Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Makavejev Magic

I wrote the following text commemorating the great Dušan Makavejev for a recent retrospective and exhibition that took place in Pula, Croatia (March 27th - 29th)

The Makavejev Magic

Dušan Makavejev’s death earlier this year had the unsettling feeling of a presence slipping away that only draws attention to itself through its vanishing. Makavejev had been silent as a filmmaker for over twenty years. In departing, he took with him a significant chapter in the history of one of cinema’s most heroic eras, the cutting edge of ‘60s/’70s European filmmaking which is now fast passing from living memory. Although his name looms large over the expanse of film history he is associated with, his death was a jolting reminder that Makavejev the man had still been here all this time. 

Not that Makavejev was forgotten. Certainly not by Experimental Film Society (EFS), the small community of experimental filmmakers working in Ireland that I belong to. For several of us, Sweet Movie in particular remains a constant reference and a constant goad: its freedom, wild inventiveness and infectious sense of mischief remain seldom matched. If it is a film ‘of its time’, this label is less about packing it away in a box than seeing it as a paragon of the sort of unchained creativity that is so often lacking in today’s cinema. Yet when my EFS colleague Rouzbeh Rashidi wrote a personal response to Makavejev’s death, he chose to meditate on how time can effect even the greatest of artists’ creative work. Posted on Rouzbeh’s blog Cinema Thoughts, where he publishes his reflections on filmmaking, it considered the trajectory of Makavejev’s career in very human terms:     

Over the past few days, I have been watching Dušan Makavejev’s films and revisiting them. The radicalism, alternative approaches and thinking behind his cinema are genuinely unmatched and utterly unique. His movies from 1965 beginning with Man is Not a Bird to 1974 Sweet Movie are absolute masterpieces. Unfortunately, any other films he made beyond Sweet Movie (after a seven-year hiatus) had lost their magic and extremism. At the same time, I wonder, how can you make another personal film after a gigantic groundbreaking product like Sweet Movie? How can one filmmaker deal with such a considerable amount of creative eruption and continue making films after it? This notion also reminded me of Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse which he has said will be his last film. So far, he hasn’t made a film since, after having a mind-blowing career from 1977 to 2011 and of course never compromised.

How long, under what mental and social conditions and for what motivations can outsider-filmmakers keep on doing work and survive at the same time? When is the right time to stop making, if ever? These questions have always been haunting me, and I still found no answers for them. History of cinema is everything and the most crucial guide for any filmmaker to comprehend (solely for themselves internally) the psychological, practical and existential aspects of filmmaking! (Rouzbeh Rashidi, 27/1/’19)

I would argue that some of the later works, Montenegro and Gorilla Bathes At Noon in particular, retain enough of the Makavejev magic to make me very glad that he did return to filmmaking. Yet Sweet Movie does mark the climax of his career. It is certainly his most extreme movie and remains controversial to this day. Only Makavejev can really know how much mental, physical and emotional energy was demanded to make it and then to deal with the reactions it provoked. When he emerged from the wilderness seven years later, it was as a gentler filmmaker. Yet extremism for its own sake is mostly worthless and there is far more to Sweet Movie than that. 

It must have taken enormous creative stamina to make a film that feels so loose and freewheeling and yet which time and again alights on an image so perfectly conceived in its strangeness and humanity that it emotionally anchors the movie. We could list the various acts of this carnival with all their sensationalist headlines from the golden penis to the seduction of children to the spectacularly scatological regressions of Otto Muehl’s commune to the incorporation of real atrocity footage. But the real wonder of this film is precisely its sense of wonder. Sweet Movie attacks every target in sight, with consumerism and communism getting equally trashed, and the lifestyle experimentation of the commune faring little better. But if we place it next to the cold despairing fury of such comparably extreme and radical films of the time as Godard’s Weekend or Pasolini’s Salo, what is most striking about it is its sense of joy. How can a film that appears so bleak and abject on paper be imbued with such warmth and compassion on screen, and ultimately feel so life affirming? Largely because Makavejev regards his characters with a delighted fascination and good humour rather than with disgust, and even the most repulsive of them is animated by a compelling life force. The animal urges that drive us can lead to destruction, especially when subjected to repression or exploitation, but they are also the only source of freedom and joy.  

More memorable than Sweet Movie’s overtly shocking images are the haunting moments in which characters are granted private and mysterious instants of dignified intimacy either with each other or simply with the camera. Moments of self-realisation like the eye contact between El Macho (Sami Frey) and Miss Canada (Carole Laure) before she symbolically completes their grotesquely interrupted coitus by breaking eggs over her head, or the childlike acceptance of death expressed by the irresistibly graceful Pierre Clementi after being stabbed for the first time. It takes a very particular sensibility to see so much love in so much horror without the intrusion of a single frame of softness or sentimentalism. Surely this is what ‘Makavejev magic’ consists of. 

With Makavejev’s passing we lost his very particular perspective on humanity, one which we need more than ever today. Even if the last two decades slipped by without being illuminated by a new Makavejev film, there was an existential comfort to be taken from knowing that this chaos of a world we live in was still being regarded by the eyes behind Sweet Movie and considered with the same mind. 

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Residency @ Tyrone Guthrie Centre

Vicky Langan and I are on residency at the wonderful Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in Co. Monaghan thanks to a bursary from Cork County Council. We're working on several joint and solo projects while here. Yesterday we were shooting tigers for a still under-wraps Experimental Film Society movie. Watch this space!