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W.R.: Mysteries Of The Organism

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In the late '50s, a handful of French critics crossed the best of old Hollywood with a liberating commitment to self-expression and instigated a cinematic "New Wave." In the early '70s, a handful of film-school-trained American directors shook up the mainstream with ideas largely smuggled in from B-movies and the grindhouse. In the intervening decade, filmmakers around the world dealt with the repercussions of the previous movement and sowed the seeds for the one to follow. Operating chiefly out of Yugoslavia (with several visits to foreign ports), Dusan Makavejev gleefully satirized and subverted the Eastern European trend toward totalitarianism in a series of pulsating, mind-bending, documentary-influenced melodramas with the rhythm of Jean-Luc Godard, the pace of Richard Lester, and the outsized sexuality of Russ Meyer. After a period of unavailability, Facets has recently packaged Makavejev's first five feature films—1965's Man Is Not A Bird, 1967's Love Affair (Or The Case Of The Missing Switchboard Operator), 1968's Innocence Unprotected, 1971's W.R.: Mysteries Of The Organism, and 1975's Sweet Movie—with a more recent effort, 1993's Gorilla Bathes At Noon, in one eye-opening set. Makavejev's cause has been championed by critics such as Michael Wilmington, Roger Ebert, and Derek Malcolm, but a consecutive screening of his first four films makes their case for them, revealing the director as one of the wittiest and most intellectually challenging artists in the history of world cinema. Makavejev had a winning formula: Start with the story of two lovers whose brief but passionate affair comes to a tragic end, add tongue-in-cheek testimony from "experts" in some esoteric scientific field that has little to do with the main story, splice in military footage from newsreels or Communist-sponsored dramatic features, sprinkle liberally with printed poetry and guerrilla-style man-on-the-street interviews, and wrap up in 80 minutes or less. The high points of these brief, free-swinging experiments are Innocence Unprotected and W.R. The former is a revival of a charmingly awkward 1942 film about a circus strongman and acrobat, intercut with that film's aged cast reminiscing about the Nazi occupation of Sarajevo, while the latter combines a biography of orgasm-obsessed scientist Wilhelm Reich with the opinions of sexually sophisticated New Yorkers and a satire of revolutionary films in which free love takes the place of socialism as the ultimate ideal. By 1974, Makavejev's freshness had curdled a bit, and Sweet Movie's parade of shocking imagery (a banquet of bodily waste, gold-plated penises, sliced-up dildos served to infantile adults, a sugar-coated stripper unzipping the fly of a pre-teen boy) now seems more gross than daring, though John Waters or Lars von Trier would have to go a long way to match it for pure excess. But even Sweet Movie is of a piece with Makavejev's earlier, livelier work. The filmmaker's recurring emphasis on the fleeting pleasure of copulation matches his mockery of the authoritarian regimes that have marched through his homeland, each capturing the fancy of his people for a few promising moments before the relationship inevitably turned sour.