Sunday, November 13, 2022

A Yugoslav Art Double Feature (1965-7)

Man is Not a Bird (1965)

Middle-aged Czech engineer Jan Rudisnky has come to Yugoslavia to help improve a factory's technology and living/working standards. While in town he meets a young hairdresser, who finds him an apartment at her parents' place, then starts flirting. Hesitant at first, he soon reciprocates, and the two begin a relationship. But despite their optimism, it may not last...

The amusingly titled Man is Not a Bird is the first movie of Yugoslavian director Dušan Makavejev. He quickly made a name for himself as an iconoclastic filmmaker, being exiled from his home country after pushing his luck too far with the sex-addled W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism. Before then, his first two features paved the way for what was to come.

Despite the pedigree of who directed it, Man is Not a Bird is a surprisingly normal film, rather than being a quasi-documentary. There are a few artistic touches, such as the hypnotist directly addressing the audience with a small lecture as the movie begins (he tells a series of anecdotes, with the hilarious coda "The moral is: Magic is absolute nonsense. You must fight it"), as well as a few stylised moments (like some comedy subtitles). But other than that this is a fairly straightforward romantic-drama.

There's a message here about common workers, and what it is is up for debate, whether positive or negative (and certainly the government wouldn't have allowed direct and scathing criticism). My interpretation is that businesses are unappreciative of its workers. Even Jan himself is overworked with crunch-times for new projects, but does it anyway without complaint, for the good of the party. The film never feels like it's attacking Communism specifically for this (although perhaps implying it), just companies in general. In one scene Jan shares a nice conversation with the lazy worker he's otherwise at odds with. There's also an unresolved subplot about stolen materials.

Jan and Rajka are ok leads. Jan is resistant to sleeping with her at first, seeing her as an inexperienced kid who doesn't know what she's in for. All it takes to change his mind is to call him old and say maybe he hasn't got the touch anymore, then suddenly he dives for her room. Well, you didn't put up much of a fight!

Their romance is portrayed well. The film doesn't shy away from Jan being old, wrinkled, and a bit paunchy. While they have chemistry, and tings go well at first, there are a few problems, like their relationship being built around sex. Jan can also be evasive. When Rajka asks him if he's married or other questions, he just gives her the silent act.

The way their relationship turns out is a bummer, but given the 30 year age gap, plus their personality defects, it's understandable. The main way I find it a downer is less in terms of the break-up, and more what it represents for Rajka's character. She seems like a good girl, ready for a nice committed relationship, but then she abruptly decides riding the cock of the sweaty trucker who's been harassing her all movie is a good idea. Once the deed is done she tries smoothing things over by telling Jan it meant nothing to her, and she still loves him. Then she's stunned to discover he's somewhat angry at her.

The other main characters of the film are scruffy and rude factory worker Barbulović, and his wife and mistress. This segment has both drama, courtesy of Barbool's verbal abuse, and humour, from his wife's conflict with his mistress when they meet. Barbool is a pathetic figure, always complaining, starting fights in bars (which causes the oddly offscreen knifing of a singer), and is facing obsolescence. He also clearly has a type, that being gaunt mousy women who look like they've been crying.

After a fight over dresses, the two women surprisingly become friends, and vow together to no longer put up with control and abuse from cruel men. It's a really nice ending for their characters, and I spent the rest of the movie praying they wouldn't have another scene, so that happiness would be unspoilt. Luckily this is the case.

While Man is Not a Bird starts off pretty strongly, it started to peter out halfway through, and I started losing interest, and looking at the clock. The climax features a Beethoven recital, and it's such a grand moment that it briefly restored my spirits.

After the inevitable break-up, we have a pretty effective final scene with Jan, then superfluous circus ending that serves only to drag the movie out further, as if they had to hit 80 minutes no matter what. Then we get a bizarre narration stressing that Roko the Hypnotist does not use plants, but hypnosis is in fact real. The End.

The acting here is pretty good. Janez Vrhovec is an ok lead. He looks kinda like a sad dog. Milena Dravić does well too, and looks great. Roko Ćirković has a small but pretty memorable role as the Hypnotist. In a small role is Bata Stojković, adorably young here are only 31 (he's most famous for his middle aged roles). The rest of the supporting cast is fine, from the two mousy women, to the grubby Barbool. We also have some amusingly overacting extras during the hypnosis sequence.

The score is decent, though a bit overdramatic. We're told how to feel with every DUN DUNNN. We get some fun nightclub music too, and of course the final rendition of Ode to Joy. It's funny at first seeing one guy miming along to the operatic bits and obviously not really singing, but aside from that it fits in well.

Lastly, Makavejev has a great eye for shots, and delivers a very nice looking picture, with plenty of variety too. There are a few wildly shot moments, but never so much that it feels sickening.

