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.