by Greg Baise
The infamous poster-child of Amos Vogel's seminal Film as a Subversive Art, Yugoslav director Dusan Makavejev's WR stands as an audacious and unique artifact. Part documentary, part narrative, part found film, its many disparate parts add up to a humorous and engaging political critique of sexual repression. Everything dovetails into the ideas of the controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Reich espoused a combination of sexual freedom, Communism and the pseudo-physics of the mysterious life energy he called "orgone" that earned him more of a crackpot than a visionary reputation among Freudians and Communists. Fleeing the Nazis in 1938, Reich settled in the United States, setting up experimental shop in Maine. Eventually, the U.S. government prosecuted Reich, sentencing him to prison (where he died in 1957) and burning many of the books he authored.
Makavejev's visit to the Reich Orgonon compound in Maine leads to some small-town moments straight out of Vernon, Florida, like a discussion with the town's deputy sheriff-cum-barber regarding Reich's distinctively gravity-defying coiffure. Reich's son Peter remembers the townspeople's hostile reaction to his dad, who, the Main Street rumor had it, spearheaded "a secret Jewish organization that was masturbating patients in orgone accumulators."
Scattered throughout, and appearing at opportune moments for the film's radical montage, are interviews with some of Reich's disciples, an appropriated 1946 drama about Stalin, the anti-authoritarian antics of Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, the plaster-casting of the penis of a Screw magazine editor, and transgendered Warhol star Jackie Curtis revealing intimate details about her love life.
The doc morphs to allegorical narrative and follows the Yugoslavian Reichian revolutionary Milena, who deftly moves through her pop-art apartment around her flatmate's incessant fucking while also avoiding the machinations of her prole ex-boyfriend. A spunky orator, Milena delivers a show-stopping speech on the virtues of work-democracy and sex freedom to the assembled masses of her apartment complex. (Not everyone is convinced: one old lady says it's "just a fuckfest.") When Milena tries to turn Reichian theory into praxis with Vladimir Ilyich, a "People's Artist" from the Soviet Union, the results are tragic.
The central message of WR arrives early here: "Comrade-lovers, for your health's sake, fuck freely!" exhorts the narrator, while the screen shows an ersatz "sexpol" propaganda film (but real live sex) and a Communist party song plays. Predictably, the Yugoslavian government banned this film even as it garnered Makavejev international acclaim, including the Luis Buñuel Award at Cannes in 1971. Rarely has formal experimentation and a radical message so successfully met entertainment as in this film. Essential.
Showing at the Burton Theatre (3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238) at 8 p.m. and midnight Friday-Saturday, Jan 22-23, at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 24, and at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 27.