. The film might be described as mock-nostalgic: it probes the depths of time, in order to evoke, not a past that never was, but a future that never was. What use might we find for it now, in postmodernity’s eternal Now, when things are changing (both socially and technologically) so quickly that we cannot keep up with them, and yet every potential, every future, already seems exhausted in advance?

A Short Film About Killing

Friday, March 2nd, 2007

The logic of Kieslowski’s films is affective, rather than (as is often argued) spiritual. A Short Film About Killing (1987), an expanded version of Episode 5 (“Thou shalt not kill”) of Kieslowski’s Decalogue, is nearly unbearable, due to the intensity with which it forces us to contemplate murder. First, a young man, Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) kills a taxi driver (Jan Tesarz) for no apparent reason; then, the legal apparatus, with full procedural regularity, executes Jacek. Jacek’s idealistic attorney (Krzysztof Globisz) can do nothing to stop the execution; this makes him feel like an accessory to (judicial) murder. In both cases, the audience feels implicated in the killings — just as the lawyer does in the second case — simply because we are there to watch.

The film, I said, forces us to contemplate murder. Contemplate is precisely the word I want here, as it implies a stance of disinterested observation: using disinterested precisely in the Kantian sense. A “judgment of taste,” Kant says, “is merely contemplative, i.e. it is a judgment that is indifferent to the existence of the object.” Taste operates “by means of a liking or disliking devoid of all interest. The object of such a liking is called beautiful.” While it might seem bizarre to use such old-fashioned (and unpleasantly high-toned) words as “taste” and “beautiful” to describe so viscerally disturbing an experience as that of watching A Short Film About Killing, I believe that the connotations are entirely apt. For there is something almost perversely aesthetic (and aestheticist) about the way that Kieslowski presents us with an ethical deadlock or dilemma.

This is because Kieslowski presents murder precisely as something that we cannot be interested in. Defining the notion of interest — the state that is incompatible with aesthetic contemplation — Kant notes that “to will something and to have a liking for its existence i.e. to take an interest in it, are identical.” But the murders in the film are actions that we cannot will or desire. They happen, and we see them, and we are unable to escape their traumatic impact. But we also cannot identify with these killings — or with the killers. We cannot make an imaginative leap of comprehension. Jacek is too much of a blank; we feel his alienation, but we cannot understand his motives. And the Law is too bureaucratic, too impersonal and distant; before the coldness of its procedures, we cannot extract any edifying sentiment of vengeance, or deterrence, or exemplary rigor, or even justice done. Both killings appear to us as utterly arbitrary, which is part of what makes them so excruciating — and which is why we cannot will them, cannot assume their burden as our own. But this impossibility, this impotence of the will, is itself the reason why our mere contemplation is tinged with an unbearable complicity. We are accessories after the fact.

A Short Film About Killing

Let me be more specific: more formally specific. A Short Film About Killing is meticulously stylized. Nearly all the outdoor scenes are shot with a greenish/yellowish filter, which gives the surroundings — the urban tenements and shopping streets and public squares, but also the natural scenery, foliage, underbrush and a lake, where Jacek’s murder of the cab driver takes place — a sickly, feverish cast. During these scenes, the sky is always overcast. Often portions of the frame are cut off, made black, by an intervening body or architectural detail. Sometimes the frame actually seems unusually dark around the edges, as if the heavy oppressiveness of an oncoming storm were about to decimate our vision.

(The only time we see bright sunlight, and natural green, is at the very end of the film, when the lawyer stops his car in the middle of nowhere, overcome by the horror of the execution he has just witnessed. There’s a gleam of brightness flashing in the distance, that we can’t quite resolve, and that seems shockingly incongruous, out of whack with everything that’s come before. This is the one and only moment of “objective irony” in the entire film).

The indoor scenes, meanwhile, are dominated by formal, bureaucratic architecture. We see a lot of the law courts, and (in the latter part of the film) of the prison with its numerous locks and gates and narrow corridors and confined rooms. The interiors are clean, although sometimes soiled. At one point, before the murder, Jacek is sitting in a cafe, drinking coffee and eating a cream puff. Seeing some young girls looking into the cafe window from outside, he uses his spoon to flick a piece of cream puff on the window, where it remains in an ugly smear. He smiles after doing this, and the kids on the other side of the glass smile back. This is one of the few moments in the film where Jacek smiles, and seems happy. (Another time is when, sitting on a highway overpass, he drops a small rock, or block of cement, onto the roadway below. We hear sounds of horns and squealing brakes, but we don’t see what happened).

Soiling, and petty vandalism, and creating inconvenience, are repeated motifs throughout the film. At the very beginning, we see a close-up of a dead rat in a puddle. Shortly thereafter, we see a cat that has been hanged in a little noose (preparing us for Jacek’s hanging at the climax of the film). There are also casual incidents of violence in the background; in one early sequence, as Jacek wanders aimlessly through town, two young men are viciously beating up a third in a doorway in the distance.

The first time we see the taxi driver, he is assaulted by a large carpet that someone throws out of an upper-story window, and that barely misses him. The driver likes to mess with people’s dogs; he corrupts one by feeding it when it is sitting faithfully in place; he frightens another, so that it breaks from its owner’s leash and runs away, by honking his horn at it. The taxi driver also takes a somewhat sadistic glee in leaving people shivering in the cold or the rain, when he could easily have picked them up. And he is something of a dirty old man; he leeringly propositions a young woman who is working at an outdoor stall nearby his cab. She turns him down, walking away without saying anything. It later turns out that she is Jacek’s girlfriend; he offers her a joyride in the very taxi whose driver had propositioned her earlier, and that he has stolen after the murder.

I’ve been cataloguing details of what might be thought of as signs of a society in decline — one where codes of morality, and even simple norms of politeness and civility, have ceased to function. But I think it is way too easy to thereby see Kielowski as a social conservative (or, alternatively, as a Zizekian, observing and mourning the “decline of symbolic efficiency”). For I think that, in the world of A Short Film About Killing, these unpleasant exchanges (up to and including the killings themselves) are not primarily signs of the decline of the social: to the contrary, they are precisely, and positively, what constitutes the social. They are forms (however weird and perverse and unpleasant they might seem) of contact, interaction, and disalienation; they are what binds an otherwise isolated individual to others — and to the collectivity (present in this film mostly in the form of the State institutions of police, law courts, and prisons) as well. In a sick and distressing, but nonetheless entirely valid, sense, Jacek’s murder of the taxi driver is the one moment when he does establish an intimate relationship with another person. (This is one of the stark differences between Jacek’s act of murder, and his equally harrowing execution, at the hands of the State, at the end of the film).

A Short Film About Killing

If Kieslowski retreats from politics in the Decalogue and in his subsequent films, if A Short Film About Killing, made in the waning days of “actually existing socialism,” says so little about that social system in particular (everything in the film could just as easily happen, much the same way, in an economically depressed capitalist society and state), if Kieslowski seems to reject politics altogether, in order to focus on supposedly more “universal” concerns (ones which are generally described as moral or ethical, and as spiritual or religious) — then this movement is still founded upon a bleak and critical view of the social, one that is not dissolved away by any sort of move to more “individual” concerns. This is another way of saying what I said at the very beginning: that Kieslowski’s films are affective rather than spiritual, and that they remain curiously and singularly aestheticized, even at the most abstract level of their universalizing ethical concerns. Affect is never internal, never just bottled up inside; it always involves a sort of transfer, from one person (persona, character) to another, and from the persons on screen to the persons in the audience, watching the film.

This brings us right back to Kieslowski’s great, much-celebrated theme of mysterious connections, alternative destinies, and chance encounters that yet seem fated. The way that acts of aggression, and of acting out — in their range from vandalism, through impoliteness and physical aggression, and all the way to murder — institute and embody the social all throughout A Short Film About Killing is only the flip side of this theme. For Kieslowski, these mysterious connections (together with the institutions that emulate them in a stiflingly formalized way) are the warp and woof of the social. They are also the stuff of cinema, reflecting and answering to the ways that images (or people and places) are brought together through editing. Kieslowski’s incessant cross-cutting between Jacek, the taxi driver, and the lawyer, before the murder takes place, and before they have even met (though they pass one another without recognition a number of times, which is itself an expression of Kieslowski’s vision of mysterious connections) — this cross-cutting itself creates the bond between the three of them. It is as if they are all fated to meet so catastrophically because the filmmaker has edited their scenes together — rather than the reverse. This is yet another way of approaching Kieslowski’s aestheticism: he discovers or creates patterns that have no intrinsic meaning — that do not appeal to any particular interest, or desire — aside from the fact that they are simply there.

