Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sex is Good

Films: L’Age D’Or (The Age of Gold), W.R.: Misterije Organizma (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism)
Format: DVD from New Lennox Public Library through interlibrary loan (Gold); DVD from Rockford Public Library (Organism), both on laptop.

I have a degree in linguistics. There are a few realities about linguists that non-linguists don’t know. First, we don’t tend to correct the way people talk. Linguists don’t tell people how they should talk; they study how people actually do talk. Second, all linguists love the art of Magritte. Just like engineers and mathematicians love Escher (I do, too), linguists love a guy who can create a painting of a pipe, write “this is not a pipe” under it, and get away with it.

Magritte was a surrealist, so it wouldn’t shock me if you thought I was really into surrealist art. You’d be wrong. I have an appreciation for some surrealism, but a lot of it leaves me cold. It reminds me a lot of a bunch of Monty Python routines where things will just appear for no reason. That’s surrealism I could get behind. I’m never sure with most surrealists, though, if they’re serious or if I should be laughing at it. I seriously can’t tell. This is especially true with surrealist film.

L’Age D’Or (The Age of Gold) is a perfect example of this. It’s an hour of virtually plotless weirdness that I’m not sure what to make of. Was Bunuel trying to make a statement? Was he just screwing around with his audience? Was the film banned because of something Bunuel did or was it banned because the powers that be assumed that he did something worth banning? It’s a legitimate question when it comes to surrealist film. Regardless of whether or not there is something troubling in L’Age D’Or, it didn’t receive its American debut until nearly fifty years after it was created.

I’d love to go into the plot, but it’s pretty much impossible. It starts as a documentary about scorpions, then becomes…well…I don’t really know. A guy walks down a mountain. There are bishops chanting on the seashore. Guys talk about people from Majorca. A group of people walk to the seashore and the bishops are now skeletons. A woman giggles and the crowd turns to see a man and a woman moments away from getting it on while rolling in the mud. They chase her away, and two guys handcuff our lothario and walk off with him. They turn up later in Rome.

Then there’s a party. A guy shoots his son in broad daylight. The lothario from earlier slaps a woman at the party and people take greater offense to this than the man shooting his child. The guy and the daughter (I think) of the woman he slapped go off to the garden and come moments away from humping each other. They’re interrupted by a phone call, and while he goes off to the phone, she fellates(!) the toes of a statue. Then she goes off with another guy, and our hero has a temper tantrum that involves tossing stuff out a window. Then there’s a reference to the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom involving a guy who looks like Jesus. And then it ends.

Of course, this doesn’t touch all of the bizarre imagery that shows up throughout. There’s a cow on a bed, for instance. The guy’s temper tantrum involves throwing a burning tree, a bishop, and a gigantic plow out a window. Seriously, I don’t know if I should be laughing at it or thoughtfully stroking my beard and commenting on the deep meaning that Bunuel obviously meant with his juxtaposition of elements.

If you put a gun (or, if the surrealist in you prefers, a bright purple socket wrench) to my head, I’d tell you that I think this film is about sex. It’s about the fact that society tends to have a negative view of sex publically but has the opposite opinion privately, and this disparity between our natural desire for it and the societal pressure against it leads to problems and often to violence. That’s a guess, of course. It could just be that Bunuel is screwing with us all.

Is it good? Is it meaningful? Is it worth watching? Hard to say, honestly. I think I’m glad I watched it, but I don’t know that I’d call it good or meaningful, or really anything other than valuable because of what it is. Sorry if that’s a cop-out. I’m entitled every once in awhile.

We’re staying in weird territory with W.R.: Misterije Organizma (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism).While I don’t have any proof at this point in my lengthy countdown, my guess is that this is about as close to pornography as exists here, considering that the opening ten minutes includes footage of people having sex, albeit in sepia tone and in a strange, hexagonal format.

