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HTF DVD REVIEW: Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical - Eclipse Series 18

Discussion in 'Archived Reviews' started by Matt Hough, Sep 24, 2009.

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  1. Matt Hough

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    Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical - Eclipse Series 18
    Man Is Not a Bird/Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator/Innocence Unprotected
    Directed by Dusan Makavajev

    Studio: Criterion/Eclipse
    Year: 1965/1967/1968
    Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic/1.33:1
    Running Time: 78/68/79 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Serbo-Croatian
    Subtitles: English
    MSRP: $ 44.95

    Release Date: October 13, 2009
    Review Date: September 24, 2009
     
     
    The Films
     
    Overview
     
    After barely enduring Dusan Makavejev’s repugnant Sweet Movie and the equally disorganized but less abominable WR – Mysteries of the Organism in their regular Criterion editions some two years ago, I received the latest Criterion/Eclipse box set of the director’s first three feature films with great trepidation. Though I doubted at this early stage of his career he’d go for the down and dirty desperation that led him to film some of the most repellant sequences it’s ever been my misfortune to watch, I was also sure that the director’s patented mix of comedy, drama, and political satire would certainly be a part of even his earliest efforts. I wasn’t wrong. None of these films have the astonishing grip or dazzling control that such debut films as The 400 Blows or Knife in the Water showed for their respective directors. Still, knowing where the director was headed in the 1970s makes these 1960s films easier to understand and makes for an interesting look at the birth of the director’s eclectic cinematic tastes and techniques.
     
    Man Is Not a Bird - 3/5
     
    Two Yugoslavian workers, one day laborer Barbulovic (Stole Arandelovic) and the other engineer Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec), find themselves engaged in separate love triangles. In Barbulovic’s case, he considers it his right to treat his wife (Eva Ras) like dirt and to take dresses he’s bought her and give them to his mistress. For the older and more serious Jan, he finds his lover Rajka (Milena Dravic) momentarily drawn to the sexually magnetic and playful Bosko (Boris Dvornik). No matter as he’s scheduled to leave the area earlier than even he had thought he would.
     
    Dusan Makavejev mixes his comic, dramatic, and socio-political focuses for the film in a giddy spiral of sequences which flow unevenly and fairly unsatisfyingly. Individual satiric moments can be effective (signs of outstretched workers’ hands ordered to be taken down; workers massed in a great hall and compelled to listen to Beethoven when they’d much rather be at the local circus), but Makavejev’s sexual politics are jumbled. It’s clear he feels women get the short end of the equal rights stick, and yet he allows the beautiful Rajka to call all the shots in her sexual dalliances with her two very different gentlemen callers. We even get her seduction of Bosko in a truck set to that same Beethoven Ninth Symphony that the other workers are forced to endure. The story of the lower class Barbulovic doesn’t carry equal weight in Makavejev’s script; he becomes almost an afterthought for the film’s final two-thirds. Adding to the melodramatic romantic entanglements is a lengthy sequence featuring hypnotist Roko Cirkovic mesmerizing a large audience of all classes with his astounding feats of hypnotism (which lends the film its title).
     
    Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator – 3/5
     
    Sweet and sexy switchboard operator Izabela (Eva Ras) and sanitation engineer Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudic) have an innocent first date watching television in her apartment, but it quickly blossoms into a blissful love affair. When Ahmed is called out of town on work, the local mail delivery lothario (Miodrag Andric) sees his chance and springs into action. Though she initially resists, Izabela eventually succumbs to his allure as his fun-loving nature is a distinct contrast to Ahmed’s more subdued homebodiedness. When she finds herself pregnant, Izabela’s entire world view changes.
     
    The near-idyllic love affair between these two charming, ingratiating people is fragmented in Makavejev’s signature (and supremely irritating) style. It’s no problem that he reveals the climactic parts of the story first and then starts at the beginning telling their story thus garnering for the lovers a built-in and unsettling poignance. What’s tiresome is the director’s insistence in inserting like raisins in a pudding a grab-bag of previously filmed footage or ancient film clips covering lectures on sex, criminology, and the history of rat infestation in Asia and Europe. What’s more we get to see autopsy footage of a cranium being opened and a brain dissected along with newsreels of the Communists pulling down church steeples and ransacking the houses of worship in Belgrade along with some old, scratchy film clips of a body builder and a nude female posing in a series of sex tableaux as Adam and Eve. The wonderfully simple and involving story of a doomed love gets short shrift amid the chaos of the director’s more political and artistic aims. Of the three films in this box set, this one most matches the tenor and tone of his award-winning WR – Mysteries of the Organism.
     