A Short Film About Killing operates through a strange (or unexpected) principle of dispersion. For the first half of the film, we don’t really know (aside from the hints provided by the title, or by other prior knowledge we have brought to the movie) what is going to happen, or how the seemingly random incidents and encounters that we witness will fit together. Kieslowski ignores, or evades, the usual narrative structures of cause and effect. He dwells on things, and incidents, simply on account of their sheer materiality. It takes a good amount of screen time for the taxi driver just to wash his car, before he starts driving around in search of passengers. Later, there is a long sequence of shots in the course of which Jacek is just waiting around; he sees a policeman walking up and down the street, and evidently doesn’t want to do anything (take action, though we do not yet know what sort of action it will be) as long as the cop is around. Finally a police vehicle comes by and picks up the lonely cop; it is only after this that Jacek takes a long rope out from his pack, and coils it up, tests it, and cuts it to suitable length for what, we only find out subsequently will be an act of murder.

Time is empty, filled with disparate and seemingly random incidents: it isn’t even a time of anticipation, because we don’t know what any of the characters are waiting for (or even if they are anticipating and waiting). Did Jacek plan to murder someone when he put the rope into his briefcase? Is he planning the murder (despite the randomness of the victim) when he coils that rope? How clear or vague are his plans, his desires? We cannot know this, and we cannot even be sure that Jacek himself knows this. The film is filled with affect, but this affect is ambient and impersonal, it circulates, it doesn’t remain fixed in anyone’s head. And this is why we cannot “identify”, even negatively, with any of the characters, which in turn is why our stance towards the film, however intense and uncomfortable, never takes the form of “interest.” Kieslowski almost brutally elides those portions of the narrative that might create identification or interest; he cuts directly from the shot in which Jacek shows the stolen car to his girlfriend, and proposes that they escape into the mountains, to a shot of the judges rising after having delivered their verdict (which, we only learn subsequently, is a condemnation to death). Pursuit, arrest, confession, and trial — the meat of most crime movies — are entirely absent from A Short Film About Killing.

The murder of the taxi driver doesn’t occur until midway through the film, after we have been adrift in the maze (or miasma) of cross-cuts and seemingly unrelated, but thickly described, incidents. The murder itself takes up five minutes or so of screen time, This, of course, is part of what makes it so excruciating — by sparing us none of the details, and none of the length, Kieslowski wants us to feel the momentousness, and the horror, of actually taking a human life. But the sequence is also remarkably physical and material in its emphasis — Kieslowski concentrates o the body, rather than the soul. Jacek strangles the man with his rope, then bludgeons him, then drags his body from the car… but the man still will not die, so that Jacek has to pummel him with a large rock. We cannot see the driver’s face for the latter part of this sequence, because Jacek has covered it with a handkerchief. But this absence of reciprocity — we can’t see the face of the dying man, we like Jacek do not look him in the eyes — only makes things worse, since it turns the still-living taxi driver into a thing that nonetheless continues to live and move, or at least to squirm spasmodically: no longer a person, but not yet peacefully inert. We see blood ooze through the handkerchief — just as later on, when Jacek is hanged, we see the shit that his body expelled with its last movements. These displays of a coarse, impersonal vitality at the very moment of death are more horrifying than any look into the anguished face of the victim might be — precisely because they spasms, events, with which we cannot identify, that we cannot assimilate into ourselves.

A phrase like “the aestheticization of death” is usually applied disparagingly, in reference to something like Quentin Tarantion’s staging a mass bloodbath for laughs, as if it were an MGM musical (I am thinking, of course, of a scene towards the end of Kill Bill part I). But Kieslowski offers us an aestheticization of death and killing — in the precise Kantian terms of disinterest that I have been trying to describe — that has an entirely opposite valency. Death here is a singularity, because it cannot be exchanged, or compared, or rendered equivalent to anything else. Not even to another death: which is why, and how, A Short Film About Killing condemns the death penalty. I suppose one can see this as Christian (New Testament vs. Old, suspension of the Law), if one wishes; perhaps that is how Kieslowski himself saw it. But more important to me is just the very physical and material — and also aesthetic — way that Kieslowski rejects the logic of equivalence that lies at the heart of “actually existing” socialism and capitalism alike.

Provincial Actors

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Provincial Actors (1979) was Agnieszka Holland‘s first internationally distribued feature film (she had previously made a number of feature-length movies for Polish television, some of which sound very interesting, but none of which seem to be currently available in the US). Provincial Actors is a powerful, claustrophobic film; more interesting, I think, than the later features, made in the West and dealing with World War II and the Holocaust (e.g. Angry Harvest and Europa Europa) for which Holland is best known.

Provincial Actors takes on a less overwhelming subject: it’s about the tensions and conflicts among the members of a theater troupe, putting on a production of Stanislaw Wyspianski‘s Liberation (unfortunately I know nothing about this play; lines from it are quoted many times in the course of the film). Provincial Actors alludes to, but entirely subverts, the genre of the “backstage genre” (people struggling to put on a show, a play or a movie). Though the production is continually being talked about (or, more accurately, argued about), we never get to see it. And though the film ends on opening night, with the production apparently being at least something of a success, there is no celebration, and the success doesn’t resolve anything in the lives of the performers. The actors are not caught up in their roles, but alienated from them — even as they are from one another.

All we get in Provincial Actors, then, is tension without release, without catharsis. The main characters (to the extent that there are any; this is, in many respects, an ensemble film) are the lead actor in the troupe, Chris/Krzysztof (Tadeusz Huk), and his wife Anka (Halina Labonarska), who is not a member of the troupe, but a puppeteer. They argue, continually and bitterly, throughout the film — though their strife never reaches a flash point of direct confrontation — until finally she decides to leave him. They both feel trapped by what seem to be dead-end lives; he can only confront his troubles — as she bitterly points out to him — by retreating into his acting, and quoting poetic lines from his favorite plays.

Other members of the cast and crew share a similar sense of atrophy and unresolved strife. Everything stagnates; there isn’t even the measure of relief that might come from bringing any of the conflicts out into the open. The stifling, poisoned atmosphere is evidently as much political as it is personal. Or rather, what’s political about it is precisely the absence of any possibility for the characters of addressing the implosive closure of their lives in something like a political way. The director, who seems to have connections back in Warsaw, deletes any sort of political content from the play, excising all the lines that refer to the “liberation” of the play’s title. He tells the actors that, in his staging, this is not a play about politics, but rather a play about actors putting on a play.

There are multiple ironies here that need unpacking; though I lack the knowledge thoroughly to do so. Wyspianski was a turn-of-the-century (19th into 20th) early modernist; from what I can gather from the film, Liberation has at least something to do with the cause of Polish national liberation. This makes the director’s excising of political content all the more significant: calls for national liberation — from the time when Poland did not exist as a nation-state — would seem to resonate with calls for liberation from Communist Party rule and the Gierek regime, which is why they have to be cut. The director thus retreats from a more open sort of modernism to a very constricted, narrowly self-referential modernism, almost a cariacture of modernism’s initial project. (The film dates from shortly before the rise of the Solidarnosc movement. Holland subsequently left Poland after the imposition of martial law in 1981, and worked thereafter in the West).

It is often said that the turn from the political to the personal and existential, evident in many Polish, and other Eastern European, films, is an act of dissent and resistance, in response to the relentless politicization of everything under Communist rule. But here things seem a bit more complicated. Provincial Actors presents a retreat to the personal and existential (with emphasis on the negative connotations of “retreat”) that is precisely a result of the fact that the political dimension has been effectively foreclosed. The Party’s politicization of everyday life has effectively resulted in a situation where nothing can be addressed in political terms, since the meaning of “politics” has always already been predefined. The existential is then not the realm of freedom in any meaningful sense: it is entirely closed, entirely negative, the stifling residue that is all that is left when any prospect of a larger social and political engagement has been shut off. “Actually existing socialism” was demoralizing, not because it made everything political, but because it banalized and circumscribed politics to such an extreme extent that political action became unthinkable. (And it was only by literally doing the unthinkable, that a movement like Solidarnosc was able to become an effectively political force, and to oppose the State).