This film is about half a documentary on the work of William Reich. Reich was a psychoanalyst who worked with Freud, attempting to rationalize Freud’s work with communism. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Reich fled, eventually winding up in the States. Here is where things started to get really bizarre. Reich claimed that he had discovered a form of energy he called “orgone” that was released during sex. He built a variety of devices that were supposed to harness this orgone and transfer it to patients. Eventually, the Food and Drug Administration got an injunction against Reich, preventing the manufacture and sale of these devices. When Reich refused to comply, he was sentenced to two years in prison, and died before he was released. In an event uncommon for the U.S. government, Reich’s works were burned by the FDA.

Frankly, it’s beyond the scope of this blog and my education to discuss Reich’s theories or the possible existence of cosmic sex energy. I’m not even going to try. The video of people going through Reich’s techniques are some of the damnedest things I’ve seen on a screen.

So what’s the other half? I dunno. A lot of it feels like filmed performance art. The guy wearing the orange jumpsuit and the metal helmet, for instance, feels very much like this.

The rest is a film with an actual story that acts as a metaphor for Yugoslavia’s struggle under Russian communism. Yugoslavia here is represented by Milena (Milena Dravic), a communist revolutionary who preaches that free love needs to be a part of the socialist state—that without sex, the sex instinct gets sublimated into other things that eventually led to social problems and, more importantly, the problems of the world. Her roommate, Jagoda (Jagoda Kaloper) is, for lack of a better term, the local slut, and thus obviously another believer in free love.

Milena’s argument at its heart is the opposite end of Orwell’s argument in 1984 for the existence of the Anti-Sex League. In Orwell’s world, the Anti-Sex League existed as a group that avoided all sexual contact, turning any sexual fervor into love and enthusiasm for the party. Milena essentially argues that without sex, the human race becomes something willingly led into anything.

Much of this story is intercut with the other pieces—discussions of artists, sessions of Reich’s work, and large groups of people screaming, shaking, and engaging in vaguely sexual non-sex. It’s plenty damn disturbing—primal scream therapy is not a pretty thing to look at, and a lot of Reich’s sessions look quite a bit like this. It’s nearly impossible to tell if the people in this footage are at the height of passion or the absolute pinnacle of horrendous pain.

Milena’s story revolves around a Russian ice skater, whom she seduces. It would spoil the film to reveal the ending of this particular affair, but it’s safe to say that filmmaker Dusan Makavejev wasn’t attempting to hide the metaphor; he named his Russian ice skater Vladamir Illyich, which was Lenin’s given name.

Is it good? I don’t really know. I feel almost unable to judge it. It’s not something I’ll watch again. It’s not the kind of thing I would normally watch. Controversial, certainly, but more bizarre than I’m comfortable with. I can’t think of a single person I’d recommend it to.

Why to watch L’Age D’or: Few movies swing this kind of influence.
Why not to watch: It makes no sense.

Why to watch W.R.: Misterije Organizma: Weird ideas never killed anyone.
Why not to watch: Weird ideas can give you a whanging headache.


  1. Yep. It's one of those "Do I really have to watch this again?" films.

  2. That background noise/music just about drove me mad... which may have been the intention.

  3. I really love L'age D'or. It is not because I understand it. I don't even pretend to understand it. But I imagine two young and spirited artists having a great time throwing the most bizarre ideas at each other and having a blast. Whatching Dali's paintings is a bit like watching L'age D'or. You can almost imagine him thinking "wouldn't it be great it time just melts away while elephants walk on stilts and throw a bishop out the window".
    Maybe I am getting it entirely wrong considering surrealists as akin to Monty Python, but I really love when they twist my brain and make the normal turn absurd. I don't care that I don't understand it, I am having a blast.
    Incidentally I had the same experience with Kirostamis "Smell of cherry flowers". When my friends and I left the cinema we laughed for a straight half hour. It was a magnificient experience, though I am not sure it was intended that way.

    1. My first reaction is always to laugh as well. Whether or not that's right, I don't know. But when surrealism pops up, it strikes me as so silly that I can't help myself.