Dusan Makavejev: A Film-maker Teaches Film

A man opens a large, crumpled manila envelope. It has been lying on the desk menacing him. He can no longer wait. But his anxiety changes to disappointment when he discovers it is his own film script, returned; United Artists has reduced it to a synopsis and a cliche plot critique.

It happens to the best, but that's never a consolation. In this case the frustrated artist is Dusan Makavejev and the script is one of a number of movie plans and dreams he is holding in limbo as he takes a one year leave of absence from film directing to try his patience with academia.

Makavejev--"Mak," as his fellow Yugoslavian professor Vlada Petric calls him--has had a standing invitation to teach at Harvard for three years, largely because of the reputation he built for himself with such award-winning feature films as "Love Affair or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator," "Innocence Unprotected," "W/R: Mysteries of the Organism," "Sweet Movie," and "Man is Not a Bird."

He has always been willing to talk about his films and his politics: Makavejev has been interviewed frequently in this country, where he has spent a large part of his time since 1968. As one of five directors of the year, he was interviewed in the International Film Guide 1973, along with Bergman and Bresson. But he has never, until now, spoken candidly to journalists about himself and his personal philosophy.

Many people are hesitant to talk about themselves because they have nothing to say. Dusan Makavejev is hesitant because he has too much to say. What he says he delivers with the care and thoroughness of a doctor stitching up a human wound.

Makavejev got his college degree in psychology at Belgrade University in 1958. He was already known as an amateur film-maker then. "I made my first films when I was just a baby," he says, explaining, "Dreams are actually our first movies."

He now travels in the circles of prominent and influential film-makers. Although they have little effect on his own creations, he says he is especially concerned about film-makers like Nicholas Ray, who had one big production ("Rebel Without a Cause") and then was forced out of the active movie arena by the powers-that-be, and about Bartellucci ("Last Tango in Paris"), whose latest production he fears will be a grandiose flop. But that's all part of the business.

Makavejev says the time when he had genuine creative collaboration with other film-makers was during his university years. He spent days and nights together with his friends talking about film. "The university is the place to speak about artistic ambitions and what you want to do," he says.

Coming from an environment where he could act out his artistic ambitions to one where he can only talk about them is, however, something of a culture shock for the visiting professor. "It's like the difference between plant and animal life," he says. "Animals grow quickly, move quickly, and die quickly. Plants take a lot of time to produce something lasting, like a tree. Now I feel I'm being asked to move less and be wise more."

Makavejev's films have been known to alienate producers and audiences, but he's hoping not to alienate the Harvard community. This is the first time he's been immersed in the academic sphere and he's looking at it, and Harvard students especially, as a challenge.

When he arrived in Cambridge, Makavejev was quite surprised to find that his films were not well-known. At Berkeley, his student audiences prac-films. Harvard has not single established method of with the inevitable frustrations of teaching after having grown accustomed to independent artistry. If he gets enough feedback from his film-making class, he says, his artistic desires will not be frustrated. But so far he hasn't found anybody who's "willing to die for the movies."

Originally, Makavejev was offered the chance to make a feature film with a class at Harvard. Then the money for the project fell though. Now he says he is trying to construct a work situation in class similar to the atmosphere of his film crews, and planning on a small group film. Also, he is having his 15-member class make one-minute individual films. Harvard has no established method of teaching film-making, so Makavejev can use this freedom to break new ground with this technique. He says he is very interested in the group dynamics of the class, and has great respect for his students.

It has been said that Makavejev's politics as reflected in his films are 50 per cent Groucho and 50 per cent Karl Marx. The works combine political and artistic issues and deal quite directly with them. After shooting his "W/R Mysteries of the Organism," an ode to Wilhelm Reich, he observed, "politics are for those whose orgasm is incomplete." Yet his politics have had no small effect on his life's work, he says, some of the main topics he discusses with his colleagues are "revolutionary politics and problems of power in the world." From the age of 12 he was a Marxist and a member of the Yugoslavian Communist Party. Many of his film-making friends were members of a group they called Creative Marxists. They, like he, had no belief in dogmatic, non-flexible political doctrine.

He was expelled from the party in 1972, whereupon he moved to France and made "Sweet Movie." He says he could have remained in Yugoslavia, but could not have worked effectively there. Now, five years later, he feels he could probably return and work in his home country.

There, as here, what Makavejev terms a "barter system" exists between the creative film-makers and commercial/political interests. Producers are willing to make some concessions for art's sake if the film-maker concedes a few personal, artistic points for commercialism.

Although the U.S. and the Yugoslavian producer-director relationships are similar, Makavejev hypothesizes that being a Marxist in this country means something different than being a Marxist in Yugoslavia.

Makavejev's films are a combination of art and politics, tragedy and comedy, theory and practice, rational and irrational, fiction and documentary. It is as if he is not satisfied with showing his subject from any one point of view. He's always shifting tenses, much like American novelist John Dos Passos, who strongly influenced Makavejev.

His life as a professor seems to be just another combination of contradictions. This time the conflict is between his desires to be a highly individualistic artist and the University's ordering, structuring influence.

Makavejev knows he is full of contradictions. "Everything with me is a polarity between chaos and organization," he says. Whether this polarity can be balanced at Harvard depends to a large extent on whether his film students, whose artistic urges may have been stifled by years of thinking competitively rather than cooperatively, can fulfill his creative expectations.