Monday, October 11, 2010

Is there life on the earth? Is there life after birth?

Obscenity is a term that has dogged cinema for a long time. In fact for every development made in technology or form there have been two steps back thanks to religious posturing and political illogic designed to provoke fear and votes. Every country in the world has had, at one time or another, a pretty harsh censorship board in charge of what people see, and I'd put money on all of these people seeking something other than just piece of mind by being there. But what no one has ever been able to define is just what makes something obscene. Never once have I encountered a satisfactory explanation of why and where the line is drawn. In fact there seems to be no rhyme or reason at all. The Hays Code and the Video Nasties Scare (just two of the more famous censorship benchmarks) demanded cuts and considerations left and right but if you look at the films that were altered under each, they have almost nothing in common. If someone were to look at each movie banned by the BBFC in the 80s, you'd be forgiven for thinking that anything scary was pornographic. When lines are drawn only for similar images, forgoing a look at content, what you do is essentially give terrible movies and great ones the same power because they happened to feature naked breasts or a graphic murder or two, the former of which half of every person on the planet has, the latter of which happens everyday. Yet restrictions of realistic depictions of the violence of warfare went uncontested, ditto drug use, misogyny/objectification in films, commercials and music videos, gun violence in westerns, nudity in sex comedies or depictions of racism or homophobia, both unflinching and 'comedically' overblown. Look at it this way, think back to your days on the playground: how many boys said they wanna grow up to be a cowboy/soldier vs. how many say they wanna grow up to be a serial killer based on what they saw on tv? Even someone as impressionable as me didn't identify with the many, many horror films I watched. Sure I may have pretended to combat some of the shit I'd see in horror films (even something as terrible as An American Werewolf in Paris, which I only ever saw the trailer for) but I never identified with the villain. None of us did. Mere exposure taught us that they were not to be identified with. That's why you rarely if ever find kids willing to be the indian. They're the other and movies made us see racism as ok, gun violence, smoking and drinking as necessary and cool, and caused many of us to parrot slurs we didn't understand because we saw them in films. I'm using my own childhood as an example here but it can't be unique. And yet there was never any kind of decree about institutionalized racism (incidentally I'm not for any kind of censorship. I happen to think that extreme cases, like hate speech, should be kept off of screens because of their active violence. It's one thing to depict violence, quite another to call for it against a whole ethnic group or religion). What can't you see on tv? Naked breasts. The very things that nourished you as a child. When you show something, it normalizes it, when you censor it, you give it power it never had before and you make it taboo. Why should all women feel they are born with something indecent on their bodies? And this is all the more jarring when you consider what a splash pornography, both soft and hardcore, made in America and Europe in the early 70s. You can't see women naked on tv, but your parents could go downtown and watch them blowing a guy in Deep Throat, Behind The Green Door or some imported blue film. Today porn makes up so much of the digital cable spectrum it almost outnumbers regular film channels. And yet? You can't say fuck or look at a penis but Pat Robertson's got his own show where he gets to say that feminists make women hate their children. It's exactly this kind of lunacy that Dušan Makavejev was thinking of when he made Sweet Movie in 1974. You like violence and unsimulated fucking, huh? Well, then, this should pose no problem at all. Except it did and he didn't make another film for almost ten years. Let's figure out why.

Sweet Movie
by Dušan Makavejev
The first thing we see is a chair, not unlike the ones you'd find in a dentist's office (or an OB/GYN) as it makes it's way to the Miss World Pageant. Hold on a second because whatever you were thinking that meant is way off. As our TV commentator and host tells us, the purpose of the Miss World competition is to find a wife for the world's richest man Mr. Abdemel (or Mr. Dollars as he's listed in the credits). The winning girl is set to inherit his billion dollar fortune, all she has to do is impress his mother, who's throwing the competition. The criteria for winning is simple. Dr. Littlefingers, a gynecologist and obstetrician, has to examine each girl's hymen and decide whose is the best, for lack of a more descriptive term. Miss Southern Rhodesia seems like a shoo-in, especially after the tawdry display by Miss Yugoslavia, but when Miss Canada walks in, the show's over. To a light and beautiful string arrangement, she walks out in furry knee-high boots and when she reveals that she doesn't have any underwear on, there almost doesn't seem to be any point to examining her, but when he does Littlefingers is confronted with a heavenly, golden glow springing from her loins like the briefcase in Kiss Me, Deadly. Let's meet her new husband.

