Dusan Makavejev's visionary insolence

WR Mysteries of the Organism is screened in London.

"Gentlemen, in our Democracy, everyone is entitled to a doughnut. Some get the doughnut, others get the hole in the doughnut.” 

A throbbing essay in visionary insolence, WR Mysteries of the Organism by Yugoslav director Dusan Makavejev, which will be screened tonight at BFI Southbank in London, mixes formal experimentation with radical lyricism in an incendiary cocktail of cinematic liberation. The film sets out to document the life and times of Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, Freud’s former pupil famous for his treatises on sexual repression and liberation.

Makavejev succeeds in translating Reich’s notion of the orgasm as a tool of psycho-social emancipation into images. The film articulates its irreverent narrative around free associations, creactive juxtapositions and deviant evocations - New York transsexuals sing Stalinist musicals; Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs roams the Manhattan grid masturbating a rifle, opening hostilities between civilized pliancy and creative insurgency. Eisenstein’s “dialectical montage” is hijacked by the unorthodox urges of the New Left; the orgiastic surrealism of spontaneity overcomes the tedium of Actually Existing Socialism.

Meanwhile, behind the Iron Curtain, a Soviet sportsman ("Honoured Artist of The People") beheads his impudent girlfriend in a grotesque attempt to preserve his Communist purity against the decadence of the Yugoslav "Third Way". The assembled workers are aroused, quite literally, by a young woman calling for genital happiness and denouncing Stalinism as “a puny lie disguised as a great historic truth”. Sexual repression is presented here as the main reason behind the failure of the October Revolution or, in a more Reichian fashion, "The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality". The exuberant slapstick style characterising the "Eastern Chapter" of the film epitomises Reich's and Makavejev's belief in the incompatibility of indoctrination and freedom, instinct and constraint. To have combined the didacticism of psychoanalytical thought with the power of images remains the film's principal achievement. It's a film whose very semantic matrix transcends geographical borders, a perfect example of cross-pollinating 1970s film, neither western nor eastern.

The late British film critic Raymond Durgnat wrote a book about WR (in the BFI's "Modern Classics" series), declaring it a film whose radical tenets he did not fully share yet by which he remained deeply fascinated. It is a captivating book, showing how a film that “yields great pleasure, emotional and aesthetic” upset the empiricist and pragmatic outlook of a devoutly analytical critic. The volume is a rare instance of an analytical approach succeeding in disclosing the inner workings of a visual text without neutralising its pre-linguistic impetus. 

WR was described by Makajevev as “a black comedy, a political circus, a fantasy on the fascism and communism of human bodies, the political life of human genitals, a proclamation of the pornographic essence of any system of authority and power over others”. All this prior to the moment when, in Raymond Durgnat’s words, “60s anarcho-libertarianism ebbed before the routinisation of sexual permissivness and the neo-puritanism of ‘Political Correctness’.”

"The invasion of compulsory sex-morality": Reich on the Russian Revolution (Photo: Getty Images)
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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser