The path of least resistance for Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism is to demarcate its boundaries to the realm of a frank and unadorned depiction of sex in all its musty and fleshy glory. This is itself highly valuable, especially as a respite from, and a riposte to, decades of puritanical and repressive arms of society and cinema that have abstracted the body beyond itself symbolically to make it more than itself and, in doing so, less than itself, unable to acknowledge the fact that the body’s tangibility cannot be contained by a symbol.
Even early on, though, the film opens its iris dramatically beyond the mere revelation of a de-sexualized, anti-puritanical, matter-of-fact observation of sex; the earliest “hard-core” imagery of explicit sex is not glimpsed straight-on but tellingly refracted through a malarial yellow lens that fractures the image into a prism of multiple parts, not unlike a facsimile of a bug eye. Already, the film seems more invested in the process of filming, viewing, and discussing sex rather than simply sex itself. The act of sex it seems, is constructed and defined by the representation of the act, and the way we perceive sex imaginatively – or perceive anything imaginatively – is inextricably a part of the act, the thing, itself. Sex then is not an essential act – a moment of coitus – which is foundationally defined as one action but diluted or denatured by the social warp of conversational misgivings, euphemisms, and refusals to discuss in honesty. All of these uses and abuses of sex and the body in the media are part of how we define and construct the body, which cannot exist separately from the terms we use to describe it. Which is to say: the idea that the body and its actions are somehow salvageable from the specious ways we consider sex in social discourse is a ruse, an ersatz hope to return to a pure depiction of something that is always actively being changed around us.
Makavejev’s film introduces itself as a visual engagement with – rather than a document of – Austrian psychoanalyst William Reich’s pioneering experiments in radical sexuality: radical in that it brought a quality of embodied-ness to human sexuality, granting sex a primacy of influence and a potency that guaranteed its legitimacy as a necessary part of everyday human experience, even a moral good. But Reich also explored the vernacular of sex and the body in public discourse. And like Reich’s work, Makavejev’s film is a serious investigation of the human body not as a scientific fact but a representational object to be perceived and sensed, which inevitably means the film’s exploration of the physical presence of the subject extends to the tactility of the cinema camera itself.
When I write “embodiment”, I do not mean anything as reductive as noticing that the film is limited to showing us real people and patting itself on the back. If anything, Organism bears closer resemblance to the European verite tradition which was much knottier and thornier than its American counterpart, the latter sometimes dissipating into a kind of uncritical, under-reflexive glimpse at reality (some exceptions being Pennebaker, the Maysles). Rather than an illusory reality, WR and many films in the European verite tradition ask us to notice the physical artifice of film construction, the presence of a camera, the uncertain boundary between subject and subject-making for a film that in part wishes to save sexuality from the crushing weight of repression. Which is perhaps why Makajvejev does not imagine “representation” of sex – or a version of sex that is imaginatively inflected and not true to itself, say a Hollywood film’s carefully edited but undeniably sultry, steamy version of verbal repartee – as a failure to sex “accurately”. Sex is not limited for him, nor is representing sex – or representing life for that matter – etched only in a linear continuum from “most” to “least” realistic.
To wit: the film is as keen on the opportunity to invent with sex, to create meaning through fictional abstraction, rather than simply to view intercourse. Thus, we meet Milena who preaches the word of free liberation while roommate Jagoda imbibes in the emancipatory act of sex itself, but the film does not foreground or privilege one as “true” or “real” sexuality; both are embodiments of sex in some fashion, and of course both are filtered through a film camera, meaning that even the “real” sex Jagoda engages in – and the film does stage unsimulated sex and does not shy away from it – must be mediated by a camera, is a “depiction” of sex not unlike the bromides Milena emphatically confronts us with.
The film’s interests are inherently vexing, exploring not simply the difficulty of representing sex but the tragicomic understanding that representations necessarily revitalize the represented, divorcing it from an essentialist understanding, making the body and sex a project of many rather than one. Makavejev, like most great artists, resists confessing the sins of his medium or focusing only on the inability to document existence; rather, his film works with that gap between observer – film – and the observed – life – pushing existence forward. The fictions conjured by the film reflect an active working with the material of sex and desire as creation rather than a passive wallow in the film’s inability to achieve its desire of visualizing sex as it preexists the film. The film interacts with the world, works with it, and ultimately changes it.
Befitting such an interdisciplinary, inter-state work, the film also adopts – much earlier than your average American film would have dared – a post-structuralist vision in its attitude toward sexuality, which is fluid and porous rather than foundational and unalterable. Makavejev becomes a fictional female filmmaker in the film, who in turn reflects on the male subject Reich (but in many ways the fictional female filmmaker, and thus, Makavejev himself, are also the subject, as the filmmaker is often the subject of any film). The film also introduces a transvestite with little pacifying impulse to explain away or pigeonhole their gender status. Furthermore, the question of identity in this most uncertain film is compounded by the question of nationality; the ostensibly more liberated American version of sexuality and the more doctrinal Soviet brand are hardly diametrically opposed, since both contain their fair share – and their particular brands of – oppression. Content to occupy liminal states, Makavejev also dissociates the audience from reality and fiction – relying on both grungy 16 mm documentary images and the more robust sheen of 35 mm without definitive statements about the legitimacy of either.
As such, WR: Mysteries of the Organism may double as a title about the human body and the body corpus of cinema and any artistic representation. Organism does not absolve itself of having to answer its provocations, but rather, it denounces the idea that any answer would, on its own, be adequate. The only surefire truth it protects is that experimentation should not, in the documentary world, be an outlawed faith, a leper scored with the lesions of artistic impulse, but the lifeblood of the documentary’s ability to inhabit the world creatively, to represent the imaginative texture of existence, rather than simply to deal in the factual, “accountant’s” truth Werner Herzog so eloquently mocked. A cocktease of sex, death, life, representation, regulation, all edited together with a manic ethos of fancy-free fun that nonetheless houses multitudes upon multitudes of dialectics, Organism mimics its subject: eclectic and unpredictable in the extreme, sometimes elated and other times confrontational, an alternately lusty and plaintive adult-Seussian oddity that keeps divulging mini-revelations about itself with each viewing.