Internationally acclaimed avant-garde film director Dusan Makavejev might not be a household name, but few filmmakers are as relevant to the political, social and artistic climate of the 1990s. As a student of media, his cut-and-paste miscegenations of found film, documentary and fiction anticipated the sound byte collages that rule modern media. As a political analyst, his critiques of socialism and nationalism have proven to be fairly on target. As a Yugoslav citizen, he is uniquely qualified to comment on the civil war in the Balkans.
It was this combination of qualities that made Makavejev’s visit to the Williams campus both timely and topical. Monday afternoon, Makavejev lectured to a receptive crowd of over 60 on “Violence as Metaphor.” The following evening, he continued his discussion of violence and film with Professor of English Shawn Rosenheim’s Documentary Technologies class. Drawing on over a quarter century of directorial experience and a wealth of theoretical and personal references, the Yugoslav filmmaker lectured in the same playfully insightful style for which his movies have developed a reputation.
Rosenheim introduced Makavejev to a packed Weston Room 10 as a director who “always makes room for intellectual play” and “responds to (events) rather than succumbing under their pressure.” Rosenheim, the head of a panel of moderators that also included Professors of English Jim Sheppard and John Kleiner and Professor of Political Science Mark Reinhardt, then deferred to Makavejev.
In a loose, candid talk that lasted over an hour, Makavejev delivered a series of observations about the role of violence in film and, more frequently, in society. Asserting that we are attached to violence because “it has to do with something in ourselves,” the director explored its metaphoric implications through anecdote and theory.
Of particular interest to Makavejev was the thin line separating codified, professional violence and unacceptable, taboo violence. In other words, what separates a stab wound from a surgeon’s incision? A particularly jarring story Makavejev related from his own youth in Serbia suggested that the schism is almost imperceptibly small. During a period of civil unrest, one town established a set of laws which made it a felony to stab someone more than half an inch deep, a misdemeanor otherwise. The result? Semantically minded youths would mark their pocket knives at half an inch so as to avoid jail time. If cynical lawmaking allowed this cynical violence, at least it reduced its scope to injury, not fatality.
Still, Makavejev views the ultimate effect of this semantic controlling of violence as damaging and self-perpetuating. Violence, he noted, is cyclical: “imaginary things feed real causes.” Rosenheim later effectively summarized Makavejev’s viewpoint, commenting that violence, like “culture, keeps reoccurring (through) built-in mechanisms for control.”
One distinctly American method of control proved to be of particular interest to Makavejev. The director described the excitement he felt upon seeing the bank that Billy the Kid first robbed, a site and event canonized by film. By “living life through movies” and other forms of media, Americans provide themselves with an effective outlet through which they can vicariously and harmlessly act out their collective penchant for violence.
This can have a dissociative effect, though. CNN is, according to Makavejev, intrinsically reductive in that it puts the viewer in the position of “watching suffering without suffering.” According to Makavejev, the majority of citizens in Belgrade do not fully believe CNN reports of violence in Kosovo because CNN strips the war of all its immediacy. In a brief response, Reinhardt invoked the image of Harry Lyme, villain of the film classic The Third Man, pointing downward from near the top of a Ferris wheel at indecipherable blurs of people; distance, he noted, removes from violence the need for justification.
It should come as no surprise that Makavejev was outspoken on the civil war in Kosovo. He claimed that Serb President Slobodan Milosevic exhibits symptoms of a number of mental disorders, including dissociative identity disorder. NATO’s current policy, he continued, is founded on a complete misinterpretation of Milosevic, coupled with a desire to prove its viability before its impending 50th anniversary celebration. He did insist, however, that something must be done in response to the massive list of civil rights abuses.
A brief question and answer session concluded Monday’s lecture, but Makavejev was far from done talking. Opening his remarks by saying that “in all other countries, you live histories, but in this country, you’re taught to forget your history in social situations,” Makavejev discussed his 1981 film Montenegro with Rosenheim’s Tuesday evening class, again for over an hour. During the conversation, he addressed both his techniques, stressing the importance of improvisation and interaction in his movies, and his influences, citing Bonnie and Clyde as a landmark film in the beautiful slow-motion depiction of its gruesome, lethal climax.
From his 1965 directorial debut Man Is Not a Bird to more recent, marginally higher-budget works such as 1985’s The Coca-Cola Kid and 1989’s Manifesto, Makavejev has consistently returned to a set of distinctive themes and techniques. Films such as 1967’s Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator and 1974’s Sweet Movie explored the effects of sexual liberation. Others –Montenegro and The Coca-Cola Kid – took on political ends. Makavejev’s style has always relied on a cut-and-paste aesthetic. When taken to its extreme, this modus operandi is an utterly singular mode of filmic expression: Innocence Unprotected (1968) and W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) include spliced in footage from expository films real and fabricated.
Still, Makavejev has proven throughout his career that reoccurring themes need not confine the filmmaker. He has shown considerable versatility of tone: contrast the frolicsome, transgressive Sweet Movie with his subtler later works, by no means mainstream but still palatable enough to attract prominent actors such as Eric Stoltz and Greta Scacchi.
But Makavejev is probably best known to Williams students for two films that Rosenheim has screened in his courses: Montenegro and W.R. The former is a darkly comic tale of expatriate Montenegrians in Sweden. The latter is arguably the pinnacle of the filmmaker’s career and the apotheosis of his unique vision. The wildly ambitious film starts off as a documentary about Freudian analyst and emigre Wilhelm Reich (whose theory of “Orgone energy” explored the energetic properties of libido) but eventually evolves into a theoretical analysis of the relationship between sexuality and politics.
It accomplishes its goal, remarkably, through such ostensibly diffuse elements as a fictional narrative, an investigation of drag queen Jackie Curtis, found footage ranging from a lecturing Stalin to mental patients suffering from self-injurious syndrome, a radio advertisement for Coppertone sun-block, music from the pioneering counterculture band the Fugs and performance from lead singer Tuli Kupferberg.
Just as he did with the “Violence and Metaphor” lecture, Makavejev manages to pull all of his diverse component parts into a cohesive and provocative whole. To use Rosenheim’s description, Makavejev’s film and lecture “look like they’re about violence, but are really about energy.”