Mr. Abdemel is a brash, cartoonish billionaire who wants to pay to have Niagara falls shut off and who thinks Karl Marx shot archduke Ferdinand. The reception waiting for them at his house is nice enough, a hippie band bearing flowers, a beautiful estate (for a lout, Dollars has nice taste in homes), and a honeymoon that seems to be ripe for intimacy and genteel married sex. That is until Dollars starts rubbing Miss World down with alcohol and pulls out his gold-plated penis and starts urinating on her. Our heroine draws the line there, even with a billion dollars at stake She wants to escape but that won't look good for the mogul so his mother has her shipped off to France in a suitcase (after an interesting period of naked captivity with Jeremiah Muscle, her gigantic black servant). When she gets there she runs into all kinds of mishigas involving a singing Spanish heart-throb, a tryst on the Eiffel Tower that almost ends in tragedy, a stint in an actionist commune and finally as a model for a chocolate commercial. I should point out that we occasionally flash to Anna Planeta, the captain of a barge called Survival headed down the Seine with Karl Marx as the bearded figurehead. She takes on a soldier, a deserter from the battleship Potemkin, as her lover. She welcomes children aboard first enticing them with candy and then appears to seduce them. Before the police raid the boat, you realize that her commitment to an ideological extreme drove her more than a little mad, at least in the eyes of outsiders.

And that incidentally is what most people thought of Makavejev when he released Sweet Movie. They thought that like Anna Planeta, his incendiary brand of socialism had driven him off the deep end and Sweet Movie was just excess unchecked. In one sense he is the captain of a great ship headed through a country that had once held so much promise and now seemed so quiet and conformist. He was looking for survivors and his movie was meant as a kind of password between members of the underground, but it seemed like he stood utterly alone. The most popular response was to simply stand aghast at the things presented, as if there was nothing else to the movie but nudity and baffling set-pieces. It's been described as a love it or hate it movie, though I don't think that's true. I certainly love it but I think that even if you didn't like the things you were being shown you could absolutely love the cinematography, the lush production design and the beautifully underplayed score, just as a for example. Pierre Lhomme's photography really is astonishing. Makavejev had said that he wanted Sweet Movie to be a love letter to colours and Lhomme was only too happy to oblige. Every room and person Miss World encounters has such a well defined and fun palette it's like the movie is set in FAO Schwarz (Otto Muehl, the leader of the commune, later called the movie pure kitsch, but the depiction of his group ought to have shown him otherwise). And because they're so clear, when we enter darker spaces, the colours become textures just like the wood inside the bowels of Anna Planeta's ship or the walls of the Therapie Kommune, when Lhomme's camera is noticeably handheld. There is something almost magical about these scenes and they're certainly ahead of their time. I remember watching these and being totally hypnotized, totally in awe of the fact that so much of this film could have been made yesterday. There are so many scenes that are enchantingly shot, especially when contrasted with the flash of the opening competition or the sight-gags that serve as the introduction to the sailor. The reason I think they work so well is because they make us feel like the cameras are spectators as much as we are; we're just observing this behavior and that's crucial in the Kommune scenes. If he'd properly lit and framed vomit and shit, we'd probably all puke ourselves. Instead the effect is that of a whirlwind of senses and events that no one is in control of and everyone is experiencing like an outsider. It's an intoxicating style that greatly helps one to get lost in this sea of political imagery and strange behavior. In fact it wasn't the revolutionary ideas that initially struck me initially about Sweet Movie. I remember the first thing that stuck out as being completely unforgettable was the song that Ann Lonnberg sings when we first meet Anna Planeta. That's the thing that always grounded every bizarre ass thing that happens in the realm of storytelling and film, rather than of weird-for-the-sake of weird. No one actually depraved could have gone looking for a song as perfect as this. And no one could have found so much beauty in hopelessness.
Sweet Movie as a list of obscene set-pieces dares you to take it seriously, but in practice it's something much different. Sure there's sex, violence, implicit pedophilia, unsimulated pissing, shitting and vomiting but in the proper context, that is to say with an open mind and a little help from a sympathetic political viewpoint, Sweet Movie is more than the sum of its bodily functions. The thing I love about its portrayal of sexuality is that it's so unsexy. There's enough skin to satisfy anyone in a raincoat but not one encounter is without baggage. Take the two stories' climaxes. On board the Survival a final tryst takes place in a vat of sugar and ends with a rather sudden burst of violence. It's so conflicting and beautiful and otherworldly that by the time you have a fix on things, it all changes. In Miss World's story, she writhes naked in melted chocolate. It's fascinating as hell but it's far from exploitative and I wouldn't even call it sexy. So, yes, it hits the beats of a sex film but then it runs right past them until 'decency' and 'sexiness' have to be pretty seriously re-evaluated. I love reading negative reviews of this film because their problem stems from their being unwilling to look at things that everyone of us does every day. I admit that the vomiting is the one thing that will occasionally send my eyes to the corner of the room depending what I've just eaten but there is absolutely nothing in this film that I would call obscene or gratuitous. And I can't tell you how important that distinction is in a film like this. Intent is everything and Makavejev wasn't trying to offend anyone (their sensibilities, sure) but he was trying to wake people up and he seemed to know that this was the last chance he'd get to say anything so he made sure to say it all. In fact the movie's reputation became so great that Anna Prucnal, who plays Anna Planeta, was actually banned from her home country, Poland, for so long that she missed the death of her mother. This is why I so love film. What album or book has had this kind of impact in the last fifty years that was also artistically satisfying? People go crazy when confronted with the truth and in the cinema, they can't escape it; Makavejev blocked all the exits and lit the place on fire.

Dušan Makavejev was one of the first generation of Yugoslavians to have access to cameras and film schools and is one of the only people to ever break into the international scene in any meaningful way. He made four films in his native country (the best of them, Innocence Unprotected, is one of the best films about film ever made) before finally getting himself effectively evicted. The film that did it was W.R. Mysteries of the Organism, a kind of slavic I Am Curious that fuses documentary footage of sex therapy and sexual curios with a free-form narrative a la Godard about a woman who takes a break from hammering home Marxist dogma to seduce a figure skater who's the pride of the nation. His movies all drew lines between fascism and modern life and poked fun at Yosip Broz Tito's government with a knife. After W.R. pointed out that in practice nazism, Tito's communism and Nixon's republican government were not really all that dissimilar, the government film board gave him his pink slip and he went looking for money elsewhere. It didn't take him long to find it and before long he was using French, Canadian and English money and a cast of outsiders like Sami Frey, Pierre Clementi and Carol Laure. But needless to say it didn't go down quite so easily. Where W.R. had excited the international film scene and was the reason he so easily secured financing for another film, Sweet Movie made most people avert their eyes out of shame. Reviews were unkind enough that it waited almost thirty years for a DVD release and thanks to its showing the human body doing what the human body does it's still banned in England. Makavejev may have made other films after this, but none so unflinching and none as good (though Manifesto really is quite excellent). The reason no one wanted Sweet Movie is because the spirit of 1968, every new wave the world had produced and all the revolutionary fervour that had so captured the heart of everyone under thirty had failed. It was business as usual as far as everyone was concerned and they didn't need some foreign eccentric shitting all over their blissful conformity. All the strikes and rallies and progressive candidates were dead and Makavejev was one of the few people actively grieving. Hence the film's one foray into documentary footage, that of the Germans discovering the bodies of dead Poles in Katyn forest. You may have moved on, he seems to say, but these people are dead and injustice is still everywhere. Sweet Movie is thus a big, New Orleans-style funeral for idealism. Unsurprisingly attendance was low.

