In one of her last Woody Allen reviews for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wryly popped the director’s bloated Freudian bubble by declaring the iconic Austrian doctor just another “Jewish comic.” The purposeful blurring of Semitic traditions aside, there is as usual more than a germ of truth to her flippancy: Psychoanalysis remains a mostly sober affair when conducted from the comfort of sterile clinic couches, but there’s no doubting that humor is the de rigueur postmodern tool for uncoiling personal repression, sexual or otherwise. While socio-political statements are typically rendered for guffaws in satire or farce, the acceptable cultural discourse for analyzing impotence, anhedonia, and anxiety lies in genres such as screwball, stand-up, and slapstick.
That we take the subtexts of these modes for granted without a second thought—and without much to challenge our assumptions—is part of what makes Dusan Makavejev’s “comic” cinema so deliciously indecipherable. As with most 20th-century Eastern Europeans, the dark pall of Soviet hegemony is a target to be skewered as ruthlessly and as reconditely as possible in Makavejev’s work (his criticisms would eventually prove to be too flagrant, as the meta-porn of W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism got him booted out of Yugoslavia). But unlike with Andrzej Wajda’s tightly anti-communist Polish parables, Makavejev’s metaphors for oppression and redemption are in constant flux throughout even individual films, like giddily metamorphosing moths daring us to catch up as we watch them devour our favorite cardigan. And despite their municipal-mindedness, Makavejev’s movies—particularly his first three features, being released on DVD as a package in the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse line—are obstreperous anti-satires, instead nose-thumbing the establishment with the genre-fusing, stream-of-consciousness, kitchen-sink ethos we might find in a Lenny Bruce routine (sans the self-deprecating confessions and racial slurs). Makavejev, in other words, deliriously applies the introspective, symbol-laden arrhythms of personal, “Freudian” comedy to arguments against the state that are ordinarily founded in parodical theses.
Then again, even Bruce’s madness had a clear method to it, and the Eclipse set reveals that Makavejev’s first two movies more or less follow a formula, however erratic. More politicized than political, Man Is Not a Bird and Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator intersperse sexually frank relationship comedy plots amid more socially conscious, pseudo-documentary footage—such as a prosaic tour through a clearly hazardous ore factory or shots from an impassioned anti-Soviet demonstration. Extracting and isolating these jumbled threads may tease out Makavejev’s primary goal: To assert the subaltern position of the Serbian people at every level of existence, from the national (where Josip Broz Tito enforced Kremlin rule with an iron fist) to the professional (where lowly switchboard girls are sexually harassed incessantly) to the domestic (where romantic pairing off can become rather ferociously competitive and complicated). But even when depicting what appears to be a plight, Makavejev—perhaps out of fear of censorship—never allows his narratives to succumb to the gravity of “issue films,” heavily diluting what we suspect are hidden anti-socialist salvos with oddly out of place tributes to the common man (as in the foreman-protagonist of Man Is Not a Bird, whose fumbling fallibility feels like an inside lark at communist propaganda) and abrupt nonfiction diversions.
It’s the latter that have become most recognizably Makavejevian, and one of the many pleasures of the Eclipse set is observing the director perfect his individual blend of narrative and expository content. Man Is Not a Bird opens with a fascinating lecture on hypnotism (probably the most heavy-handed anti-Soviet allegory in Makavejev’s oeuvre), the relevance of which to the primary plot, or what exists of one, is embedded far beneath the film’s surface in a tangle of dendritic paths. Similarly, Love Affair features academic passages on the artistic depiction and community reverence of male reproductive organs throughout history, a sinisterly subtle critique of the “masculine” tyranny of totalitarianism that dooms the film’s female lead—and, by extension, the Serbian population—to a premature death. Both a vehicle for surreal commentary and a clever distancing device, these didactic interludes are also Makavejev’s manner of challenging a power-drunk government: Just as socialism had done to the Serbs, so Makavejev confuses, commands, pontificates to, and smirkingly titillates his audience.
These elements crescendo in Innocence Unprotected, the centerpiece of the Eclipse set and possibly Makavejev’s greatest film. The unfettered strength of this 1968 production resides in the fascinatingly awkward subject matter, which is, finally, rooted in cinema itself. Makavejev examines and shows copious clips of the infamous first Yugoslavian talking picture of the title, an eerily amateur early ‘40s melodrama directed by and starring local strongman Dragolijub Aleksic that was “lost” during the Nazi occupation. As with Werner Herzog’s best documentaries, the line dividing “legitimate” material from staged situations shrinks to an indiscernible sliver, but Makavejev discovers in Aleksic—who, four decades later, can still walk the tightrope with the weight of adoring women gripped in his jaws—his ultimate emblem, a character who represents the resilience, ingenuity and élan of the Serbian people with a healthy dose of pure kitsch.
And Innocence Unprotected also finds Makavejev at his most metaphorically potent. Though not as overtly concerned with sexuality as his previous films (or the two that would follow, W. R. and Sweet Movie), there’s an acute ribaldry dripping excitedly from every scenario, whether humorous or informative. As one elderly interviewee leans in to press his lips to the gravestone of a fellow crewmember, he grimaces and shouts upon receiving a mouthful of bird excrement. And while interjecting old newsreel footage of Serbian demonstrations during WWII, Makavejev painstakingly paints over the celluloid with various colors to draw our attention to certain objects—logos, hats, and garment patterns. The area of a young woman’s skirt directly above her maidenhead is provocatively daubed with yellow, and we wonder: Is it meant as a sympathetic aegis or a chauvinistic target? It’s likely both: For those coming of age under an iron curtain, shields are meant to be rammed through.
Eclipse releases aren't given the full Criterion restoration treatment, so we're more or less stuck with the quality of available prints. Luckily, Dusan Makavejev's movies have survived multiple bannings and their maker's exile unscathed; aside from some minor scratches, scuffs, and misaligned frames, there's not much to complain about, and what surface damage does exist allows one to fantasize that he's watching some forbidden cultural artifact. It's also easy to overlook the quality of Makavejev's imagery, since most of his personality seemed to surface in the editing room. But cinematographers Aleksander Petkovic and Branko Perak achieve more than a handful of memorable frames in spite of the technical limitations they were working within; the dark feline pausing on the nude woman's backside in Love Affair is a Fuselli-like specter of post-coital oneirism. The Serbo-Croatian mono is muffled in places, but the superlative translations-juggling dialog and intertitles simultaneously at times-make up for it.
You know the drill: If it's Eclipse, it means no supplements aside from liner notes. However, Michael Koresky's brief essays, especially the lengthy Man Is Not a Bird insert, do an excellent job of covering the production history and legacy of Makavejev's early work.
Sporting October-appropriate candy-corn colors, the Dusan Makavejev Eclipse set is like a triumphant middle finger: It's up to you to take offense or pleasure yourself with it.