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)
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Long Road From Jarrow: a revolutionary tale of long-distance protest

Stuart Maconie tells the story of the men who marched from Tyneside to London.

There were several long-distance protest marches to London between the wars. Some involved many thousands of marchers and some were met with violence, but the only one that is widely remembered today is the “Jarrow Crusade” of October 1936. From 1851 to the early 1930s, the Tyneside town of Jarrow had launched a thousand ships, from tankers and colliers to cruisers and battleships – but as a result of postwar government cost-cutting and a global economic downturn, the area’s main employer, the Palmers shipyard, was forced to close in 1933, putting thousands out of work.

In 1936, as unemployment dragged on and government support failed to materialise, Jarrow’s local council arranged for 200 out-of-work local men to march to parliament – accompanied by their MP, “Red Ellen” Wilkinson – to “obtain the sympathy of the general public” and petition Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government to provide work for the town.

For the 80th anniversary of the march, Stuart Maconie, the current president of Ramblers – as the Ramblers’ Association is now known – retraced their steps to find out why their protest still resonates and how much England has changed over the past eight decades. Maconie’s eminence in pedestrian circles may be surprising to those who know him only as a cultural critic (Viz once ran a spoof Christmas television schedule listing a show called I Love Stuart Maconie’s Opinions) and as a coolly authoritative curator of BBC Radio 6 Music’s Freak Zone, but he has written several perceptive books based on his travels around an England that now feels to him “febrile and uncertain”.

This blend of travelogue and social commentary is self-consciously in the mould of Orwell and Priestley, but it also shares something of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s awareness and ability to bluff his way through awkward situations. While Leigh Fermor broke bread with Austrian aristos and Transylvanian lumberjacks, Maconie hitches lifts from Northamptonshire window-fitters, or blags a curry in a Leeds gurdwara.

Maconie’s passion for places and his pungent turn of phrase also call to mind Ian Nairn, who would dignify unfashionable towns with serious appraisal, or Robert Macfarlane, with his appreciation for even the “sub-countryside” that rings our towns. Newcastle’s thrilling buildings “crowd and elbow each other sideways to get into shot like excitable kids”. Civic Barnsley gives the impression of a Baltic seat of government, while commercial Leicester evokes the souks of Tangiers. In the “mountain stronghold” of Sheffield, he sees a “strapping, over-vigorous city” where forging steel gave the “Dee-Dars” (Sheffield folk) a unique Yorkshire virility. He has righteous scorn for architectural academics who enthuse over the “monumental dissonance” of brutalist Newton Aycliffe new town and riffs amusingly on cupcake fads, vaping shops and the ubiquity of salted caramel.

Maconie’s wandervogeling between record shops and twee museums is diverting, though there are some Wikipedia-heavy longueurs (and some clangers have crept in: Chester-le-Street is in Durham, not Northumberland, and the Tory benefactor John Jarvis was not the MP for South Shields, which is the only constituency created in the Reform Act 1832 never to have returned a Conservative). But this is a more explicitly political tract than Maconie’s previous works, and he clearly has something to get off his chest – namely his despair at the Labour Party. Maconie identifies as “unashamedly of Attlee’s patriotic leftist strain” and sees in Jeremy Corbyn “a spartist dinosaur reeking of hummus and hemp and definitely not the smoky fires of industry”.

This book was written before the election in June but its result would probably have confirmed Maconie’s pessimism. For all the rallies, marches and excitable hashtaggery, Labour has suffered its third consecutive defeat and hasn’t had a Blairless general election victory for 43 years.

What can we learn from the Jarrow marchers? Maconie writes, “The Jarrow men essentially came politely and with cap in hand, without the dangerous whiff of revolutionary sulphur of the older communist marches” – yet this is not to patronise them. It was a deliberate strategy. Even then, there was a view that marching and demonstrations were self-indulgent and unserious. Unless handled carefully, they could repel as much as they could galvanise. The organisers ensured that the march demonstrated discipline and dignity, and made the very reasonable demand for work, not handouts.

In Labour’s north-eastern heartland, for every firebrand such as Ellen Wilkinson, there were dozens more stolid Labour moderates: respectable Methodist lay preachers and pragmatic union men who knew that social progress was hard won and that electing Labour governments was extraordinarily demanding. There’s a martial and Stakhanovite strain in Geordie culture, and around 60 per cent of those unemployed riveters and platers were First World War veterans. Photographs usually show them marching smartly in step, their blankets tightly rolled, demonstrating their endurance and good order in a deliberate appeal to Middle England. Conditions in Jarrow were so desperate that “reaching out” had to be taken seriously, so churchmen were courted, communists were weeded out and there were no “Tory scum” banners.

The immediate impact of the march was limited (an old joke in the town is that it was Hitler who saved Jarrow – by generating war work for the yards). But as A J P Taylor once put it, middle-class people felt “the call of conscience”, and Jarrow was remembered when votes were cast in the 1945 general election. With yet another Conservative government refusing to budge, it is hard to avoid Maconie’s conclusions that persuading the uncommitted is as vital as ever and that Labour needs “fewer ideologues and a few more psephologists”. 

Dan Jackson writes on Northumbrian history. He tweets as @northumbriana

Long Road From Jarrow: a Journey Through Britain Then and Now
Stuart Maconie
Ebury Press, 368pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder