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)
Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
Show Hide image

Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game