Makavejev aims to tear down and rebuild the basic blocks of moviemaking itself. Toggling easily, even imperceptibly, between fiction and documentary, his films can appear to be vérité portraits of everyday life one minute and unhinged, surreal comedy the next …
– Michael Koresky1
It seems a truism to say that all films are subject to the conditions – industrial, political, cultural and so on – in which they are made. But the more interesting point is how some films are so inextricably linked with particular circumstances that to view them in contexts outside of such parameters would be to denude them of all meaning, of all referential value. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964), pervaded by towering refineries that emblematise the pitfalls of modern industrial society, is one example of such a film. Akira Kurosawa’s early filmmaking period, comprising films such as Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948), Shizukanaru kettō (The Quiet Duel, 1949) and Nora inu (Stray Dog, 1949) that explored the reigning spirit of cynicism in postwar Japan, is another.
Yugoslav Dušan Makavejev’s work is no different: “[He] remains tied to his historical context as if to a runaway train,” Michael Atkinson of The Village Voice has written.2 It is not much of a surprise, then, to learn that Makavejev’s career ended only years after Yugoslavia’s dissolution, a subject he dealt with in his final film, Rupa u duši (A Hole in the Soul, 1994).3 It seems fair to say that the Yugoslavian nation consumed Makavejev entirely; it was what constrained and dismayed him, but also what propelled him to make almost uncategorisable films.
Before Čovek nije tica (Man Is Not a Bird, 1965), Makavejev began his cinematic career by making short experimental films, through which he would hone his idiosyncratic technique and develop the kind of thematic and stylistic preoccupations that would recur throughout his work. His early short Spomenicima ne treba verovati (Don’t Believe in Monuments, 1958) – which brought about his first run-in, of many, with the Yugoslavian authorities – shows a young woman trying, unsuccessfully, to seduce a park statue. This early work, already immersed in absurdism and sexual transgression and political satire, proved a sign of what was to come.
Compared with other films in Makavejev’s body of work – such as the controversy-laden Sweet Movie (1974) and arguably his most well-known film, WR: Misterije organizma (WR: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971) – Man Is Not a Bird is hardly a fearsome prospect. Though, truth be told, it is a complex film of “mixed-genre montage”4 that deploys techniques of realism, fiction, documentary, absurdism and parody in ways that amount to a most interesting coalescence of seemingly incompatible forms. Michael Koresky has described Makavejev’s cinema as “like a Jean Rouch ethnography crossed with absurdism by way of Luis Buñuel”.5
The inspiration for Makavejev’s work, including Man Is Not a Bird, no doubt stretches beyond Rouch and Buñuel. The grainy, gritty photography of proletarian characters and settings recalls the Italian neorealist period of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, and scenes of spousal strife and serenity overlaid by dramatic orchestral music remind one of the melodramatic flourishes of Old Hollywood. Of all of these influences, it is Jean-Luc Godard’s that shines through most clearly. The fragmentation of narrative, recurrence of jump cuts, frequent use of a handheld camera to capture moments of grief, solace and bemusement, and generally pervasive feeling of ‘distance’ means that one cannot help but think of Godard when viewing Man Is Not a Bird.
But while Godard is (or at least once was) an avowed Marxist, Makavejev is certainly not. For Makavejev, the Yugoslav people were subject to the same false consciousness as those whom they deplored in capitalist and other organised societies.6 Indeed, so often lauded for his “independence of spirit”,7 Makavejev pushed back against the strictures of Communist dogma with Man Is Not a Bird, a film that “caused a stir … for its suggestion that the alleged Yugoslav workers’ paradise may be more a case of mass hypnosis than anything chiming with reality”.8 An early scene shows a violent brawl of drunken miners fighting over a stripper, who is violently killed off screen. In the mine, sooty-faced and exhausted, the workers hardly exist as one undefeatable unit. They are dominated by tough and tiring working conditions, and alienated from their labour by a privileged communist bureaucracy that runs a stage-managed awards ceremony near the end of the film. Eisensteinian montage may be evident in parts of Man Is Not a Bird, but his ethos is decidedly not.
Set in the industrial town of Bor, Man Is Not a Bird charts – rather than celebrates or valorises – the lives of the unremarkable workers that find themselves based there. The core of the film is the relationship between an engineer named Jan (Janez Vrhovec) and a hairdresser, Rajka (Milena Dravić), interspersed with scenes that follow the life of a lowly, beast-like worker, Barbulovic (Stole Aranđelović). Almost immediately after arriving in Bor to install equipment at a local industrial site, Jan takes a trip to the hairdressers, where he asks Rajka if she knows of a place for him to stay. “There’s a room nearby,” she says, referring to the apartment she shares with her parents.
Withdrawn and sedate, Jan initially keeps to himself. That is, until Rajka begins overtly flirting with him. From there, a romance between the two grows that is modest and tender. However, when Jan attends a state-sanctioned event to collect an award for his work, Rajka climbs into a younger man’s (Boris Dvornik) truck. An affair ensues. Despite his neglect of her, Jan is furious, and he puts an end to their brief relationship. Makavejev wants to show how and why romantic relationships, of the kind that Jan and Rajka share, begin and end in climates of considerable angst and suffocation.
Makavejev is right. Man is, indeed, not a bird. One cannot fly off and escape trouble and malaise. We are irrevocably and inescapably shaped by culture, by politics and milieu, limiting our capacity for action, the scope of our freedoms, the boundlessness of our imagination. In that respect, our wings are permanently clipped. It is this fact that frees Man Is Not a Bird from the muddy streets of the former Yugoslavia, universalising its message of how the world’s external forces condition and subordinate us.
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Man is Not a Bird (Čovek nije tica, 1965 Yugoslavia 81 minutes)
Prod Co: Avala Film Prod: Dušan Perković Dir: Dušan Makavejev Scr: Dušan Makavejev, Rasa Popov Phot: Aleksandar Petković Ed: Ljubica Nešić, Ivanka Vukasović Prod Des: Dragoljub Ivkov Art Dir: Milenko Jeremić Snd: Miodrag Petrović-Sarlo Mus: Petar Bergamo
Cast: Milena Dravić, Janez Vrhovec, Eva Ras, Stole Aranđelović, Boris Dvornik
- Michael Koresky, “Man Is Not a Bird: Flying Away,” The Current, 12 October 2009, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1250-eclipse-series-18-du-an-makavejev-free-radical ↩
- Michael Atkinson, “Manifesto Destiny,” The Village Voice, 15 August 2000. ↩
- Richard Byrne, “The Last Yugoslav: On Dusan Makavejev,” The Nation, 28 October 2009, https://www.thenation.com/article/last-yugoslav-dusan-makavejev/ ↩
- Nina Power, “Blood and Sugar: The films of Dušan Makavejev,” Film Quarterly 63.3 (2010): pp. 42–51. ↩
- Koresky, op. cit. ↩
- Lorraine Mortimer, Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009): p. 79. ↩
- Vincent Canby, “Candid Film View of Yugoslavia,” The New York Times, 1 February 1974, https://www.nytimes.com/1974/02/01/archives/candidfilm-viewof-yugoslavia.html ↩
- Michael Brooke, “Something Wild,” Sight & Sound 19.12 (2009): p. 84. ↩