What really gives Provincial Actors its power is Holland’s intensely claustrophobic mise en scene. Most of the film takes place indoors. There are almost no establishing shots or even long shots (except in the few outdoor scenes). Nor does the camera move very much. Yet there are also very few extreme close-ups; we never get to concentrate on anyone’s face. Instead, there are mostly two-shots (or shots with three or four people) at such a distance that we see their upper torsos and faces, as we hear their conversation. The spaces in which the characters interact (cafes, bedrooms, backstage rooms) are usually small and crowded, but in any case we get very little sense of any one of these spaces as a whole. Often, in nighttime scenes, the screen is so dark that we can barely see the speakers at all. And significantly, we never get to see what is happening on stage, or what this production of Liberation is like, despite the fact that all the characters’ energies are directed towards putting on the play.

As far as the film’s editing goes, time is as ruthlessly compacted and fragmented as space. There are no set-ups or indications of how we get from one scene to another; so it often seems as if the camera has opened onto an action that is already in progress. The camera sometimes also cuts off actions before they have been completed; at other times, it lingers on in the dark, well after anything has “happened.” The reappearance of light on the screen after a shot in darkness, and a sharp cut, is all there is to indicate a new day. The film’s action doesn’t progress in anything like a smooth narrative arc, because the characters do not feel any such progression in their lives.

When crucial events do occur, Holland treats them quite elliptically. One of the (minor) characters commits suicide by jumping out of a window. But nothing in the film prepares us for this: we do not see his determination, his preparations, or even his motivation. Rather, the camera is with Anka in her apartment, when we see the falling body flash by, in the background, out her kitchen window. An unprepared-for event on screen always comes as a shock; but here the shock is backgrounded and muffled, which has the effect of making the film’s overall sense of disconnection and isolation even more extreme.

The soundtrack often contains music that is ominously dramatic, indeed melodramatic. But we only hear this nondiegetic music discontinuously, and not always at the ‘right’ time. In one of the few reviews of the film that I could find online, Janet Maslin of The New York Times complains (writing when the film was first shown in the US, in 1983) that Holland “approaches [her themes] clumsily, and with a surprisingly heavy hand. On more than a few occasions here, a bold chord on the soundtrack will accompany one melodramatic event or another, and the film’s key occurrences are awkwardly presented.” I think that Maslin is apprehending, but completely misunderstanding, Holland’s strategy throughout the film. Everything in Provincial Actors is clipped and discordant, by design, because the characters are unable to connect meaningfully with one another, and “the time is out of joint.”

Special Treatment

Saturday, February 24th, 2007

Goran Paskaljevic’s Special Treatment (Poseban tretman, 1980), with screenplay (again) by Dusan Kovacevic, is a comedy, really, about what can best be called (today) the “soft” totalitarian management of affect. Dejan initially suggested to me that the film is not just an allegory of the Yugoslavian Communist regime, but also resonates with present-day endeavors to control — or better, to manage — “addictive” behavior, like the anti-smoking campaigns that have their origin in the United States, but have currently attained a worldwide reach. (For an excellent account of this, see Roddey Reid’s book, Globalizing Tobacco Control). In this way, the film sheds a disturbing light — which could not have been intended when the film was first made — on the relevance of the Yugoslav experiment with socialism for current post-Communist globalization.

[Just as a side comment: it's noteworthy, I think, that Slavoj Zizek can rehabilitate Lenin, and find positive things to say even about Stalin and Mao; but the one major historical Communist figure who seems to be beyond the pale for Zizek is precisely... Yugoslavia's Communist leader, Josip Broz Tito. Maybe, at least in the spirit of carnivalesque parody, a certain revival of Titoism -- and, for my Slovenian friends, Kardeljism -- is in order.]

Special Treatment is about an authoritarian doctor, Dr. Ilić (Ljuba Tadic — a well known Serbian actor: according to IMDB he appeared in over 170 Yugoslavian/Serbian films and TV shows) who has invented a “special treatment” for alcoholics. The treatment involves exhortations to willpower and the exercise of free will, together with bizarre calisthenics (the patients are supposed to run about in circles, flapping their arms as if they were birds’ wings — birds soaring through the sky being an image of freedom), and therapeutic psychodrama in which the patients re-enact the traumas of the degradation and humiliation that they suffered under the influence of alcohol. In order to demonstrate the success of his treatment, Dr. Ilich takes the patients on a trip… to a brewery (!), in order to prove that they have been “cured,” and will not succumb to temptation.

Of course, things go haywire in the course of the narrative, and everybody gives way to opportunities for enjoyment, and gets drunk. Even the prize patient — and Dr. Ilić’s stool pigeon — Steva (Danilo Stojkovic) ends up getting dunked in what the brewery proudly displays to the public as the world’s largest mug of beer. What’s more, Dr. Ilić himself is revealed as a hypocrite, a drinker who is incapable of heeding the Biblical call of “physician, heal thyself.” Everything falls apart, both farcically and (semi-)tragically, and on one level the film would seem to be repeating the (overly) familiar warning that “social engineering” cannot alter human nature, or penetrate beyond the body to the soul.

Special Treatment

But actually, I think that, in Special Treatment, matters are more complicated than they might at first seem. If one is of a sufficiently cynical and conspiratorial turn of mind, one might even suspect that the failure of Dr. Ilić’s “special treatment” is on a certain (non-conscious) level its intended, and hence effective, result. When the patients re-enact their alcoholic traumas — as they do at the very beginning of the film — the result seems to be, not to liberate them from their pain and dependency via some form of catharsis, but rather to reinscribe them ever more strongly within this prior condition. For this is what defines their subjectivity.

And indeed, by failing the “test” of freedom, the patients condemn themselves to return to the State institution in which they are in fact imprisoned (these are not people who have voluntarily come for help, but who have been legally committed to rehabilitation, after having deserted their children, attempted suicide, gone beserk, etc.). The collapse of the treatment is what necessitates, and authorizes, applying still more of it. Dr. Ilić is not discredited at the end of the film; rather, he is in position to require still more bizarre calisthenics from his patients, who will never be free as birds no matter how often they pretend to be flapping wings.

Dr. Ilić associates his exhortations about the power of the will, and the emulation of being free-as-a-bird, with sublime (mountainous) natural landscapes, and with the music of Wagner. The Liebestod from Tristan, and the Ride of the Valkyries from the Ring, are heard over and over, in the course of the film, both diegetically — in recordings played by Ilić — and nondiegetically. (At one point, Ilić even orders his patients to stop singing a drinking song, so that he can play them Tristan instead). This, of course, gives the “special treatment” Nazi connotations. But at the same time, this treatment, for all that it is supposedly “special”, seems thoroughly routinized, which is to say bureaucratic; this suggests, perhaps, that the gross impositions of Nazism have been emulated, in a smaller, “softer” way, by the day-to-day regulations of “actually existing socialism.” The Yugoslav experiment was, as it were, totalitarianism with a human face. (The film precedes, by seven or eight years, the insinuations made by NSK concerning the uncomfortably close affinities between Fascism/Nazism and Yugoslav Communism).

This suggestion is supported by an incident in the first half of the film, where the director of the brewery where Dr. Ilić has taken his patients confides that he is interested in Ilić’s therapy as a way of controlling the brewery workers, whose drinking on the job is harming the firm’s productivity. What could be a better illustration of Marx’s observation concerning the alienation of workers from that which they produce than this effort to stop workers from drinking their own beer? Yugoslav “self-management” was supposed to combine the best aspects of socialism (democratic control of the means of production) and capitalism (the efficiencies created by the market). But Special Treatment suggests, rather, that self-management synthesized the worst aspects of both systems: capitalist exploitation and alienation, and socialist disorganization, incompetence, and lack of motivation.

On a deeper level, Dr. Ilić’s therapy is founded on a contradiction: it appeals to willpower, and rests its authority on a noble conception of freedom, while in fact infantilizing the people to whom it is directed, and hence making it impossible for them to display willpower, or freedom, of any sort. Near the start of the film, Ilić takes his patients to a pub; when the waiter comes to take orders, all the patients “freely” choose to have mineral water, while the Doctor himself (as if to taunt them) orders a beer. After the drinks arrive, Ilić ostentatiously pours his beer out on the ground, instead of drinking it, as a demonstration of willpower. (But as we see, but his patients don’t, he has secretly swallowed down a quick drink at the bar). Not only is Ilić corrupt, therefore, but his therapy has more to do with the image management — and the affective responses to such carefully manipulated images — than it does with anything else.

