Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bourgeois Orgasm, Revolutionary Orgasm: Political Sexuality in Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora and Dušan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism

*This blog post discusses major plot details of Zvenigora and WR: Mysteries of the Organism*

As part of my continuing cinematic education, I’ve recently watched several movies from the so-called Golden Age of Soviet cinema, the 1920’s, when directors like Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Vertov, and Pudovkin developed the montage technique and established a new grammar for film construction that was just as revolutionary as the innovations of D W Griffith in the previous decade.  Now, this is the early Soviet Union we’re talking about here, so they certainly weren’t developing these techniques as ends in themselves, but rather so that they could apply them to creating better, more effective propaganda films (and the Soviet films of this period are, by and large, and no matter how artfully done, propaganda; but I suppose it only serves to prove that just because something is propaganda doesn’t mean it can’t have great artistic merit; didacticism doesn’t inherently undermine aesthetics, skeptical of it though I’m generally inclined to be).

Well, in watching these movies, I’ve now seen several depictions of bourgeois, reactionary life—as it was perceived and interpreted by an Eisenstein or a Dovzhenko—and I can’t help but notice that their depictions of bourgeois decadence always seems to have an implicit sexual element to them.  Now, they don’t go so far as to depict the all-out, Caligula-style orgies to which—who knows—Lenin and Plekhanov may have masturbated, if they were the types to do that sort of thing (and who knows, maybe masturbation was a bourgeois vice? I know homosexuality was considered in that light by numerous communist parties; someone who’s an expert on the matter should do some research and let me know).  So no, they’re not going full-on Roman, but the bourgeois of these films is always a sensualist.  As an example, let’s take Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925), in which the wealthy industrialist antagonists dine with gluttonous abandon, gorging themselves on grapes (how Roman) and meat and discarding the food they don’t want (while the striking workers are starving!)

Now, perhaps this scene was sensual and not sexual, but one cannot say that of one of the climactic scenes of Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora (1928).  In it, a “Ukrainian counter-revolutionary” has gone to Paris to give a lecture to high-society types on the evils of the Bolsheviks and their destruction of Ukraine.  The lecture will conclude, it has been advertised, with the counter-revolutionary shooting himself in the head.  As the lecture begins, it swiftly becomes clear that the aristocrats in the audience (decked out with fancy dress and the occasional set of opera glasses) don’t give a shit about Ukraine or the Bolsheviks (as the counter-revolutionary happily admits) but have come for the sole purpose of seeing him shoot himself. 
Decadent bourgeois with her opera-glasses.
The lecture works almost like a suspense technique, designed to build anticipation for the climactic shooting, and I mean climactic both in the narrative and in the sexual sense of the word.  Because, as he gives his speech, the audience becomes more and more excited.  They fidget and writhe about in their seats, they breathe more rapidly, and one decadent young woman even begins to gnaw on her arm (as if to suppress the involuntary vocalizations of orgasm).  The lecturer finishes his speech, draws the gun out of his pocket, brings it to his head, and then…! he remembers something he left out of his speech, and he returns to it, and the audience isn’t just disappointed, they’re downright angry, as if suffering from a collective case of blue balls.  He brought them right to the edge, and then he drew back.  What a tease!  Oh, but now he’s done with the speech again, out comes the gun, the audience is ready to go…! Annnnnd he puts away the gun and gets a drink of water.  More frustration.  The woman who was gnawing on her arm doesn’t look like she can take much more of this.  Finally, the gun comes out a third time, and it looks like he’s really going to do it, when…! the police arrive and break up the show.  What cockblocks.
Another bourgeois.  If your partner's face looks like this during sex, maybe consider finding a new partner.
So the bourgeois class is so decadent, so thoroughly perverted, that its bloodlust has become almost indistinguishable from the pursuit of sexual gratification.  I don’t know how Dovzhenko’s audience in the ‘20’s would have interpreted this scene (oh, they probably got it, actually), but there’s no subtlety to it.  The sexual significance of their fixation on violence is undeniable.

Well, if the bourgeoisie of the 1920’s was kinky, the 1970’s offered up an opportunity for the proletarians to indulge in their own brand of sexual liberation.  At least, this was the opinion of Yugoslavian filmmaker Dušan Makavejev, a thesis which he advanced in his controversial film WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971).  This documentary/fiction hybrid explores the work of controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (the WR of the title), who advocated for shameless, full-bodied orgasms as the solution to a whole litany of mental and physical health problems (and who believed that the atmosphere was suffused with a blue orgasmic energy which he called “orgone,” which could be harvested inside so-called “orgone accumulators,” one of which William S. Burroughs famously built for himself), and the fictional application of his theories by a young Yugoslavian woman, who seeks to synthesize Reich’s theories with Marxism.
A sexually liberated, Yugoslavian communist.
Yugoslavia was always an odd country, in relation to the other communist countries.  Marshal Tito broke with the Soviet bloc in the early 1950’s and he sought to lead Yugoslavia on an independent course and ally it with the emerging countries of the decolonizing world, with which he spearheaded the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement.  Having rejected mainline Stalinism before it was cool, I should imagine there was, to a certain extent,  greater room to maneuver in terms of Marxist theory within the Yugoslavia of the time (or maybe everything just came down to Tito-worship, this is really just speculation here).

Well, anyway, the ‘60’s saw a flowering in experimental cinema in Yugoslavia which in many ways paralleled the Czech New Wave with which it was contemporaneous.  Dušan Makavejev made his first film in 1965, the playful Man is not a Bird (an exploration of romance in a factory) which he followed up with 1967’s even more whimsical Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, which bears comparison with Jiří Menzel’s masterful and equally tender exploration of youthful sexuality, 1966’s Closely Watched Trains. 

Makavejev’s films became increasingly radical in terms of structure and subject matter, and by 1971, he had apparently decided that the time had come to bring his twin politico-economic and sexual concerns together in a grand, cinematic orgasm.  And so in WR, following what is basically a documentary discussion of Reich’s work and his followers in the late ‘60’s, we see the young protagonist seeking out sexual gratification wherever she can find it, and linking it with the communist revolutionary impulse.  This was provocative stuff, and the film ends with our sexual liberator getting decapitated by a Soviet communist whom she romances and who evidently was horrified to find her approach to sexuality far less orthodox than his own.  In a way, this decapitation metaphorically anticipated Makavejev’s own fate, as his film proved so controversial that he was unable to continue making movies in Yugoslavia.  He would go into exile and his next film was 1974’s Sweet Movie; if WR is an orgasm, then Sweet Movie is an orgy, and more of the Caligula variety; or at least, that’s what I’ve heard, as I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it yet.  Give it time.  In this blog post, I’ve explored communist perceptions of bourgeois sexuality as well as a communist re-evaluation of communist sexuality.  Perhaps a future post can explore whatever the fuck kind of sexuality is on display in Sweet Movie.

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