Dusan Makavejev’s feature-film debut: “Man Is Not a Bird”

“Covek nije tica” (Man Is Not a Bird, 1965) is the first feature film of writer-director Dusan Makavejev (1932-), who is most (in)famous for the X-rated “WR: Mystery of the Orgasm” (1971). It is also the best of the three early Makavejev movies in the Criterion Eclipse (without bonus features) set “Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical.”

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The movie begins with a lecture on hypnosis (delivered by hypnotist (Roko Cirkovic) and ends with a demonstration of a hypnotist making hypnotized Yugoslavian men laughing stocks for an audience, foreshadowing the lectures by a sexologist and by a criminologist in “Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T.” (Love Affair, (1967). There is also a very provincial circus foreshadowing the focus on strongman/acrobat turned filmmaker Dragoljub Aleksic in “Nevinost bez zastite” (Innocence Unprotected, 1968). And a 3-4 minute performance of the Beethoven 9th Symphony (foreshadowing “Clockwork Orange”?)

There is a bit of a plot, involving a middle-aged expert from Slovenia, Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec) who is in a copper-mining town on the border between Serbia and Bosnia (all three parts of Yugoslavia at the time) to supervise assembly of some turbo that will speed production and reduce electricity usage in copper smelting.

When first seen, Jan is having his hair cut by a youngish blonde Rajka (Milena Dravic). He asks her if she knows of anyone with a room to rent for his stay in town. She leads him home and becomes his landlady… and more. She pretty much throws herself at him. At the very least, she seduces him without his making any moves to seduce her.

Rajka has a more ardent, younger and very persistent admirer, a truck driver Vozac (Boris Dvornik, who bears some resemblance to Omar Sharif of the same time).

The movie also shows workers pilfering (including rolling a sort of girdle of copper wiring), corrupt managers, and workers expressing dissatisfaction with communism. It is surprising that these were not censored, especially in that the movie is a quasi-documentary about communist industrialization. The only nudity is a brief scene of some men in a shower. The sex scenes are discreet — well, if a sexual congress with the “Freedom!” part of Beethoven’s 9th can be considered discreet. None of the Yugoslavians are free, they cannot fly, are not birds (as the title emphasizes). They can, however, have sexual dalliances.

There’s also a drunkard, Barbulović (Stole Arandelovic), who gives his mistress three of his wife’s best dresses, outraging the wife, but this subplot is left unresolved. (Though, the end of that story may have been shown early on.)

There are some impressive compositions of the land scarred by mining operations and of the operating factory.

I don’t think it would be plot spoiling to report that the turbo gets installed and Jan is awarded a medal and a banquet (I’m not sure whether a cash bonus for getting the work done ahead of schedule is awarded, though I think it was approved by an official who did not think a medal was sufficient recompense.)

The mix of satire, documentary, and sex comedy runs only 78 minutes. It is not as wild or as chaotic as Makavejev’s later movies (the other two in the “Free Radical” set are far more disjointed). The images are not sharp, which I think was probably not a result of the movie’s age but of inferior film stock being used in the first place.

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The sly use of documentary style has been said to be “a cornerstone of Eastern European cinema.” It preceded the films of the Prague Spring, though Milos Forman’s “Loves of a Blonde” also dates from 1965 and Jirí Menzel’s film “Closely Watched Trains” (adapted from his own novel by Bohumil Hrabal, released in 1966) was probably already in production by the time “Man Is Not a Bird” came out. And I don’t think that the later two movies in “Free Radical” mark any advance on the sex plus mockumentary format. The sex got more explicit though.

 

©2010, Stephen O. Murray

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