WR: Mysteries of the Organism, then Cría Cuervos

wrmysteriesSerbian filmmaker Dušan Makavejev freely misrepresents the work of Austrian orgasm theorist Wilhelm Reich in 1971’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism. Reich, of Jewish parentage, fled Hitler’s Europe for America in the late 1930s, only to be witch-hunted and hounded to death by the Food and Drug Administration under Eisenhower, an irony that appeals to Makavejev obliquely, if at all. We have, in WR, a cinematic time capsule, valuable in its own right, in which bits of biographical Americana collide with anarchist street theatre, appalling footage of assorted therapies, and Socialist sex romp.

The reminiscences of Reich’s former neighbors in Rangeley, Maine have an exquisite plainness about them; the Maine accents, as always, are a treat in and of themselves, as are the shots of isolated back roads that wind toward a wide lake, shots accompanied by the voice of a woman reading “interplanetary” musings from Reich’s journals.

In the vanished time and place that Makavejev preserves, we meet two elderly brothers outside the doorway to Rangeley’s Main Street Market, commenting on Dr. Reich’s presence (entirely benign in their view) in the community; and there’s a priceless visual gesture by the town’s deputy sheriff, who doubled in those days as a barber, to indicate how the scientist wanted his hair combed. Edgier and more poignant are the recollections by Reich’s children Eva and Peter, both of whom are interviewed too briefly. One of Makavejev’s most enjoyably lucid juxtapositions involves cutting from Eva once she states, “The American dream is dead,” to footage of a car driving along a bridge; in the distance, there’s a parallel bridge, with train tracks. On the car radio, male voices in a Coca-Cola commercial croon to us, “It’s the real thing.” I think it’s at that moment the ethos of the very early 1970s came swimming back to me. I can remember riding along similar stretches of under-populated highway, looking out the window at forbiddingly sparse landscapes on the way to grandma’s house, as the radio, then seemingly worth listening to, played on.

Makavejev does something similar, but to even greater hypnotic effect, in the sequence during which the transvestite Jackie Curtis and a friend saunter down a Times Square sidewalk licking ice cream cones, and on the soundtrack, radio jingles for Maybelline and Coppertone are sung like cooing lullabies; their innocent sincerity suggests not only what’s missing from advertising today, but from society in general.

Like De Palma, Makavejev links sexual repression and murder; Makavejev’s methods of getting there, however, feel closer to an Eastern European version of Three’s Company than, say, Dressed to Kill. Most memorable pick-up line, from a uniformed longhair in the Yugoslav People’s Army: “I’m Ljuba the cock: I mount guard by day and girls by night.” Most memorable image: As Ljuba and one of his conquests fornicate wildly on the floor of her apartment, outside on the courtyard landing, the girl’s roommate Milena makes impassioned speeches to a gathered crowd, advocating her Communist-distilled appreciation for Reich. After several straightforward exterior shots of Milena addressing her congregation, as it were, Makavejev positions the camera inside the apartment: Prominent on the left foreground are the rumps of her comrades, putting into practice what she preaches, while Milena, by contrast, is boxed in by the white bars of a small window, her figure miniaturized and silenced in the upper right quadrant of the frame.

WR: Mysteries of the Organism will be released on DVD June 19 by The Criterion Collection.

criaThe years haven’t been as forgiving to Cría Cuervos (due in August from Criterion). This 1976 Spanish drama, written and directed by Carlos Saura, features Ana Torrent as an orphaned 8-year-old who observes ghostly arguments between her dead parents, reliving their strife in her head. The death-obsessed girl (also named Ana) talks about wanting to die, tells her cold yet not unattractive young aunt that she wishes she would die, and thoughtfully offers to assist her mute, disabled grandmother on to her final resting place. When Ana’s pet rabbit soon croaks in this atmosphere of doom, the child buries it, then smears the mud from the grave on her cheeks. I, for one, cannot swallow the conventional wisdom that it’s all an allegory for the last days of Franco’s dictatorship. But what else could it be? Nowhere in this is there a sense of tragedy or loss, or even of nostalgia or fear or humor – Saura’s torpid make-believe feels like Buñuel played straight. Torrent reprises the same blankness that worked such wonders for her critical reputation in The Spirit of the Beehive; and the movie does have a deceptively good opening scene, which sets Mompou’s haunting piano piece Canción y danza No. 6 (misidentified in the end credits as No. 5) to shots of family photos that flicker by. – NPT

June 18, 2007

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