During this entire scene, the camera repeatedly cuts to a boisterous, drunken group at another table, where one man bets his friends that he can entirely consume a roasted pig by himself. This is the life that the patients have been forced to give up, in order to be reborn as responsible, compliant citizens. And in this sense, even in their relapses, they are marked by their conditioning: precisely because any such relapse back into drink is now marked by feelings of guilt, abjection, solitude, and abandonment (the feelings instilled by the “therapeutic” psychodrama). None of them will ever be able to joyously consume a roast pig.

The film continually juxtaposes comic images of excess and abandon, with ones of cynically calculated (or inculcated) Foucaultian “care of the self” or self-regulation (might one even call this the real meaning, or the truth, of “self-management”?). One of the patients steals a liquor bottle from the brewery; he gets hold of an enormous hypodermic needle, and injects the alcohol into a bunch of apples, so that all his fellow patients can enjoy it undetected. (Ilić, with his worship of Nature, is always exhorting them to eat apples, because they are a truly healthy food). Later, Ilić seduces the brewery’s public relations manager Kaca (played by Milena Dravic, best known to me as the Reichian militant in Makavejev’s WR) to the sounds of a record playing (yet again) the Liebestod from Tristan, the very music that he uses to motivate his charges. Pleasure and manipulation, enjoyment and discipline, work and leisure, seem to have become inextricably intertwined; and this is what (as per Dejan’s suggestion) links the incentives and disincentives of Ilić’s system (or, more generally, of the Yugoslav socialist system) to those of the hypercapitalist (but nonetheless extensively regulated and bureaucratized) world of today.

Special Treatment isn’t a deep film, nor is it (from a formal point of view) a particularly interesting one. But it certainly leaves a creepy aftertaste — in large part because the system of management it depicts is one that is still very much with us today.

Who Is Singing Over There?

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

Slobodan Sijan’s Who Is Singing Over There? (Ko To Tamo Peva?, 1980) could almost be a prequel to Emir Kusturica’s great 1995 film about the history and breakup of Communist Yugoslavia, Underground. In fact, both films were written by the same screenwriter, Dusan Kovacevic; and Who Is Singing Over There? ends at the precise historical point where Underground begins, with the Nazi bombing of Belgrade on April 6, 1941.

Of course, the two films are very different — and not just because nobody in 1980 (the year of Tito’s death, which occurred while Who Is Singing Over There? was being shot) could have foreseen the horrors of the wars in which Yugoslavia broke up during the 1990s. But also because Sijan is a fairly classical director, with none of Kusturica’s extravagance and carnivalesque excess. In fact, Who Is Singing Over There? is (as has frequently been noted) something of an homage to John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939): it follows that earlier film’s narrative structure, in which a group of mutual strangers, all of whom are vividly drawn personalities, find themselves thrown together on a voyage beset with multiple dangers, and various unexpected plot twists and turns. Instead of Stagecoach‘s passage through Monument Valley and other iconic settins of the Wild West, we get a ride on a ramshackle bus that proceeds from “somewhere in Serbia” through the countryside and on to Belgrade. And instead of Indian attacks, showdowns on Main Street, and the travails of giving birth, we get a series of (semi-)comic incidents involving peasants, the Army, and the generally dilapidated economic condition of Yugoslavia in 1941.

In Who Is Singing Over There?, as in Stagecoach and other classic Hollywood films, the characters are all types, each of whom is defined by a number of particularities that get expressed over and over again throughout the film. Such an approach to character is pre-Method Acting (which is why, aside from comedy, which directly depends upon utilizing stereotypes, you don’t see much of this approach in Hollywood past the 1950s, when Method Acting first came into vogue), and indeed “pre-psychological” (as Todd Haynes characterized Sirk’s melodramas). (Another way to put this is to say, in comparison with English-language novels, that this approach to character is more like Dickens than it is like most 20th century fiction, whether “high” — Joyce, Faulkner — or “low” — Raymond Chandler, Stephen King; and whether committed to modernist depth, or to postmodern cartoony caricatures).

This pre-psychological approach is something that contemporary, media-saturated audiences do not find “realistic” — though Ford seemed “realistic” enough to American audiences of 1939, as did Sijan, as far as I can tell, to Yugolsav audiences of 1980. In any case, part of the power of this (now old-fashioned) approach is that it allows characters to function typologically and allegorically, and to “represent”, or stand in for, various national characteristics and tendencies. In Stagecoach, Ford leaves the racial and gender hierarchies of his time basically unquestioned; but in terms of the interactions among the white male characters, there’s a lot about class divisions and about the legacy of the Civil War, and the film comes off allegorizing the politics of the time in which it was made (instead of the time in which it is set), by taking a stance that is pro-New Deal, anti-big business, and anti-the rich’s assumptions of privilege.

Who Is Singing Over There? similarly works as a national allegory, and, like Stagecoach, this allegory refers at least as much to the time in which the film was made as it does to the time in which it is set. As Dejan suggested to me, the film dredges up and displays the considerable antagonisms that subsisted beneath the official Titoist ideology of bratstvo i jedinstvo (“brotherhood and unity”) throughout the time of Communist Party rule.

On an official level, the film was entirely safe and acceptable to the ruling order; it is set in pre-Communist times (so that it doesn’t say anything overtly against the Party or the State); and it makes no direct reference to Serban nationalism, or to relations between the Serbs and the other official nationalities of Yugoslavia (Croats, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians).

The film does, however, address racism in the form of the relation between the Serbian characters and the two Roma (“Gypsy”) musicians who are also on the bus. The Roma have long been the disenfranchised of Eastern Europe, without any homeland to claim the way other linguistic or ethnic groups did in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Who Is Singing Over There?, the Serbian characters display disdain towards, or distrust of, these Roma at every opportunity. At the end of the film, what has been mostly a comic series of misadventures turns serious and ugly, as all the other passengers attack and beat the two Roma, and seem on the verge of killing them, on the basis of a false allegation that the Roma have stolen the wallet and money of one of the characters. (The racist stereotype at work here is, of course, the one that says that the Roma are thieves). The lynching is only interrupted by the German bombing raid, which (in a final ironic turn) kills everyone on the bus except for the two Roma.

Indeed, the Roma serve as a kind of Chorus for the film. We see them in the first shot, and in the last; throughout, they comment, with their improvised lyrics, on what we have just been seeing. In the film’s one departure from classical form, these songs are addressed directly to the camera, and to the movie audience, instead of to the other characters. The Roma characters, perhaps because of their outsider status in Serbian or Yugoslav society, thus partly step outside the diegesis and reflect upon it. They distance us from the other characters’ obsessions, putting into perspective how self-obsessed and self-congratulatory they are, and how oblivious to the larger forces that determine them or loom over them (the coming War, the class divisions of Serbian society, the parochialism and attachment to tradition, etc.).

(Dina Iordanova writes extensively about the depiction of the Roma in Balkan films in her fine and useful book Cinema of Flames. She remarks, apropos of Who Is Singing Over There?, that “this symbolic ending, asserting survival for the marginal and oppressed, is believed by many to be a prophetic vision of Yugoslavia — a country busy fighting imaginary internal demons while vulnerable to destruction from the outside”).

The hatred of the Serbs for the Roma is the only form of racial or ethnic antagonism that is dramatized in the film. But all sorts of other antagonisms come out in the course of the bus ride, even if they are mostly treated comically. One of the passengers is a Germanophile (Bata Stojkovic), who extols at every opportunity the order and efficiency of the Nazi State, to which he continally compares the waste, corruption, and inefficiency endemic to the Serbian/Yugoslavian condition. Then there is the hunter (Tasko Nacic), who seems to have a problem with guns — they tend to go off in his presence, whether he is holding them or not, and (in the former case) without his intending to fire them). There are constant arguments about money: partly because Krstic, the owner of the bus (Pavle Vujisic) is continually working out schemes to overcharge or rip off his passengers. There are questions about the role of the Yugoslav Army, which is always ordering people around, and commandeering their property, but doesn’t seem capable of actually defending the country (and indeed, the Army did prove utterly unable to stand up to the Nazi invasion).

