Spirit of ’68: Riots, Revolution, and Wilhelm Reich
Forty years later, how far removed are we from the upheavals that occurred during the eventful, often tumultuous months of 1968? That was the question I kept asking myself Monday after a marathon session at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, which wrapped up its two-week series, “1968: An International Perspective,” on May 14.
Perhaps closer and farther away than we’d like to admit: We are again at war in an election year, and the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, not to mention the “enemy” ideologies of Communism and Islamic terrorism, have been elucidated countless times in recent years. But today, no one is rioting in the streets; student campuses are quiet models of discipline. The antiwar movement, such as it exists, has migrated from the barricades to the Internet. Black Power has given way to bling-bling posturing and the idolization of material success; youth culture age-shifted downward and is now represented by American Idol and online social networking, not grass, protest music, and cultural rebellion. Feminism has dissolved not just into Camille Paglia–esque post-feminism, but retro-oriented post-post-feminism. Of all the legacies from the ’60s, the sexual revolution died hardest; its orgasmic ashes may be found in Richard Brooks’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977).
But not long ago, as the series at Walter Reade reminds us (ditto for the ongoing “Godard’s 60s” program at Film Forum), everything stable and sacred to the bourgeois capitalist mindset seemed to be giving way to disorder and unhingement in 1968, as the liberatory energies of all the social movements in America and Europe percolated with the incendiary promise of revolutionary change. Think of all the epoch-defining moments in that 12-month period: the murder of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Tet Offensive, the Prague Spring, the May student riots in Paris, the government massacre of student protesters in Tlalteloco, Mexico, police brutality at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It was a heady time, so it’s no surprise that films of that era, from Japan and Brazil, Hungary and West Germany, the U.S. and France, reflected the explosive climate of the times, while turning inside out all the staid conventions of classical film form and technique.
Earlier this week, I went to the Walter Reade specifically to see one film of the era that had long been on my never-dwindling list of need-to-see movies. For years, I’d been reading about Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism—Phillip Lopate devotes a chapter to the Yugoslavian rabble-rouser in his collection Totally, Tragically, Tenderly—and now, finally, here was my chance. Huge in my mind, the film was both more and less than what I expected. Inspired by the life and work of radical psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, Mysteries is a collage-like blend of documentary homage, hippie agitprop, anti-Stalinist farce, and libidinal fantasy. Anarchic in form, with disjunctive cross-cutting between various locales, characters, and scenarios, Mysteries defies—and is meant to defy—our desire for narrative continuity. In this regard, it is not unlike a mid ’60s Godard film stripped of gratuitous cinematic allusion (and Anna Karina’s face).
But the impulse behind Makavejev’s ragged, dissociative form is not a desire to alienate, nor is it to create a forbidding work of art for the intellectual classes to savor; it simply mirrors, formally, the director’s Reichian belief that sexual energy must be freed of all constraints and allowed to flow uninhibitedly through the social body. Only then, he believed, would humanity embrace revolutionary politics. So it is a liberating urge that informs Mysteries’ playful charades and exuberant open-endedness. Over the course of the film, we hear and see various on-screen examples of this principle, too, including testimonials from therapeutic disciples of Reich (mostly middle-aged men), masturbation enthusiasts (mostly young women), and unlikely adherents of the orgone boxes that landed Dr. Reich in prison. We drop in on body-therapy groups, watch phallic artist/groupie Cynthia Plaster Caster at work, and listen to a glammed-up youth in Times Square discuss his first gay sexual experience. We also tool around Manhattan with counterculture clown Tuli Kupferberg, who recites lyrics from Fugs songs like “Kill for Peace” and engages in a bit of satirical street theater.
These verité episodes are diverting and often fascinating windows onto how the melding of politics and the sexual revolution were playing out in the United States, at a personal and cultural level. But at the heart of the film—and Makavejev’s own agenda—are the dramatized, fictional interludes set in Eastern Europe he keeps circling back to. Milena, clearly the exiled director’s mouthpiece, is a young Yugoslavian militant who believes erotic freedom is the precursor to true social radicalism. For her, the opposite is also true; sexual frustration leads to the embrace of authoritarian rule and fascism. (These ideas echo Reich’s own from his Mass Psychology of Fascism.) At one point, after a rousing balcony speech at her housing complex, she meets a fey Russian figure skater to whom she’s attracted, but whose Stalinist ideology conflicts with her own. As they debate, often elliptically, their points of view, the sketchy storyline becomes increasingly bizarre and absurdist.
“Perhaps it is foolish to try to approach a film like this as a logical entity,” writes Lopate in his thoughtful appreciation. Well, exactly right. But if we forsake common-sense linear narrative, what other pleasures can we derive from WR: Mysteries of the Organism, more fertile art-world montage than vivid drama or documentary? As a friend wrote to me after hearing I’d seen Makavejev’s 1968 opus for the first time, but had foundered on the shoals of his more farcical exertions: “Very few of these films reach the heights of their reputations. That holds true for most of Sixties culture in my opinion. Too broad a statement, to be sure, but it is true that the quality and enthusiasm of the writing of the time successfully made legendary that which was playful, idiosyncratic, or enjoyably flawed. Would be nice to see it evaluated, appreciatively, for what it really is/was.”
Certainly, many films of the time—whether by Godard, Mailer, Makavejev, or other experimenters—demand a different level of attention, almost a different sensibility, to be properly appreciated. We must surrender to their provocations, their irrationality, and their spirit of jest, all of which are rooted in the ferment of a remarkably transgressive time, when such Brechtian or avant-garde techniques pointed away from establishment culture and values, toward the new. While certain moments in Mysteries are their own reward—a severed head speaks, a minor character bursts into song after crashing through a cinder-block wall—not every scene translates. Still, as Lopate states so eloquently, “Maybe you must pick your way through a lot of impurities to get to those moments, but then, as Pablo Neruda decreed: ‘Those who shun the ‘bad taste’ of things will fall on their faces in the snow.’” Now there’s a slogan worth savoring!