“I hate the irrational. However, I believe that even the most flagrant irrationality must contain something of rational truth. There is nothing in this human world of ours that is not in some way right, however distorted it may be.”–William Reich
FEATURING: Milena Dravic, Ivica Vidovic, Jackie Curtis
PLOT: After a disorienting “overture” hinting at themes to come, WR settles in as a documentary on the late work and life of William Reich, the controversial disciple of Sigmund Freud who came to believe in the therapeutic power of the orgasm and in a mystical energy called “orgone.” Gradually, other semi-documentary countercultue snippets intrude, including hippie Vietnam protesters, the confessions of a transsexual, and some fairly explicit erotic scenes (in one, a female sculptor casts a mold of a volunteer’s erect penis). Finally, a fictional narrative—the story of a sexually liberated Yugoslavian girl seducing a repressed Soviet dancer—begins to take precedence, leading to a suitably bizarre conclusion.
- William Reich was a controversial figure in psychoanalysis; a highly respected disciple of Freud as a young man, his ideas grew more extreme and crankish as he aged. A reformed Marxist, he coined the phrase “sexual revolution” and devised an orgasm-based psychotherapy. His theorizing about “orgone energy” led to promotion of boxes called “orgone accumulators,” which he claimed could cure disease and control the weather. This device got him into trouble with the Food and Drug Administration, and he was eventually persecuted for fraud, then imprisoned for contempt after refusing to stop selling his books and devices. He died in prison.
- The hippie performance artist is Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs (Fugs songs also appear on the soundtrack).
- The film’s transvestite is Jackie Curtis, the Superstar mentioned in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”: “Jackie was just speeding away…”
- The segments with Josef Stalin come from the Soviet propaganda film The Vow (1946).
- WR was banned in Yugoslavia until 1986. It was either banned (for obscenity West of the Iron Curtain, for politics to the East) or heavily cut in many other countries. The film ended Makavejev’s career as a director in Yugoslavia; all of his future features were produced in North America, Europe or Austraila.
- WR was selected as one of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: A Yugoslavian sexpot doing her impression of the Brain that Wouldn’t Die, declaring “even now I’m not ashamed of my Communist past,” while her forensic pathologist stands above her holding the decapitation implement: an ice skate.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Penis molding; “Milena in the Pan”; hymn to a horse
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A straight-up documentary of the clinically insane psychiatrist William Reich would necessarily have been a little bizarre, but that’s just the starting point for this crazy-quilt counterculture collage that alternates between Reichian sexual theories, demonstrations of New York decadence, and esoteric Marxist dialectic.
Short clip from WR: Mysteries of the Organism
COMMENTS: Sex is dangerous. It even gets WR‘s heroine, Milena, killed. But it’s still worth it. That’s one of its great mysteries. Psychotherapist William Reich believed that sexual repression was at the root of all neuroses and even of Fascism, and that frequent orgasms could cure both psychological and social ills. Dead in the middle of the sexual revolution that had Reich prophesied in his 1945 tome “The Sexual Revolution,” Yugoslavian provocateur Dusan Makavejev began working on a documentary about Reich’s work that gradually spiraled into the anarchic collage of WR: Mysteries of the Organism, a time capsule of counterculture ideas spiked with the director’s ruminations about the state of socialism in his home country. WR captures the heady confusion of the times, as well as a unique mad energy that could perhaps only be explained by an excess accumulation of orgone in the director’s bloodstream.
Makavejev begins WR with what Raymond Durant terms an “overture” to keep us from being blindsided when the film goes off the rails at about the 25 minute mark. It begins with hippies staging a street protest against the Vietnam War while an unseen narrator reads (somewhat bad) freeform beat-ish poetry (“out of paradoxes man creates his world; he cannot clean his sockses and says ‘the world is soiled’…”) The action then switches a strange menage a trois where two women and a man (to whom we will be properly introduced later) pass an egg yolk back and forth until it bursts into yellow goo. Then we see an explicit sepia sex film—circa 1931, we are told—through an “erotoscope” lens that breaks the scene up into an octagons joined into a globe. The female narrator, interrupted by a Communist party anthem, explains, “In our sick society, everyone is sick,” before introducing William Reich. If not for this surreal prelude, the audience might feel cheated when the film abandons its documentary pretenses for a more abstract study of sexual abandon.
The straight documentary portion of the film, which takes up about 15 minutes, involves interviews with people who knew Reich: followers, family, and the residents of a Pennsylvania town who remember him either as a harmless eccentric or as a dangerous cult leader. Reich’s daughter sounds quite sane discussing politics, railing against both Communist indoctrination and the “American Dream,” which she flatly declares is “dead.” Other family members describe lynch mobs attacking the family screaming “down with the orgies! Down with the Commies!” (One can’t help imagining a scene from a Universal Frankenstein movie, with villagers with pitchforks marching on the mad scientist’s lair set on ending these experimental offenses against God). Makavejev seems to admire Reich, but more as a martyr for individualism than as a prophet channeling orgone’s own truth. He’s not afraid to quote Reich’s crazier notions, showing not only his bizarre orgone accumulators (essentially no more than wooden boxes lined with metal) and weird orgasm therapies (women in their underwear thrusting their pelvises and breathing heavily), but quoting his speculations that he might be the child of aliens. But however crackpot Reich’s ideas might have been, the director (and audience) clearly believes that his persecution by the U.S. government was a greater crime. In 1956, Reich’s books were incinerated by order of the Federal District court—a shameful transgression of the First Amendment—and he was imprisoned for contempt after continuing to promote his orgone accumulators. The short documentary suggests that Reich, while batty, was on to something—and that his persecutors are scarcely less deranged than the mad doctor himself. The price of orgasm may be madness, but the alternative is repression and authoritarianism.
The better path is to let the orgone energy flow, to unleash the irrational power of the orgasm and free ourselves from the shackles of prudery. This is precisely what the movie will proceed to do: go shamelessly insane right before our eyes, just like Reich did. We return to the street performance, with the hippie now stalking housewives on the streets of New York with a toy gun. More of the Yugoslavian girl breaking eggs; she then goes out into the street where she argues over proletarian ideology with a man who seems more interested in getting her in bed. Then back to New York, where transvestite Jackie Curtis walks down old 42nd street (where at the time you could take your pick between a double feature of Without a Stitch and Playmates or catchand John Wayne in The Undefeated) sharing an ice cream cone with her boyfriend, ignoring (or maybe relishing) the stares of passersby. And so on, back and forth, sometimes introducing new documentary bits (a trip to the offices of Screw magazine) or ironically juxtaposed scenes from a Stalinist propaganda film, sometimes pausing for completely surreal moments (a shot of Milena, the Yugoslavian girl, posing with an empty frame around her head, next to a white rabbit sitting on a chair). The Yugoslavian story starts to take up more and more screen time as Milena gets the hots for Ivan, a Soviet ice skater. He’s reluctant, more interested in discussing the fine points Marxist ideology than the liberating power of the orgasm, so focused on theory that he ignores Milena’s flatmate poking her breasts in his face. Milena eventually wears him down, but his liberated orgone/libido proves too powerful for him to handle, and he channels the energy into violence instead. Milena’s head has no regrets; Ivan, meanwhile, lip-syncs a hymn, asking for forgiveness from God (and his horse). The film ends on a still portrait of Reich, lest we forget the entire impetus for this wild journey.
What does it all mean? A lot of it only makes allegorical sense if you understand the various subtypes of 1960s Marxist ideologies—Yugoslavia’s liberalized socialism versus the Soviet Union’s doctrinaire Communism, put aside Milena’s proposed utopian sexual socialism, based on her appropriation of Reich’s theories. Raymond Durant’s commentary (partly included on the Criterion disc) suggests a complex symbolism in the Yugoslavian sequences that will fly over non-expert’s heads. Viewing WR alongside Makavejev’s immediate followup, the far more transgressive and grotesque Sweet Movie, reveals common themes: an equal disillusionment with communism and capitalism, a longing for utopian anarchy, sexually liberated females coming to tragic ends (both Milena and ‘s sea captain die, unrepentant). Reichians complain that WR perverts the master’s views. But understanding the film in Makavejev’s way, our Reich’s, may not be important. Makavejev intends his film as a sort of dialectical pedagogy; he juxtaposes images, narratives, and ideas to spark associations in the viewer’s mind, to allow the audience to construct its own meaning, gently guided by the author’s hand. Advocating pure freedom, Makavejev undermines his own authority by burying his meaning beneath layers of unexplained images. He calls the film’s form “spontaneity within structure.” In interpreting the work’s meaning, the audience provides the spontaneity. A movie celebrating freedom—sexual and political—could have no other purpose than to encourage the viewer’s liberty to fashion his own meaning.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“All of this is done as sort of an ideological juggling act, with Makavejev at the center, deadpan, yet always with his eyes slightly widened at the bizarre variety of human experience… He takes the things we take most seriously and shows us how absurd they look from a certain light.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)
“Of the numerous films of the late ’60s and early ’70s that positively gloried in the sexual revolution and the release of social shackles on free expression in general, WR: Mysteries of the Organism is one of the most ambitious, most confused, and downright weirdest.”–Richie Unterberger, AllMovie.com
IMDB LINK: WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) – The Criterion Collection – Criterion’s page has surprisingly little info, except for a link to Jonathan Rosenberg’s illuminating essay on the film
WR: Mysteries of the Organism Review | Roger Ebert – Roger Ebert’s entry on the film for his “Great Movies” series
Critical Review: Dusan Makavejev’s WR Mysteries of the Organism – Response to the film from Reichian James DeMeo of the “Orgone Biophysical Research Lab” (he describes the film as “childish pre-genital stuff, designed to titillate sex-frustrated people”)
WR: Mysteries of the Organism: Anarchist Realism and Critical Quandaries – Richard Porton considers WR from an anarchist perspective
Brows Held High: W.R. Mysteries of the Organism – Comedy video review
WR, Mysteries of the Organism: A Cinematic Testament to the Life and Teachings of Wilhelm Reich – A book-length interview with Makavejev with stills from the film, published just after WR‘s release
WR – Mysteries of the Organism (BFI Modern Classics) – Raymond Durgnat’s monograph for the BFI (which was used to create the commentary track on the Criterion Collection edition of the film)
DVD INFO: The Criterion Collection released their lavish edition of WR on DVD in 2007. The extra features include a thoroughgoing commentary track taken from Raymond Durgnat’s book-length treatment of the film (see Bibliography above), two lengthy interviews with Makavejev (one from 1972 and one from 2006), and clips from the “improved” (i.e. “censored”) version of the film shown by the BBC (Makavejev whimsically had goldfish swim through the frame to cover up an erect penis, and later used a psychedelic swirl for the same purpose). The most substantial extra is Makavejev’s 1994 comic autobiography Hole in the Soul, which reinforces his odd sense of humor (he goes to a screening of Sweet Movie accompanied by a pig), without any of the shock tactics which informed his early films. The essay booklet is by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Dodl.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)