WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Dusan Makavejev, 1971
Dusan Makavejev’s 1971 WR: Mysteries of the Organism is a film that at once embraces some of film’s most influential theories and simultaneously seems to reject all traditions of mainstream filmmaking.
WR seems to embrace Eisenstein’s theory of dialectical montage but pushes the notion of colliding juxtaposed images to absolute extremes. The film is complicated, dense and difficult to approach but it seems that it might be best illuminated in terms of montage and that it might too illuminate Eisenstein’s theories though they are employed to radical extremes. The film cuts between images and sequences that almost seem unrelated. However, by means of juxtaposing the opposed images they are made capable of alluding to and associating themselves with greater issues that they would not have had the force to evoke alone. The film asks its spectator to compare the images and think about them in relation to one another. Every scene throughout the film creates this sort of clash. In addition to creating the juxtaposition between individual images the film also invites comparison on larger scales. The spectator is asked to contrast between entire sections of the film, as several themes and quasi-narratives are also present, though they are constantly intertwined with seemingly freely associated, thematically unrelated sequences. The major plots that are spliced throughout the film are a documentary about Wilhelm Riech, a fictional quasi-narrative involving a Yugoslavian girl, Melena, and her romantic interest, a Russian performer, and sequences of a man in army fatigues who dances menacingly around American city streets while wielding a toy machine gun. The film juxtaposes the Yugoslav girl narrative with biographical information about Reich, fictional footage with documentary footage, the United States with Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia with Russia and, as did Reich in his own work, Marxist political liberation with psychoanalytic sexual liberation. The film creates complicated dialogues among these clashing themes and more.
WR is avant-garde in form and confrontationally controversial in content. In addition to taking after Eisensteinian montage theory, Makavejev seems to have also been interested in Eisenstein’s insistence that art must shock. For art, and especially the cinema, to be effective and fully realize its potential for conveying meaning it has to confront, jolt and rattle the spectator. The sometimes shocking imagery if of Makavejev’s film certainly conveys a great deal of force in the arresting effect that it has on the spectator. Eisenstein’s notion of shock is relayed in WR through offensiveness.
The idea of dialectical montage is that the collisions between images and ideas will evoke higher truths. In WR, though, none of the many, long sequences of fierce dialectical montage lead to anything definite at all. Their inconclusiveness is deliberate. Part of the point is that there are no objective answers and there is no objective truth. Instead the spectator is left to think the film through for him or herself. Melena’s speech about the inherent dangers and bad effects of political and sexual repression given in the courtyard of her building is crosscut with shots of her roommate having rather explicit sex. Melena’s speech is received with great applause but suddenly her ex-boyfriend shouting macho-sexist slander which is likewise received with great applause. Cut to communist Chairman Mau and an impossibly enormous gathering. Cut to a Stalin propaganda film showing him before a huge and greatly applauding crowd. Cut to a huge Nazi organization including a Nazi military march. What is the relationship between each of these mass movements? Makavejev provides no conclusion, but the succession of images does provide an incredibly interesting juxtaposition of images and ideas to think about.
Another reoccurring image in the film are scenes depicting Reich’s medical followers implementing the radical practice of scream therapy. These scenes are particularly difficult to watch, but they are presented within the framework of the film without any judgment. At one point, however, there is a horrific scene of electro-shock therapy thrown into the mix. It is visually similar, at least in its presentation, to the scenes of scream therapy. Is scream therapy implied here to be as bad as the electro-shock? Its difficult to say as even the shock therapy is represented rather ambiguously.
Makavejev withholds all conclusions and refuses to provide answers to his queries. WR is a splendidly complex and rich achievement, one that certainly requires a great deal of more time.