    Innocence Unprotected – 3/5
     
    Orphan Nada (Ana Milosavljevic) is desperately in love with circus strong man/acrobat Dragoljub Aleksic (playing himself), but her wicked stepmother (Vera Jovanovic-Segvic) would rather the rich Petrovic (Bratoljub Gligorijevic) be honored with her daughter’s hand in marriage. Aleksic uses every trick he knows to make sure the stepmother’s plans don’t get in the way of his or his lover’s happiness.
     
    Makavejev has dredged up the 1942 first Serbian talkie film called Innocence Unprotected, a hoary melodrama with disgraceful acting and clunky direction by its star, and intercut with it modern documentary scenes featuring the surviving stars (including the muscle-bound leading man who despite age and a crippling accident which left him partially lame) desperately trying to prove they still have what it takes to be entertainers. It’s a bittersweet sight to be sure, and the combination of those two elements would be enough for most any director except, of course, Makavejev who must also drop into his film newsreel footage of the occupation and illustrative maps of the ground forces as they moved across Europe. He’s also tinted isolated sections of certain scenes which becomes distracting and somewhat exasperating and used shifting color filters (a la South Pacific) when the star begins singing a horrendous off key ballad to the leading lady. Makavejev does some neat tracking shots of Aleksic as we move through his modern apartment (he won the Silver Lion at the Berlin Film Festival for this movie), but mostly one will remember that terrible original film (which was a huge hit in its day in Belgrade where it was made against the Nazi’s express orders) at the core of the production, full of amateurish acting and modest production values and yet somehow surviving after the horrors of the war are long forgotten, a symbol of art, even compromised art, triumphing over the efforts of the Nazi war machine.
     
     
    Video Quality
     
    Man Is Not a Bird - 2.5/5
     
    The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is presented in an anamorphic transfer of problematic extremes. The grayscale looks rather drab for most of the film with contrast rather wan and sharpness only average. There is some minor print damage and a fair amount of speckles and dirt. A few scratches are also rather prominent from time to time. Black levels are inky enough but rather undefined, and details are often lost in the deep shadows of the print. The white subtitles for this and all of the movies are easy to read. The film has been divided into 13 chapters.
     
    Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator – 3/5
     
    The 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio is presented in anamorphic video. Contrast is more solid in this effort with a pleasing grayscale and some deep black levels. There are hairs, scratches, and spotting to distract at various intervals, but it’s a more pleasingly sharp transfer than the one for the previous film. The movie has been divided into 12 chapters.
     
    Innocence Unprotected – 3/5
     
    The black and white original film, the war footage inserts, and the new color footage are all framed at 1.33:1. The new footage, of course, looks the best though color isn’t the strongest, and contrast seems a little low. The old footage, naturally, is filled with scratches and debris, and the hand tinting seems off-kilter occasionally. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
     
     
    Audio Quality
     
    Man Is Not a Bird – 2.5/5
     
    The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is generally clear enough, but it contains constant low level hiss and some occasional flutter. Distortion in the upper reaches of the soundstage are also a problem.
     
    Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator – 3/5
     
    The Dolby Digital 1.0 track does have some slight hiss and some distortion in the upper reaches of the music. Overall, however, it’s an above average effort that reflects the sound recording of its era.
     
     
    Innocence Unprotected – 3/5
     
    The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track varies depending on whether the movie is showing the old footage or the new footage. The old film is filled with hiss and crackle and some distortion in the singing sequences on its audio track, and this has not been cleaned up. It pairs rather poorly with the newly shot footage which is also mono but has better fidelity than the older clips.
     
     
    Special Features
    1/5
     
    The Eclipse line from Criterion doesn’t include bonus features with the films themselves but each slimline case does contain an informative essay on the filmmaker, the political climate in which he worked, and the film itself by writer Michael Koresky.
     
     
    In Conclusion
    3/5 (not an average)
     
    Dusan Makavejev’s films are definitely like no other, and in each of the three movies collected in this Eclipse box set, we see his technique ever growing and eventually morphing into something really unique and unorthodox. For those who crave something definitely out of the box, Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical will be a Criterion box set you’ll want to explore.
     
     
    Matt Hough
    Charlotte, NC

     

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