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The Criterion Corner: Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism

Did you know that fucking is the best way to resist totalitarianism?

Dusan Makavejev's WR: Mysteries of the Organism on Criterion
Photo: The Criterion Collection

Did you know that fucking is the best way to resist totalitarianism? Me neither but I like the sound of it. In his schizophrenic and hilarious WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), Dusan Makavejev gleefully presents sex as the greatest of all revolutionary acts. The film wears its 60s radicalism with pride, so expect to hear a lot about, you know, revolution, communism, sexual liberation, censorship, and youth. Dated? Preachy? To an extent. But its message is presented in such an entertaining manner that the film remains one of the more worthwhile artifacts of the counterculture.

As to what WR is about, it’s complicated. I could say “it’s a documentary and a collage based around the life and theories of Austrian-American psychologist Wilhelm Reich, a Communist-turned-Eisenhower-supporter who was jailed in the fifties over his controversial theories about ‘orgone energy’ by the typically open-minded U.S. government,” but that wouldn’t quite cover it. The Reich documentary occupies most of the first half and Makavejev provides warm and amusing interviews with Reich’s friends, associates, followers, and the residents of the small town he called home, including a hulking beast of a man who served as both town sheriff and town barber. Reich’s theories revolved around “orgone,” a life energy, uniting us all, which one properly harnesses through sexual intercourse and emotional release. He invented the “orgone accumulator,” which appears to be a big wooden box lined with tin foil that people sit in to cure cancer and various other illnesses. From what I understand, orgone energy is basically like the Force, only in this case you don’t have to be a Jedi to wield its power, you just need to get laid.

The rest of WR is a fragmented mess of absurdities, wonders, and segments that are supposed to represent Reich’s theories. The most noteworthy is a long fictional narrative involving a young Slavic girl, her sexual awakening, her political monologues, and her short-lived romance with a narcissistic, loveless, and murderous Soviet ice-skating champion. In addition, there is the following: footage of poet Tuli Kupferberg, of satirical sixties band The Fugs, dressed as a soldier and taunting affluent New Yorkers with a plastic gun he handles in an appropriately masturbatory manner; interviews with Jackie Curtis, a glitter-faced transsexual of the Warhol crowd; a scene in which Jim Buckley, co-founder of the porno mag Screw, lets a woman make a plaster mold of his erect penis; clips from the ridiculous Stalinist propaganda film The Vow; an interview with Betty Dodson, an artist who paints portraits of people while they masturbate; a severed head which continues to lecture us about revolution; and hey, there’s even a musical number at the end, part of which is sung to a horse.

A good many people might find WR shocking even today, so don’t watch it with grandma unless she has a passing interest in Marxism and pornography. The film’s rallying cry is “fuck freely!” and while that activity isn’t explicitly depicted onscreen, it is certainly being discussed. Of course, the frequent images of nude bodies frolicking and humping are not meant to shock or upset. They instead serve as a reminder that no matter what ideology we follow or what the governments around the world bark at us, underneath our respective costumes we are all human. And I don’t know about you, but living in a country in which a televised image of a nipple can provoke widespread rage and mayhem, that’s still a reassuring thought.

Image/Sound/Extras: WR: Mysteries of the Organism has been unavailable on DVD for quite a long time, so thank the Gods of Cinema who have used their holy prophets at “The Criterion Collection” to get it to you. The transfer is smooth, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and supervised by Makavejev himself. An audio commentary features Daniel Stewart reading from Raymond Durgnat’s 1999 book on the film. There are two interviews with Makavejev, one from 1972 and the other from 2006, the latter being more comprehensive. The disc also includes Hole in the Soul (1994), an autobiographical film made by Makavejev for the BBC. It features some very amusing scenes of an older Makavejev wandering around Hollywood, buying some hip new clothes, and staring in bemused confusion at a billboard for the Schwarzenegger flick Last Action Hero. There are also clips from the “improved” version of WR, a result of the BBC asking Makavejev in 1992 to censor certain scenes so they could show the film on television. Makavejev responded by placing psychedelic computer animation over any scene featuring private parts. The accompanying booklet includes an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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