Then there is an amazing, almost surreal (despite the overall naturalism) sequence of the funeral for a schoolteacher who, we are told, has been murdered by bandits or terrorists (I do not recall exactly; sinceI could only get the film on VHS, not DVD, it is too difficult for me to scroll to the spot). But while the funeral ceremony is still going on, the alleged murderers (apparently another family — this would seem to be one of those long-lived feuds that are the stuff of legend, or cliche) come riding by on horseback. The mourners take out their guns and start shooting, the horse riders fire back, and a miniature battle ensues.

The entire film is structured around a series of such conflicts, which are both (usually farcical) turning points that drive the narrative, and markers or condensation points of social antagonism. The film as a whole might be seen as a three-way conflict between the forces of social order (represented mostly by the Germanophile), of bureaucratic imposition (both the various Army officers they encounter, and the bus owner Krstic, are continually citing rules and regulations to back up their predatory behavior), and of chaos and anarchy and generally wild behavior (incidents of which are continually breaking out, though Sijan doesn’t quite carry this to extreme, carnivalesque lengths, or celebrate it, in the way that Kusturica does in Underground and his other films).

Order and bureaucracy are both Germanic (or German and Austro-Hungarian, respectively). They both stem ultimately from the Enlightenment; they are both rationalistic through and through, and yet deeply irrational in the ways that they regiment and pervert human and social impulses. The Germanophile is rigid to the point of inhumanity; it’s a fitting touch that he collects rock specimens for geological analysis. He is utterly intolerant of the way that human imperfection gets in the way of his idealizations of order and efficiency. This is rationality imposed from above, and destroying anything that gets in its way.

Bureaucratic regulations are another thing entirely; though they must be rigidly followed, once they have been invoked, they are so arbitrary both in their formulation and in their administration as to be little more than a smokescreen for venality and corruption. At one point, Krstic will not let the hunter onto the bus, even though the bus has in fact stopped: because, he says, the legally mandated bus stop is 200 meters further on. The hunter must run, trying to get to the bus stop before the bus has had time to pause and start moving again. Later, Krstic demands that all the passengers show their tickets — even though there is no doubt that everyone on the bus has already paid — just in order that he can charge anyone who has lost their ticket a second time. This is rationality, not imposed from above, but seeping into every pore of social space from below: instrumental reason in its tiniest and furthest consequences. (The Germanophile’s rationality is that of what Deleuze calls irony; the bureaucratic rationality of the bus owner and the Army, like that in Kafka’s novels, is that of what Deleuze calls humor).

Finally, chaos and anarchy are manifested as a sort of premodern and prerational “Balkan” way of being — though again, Sijan doesn’t push this, or affirm it, in the wild and crazy way that Kusturica always does. This is the space in which rituals of hospitality and generosity resist being reduced to mere calculation; but it is also the space in which antagonism maintains its full stupidity, resistant to any form or adjudication or compromise. It’s a space of continual violence (all those guns, going off when they aren’t supposed to) and of sexual desire, but also of a sort of low cunning (mercantile or peasant) that is always looking to extract a monetary profit one way or another.

Sexuality enters into the film in the form of a weird triangle, involving a newly married couple (the bride being the only woman passenger on the bus) and a would-be seducer (a small-town singer, who lays on really thickly the attitude of being suave, debonair, and cosmopolitan). The newlyweds are continually on the verge of quarrelling, even though they haven’t been together long enough for such a relationship to develop. At one point, when the bus has stopped, they run off to the woods to have sex. All the other passengers follow, and watch them from a distance. The Germanophile says they ought to be ashamed of themselves; other passengers seem, rather, ashamed by their own all-too-eager voyeurism. The singer takes note mostly of the groom’s sexual inexperience and clumsiness, and renews his efforts to seduce the bride. As always, one wants to avoid leaning too heavily on sequences that are basically being played for comedy; but — in the context of the film as a whole — these episodes do demonstrate how even the sexual bond (as the sort of most basic form of the social bond) is riven by confusion and antagonism.

The film’s violent ending pulls the rug from under the comic mood that has obtained until that point — it forces us to re-evaluate, and perhaps take things more ‘seriously’ than we have done throughout — which is how I have approached the film in the comments that I have just written. In any case — and in direct contrast to Ford’s Stagecoach — there is no John Wayne figure in Who Is Singing Over There?, no point of audience identification, but only the Roma chorus, with its sardonic attitude towards the entire spectacle. Sijan and Kovacevic show us Yugoslavia imploding, though without making a heavy point of it, and also without any endorsement of any of the alternatives to (or, ultimately, successors of) the tarnished “Yugoslav ideal.” Bratstvo i jedinstvo is an ideal that, historically, never really worked — and the same can be said, of course, as well, for Tito’s other ideal of samoupravljanje (self-management). [A quick search through the IMDB reveals that a half-hour documentary called Samoupravljanje -- Jugoslovenski put u socijalizam (Self-Management: The Yugoslav Road to Socialism) was also released in 1980]. It’s enough to make me (a complete outsider) feel oddly, and dangerously, Yugo-nostalgic (as many of the present-day nationalists disparagingly say).

WR: Mysteries of the Organism

Saturday, February 17th, 2007

Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism remains as stupendous and mind-shattering a film today as it must have been at the time of its first release in 1971. I hadn’t seen it for many years when I screened it for my class this past week; and, despite the fact that so many things in this film are burned into my memory, I wasn’t entirely sure how well it would hold up. But I needn’t have worried. WR is just as powerful as it ever was; indeed, its very untimeliness in our current cultural-historical context makes it even more disconcerting and destabilizing, perhaps, than it could have been when first released.

Many of the pre-1989 Eastern European films that I have been showing in my class are powerful in their evocation, and critique, of what living under “actually existing socialism” must have been like. Today, when that way of life has entirely vanished, even the negative aspects of these films work to display a fascinating otherness: to show us that political conditions, social relations, and cultural norms need not be eternally the way they are in today’s universal commodity culture. Though these films were intended, and indeed worked and continue to work, as powerful denunciations of the injustices and cruelties of Communist Party rule, they do not thereby comfort us in America (and in “the West” more generally) with the flattering thought that our own way of life, now triumphant worldwide (and under siege only by those whose desperation has driven them to cruel and barbarous counter-ideologies) is thereby justified. Rather, both these films’ depiction of other ways of life, and their protests against the miseries of those other ways, create a kind of opening. This process, which is implicit in so many of these films, becomes explicit and polemical in WR. Makavejev’s film is the only one on my syllabus that overtly proclaims itself as Marxist; in doing so, it dissects the ironies of both actually existing socialism and actually existing capitalism, and brings us elsewhere. WR is a “utopian” film, in Fredric Jameson’s sense of this term, less because of the sexual bliss (pornutopia?) that it promises, than because of its aggressive and stimulating disjunctions.

Much has changed, of course, in the years since WR was made. The film is deeply engaged with a particular location in time and space — America and Yugoslavia/Serbia at the end of the 1960s — and with a particular a constellation of ideas — the liberatory conjunction of Freudianism and Marxism, as seen in Wilhelm Reich’s theories and early “sexpol” work, and as promised in American countercultural ideals of self-realization via sexual freedom on the one hand, and Yugoslavian socialist ideals of samoupravljanje (“self-management,” or, as the film also calls it, “work-democracy”), on the other.

However, neither the American counterculture nor Yugoslavian socialism is much more than a (bad) joke these days. Sexual “liberation” has become ubiquitous, because it has been ubiquitously commodified. Sexual seduction and display are essential to the processes of marketing, advertising, branding, and economic circulation generally; the release of sexual impulses from repression, and their active solicitation in the marketplace, has not resulted in the liberation of human energies and potentials that Reich and Herbert Marcuse hoped for, but rather in a narrower confinement of desire within the circuits of consumerism and commodification than either of those thinkers could ever have imagined.

