Riding the Dark Wave
In the 1960s, almost every major national cinema seemed to be in the throes of revolution. Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut led the charge of French New Wave rabble-rousers, overturning the tastes and assumptions of a previous generation’s “tradition of quality” (as Truffaut put it in a landmark essay).
In Japan, Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura were mounting assaults both on social taboos and on the filmic conventions of their more classically minded predecessors. But some of the period’s most scathing and elaborate subversions came from, of all places, Communist Yugoslavia, where the best-known cinematic iconoclast was, and remains, Dusan Makavejev, the master of the kinky political comedy.
The Yugoslav New Wave was also known as Novi Film (literally, new cinema) and as the Black Wave, a pejorative term coined by local critics who had trouble with the bleakness and dark humor of these movies.
Makavejev’s first three films, vintage specimens of the Black Wave’s anything-goes anarchy, are being released this week in a boxed set by Eclipse, the midprice line from the Criterion Collection.
His most notorious provocations, 1971’s “W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism,” an absurdist burlesque that draws freely on the ideas of the orgasm-obsessed psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, and 1974’s “Sweet Movie,” a scandalous panorama of gross-out sexual perversions, are already available through Criterion.
Born in Belgrade in 1932, Makavejev started as a critic and documentarian, and by the time he made his first feature, “Man Is Not a Bird,” in 1965, he already had had several short films banned for their explicit content. The film, which follows the budding romance between an engineer, newly stationed at a copper refinery, and his landlord’s daughter, a free-spirited hairdresser, introduces what would become Makavejev’s trademark mode: a patchwork of fact and fiction, notable for copious digressions, eccentric framing devices and sporadic insertions of documentary and archival footage.
With its unvarnished sequences of men at work (the film was shot in an actual factory), “Man Is Not a Bird” is a pointed response to the official depictions of the proletarian hero in works of socialist realism, the didactic style that dominated film production behind the Iron Curtain.
“Love Affair (or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator),” the 1967 film that vaulted Makavejev onto the international stage, also centers on a doomed romance -- this time between a telephone operator and a rodent control specialist. In this stubbornly nonlinear film, which reveals right away that the affair will go horribly wrong, there are frequent cutaways to pseudo-scientific lectures on criminology and sexology, as well as the occasional poem and cooking demonstration.
Rounding out the set, “Innocence Unprotected” (1968) is a logical extension of Makavejev’s fondness for collage and repurposed found footage. Here he presents, almost in its entirety, a 1942 romantic melodrama directed by and starring Dragoljub Aleksic, a popular acrobat and Houdini-like escape artist during the Nazi occupation of Belgrade. Makavejev induces a sense of vertigo by cutting between this excavated artifact -- Serbia’s first ever talkie, itself a peculiar hybrid of fiction and documentary -- and new interviews with the cast and crew. (The unusual credit reads: “A new production of a good old film, ornamented and commentated by Dusan Makavejev.”)
Three years later, the bawdy “W.R.” was banned at home and Makavejev, condemned as a Marxist dissident, left Yugoslavia. He made a series of movies in exile -- “Sweet Movie” in Canada, “Montenegro” (1981) in Sweden and “The Coca-Cola Kid” (1985) in Australia -- before returning home to shoot 1989’s “Manifesto.”
His body of work is smaller and surely less influential than that of such New Wave titans as Godard and Oshima, and his early movies, so inextricably tied to their moment, have dated a bit. But in some ways, with his indelible fantasies of sexual freedom and political liberation, Makavejev remains the definitive 1960s filmmaker.