It may be lacking in some areas, but as far as feature debuts go, Man is Not a Bird is decently impressive...

Love Affair or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967)

Izabela is a young carefree switchboard operator, who meets friendly Serbian man Ahmed. They quickly forge a strong and sensual relationship. But things face a roadblock when he must go away for a month, and she can't wait to appease her ravenous libido...

Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator is where Makavejev's career really began down the path he'd become notorious for. He combines a romantic-drama with elements of documentary, and a surrealist touch in many scenes. With such an almost flippantly long title, I went in expecting a comedy, and there are a few funny lines early on.

The film's subtitle ('Tragedy' in the original translation) is the first thing to give away its darker side, and as we see more details, the more we realise we're seeing the dead body of our main character, and the events up till now have been leading up to her death. The most effective scene in the film is when after a bitter encounter, we see a brief cutaway showing a police report, identifying Ahmed as the suspect in Izabela's murder, before cutting back to the present.

Where the film falters for me is the the story just isn't that interesting. It was good to start with, but there's not much to it. It's all a bit too basic, and I began to loves interest after a while. And the ending is pretty abrupt. When everything is resolved, the film abruptly stops.

Love Affair may be a bit boring overall. However you must admit, if any film has a dull story, the best thing it can do is know to be short, and Love Affair does just that, at only 68 minutes long! While it does still outstay it's welcome just a smidge, I could never hold too much against a movie for willfully being so short.

The characters are alright at first. Ahmed is a decent guy, while Izabela is a cheeky girl whose attitude is best summed up with this line of dialogue-"Just so you know, I've gone two months without a man, and that's too long for a Hungarian girl.".

Unfortunately Izabela turns out to be a major slut. She acts all lovey-dovey at first, and forges a real connection with Ahmed. Even though he may not be a knight in shining armour, she loves him, flaws and all...Until he has to go away on work for a few weeks. Suddenly she proclaims she's not made of wood, and has to get laid, so she immediately cheats on him with the lecherous postie who's been harassing her the whole movie (This again?).

This does raise an interesting question. In this situation, who is worse? A man for sexually badgering a seemingly uninterested lady, or the woman for accepting his advances despite having a spouse? Naturally the guy initiating this is the one to blame, but one always has the obvious choice of simply not nailing the hornbag who's hitting on them. Said hornbag actually tries absolving himself of blame, saying all he does is present wives with good news in the mail, and they just get so beside themselves with joy that they kiss him and then... This would be a hard enough pill to swallow if he wasn't saying it while chatting up a taken woman! And he's persistent almost to a molesting degree. Needless to say, as much as I disliked Izabela by the end, he is an absolute cunt of the highest degree, and I wanted his handsy fingers broken.

In a way it feels like this film is a do-over of Man is Not a Bird. Like Makavejev wanted to take that same germ of a story, and take it in a different direction, further to what he saw as a logical conclusion.

One of the film's big messages is how sex and violence are intertwined. The two authoritises interviewed are a sexologist and criminologist, and both their fields are where the story lies. It begins with sex and ends in crime. Whether or not you actually agree with it is another matter entirely, of course. There are a great many people out there who don't have sex, and don't go around beheading people with roller skates, and I'm sure nymphomaniacs usually don't do the same.

One little observation from the Criminologist scenes. We are shown photos of dead bodies that I'm pretty sure aren't real, although I wouldn't put it past Makaveyev, since he used footage of the Katyn massacre in Sweet Movie.

Something to be admired is the film's frankness. It discusses topics like sex without any pussyfooting around. It also shows the central character's autopsy in a dispassionate and open way, hiding nothing.

The film is occasionally intercut with other footage. Most notable is an old film reel showing the dismantling of churches in the new communist state. What this represents among the film's sexual theories is up for debate. Not much is made of Ahmed being a Muslim, although that might just be because we're over 20 years into a Communist state. He's of Muslim heritage but probably just grew up as an atheist.

There is also a superfluous history lesson on black rats in Europe, a few weird text flashes, and some naked ballerina poses in place of a sex scene.

The direction is very good. There are many nicely framed shots, an iconic moment featuring the reclining nude heroine and a cat (she's lucky she didn't get her ass scratched!), and a delectable showcase of a Balkan dessert.

The music here is pretty nice. There are some music box tunes, and a few German Communist chants, which are rousing enough to get you badly mimicking German, even if you have no idea what's being sung.

Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator is an ok watch, but overall unfulfilling for me. While I had hoped it'd be more comedic, I did go into it expecting anything or nothing, so I suppose I'm not too disappointed. It's not the best movie in the world, but it's not bad. It's certainly a well-made and creative film at least, so Dušan Makavejev has something to be proud of...

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