As for “self-management,” in practice it was little more than a cynical alibi for the same forms of regulation, regimentation, and corruption that existed in other, more orthodox, socialist countries — at least, this is what I am told by all the ex-Yugoslavs I have met who are old enough to remember it. It certainly didn’t result in, or correspond to, any liberatory change of consciousness, as the post-Communist disintegration of Yugoslavia attests. And if “self-management” still exists today, it does so, not as a socialist ideal, but, grotesquely, as a capitalist one. You can see “self-management” today in the exhortations toward “excellence” by business gurus like Tom Peters, who basically proposes that people become obligatory exploiters and entrepreneurs of themselves, and embrace their own precarity under the name of “flexibility”. You can also see “self-management” in the practices of “hip” and “innovative” corporations, which emphasize “flat hierarchies,” and encourage “creativity” and “decentralized decision-making” among their employees. One sees this in the emphasis upon the importance of the “creative class” for econimc growth today. But one sees it also in the way that even low-paid workers in retail are expected to absorb themselves in the corporate culture (whether of WalMart or of Starbucks), and to take the initiative in sales and promotion. In all these cases, workers are increasingly being charged with the task of policing and disciplining themselves, and (in Marxist language) actively exploiting (extracting surplus-value from) themselves. That is what “self-management” comes to today.

As for Wilhelm Reich himself, upon whose ideas and career the film is largely based, today he seems less like a sex radical than like a crypto-conservative without knowing it. Reich’s glorification of the orgasm is actually quite heteronormative and prescriptive, as well as being entirely caught up within the discursive deployment of sexuality-as-liberation, described and denaturalized by Foucault. (Indeed, as far back as the 1950s, Norman O. Brown had already denounced Reich’s privileging of “normal adult genital sexuality” over the multiple potentials of “polymorphous perversity”). Reich’s later ideas about orgone energy, for which he was prosecuted and persecuted by the US government, and which (in the late 1950s and the 1960s) had a correspondingly subversive prestige among writers and intellectuals (like Norman Mailer and William Burroughs), today seem little more than variants of today’s fashionable (and entirely conformist) New Age beliefs.

Where does all this leave WR: Mysteries of the Organism? I’ve been suggesting that the ideas and practices which make up the film’s subject matter have all been tarnished by the passage of time. In a certain sense, this means that what Makavejev proposed, in 1971, as images of liberation, have now become parts of everyday experience, in all their banality and obviousness, and have turned out not to be liberating at all. But I am trying to suggest that, in an important way, this only makes the film more visionary and more relevant. And this, of course, has as much to do with the film’s form and dynamics as with its overt content. WR begins as a sort-of documentary about Wilhelm Reich. But other strands quickly get woven in, and Makavejev’s montage becomes increasingly dense and delirious as the film proceeds.

In America, besides the materials on Reich, we see Tuli Kupferberg (of Fugs fame) wandering around New York City, dressed in military fatigues and waving around a toy machine gun, while on the soundtrack we hear The Fugs’ sarcastic song “Kill for Peace”; we see Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis wandering through the East Village, and speaking rapturously of the liberation s/he found in drag; we hear commercials on the radio for Coke and for Coppertone suntan lotion, among other products; we witness examples of Reichian body therapy in action; we visit the offices of Screw Magazine, and see one of the editors getting a plaster cast taken of his engorged cock.

On the Serbian side of things, we get the fictional story of Milena (Milena Dravic), a Party militant and Reichian, who believes that the Revolution is incomplete without free love. Milena has rejected her former proletarian lover Radmilovic (Zoran Radmilovic), whom she finds too macho and too crass. Instead she has fallen for, and works hard to seduce, the Soviet ice skating champion and “people’s artist” who goes by the Leninesque name Vladimir Ilyich (Ivica Vidovic). This allegorical drama would seem to have much to do, therefore, with the strained relation between Stalinism and Titoism, between Soviet and Yugoslav Communism. To what extent did Tito represent a Third Way to socialism, beyond the deadlocks of the Cold War?

In any case, this all gets played out in a series of tableaus: Milena, dressed in partial military drag, haranguing the people of her tenement block on the necessity of sexual revolution; Radmilovic denouncing the “Red bourgeoisie” (one presumes he has read Milovan Djilas’ The New Class) , and breaking into Milena’s apartment to proclaim his undying lust and to shut up Vladimir Ilyich in the cupboard; Vladimir Ilyich alternating between lofty discourses on the beautiful ideal of communism, and physical brutality, as he tries to stave off Milena’s sexual advances; and finally, Vladimir Ilych’s murder of Milena after he accedes to her blandishments and she brings him to orgasm. These scenes are themselves intercut with Communist found footage, including scenes of the Red Guards during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and (most amazingly) sequences from an actual 1946 Soviet film made in adulation of Stalin.

As these various “Western” and “Eastern” strands of the film are themselves intercut and scrambled together, we get a film that is amazingly rich and complex. WR: Mysteries of the Organism is perhaps the most brilliant example ever made of the “intellectual montage” theorized by Eisenstein and put into practice by Godard. Watching the film, we are bombarded with a massive overdose of information and implication. The strands of the film could not be more disparate, nor the styles (from documentary rawness to mannered, deliberate staging) in which these strands are presented to us; and yet everything seems related to everything else, everything in the film affects and is affected by everything else. Makavejev probably calls this dialectics; I was more reminded of the ontology of William James (very much taken up by both Whitehead and Deleuze) according to which relations are external to the things that they put into relation; but these relations are themselves every bit as real as the things to which they refer (for more on this, see here). The result is a kind of expanding multiplicity of potentials and encounters and juxtapositions and resonances.

Let me give one example of this, from WR. Vladimir Ilyich, just before he slaps down Milena in order to punish her for her sexual aggressiveness, speaks (the actual) Lenin’s lines about having to resist the (implicitly emasculating) beauty of art (Beethoven, specifically) because of the iron necessity of remaining hard, and cutting off the heads of the enemies of the people. A few scenes earlier (or later? I don’t quite remember), in the offices of Screw Magazine, editor Al Goldstein defends his publication of pornography as a perfect expression of “the American dream,” and of the ideals of free speech. [This will later become the major proposition behind Milos Forman's fine film The People Versus Larry Flynt. Forman, like Makavejev, is an emigre from the Eastern Bloc, but he doesn't come near Makavejev's complex irony, or "dialectical" take on things]. These scenes resonate with one another, as well as with many other scenes, bits, or citations within the film.

In the first place, both of these scenes suggest a conflict rather than a harmony between the twin goals of sexual and political revolution. Vladimir Ilyich’s Lenin quote argues that aesthetic and sexual pleasure must be sacrificed in the name of revolutionary vigilance; if we let the tenderness of art, or the relaxing fulfillment that follows orgasm, fill up our souls, we will never have the ruthless strength necessary to destroy the bourgeois order. This is echoed in another scene, in which Milena reads aloud from a text of Lenin’s, to the effect that the State is necessary, not to give the workers what they desire (which can only be done by the workers themselves, when class society and the State itself have withered away), but to brutally repress the workers’ enemies. This, of course, is precisely the logic that leads (as Bakunin argued in the 19th century, and Djilas in 1950s Yugoslavia) to the Communist State’s self-perpetuation as a new organ of domination and exploitation. More generally, the political necessity to which Lenin appeals means the indefinite deferral of (sexual) satisfaction, in precisely the way that Freud’s Reality Principle does.

Meanwhile, Al Goldstein’s affirmation of the Americanism of porn resonates with other invocations of the “American Dream” in the film, most notably one by Reich’s daughter Eva, who contrasts American freedom with the enslavement that she sees as characteristic of Communist societies, who mold their children into “good citizens.” By extension, this gets linked to the evidence of commodification, via ubiquitous advertising on billboards and on the radio, which is a continual presence in Makavejev’s American documentary footage. It would seem that, in this way, Makavejev already anticipates the commodification of “free” sexuality, that I referred extensively to above, and that has only accelerated in the 35-odd years since the film was made.

On the more “micro” level, there’s a sequence that moves from a close-up of the dildo that is the final result of the “plaster-casting” process, to a shot of Kupferberg caressing his toy rifle like an enormous phallus, to footage (from the old Soviet film) of Stalin (actually an actor portraying him) receiving the adulation of the people as he speaks of the “arrow” that Lenin shot at the bourgeoisie (a phrase that Milena picks up as a sexual metaphor in her wooing of Vladimir Ilyich) to a shot of the “cloudbuster” (this Reichian invention is a sinister, multiply phallic-like device pointed to the sky, that is supposed to soak up and neutralize negative (deadly, cancer-causing) orgone energy). What do we make, then, of the power and signification, and the politics, of the phallus? How does commodification relate to authority, to war, to death and destruction, and to pleasure?
All this is just one small example (or series of examples) from the film. I have gone into it in such great detail only in order to suggest the way WR involves the viewer in spirals of mind-boggling, seemingly infinite, elaborations and ramifications. (Much more of this can be found in Raymond Durgnat’s excellent little book on the film). Eisenstein posited intellectual montage as a method for incorporating dialectical rationality (conflict and sublated resolution) into film. Godard extended intellectual montage into a principle of digression and discontinuity, not resolving conflict, but suspending the very narrative of conflict by a sort of indefinitely extendible parataxis, and thereby making possible a sort of meta-fictional, and itself potentially indefinite, aesthetic meditation. (Think of when he stops, in the middle of Two or Three Things I Know About Her to ponder the beauty and mystery of cream swirling in a coffee cup, and of what this implies about the encounter between subject and object. Or think — to emphasize how important this rapturous aestheticism is, even in one of Godard’s most explicitly “anti-aesthetic” films — of the Mozart sonata played in the barnyard in Weekend).

