Sex and politics — today these two great tastes smush uneasily together, usually only when a middle-aged white powerbroker gets caught with his dick swinging, or when we joke about how Hillary Clinton has seemed to abandon one flavor entirely for the other. God, piety, fear and malevolence have made the stew of politics bitter, unironic and pleasureless, in government and in the cultural crockpot. It was not always so — Criterion’s completely uncalled-for double-trouble DVD release of Serbian barn-burner Dušan Makavejev’s two most notorious films, “WR: Mysteries of the Organism” (1971) and “Sweet Movie” (1974), reminds us how the lava-hot mid-Cold War years fueled an almost limitless variety of untamable flames.
The chemicals between us burst the seams of the twin repression systems of American power and Communism, and along with free love, Woodstock and the pill, we got Andy Warhol, Jim Morrison, Linda Lovelace, Godard & Karina, May ’68, public porn, revolutionary communes, “Midnight Cowboy,” Milan Kundera, Erica Jong, “Loves of a Blonde,” “Last Tango in Paris,” literary obscenity trials, suburban roulette, Anne Sexton, Jane Fonda, Playboy clubs, Eric Rohmer and Makavejev.
Yugoslavia in the day was noted as the only European Communist country stubbornly unaligned with the Soviet Union, but in Makavejev’s gestalty vision Marxism, sex, capitalism, history, repression, freedom and social inhibitions are all crispy kindling for crazed dialectical bonfires. Makavejev’s signature mode is the confrontational shtick-documentary-surrealism- found-footage collage, and “WR” established this wacky arthouse minigenre in the forebrains of ‘Nam-era college students all over the industrialized globe. (But not, unsurprisingly, in Yugoslavia, where it was banned for years.) It began as a Ford Foundation grant-subsidized documentary on Wilhelm Reich, the post-Freudian psychologist and culty sex theorist who was persecuted for his teachings in both Nazi-era Germany and in the U.S.; he died in an American prison, a victim of law-enforcement witchhunting and his own refusal to defend himself in court.
Shooting in New York and Belgrade, mixing in copious Reichian footage, hunks of Communist propaganda films and talking-heads interviews (sex-obsessed artists, Warhol factory star Jackie Curtis, surviving Reich disciples), Makavejev concocts a heady, self-contradicting, irreverent cocktail of collision, a messy paste-it essay on repression and liberation, as the two oppositive quantities are both represented by political power, by Communism, by sexual relations and by history itself. “Mysteries” is right Makavejev is no Communist, nor is he fond of American values; two polar ideologies are never enough for him, and “WR,” in his nation’s proudest manner, is a thoroughly unaligned movie. Everybody gets slammed and celebrated (well, Stalin just gets slammed), and every dogmatic idea of the era is flipped to its B-side.
It’s only occasionally funny, for what that’s worth (I prefer two earlier, slightly saner D.M. features, overdue for DVD: 1967’s “Love Affair; or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator,” and 1968’s “Innocence Unprotected”). But Makavejev’s graduation to “Sweet Movie” isn’t as concerned with humor as transformative assault. Or something from Reich’s orgasmic “orgone therapy” to, in “Sweet Movie,” Otto Muehl’s regression therapy (in which members of Muehl’s commune vomit and pee all over each other), Makavejev was for a time vulnerable to the idea of being systematically delivered from modern civilization to a state of primal, carefree innocence. “Sweet Movie” — a blitz of outrageous and nearly criminal offenses, cobbled onto a handful of silly dream-plots that include a global beauty pageant for virgins and a ship bearing a huge Karl Marx figurehead (and a single plastic-bag teardrop, with a goldfish inside) carrying preadolescent boys, sugar, candy and semi-nude women down an Amsterdam canal — is nothing if not struggling toward consequence-free innocence. But of course it’s not merely a liberating gob in society’s eye — although the brutal élan that emits from this often wildly unpleasant movie is unforgettable. Makavejev was a conflicted anti-ideologue, and the mating between his cackling affronts (dinner plates of fresh shit, a castration in a vat of sugar, uncomfortable sexual intimidations, star Carole Laure’s climactic pornographic bath in chocolate) and his stabs at Soviet legacy and Yankee imperialism (John Vernon as a Texan gazillionaire with a gold-plated penis) are uncomfortable at best. But discomfort is the crazy Serb’s base position, and it may be in the end exactly how we should feel about social power as it inflicts itself upon our lives and our sexual desires. (The Criterion discs come laden with typical supplemental goodness: related audio, essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum, David Sterritt and Stanley Cavell, Makavejev shorts and interviews, et al.)
A far less dangerous non-fiction look at sexual history, Obie Benz’s “Heavy Petting” (1989) is a fond look back at the American mid-century’s teen and his/her discovery of sex in the postwar years. Benz sticks to two strategies: interviews with the loquacious likes of Allen Ginsberg, David Byrne, Abbie Hoffman, Spalding Gray, Laurie Anderson, William S. Burroughs, and so on, and archival footage, some from movies and TV, most from PSA shorts made as anti-sex propaganda. It’s the chilling gray heaven of the archival screeds that rules the film so naive, so filled with terror (fear of a rampagingly erect teen planet, indeed), so fraught with neurotic lies and conservative anxiety. The new two-disc Docurama set, in fact, overshadows Benz’s quaint nostalgia trip with ten sex-scare shorts included in their entirety, with titles like “As Boys Grow” and “Perversion for Profit.” They’re meant to be a campy-kitschy riot, but they’re a fascinating window on the ’50s and ’60s no historical film or memoir can match.
“WR: Mysteries of the Organism” and “Sweet Movie” (Criterion) and “Heavy Petting” (Docurama) are now available on DVD.