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.

  4. I saw L'Age D'Or the first time back when I was in college in the 1980s. It blew my mind! I've seen it a few times over the years and it's always entertaining. (And later I saw a few Bunuel films (The Exterminating Angel and Viridana) and became a Bunuel fan, though it was years before I realized it was the same guy who did L'Age D'Or.)

    Last night, I wasn't too sleepy when I got off work, so I decided to watch something reasonably short from the List, and I picked W.R.: The Mysteries of the Organism. I knew nothing about it, but it's on YouTube and it's one of the titles from the List (like Memories of Underdevelopment) that I find intriguing and make me wonder "What can THAT be about?"

    I recognized the name of William Reich but I couldn't quite place him ... until they started talking about orgones! I'm a big fan of the works of William S. Burroughs, and his biography (Literary Outlaw by Ted Morgan) has a lot of material about Burroughs's fascination with orgones and orgone boxes.

    The Los Angeles County Museum of Art had a Burroughs exhibition years ago ("Ports of Entry") devoted to things like his shotgun art and other more visual aspects of his work. His short film - the one about Thanksgiving, I think it's called "Thanksgiving Prayer" - showed on a continuous loop in one room. Stuff like that.

    And there was a room where somebody had re-created his various orgone boxes based on photos and written descriptions. There was one about the size of a telephone booth that looked a lot like the one in the girls' apartment in "Mysteries of the Organism."

    So for me, that was kind of cool.

    A few other observations about "Mysteries of the Organism." The sex scenes are hilarious! I was laughing a lot. The girl who was nude most of the time seemed to be very much enjoying herself even when there wasn't some nude guy on top of her.

    I had no trouble staying awake for 84 minutes and watching "Mysteries of the Organism." That doesn't mean that I feel like I "got" it or that I have any idea why it's on the List.

    I'm now mostly curious about whether the filmmakers were taking Reich seriously or if they were just generally making fun of it. I honestly can't tell.

    But it's a very entertaining film. I could definitely see watching it again, especially with some of my "cult movie" buff friends who've never seen it.

    1. I have to say that W.R. isn't a movie I think about much. I did like what felt like a nod to Orwell in the idea of the sublimation of sex into some other sort of fervor. That's right out of 1984.