Judge Joel Pearce is free, but rarely radical.
Most people who have heard of Dusan Makavejev only know him from 1971's Mystery of the Organism, which made waves due to its X-rated sexual content. This set from Criterion contains Makavejev's first three films, which show his progression leading up to that classic.
Facts of the Case
Demonstrating the wide-ranging interests of Makavejev, this set contains three quite different films. Man is Not a Bird is a love story that takes place in a mining town, and offers a reasonable straightforward storytelling style. Love Affair is a playful love story combining fiction with a bizarre collection of documentary elements. Innocence Unprotected takes that formula a step further, using footage from a classic film to create a tapestry of 1960s Yugoslavian society. Each film gets a bit more strange and playful.
• Man is Not a Bird
Jan has just arrived in town, and gets a room from the parents of Rajka, an attractive local hairdresser. She is much younger, but they are immediately drawn to each other. Things change when her parents find out about their affair.
Man is Not a Bird is a wild, bold film, with remarkable hand-held camera work and a sly eye for human nature. It's more character-driven than plot-driven, though you shouldn't picture the typical European art-house fare. Makavejev paces this more like a Western, except the characters deal in sex, rather than bullets. In the backdrop is a poor industrial city, seen almost as a new wild frontier.
Like the other films in the series, Man is Not a Bird is more playful than lurid, demonstrating a surprisingly modern approach to sexual ethics and practices, combined with some social commentary pointed at the industrial promise (and disappointment) of 1960s Eastern Europe. In the background, there is a hypnotist who does shows and embarrasses members of the town in front of a crowd. This becomes a metaphor for much of the plot of the film, as characters are blinded by sexual desire and behave almost as though hypnotized by each other.
This film is less explicit than the others, despite the centrality of sex to the plot of the film. Perhaps Makaveyev felt constrained at this point of his career, and became bolder as he made additional films. This doesn't prevent Man is Not a Bird from being an entertaining and clever debut.
• Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard
This combination of elements makes for some interesting filmmaking. There is a dazzling array of styles on display here, from the documentary styling of some footage to a more winking approach during the actual love affair. Here, the actors look directly into the camera at times, as though they were performing deliberately or looking to the camera man for additional directions. I don't know enough about the communism of Yugoslavia in the 1960s to talk intelligently about the way it's used as a backdrop, but there's definitely an interesting contrast between the political rallies and the steamy scenes between the two lovers.
At 68 minutes, Love Affair remains a fun, breezy, yet disturbing little film. The end does not unfold as we expect, and it manages to approach sexuality both seriously and playfully. I can see how it ran into censorship issues in other countries back in 1967, but it plays quite well now.
• Innocence Unprotected
While the other films in the set are humanistic enough that they are easy to enjoy without any knowledge of Yugoslavian history, Innocence Unprotected is packed with meaning, which will be completely confusing for most members of a North American audience. From what I can tell, this is a sincere documentary, in that the film that was discovered is genuine, and the interviews truly are with the original cast of that film.
That said, Makavejev is a playful enough filmmaker that we can't expect this to be a straightforward documentary by any stretch. Instead, the interviews are full of a subtle humor, pointing out the shifts in ideology between the two times. In all truth, though, I found this to be the weakest entry of the set. With a better background in the politics of the time, I would have probably found quite a bit more to enjoy. Unlike the others, it's mostly present so that we can understand the full range of Makavejek's filmography leading up to the much better known Mysteries of the Organism, which would arrive on the scene three years later.
All three films are delivered with excellent transfers. Both Man is Not a Bird and Love Affair arrive in stunning black and white anamorphic transfers that have been cleaned up dramatically. Innocence Unprotected is in rougher shape, especially the older footage. I suspect this has a lot more to do with the source material than the efforts of the good folks at Criterion. The sound on all three films is in mono, and has been cleaned up as much as possible. As with all films in the Eclipse series, there are no special features on the discs, but there are liner notes accompanying each film, which help viewers through their complexities.
While it almost goes without saying that Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical won't appeal to everyone, it is a fascinating collection of three films that are unlike anything else I've ever seen. It comes highly recommended to fans of experimental film.
Strange, but not guilty.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice, Man Is Not A Bird
Perp Profile, Man Is Not A Bird
Distinguishing Marks, Man Is Not A Bird
Scales of Justice, Love Affair
Perp Profile, Love Affair
Distinguishing Marks, Love Affair
• Liner Notes
Scales of Justice, Innocence Unprotected
Perp Profile, Innocence Unprotected
Distinguishing Marks, Innocence Unprotected
• Liner Notes
Review content copyright © 2009 Joel Pearce; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.