Makavejev, however, is neither as didactic as Eisenstein, nor as contemplative as Godard. Rather, he pushes intellectual montage in the direction of what I can best call a kind of energizing of potentialities (of what Deleuze would call the virtual, or what Whitehead would call the “mental pole” of a concrescence). Makavejev is concerned with multipying potentialities, even (or especially) when these potentialities (obviously) cannot all be realized (since they are “incompossible” with one another), and when they lead to an impasse. Which is why the film can both enthusiastically celebrate the potentials of free sexuality, and envision the way such a “liberated” sexuality is only a pseudo-liberation, as it issues either in rampant consumerism (the American way), or in the exaltation of a sort of phallic totalitarianism (which applies, in different ways, to both Stalin and Hitler), or to the panicked reassertion of male privilege via murder (Vladimir Ilyich loses his self-possession when he gives way to orgasm and to his desire for Milena; which is why, in classic masculine-domination mode, just like in all those American film noirs, he punishes the woman for having allured him).

That is to say, in comparison to either Eisenstein or Godard, Makavejev’s intellectual montage is… more intellectual, more world-significant in its ramifications. (None of this should be seen as criticism of Godard, for whom I maintain an undying love and allegiance). But, besides being more intellectual, Makavejev is also (how to best put this?) more material — no, rather, more corporeal, more deeply embodied, than Godard (or Eisentstein). This has much to do with Reich, whose insistence on the embodiment of affects and desires is perhaps the most significant and powerful aspect of his theories. Reich, for instance, thought and wrote at great length about how repressions and conflicts and erotic positions are manifested, not just in linguistic and intellectual symptoms (as per Freud), but also very much in bodily postures and gestures, in what might be called the visceral forms of expression. (This non-linguistic dimension is precisely what the Lacanians ignore, systematically and on principle). This aspect of Reich’s theory is in fact explained to us, on screen, by a Reichian analyst (Alexander Lowen, if I am remembering correctly).

Following this principle, Makavejev’s montage is as visceral as it is intellectual. The sexual scenes in WR have generally been the ones that have caused the most controversy: in the dvd of the film that I showed my class, during the plaster-casting scene the man’s erect penis is obscured by a ridiculous sort-of psychedelic efflorescence special effect. This is something that wasn’t there when I viewed the film years ago; it was added to the film by Makavejev in 1991 (he proclaimed it an “improvement” ) in order to satisfy British censorship regulations (is WR the only Eastern-bloc film that has been thus censored both by a Communist country and by a capitalist one?). But in fact, the most physically jolting scenes in the film are not directly sexual at all — they are documentary scenes of Reichian therapy, showing patients violently thrashing and convulsing their bodies while yelling things like “give it to me.”

This is supposed to be therapeutic: it is supposedly a way of breaking through bodily rigidities that are also psychological repressions, of cracking what Reich called the “character armor” in which we neurotically encase ourselves. But actually seeing this on the screen affects me physically in a way that is quite disturbing: it is hard to voyeuristically watch a body in such convulsion, it feels to me like pain even if I know that, for the person going through this, it is not supposed to be. And Makavejev heightens the ambiguity by juxtaposing a clip of another, much more overtly sinsiter, form of “healing” through the body: footage of somebody being subject to electro-convulsive therapy (“shock treatment”). It’s not in any sense automatically liberating to have done with Cartesian dualism, and to locate power and affect in the body: if we accept such an analysis, we must also ponder how fascism works in and through the body. (This is a lesson we very much need to learn, as we pursue work in Affect Theory. I think that recent theoretical writing by Brian Massumi and Erin Manning is exemplary in this regard).

Because of how it’s visceral and intellectual at the same time, Makavejev’s montage affects me in ways that no other work quite does. I’ve written in the past about visceral horror — even visceral/intellectual horror, as in the earlier works of David Cronenberg. But nobody approaches quite approaches Makavejev’s mixed intensities: the way he is utopian and darkly pessimistic at the same time. WR: Mysteries of the Organism is radically demystified and even disillusioned; the film has none of the naivete that characterised so many people’s utopian hopes and political and sexual (and pharmacological )dreams in the 1960s. Yet at the same time, it refuses to give up the radical potentialities whose difficulties and unconscious hypocrisies and ambivalences it nonetheless uncovers, and even mocks. There’s something so sweet about Jackie Curtis, as s/he describes his/her joy of becoming a “woman” (a joy that is very un-Reichian, let it be noted). And Milena’s harangue to the masses about sexual freedom is a hilarious send-up of a Party meeting, not to mention that it degenerates into a shouting match with Radmilovic, and then into some good-old-time Serbian singing and dancing; but the depth of Milena’s call for satisfaction, not in some future time, but in the here and now, continues to resonate throughout the film.

WR: Mysteries of the Organism ends with a scene of Vladimir Ilyich’s remorse, as he comes back to consciousness after murdering Milena while in the throes of orgasm, and becomes aware of what he has done. He sings a sad and oddly moving song, about loss and desolation and repentance, while wandering through a snowy landscape, past campfires around which (apparently) poor and homeless people are gathered. The song is addressed to God, which is a bit odd for a self-professed materialist and atheist. The song is moving, as I said, but at the same time I couldn’t help thinking about how it was all very well for him to be sad, when (unlike Milena herself) he had evidently gotten through it all scott-free.

But before this, there’s another sort-of concluding moment. Milena’s decapitated head has been found in the river, and is set (facing the camera) on a platter. All at once the head begins to speak, of the cosmic joy of orgasm, and of regret (rather than anger) that Vladimir Ilyich turned out to be a “Red fascist,” unable to cope with the experience of pleasure. The last thing that Milena’s head says is, “in spite of everything, I am still not ashamed of my Communist past.” This is a motto that could apply to the film as a whole, with its multiplicities, its ambiguities, its understanding of the terrible ironies of history, and of the mobilization of the body, its rejection of closure, and yet at the same time its refusal to give way on its desire.

Adoption

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

Marta Meszaros’ Adoption (1975) is a very special sort of “women’s film,” a naturalistic, understated melodrama — if that doesn’t seem like too much of an oxymoron. It’s a melodrama, because its focus is mostly domestic, as it deals with the emotional ups and downs of two women’s lives. It’s not that the film is detached from social and political concerns — quite the contrary — but these are reflected (or refracted) almost exclusively through the women’s inner, intimate feelings, the slender threads of hope they nourish amidst a general sense of constricted horizions, loneliness, and disappointment. The film is naturalistic, at the same time, because it shows nothing of the floridity and excess that we usually associate with melodrama; instead, we get the decors and surroundings of a small provincial town in Hungary, where people are free from abject poverty, but also not particularly well off. Most of the scenes are set in shabby apartments, on public transport, in various institutional settings, in the workplace, or in popular (not particularly luxurious) restaurants and cafes.

The two women are Kata (Katalin Berek), a 43-year-old woman, and Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), a troubled teenager. Kata is a widow who lives alone and works in a factory; Anna lives at a state institution for troubled young people, as she is unable to get along with her parents. Kata has a lover, Joska (László Szabó) who is a married man with children; he professes his love for Kata, but he is unwilling to leave his wife and family for her. She accepts this more or less fatalistically, but it’s evident that she feels lonely and unfulfilled. At the start of the movie, she tells Joska that she wants to have a child by him, and that he needn’t worry, she will raise the child alone, etc.; but he absolutely refuses. She accepts this more or less fatalistically as well, though she clearly isn’t pleased.

