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Dusan Makavejev: Or, the Case of the Messed-Up Serbian Director

In January 2001, six long-unavailable films by Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev earn their freedom from the vaults to provide some insight into the seldom-seen Eastern European cinema, and what a sight it is.

In two of his early films from the 1960’s, Man is Not a Bird and Love Affair, Makavejev explores traditional drama/thrillers with stories of infidelity and murder. Ever-infused with his odd comic sensibility, these low-budget gems feel like American indies, only with subtitles, and their insights into socialism and communism (common themes in Makavejev’s work) are as apt as any you’ll find in the west.

Innocence Unprotected is a much different film despite its production in 1968, right after Love Affair. Long before Woody Allen took a crack at messing with archival footage in What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Makavejev takes the first Serbian talkie, produced during the Nazi occupation, and intercuts it with a documentary about where its stars are years later. Notably these include a circus strongman who bends iron bars with his teeth. Very unusual and intriguing.

The use of archive films is something Makavejev never got away from after that. In his best film, WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Makavejev cuts up all kinds of documentary footage with a fascinating look at psychiatric researcher Wilhelm Reich’s oddball theories on sex. But the practice didn’t fare so well in his later works, including Sweet Movie and Gorilla Bathes at Noon. The former is an incoherent and indulgent mess written only for shock value; the latter is a tedious and pointless bore.

Makavejev would find both of his only real successes in the 1980s. First was Montenegro, a tale of sexual frustration in an American houswife living abroad, reportedly based on a true story. The other was The Coca-Cola Kid, with Eric Roberts pushing the world’s most popular soft drink. Neither are included on the retrospective release.

Altogether, the collected works of Makavejev (available individually or in a six pack of tapes) are an interesting look into the psyche of a man who is slowly losing his mind yet is allowed to use a movie camera to do whatever he wants. Would that we all had such freedom.

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