Thursday, March 25, 2010
Man Is Not a Bird
Man Is Not a Bird was the first feature film of Yugoslavian filmmaker Dušan Makavejev, who later achieved cult acclaim for the sexual surrealism of WR: Mysteries of the Organism and Sweet Movie. In this debut, the themes Makavejev would explore in those later films — the double-edged sword of sexual liberation, totalitarianism, Communism, the tense relations between men and women as caused by social structures — are expressed through much more conventional means. The film provides a hint of the origins of Makavejev's sensibility in social realism and pseudo-documentary observation. There are early traces here of the irreverent perspective on sex and politics that would appear in Makavejev's later films, though here his satire is understated and subtle, ingrained within the framework of a loose narrative centered around two different working men. One, Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec) is a famous foreman renowned for his expertise in finishing jobs ahead of schedule, while the other, Barbulovic (Stole Arandelovic), is a lowly menial laborer who quarrels with his wife (Eva Ras) and his mistress alike.
The gulf between these two men, both laborers under the Communist system, is the gulf between the boss and the mere worker, but even Rudinski, so well-respected and famed, is subject to orders from above. He is as much positioned within a rigid hierarchy as the less fortunate Barbulovic. The film is all about power and the structures that control and shape lives. To this end, Makavejev opens with a scene of a hypnotist delivering a speech about the power of his craft, his ability to overcome people's innate beliefs and superstitions with his own control. Then Makavejev displays a very different form of control by cutting to a Communist Party manager giving orders over the phone, and then still another form of control when he shows a voluptuous nightclub singer arousing a roomful of drunken man into a frenzy of violence and spontaneous clamor simply by grinding her hips, shaking her ample breasts and suggestively licking her full lips. These scenes, each one exploring a different way in which people lose control over their lives and actions, establish the film as a kind of treatise on control and power, on the loss of self that occurs in both sexuality and under oppressive governmental regimes.
One thread within the film is the domination of women by men. Barbulovic's cowed, subservient wife is constantly berated by her husband, who expects her to obey his every order, to prepare dinner for him, and above all to be silent, never to question him. What's unstated but very much present in this relationship is the idea that Barbulovic, who is on the bottom of the chain of command in every aspect of his life, needs this sense of superiority and dominance at home. At one point, a tour guide is leading a group of schoolchildren around the industrial site where Barbulovic works. The tour guide praises Barbulovic as one of the best laborers, but in the same breath implicitly puts him down for not being a "mental" worker with an office job; the unspoken subtext is that this worker doesn't have to use his brain, or perhaps that as a mere laborer he doesn't really have a brain worth using. It is in cruel but subtle ways like this that the state keeps its people in line, convincing them that they have their place and that they dare not try to rise above it.
In this atmosphere, Barbulovic needs to feel as though he has someone to order around the way he is ordered around at work. It is in this way, perhaps, that the dynamics of power and control corrupt and infiltrate the realm of sexuality and relationships between men and women. Within a society where people are rarely able to feel much sense of self-determination in anything they do, they enact dramas of sexual domination and exploitation instead. So Barbulovic insists on his wife's acquiescence to his philandering, his naked betrayal of her: he even gives away her dresses to his mistress. As it turns out, his wife is not so meek, and she assaults his mistress on the streets and decides that she is no longer going to give in to the "hypnotism" by which men keep women under their thumbs. By the end of the film, this mousy, shy woman is seen with a new man, laughing and drinking with him, having realized that men need not be the only ones to cheat or abandon their spouses.
The other story running through the film is the romance developing between the older Rudinski and the young barber Rajka (Milena Dravic). Rudinski, like Barbulovic, is trapped by circumstances and powers beyond his control. He is famed as a great employee and a great manager, and as a result he travels everywhere, never staying in one place for very long, always laboring under pressure to get things done as quickly as possible and move on to the next place, the next job. His is a life dedicated to work, with little room for developing meaningful relationships. Thus his romance with Rajka, as passionate as it is, seems doomed from the start: he knows that he'll have to move on sooner or later, leaving her behind as, no doubt, he's left many others behind in the past. And even though he reassures her with various promises — even telling her he'll take her with him when he goes — she seems to know as well as him that this is a temporary arrangement, a temporary love. And so she never quite convincingly fends off the advances of local boy Bosko (Boris Dvornik), a lecherous ladies' man who counts off his amorous conquests with notches on the steering wheel of his truck. She knows, perhaps, that when Rudinski is gone she'll have to settle for a different kind of romance with a more geographically convenient object of affection.
Makavejev is exploring, in many different contexts, how little control these people (like all people, in some ways) have over their lives, how much they are at the mercy of outside forces. Throughout the film, he inserts digressions with a Communist party official who never seems to leave his office, but whose edicts over the telephone have wide-ranging consequences. At one point, he is able to tell a group how to vote on an upcoming decision; "we decided how the Communists would vote, and thank God you're all Communists," he exclaims. The people at the bottom get whatever the ones at the top decide to hand down. For his dedication and skill, Rudinski gets an elaborate party at the climax of the film, a lavish celebration where he gets a medal and a handshake, small compensation for his total commitment to his work, while an orchestra plays Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. (In a hilarious scene, the orchestra accidentally wanders into a working area, where they're beset by showers of sparks, the dress of one instrumentalist catches on fire, and the site foreman responds to the orchestra's alarmed chatter about the Ninth Symphony by saying, "we don't produce such things here.")
The film's finale escalates towards a complete breakdown in the relationships that had developed throughout the film. The orchestra's bombast is set off against Rudinski's post-celebration depression, as he throws a bottle of liquor and shatters a mirror; Makavejev freezes the image of the shattered glass, capturing the moment of destruction in a still frame. This freeze frame is matched by another that caps a love scene between Rajka and Bosko. The pair have sex in Bosko's truck and then follow it with a joyous sequence in which Bosko playfully sprays a hose at the truck's window while Rajka presses herself up against the glass, making faces and splaying her fingers as the water cascades across the windshield. Makavejev freezes the image of Rajka's hand on the glass, a moment of sexual and sensual fulfillment that he treats with as much import as the moments of desperation within the film. One could argue that, while the men in the film remain trapped by work and responsibility, the women achieve some measure of independence by striving for sensual pleasure rather than romance or stability; just as the pain of Rudinski's depression lingers in a frozen image, so too does the freeze frame of Rajka's hand aginst a sheet of water allow this ephemeral moment to linger, to endure beyond its brief duration.
This is an early indication of Makavejev's later, more fully developed dichotomy of sex as containing the potential for both destruction and for radicalism and self-fulfillment. This film lacks the freewheeling spirit and sense of play that runs through Makavejev's later works, but its near-documentary commitment to prosaic reality, to the drab exteriors of industrial communities, makes it a promising, satisfying debut nonetheless.