Anna has a boyfriend, whom she wants to marry; but neither her family nor the institution in which she has been placed will give consent. She has the reputation of being something of a bad girl, always running away, or otherwise making trouble: but all we see of her, really, is vulnerability and need, and uncertainty as to what, if anything, she will ever be able to make of her life.

Adoption

Kata and Anna get drawn together in the course of the film; Kata seems to regard Anna as the daughter she never had, though Anna fiercely resists being cast as the child — she is sick and tired of being dependent upon superior adults, and is looking for a friendship (or even, with this older woman, a sort of mentorship or sponsorship) that nonetheless entirely respects her autonomy. Given their disparate desires and emotional needs, the relationship between Kata and Anna, though intense, is marked by tensions, and is fairly transient. The plot of the film basically consists of Kata and Anna getting to know each other, Kata’s problems with Joska, and Kata arranging for Anna to marry her boyfriend after all. The film ends with a lengthy wedding party, in the course of which it is suggested that this marriage will not be the solution to all her problems that Anna has imagined it to be; followed by a shorter scene in which Kata adopts a baby (she looks 6 months old or so); the film ends with a freeze frame of Kata holding the baby, about to get on the bus that will take her home. So the plot comes to some sort of resolution for both protagonists, only Meszaros goes out of her way to remind us that this closure is provisional at best, and that the women have not really overcome their alienation, only transferred it to a new register. A husband and a baby represent decisive steps, or changes; but they are not final resolutions, because real-life experiences do not end (short of death), only stories do.

Adoption, then, is an affective film much more than it is a narrative one. None of the characters is loquacious; we don’t really know what they are thinking, most of the time. But we get a powerful sense of how they feel and think, nonetheless, because so much of the film is shot in close-up. The register of the face — and sometimes other parts of the body — is our main anchoring point. There are many shots and sequences that seem suffused with feelings of tiredness, longing, anticipation, and resignation; or irresolution and, conversely decision. We never see utter desperation, and only rarely do we see happiness — there is one wonderful scene in a restaurant, where the two women bond over cigarettes, cognac and a meal, laughing together as they simply ignore the men who stare at them, or politely but firmly refuse the efforts of the men to pick them up. (This is the only sequence in the entire film where we get a conventional shot/reverse shot structure; Meszaros is very aware of the gender politics of the gaze, I presume without having read Laura Mulvey, whose “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was published the same year that this film was made),

Adoption

Yet Meszaros’ use of close-ups is not isolating in the way that close-ups usually are. And this relates to how the film is naturalistic, as well as melodramatic or affective. The most famous — and most radical — use of the close-up in world cinema is probably that of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, where all the shots of Falconetti’s face in extreme close-up not only emphasize the emotions she feels (or perhaps, more accurately, the waves of nearly impersonal affect — passion and ecstasy — that traverse her body and her spirit), but also serve to detach her from her surroundings (which in any case are already quite minimal), and thereby from the craven and entirely temporal judgment of those who condemn her. The close-up, here, is a gateway to transcendence — it bespeaks an affirmation of the spirit, and a radical rejection of the overbearing oppressions of the here-and-now.

Meszaros’ use of the close-up is, however, entirely different. The most common sort of shot in the film — I would almost call it Meszaros’ signature as an artist — is a moving close-up: a pan or travelling shot in extreme close-up. Dreyer’s close-ups are, of course, entirely still (which is a necessary condition for their intensity); but Meszaros’ camera is perpetually restless, even as usually stays close to emphasize the characters’ emotions. So the camera will pan from one woman’s face to the other’s, in extreme closeup — rather than either placing the two faces together in a two-shot, or isolating them via separate shots. This emphasizes a kind of dual (though generally not harmonious) subjectivity. It also connects the character to her surroundings: these are entirely fragmented, but nonetheless basic to the composition of the shots, since space is being emphasized by movement, along with the fixity of facial expression. A frequent variant of this sort of shot is one in which the faces are captured in shallow focus, while there are other objects or people, blurry and out of focus, coming in between the camera and the faces that it is contemplating with clarity. Yet another variant is where the close-up doesn’t rest exclusively on the face, but moves over different parts of the woman’s body. This happens, for instance, in a scene early in the film, where Kata sees a (male) doctor in order to make sure she is healthy enough at age 43 to have a baby. Her body (together with the hands of the doctor palpating it) seems to be extrmely fragmented, broken into separate parts — breast, arm, back — except that the camera’s movement, grasping all these separate parts without a cut, suggests rather a kind of tour of the body at very close range, something that feels disconcertingly intimate. (I’m reminded of a legendary film that I have read about but never actually seen, Yoko Ono’s Fly).

Adoption

I think that Meszaros’ style emphasizes her protagonists’ closeness to one another, together with their experience of their social environment — which does not altogether determine them, since their alienation from it is precisely what gives them a sort of limited, but nonetheless actual degree of freedom — but which does limit or constrain them severely, and which is the major component of their experience, however much they would like to escape it. (Meszaros’ film is in this sense radically anti-escapist; it insists on the real experience of constraint, of unfreedom, of non-autonomy, as a necessary background to any autonomous decision or action). Rather than focus on massive social determinations, Meszaros is attentive to a whole series of micro-determinations. For all that Adoption is a kind of “domestic” drama, it emphasizes at every step the role of social institutions, from the institutions of Medicine and the Factory (both of which have their own hierarchies of command, relation, and appeal) ot the social institutions of marriage and the family (which comes up in two particularly excruciating scenes: one in which Kata visits Anna’s parents, to get their approval for Anna’s hoped-for marriage; and the other in which Joska brings Anna home to meet his wife and kids, to whom he introduces her as just his “co-worker”; while she colludes with him in keeping them totally unaware that he is having an extended affair with her) to (literal) Institutions for wayward juveniles, with their own bureaucratic structures and chains of command. But these institutional components of social life (and specifically, in Hungary of the 1970s, of socialist life) are themselves observed within the film exclusively on the micro-level, in terms of the particular experiences the protagonists have with negotiating them, the particular steps they are always compelled to take. For Meszaros it’s not a question of the global structures of socialist authority, so much as of the way this authority mobilizes, engages, demands, and produces affect.

The moving close-up is also a way of expressing intimacy; Meszaros is not just concerned with the affects within the individual, but also, and perhaps above all, with the flow of affect between individuals. Adoption is a film about transpersonal affect. It narrates, not so much a single plot, as the multiple, and subtle, shifts of affection, attention, and concern between Kata and Anna — and to a lesser extent between these two women and their men. You could call it a balance of passion, in contrast to the more commonly discerned balance of power in intimate and social relationships. Part of the uniqueness of Meszaros’ approach here is precisely that she makes us think and feel in terms of passion rather than power. Though Joska, in particular, is something of a jerk, Kata never questions her love for him, and the film doesn’t allow us to question it either. The film certainly casts a critical eye on patriarchal institutions, and demonstrates their ubiquity in the society in which Meszaros lives, and in which the film is taking place; and the film strongly suggests the importance of relationships among heterosexual women, as opposed to their relationships with men. But there is none here of the denunciation of male power per se that we find in Western feminist writing, theory, and art of the 1970s (and beyond). Instead, Meszaros displaces our concerns away from power relations altogether, and onto trickier, but no less important, terrain. She doesn’t ignore power so much as… she renders it less important than we often think, less important than other sorts of relationships, other affective dimensions. This might be thought of as the sole “utopian” dimension of a film that otherwise takes a grim look at things, seeing only continued, unpleasant constraints, and the necessity of trying to live on while adjusting to them.

Adoption

Intimacy is hard in the best of circumstances, and Meszaros never lets us forget the dis-ease, the vague sense of discomfort, the troubling ambivalence that underlies any act of giving oneself over to intimacy, to an Other. This ambivalence also permeates Kata’s desire to be a mother, an emotion that a sterner feminism might want to question, but that Meszaros just gives us without explanation or psychological analysis, as a given of Kata’s condition. We are sometimes tempted to think of babies — of our children — as blank slates on which we can impose ourselves; but of course this is never actually the case, no matter whether we give birth to a child or adopt her. In fully inhabiting this dimension of experience, Adoption gives a different twist than is usually given to the truism that the personal is political. In exploring the politics of intimacy, and in understanding this politics in terms other than those of either power and domination, or liberation, Meszaros creates a new sort of film, one that I can only call (by another hopeless oxymoron) affective social realism.