Criterion Review: Dusan Makavejev

You can't care about everything. There's a limited amount of time in life, a limited amount of caring which must be doled out to the people and things that are proven. Film preferences among the sort of snobby film elitist among us are carefully honed, fine-tuned, delicate beasts, often given to deep-seated opinions on a wide variety of topics within the cinematic canon. Yet nothing piques the interest quite like the prospect of fresh blood, so when a previously little known auteur is given a Criterion release, it becomes instantly easy to take a leap of faith into the unknown, and then to learn, love, and adore.

Pulling from the frayed edges of Tarkovsky, the echoed tones of early Polanski, and the spirit of Kieslowski, but really pledging allegiance to none of the above, Dusan Makavejev is a real rebel yell. Pulling together a remarkably strange mixture of documentary influence, a penchant for straightforward filmmaking, and advertising or diorama-like images, his films are a compendium of all that is strange and delightful. As disjointed as one might expect from such a description, the films are interesting, beautiful, and bold as can be. Makavejev isn't afraid of politics or sexuality, mixing cinematic elements with ravenous excitement as a chef might concoct an experimental stew. The three films included on this Criterion Eclipse release, Man Is Not a Bird (1965), Love Affair (1967), and Innocence Unprotected (1968), showcase the director's skills admirably. The Criterion Eclipse series presents itself as being accessible long forgotten classics for the "adventurous home viewer." And what an adventure! From the love lives of Yugoslavian factory workers to the murder of a beautiful young girl and a foray into historical subterfuge, Dusan Makavejev is ripe for re-entry into our cinematic consciousness.

An integral part of any Criterion release is the essay, and Michael Koresky has put together a vivid page or two on each individual film, as well as a short biography of Makavejev himself, explaining his place as a Serbian man in the Yugoslavian filmmaking community. Makavejev was intrigued by metaphor, symbolism, and political action, and incorporated fact and fiction into his films. The people and places in the films are distinctively Eastern European, low-budget, and spare; the simple stark realities of life are evident through and through, as in Love Affair, when a shower is installed for the first time in a young girl's apartment. It is clear time and again that modern necessities were indeed luxuries for many people throughout the world, but this detailed examination of daily life is part of Makavejev's love for the individual, and his ability to capture the day-to-day wholly and completely. Yet this spare world is not without danger, and it is when many modern "necessities" are noticeably absent that the emotion and thoughts are plain to examine for ourselves. Innocence Unprotected is a departure for Makavejev and is a re-working of an old Serbian film by the same title. Makavejev used the original footage from the 1942 film, which (as the essay informs us) was in fact the first film ever shot in Serbia's native tongue. The three films are individually packaged with a slipcover case, but with the exception of the essay, those who are intrigued will find little else included on this release. Perhaps the films are meant to speak for themselves, grim portrayals of a stark period in Yugoslavia's deeply storied past.

With their frank and open examination of sexuality and politics, the films are likely to become film-school staples, a masterful addition to the very nearly now passé New Wave directors. But, as I said, not everyone is going to love Makavejev, and in fact very few will bolster up the energy to attempt his films. Change is difficult, and the tried-and-true is very attractive, but the American love affair with Western European films has long been overplayed. The rest of the world has been quietly making films for decades, and we are long overdue for a renaissance.

The Criterion Collection's Dusan Makavejev box set is available now.