As a statement it's perfect and I couldn't ask for anything more from it. Everything, down to the posters and trinkets that hang on Anna Planeta's boat like some Maoist TGI Friday's, have meaning to them. Nothing was accidental. To look at but a few almost imperceptible things that have no effect on the story. The sailor who boards the Survival is a cast away from the Potemkin. "Isn't that the revolution that failed?" she asks him. It is, but it's also the name of the flagship film of Soviet montage of which Makavejev was a fervent disciple. Soviet Montage influenced his first four films heavily and this is especially fascinating when we realize that Tito's government had broken from the soviets in Makavejev's lifetime. Makavejev went looking for inspiration in the culture of a national antagonist at a time when the man running the country wasn't above burying his enemies in quicklime. It's a small gesture, I suppose considering how new and insignificant the film schools in the country were when Makavejev was starting and by 74 he saw that his revolution, too, had failed and had only managed to get him ejected from his homeland. Battleship Potemkin is about one sailor causing a rebellion on a great ship, Sweet Movie is about the same soldier boarding a smaller one and being eaten alive by his own ideals. The authorities show up at the end of both movies and find revolutions in progress, except one is led by a woman alone surrounded by the bodies of her allies. And again, this is just in one piece of wardrobe and one line of dialogue. When you realize that such things appear every thirty seconds, you see why I'm so in love with this film's theory and design, to say nothing of its assaultive content.
I found Sweet Movie at a crucial time in my life. I'd landed at Temple University after having not been offered enough scholarship money to go to my first choice, Emerson College. I had, however, resolved to get into Emerson again and nothing was going to stop me. My time at Temple was short, cold, lonely and pretty disappointing. I couldn't function there; the classes were huge, no one, least of all the other kids, cared for my anarchic "do whatever feels right" attitude toward filmmaking, everyone was wary of everyone else, and I had few friends but it wasn't without its high points. I had already decided that I needed to be somewhere a little less hostile but I was also going to take advantage of everything here. I got to know Final Cut, the editing software, intimately, I wrote a lot, fine-tuning the script that would grant me entrance into Emerson and also writing a 350 page war film I don't have the heart to look back at. But the thing I'm most grateful for at Temple was their mammoth DVD library. I took out ten films at a time and watched all of them before returning a few days later to get more. I watched nearly everything the Criterion Collection released to date and began exploring the lesser films of some of my favourite directors. They also bought most new films and so when I started reading about Sweet Movie's release I knew I had to see it. And when I did, I instantly fell in love. Along with The Battle of Algiers, Playtime, The Human Condition, Children of Men, Au Revoir Les Enfants and If.... it filled me with contempt at all the broken promises made by past generations. How had we failed so spectacularly? Bush was still president and I was at a school where seeing a stretcher dispatched to collect a rape victim somewhere on campus wasn't uncommon. Where the fuck did the future go? I was filled with indignation and that kept me motivated enough to get out of North Philadelphia and into a school that I thought I deserved to be in. The intervening years have proven Emerson a place just as stubbornly resistant to my attitude as Temple and I'm still a disrespectful malcontent but these films, If...., Children of Men, Sweet Movie, keep me in check when nothing else does. If graduating gets me a step closer to making movies riddled with Sweet Movie's influence, then I'll write anything and happily listen to someone telling me there is one right way to make a movie. Makavejev had so much more to contend with that my problems frankly don't exist in the grand scheme of things and I can't wait to get my chance and blow it by asking just what the fuck happened. Why did the world get together and agree to forget him and his questions? Sweet Movie is a film that to love it means not settling for the violence of the modern world. Not settling for conformism, misogyny, racism and censorship. It means trying to love people and everything they do, committing to revolution so that we can make the world a little nicer, a little more sweet.

No comments: